The Attack on the USS Liberty (1967)

A - D

Aftergood, Steven. "NSA Releases USS Liberty Records." Secrecy News (from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy), 9 Jul. 2003. []

NSA has declassified and released "audio intercepts and related documents concerning the 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty." NSA's releases are available at:

Associated Press. "Israel, U.S. Blamed In '67 Spy Ship Attack." 13 Jan. 2004, A13. []

On 12 January 2004, the State Department held a conference on the 1967 Six-Day War to mark the occasion of the release of historical documents about the war. According to a State Department official, a review of the documents has led to the conclusion that "Israel's attack on the U.S. spy ship Liberty ... was an act of Israeli negligence. The United States also was negligent ... for failing to notify Israel that the electronic intelligence-gathering ship was cruising international waters off the Egyptian coast and for failing to withdraw the Liberty from the war zone." See also, Elise Labott, "U.S.: Israel Was Negligent in 1967 Ship Attack," CNN, 13 Jan. 2004.

Bamford, James. Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Clark comment: Bamford's second major work on NSA has brought forth the same kind of strong feelings as accompanied his earlier The Puzzle Palace (1982). Although the book is much more than a new interpretation of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, Bamford's handling of that incident has dominated much of the discussion.

Steven Aftergood, "Bamford 'Liberty' Account Repudiated," Secrecy News, 17 Jul. 2001, reports that "[k]ey aspects of ... Bamford's recent account of the 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty are being disavowed by some of his own sources." This report elicited a spirited response from the author: "Aftergood's piece was a model of poor reporting.... [He] never bothered to call me ... for any comment prior to publication. This despite the fact that we are both located in Washington and have spoken many times both in person and on the phone." Bamford's letter, dated 25 July 2001, is available at

Powers, NYRB, 21 Jun. 2001, and Intelligence Wars (2004), 243-255, says that Bamford provides "a wealth of human and technical detail" in this new history of NSA. The "strengths of the book are to be found in its portrait of the NSA as an institution of staggering size and capacity....

"Bamford is a writer of stern and bracing moral judgment, generally as willing to praise as censure, but something about the Liberty incident unhinges him a little, and his account is muddied at the end by a story of the killing of a journalist on the Lebanese-Israeli border last year. The two incidents are neither related nor comparable.... Bamford should have summed up what happened to the Liberty, so troubling in so many ways, in a calmer mood....

"Bamford is particularly good on the SIGINT war in Vietnam.... But [his] stories are not confined to ancient history; he has much to say about recent events like the Gulf War of 1990-1991, which also had a SIGINT side, as do just about all episodes of international rivalry or strife."

For DeFalco, Proceedings 127.12 (Dec. 2001), Bamford's is "a truly revealing and engaging work." It is "highly readable and often engrossing" as it "recounts secret episodes that reveal much of the inner workings" of NSA. Cohen, FA 80.5 (Sep.-Oct. 2001), also views Body of Secrets as offering "much fascinating material," but adds that the author "takes a more paranoid turn when he discusses the attack on the U.S.S. Liberty." Bath, NIPQ 17.4, calls Body of Secrets "a significant addition to our knowledge" of NSA "and of cryptographic activities during the Cold War. Most assuredly it should be a key volume in any serious library of intelligence history."

To Anderson, I&NS 17.1, "this is unquestionably an important work." Bamford "expands our knowledge of NSA's present-day workings and provides extensive detail about its history and operations." On the USS Liberty controversy, his explanation "is neither satisfying nor well documented"; and his "theory is written in an emotive style that does not serve his cause." The footnotes in Body of Secrets are "cumbersome and frequently uninformative.... For a complete and annotated bibliography, readers must use <>."

Peake, Intelligencer 12.1, finds that this "important work" is "well-documented." It "describes what NSA does and how they do it in non technical terms," producing a "clear and comprehensive picture of the organization." An exception to the latter description "is the table of contents with its enigmatic even inscrutable chapter titles" that "are not helpful in communicating what topics the book covers."

See also, Thomas Blanton, "UMBRA GAMMA ZARF," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 58, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2002): 62ff; Michael Oren, "Unfriendly Fire," The New Republic, 23 July 2001; and Steve Weinberg, "NSA Revisited," IRE Journal 24, no. 4 (Jul.-Aug. 2001): 29.

Borne, John E. The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History. New York: Reconsideration Press, 1995.

Fishel, IJI&C 8.3: "Borne's work is especially valuable for findings that have turned up in the years since Ennes's book came out." [Clark comment: The reference is to James Ennes, Assault on the Liberty (1979).]

Cristol, A. Jay. The Liberty Incident: The Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2002.

Jonkers, AFIO WIN 25-02 (24 Jun. 2002), notes that Cristol, "a reputable former naval aviator and esteemed federal judge, spent ten years investigating the incident and concluded that the attack was a tragic mistake by the Israelis.... [He] argues that the Israeli attack must be seen in the context of war and the chaos of the operational environment.... [This] book is a legitimate part of the literature to be examined on this question."

For Brecher, Miami Herald, 15 Jul. 2002, this work is "a painstakingly detailed and footnoted account distilled from thousands of U.S. and Israeli documents and interviews with key military and civilian figures from both nations." Cohen, FA 81.6 (Nov.-Dec. 2002), concludes that "for those readers of a rational turn of mind, this book ends the debate" over whether the attack was an overt act or a mistake. Although Tobin, Proceedings 128.8 (Aug. 2002), does not agree with Cristol's conclusion that the attack was an unfortunate accident, he still finds that the author's research is "rigorous and extensive," and calls the book "a superb reference."

Kane, Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2004, sees this work as "probably the most comprehensive and unbiased account" of this tragic event. "Through his careful, detailed, documented, and objective analysis..., the author persuasively counters the conspiracy theories and tales." Similarly, Brooks, NIPQ 18.4, calls the book "an exquisitely researched and articulately presented analysis of the events surrounding the attack." The author "makes a compelling case that the attack ... was a product of the fog of war.... Any objective reader will be left totally persuaded that it was an unfortunate accident."

A more negative take comes from Ennes, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Jun.-Jul. 2002, who comments that Liberty "[s]urvivors see it as a flawed work, packed with evasions and misleading statements. Cristol seems to accept at face value all the arguments that support his case, while he nitpicks, dismisses and ignores entirely the eyewitness reports of survivors and other supporting evidence." Walsh, Proceedings 129.6 (Jun. 2003), also focuses on refuting Cristol's conclusions.

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