There were many questions that remained unanswered during the last 40 years, but recently declassified documents and newly uncovered testimony has shed new light on the events surrounding this tragic event. Examining what we know about the reports from the time, and the information that has been made public since, makes a convincing case that the attack was a deliberate action by the Israeli government and resulted in a massive cover-up by the Navy inquiry.
The official explanation at the time was that in the heat of battle the Israeli Air Force had misidentified the USS Liberty as an Egyptian vessel. Yet, according to a CIA memo of June 13, 1967, 5 days after the attack, the agency reported that two Israeli Mirage fighters had orbited the Liberty on a reconnaissance flight just six hours before the attack (Central Intelligence Agency, 469). The CIA further reported that the weather was clear, the ship was plainly marked, and had a US flag flying. (Central Intelligence Agency, 470). In addition the Liberty was 200 feet longer than the Egyptian ship and had an Ensign that was clearly visible and appropriately marked.
To examine the case of mistaken identity requires that we evaluate what the Israelis knew and when they knew it. The initial air assault took place at 13:58 hours and a second wave occurred at 14:04 (Bregman, 89). These flights consisted of machine gun strafing and napalm, which damaged the deck, antennas, and some communications capability. Israeli tape recordings from that day verify that Colonel Shmuel Kislev, the Commander of Israeli Air Control, knew that it was an American ship by 14:14 hours (Bregman, 89). At 14:26, 12 minutes after they had confirmed it was a US ship, Israeli torpedo boats arrived at the scene. By 14:31, 17 minutes after verifying identification, the Israeli boats had fired 5 torpedoes (Bregman, 89). One of the torpedoes hit the Liberty, killed 25 crewmen, and put the USS Liberty out of commission.
Motives for the attack are difficult to ascertain in the aftermath of war. Military and governments sometimes act as organisms with no clearly definable goal. A plausible explanation has been offered that contends Israel feared that the Liberty would intercept sensitive communications regarding their plans to attack Syria's Golan Heights. If the US were alerted to the plan, they might have tried to prevent what Israel perceived as a vital operation. A CIA report identified Defense Minister Moshe Dyan as the Israeli leader that ordered the attack (Brands, 211). Dyan had gambled that Johnson would not fully investigate the incident.
According to Brands, Johnson made a minimal effort to investigate the area, but was concerned about alarming the Egyptians or the Russians (212). After Johnson was unable to gather any information from the scene, the Israelis apologized. Not wanting to destroy the fragile alliance with Israel, Johnson accepted the apology and ordered the incident to be kept quiet (Brands, 212). The following day, Israel launched an attack against Syria, which wrapped up the final phase of the Six Day War.
There could be little believability that the Israelis were unaware of a major US intelligence ship just off their coast in international waters. It had been in the Mediterranean since June 5 (Joint Chiefs of Staff). The cover story of mistaken identity was so weak, that according