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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:

The following is from an article ("HISTORIAN ALLEGES POW DEATHS IN 1956, 1967") posted by the Jewish Telegraph Agency on August 17, 1995:

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:

The following is from an article ("RABIN REFUSES TO PROBE ALLEGED ISRAELI WAR CRIMES") in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on August 21, 1995:

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:

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:

Next, again parroting the Shalem Center's Mr. Oren, Aftergood charges:

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."

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.

Despite his criticism, Mr. Aftergood does offer praise:

Nevertheless, he can not resist one last complaint, noting:

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:

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.