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News :: International
Israeli Attack on U.S. Ship Reveals Failure
13 Mar 2004
Israeli Attack on U.S. Ship Reveals Failure

We are indebted to David Woo for sending the following article which vanished from our files long ago.
There is a story behind this article that is almost as interesting as the article itself.

The article was commissioned by Paul Backus, then the editor of The Journal of Electronic Defense, run by an organization called The Association of Old Crows. Editor Backus offered $700 to Ennes for the article, accepted the finished product, sent a check from the magazine, and proceeded toward publication.

To Backus's astonishment, the Board of Directors of the magazine, upon reviewing the final proofs for the magazine, found this article "too controversial" and ordered him to remove it. Backus said that this was the first time the magazine had ever reversed his choice of material for the magazine, and he was deeply affected. He felt this was a political decision, not an editorial one.

He promptly resigned, saying that he did not wish to be employed by a magazine that lacked the will or courage to print this article.

Soon I was contacted by editors of Defense Electronics Magazine, who had heard about the flap at the JED. They offered me the same fee, (another) $700.

Unlike JED, Defense Electronics Magazine did not lose its nerve. Their editors told me later that this proved to be one of their most popular articles. They subsequently reprinted it on heavy stock and sold several thousand copies at premium prices of around $4.00 each. I heard later that defense contractors all over the country had bought the article in quantity and redistributed it free to visitors and clients.

The article follows.


Defense Electronics, October 1981, p. 61


[Defense Electronics] Editor's Note: This article is printed by Defense Electronics as an example of a direct attack on U.S. forces by a nation that has access to advanced western military equipment, and which is an ally. In light of the Libyan-U.S. air clash in August and the loss of advanced equipment in Iran, the danger of western technology being used against U.S. forces by a hostile Third World nation is apparent. This article is presented in unabridged form and represents only the views of its author.


Israeli Attack on U.S. Ship Reveals Failure of C3


Fourteen years ago, the USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli warplanes and ships, resulting in the deaths of 34 Americans and the wounding of 171 others. The attack lasted 2 and 1/2 hours and ended the Navy's program of dedicated electronic intelligence collection ships.


By James M. Ennes, Jr., Deck Officer of the USS Liberty
Fourteen years ago, one of the most serious peacetime American naval disasters occurred, and perhaps the most serious since the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898. But while every bright schoolchild remembers some details of the explosion that led to the Spanish-American War, hardly anyone can recall the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, which cost the lives of 34 Americans, wounded 171 others, and brought a premature end to the Navy's program of dedicated electronic intelligence collection ships.

The attack on the USS Liberty by Israeli forces on the forth day of the Arab- Israeli Six Day War is not widely known because the facts are politically and diplomatically awkward. The truth about the attack includes evidence that this was a planned, carefully coordinated and deliberate attack by a friendly power upon a known American naval vessel, and a botched exercise of Command, Control and Communications. But such knowledge is politically unwelcome in the United States, so the facts about the attack were withheld from the American people.

In 1967, the US Navy operated a worldwide collection of ships under tasking from the Department of Defense. These ships consisted of United States Ships Oxford, Georgetown, and Jamestown, which operated on converted Liberty hulls; Belmont and Liberty, on Victory hulls; Banner, Pueblo, and Palm Beach, on converted 180-foot AKL hulls; and civilian-manned United States Naval Ships Private Jose E. Valdez and Sergeant Joseph P. Muller, on converted 338-foot T-AG hulls.

In May 1967, as tension built rapidly toward what would soon become the "Six Day War," USS Liberty was diverted from her usual patrol area on the west coast of Africa to patrol a section of the Gaza Strip in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The trip required 16 days of hard steaming, and when Liberty arrived at her assigned station, the war was four days old and almost over.

I was Liberty's electronic materials officer. A 34-year-old former enlisted man, I took special pride in my Navy commission, my lieutenant's rank, and my specialty in cryptology. I was soon to be assigned officer of the deck for a special sea detail and general quarters. And as the ship arrived on station 13 miles from the Israeli and Egyptian coasts, I was to be officer of the deck for the forenoon watch.

Throughout the Night The ship had been reconnoitered throughout the night by Israeli military aircraft. Well before midnight, Liberty's cryptologic operators had detected fire control radar directed steadily against the ship by orbiting Israeli aircraft. But the supervisor on duty refused to believe the Israeli forces would direct fire control radar at an American ship, and so he insisted that the operators must have misunderstood the signal. The signal went unreported.

0700 Hours

At about 0700, as I relieved the watch on the bridge, I was told that a "flying boxcar," later identified as an Israeli Nord 2501 Noratlas reconnaissance aircraft, had circled the ship from a distance at sunrise. I checked our colors, found them dirty and ragged after several days of high-speed steaming and ordered them replaced. Two extra lookouts were stationed above the bridge, and I ordered them to keep an eye on the flag to assure that it never fouled.

0900 Hours

At 0900, the ship reached point "alfa," the northernmost point of our assigned patrol track. I turned south and slowed down to five knots, and at that moment we were reconnoitered by a single jet aircraft. I immediately checked our flag and saw it clearly displayed in a good breeze. We were headed almost directly into a four-knot wind, giving us nine knots over the decks, which was more than enough to hold the flag aloft. For the next several hours, the wind increased steadily, reaching 12 knots over the deck before the ship came under attack.

1000 Hours

At about 1000, the ship was circled three times at low level by two armed Israeli Mirage jets, each carrying 18 rockets under each wing. One of the pilots was heard reporting by radio to Israeli headquarters that we were flying an American flag, but this was no news to the Israeli war room. Duty officers in the war room had identified the ship long before and had plotted her track on a large wall chart, along with her name, her top speed, and a reference to her intelligence mission. And according to several reports, Israelis immediate reaction to the ship's presence was to complain bitterly to the United States via the Central Intelligence Agency, demanding that the ship be moved.

The United States made several serious, almost frantic attempts to move the ship. As Liberty approached Gaza, the Joint Chiefs of Staff first sent a priority message ordering that the ship move 20 miles from the coast; the message was swamped by higher precedence traffic and was not processed until long after the crisis had ended. Hours later, a JCS duty officer phoned naval headquarters in London to relay an urgent JCS order to move the ship 100 miles from the coast; the telephone call was ignored, and Liberty's copy of a confirming message was misrouted to the Philippines before being returned to the Pentagon, where it was again misrouted, this time to Fort Meade in Maryland, where it was lost.

Eventually, at least six critical messages were lost, delayed, or otherwise mishandled. Any one of those messages might have saved Liberty. None reached the ship.

During the next four hours, the ship was visited five more times by Israeli reconnaissance aircraft, usually flying at very low level, and always close enough that I could readily see the pilot. On one occasion, the captain was on the bridge when the Noratlas approached at masthead level, causing him to warn me of a possible bombing run; the aircraft passed overhead at such low level that the deck plating shuddered.

The continued close surveillance was reassuring. Israel was an ally and, although several Arab states were then hostile toward the United States, Israel clearly dominated the sky, and were comforted to be watched so closely, as this seemed to assure that there could be no mistakes.

1400 Hours

After being relieved of the watch at noon, I spent most of the noon hour on the bridge preparing for a general quarters drill scheduled for 1300. Finally, at 1400, all drills and bridge duties were completed, and I was preparing to go below after nearly seven hours on the bridge when three aircraft and three high-speed surface craft were simultaneously picked up on radar, all approaching the ship from the starboard quarter.

Moments later, the ship came under severe and continuous attack, first by Israeli Mirage jets that momentarily knocked out our puny 50-caliber machine guns and disabled all radio antennas, then by slower Israeli Mystere jets, which plastered the stack, gun mounts, open bridge, and superstructure with an inferno of napalm.

When technicians jury-rigged an antenna in order to call for help, radiomen found the frequencies blocked by buzz saw signals from the jets. Radiomen worked on their hands and knees and held microphones close to the deck to escape smoke and heat from fires nearby, and in less than nine minutes, they broke through the jamming. The carrier Saratoga, operating about 500 miles away with the Sixth Fleet near Crete, was first to answer.

On the bridge of the Saratoga, Captain Joseph Tully promptly turned his ship into the wind and relayed Liberty's message to the Sixth Fleet commander, Vice Admiral William Martin, who was on the bridge of his flagship conducting maneuvering exercises. Because of the emergency, Captain Tully addressed the message directly to Admiral Martin with his personal callsign on the Primary Tactical Maneuvering Circuit (PRI-TAC) and then he duplicated the transmission by teletype and flashing light with information copies to naval headquarters in Washington and London.

Admiral Martin immediately directed carriers Saratoga and America to launch aircraft to defend Liberty, but when the launch orders were executed, only Saratoga launched. Except for some F-4 Phantoms that were eventually sent up to defend the fleet, America did not respond. She had, according to some reports, been authorized to relax from an alert position that was imposed on much of the rest of the fleet. (The aircraft America did launch for air defense were thought by some to have been armed with nuclear weapons, since it was widely known that nuclear-armed weapons were in alert status, but it is now clear no such aircraft were launched.)

Captain Tully sent a flashing light query to Captain Donald Engen on the America, and got no reply. Moments later Saratoga's aircraft were recalled without explanation by Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis, who commanded the carrier task force.

America, which had no appropriate conventional armament in position, started bringing up weapons from below decks, while Saratoga, which _was_ prepared to defend the Liberty, was required to wait - apparently for White House permission.

Meanwhile, unobstructed by Sixth Fleet air power, the three Israeli torpedo boats arrived on schedule to finish the job. The target was already in flames after 25 to 30 minutes of aerial strafing and napalm bombardment by perhaps a dozen aircraft.

The boats approached at high speed and fired torpedos from 2,000 yards but, owing to a near collision between two boats at the moment of firing, the first shots went wild. One torpedo passed safely astern, where it missed by a bare 25 yards. Another passed so close ahead of the ship that it vanished under the point on the bow. "sounding like a motorboat" to Petty Officer Rick Aimetti, who stood, astonished, on the forecastle. And one torpedo made a direct hit on the ship's cryptologic spaces, where it killed 25 men and momentarily trapped at least 50 more in the flooded compartment.

1515 Hours

When Liberty miraculously remained afloat with a 40-foot hole in her belly, the torpedomen methodically machine-gunned exposed fire fighters and medical personnel for much of the next 40 minutes while watching the ship sink lower in the water. Finally, at 1515, after word came from the bridge to prepare to abandon ship, Liberty crewmen launched three rubber rafts and tied them astern. The torpedomen machine-gunned the empty rafts, plucked one out of the water, and set a course for their base at Ashdod.

Liberty was alone, in flames, dead in the water, and sinking. Her radios were dead. Thirty-four men were dead or dying and 171 more were wounded. There was no sign of the Sixth Fleet, which only three days before had refused the ship's request for a destroyer escort and had promised to have air support overhead within ten minutes of any emergency.

1545 Hours

At 1545, the Sixth Fleet, having received Liberty's call for help 96 minutes earlier, finally launched White House-authorized aircraft in Liberty's defense, advised pilots of their authority to use lethal force, and filled the airwaves with plain language traffic supporting and describing the mission. Almost instantly, the Israeli government summoned the U.S. Naval Attache to the foreign liaison office to report that Israeli forces had "erroneously attacked a U.S. ship" and to offer "abject apologies."

1632 Hours

At 1632, the torpedo boats returned to Liberty to ask: "Do you need help?" The reply from the bridge was obscene. The attack, after more than two-and-one-half hours, was over.

Coverup Begins

The coverup began a few hours later.

First, the Secretary of Defense directed that only his office could release information about the attack. The order was repeated, paraphrased, and reinforced throughout the chain of command. Soon, Liberty sailors were reminded daily that they could say nothing about the attack, not even to members of their own families. A court of inquiry was to be held, the men were told, and nothing could be said until the court had completed its work.

The court held hearings aboard the ship during emergency repair work at Malta, but the hearings were limited and some of the most important witnesses were not called at all. Lookouts who might have described pre-attack reconnaissance were not asked to testify. My own sworn statement as officer-of-the-deck was read in court, but inexplicably failed to find its way into the transcript. Deck logs for my watch were rewritten in my absence and without my knowledge, and without reference to the reconnaissance noted during my watch. Quartermaster's Notebook entries during the reconnaissance period were not filed with the record of the court. Photographs of reconnaissance aircraft and the ship's freely flying flag were presented to the court but not filed in the record of the court.

Despite the oversights, however, an abundance of evidence did find its way into the record, although the record is such a jumble that expert knowledge and deep study is needed to make sense out of it. The record reflects reports from several officers and senior crewmen who told the court of extensive, low-level reconnaissance and described the ship's flag flying freely in a good breeze in plain sight of low-flying aircraft; the record includes descriptions of an extended, carefully coordinated attack that can only have been planned in advance; it includes reports of sophisticated jamming, which was limited to the frequencies needed to summon help. The record also includes a report of an Israeli excuse for the attack, which is so unlikely as to discredit even further any claim that the attack was a mistake.

Unfortunately, none of that evidence found its way to the American public; it was classified Top Secret and locked away from the prying eye of the press. Instead, almost the only material declassified and released was that which supported the official claim that the attack was a mistake - the rest remained locked up in the top secret vault of the Navy Judge Advocate General.

Meanwhile, our government complained bitterly, but privately, to Israel that Liberty _was_ identified before the attack, and characterized the affair officially as a "quite literally incomprehensible attack [which] must be condemned as an act of military recklessness reflecting the wanton disregard of human life." Such candor, however, was only for diplomatic channels. Publicly, the Johnson administration supported the premise that the attack was brief, spontaneous, casual and erroneous.

Instead of describing repeated reconnaissance flights as low as 200 feet directly overhead, the U.S. government reported publicly that the attack was an understandable case of mistaken identity, which was preceded by only three very distant and rather casual reconnaissance flights. The Johnson administration ignored the ship's logs and testimony of ship's officers and reported that the faulty identification was understandable because the flag hung limp at the mast on a windless day, despite evidence of a 12-knot wind. Instead of describing a prolonged and carefully coordinated attack in which the ship was under heavy fire for 75 minutes and calling desperately for help for another 75 minutes, the U.S. government reported that the air attack lasted only six minutes and that all firing ended when the torpedo boats drew close enough to see our flag. Our government repeated Israel's claim that the ship was mistaken for the Egyptian freighter El Quseir, but failed to note that El Quseir was a 40-year old cattle boat, then moored at Alexandria, in poor shape, soon to be sold for scrap, probably incapable of leaving her pier, and a most improbable candidate for a Liberty-look-alike.

Crew's Speech Was Restricted The Liberty crew had been told early in the coverup that they would be free to talk to the press once the court of inquiry report was declassified and released. But it was not to be. The long-awaited freedom to speak was fraught with so many restrictions as to be no freedom at all. Men were told that they could say _only_ what had been said by the court of inquiry and that they must use exactly the same words that the court has used. "Therefore," men were told in the ship's Plan-of-the-Day and in warnings read to them at morning quarters, "there is nothing new that we would be able to tell them in an interview."

The fact that the radios were jammed, that napalm was used, that life rafts were shot up in the water, that American forces failed to arrive during a 2 and 1/2 hour ordeal, or that most of the crew considered the attack deliberate, were all among details omitted from our government's published version of the court of inquiry report, so those matters were not discussed.

Such orders, I believe, were an overreaction to any legitimate concern for security, and perhaps they were not even legal orders, but they served to intimidate the crew, keeping the story under wraps for many years.

What has been the cost of the Liberty coverup?

One obvious cost has been a deeply shaken faith among the many who know the truth. Some Liberty survivors have told me that they abandoned a Navy career because of their dismay over the attack; a Liberty officer told me that he would not want his son to serve in the military because he no longer feels confident that our country will support its forces in combat.

But more important are the lessons that have not been learned. Seven months after the Liberty attack, Commander Lloyd Bucher sailed the USS Pueblo from Japan toward North Korea on an intelligence mission quite similar to Liberty's. Commander Bucher was refused gunfire training for his gun crews, he was limited to 100 rounds of ammunition for each of his puny deck-mounted machine guns, was he was required by his seniors to wrap his guns in canvas "so as not to appear hostile." Like Liberty, he was assured that "in the unlikely event" he got in trouble, friendly aircraft would be overhead in minutes. When he did get into trouble, the fighter cover failed to arrive - just as with Liberty.

Commander Bucher now believes that, had the full story of the Liberty attack been known to the planners and commanders involved with the Pueblo, the Pueblo tragedy might have ended quite differently. Instead, the Pueblo was attacked and captured under circumstances very similar to those seen so recently in the Liberty attack, and the American military response was the same: no visible reaction at all.

Behind-the-Scene Efforts

Even before the Pueblo capture, the government took some behind-the-scene steps to protect the intelligence ships: those operating in particularly dangerous waters such as USNS Sergeant Muller near Cuba, were given destroyer escorts. Some consideration was given to flying oversize flags or painting the American flag on the ships' decks. When it became clear that adequate protection would add tremendously to an already expensive operation, the ships were removed from service and the technical research ship program was dismantled.

Loss of this nation's fleet of dedicated intelligence collecting ships was deeply felt in the intelligence community. No other platform can quite do the same job. Clearly, other sensors are available, but no other platform can put 300 or more men within a few miles of an emitter for days or even weeks at a time, complete with many thousands of pounds of support equipment, and all with limitless technical resources instantly available by radio from home.

So when the ships were lost, with them went much of their unique intelligence- gathering capability. Important among the abilities lost - beyond direct support to local commanders and SIGINT support to national authorities - was the ships' capacity to locate, collect and report sophisticated foreign electromagnetic signals for addition to the national data base of known characteristics of electronic emitters, where the knowledge could aid in the development of electronic warfare countermeasures.

While other platforms can do much of this work, probably no other vehicle can do it as well, certainly no other sensor can cover a target as thoroughly. The extent of the loss may not be known until some distant commander is suddenly faced by a new and unknown electronic threat for which he has no effective defense.

Military Review, in a recent review of Assault on the Liberty, aptly noted that "in its vital national interest, a state must, on occasion, be brutal..." Perhaps that, too, is a lesson to be learned from the Liberty affair: the lesson that a state, no matter how seemingly friendly toward the United States, is, above all, a sovereign, independent, self-interested nation and will put its own national interests first if forced to make a choice; that we cannot depend on the forbearance of a friendly state when that state perceives that we are doing something unfriendly, such as observing its secret war preparations from a neutral position; and that, if we do, we should be prepared to defend the observers.

But because the friendly nation in this case is Israel, and because the nation of Israel is widely, passionately, and expensively supported in the United States, and perhaps also because a proper inquiry would reveal a humiliating failure of Command, Control and Communications, an adequate investigation of the attack on the USS Liberty has yet to become politically palatable.

And so the lessons of warfare, diplomacy, politics, and history remain unlearned.
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Re: Israeli Attack on U.S. Ship Reveals Failure
13 Mar 2004
after 14 years of non stop crap ... I cant stop yawning at this crap!
You DON'T want this "investigated"
14 Mar 2004
Since people are pretending not to understand what happened, I'm going to spell it out.

The US Navy denied the ship. The ship PROBABLY disobeyed orders by calling for help (yes, even though US lives were at stake) and THAT is why no help was sent. Remember the later USS Peublo incident when there was even talk of court matialling the captain for not scuttling to prevent capture/identification? You think the USS Liberty wasn't under similar orders? That US Naval surveilance ships weren't under "security" orders NOT to disclose their identity?

Who were the Israelis SUPPOSED to believe? The ship, it's markings and flags? Or the US Navy liason telling the Israelis "What ship? We don't have any ship there. it' not OUR ship?".

OK --- obviously the "disaster" was caused by somebody not realizing that this was one of those situations where maybe it was an emergency calling for heroically disobeying orders. But you usually DON'T get a "full investigation" (not a PUBLIC one) in a situation like this because the military has a "rule" not to EVER "punish" somebody for following written orders regardless of "bad outcome" -- >

BTW --- this isn't even close to the worst US naval disaster caused by "security orders" which were perhaps less than intelligent. The worst was when the USS Indianopolis went down maintaining strict radio silence as ordered . But you need to understand something -- a man-o-war goes in harms way, and in terms of the mission the ship was expendable as long as the A-bombs were successfully delivered.