Adam Larson / Caustic Logic
May 16 2009
last edit 5/23
Within the drama of the IDF tapes surrounding the Liberty attack is the mystery of numerous witnesses to orders sent, intercepted, and read by American eyes to attack the ship despite the American flag. The official transcripts allowed to the public, despite other inconsistencies, agree in containing no mentions of a flag until helicopters after 15:00, either well after the attack, or well after the worst of it, depending on the accounts you believe. The tapes do however contain mentions of “Americans” on at least three occasions during the attack, each seeming strangely out of place. It might be reasonable to presume these witnesses just saw these lines amid the chatter, and deduced it was from a seen flag, perhaps embellishing the memory later. Conversely these might be the responses to the flag reports, severed from their other halves in the edited final, left hanging as random musings and blurted hunches.
As the case may be, the first “Americans” mention is one of the most interesting lines in the episode, delivered by one Lazar Karni, a weapons system officer based at General Headquarters who remains otherwise silent. His role is generally described as “to listen to ground-to-air communications and make occasional suggestions,” and at 13:54, the first fighters were just within view of the Liberty, preparing to assist the torpedo boats by initiating the attack on a presumed enemy something-or-other. Karni, known as “L.K.” in the transcripts, made his dramatic cameo appearance at this point:“What is this? Americans?”
Arieh O’Sullivan, who heard the tapes, explained that was “blurted out,” but was based only on “what he later testified was a hunch.” My curiosity was piqued by this “hunch,” since an American ship had been identified in the area that morning and mightn’t be entirely out of everyone’s minds, despite the efforts of fate to erase it.
Judge J.A. Cristol’s transcript of these tapes, which I discovered later as appendix 2 in his book, gives the line as "what is that? Americans?" He also offers as a sub-appendix invaluable first-hand insight into L.K.’s thinking - his July 1967 testimony to the second Israeli (Yerushalmi) investigation. Apparently working from these basic tapes, and with the same question I had, the examining judge wanted to know what that line was about. In testimony declassified at Cristol’s request, the weapons system officer describes his duty and reason for speaking up.
“I was not the officer who would have been able to decide on an attack, but it was my duty to be as a passive part on the line in order to absorb information that might have helped, but like any officer I wanted to help …”Karni said of his own actions “it is clear to me that I threw in the question – a shout which is written. It does not relate to the conversation that was conducted on the line at that same moment. […] In relation to this there are two possibilities.” Strange comments – apparently he means the remark seems disconnected, implying it was from some side conversation, somehow making it into the wrong transcript. In fact the active discussion his question was disconnected from “was about an attack on missile bases,” he says. He then decides one possibility is “that this question was asked during a conversation […] about the ship that purposefully was shelling El Arish, and the Air Force was about to attack it jointly with the Navy.”
Once turned around to the episode his words are publicly attached to, he offers his reasoning for the comment, if that’s what he was commenting on. (??) Most importantly he did confirm to the court, in the last sentence, “I did not know about the existence of an American ship in the morning.” He certainly should have, of course, but apparently this is just a hunch, not an intentional reminder of the GTR5 ship. If he had been in the loop back at about 10am, quietly forgotten in his passive role, he would probably have absorbed the identification of Liberty in that area. So either he came on line only after it was removed from the tactical info system at 11am, or his testimony is incorrect. On the thinking Karni claimed:
“I at that time expressed an opinion that we had taken only one action, that is to say, we had ascertained it was not an Israeli ship, and we did this through the naval representatives who were sitting with us.
like any officer I wanted to help, and therefore I wanted to suppose to the ears of those who were managing the war to a possibility – supposition that it was an American ship. That was only my supposition, since it was my assessment that it was not Egyptian, for they would not dispatch a solitary ship to our coast, and therefore I thought there was such a possibility.” [??]
This logic consideration is a very good point Karni might bring up to explain his “supposition” and get people thinking, if only he were asked to explain his provocative comment. They would find it just a thought, but a good one, that it might be American or, for all they knew, Soviet. It’s somewhat reassuring that at least one soul in the IDF system showed the kind of sanity to put their neck out and blurt the unconsidered option everyone else had missed - they hadn’t yet identified this thing well enough.
“Shimon” (full name classified) is the deputy for one “Robert,” chief air controller at Air Control Central, who was on the line in Robert’s stead as LK dropped his thought bomb. The first to respond, Shimon asks as one might expect “what Americans?” This is included in Cristol’s version but not O’Sullivan’s. Kislev’s first response is to ask “Robert, what did you say?” (or “what are you saying?”) He may not have recognized “LK” as a participant and thought the question was posed by a returning “Robert.” Karni does not answer "Shimon's" query, nor does anyone respond to Kislev’s poorly-aimed question. The issue is apparently dropped like a hot potato and within seconds, all are proceeding with the attack on the mystery ship, which is but two minutes away.
Explaining the lack of response to the identification question, Cristol summarized “no one had any data on the location for Americans. Without hard data, the subject was not pursued further.” Strangely, Karni’s testimony implies a lively and curious response:
“All those who were connected on this line were able to hear me. Of course, all of them were overcome by this and they began to ask and then I did not want to delay the attack on the ship [because] they said it was shelling El Arish. And since the supposition was not based on data but on an assessment – supposition – therefore I did not want to delay the thing. Therefore I immediately retracted.”So it seems by speaking up, the guy was willing to try and delay the attack with a worthwhile consideration - supposition. Something instantly changed his mind. It was the questions he cited, but if the transcripts are any clue, it wasn’t their number or their specificity. Perhaps something the transcript doesn't reveal, like the tone of either Shimon's or Kislev's voice, or how they emphasized their words, convinced Karni this was not a line of thought they were interested in.
Maybe his line was somehow cut off. It is curious he didn't follow-up with at least a "never mind." Such a line, if worth blurting, is worth a sequel as well. That it didn't get one is evidence something cut his train of thought off from the action. "My line went dead, so I guess I immediately retracted..." Hmmm... just trying the line out - not courtroom material, even if it were true.
Even the plain text of the audio released the controllers clearly showed an active disinterest in re-considering the situation; only two questions total were asked – "what Americans" and "what did you say." No answers was offered, pressed for or - it would seem - wanted. Ambiguity and second thoughts are the enemy of the decisive split-second life-and-death blahblahblah that had made Israel so great. As Karni’s testimony shows, nobody was willing to “delay the thing” that was already in mid-motion.
It was worth a try, Lazar, and we all thank you. You offered them a last chance out, and they refused to take it. You might rock the boat, but tipping it over is another story; ultimately of course you are a soldier of and loyal to Israel. You stood your ground and no one else's, and that's worthy of respect at least. Was it spooky, to be in the middle of all that blind volition?