The Liberty Incident

Assault on the Liberty: The untold story from SIGINT

In June 1967, on the day of the Israeli surprise attack on its Arab neighbors, the USS Liberty was nearing her station in the waters off the coasts of Israel and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean. Five days before, the naval vessel had pulled into Port Rota, Spain, for technical support, replenishment, and embarkation of Arab linguists from NSA and NSG. During the port call, a number of CT personnel from NAVSECGRUDEPT Rota visited the ship. Some dependents including my six-year old son (years later to become a naval aviator) were given a tour of the ship. Little did I know, that a few days afterward I would fly over the ship in a VQ-2 EC121M aircraft as the Liberty was being attacked by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats on June 8.

On June 5, the Israelis began all-out attacks on her Arab neighbors in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Early that morning, our aircrew from VQ-2 and NAVSECGRUDEPT Rota received emergency tasking orders to proceed to the scene of hostilities in the Middle East. Within several hours of the tasking message, our VQ-2 EC121M was airborne en route to Athens, Greece, where we would stage missions into the East Med. Our logistical and SIGINT support would come from a temporary US Air Force base set up at the Athens airport. Although only the day before I had returned from TAD aboard a VQ-2 EA3B aircraft from the Norwegian Sea, and much to chagrin of my wife, I and four other CTIs were ordered to Athens aboard the EC121M. Nobody in our crew knew anything about the disposition of the USS Liberty, which had begun conducting SIGINT operations off the coast of Israel.

The usual complement of VQ aircrew members was on board our lumbering "Willy Victor." Although slow, it was capable of sustained flight of 12 to 18 hours, depending on such factors as weather, fuel, altitude, intercept activity, and crew fatigue. We might, for example, hold orbit during a mission for an extra period of time if SIGINT activity proved particularly fruitful.

Our aircraft crew consisted of the front-end crew of pilot (mission commander), co-pilot, navigator, engineer, and radio-operator. In those days, VQ-2 had no secure air-ground communication capability (this would come later in the early 1970s with KY8 and KW6 communication equipment). The back-end crew was made up of the Evaluator (senior ELINT officer), a junior ELINT officer or two, three or four AT (avionics technician) ELINT operators, and three CTT ELINT operators. A couple of aircraft maintenance technicians flew with us; they would maintain the aircraft and remain on the ground in Athens. In addition, we five "spook" linguists were from NAVSECGRUDEPT Rota to intercept VHF/UHF radio-telephone signals. As I remember, our spook crew consisted of me (a CTIC dual-trained in Russian-Hebrew languages and senior CT), two junior CTI petty officers trained in Hebrew ([deleted] and [deleted]), and two junior CTI petty officers trained in Arabic (I don't remember their names). When we took-off from Rota, we had no idea how long the deployment would last, so we packed for a long trip--30 days.

The transit flight to Athens from Rota took about eight hours. Most of the crew rested in the bunk beds in the rear of the aircraft and ate chow cooked in the plane's galley. Usually, the junior VQ-2 enlisted personnel were responsible for in-flight cooking duties. On occasion, we enjoyed hot, delicious chow. Other times we ate cold "horse-cock" sandwiches. Crew members took turns resting in the relief bunks.

In my usual workaholic fashion, as soon as we cleared Rota with "wheels in the well" and heading east over the Mediterranean, I pulled the security curtains around the spook intercept positions and turned on my receiving equipment. The security curtains ostensibly shielded our work from uncleared VQ crewmembers, of which there were always a few on board. Of course, these people had a pretty good idea what we were doing but such were the security regulations of that day. My intercept position consisted of one VHF receiver, one UHF/VHF receiver with a spectrum analyzer, and a four-track voice recorder. The other four COMINT positions were similarly outfitted with voice recorders and twin receivers; they, however, lacked spectrum analyzers. The spectrum analyzer gave me at the "supervisor's position" a visual view of radio activity in the form of "spikes" between 100-150 MHz and 200 and 500 MHz. It was a handy tool to spot new signals.

It was my habit to search for Russian voice activity anytime I was airborne with VQ-2. On this such flights, our tracks to Athens took us within VHF intercept range of several Russian naval anchorages but well outside range of radio activity from the Middle East. I worked virtually the entire flight and did manage to record several VHF voice signals from Russian vessels emanating from the Soviet Fifth Eskadra in their anchorages.

The usual operating procedure that we spooks adhered to included activating the recording system (four track tapes) with time dubs and frequency notations, while manually writing down gists of voice activity on logs, and notifying the Evaluator of what we were recording. The Evaluator in turn would direct his operators to conduct an ELINT search for corresponding radar activity. Reciprocally, ELINT might intercept a radar signal from an unfriendly target and tip us off to search for correlating voice activity. After a flight was over, the Evaluator and senior spook (others could be involved) would sit-down and compare notes for the fusion report, called the PMFR (post-mission flight report). The Evaluator was responsible for releasing this TOP SECRET Codeword message into the SPINTCOMM system after landing.

On this particular transit flight, our intercepts were sparse so that we decided not to issue a report. Also, on non-tasked transit flights such as this one, PMFRs were not required to be transmitted to our consumers: DIRNSA, COMSIXTHFLT, CINCUSNAVEUR, CIA, JCS, to name a few (the list of addresses was about one page long). PMFRs were sent by SPINTCOMM ordinarily at immediate precedence to action addressees and priority to information addressees.

Upon landing at the international airport in Athens late that afternoon and after servicing the aircraft for the next take-off, the majority of the crew boarded USAF transit buses to go to our "semi" contracted hotel, the Hotel Seville, in Iraklion, a suburb of Athens, not too far from the airport. We always stayed at the Hotel Seville; it was managed by a friendly Australian by the name of [deleted], along with a very friendly female, [deleted], a local Greek. The place was clean, fairly comfortable, with a kitchen and bar open virtually all the time. While the crew was getting settled in, we--the Evaluator, one or two VQ officers, and I--were still on the base, having made our way to the USA-512J compound to stow mission materials and receive an intelligence update from the US Air Force.

USA-512J was a US Air Force Security Service (AFSS) station set-up in 1966 in conjunction with DIRNSA on the Greek Air Force side of the Athens international airport to process, at least preliminarily, the SIGINT collected from USAF ACRP C130 and US Navy VQ-2 EC121M and EA3B aircraft operating in the East Med. The USA-512J site was a temporary facility consisting of a secure fenced-in compound patrolled by Security Police. Several special mobile vans were parked in the compound, including one for SPINTCOMM, one for maintenance, one for administration, and one or two for operations (voice transcription positions, an ELINT read-out position, and various research data banks and file cabinets). All vans were heated and air conditioned.

Our individual security clearances had been sent ahead of us via SPINTCOMM by our parent commands in Rota, giving SI cleared members of the aircrew immediate access to the compound and its facilities. The USA-512J briefers told us they did not know much about what was going on in the Middle East that day, except for what was being reported in the press. The ACRP platform had not returned yet from its Mideast mission that day. Later, we would find out that the ACRP brought back practically complete coverage of the Israelis attacks on June 5, although the Hebrew voice materials were not processed for another day or two. The ACRPs had no Hebrew linguists in those days, and a linguistic support team of NSA civilians would not to arrive for another 24 hours.

After completing business at the 512J compound, we too proceeded to the Hotel Seville, where we gathered our aircrew together, telling them in whispers what little we knew about the situation. We advised them to remain in the hotel in case we received emergency tasking. Actually, we expected to receive orders to fly the next day, but surprise, surprise! A phone tip to the Mission Commander told us we were to get airborne as soon as possible. We were in disbelief and mystified. Surely, our taskers did not expect us to fly into the combat zone in the dead of the night! Oh, but they did!

Within a few hours, we were airborne from Athens en route to the coasts of Egypt and Israel. The transit flight usually took about three hours to get to the track some 25-50 miles off the coasts. Egypt claimed territorial limits of 12 miles out to sea, while Israel claimed six miles, and we always remained well beyond those lines of demarcation. While in the past we had used several variations of a basic flight path over international waters, the normal track pattern consisted of a dogleg after we joined the track northeast of Alexandria, Egypt. We would then fly eastward off Port Said and the Sinai to a point north of El Arish, and then dogleg northeast along the Israeli coast to a point west of Beirut, Lebanon. The track was then reversed and repeated as needed for the duration of the 12 plus hour mission. Ordinarily we flew the tracks at altitudes ranging from 12,000 to 18,000 feet with the EC121M. The EA3B, which wasn't used too often on these East Med missions, flew considerably higher, above 30-35,000 feet. The track profile, paralleling the Egyptian and Israeli coasts although not terribly important for intercepting VHF/UHF voice activity, was very important to sorting out and locating Egyptian and Israeli radars in ELINT through ADF. In addition to regular ADF, the EC121M aircraft was equipped with a special piece of intercept equipment called "Big Look." With Big Look, it was possible to intercept, emulate, identify, and reverse-locate the source of radar signals. So a parallel track to the coasts was very advantageous.

En route to the track this night, our mission commander reassessed our situation in the dark as we headed toward the area of hostilities. I vividly recall this night being pitch black, no stars, no moon, no nothing. The mission commander considered the precariousness of our flight. He thought it more prudent to avoid the usual track. If we headed east off the coast of Egypt toward Israel, we would look on radar to the Israelis like an incoming attack aircraft from Egypt. Then assuming the Israelis did not attack us, when we reversed course, we would then appear on Egyptian radar like Israeli attack aircraft inbound. It, indeed, was a very dangerous and precarious situation.

But our mission commander had the good sense to adjust our flight into the combat zone. The new approach called for us to proceed between Crete and Cyprus and then fly diagonally toward El Arish in the Sinai along an established civilian air corridor. Upon reaching a point some 25 NM northeast of El Arish, we would reverse course and hold orbit wherever desired. This is the same southeasterly/northwesterly track that the ACRP C130s ordinarily flew, because the civilian air corridor at least partially masked the flights. While this diagonal track is not good for ELINT purposes and Big Look, it certainly appeared to be a lot safer than the dogleg along the coasts in the middle of the night. That was nuts!

When we arrived on station after midnight, needless to say the "pucker factor" was high; the crew was on high, nervous alert. Nobody slept in the relief bunks on that flight. The night remained pitch black. What in the devil were we doing out here in the middle of a war zone was a question I asked myself several times over and over during the flight. The adrenalin flowed.

As it turned out, though, the flight was uneventful, except for a few radio checks from the belligerents. The Israelis were home rearming and reloading for the next day's attacks, while the Arabs were bracing themselves for the next onslaught come daylight and contemplating some kind of counter-attack. Eerily, our COMINT AND ELINT positions were quiet.

As dawn broke, that changed; our receivers came alive with signals mostly from the Israelis as they began their second day of attacks. We spooks furiously gisted voice activity mostly from the Israeli pilots, while the Evaluator married up that activity with airborne radars intercepted from the ELINT positions. The Egyptians launched an abortive air attack on an advancing Israeli armored brigade in the northern Sinai but their aircraft were shot out of the sky by IAF Mirage aircraft. We monitored as much as we could but soon had to head for Athens because of low fuel. We were glad to get the heck out of there.

En route to Athens, the Evaluator and I wrote as much of the PMFR as we could, but some of our spook tapes required replaying at USA-512J. When we arrived in the compound, our tasking for next several days awaited us. Happily, the taskers realized we needed rest, and so our next flight would not be until the morning of June 7, followed by another morning flight on June 8. That was okay with us because the ACRP had already taken off to provide SIGINT coverage of June 6.

Other good news awaited us. We were informed that three civilian Hebrew linguists from DIRNSA were arriving to help process the Israeli intercept materials. USAFSS had many linguists for the ACRP flights at 512J, all qualified in Arabic and Russian languages, but not a single Hebrew linguist. As it turns out, the ACRPs were blindly copying any voice signal that sounded Hebrew. They were like vacuum cleaners, sucking every signal onto their recorders, with the intercept operators not having a clue as to what the activity represented. Much of the Israeli air activity always stood out like a sore thumb, though, compared to the Arabs. The Israeli aircraft used mostly UHF transceivers, while the Arabs only used VHF transceivers of Soviet origin.

Following a review of our tapes and confirming the shootdown of Egyptian Sukhoi-7 aircraft (this was the first time I ever heard a real, live shootdown), we released the PMFR and headed for the Hotel Seville and a well-deserved rest. We were all beat; it had been a long time since some of us last slept. I turned in right away but several of the VQ airedales, known for partying particularly after fate-tempting flights drank beer, rolled the dice for more beer, and pinched the hotel barmaids before finally collapsing for the night.

The next day, June 7, we launched about mid-morning so that we would have little overlap with the ACRP, which was on station at dawn. Our flight was filled with reams of intercept activity showing Israeli attacks on the Arabs all day long. In reality, I do not recall much of the nature of the attacks, except that we got reels and reels of tape showing Israeli tank attacks in the Sinai and air battles between Israeli Mirages and Egyptian Migs. I think we had intercepts of the Israelis doing battle with the Jordanians and Syrian as well. We returned to Athens after dusk.

On returning to the 512J compound to refine and release the PMFR, I recall the presence of the NSA civilians toiling away on the many backlogged tapes from our and ACRP flights. I recognized two of three civilians from earlier NSG and NSA duty assignments at Ft. Meade, Maryland. With the NSA civilians in place and the USAF Arab/Russian linguists and traffic analysts providing technical support, we would be able to take the guess work out of our work in the sky. They gave us callsigns, frequencies, unit identities, and other technical data to better cover the war with our intercept equipment.

On June 8, the day of the attack on the Liberty, our track profile was almost the same as our first flight in the night. We were "wheels in the well" from Athens about mid-morning, arriving on the track at noontime, flying from Crete/Cyprus diagonally to El Arish and reverse. When we arrived within intercept range of the battles already in progress, it was apparent that the Israelis were pounding the Syrians on the Golan Heights. Soon all our recorders were going full blast, with each position intercepting signals on both receivers. The Evaluator called out many airborne intercepts from Arab and Israeli aircraft. We were going crazy trying to cope with the heavy activity.

After a couple of hours of hard work, I received a heated call on the secure intercom from Hebrew linguist [deleted]. [deleted] excitedly proclaimed something to the effect, "Hey, Chief, I've got really odd activity on UHF. They mentioned an American flag. I don't know what's going on." I asked him for the frequency and rolled up to it. Sure, as the devil, Israeli aircraft were completing an attack on some object. I alerted the Eval, giving him sparse details, adding that we had no idea what was taking place. The activity subsided. After some time passed, Petty Officer [deleted] called me again. He told me about new activity and that the American flag is being mentioned again. I had the frequency but for some strange reason, despite seeing it on my spectrum analyzer, couldn't hear it on my receiver, so I left my position to join him to listen at his position. I heard a couple of references to the flag during an apparent attack. The attackers weren't aircraft; they had to be surface units (we later found out at USA-512J it was the Israeli motor torpedo boats attacking the Liberty). Neither [deleted] nor I had ever heard MTB attacks in voice before, so we had no idea what was occurring below us. I advised the Eval; he was as mystified as we were.

We continued recording voice activity for another two hours. All the while, the Israelis sustained their attacks on the Arab targets. Finally, it was time to return to Athens. We recorded voice activity en route home until the intercepts finally faded. On the way home, the Eval and I got together to try to figure out what we copied. Despite replaying portions of the tapes, we still did not have a complete understanding of what transpired except for the likelihood that a ship flying the American flag was being attacked by Israeli air and surface forces.

By the time we arrived at the USA-512J compound, collateral reports were coming in to the station about the attack on the USS Liberty. The first question we were asked us, did we get any of the activity? Yes, we dared to say we did. The NSA civilians took our tapes and began transcribing. It was pretty clear that Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats attacked a ship in the East Med. Although the attackers never gave a name or a hull number, the ship was identified as flying an American flag. We logically concluded that the ship was the USS Liberty, although we had no idea she was even in the area and could become the object of such an attack. Our intercepts further showed that perhaps the attack was a mistake.

We next deliberated on what to do with our information. Should we issue a CRITIC or simply put the information in our PMFR? After much deliberation, we decided against the CRITIC because our information was already hours old (to meet CRITIC criteria, information should be within 15 minutes of the event). Beside there was the question of VQ-2 properly introducing such a report into the CRITICOMM system, since there was neither national authority nor any precedent to do so. Instead, we finally issued the PMFR with appropriate highlighted information to all our addresses at either flash or immediate precedence. I don't recall.

It had been quite a day and other days remained before us. We returned to the Hotel Seville for rest and relaxation, feeling a sense of exhilaration but not comprehending the chaos and calamity taking place on the Liberty at that very moment as she struggled to leave the attack area.

The next morning, on June 9th, when we arrived at USA-512J for the pre-mission briefing we found out the NSA civilians had transcribed most of our intercept and were sending the raw information back to DIRNSA via SPINTCOMM. Later that day, the civilians were informed to pack up the tapes to be couriered to Ft. Meade as soon as possible. (This would be the last I would see the tapes and transcripts until I received orders to NSA over a year later, discussed below.)

The next East Med missions are now a blur in mind. I know we covered the remainder of the Six Day War, which ended on June 10, 1967. The Syrians retreated from the Golan Heights area; their military if not destroyed was seriously degraded. The Egyptians lost the Sinai while suffering severe losses of personnel and equipment. Perhaps the Jordanians lost the most to the Israelis. In addition to losing a significant amount of personnel and military gear, they had to cede Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Probably about two weeks after the Six Day War we were relieved by another aircrew from Rota. The NSA civilians remained in Athens for a couple of more weeks and then returned home to Ft. Meade.

While the Six Day War was by far the most memorable and exciting time of my tour of duty in Rota, I had other unforgettable flights aboard VQ-2 aircraft on numerous missions. On average VQ-2 would fly six to twelve missions per month against Israel and Arab Mid East targets, unless higher priority Soviet targets were the order of the day (e.g., Soviet Fleet Exercises in the Mediterranean or Norwegian Sea). There were many of those. By the time I left Rota in July 1968, I had accumulated over 2,000 hours in the air in VQ-2 aircraft.