from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
July 26, 2001


James Bamford, author of the bestselling book Body of Secrets, angrily rebuked Secrecy News for a July 17 story that described disputed points in his account of the 1967 Israeli attack on the American surveillance ship U.S.S. Liberty. In a written response, Mr. Bamford also provided an extended rebuttal to a recent article about the Liberty in The New Republic.

The Secrecy News item was "a model of poor reporting," Mr. Bamford wrote. Criticizing Mr. Bamford's work without affording him the opportunity to reply "violates the most basic rule of journalism."

Secrecy News apologizes for not having contacted Mr. Bamford for comment.

In response to the assertion that there is no verifiable evidence that mass murders of Egyptian prisoners of war took place in 1967 which might have provided a motive for an Israeli attack on the Liberty, Mr. Bamford cited abundant reporting in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications indicating that Israeli soldiers killed hundreds of Egyptians.

Mr. Bamford agreed that linguist Marvin E. Nowicki, who had recorded Israeli pilot communications during the attack, believes the attack was an "error." Indeed, Mr. Bamford said, he mentioned this fact explicitly in Body of Secrets. But while Mr. Nowicki is entitled to his opinion, he wrote, others who had equal or greater access to intelligence data on the attack -- including the other Hebrew linguist aboard the U.S. surveillance plane overhead -- concluded that it was deliberate.

Mr. Bamford noted that while he is an independent writer with "no ties to either Israel or any organization involved with the U.S.S. Liberty," the same cannot be said of Michael Oren, the author of the New Republic article upon which Secrecy News relied, who is an Israeli reserve officer and associated with a right wing Israeli think tank. This association, in Mr. Bamford's view, tends to nullify any claim to objectivity that Mr. Oren may have.

"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," according to Mr. Bamford. As for The New Republic, that magazine in his estimation has "long [been] the U.S. propaganda arm of the Israeli far right."

"As an investigative journalist for nearly 25 years, I am never bothered by attacks like those from [Secrecy News] -- it comes with the territory," Mr. Bamford wrote. "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."

The full text of Mr. Bamford's response is posted here:

A 1997 dissertation on the Liberty incident written by A. Jay Cristol which reportedly concludes that the Israeli attack on the U.S. ship was unwitting is slated for publication as a book in March 2002.

A television program called "Cover Up: Attack on the U.S.S. Liberty," will be broadcast on The History Channel on August 9. "We examine crewmembers' contentions that the attack was intentional and that both governments covered up the true details," according to advance program notes.

A State Department spokesman said that the forthcoming volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States that provides official documentation concerning the Liberty "does not include any intercepts or transcripts." Bamford, Nowicki and others have called for the declassification and release of the transcribed tapes of Israeli pilots' communications during the 1967 attack on the Liberty.


Twenty four years after the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was established in 1977, a new House rule could significantly curtail the scope and effectiveness of congressional oversight of intelligence.

According to a little-noticed amendment to the House Rules adopted on January 3, "The Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is to have exclusive oversight responsibility over the sources and methods of the core intelligence agencies." See:


This new rule was invoked for the first time by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet last week as justification for his refusal to participate in an hearing convened by the House Committee on Government Reform.

Thus, congressional oversight of intelligence, which is already subject to far-reaching limitations, is being further diminished.

The new House rule is "wholly inconsistent with the compromise which led to the creation of the intelligence committees," noted Morton H. Halperin, now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Halperin, who served in numerous national security functions in and out of government, played an influential role in the formulation of intelligence oversight policies in his former capacity as director of the Center for National Security Studies.

That original compromise permitted the establishment of the intelligence committee on condition that the existing jurisdiction of other committees would be fully preserved.

Specifically, the 1977 House Rule XLVIII that established the House Intelligence Committee stated clearly: "Nothing in this rule shall be construed as prohibiting or otherwise restricting the authority of any other committee to study and review any intelligence or intelligence-related activity to the extent that such activity directly affects a matter otherwise within the jurisdiction of such committee."

Curiously, in response to a probing question from Rep. Henry Hyde, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier said on the House floor January 3 that the new rule "is not meant to circumscribe in any way, shape, or form the oversight or legislative jurisdiction" of Mr. Hyde's Judiciary Committee. See:

But if the new rule was not meant to circumscribe other committees' jurisdiction in any way, it is hard to understand what it means or why it was adopted in the first place. Intelligence Committee staffers contacted by Secrecy News declined to comment on the subject.

In any case, in apparent contradiction to Rep. Dreier's assurances, the new rule has already curtailed oversight in the House Government Reform Committee.

Members of the Government Reform Committee met with the Speaker of the House last Thursday to discuss the new challenge to their jurisdiction, a Committee spokesman said. There was no immediate resolution of the issue.

The intrinsic limits on Congressional oversight of intelligence -- involving shortages of personnel, time, resources, and Members' attention as well as a lack of independent sources of information -- were described with unusual frankness by Mary K. Sturtevant in the Summer 1992 issue of American Intelligence Journal, published by the National Military Intelligence Association. Though dated in some respects, Ms. Sturtevant's article identifies the basic structural barriers to oversight that will only be exacerbated by the new House rule. See "Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: One Perspective" here:

Earlier this month, Ms. Sturtevant was appointed Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs, National Security Council staff.


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

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