Beginning before dawn on June 8, Israeli aircraft regularly appeared on the horizon and circled the USS Liberty.
The Israeli Air Force had gained control of the skies on the first day of the war by destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. America was Israel’s ally, and the Israelis knew the Americans were there. The ship’s mission was to monitor the communications of Israel’s Arab enemies and their Soviet advisers, but not Israeli communications. The Liberty felt safe.
U.S. Navy jets were called back
An Israeli military court of inquiry later acknowledged that their naval headquarters knew at least three hours before the attack that the odd-looking ship 13 miles off the Sinai Peninsula, sprouting more than 40 antennas capable of receiving every kind of radio transmission, was “an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy,” a floating electronic vacuum cleaner.
The Israeli inquiry later concluded that that information had simply gotten lost, never passed along to the ground controllers who directed the air attack nor to the crews of the three Israeli torpedo boats who picked up where the air force left off, strafing the Liberty’s decks with their machine guns and launching a torpedo that blew a 39-foot hole in its starboard side.
“The USS Liberty was set up by the U.S. government to be sunk by the Israeli military so that they could blame it on Egypt. After this attack, two American aircrafts were launched carrying nuclear-tipped missiles in order to bomb Cairo. That city was within three minutes of being obliterated. Without a doubt, it would have started WWIII.”
To a man, the survivors interviewed by the Tribune rejected Israel’s explanation.
Nor, the survivors said, did they understand why the American 6th Fleet, which included the aircraft carriers America and Saratoga, patrolling 400 miles west of the Liberty, launched and then recalled at least two squadrons of Navy fighter-bombers that might have arrived in time to prevent the torpedo attack — and save 26 American lives.
In the Jerusalem Post transcript, a weapons system officer on the ground suddenly blurted out, “What is this? Americans?” “Where are Americans?” replied one of the air controllers. The question went unanswered, and it was not asked again.
Twenty minutes later, after the Liberty had been hit repeatedly by machine guns, 30 mm cannon and napalm from the Israelis’ French-built Mirage and Mystere fighter-bombers, the controller directing the attack asked his chief in Tel Aviv to which country the target vessel belonged.
“Apparently American,” the chief controller replied.
Fourteen minutes later the Liberty was struck amidships by a torpedo from an Israeli boat, killing 26 of the 100 or so NSA technicians and specialists in Russian and Arabic who were working in restricted compartments below the ship’s waterline.
More details below the fold …
The transcript published by the Jerusalem Post bore scant resemblance to the one that in 1967 rolled off the teletype machine behind the sealed vault door at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, where Steve Forslund worked as an intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing, then the highest-level strategic planning office in the Air Force.
“The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it,” Forslund recalled. “The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag.
“The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors.”
Six thousand miles from Omaha, on the Mediterranean island of Crete, Air Force Capt. Richard Block was commanding an intelligence wing of more than 100 analysts and cryptologists monitoring Middle Eastern communications.
The transcripts Block remembered seeing “were teletypes, way beyond Top Secret. Some of the pilots did not want to attack,” Block said. “The pilots said, ‘This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?’
“And ground control came back and said, ‘Yes, follow orders.'”
NSA documents reveal the attack was deliberate
The attack “couldn’t be anything else but deliberate,” the NSA’s director, Lt. Gen. Marshall Carter, later told Congress. “I don’t think you’ll find many people at NSA who believe it was accidental,” Benson Buffham, a former deputy NSA director, said in an interview.
“I just always assumed that the Israeli pilots knew what they were doing,” said Harold Saunders, then a member of the National Security Council staff and later assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
U.S. inquiry widely criticized
Rather than investigating how and why a U.S. Navy vessel had been attacked by an ally, the Navy seemed interested in asking as few questions as possible and answering them in record time.
Even while the Liberty was still limping toward a dry dock in Malta, the Navy convened a formal Court of Inquiry. Adm. John McCain Jr., the commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and father of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chose Adm. Isaac Kidd Jr. to preside.
The court’s charge was narrow: to determine whether any shortcomings on the part of the Liberty’s crew had contributed to the injuries and deaths that resulted from the attack. McCain gave Kidd’s investigators a week to complete the job.
Four decades later, many of the more than two dozen Liberty survivors located and interviewed by the Tribune cannot talk about the attack without shouting or weeping.
Their anger has been stoked by the declassification of government documents and the recollections of former military personnel, including some quoted in this article for the first time, which strengthen doubts about the U.S. National Security Agency’s position that it never intercepted the communications of the attacking Israeli pilots — communications, according to those who remember seeing them, that showed the Israelis knew they were attacking an American naval vessel.
The documents also suggest that the U.S. government, anxious to spare Israel’s reputation and preserve its alliance with the U.S., closed the case with what even some of its participants now say was a hasty and seriously flawed investigation.
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