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The Liberty Incident Revealed

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Will Williams

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The Liberty Incident Revealed

PostSun Jun 04, 2017 12:10 pm

Review of book claiming to be non-fiction, but placed here in Fiction

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
June/July 2014, Pages 20-21

Liberty Incident Author (((Jay Cristol)))
Still Won’t Let Survivors Tell Their Story

By Bryant Jordan

Dead men tell no tales.
A great line, and one probably heeded for as long as men have been doing things they don’t want known.

The implication is that survivors will talk—they will tell their tale.

That’s what made Jay Cristol’s book on the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty so frustrating when it was released a decade ago as The Liberty Incident. Now reprinted by the U.S. Naval Institute Press under the revised title The Liberty Incident Revealed: The Definitive Account of the 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship, the book suffers still from Cristol’s belief that the Liberty survivors can’t be counted on to tell the truth.

Thirty-four men died aboard the Liberty on June 8, 1967, and another 171 were wounded. It was the worst attack on an American Navy ship since World War II. And the actions of the crew that day to save their ship and each other resulted in a Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, 11 Silver Stars and more than 200 Purple Hearts. The ship was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and the Combat Action Ribbon.

In a single day, in a single action, the Liberty became one of the most highly decorated ships in American history.

Had the Israeli jets and torpedo boats that attacked the Liberty that day succeeded in sending her to the bottom with all hands, who would tell their story? Only the attackers. And Israel has effectively pushed its narrative—that it believed the Liberty to be an Egyptian warship—for nearly 50 years now. Congress has never ventured to ask a serious question about it and the U.S. military has stayed clear as well.

You would think what the crew saw and did that day would factor into any book claiming to be the definitive account of the attack.

You would be wrong.

Cristol, a former U.S. Navy pilot turned lawyer and now a judge in Florida, spent a decade researching the attack on Liberty. But at an appearance at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC he offered one or two names of Liberty crewmen he claimed to have interviewed—a few he identified by name and one only by a rank. He does not like to identify Liberty crewmen who agree with him, he said, because “it’s not my function to want to make trouble among shipmates.”

Given the seriousness of the 1967 event and the importance of getting to the truth, Cristol’s concern for shipmates’ feelings for one another is ludicrous.

At the museum he directed the audience to his website for a list of those he interviewed. For a book supposedly based on hundreds of sources in the U.S., Israel, Egypt and Britain, the list is rather lean: there are eight names. Only one is a Liberty survivor. And former Chief Engineer George Golden’s information—that the ship had two linguists on board with knowledge of Hebrew—does not appear in Cristol’s book.

Cristol has long disputed Liberty survivors’ claims that they heard Israeli attackers referencing the U.S. flag the Liberty was flying by saying no one on the ship understood Hebrew. So Golden’s information, given to Cristol in 1991 and backed up by additional reporting by James Bamford for his 2001 book Body of Secrets, was denied by Cristol in his 2002 book.

His sourcing among the crew appears so shallow as to be nonexistent.

“I interviewed Chief [Richard] Brooks. I interviewed a seaman. I interviewed a [Petty Officer] named Lentini, and several other people,” he said at the Spy Museum. “Also, I interviewed Commander Maurice Bennett, who was the #2 in command of the NSA [National Security Agency] compartment. Bennett got the Silver Star that day for saving lives, also the Purple Heart.”

Cristol points out that Bennett agrees with him that the attack was an accident. As far as I know, Bennett is the only Liberty survivor to say that.

Is there a group of Liberty survivors who believe as Bennett does but are afraid to speak out, as Cristol claims? The judge offers nothing to support that, preferring to make a lot out of the fact that one Liberty crewman he can name goes along with the friendly fire explanation.

As for the others Cristol said he interviewed—Golden, Brooks, Lentini and a seaman whose name he could not recall? With the exception of Golden, none of those other interviews is listed on his website. And in The Liberty Incident Cristol quotes none of those men in any way as to infer they believed the attack was an accident or deliberate.

Lentini, however, has let his views be known. In a 2002 letter to an advocate of Cristol’s book, Lentini said that “much of [Cristol’s] information and argument for the attack being an accident is based on half truths and highly questionable Israeli reports...Cristol’s book, and several others by Israeli writers or friends of Israel, reaches the wrong conclusions. It does not take much more than a quick look at the documented facts of this case to realize that the Israeli claim of an ‘accident’ fails to hold up.”

Where Cristol does rely on survivor accounts, the words are drawn from testimony at the Naval Court of Inquiry, which was ordered within days of the attack and did its work in about a week. However, it was not the court’s mission to investigate whether the attack was an accident or deliberate, and it invited and recorded no testimony in that direction.

But in the end the court’s findings were the basis for concluding the attack was an error.

Liberty crewmen who were interviewed by the court have said their testimony came out incomplete, or that they were told not to discuss certain things.

Those close to the court’s work—the Navy lawyer assigned to advise it and the chief lawyer for the fleet commander who ordered it—began shooting serious holes in the document 12 years ago. Capt. Ward Boston, the advising attorney, broke his silence in June 2002 when he told me in an interview for Marine Corps Times that the proceedings were a sham.

He later went into greater detail in a sworn affidavit.

Rear Adm. Merlin Staring, whose job was to review the court’s work to make sure its findings were backed up by testimony before providing an endorsement and handing it over to his boss, Adm. John McCain, said McCain took it before he was done. McCain, father of Sen. John McCain of Arizona—who praised Cristol’s book when it came out—signed off on the court’s work and sent it off to Washington.

Staring later put his claims in writing, including that the court’s findings were not supported by testimony. Along with a “Liberty Alliance” whose members included former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas Moorer and Medal of Honor recipient Marine Corps Gen. Ray Davis and others, Staring called for a thorough investigation by Congress into the attack.

When asked about the statement of Boston and Staring, however, Cristol goes on the offense.

Were Boston and Staring lying when the court’s work was submitted? Or did they lie in their statements? The officers took an oath to execute their duties faithfully and truthfully, Cristol argues. If they did not do that in 1967, they violated their oath. If they did stay true to their oath, then they lied with their public statements many years later, he says.

Eyewitnesses Be Damned

For Cristol, the Court of Inquiry must be accurate and true, since he relies on it as the primary U.S. document exonerating Israel for the attack. Never mind that some of those same witnesses are still alive and would dispute how their testimony was used. Cristol cannot be bothered.

I am not surprised by this.

When I first interviewed Cristol in 2002 his book had not yet come out. At one point he admitted not relying on the recollections of the survivors. He said he did not trust their memories about what they witnessed.

That’s an odd view for someone who spent a career as a lawyer and a judge. As a reason for not interviewing more than 100 available eyewitnesses to an historical event that you’re researching, that’s more than weak. It’s academic malpractice.

Cristol later was clearer on why he ignored the accounts of these survivors. Les Kinsolving, a former White House reporter who had praised Cristol’s book, quoted the judge in September 2002 as saying: “With all the respect that is certainly due the survivors of the Liberty incident, their objectivity is lost or tainted.”

If anyone’s objectivity is suspect it is Cristol’s. He has not, after all, let the eyewitness accounts of the Americans who were there that day get in the way of concluding that the Israeli attack was just a mistake.

The moderator at the Spy Museum event heaped a great deal of praise on Cristol, saying “his collection of research material [about the attack] is considered the best in the world.” That tribute, along with the book’s subtitle claim to being the “Definitive Account” of the attack, made it almost comical, then, that Cristol was unaware that the Liberty’s late skipper, Medal of Honor recipient Capt. William McGonagle, publicly accused Israel of deliberately attacking his ship and killing his crewmen.

It was in 1998—four years before Cristol published his book based on the “best” collection of information in the world—that McGonagle published an open letter to President Bill Clinton exhorting him not to release convicted spy for Israel Jonathan Jay Pollard.

In the strongest words that McGonagle, at least publicly, had ever put out on the attack, he told Clinton that Pollard must not be freed “until and unless the government of Israel acknowledges, in writing and publicly, that the government of Israel’s armed forces (air and naval) deliberately attacked [the USS Liberty].”

When I informed Cristol during his Spy Museum appearance that McGonagle put out a statement saying the attack was deliberate, he claimed ignorance: “I don’t recall that. I’d love to see it.”

The problem with Cristol is that McGonagle’s letter to Clinton—which I’m sure Cristol has read—would mean nothing.

For Cristol, it seems to come down to the Groucho Marx argument: “Who are you gonna believe? Me or your own lying eyes?”

Spoiler alert: in The Liberty Incident, the eyes lose.

Bryant Jordan is associate editor of ... story.html

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