The USS Liberty was a former merchant ship stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. Its sister ship, soon to become another infamous tragedy, was the USS Pueblo. Israel had begun to plan for war against a truculent Egypt and bellicose Syria early in 1967. On May 14, Soviet intelligence warned Cairo and Damascus that Israel was planning to invade them on May 17 using 13 brigades.
This report was a Russian fabrication given to Egyptian leader Nasser by the KGB in Cairo as a means of making him more dependent on Moscow. Egypt had signed defense pacts with Jordan and Baghdad. Jordan was a “friend” of America, its leader King Hussein was being paid $7 million per year by the CIA for “security,” according to a former CIA official. America wanted to keep that “friend” in the region.
On June 2, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt warned Nasser to expect an Israeli invasion in three days. Syria was jittery about the prospect of war, and Nasser, instead of striking first, decided it would be better public relations if Egypt and its allies were to be seen as a victims. But most of all, he wanted to avoid conflict and sent a peace mission to New York. Nasser had closed the Tiran Strait which leads from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Arabia and Eilat, but in New York offered to reopen it in return for a U.N. force. It was about this time that Israel decided on a Pearl Harbor style preemptive attack against him.
For years the CIA had tried to use covert operations to topple Nasser from power but no American administration wanted the Egyptian toppled by Israel. France was another strong opponent of Israel in the region and tried to warn it off of war. For its part, Moscow was urging Israel to back off, pledging that the Arab countries would rein in the Palestinians. Moscow did promise, however, to support any Arab countries that were attacked.
On June 5, the war began, and a key element of the Israeli plan was to lure Jordan, on false pretenses, into the war. This would allow Israel to seize East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights. After the fighting began, Washington urged restraint on Israel, asking for assurances that Egypt would be Tel Aviv’s only target, not Syria and certainly not Jordan. The United States also asked that in the event Jordan joined the war, there would be no attempt by Israel to occupy any Jordanian territory.
There was a viper in the Easter Basket, however. James Angleton (with whom I have spoken many times), was then the head of CIA covert operations and a friend of Israel. (It gave him his own cypress tree when he died.) He was the funnel through which U.S.-Israeli communications passed, and some U.S. spooks felt he was not to be trusted, and U.S. Navy officials quietly asked the National Security Agency to verify Israeli assurances by technical means.
The Liberty was part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Reconnaissance Command, and its crew of 19 officers and 395 men included 100 technicians, mainly Hebrew and Arabic speakers. The Liberty sailed from the west coast of Africa where it had been monitoring the outbreak of Nigeria’s civil war into the Mediterranean. Sailing 200 feet below it was the US Polaris ballistic missile submarine, the Andrew Jackson. The times couldn’t have been more tense, the stakes could not have been higher, and the Andrew Jackson was tasked with taking out any Israeli long range missile sites before the Soviets attempted to do so and produce the horrors of World War III.
The U.S. interceptors had a moment of sickening surprise when they discovered that Israel was intercepting Jordan’s radio traffic, doctoring it, and re-sending it to Amman. This was a vital and closely held Israeli secret. On June 7, the then Under Secretary of State Eugene Rostow met with Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Avarham Harman and told the Israeli that Tel Aviv must cease its invasion of Egypt and Jordan. Harman said that Israel was merely “resisting aggression,” but Rostow spat that the United States knew that Israel had lured Jordan into the war by means of fake reports of Egyptian victories.
Harman was deeply troubled by the meeting and phoned Israel in the middle of the night. Tel Aviv then issued orders for its aircraft to sink the U.S. communications ship, the Liberty.
The Liberty’s decoding equipment, computers, spectrum analyzers were all stored below the water line. The ship’s captain William McGonagle drove his ship over pre-planned routes and knew nothing of the content of NSA activities. On June 8, three Israeli French-made Mirage III fighters attacked with 72 rockets, napalm and machine guns. They wounded McGonagle and killed the chief NSA officer Allen Bloom. The attack was filmed in its entirety through the Andrew Jackson’s periscope.
When news of the attack reached Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered a counterstrike by U.S. A-4 Skyhawks on the Israeli MTB (Motorboat/Torpedo Base) at Haifa but the order was countermanded by President Johnson.
The battered Liberty with 34 dead and 171 wounded finally limped into Malta and the first Court of Inquiry was convened under Admiral Isaac Kidd in London The Israelis claimed that their forces had mistakenly thought the Liberty to be an Egyptian supply ship half its size. But in its final findings, another court, then headed by Admiral John S. McCain, U.S. Commander-in-Europe, rejected the Israeli explanation as preposterous. (Indeed, Israel apologized and that was accepted.) The Court said the Liberty had been attacked by “foreign boats and planes” but did not mention their nationality.
Former U.S. intelligence officials said later that the White House had not pressed Israel harder because Israel was party to several U.S. covert operations meant to oust Nasser of Egypt which Israel would release to the world, poisoning the American position in the Arab world. Apparently the threat worked.
Documents released in 1977 under the Freedom of Information Act show clearly that Israel knew the Liberty’s identity and that General Moshe Dyan ordered the sinking over the protest of close advisors. Other NSA intercepts, still classified, support this. As British statesman Lord Palmerston said, in foreign policy, “there are no friends, only interests.”
Nor was the Liberty incident, the last incident that displayed Israeli ruthlessness when it came to American lives. On Oct. 3, 1973 in what many called the Yom Kippur or Ramadan War, the Syrian’s were ;poised to recapture the Golan after an Israeli commander warned Defense Minister Dayan of the collapse of Israeli forces. Israel rushed to arm 13 Jericho intermediate range missiles armed with nuclear warheads. The arming took three days and six hours.
On Oct. 12, a U.S. Air Force SR-71 reconnaissance plane that could fly as fast as a rifle bullet, took off from the east coast of the United States. Over the Negev Desert, the Mach-3 Blackbird began to pick up signals indicating the nuclear arming of missiles. Out in the Mediterranean, an Israeli communications ship tracking all combatants suddenly received transmissions from two Israeli pilots done in Hebrew and in the clear. The Blackbird had been spotted. “Affirmative,” said one pilot. “I have it. It’s a Blackbird.” The controller replied, “Down it.” A US Navy E-2C Hawkeye flying off of Cyprus had warned the Blackbird which quickly popped up to 85,000 feet or double the altitude of the Israeli fighters.
Was it a bluff? Or were the Israelis in earnest. We don’t know but we can guess.