The Liberty Incident

Cover-up conundrum, Who was responsible, Why VQ flight never divulged

In his book, Ennes discusses the initial struggle US government officials faced trying to rationalize the presence of the USS Liberty off the coasts of Israel and Egypt following the attack (pp. 125-126). Should the US admit that the Liberty was an intelligence-gathering ship sent to eavesdrop on radio conversations? Surely, the countries would be offended. So to stall for time until there was forthcoming clarification about the attacks, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Pentagon issued a press release confirming Liberty was in the East Med and the target of an erroneous attack admitted by the Israelis. The press release informed (falsely) that the mission of the Liberty was to "assure communications between U.S. Government posts in the Middle East and to assist in relaying information concerning the evacuation of American dependents and other American citizens from the countries in the Middle East."

US Navy commands subsequently issued their own conflicting versions of the Liberty's presence, some true, some false. One officer on board the USS America stated (accurately), "...[the Liberty] was there to spy for us. Russia does the same thing. We moved in close to monitor the communications of both Egypt and Israel. We have to. We must be informed of what's going on in a matter of seconds." Vice Admiral Martin, COMSIXTHFLT, said (falsely), "I emphatically deny she was a spy ship" (p. 130).

Two days after the attack on June 10, US military officials in the Pentagon, quoted in a UPI wire-service story, said they were satisfied the Israeli attack on the Liberty was a tragic mistake of warfare. Due to security constraints, the story did not divulge the source of the confirmation. By this time, NSA (and others) would have received our PMFR and the field reports from the NSA civilians in Athens. NSA was also trying to rationalize why the Liberty was there in the first place. In their report, Walter Deeley, Frank Raven, Jane Brewer, and two Navy officers gave the technical reasons for sending the Liberty to the East Med. One reason was to provide VHF and UHF communication coverage (p. 132).

Mr. Ennes appears to bask in the (inaccurate) report of the Shreveport Times editorial some weeks after the incident, that the Liberty was attacked to stop her from exposing Israeli preparations for the Syrian invasion (pp. 142-143). Mr. Ennes, of course, knew the Liberty had no such capability; she had no Hebrew linguists. In addition, Mr. Ennes places credence in a report that the Naval Court of Inquiry received during the time the court was in session (p. 152). Admiral Kidd, the senior Court Officer, stated he received a Top Secret report that showed Israeli aircraft identifying a ship displaying an American flag. I will believe that the source was possibly our VQ-2 platform.

About a submarine in the area Mr. Ennes and other members of the crew believe that a US sub was in the area, recording and photographing all events (pp. 64, 206, 218). While I cannot discount this possibility, I can eliminate the mystery submarine being the USS Amberjack, operating in the East Med at that time. A colleague of mine on TAD from Rota, [deleted] was aboard the Amberjack. He stated to me on several occasions the sub was not his unit, as they operated in the Alexandria area during the Liberty attack. (Note: On a USS Liberty's webpage ( a suggestion is made that the submarine was possibly the Amberjack.)

In several passages of his book Mr. Ennes says the Israelis must have known of the identity and presence of the intelligence-gathering Liberty. He credits the Israelis with having one of the best intelligence services in the world (p. 211). If that is correct, why didn't the Israelis know that the Liberty had no capability against Israeli targets? With no linguistic capability, the ship could not possibly discredit an Israeli concocted story of self-defense or a scheduled surprise attack on Syria on June 8 (delayed 24 hours because of the Liberty's presence, according to Mr. Ennes' supposition). Moreover, as we know, NSG and NSA linguists were embarked in Rota. According to Mr. Ennes' logic, the Israeli intelligence service surely knew of the identity of these linguists who were only Arabic-qualified. I think Mr. Ennes gives too much credit to Israeli intelligence and has little understanding of the complexity of intelligence systems supporting tactical forces.

On another Liberty webpage (, Mr. Ennes boldly proclaims in "Assault on the Liberty: A summary" that "The [Israeli] reconnaissance pilots were heard by intercept operators in Germany and in Lebanon reporting to their headquarters that they could see an American flag and men sunbathing on deck." I challenge this statement. VHF and UHF communications are normally limited to short range. It is rare these communications can be intercepted by ground stations more than 100 miles from the source. My personal experience, for instance, aboard the USS Little Rock in 1966, when [deleted], [deleted] and I conducted hearability tests from the Little Rock during a voyage from Beirut, Lebanon across the East Med (close to Cyprus) suggests the improbability of VHF/UHF intercept from Lebanon, much less Germany. From Beirut to the location of the Liberty, it is over 200 miles, about the limit of airborne (e.g., VQ, ACRP) intercepts (and this was before the days of satellite intercepts).

So finally remains the real question: who was at fault for the Liberty incident? At the risk of sounding pretentious and arrogant, I want to offer my views about where to put the onus. I consider several key players: NSA, Pentagon, Naval Commanders, Liberty's CO, NSG officers, the Israelis, all with some manner of culpability.

But who was most responsible? At the risk of being despised by the Liberty crew, I can overlook the Israelis for their part. The young sabras were determined to save a fragile nation in a time of war. Complicating matters for them, they possessed imperfect intelligence information on this mystery ship in their waters.

Second, NSA, Pentagon, and U.S. Navy and Theater Commanders (including LANFLT, NAVEUR, and SIXTHFLT) all shared much responsibility. After all, it was they who put the ship in harm's way. But, after sending the ship's tasking and attempting to move the ship away from the battle zone, their ability to control the ship was limited by an inefficient communication system that plagued this era of the Cold War. These were the days before the advent of efficient communications systems with computers and satellites. Anyone who had spent any time in a Comm Center (General Service or SPINTCOMM) was aware of gigantic problems in these facilities, especially the relay centers on which the Liberty relied for the bulk of her communications support. The problems of sending key messages to the Liberty by naval authorities (see Appendix A, pp. 225-233 and Appendix N, pp. 269-275) were also compound by an inoperative Liberty TRSSCOMM system (which seemed to be down much of the time).

Third, Mr. Ennes and his CT crew must bear some responsibility. Had they spent some time in Division 333 (NAVSECGRUDEPT Rota) with division head, [deleted], during the Rota port call, they might have been aware of the VQ and ACRP missions in the East Med. While their Rota indoctrination may not have done any good in the end, Mr. Ennes and crew might have better advised the CO on the unfolding dangerous events.

Finally, having said the above, it leaves only one real responsible person: the CO, Captain McGonagle. In the Navy, every CO and commander of a naval unit understands responsibility for the safety of personnel and equipment entrusted to him. If not explicit, it is implicitly understood. Captain McGonagle failed in this responsibility. If, for example, he had acted like our VQ-2 mission commander who instinctively changed our track on that June 5/6 night flight, Captain McGonagle might have averted the tragedy by altering the ship's track on his own initiative. Moreover, the captain failed to take into account a key failing of human behavior in dealing with seniors, which simply goes like this: "out of sight, out of mind." Translated, this axiom means when the task begins military commanders are invariably on their own. Indeed, Captain McGonagle alone was ultimately responsible for the safety of his ship and crew.

Now, returning to the last issue at hand: why for 33 years--until now did the VQ-2 flight remain unknown to the American public? I have no idea. I suppose it was due to a myriad of circumstances including national security considerations. It could be because of the reluctance of government officials to acknowledge US airborne platforms eavesdropping on comrades, especially a friend like Israel. Or, it could be due to an incomplete inquiry. Jim Ennes talks about the post facto investigation on pages 163 and 215. The investigators did not enjoy all the facts. He states the Department of Defense, under Walter Deeley, conducted a full-blown investigation into the incident, with the DOD and JCS even sending a Major General to head-up a fact-finding team in the Mediterranean. Their job was for an on-the-spot inquiry, including a review of the mishandled of communications. Why didn't the investigative team pursue me and my colleagues at NAVSECGRUDEPT Rota and VQ2? Ennes also stated the Liberty's Lieutenant Bennett was subsequently assigned to NSA, where he tried to gain access to CIA files (there is no mention of NSA files or the tapes). Why didn't LT Bennett contact G6, especially [deleted] and his Hebrew linguists in the Israeli military section in G643?

On a last note, like Mr. Ennes, who writes his book because the story "cries out to be told" and because he feels he is uniquely qualified to tell all, I too feel qualified with a story to be told. Unfortunately our stories contradict. While Mr. Ennes and the Liberty crew had the misfortune of enduring the consequences of the attack, they did not know their attackers. I did.