The charge that Israel's devastating attack on the USS Liberty 13 years ago was a brutal, premeditated act of murder rather than a case of mistaken identity , and that successive administrations have concealed the truth from the American people may soon be investigated by a congressional committee.
The allegation, made in the recently published book, "Assault on the Liberty" by James M. Ennes Jr., who was wounded in the June 8, 1967, attacke, has attracted the attention of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and, in particular, of its second-ranking member, Adlai Stevenson (D) of Illinois, who is attempting to gain access to classified material denied the author.
According to Sherry Towell, Senator Stevenson's staff representative on the committee, evidence cited by Mr. Ennes, along with documentation in the committee's possession and material it hopes to acquire, will be studied to determine whether a full-scale inquiry into the attack is called for.
Ennes strenuously disagrees with a Navy court of inquiry conclusion that the attack on the intelligence-gathering ship, which killed 34 and wounded 171 of its company, was the result of "mistaken identity."
"This key finding is virtually unsupported by evidence," he says. "And, in fact, is strongly contradicted by testimony concerning . . . the carefully coordinated nature of the attack [and] the length of the attack."
He rejects the court's suggestions that the Liberty's flag was not discernible due to calm conditions and the ship's slow speed. "The court ignored deck logs, quartermaster's logs, and weather logs which all recorded sufficient wind to display the flag clearly," he says.
According to Ennes, a Navy legal officer who examined the full transcript of the court of inquiry told him that "after you read the testimony, review the evidence, and then read the findings, your first impulse is to go back and see if you missed a couple hundred pages, because the evidence simply does not lead to the findings."
Before Israeli jets tore into it off the Mediterranean coast of Sinai, the Liberty was subjected to more than six hours of Israeli reconnaissance, claims Ennes, who was a cryptologist with the rank of lieutenant at the time.
After Mirage warplanes rocketed and machine-gunned the ship, he says, Mysteres doused it with napalm, all the while jamming the ship's radios. Three Israeli motor torpedo boats then appeared on the scene, he relates, one firing a torpedo into the damaged ship, tearing a 40-foot hole in its side and killing 25 men. All three torpedo boats then proceeded to machine-gun the ship's life- rafts, he adds.
In Ennes's view, Israel decided to sink the Liberty because of the ship's ability to discover its impending invasioin of Syria.
If the Senate Intelligence Committee does decide to probe what Ennes calls the "deliberate attack" on the Liberty and the ensuing "cover-up by our government," it may also look into his allegations that a command and control failure left the ship in an exposed position off Gaza and that US rescue forces were unable to come to its aid for three hours.
Concerned that the Liberty was vulnerably placed, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) apparently ordered it to pull back 20 miles from the coast. But the message, which inexplicably failed to leave the JCS communication center for more than 14 hours, according to ennes, never arrived.
"it was sent in error to the naval communication station in the Philippines," he says, adding that another message ordering the Liberty to remain at least 100 miles from the coast also was misdirected to the Philippines. "There it was correctly rerouted to the Pentagon for further relay to the naval communication station in Morocco for delivery to Liberty," he asserts, declaring that the Pentagon then misdirected it again -- this time to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., where it was filed and never delivered.
A top-secret message ordering the Liberty far out to sea likewise failed to reach its destination, he alleges, maintaining that the ship "was not a subscriber to the top-secret message delivery system." Altogether, five messages were mishandled, delayed or lost, claims Ennes, "any one of which might have saved the ship had it been received."
Although the aircraft carriers America and Saratoga, cruising to the west, had more than 150 planes between them, none came to the Liberty's aid, Ennes maintains. After four nuclear-armed Phantoms from USS America were personally recalled by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara because they had been launched without JCS approval, he says, it took more than three hours to dispatch conventionally armed aircraft. These were then recalled when Israel issued an apology.
"We had been told in advance to expect support in 10 minues if we were to come under attack," he says. "I believe that many men died needlessly because of the Navy's failure to come to our aid. This alone is worthy of a Senate inquiry in order to identify the failures with a view toward preventing a recurrence."
Ennes had hoped that Senator Stevenson, who has long been concerned about the attack on the Liberty, would initiate an inquiry by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but the Illinois lawmaker's term is about to expire and he is not seeking re-election. Ennes now hopes that the committee vice-chairman, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, will press for an investigation.
Neither the US Navy nor Israeli authorities are prepared to comment on the Liberty attack, regarding the matter as closed. But the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA) would welcome such an inquiry as Ennes is urging, says its treasurer, David Sadd, a former naval officer.
In the opinion of NAAA public affairs director John Richardson, subpoena power "might turn up documents confirming the political motivations for the cover-up by the Johnson administration and its successors."