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What Really Happened With The USS Liberty?

What Really Happened With The USS Liberty?

The USS Liberty Incident is a story that has been told and retold over the years. Detractors of Israel have used this to attack Israel, the Arabs have written stories full of attacks to say that Israel is not a friend of America, anti-semites have used this attack to try to justify their hatred. With so many stories there are many different narratives out there,  so how does one separate truth from fiction? 

In many cases, separating of narratives is very difficult, for many intertwine half-truths with their narratives, ignore facts that don’t support the narrative they are trying to peddle. This has even been made more difficult by crew members that were in engineering where they were not slapped with orders of nondisclosure, the problem with this is they would not have the information the officers on the ship or that were in CIC would have had. they are more dealing with this from an emotional narrative, this does not lessen what they went through, rather does cause problems when their testimony and the ones with access to all the data find their stories conflicting. 

My father told me growing up that when you have nothing but conflicting stories, sometimes you have to throw them all out, just look at the evidence and build up your own opinion of what went on, (guess with eleven kids he had a whole lot of practice with this). With my father’s words ringing in my head I will try to do the same. 

The USS Liberty

The ship started off as a victory ship, one of 2710 that were built; These were created in WW2 due to the loss of shipping and the needs of the time to bring supplies for both the European and Pacific campaign for the over 16,000 Americans serving in the military.

Ater the second world war the cargo ship Simmons Victory was purchased by the navy; we converted into a technical ship, one that was specially designed to collect signal and electronic intel.

Leading up to the Attack

For two years the signal intel ship sailed up and down in African waters collecting intel until it was called to do the same with the Israeli Arab war of 67.

The NSA Spy ship USS Liberty a Sigint Collector, was a short-lived program due advent of satellite, before this they used this ship that bounced radio waves off of the lunar surface and was able to reach the US by this means. 

The NSA decision to move the ship to the Sinai was before the war had broken out, but with an increase in military groups going on in the Sinai and Russian advisors, it was felt the ship could collect valuable intelligence, at that time the belief was that war was possible but not probable. On The NSA decision to request the Liberty’s deployment to the area started on 23 May 1967, as it sailed into the area, they were told to stay in international waters and try to collect what they could. As it sailed towards Israel it lifted its Sigint readiness condition to Bravo-Crayon, they knew they were going into a hostile area, but did not at the time see this as a danger to the ship or crew. 

After the war erupted, due to concerns about her safety as she approached her patrol area, several messages were sent to Liberty to increase her allowable closest point of approach (CPA) to Egypt’s and Israel’s coasts from 12.5 and 6.5 n.mi (14.4 and 7.5 mi; 23.2 and 12.0 km), respectively, to 20 and 15 n.mi (23 and 17 mi; 37 and 28 km), and then later to 100 n. Mi (120 mi; 190 km) for both countries.

Unfortunately, due to ineffective message handling and routing, the CPA change messages were not received until after the attack. (1). This was the first mistake that was done, the first of many that put the ship in harm’s way. After the attack the Naval Chief of staff did inquire why the ship was sent in unescorted, it would never have been mistaken for anything else. 

According to Israeli sources, at the start of the war on 5 June, General Yitzhak Rabin (then IDF Chief of Staff) informed Commander Ernest Carl Castle, the American Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv, that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal, including sinking unidentified ships. Also, he asked the U.S. to keep its ships away from Israel’s shore or at least inform Israel of their exact position.

The failure of the Israeli Navy’s attacks on Egyptian and Syrian ports early in the war did little to assuage Israel’s fears. Consequently, the IDF Chief of Staff, Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, informed the U.S. Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv, Cmdr. Ernest Carl Castle that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal. Unidentified vessels would be sunk, Rabin advised; the United States should either acknowledge its ships in the area or remove them. The U.S. had also rejected Israel’s request for a formal naval liaison.

On 31 May, Avraham Harman, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, had warned Under Secretary of State Eugene V. Rostow that if war breaks out, “we would have no telephone number to call, no code for plane recognition, and no way to get in touch with the U.S. Sixth Fleet.” (Oren 2000)Not of this was sent to command on the USS Liberty, while they knew they were sailing into an active war zone as they approached, they had no way of knowing of the warnings to stay away or risk attack. 

The ship was assigned with the break out of war to sail to international waters, not sail into national waters due to an active conflict going on at the time, this was during the 67 war, the Israeli’s at this time had driven the Egyptians out of the Sinia and had put up a force at the Sinia shortly after this. The ship was ordered to sail to the area and collect electronic data and send it back to Washington, but the problem is they sailed into territorial waters, thus freeing themselves from the protection that they were afforded while outside territorial waters. The coordinates as given by the US Navy was Latitude: 31° 23′ 24.00″ N and Longitude: 33° 22′ 48.00″ E, this placed them less than a mile off of the shore and less than a 17 km from the breakers of Bardwal Lake. This under the agreement is defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles(22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state.

A magnified view shows the ship was in national waters. This shows the ship 16 Km off of the breakers; this is well inside of national waters, a place they were explicitly told not to go. 

 

It was then that the Navy Chief of Staff Office Inquiry showed the ship was spotted. 

The Attack On The Ship

Contrary to claims today the IDF at this point had no way of knowing who’s ship it was, but they did know that just three days prior the Egyptian Navy did have ships in the same area that were shelling Israeli positions, there are claims that the Israeli navy thought the vessel was the Egyptian ship El Quseir, but to be frank, I have doubts about this, the ship in question and the USS Liberty share little similarities with the Egyptian ship about 60% the size of USS liberty, there was no match on their silhpuette’s. 

When the ship was spotted, it was in the same exact area that the Egyptian navy had just attacked a couple of days prior. The NSA intercepted audio just prior and after the attack, where the IDF command asked the pilots if there was any identifying flag to give the origin of the ship they replied in the negative, they then were ordered to attack. 

After the attack they continued to ask the pilot if they saw any flag, there still was not one identified, they then asked the pilot to communicate with the ships below and have them pick up a crewman in the water and interrogate him to see where they came from, in fact, gave directions of how to look out for dialect. The greatest fear they had then was this was a Russian ship.

As we see from both the naval personnel and the IDF Pilots no sighting of a flag was found, this was further found to be the case when the US Navy investigated the accident. This was followed by the same conclusion from the US Joint Chief of Staff office, then the White House special counsel, the US Senate, the US House and the CIA after the incident report. This has been disputed by the crew, the Navy in their findings said, Official American reports say that the Liberty was flying her American flag before, during and after the attack; the only exception being a brief period in which one flag had been shot down and then replaced with a larger flag that measured approximately 13 ft (4.0 m) long. U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry finding number 2 states: “The calm conditions and slow speed of the ship may well have made the American flag difficult to identify.” And finding number 28 states: “Flat, calm conditions and the slow five-knot patrol speed of LIBERTY in the forenoon when she was being looked over initially may well have produced insufficient wind for streaming colors enough to be seen by pilots.” (http://www.thelibertyincident.com/docs/CourtOfInquiry.pdf)

The ship during the attack was not only fired on by the fighters 30-mm cannons and rockets, but this was also followed with two Dassault Mysteres armed with napalm bombs, flown by Captain Yossi Zuk and his wingman, Yaakov Hamermish. The Mysteres released their payloads over the ship and strafed it with their cannons.

The Israeli Navy found that none of its vessels were under fire, and the aircraft was cleared to attack. However, Kislev was still disturbed by a lack of return fire and requested one last attempt to identify the ship. Captain Zuk, attempted identification while strafing the ship. He reported seeing no flag but saw the ship’s GTR-5 marking. Kislev immediately ordered the attack stopped. Kislev guessed that the ship was American. (This Paragraph is contained in the book by Michael B. Oren, if you wish to purchase the book click here, it will take you a site that sells it.  

Even at this time it was still not known that this was an American ship, the biggest worry was Israel could have escalated the war by attacking what possibly could have been a Russian Ship. Although Kislev thought it might be an American ship, Chief of Staff Rabin thought it was more likely a Russian or an Arab ship, this is why in the NSA intercepts IDF command was instructing their people to pick up a survivor and interrogate him, they if the were Arab they needed to know by dialect where they were from. At no time in the communications was there any mention that this could have been a Russian or an American ship. 

As many sites are fond of doing, you will see claims of proof yet nothing is shown, I try to give links to everything so you can follow the path of discovery with me. Israel had the same radio intercepts, they had recorded them, as most navies do, released them to the US which found both the NSA and the Israeli’s were the same. Here are the NSA audio intercepts:

  1. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/uss-liberty/assets/files/recordings/audio-104.mp3
  2. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/uss-liberty/assets/files/recordings/audio-105.mp3
  3. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/uss-liberty/assets/files/recordings/audio-130.mp3

Since most readers will not understand Hebrew, here are the correlating translations of the audio:

  1. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/uss-liberty/assets/files/recordings/audio-trans-104.pdf
  2. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/uss-liberty/assets/files/recordings/audio-trans-105.pdf
  3. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/uss-liberty/assets/files/recordings/audio-trans-130.pdf

There was one mistake after this; this was by the IDF torpedo boat. When the torpedo boats arrived, Commander Oren could see that the ship could not be the destroyer that had supposedly shelled Arish or any ship capable of 30 knots (56 km/h) speed. According to Michael Limor, an Israeli naval reservist serving on one of the torpedo boats, they attempted to contact the ship by heliograph and radio but received no response. At 6,000 meters (20,000 ft), T-204 paused and signalled “AA” – “identify yourself.” 

Due to damaged equipment, McGonagle could only reply with “AA” using a handheld Aldis lamp. Oren recalled receiving a similar response from the Ibrahim el Awal, an Egyptian destroyer captured by Israel during the Suez Crisis, and was convinced that he was facing an enemy ship, This is what I see as a mistake on the IDF, but in all fairness they did warn the US and every nation both by direct contact and by giving warnings over radio waves to stay out of the war zone any ship would be attacked, this was ignored by the USS liberty as shown by their GPS Coordinates. One of five torpedoes hit the USS Liberty; it struck in the place where most of the intelligence staff was killing 25, had the others struck the ship they would have most likely sunk the ship. 

The Torpedo boats did move in to strafe the ship; there is a dispute between Israeli accounts and American accounts that the ships were targetting repair parties, this is questionable due to none of the repair party was injured, there simply is not supporting evidence for this. 

What is found of interest is almost every book that has come out and said the attack on the USS Liberty was a deliberate attack, they are correct, but I have seen nothing to conclude that there was any knowledge that it was an American, this is further backed up by the NSA messages given above where the IDF command was talking to both the pilots to get an identification and the torpedo ship asking them to bring in a man thrown overboard from the ship to interrogate his origins. 

Further, the saying that the attacking pilots would have known is also dubious, first, flying in at 500 mph, with a possible return of fire you would not have time to look for a flag, further, if the flag was up, as is disputed, and there was calm seas, it is highly unlikely they could have identified a flag. There was the pilot that called off the attack on suspicions that it was an American ship, but there is nothing that showed it was anything but suspicion. 

Aftermath

After the attack and the ship moved to safety after the IDF was informed that they had attacked an American flag, the US and IDF each conducted own their investigations, for this article, since all that open for viewing is the American findings,  we will look to these. 

For the Israeli part they did release audio recordings so the US could conduct their investigation, these, in turn, matched up to the NSA intercepts. There were five major investigations; these were done with access to not only the ships records, the Israeli as well, but with interviews to the Captian, First Officers, the survivors manning the bridge and the men in CIC that would have had access to the sensors during the attack.

This data was not declassified until in part until after 2002,  when Captain Ward Boston, JAGC, U.S. Navy, senior counsel for the Court of Inquiry claimed the findings were biased to aid in covering up for the IDF’s attack, this prompted lawsuits that forced most of the material with redactions on some of the material due to still sensitive material, these started a couple of years, later. The IDF first  allowed their data to be viewed so they could tell their side of the story, after 2012 the US, in turn, released most of their material due to a challenge on the Freedom of Information Act, thus setting off a challenge to a host of books that were written from not long after the accidence to the early 2000’s, these books would not have had access to this material. 

There were five major findings, The Naval Board of Inquiry, the Joint Chiefs inquiry, the CIA.White House Special Counsel, the US Senate, the US House, along with this the NSA has released their findings and intel assessments of the attack.

Each of these was taken from the testimony by the captain, first officer, the officers on the Bridge, in CIC and electronic data collected during the attack, the findings are as follows: 

Each of the findings showed the same thing, in a fog of war mistakes were made on both sides, but at no time was the attack found to be intentionally carried out with the understanding that it was an American ship. In the fog of war things like this sadly do happen, in the first Iraq war we lost men and equipment that was accidentally fired on by allies during battle. While this does not make this any less horrific, it does at least give a reason for the mistakes, and there mistakes from both the American and the Israeli’s.

I must agree with the official findings that it was an accident. In the end, Israel correctly apologized to the US and the injured and families of the dead, then paid millions of dollars to both the injured and the families of the dead plus paid the US Navy for the damages to the ship.

I know not all will be satisfied with this, some could care less about facts, they look to anything, be it real or fiction, to give reason to their hatred and racism. When you deal with anything involving Israel this is how things are. For the ones seeking the truth I hope this aids in your quest, the ones who want to find fault regardless of the facts, you will have to look elsewhere, I am not going to support or feed your madness. 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Liberty_incident#CITEREFGerhardMillington1981 (pg 21)

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About The Author

Timothy Benton

Author has studied Middle East History for the last 35 years, am a lifetime student of history. Has an interest in sports, tech, history and political events. Works as a Republican political commentator who looks at events from a conservative's perspective.

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