By James Ennes
James M. Ennes was serving as a US Navy lieutenant on board the USS Liberty when it was attacked by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967. He is the author of Assault on the Liberty, a detailed account of the attack published in 1980 by Random House. Born in 1933 and now retired, he served with the US Navy during most of his adult life.
This interview, published in the Iranian newspaper Jam-e-Jam, July 27, 2002, was conducted by Ali Jafar. The text is posted on-line at:
Question: When did you join the USS Liberty and what position did you serve on June 8, 1967?
Answer: I joined the ship in April 1967. I was a lieutenant and was assigned to be the ship’s Electronic Materiel Officer, responsible for the maintenance and repair of all of the ship’s electronic equipment. I also stood watches on the bridge as Officer of the Deck.
Q: There have been many cases of “friendly fire” and misidentification in wartime. Unlike other cases, the attack on the USS Liberty has lingered for 35 years and still remains unresolved. Israelis claim that the attack on the Liberty was also a case of mistaken identity, and that they misidentified the Liberty for an Egyptian horse carrier, El Quseir. One of the reasons that they present for their argument is that the attacking jets circled the ship three times looking for a flag, but no flag was flown. Do you agree with that statement?
A: “Friendly fire” is a brief, accidental attack. This was a prolonged, carefully coordinated attack. It has been called the most carefully planned “accident” in the history of warfare. The Israeli account of the attack is untrue. We flew a flag at all times, and it stood out clearly displayed in a good breeze. Israeli jets circled us 13 times during the several hours before the attack, and during that period we heard their pilots informing their headquarters by radio that we were American. When the attack started, the attacking jets passed high overhead once, then turned 180 degrees and came down the centerline firing without any attempt to identify us. Long after the attack I was contacted by an Israeli pilot who told me that on his first flight over the ship he saw our American flag and informed his headquarters that we were American, but was told to ignore the flag and attack anyway. He refused to do so and returned to base where he was arrested. I was told by an Israeli in the war room that they knew we were American. I have been told by several American intelligence analysts who read, or in some cases heard, the messages between the pilots and their headquarters that these messages make it very clear that the pilots and their headquarters knew we were American.
Q: You have written a book titled Assault on the Liberty. What are some of the most convincing reasons or evidences you presented in that book to prove that the Israelis knowingly attacked the Liberty?
A: Among other things, the extensive reconnaissance, the fact that the attack continued for 75 minutes, and the fact that they compiled a totally false account of what happened. After the torpedo explosion the torpedo boats examined our name in English on the stern and our American flag on the mast from less than 50 feet away, and continued to fire from close range for another 40 minutes. As US Secretary of State Dean Rusk said later, an accident may occur for a few minutes, but there is no way our very distinctive-looking ship could have been fired upon for 75 minutes from close range without it being recognized as American.
In the hours after the attack a “consensus report” was written reflecting the view of all American intelligence agencies that the attack was deliberate. This report was circulated, but was withdrawn and cancelled and all copies destroyed because it was too embarrassing politically to be allowed to stand.
Q: Being small in size and population, Israelis have always relied on spying to get intelligence information. They have spied on many Arab and non-Arab countries including the US. In October 1954 quite a few of the Israeli spies were arrested and two of them were executed in Egypt. Elias Cohen was the Israeli spy who was caught in 1965, and later executed in Syria, and I am sure you know about Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy whose spying activities cost the lives of America’s most loyal and best agents in the Communist world. Generally speaking, how could the Israelis not have known that El Quesir was not even there?
A: They could not have made such a mistake. Israeli naval officers have told me they are embarrassed by the claim that they could been so incompetent as to make such a mistake.
Q: It has been reported that after the Liberty radioed for help, two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean responded by launching fighter aircraft, but they were recalled before reaching their destination to help the Liberty. Can you tell us who gave the orders, and why they were recalled?
A: Secretary Robert McNamara ordered the recall of rescue aircraft. He has refused to discuss the matter. The recall order was confirmed by President Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson later said that he would not risk shooting down Israeli aircraft, even if Americans died as a result.
Q: Quite often the American government is referred to as a “government of the people, for the people, by the people.” In 1967 your responsible officials, by recalling the launched aircraft, left you practically unprotected, and since then, your government not only blocked every effort to launch an investigation, but in fact did everything it could, to cover it up for 35 years. Is there any doubt in your mind that the very government, that you put your life on the line to protect, betrayed you and your shipmates?
A: Someone in our government certainly failed to protect us after promising that we would be protected.
Q: There are certain motives behind any crime that is committed. If indeed, as you believe, the Israeli attack on the Liberty was premeditated, what was their motive for attacking the Liberty?
A: The USS Liberty was an intelligence ship. Clearly someone in Israel feared that we would learn something that Israel did not want the US to know. Some American intelligence experts have said that they believe this was the pending invasion of Syria to capture the Golan Heights.
Q: In recent years an impressive number of American officials, including Admiral Thomas Moorer, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at the time of the Liberty incident, have gone on record insisting that the Israeli action was, in fact, deliberate. Are you optimistic that after 35 years of cover up, the truth may finally come out?
A: No. I fear that Israel has so many friends in the Congress and the White House that no effective investigation is ever likely to be conducted. But we can continue to report the facts so that the world may learn the truth. In 1956 President Eisenhower forced the Israelis to cease their advance toward Suez. This was still a bitter memory in Israel in 1967. The Israelis did not want to risk having to withdraw from the Golan Heights as they had from Suez, so they disabled the USS Liberty in the hope that the US could be kept in the dark until the Heights were in Israeli hands.
This week a Navy Times survey of its readers showed that about 90 percent support a call for a new investigation of the attack. Yet few members of Congress are likely to support an inquiry, as it would certainly prove embarrassing to Israel.
Q: Generally speaking, in an incident like the Liberty attack, one would feel that the most valuable, viable and valid sources of information would be people such as yourself, who were present on the battlefield on June 8, 1967. A. Jay Cristol, a pro-Israeli federal judge and one of the most outspoken critics of the Liberty story, is the author of a book titled The Liberty Incident. He supposedly has done extensive research, and has interviewed many of the survivors. It has been reported that you refused to cooperate with him. Was there any particular reason that caused you not to cooperate?
A: After a brief telephone conversation, I did not trust him to treat the subject fairly or objectively. His dissertation and his later book proved that judgment to be valid, in that he has distorted many of the facts.
For instance, his book makes much of what he claims is the visual acuity of fighter pilots, yet experienced pilots tell me that pilots can see much more than Cristol claims, and could easily have seen our flag. Cristol discounts as untrue the unanimous eyewitness reports of American survivors, but accepts as true virtually every false claim by the Israelis. He relies upon the Court of Inquiry, which is itself false and has been discredited by its own legal counsel. He claims Liberty’s radio intercept range was only 25 miles, which is dead wrong. He claims the Liberty had no radio telephone contact with Washington, which is untrue. He claims only a few survivors regard the attack as deliberate, yet the truth is that survivors are unanimous in calling the attack deliberate. He claims our radios were not jammed, when even the corrupt Court of Inquiry says they were. He claims he came to Seattle to interview me, and that I broke a promise to see him, which is untrue. In fact, he had asked only to talk to me by telephone during a layover in Seattle, and I chose not to take the call because I realized that his intent was to try to discredit us, not to report our story objectively.
In fact, Cristol claims to have made numerous trips to Israel and to have interviewed over 200 people for his book, but his research is very unbalanced, drawing primarily from Israeli sources while ignoring or discounting most eyewitness reports. He has interviewed few survivors, and those only very briefly. He brands Liberty’s senior intercept officer a liar, yet made no attempt to interview him. His research appears to be aimed entirely at attempting to discredit survivors, not to investigate the attack objectively. He claims to be the world’s foremost expert on the attack, but I have never heard from a survivor who believes he can be taken seriously.
Q: Upon returning to the US, the Liberty crew members were ordered and in fact threatened to be silent. Who gave the order and why?
A: Survivors were visited in hospitals all over the US by many different officers and warned to be quiet. Aboard the ship, Admiral Kidd called men together in groups and warned them never to talk about the attack with anyone, not even their wives and mothers, or risk being sent to prison.
Q: In November of 1979 the Iranian students in protest to the US government policy of letting the former Shah of Iran in the US for medical treatment, stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 American hostage for 444 days. ABC news almost immediately launched a new [television] program by the name of “Nightline,” with correspondent Ted Koppel reporting on the condition of the hostages as well as the developments of the story itself, night by night. The title of the nightly report was: “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage.” As I am sure you know, the hostages finally came home safe and sound, and were given a hero’s welcome, and “Nightline” has continued its special reports on important events, including many interviews with former hostages. By comparison, the brutal and tragic Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, in which 34 innocent young Americans were killed and 171 others were badly wounded, is something that most Americans, who are well-informed about President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, may not even be aware that it ever took place. You know, Mr. Ennes, one wonders why there wasn’t a similar program like “Nightline” launched for the Liberty and her survivors? What would have been wrong if ABC news had a nightly report with a title such as “The Middle East Crisis: Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty”? It seems as if the mainstream mass media had a tacit agreement with the US government to keep the public in the dark about the Liberty and the plight of its survivors. Don’t you feel that they have acted very selectively, and in fact unfairly, in regards to the Liberty incident?
A: There is much opposition in this country to this story being told. Ted Koppel is an interesting case. In 1982 Ted Koppel invited several survivors to his studios in Washington, DC, where we filmed a full report on the attack. It was edited and scheduled for broadcast, and then on the very day it was to be broadcast Israel invaded Lebanon, and that bigger story replaced the Liberty story. Later, when broadcasters planned to present the Liberty show, the films had mysteriously vanished from the file room, never to be found.
Q: Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous French philosopher, has said, and I quote, “Man is a product of time and place.” By reading chapter six of your book, one can see that on June 8, 1967, you experienced perhaps the worst day of your life. The political officials who were supposed to help you, betrayed you. The president and military officials who were supposed to rescue you and your shipmates, recalled the aircraft and left you unprotected against the attacking Israeli jets. The mass media, which was supposed to give extensive coverage to the Liberty and the plight of its survivors, has acted with deafening silence, and finally, taking your experience with A. Jay Cristol into consideration, one could say that the pen that should have elicited the facts and told the truth, has distorted it. Can you please tell us how the Liberty incident has affected your life?
A: I published the first edition of this book in 1980, expecting to go on to other things. To my surprise, the story lives on. Twenty-two years later I continue to get daily mail and phone calls. I have created the web site at http://www.ussliberty.org to help answer the many questions that still arise.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to say regarding the Liberty or in general.
A: My shipmates and I have tried for 35 years to tell the truth about the attack to the American public and to the world. We appreciate the opportunity you have given us to tell the story to the Iranian people. We wish you peace.
Candor About War Against Iraq
“Those who favor this attack [by the US against Iraq] now will tell you candidly, and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel.”
-General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. Interview in The Guardian (Britain), August 20, 2002.
War: Enemy of Freedom
“Of all the enemies to liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the Legislature the power of declaring a state of war [and] the power of raising armies… A delegation of such powers [to the president] would have struck, not only at the fabric of our Constitution, but at the foundation of all well organized and well checked governments. The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it, is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.”
-James Madison, Political Observations, 1795
On America’s Foreign Policy
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [Americas] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. But she is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banner of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
-John Quincy Adams, 1821
Lincoln On the President’s Power to Make War
“Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose, and you allow him to make war at his pleasure.
“… Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect… If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of the British invading us,’ but he will say to you, ‘Be silent; I see it, if you don’t?'”
-Abraham Lincoln, The Writings of Abraham Lincoln (ed., A. Lapsley), vol. 2, pp. 51-52.
“For those who have Awareness,
a hint is quite enough.
For the multitudes of heedless,
mere knowledge is useless.”
– Haji Bekdash, circa 1200 AD
“You can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing?”
– Khalil Gibran