SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
July 17, 2001

BAMFORD "LIBERTY" ACCOUNT REPUDIATED

Key aspects of author James Bamford's recent account of the 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty are being disavowed by some of his own sources.

The Liberty, an American spy ship, was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea off the Sinai coast when it was attacked on June 8, 1967 by Israeli air and naval forces towards the end of the 1967 war. There were 34 Americans killed and 171 wounded. The Israeli government claimed the attack was an "error"; some U.S. officials, and surviving Liberty crew members, have contended that the attack must have been deliberate. But why?

In his new bestseller Body of Secrets, 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 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."

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.

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."

These and other disputed points in Bamford's account are presented in a fierce critique by Michael Oren in the latest issue of The New Republic ("Unfriendly Fire," 23 July). That article is not available online, but an earlier article by Oren entitled "The U.S.S. Liberty: Case Closed" appeared in the Israeli neoconservative journal Azure (Spring 2000) and may be found here:

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. But his tendentious interpretation of the event is a salutary reminder that even the best reporters can get it wrong, and that readers ultimately have to be their own critics.

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."

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.

Documentation on the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty will be printed in "Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, volume XIX, Six-Day War" which is tentatively scheduled for publication next year.

The National Security Agency and the Defense Department are now conducting a declassification review of documents for publication in that volume. The NSA exceeded the nominal deadline for declassification in May, but told the State Department that its review should be completed by August of this year. No description of the documents under review has been disclosed.


POSTOL SECRECY ABUSE ALLEGATIONS DISPUTED

Prof. Ted Postol, a leading critic of the national missile defense program, warned last year that the Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO) might be "attempting to illegally use the security and classification system to hide waste, fraud, and abuse" after it classified a letter that he wrote to the White House criticizing the program.

But a new General Accounting Office report finds that BMDO was within its rights, because portions of the attachments to Dr. Postol's letter had been inadvertently released and were still officially classified.

"DOD's actions were performed in accordance with Executive Order 12958 [on classification of national security information]," the GAO wrote in a letter to Rep. Ed Markey that was released on July 12. The GAO letter, and the underlying Postol correspondence, may be found here:

Dr. Postol told InsideDefense.com (12 July 2001) that the GAO had incorrectly characterized his encounter with Defense Security Service officials, and said there were a number of factual errors in the GAO review.

The General Accounting Office is conducting a separate review of allegations of scientific fraud in the missile defense program.


CHINA: HOW BIG A THREAT?

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) pressured the RAND Corporation to provide a hawkish assessment of the future threat from China, and fired RAND from a classified project last month when its analysts failed to offer a sufficiently gloomy evaluation, according to U.S. News and World Report.

"As RAND held conferences with experts and conducted its analysis, it seemed that [its] eventual report would depict China as a growing military power -- but as no match for the United States in the near future. The NIC -- itself under pressure from Republican hawks in Congress -- appeared to be looking for a different, more alarming conclusion," the U.S. News story stated.

"Faced with resistance from RAND, according to some sources, the NIC decided to seek a more compliant contractor. A senior intelligence official denies that the NIC was shopping for a predetermined result."

See "China: How Big a Threat?" by Richard J. Newman and Kevin Whitelaw in U.S. News and World Report, 23 July 2001, here:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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