History Channel's "Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty" Gives Crew Chance to Tell Their Story
Delinda C. Hanley is the news editor of the Washington Report
After 34 years, USS Liberty survivors finally were given the opportunity, long denied them by the government they served, to tell their story to their countrymen--at least those with cable TV. Viewers across the nation gathered Aug. 9 to watch The History Channel's program, "Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty."
The long-anticipated show, an episode of The History Channel's popular "History Undercover" series with host Arthur Kent, originally had been scheduled to air Feb. 25. With The History Channel unforthcoming about the reason for the delay, rumors circulated that, having failed to completely block the program, Israel had demanded that additional footage defending its version of the attack be interpolated.
When it finally aired, the well-documented and dramatic program explored Israel's June 8, 1967 attack, at the height of the Six-Day War, on a lightly armed U.S. ship, killing 34 American sailors and wounding 172 others. Crewmembers Jim Ennes, Jr., John Hrankowski, Rocky Sturman, Joe Meadors, Joe Lentini, and Lloyd Painter took turns telling their story in a precise, matter-of-fact manner, never sensationalizing the harrowing attack. Film clips from the Arab-Israeli war and previous naval maneuvers, mixed with home movies and snapshots taken by Liberty sailors, accompanied their narratives.
Adding to the crewmembers' eloquent eyewitness accounts was commentary by James Bamford, whose explosive new book, Body of Secrets, revealed Israeli communications recorded during the attack (see Andrew Killgore's book review, Aug./Sept. Washington Report, p. 103).
On the day of the attack, the Liberty was in international waters, 13 miles off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, listening in on the developing Arab-Israeli war--which, the show commented, both sides claimed the other started--collecting intelligence. Fearing the slow-moving Liberty might be exposed and vulnerable with only four 50-caliber machine guns to protect it, the Pentagon sent three messages to the ship to withdraw farther off the coast. Twice messages were misdirected to the Philippines. The ship was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In nine hours of close surveillance Israeli pilots had circled the ship 13 times on eight different occasions. They could easily see the American flag and its clear markings. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, who spoke at a July 23 book-signing for Bamford's Body of Secrets held at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC, was outspoken and skeptical of Israeli claims that pilots thought the ship was an Egyptian vessel. Admiral Moorer described the Liberty as "the ugliest, strangest looking ship in the U.S. Navy. As a communications intelligence ship, it was sprouting every kind of antenna. It looked like a lobster," he noted. "Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American."
Some of the planes circled so close that American sailors sunning themselves on their ship's deck waved to the Israeli pilots.
Then, at 2 p.m. on June 8, 1967, a clear day, three unmarked Mirage fighters attacked the USS Liberty for five minutes. A National Securty Agency (NSA) surveillance plane overheard the attack. Radio operators in nearby Lebanon also intercepted Israel Defense Force orders to attack the ship, as well as the pilot's reply that it was an American ship and he could see an American flag. The order was repeated: "Attack the ship."
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter was shown a transcription of the radio exchange and later told his story to syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Two Israelis actually involved in the attacks also have confirmed that Israel knew it was attacking an American vessel.
A few minutes after the initial assault, three unmarked Super-Mystere jets attacked the Liberty with napalm and dozens of rockets. …