FROM: James Bamford TO: Steve Aftergood DATE: July 25, 2001 SUBJECT: Response to charges made in Secrecy News on July 17, 2001
An item by Steve Aftergood in the July 17, 2001 issue of Secrecy News concerned my new book on the National Security Agency, Body of Secrets. It related to my chapter on Israel's massive, unprovoked, daylight attack on the NSA spy ship USS Liberty in 1967. Thirty-four Americans were killed and another 171 were wounded when Israeli fighters poured into the ship more than 800 rounds of cannon fire, rockets, heavy bombs, and even burning napalm. That was followed by three Israeli PT boats, which fired five torpedoes at the ship, hitting it with one and virtually destroying the vessel. Israeli gunners then fired at the rubber life rafts thrown into the sea by sailors attempting to flee the burning ship. Machine-gun fire was also targeted against the escaping sailors, leading many of them to believe that it was Israel's intention to sink the ship and kill everyone on board. (The casualty rate was nearly an incredible 80 percent). Israel clamed the attack was a mistake -- the Liberty, they said, was mistaken for an Egyptian ship. But throughout the attack, which lasted more than an hour, the Liberty was flying a large American flag, had its name painted in English in five-foot letters across the stern, never fired a shot, and was virtually unarmed.
To say the least, Mr. Aftergood's piece was a model of poor reporting. What is most surprising is that it comes from someone who has spent a great deal of ink and many electrons piously chastising reporters from The New York Times and other publications for their reporting. For example, Aftergood never bothered to call me -- the subject of his attack -- 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. This violates the most basic rule of journalism.
Aftergood's piece was basically a regurgitation of an article on the USS Liberty published that same week on the web site of The New Republic magazine. What is curious is that for months he ignored all the new information in Body of Secrets, including the many new details about Israel's attack, but then quickly rushed into print the minute he saw an article by an Israeli sympathizer criticizing my chapter on the Liberty. Could Aftergood himself have an agenda?
Nor did Aftergood, in his breathless attempt to get details of the offending article into print and on the web as soon as possible, bother to tell his readers where the writer was coming from -- another violation of good journalism. For example, it would be important to know whether the author of the article, Michael Oren, who was harshly critical of my chapter on the Israeli military's role in the attack on the Liberty, has any ties to Israel himself. I am a totally independent writer and have no ties to either Israel or any organization involved with the USS Liberty.
Oren, however, is a reserve officer and war veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces as well as a former advisor to the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- who was Army chief of staff at the time the Liberty was attacked. He now works for a small right wing, pro-Benjamin Netanyahu Israeli think tank in Jerusalem, the Shalem Center. It is run by its founder, Yoram Hazony, one of former Prime Minister Netanyahu's closest aides (he also ghost wrote a book by him). During the race for prime minister, the political party of Ehud Barak even accused the center of illegally funneling money to Netanyahu -- a charge denied by the center. The Israeli Education Ministry has called the center "a research institute whose leanings are extreme right-wing and even fascistic."
The principal mission of the center, where Mr. Oren is a senior fellow, is the cause of extreme Jewish nationalism -- Israel for the Jews -- i.e. apartheid. That is hardly surprising given that the center's intellectual guru, Yoram Hazony, is an admitted admirer of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. He is the racist, fanatic founder of the violent Jewish Defense League in the U.S. and the rabid anti-Arab Kach movement in Israel, which is now outlawed there and listed as a terrorist group in the U.S. In 1984 Kahane was elected to the Israeli Knesset on a platform calling for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
Typical of the comments uttered by Hazony's demagogic idol: "I want the Israeli Arabs out of here because I don't want to kill them every week, as they multiply and demonstrate"; "They are germs that are poisoning us. They will not leave us be until they have raped all our women and murdered all our men"; and "I recognize the submachine gun's right to speak and the knife's right to speak."
Soon after hearing one of the rabbi's fiery, bigoted speeches, Hazony began quoting him in political debates. Eventually he wrote a fawning obituary about his slain hero in the Jerusalem Post. "We were mesmerized," he said. "We listened in astonishment, and finally in shame, when we began to realize that he was right." He then expressed "gratitude to someone who changed our lives, thrilled and entertained us, helped us grow up into strong, Jewish men and women. Many of us found other ways of doing what he asked." One of those ways was by opening his Shalem Center, where Oren, a close associate of Hazony, works, writes, and studies. So much for Oren's "independence."
Thus it was not surprising that Oren's article on the Liberty was published by The New Republic -- long the U.S. propaganda arm of the Israeli far right -- they also published Hazony's book in which he espouses his extremist views. Among these is erasing references in Israeli history books, Soviet style, to many of the most unsavory aspects of Israel's past and instead emphasizing its glories. This may be why Oren, in his article, seems to have deliberately forgotten about the Israeli war crimes that I write about in Body of Secrets.
Aftergood mimics the charges made in Oren's article. "In his new bestseller 'Body of Secrets,'" Aftergood writes, "Bamford proposes a motive for the attack: Israel, he says, was in the process of murdering several hundred Egyptian prisoners of war at nearby El Arish and wanted to prevent the Liberty from preserving recorded evidence of the massacre.
"But [Aftergood continues,] there appears to be no verifiable evidence that such a massacre ever took place, and Bamford's description of events at El Arish doesn't hold up. Thus, he attributes to Israeli journalist Gabi Bron a claim that 150 prisoners were executed there. But Bron himself denies that and says 'there were no mass murders.'"
Where Aftergood relied on Oren's selective view of Israeli history, I relied on such news organization as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Jewish Telegraph Agency, and many other respected press organs both in the U.S. and Israel. Below are some examples:
The following is from an article ("ISRAEL REPORTEDLY KILLED POWS IN '67 WAR: HISTORIANS SAY DEATHS OF HUNDREDS OF EGYPTIANS WAS COVERED UP") in The Washington Post on August 17, 1995:
"Israeli soldiers killed hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war during the 1967 Middle East war - deaths that commanders who are now prominent leaders have known about for years, historians said today. The controversy involves some top politicians, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and legislator Rafael Eitan [who also gave us U.S. Navy spy Jonathan Pollard, and then lied about it], a former army chief. The allegations dominated news shows, shocking many Israelis who have long prized the notion that their army maintained high ethical standards throughout decades of warfare with the Arab world and military rule over Palestinians. The Army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, refused to comment. Rabin, who was chief of staff when some of the 1967 killings allegedly were committed, walked away today when a reporter shouted a related question. His office later issued a statement denouncing the killings and calling them isolated incidents.
"Military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki said today that Israeli troops carried out several mass killings in 1967 in which about 1,000 Egyptian prisoners were slain in the Sinai. Yitzhaki, who worked in the army's history department after the war, said he and other officers collected testimony from dozens of solders who admitted killing POWs. He said a report on the killings submitted to his superiors has been locked in a safe at military headquarters.
"Another Israeli historian, Uri Milstein, said there were many incidents in the 1967 war in which Egyptian soldiers were killed by Israeli troops after they had raised their hands in surrender.
"It was not an official policy, but there was an atmosphere that it was okay to do it," Milstein said. "Some commanders decided to do it; others refused. But everyone knew about it."
The following is from an article ("HISTORIAN ALLEGES POW DEATHS IN 1956, 1967") posted by the Jewish Telegraph Agency on August 17, 1995:
"An Israeli military historian has said he knew of hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war who were killed during the 1967 Six-Day War by Israel Defense Force troops, including a unit headed by the current Israeli housing minister. Military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki of Bar-Illan University told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the killings involved a crack unit led by now Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Yitzhaki said the executions of 300 to 400 Egyptian commandos in El Arish was the worse case he knew, given that many of the Egyptians had surrendered. They were killed by members of the Shaked commando unit under the command of Ben-Eliezer, a lieutenant colonel at the time, he said. Ben-Eliezer said he was unaware of any prisoner killings.
"Referring to the Six-Day War, Yitzhaki said not only were the executions known, but a report he prepared in 1968 on the deaths was not released under instructions from higher authorities. Responding to the reports, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said he thought such incidents were exceptions to the norm and that they should be condemned by all."
The following is from a front page article ("DEBATE TAINTING IMAGE OF PURITY WRENCHES ISRAELIS: A MORE OPEN SOCIETY TAKES UP KILLING OF POWS DURING WARS") in The Washington Post on August 19, 1995:
"This week, as more soldiers came forward to say they saw fellow Israelis kill unarmed enemies in decades past, a long-suppressed public reckoning began. The stakes are profound for an army whose "purity of arms" has been the core of its self-image through five wars. . . . Also Wednesday, military historian Arye Yitzhaki of Bar Ilan University accused a storied reconnaissance unit, known as Shaked (Almond), of killing hundreds of Egyptians who had abandoned their weapons and fled into the desert in the 1967 Middle East war. . . . One day after Yitzhaki's charge came a first-person account by Gabi Brun of Yedioth Aharonoth, the country's most widely read tabloid. He wrote of watching Israeli troops execute five Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai Desert town of El Arish in 1967. The first of the five, he wrote, was forced to dig the grave. Each of them in turn was shot dead in it. "For a Jew to read this description, I don't know what to say," said left-wing activist Uri Avinery, who is demanding prosecution of Israeli war criminals. "This is the typical SS technique. This is a Nazi story in the most literal sense of the word." . . . . [Ariel] Sharon, interviewed at home today, [described] the sudden debate of old war crimes as "a kind of national suicide. Israel doesn't need this, and no one can preach to us about it - no one," he said. "The Israeli armed forces are a model and symbol of high moral values . . . We speak about an event that took place 40 years ago. Now, when all of us live in a different condition, it's very hard sitting in armchairs and air-conditioned rooms to try and understand what happened on those battlefields. . . . I'm not justifying things like that." . . . . Rabin, too, described this week's traumatic debate as akin to 'national suicide.'"
The following is from an article ("RABIN REFUSES TO PROBE ALLEGED ISRAELI WAR CRIMES") in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on August 21, 1995:
"Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin rejected calls Sunday to investigate long-suppressed allegations of Israeli war crimes against Egyptian prisoners of war, saying both sides were guilty of aberrations.
"I'm not saying there were no aberrations," Rabin told the Cabinet in his first substantive remarks on the alleged atrocities. "There were aberrations on both sides. There is no purpose in raising events of the past, not on our side and not on theirs. . . . Cabinet Secretary Shmuel Hollander said Rabin stressed Sunday that "these events were real exceptions." Israel is reeling from two weeks of revelations that its soldiers killed prisoners and civilians in at least three Mideast Wars. The disclosures have shaken the widely held conviction among Israelis that their citizen-soldiers were morally superior to other armies. . . Military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki charged that Israeli troops carried out mass killings in the Sinai in 1967 in which 1,000 Egyptian prisoners died . . . Many questions remain unanswered, including the extent of the alleged crimes, why details were censored for so long and the involvement of senior Israeli officials, including Rabin, who was Army chief of staff during the 1967 war."
The following is from an article (AFTER A GENERAL TELLS OF KILLING POWS IN 1956, ISRAELIS ARGUE OVER ETHICS OF WAR) that appeared in The New York Times on August 21, 1995:
"At the same time, a reporter for Yediot Ahronot, Gabi Bron, described atrocities that he witnessed in the 1967 war: "The Egyptian prisoners of war were ordered to dig pits and then army police shot them to death. I witnessed the executions with my own eyes in the morning of June 8, in the airport area of El Arish."
The following is from a front page article (EGYPT SAYS ISRAELIS KILLED POWS IN '67 WAR) in The New York Times on September 21, 1995:
"Egypt said today that it had discovered two mass graves in the Sinai [near El Arish] containing the remains of Egyptian prisoners of war and unarmed civilians shot by Israeli soldiers during the 1967 war. . . . At the same time, an Israeli historian said that as many as 300 unarmed Egyptian were killed in both the 1967 war and in the war of 1956. Those reports led to other allegations and revelations. . . . "I saw a line of prisoners, civilians and military, and they opened fire at them all at once," Mr. [Abdelsalam] Moussa was quoted as saying. "When they were dead, they told us to bury them. . . Al Ahram [an Egyptian newspaper] also quoted a bedouin, Suleman Moghnem Salameh, who said he saw Israelis kill about 30 Egyptian soldiers and officers after they surrendered, leaving them for the Bedouins to bury. . . . President Mubarak has called for an investigation in Israel and punishment of those responsible. Israel responded by sending Elli Dayan, a Deputy Foreign Minister, to discuss the matter. During his visit here, he offered compensation to the victims but noted Israel's 20-year statute of limitations."
Next, again parroting the Shalem Center's Mr. Oren, Aftergood charges:
"Meanwhile, Bamford infers that the Israelis must have known that they were attacking an American ship because, as he discovered, an American surveillance aircraft was flying overhead at the time and it recorded Israeli pilots' references to a U.S. flag.In fact, I specifically noted in my book that Nowicki came to the opposite conclusion: "At the time, based on the fractured conversations he heard on the intercepts, Nowicki just assumed that the attack was a mistake." (Body of Secrets p. 221). In an e-mail to me, Nowicki states in no uncertain terms that I never misquoted him. So what is Aftergood complaining about? I also say in the book that Nowicki "is an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, who originally assumed his information would help clear Israel."
"But Bamford's source, the American airman and linguist who recorded those communications, reached an 'opposite' conclusion. Marvin E. Nowicki wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal (16 May 2001) that the Israeli military forces 'prosecuted the Liberty until their operators had an opportunity to get close-in and see the flag, hence the references to the flag.' The attack, he believes, 'was a gross error.'"
Mr. Nowicki's conclusion is just that - his conclusion. But there are a number of serious problems with his logic. First, the linguists picked up comments about the flag from both the fighter pilots and the crew of the torpedo boats. If, as Nowicki suggests, the Israeli pilots broke off as soon as they saw the flag, then why didn't they warn the torpedo boats, who were still at least twenty minutes away, to also break off? And if the crew of the torpedo boats broke off immediately after seeing the flag, then why try to shoot up the life rafts and escaping crewmembers, and where is the recording of their shocking discovery back to headquarters?
Ultimately, the most serious problem with Nowicki's theory is that if what he speculates is true, than why was it that the crew of both the fighters and torpedo boats denied under oath to investigators that they saw an American flag? The most logical reason is that they saw the flag, knew it was an American ship, attacked anyway according to their orders, and than lied about it afterward. In fact, a Top Secret NSA review of the incident, obtained for my book, specifically suggests perjury. "The fact that two separate torpedo boat commanders made the same false identification," says the report, "only raises the question of the veracity of both commanders." They also doubted the truthfulness of the pilots. "Though the pilots testified to the contrary, every official interview of numerous Liberty crewmen gives consistent evidence that indeed the Liberty was flying an American flag -- and, further, the weather conditions were ideal to assure its easy observance and identification." The State Department called the attack, "literally incomprehensible." Thus, if the explanation was as simple as Nowicki would have you believe, why lie about seeing the flag?
Nowicki, however, was only one of the two Hebrew linguists on the plane. Since publication of Body of Secrets I was able to locate the other -- who in fact heard more of the conversations -- and he also confirmed hearing the attacking Israelis talk about the American flag. He, however, came to the exact opposite conclusion as Nowicki, believing the attack was deliberate.
Since Mr. Aftergood seems to put so much weight in Nowicki's conclusion, perhaps he would like to see the conclusions of a few others - most of which had access to far more information than Nowicki. In fact, the NSA officials would have had access to the actual tapes recorded by his plane -- the tapes that mentioned the flag. If they in fact acquit Israel of responsibility, then why these comments -- most of which appear in Body of Secrets for the first time.
-- Lieutenant General Marshall S. Carter, director of the National Security Agency at the time: "There was no other answer than it was deliberate."Despite his criticism, Mr. Aftergood does offer praise:
-- Dr. Louis Tordella, the deputy director of NSA at the time: "I believed the attack might have been ordered by some senior commander on the Sinai Peninsula [where the massacres were taking place] who wrongly suspected that the Liberty was monitoring his activities." Tordella also scrawled across the top page of the formal Israeli "mistake" report, "A nice whitewash."
-- Major General John Morrison, NSA deputy director of Operations at the time: "Nobody believes that explanation. The only conjecture that we ever made that made any near sense is that the Israelis did not want us to intercept their communications at that time."
-- Walter Deeley, the senior NSA official who conducted an internal NSA investigation of the incident: "There is no way that they didn't know that the Liberty was American."
-- Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I have to conclude that it was Israel's intent to sink the Liberty and leave as few survivors as possible. Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American."
-- Captain William L. McGonnagle, the Liberty's commander: "After many years I finally believe that the attack was deliberate."
-- Phillip F. Tourney, president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association and a survivor of the attack: "The Israelis got by with cold-blooded, premeditated murder of Americans."
-- Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence at the time: "Your chapter on the Liberty was exactly right."
-- George Christian, press secretary to President Johnson at the time: "I became convinced that an accident of this magnitude was too much to swallow."
-- Paul C. Warnke, Under Secretary of the Navy at the time: "I found it hard to believe that it was, in fact, an honest mistake on the part of the Israeli air force units.... I suspect that in the heat of battle they figured that the presence of this American ship was inimical to their interests."
-- Dean Rusk, Secretary of State at the time: "The Liberty was flying an American flag. It was not all that difficult to identify, and my judgment was that somewhere along the line some fairly senior Israeli official gave the go-ahead for these attacks."
-- David G. Nes, the deputy head of the American mission in Cairo at the time: "I don't think that there's any doubt that it was deliberate.... [It is] one of the great cover-ups of our military history."
-- George Ball, Under Secretary of State at the time: "American leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of its citizens."
"James Bamford has done more than any other individual to shed light on the National Security Agency and to promote public accountability of this intensely secretive organization, dating back to his landmark 1982 book The Puzzle Palace. The list of his reportorial coups to the present day is long and impressive . . . His new chapter on the Liberty itself contains significant new information and reporting."Nevertheless, he can not resist one last complaint, noting:
"In response to a number of reviews pointing out defects in his argument that the Israeli attack was deliberate, Mr. Bamford has lately taken a somewhat defensive posture. 'It's not my job to provide definitive proof,' he said at a recent book-signing. 'I didn't have the time or the money to look into all of the details.'I wish Mr. Aftergood, in his strange and valiant effort to rush to Israel's defense, would get a grip. I wrote a single chapter on the incident - not a book. Does he really expect me to provide "definitive proof" as to what happened in this attack that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 34 years ago? As I clearly state in the concluding paragraph in my chapter on the incident, I believed my most useful role was to come up with enough evidence to prompt responsible officials in congress and the federal government to finally begin a comprehensive investigation. It was never my intention to single-handedly "solve" every last detail of the Liberty incident:
"Rather, he said, he hoped to prompt a congressional investigation into the matter and to promote declassification of documents such as the transcript of the recordings made by the American surveillance aircraft."
"The time for secrecy has long passed on the USS Liberty incident, in both Israel and the United States. Based on the above evidence, there is certainly more than enough probable cause to conduct a serious investigation into what really happened -- and why."As an investigative journalist for nearly 25 years, I am never bothered by attacks like those from Mr. Aftergood - it comes with the territory. What really disturbs me is the speed with which certain people are willing to run to Israel's defense while ignoring the heroic survivors of the USS Liberty -- and the relatives of those killed -- who have been pressing for a true, comprehensive investigation into the attack for more than 34 years.
I have long read and enjoyed Mr. Aftergood's newsletter. I hope in the future he will stick to the subject he knows best -- secrecy -- and leave the defense of Israel to Ariel Sharon and his minions.
July 25, 2001