Related Topics:

Rarely, if ever, has a single incident of war received the scrutiny given to Israel's attack in the midst of the June 1967 War on the USS Liberty. This episode, which occurred on June 8, left thirty-four Americans dead and 171 wounded, was immediately acknowledged by Israeli authorities as a ghastly mistake; a multitude of Israeli and American inquiries then confirmed that an error lay at the heart of the tragedy. But conspiracy theories pointing to a purposeful Israeli attack arose quickly and have persisted through the years, promoted in part by members of the Liberty's crew.[1]

Cristol—a former U.S. naval aviator himself and presently a federal judge in Florida—has devoted fourteen years to ascertain what actually happened in the Mediterranean Sea off the Egyptian coast that day. His research is stunningly complete, tracking down what appears to be every available document and living participant in the drama, plus providing a great deal of contextual information. He reviews the issue in such great detail that it takes seven pages just to deal with the question of the U.S. flag flying on the Liberty (could the pilots have seen it? given the day's winds, how visible was it? what about the possibility of it being a false flag?).

Cristol finds fault on both the Israeli and American sides (the latter, for example, failed to inform the Israelis of the ship's presence) but comes to an unambiguous conclusion: the attack was indeed a mistake. After showing the impossibility of an intentional Israeli bombing, he then proceeds to show the absurdity of the conspiracy theories. (My favorite of them, from an Egyptian ambassador named Mahmud Qasim: the Israelis spliced the voice of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser to have him convince Jordan's King Husayn into going to war against Israel—then tried to cover up this trick by attacking the Liberty, a spy ship capable of figuring out the deception.) After demolishing these false notions, Cristol offers a generous interpretation to his vanquished opponents: "The Liberty incident is a classic illustration of the terrible results that can occur when friendly forces fail to keep their friends informed of their movements."

[1] Most notably, James M. Ennes, Jr., Assault on the Liberty (New York: Random House, 1979).