It was 08 June 1967.
Shoot first isn’t just an American motto.
The USS Liberty was a non-combat ship armed only with four .50-caliber machine guns for repelling boarders. She was an “intelligence collection” ship, but that fact was classified. Her official designation: general purpose auxiliary technical research ship (AGTR) which was “freshly painted on each side at bow and stern.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson had “cautioned” both Israel and Egypt “against firing the first shot.” Nevertheless, on 05 June 1967, the Israel Defense Forces began a “coordinated aerial attack on Egypt.” Israel launched 200 aircraft that bombed 18 airfields and “eliminated [about] 90 percent of the Egyptian air force.”
On day three of what we now know as the Six-Day War, Israel attacked Liberty by both air and sea: three fighter jets and three torpedo boats. Liberty did not receive help from the US military until the next day.
There were 294 crew; 34 Americans were killed and 171 were wounded in the two-hour attack. One NSA civilian died. Most casualties occurred when the ship was attacked by sea.
A day of controversy
On 10 June 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote the Israeli Ambassador (emphasis added):
Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that the U.S.S. Liberty was or should have been identified, or at least her nationality determined, prior to the attack. In these circumstances, the later military attack by Israeli aircraft on the U.S.S. Liberty is quite literally incomprehensible. As a minimum, the attack must be condemned as an act of military irresponsibility reflecting reckless disregard for human life.
The subsequent attack by Israeli torpedo boats, substantially after the vessel was or should have been identified by Israeli military forces, manifests the same reckless disregard for human life. The silhouette and conduct of the U.S.S. Liberty readily distinguished it from any vessel that could have been considered as hostile. The U.S.S. Liberty was peacefully engaged, posed no threat whatsoever to the torpedo boats, and obviously carried no armament affording it a combat capability. It could and should have been scrutinized visually at close range before torpedoes were fired.
An Israeli plane spotted Liberty at 0558 on 08 June 1967, a clear day.
Liberty was then plotted as a neutral on the situation board at Israeli naval headquarters in Haifa… the fact that a U.S. ship was out there did not survive an 1100 watch turnover (following an investigation and “pre-trial hearing” the responsible watch officer was not referred to trial).
The ship was in international waters, about 14 nautical miles off the coast. Then Israeli forces reported that they were being “shelled from the sea.”
Liberty was heading westerly in the general direction of Port Said, held by the Egyptians, at a slow speed under 15 knots… the combat information center (CIC) officer on the command MTB erroneously calculated Liberty’s speed as 30 knots. By Israeli SOP, an unidentified ship transiting at greater than 20 knots was presumed to be a warship and could be attacked.
USS Liberty’s mission was to collect intelligence on activity along the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Its profile made that clear:
An Israeli military court of inquiry later acknowledged that their naval headquarters knew at least three hours before the attack that the odd-looking ship 13 miles off the Sinai Peninsula, sprouting more than 40 antennas capable of receiving every kind of radio transmission, was “an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy,” a floating electronic vacuum cleaner.
At the time, the Johnson Administration did not publicly contradict the Israeli claim that the incident was a tragic mistake. Official documents tell a different tale.
But internal White House documents obtained from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library show that the Israelis’ explanation of how the mistake had occurred was not believed.
Except for McNamara, most senior administration officials from Secretary of State Dean Rusk on down privately agreed with Johnson’s intelligence adviser, Clark Clifford, who was quoted in minutes of a National Security Council staff meeting as saying it was “inconceivable” that the attack had been a case of mistaken identity.
Concludes one of the declassified NSA documents: “Every official interview of numerous Liberty crewmen gave consistent evidence that indeed the Liberty was flying an American flag — and, further, the weather conditions were ideal to ensure its easy observance and identification.”
The Israeli court of inquiry that examined the attack, and absolved the Israeli military of criminal culpability, came to precisely the opposite conclusion.
It is difficult to comprehend how USS Liberty might be read as though it were written in Russian, but that’s what the Israelis claimed. Reminder: it was flying an American flag.
After the torpedo attack, the MTBs [motor torpedo boats] came close enough to read the name on the stern (which even then was initially reported as Cyrillic—i.e., Russian.) Released U.S. and Israeli transcripts of Israeli communications show a high degree of confusion within the Israeli air force and navy about whether the ship was Egyptian, Soviet, or American.
Should an incident like this happen today, in 2022, I don’t think the argument that mixed up communications was responsible would stand. I hope it would not.
See the NSA documents about the USS Liberty incident.