The problem with the concept of national security — a modern version of the notion of “raison d’état” — is that it is an invitation to lawlessness. Just consider the many actions taken in the name of national security that have led to torture, murder, impoverishment and the death of countless innocent civilians. The United States has pursued national-security ends that have caused such suffering in Asia, Central America and the Middle East. In addition, U.S. government leaders have consciously facilitated such deeds by their ally Israel, which also hides behind the doctrine of national security. Others, such as the Russians and Chinese, have acted in a similar way.
Too much of this is illegal under international law, and sometimes under domestic law as well. As such, they are examples of state lawlessness. The notable post-World War II efforts to create enforceable international laws have largely failed when it comes to regulating the actions of the “Great Powers” and their allies. More specifically, the leadership of such states and their agents have long considered themselves able to act beyond all law, domestic or international, as long as they can hide behind the concept of national security.
One of the more egregious examples of this sort of lawlessness was the premeditated 1967 Israeli attack on the American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty. In her recent book, Blood in the Water (which all subsequent quoted material is from), Joan Mellen, a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, leads the reader along a remarkably well-documented path of ruthlessness, bureaucratic callousness, and conspiracy to commit murder. The American government was involved in this affair — involved in plotting the murder of its own countrymen — all in the name of supposedly advancing the nation’s security goals in the Middle East. It is an example of just how far government officials will go when they believe they are accountable to no one.
An outline of Mellen’s story goes as follows. There are two primary conspirators. First, James Angleton, head of counterintelligence at the CIA. Angleton was paranoid and “something of a thug.” He had “managed to create a fiefdom within the agency and was accountable to no one. He ended up handling all of the agency’s Israeli operations.” Mellen claims that President Lyndon Johnson, also part of this conspiracy, had given Angleton carte blanche when it came to intelligence relations with Israel. A rabid Cold Warrior, Angleton saw Israel as the “eyes and ears of the United States in the Middle East, a reliable American military and economic outpost.” He “insisted that he could peer through the Iron Curtain only with the help of Israeli intelligence.”
Angleton also saw Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader, as an ally of the Russians and “the West’s primary problem in the area.” He believed that “if Nasser could be eliminated, and the Egyptian army defeated without major-power assistance, the Arabs would be left with no alternative but to make peace with Israel.” The proviso of “without major-power assistance” was soon dropped in favor of involving the United States in a Middle East war.
Second, there was Angleton’s co-conspirator, Meir Amit, head of the Mossad — Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations — the Zionist state’s counterpart to the CIA. Amit’s motto was, “If somebody is in your way, you use the greatest firepower you can muster to blow him away.” He “invoked an undemonstrated Soviet threat to Israel to help gain U.S. cooperation.” Angleton bought into this.
Amit wanted to involve the United States in the war against Egypt that the Israelis were planning. It was Amit who came up with the idea for the sinking of a U.S. ship and then blaming the act on Egypt. This would create a false-flag pretext for a joint U.S. and Israeli bombing of Cairo and the destruction of Nasser’s regime.
Angleton enthusiastically endorsed Amit’s plan. It is also apparent that the scheme (eventually code named Operation Cyanide) was later sanctioned by the secretive American “303 Committee,” which was tasked with approving covert operations. Its decisions were then “forwarded to the president for final approval.” President Johnson initialed approval of a plan to topple Nasser. To that end, the men of the USS Liberty were to be sacrificed.
Ultimately, it was Meir Amit who gave the order to attack the Liberty, and it is a sign of his influence that he gave that order to Moshe Dayan, defense minister at the time. Dayan endorsed and then passed on Amit’s orders to the Israeli naval and air elements that carried out the actual attack. The Israeli pilots involved in the operation identified the Liberty as a U.S. ship; during the operation, some questioned the attack. They were sternly told: “You have your orders. Attack it. Follow orders!” Most of them did. Two pilots refused to follow orders, and both suffered court martial. A transcript of this air-to-base communication was soon sent to Lyndon Johnson in the White House. No consequences flowed from it.
There were others involved in this conspiracy, and Mellen names them. “Here is a list of those who available evidence suggests bear responsibility for the murderous attack on the USS Liberty: Meir Amit, James Angleton, Lyndon Johnson, Cyrus Vance, Robert McNamara, Moshe Dayan, Levi Eshkol, John S. McCain, Donald D. Engen, and William Inman Martin.”
Admiral William Inman Martin, commander of the Sixth Fleet, with control of ships in the Mediterranean, actually had U.S. planes ready to attack Cairo. Late in the process, President Johnson aborted this part of the conspiracy because it risked Russian retaliation. However, that reversal seemed to have come too late to save the Liberty.
The original scheme called for the sinking of the Liberty with all hands — so as to leave no witnesses. However, while the Israelis managed to kill 34 sailors and wound 171, they were unable to sink the ship. That fact led to a massive cover-up that has lasted to this day.
The Israelis and perhaps the Americans, too, had historical precedents for attacking their own forces or those of their allies to create false-flag excuses for larger missions. Mellen spends some time on these precedents to show that Operation Cyanide was not unique. For the Israelis, the major precedent was the Lavon Affair of 1954-55. This was an operation designed to “reverse the direction of U.S. aid away from Egypt to Israel.” The plan was that Israeli agents would attack American, British and Egyptian cultural and mercantile sites in Egypt and blame it on the Muslim Brotherhood. This violence was supposed to alienate the Western powers from the Egyptian government. The whole thing unraveled when one of the Zionist agents was caught. Israel denied involvement and allowed its agents to endure long periods in Egyptian jails.
For the United States, Mellen suggests that one precedent lies in the infamous attack on the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, an event that killed over 260 sailors and helped spark the Spanish-American War. The major theories about what caused the explosion are, first, a mine set on the ship’s hull and, second, the spontaneous combustion of coal in the bunker next to the magazine. Both are unproven. Mellen’s notion that a U.S. government agent did the deed is also unproven. Her second alleged precedent is Lyndon Johnson’s use of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf confrontation to justify the broadening of the Vietnam War. The background to this event is the fact that South Vietnam was conducting, under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Defense and the CIA, “commando attacks and intelligence-gathering missions along the North Vietnamese coast.” Parallel to these operations, the United States was sending its own destroyers into the same area to pinpoint future targets. It was under these circumstances that, in August 1964, the USS Maddox was confronted by three North Vietnamese gunboats, allegedly, in international waters. Mellen believes that the U.S. government set up the Maddox in order to provoke an incident that would justify further escalation of the Vietnam War. Indeed, Lyndon Johnson used the incident to extract the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress.
Mellen places the Liberty incident in this historical context and, at least on the American side, it is the best-documented case of such false-flag conspiracies. As Mellen shows, there can be no doubt that the USS Liberty was knowingly sent into harm’s way as part of a plot to use her destruction as a pretext for U.S. involvement in Israel’s 1967 war against Egypt. The conspirators go all the way up the ladder of power to the president himself. Whatever might be the truth of LBJ’s role in the Gulf of Tonkin affair, there can be no doubt of his involvement in the attack on the Liberty — including the remarkable fact that the ships and planes initially sent to assist and rescue the Liberty were personally called back by President Johnson — an act that made him guilty of a war crime, to say nothing of treason.
John Hadden, CIA station chief in Tel Aviv in June 1967 and one of the principal characters in Mellen’s book, is quoted as saying, “Working for the CIA was not for anybody with a weak stomach — because you had to do things that were against all moral precepts and against the law.” The question this assertion brings forth is, why does one have to do such things? Because someone else orders you to? Because everyone else in your part of the bureaucracy is doing so? Because your opponents (who, of course, are the real immoral ones) are doing so? Or, like stopping at red lights, it is culturally just how things are done in the world of intelligence and military operatives.
In 1967, the proposition that “you had to do [immoral and illegal] things” became so accepted within certain parts of the U.S. government that, when an out-of-control, unsupervised head of a subsection of the country’s intelligence apparatus started plotting the attack on an American ship, no one stepped forward and said, this is a crazy idea, and we should not do this. Later there were those who suggested that James Angleton was mentally unstable, which might be true, but no one said so at the time he was demonstrating the fact by plotting to kill his own countrymen.
Indeed, the acceptance of “you had to do [illegal and immoral] things” was also strong enough to facilitate a 50-plus-year cover-up, which, as Mellen tells us, has been adhered to by every subsequent U.S. president, Congress and the relevant bureaucratic departments. And it still goes on.
The greatest strength of Joan Mellen’s book is its thorough documentation. Those who read it should pay close attention to its endnotes. Her telling of the story of the Liberty’s fateful voyage is an in-depth chronicling of events, though she sometimes puts in so much data that the reader might get lost in the detail. In her conclusion, she states, “You cannot emerge from serving a government engaged in immoral actions with clean hands.” That is where we stand. The concept of national security has transformed all the world’s governments into potentially immoral entities. How, and how often, this potential is realized seems to be a function of how much power a government possesses. First and foremost are the so-called Great Powers. First and foremost among them is the United States and its principal ally, Israel.
The rationale for the often immoral application of the concept of national security is that we live in a dangerous and competitive world where government officials must make “hard choices.” Yet this can be a self-fulfilling proposition inviting the most extreme of actions, in our day, represented by the notion of regime change. The desire to overthrow the rule of Abdel Nasser led, via the corrupt reasoning of Meit Amit and James Angelton, as well as those on the 303 Committee, to the attack on the USS Liberty — an attack that was to be total, leaving none of the ship’s crew alive.
Will Mellen’s book, with its evidence and the naming of those responsible, make any difference? Unfortunately, the most likely answer is, no. Most of the those responsible are dead, and there is strong bureaucratic pressure to keep their reputations “clean” for the sake of the reputations of the bureaucracies they worked for. To the extent that this cover-up continues to hide the inherent corruption that brought low the Liberty, we can expect more false-flag adventures in the future. It appears to be in the nature of the political world we have made for ourselves.