Under the Radar

‘Liberty Incident’ Author Missed Skipper’s View

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The author of a book claiming to be the “definitive account” of the 1967 Israeli attack on an American Navy ship says he is not aware that the ship’s captain had publicly stated his belief Israel’s attack on the Liberty was no accident.

“I don’t recall that statement” by Capt. William McGonagle, who died in 1999, said Jay Cristol, a Florida judge and former Navy pilot, at a March gathering at the Spy Museum in Washington. Cristol, author of The Liberty Incident: The Definitive Account of the 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship, maintains that Israeli naval and air forces believed the Liberty was an Egyptian war ship when they struck it on June 8, 1967, with napalm, machine-gun fire and torpedoes.

The United States accepted Israel’s apology for the attack but has never accepted its explanation.

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In his book, Cristol recounts meeting McGonagle in the early 1990s, when he claims to have convinced the Medal of Honor recipient that being presented the award at the Washington Navy Yard by the Navy Secretary – instead of the White House by President Johnson – was not a slight.

McGonagle believed for more than 20 years that while he was being presented the medal at the Navy Yard, Johnson was awarding a dozen other medals at the White House, according to Cristol.

As for the Liberty, Cristol notes that McGonagle did not speak publicly about the attack, and McGonagle is not among the handful of witnesses whose names are posted on Cristol’s website.

McGonagle remained tight-lipped about the attack for years, according to James Scott, author of Attack on the Liberty. He wanted to believe it was a mistake, but finally he could not.

First in 1997 and more strongly in 1998 – four years before Cristol’s book was first published – McGonagle publicly stated that he believed the attack on Liberty was deliberate.

Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery, where some crew remains are buried beneath a memorial stone, McGonagle said he had “wanted to believe that the attack ... was pure error.”

“It appears to me it was not a case of mistaken identity. I think that it’s about time that the state of Israel and the United States government provide the crewmembers of the Liberty and the rest of the American people the facts of what happened.”

Cristol was familiar with McGonagle’s first statement, at Arlington, saying in his book that he agrees with the captain that the U.S. should release any remaining documents on the matter.

But a year later McGonagle made his point even more clearly in an open letter to President Bill Clinton, who was rumored to be considering releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard was a Navy analyst who sold tens of thousands of classified secrets to Israel.

McGonagle told Clinton that Pollard should not be released to Israel “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].”

Cristol’s book has been criticized by Liberty survivors and others for largely ignoring eyewitness testimony. At the museum Tuesday night he named or identified by rank a handful of Liberty survivors he said he interviewed, but also said he relied on testimony in the official Naval Court of Inquiry.

Cristol also said he had access to numerous Israeli witnesses and sources during his research, though he has admitted not relying a great deal on accounts from Liberty survivors.

“With all the respect that is certainly due the survivors of the Liberty incident, their objectivity is lost or tainted,” he has said.

While Cristol offered several names of Liberty survivors he said he interviewed, and referred the audience to his website for the complete list. Of the more than 500 witnesses in the U.S., Israel and Egypt he said he interviewed for the book, the website includes eight names, only one of which was aboard the Liberty.

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