A half-century ago, Israel attacked the USS Liberty, killing 34 Americans – an incident still shrouded in mystery
June 8, 1967 was the worst day in the history of the National Security Agency. On that date, Israeli airplanes and torpedo boats mauled and nearly sank an American spy ship in international waters, killing or maiming most of its crew. This tragedy appears as a footnote to Israelis, an unpleasant sideshow of their victorious Six Day War, while official Washington preferred the embarrassing episode be forgotten. But NSA has never let the Liberty and her ill-fated crew disappear from memory altogether.
The USS Liberty was owned and operated by the U.S. Navy, which euphemistically referred to her as one of its Technical Research Ships, but she really worked for NSA. A converted World War Two freighter, the Liberty was barely a warship, possessing minimal armament for self-defense, and her mission was very hush-hush. She sailed the world collecting signals intelligence on behalf of her bosses at Fort Meade, Maryland. Her hull contained a large top-secret room where sailors of the Naval Security Group, NSA’s Navy component, intercepted and translated foreign communications.
In the mid-1960s, the Liberty sailed from crisis to crisis, wherever NSA needed her on station to collect SIGINT, and the beginning of June 1967 found her off the coast of west Africa. However, the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East required her dispatch to the eastern Mediterranean, where war was about to break out again between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
On the fateful morning of June 8, the Liberty was sailing almost 30 miles north of the Sinai Peninsula, a war zone. By this point, the Six Day War’s fourth day, Israel was well on its way to defeating the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, an epic victory that changed the map of the Middle East. The Liberty was in position to monitor possible Soviet movements, since there was concern in Washington that Moscow might come to the aid of its humiliated Egyptian client. The Cold War was still very real and as a result most of the Naval Security Group linguists aboard were specialists in Russian and Arabic, not Hebrew.
A half-century on, considerable debate persists about what really happened to the Liberty on June 8, but the essential facts not in dispute are these. Throughout the morning, several Israeli warplanes individually approached the U.S. Navy vessel, in some cases circling above the Liberty, in an apparent reconnaissance effort. Just before 2 p.m., two Israeli Air Force Mirage fighter jets raked Liberty’s decks with cannon fire. They were soon joined by three Israeli Mystère attack jets which executed multiple attack runs on the American ship, offering cannon blasts, rocket fire, and even napalm. The jets made repeated low-level attacks on the nearly defenseless Liberty for about 20 minutes. By the time they ceased, Liberty’s radars and communications gear were destroyed, nine Americans were dead or dying, and dozens more were wounded.
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