Miriam Pensack provides new information about an event that has been sent into the media memory hole. (I wrote about this incident back in 2010.) The media loves to commemorate anniversaries of major events but the 50th anniversary of the day that Israeli warplanes attacked a US navy vessel has been ignored. The NSA continues to keep the details secret but Pensack reports on two documents that were revealed by Edward Snowden.
ON JUNE 8, 1967, an Israeli torpedo tore through the side of the unarmed American naval vessel USS Liberty, approximately a dozen miles off the Sinai coast. The ship, whose crew was under command of the National Security Agency, was intercepting communications at the height of the Six-Day War when it came under direct Israeli aerial and naval assault.
Reverberations from the torpedo blast sent crewman Ernie Gallo flying across the radio research room where he was stationed. Gallo, a communications technician aboard the Liberty, found himself and his fellow shipmates in the midst of an attack that would leave 34 Americans dead and 171 wounded.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assault on the USS Liberty, and though it was among the worst attacks in history against a noncombatant U.S. naval vessel, the tragedy remains shrouded in secrecy. The question of if and when Israeli forces became aware they were killing Americans has proved a point of particular contention in the on-again, off-again public debate that has simmered over the last half a century. The Navy Court of Inquiry’s investigation proceedings following the incident were held in closed sessions, and the survivors who had been on board received gag orders forbidding them to ever talk about what they endured that day.
Now, half a century later, The Intercept is publishing two classified documents provided in the cache of files leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden related to the attack and its aftermath. They reveal previously unknown involvement by Government Communications Headquarters, the U.K. signals intelligence agency; internal NSA communications that seem to bolster a signals intelligence analyst’s account of the incident, which framed it as an accident; as well as a Hebrew transliteration system unique to the NSA that was in use at least as recently as 2006.
Though neither document reveals conclusive information about the causes of the assault, both highlight that at the time of their publication — approximately four decades after the incident — the NSA was determined to keep even seemingly minor details about the attack classified. The agency declined to comment for this article.
Ultimately, both the United States’ and Israel’s investigations deemed the attack on the Liberty an accident that resulted when Israel mistook the American spy ship for an Egyptian freighter. Bamford considers that conclusion a cover-up, however, citing the gag order issued to survivors, as well as the fact that NSA’s deputy director at the time, Louis Tordella, referred to the Israeli Defense Forces preliminary inquiry into the attack “a nice whitewash.” Still, other sources assert that any notion of cover-up is mere paranoia. According to a spokesperson at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign affairs, the Liberty assault was “a tragic accident … that was settled between the parties involved years ago,” and that, “as is the case with many of these matters, there are always enough conspiracy theories to go around, but they never hold water.”
In a statement to The Intercept, Ernie Gallo, who currently serves as the president of the Liberty Veterans Association, said, “We now know that the Navy Court of Inquiry was merely for show, as the officers were told to come to the conclusion the Liberty did [its] job and the attack was accidental.” Bamford also references the magnitude and length of the attack as proof of its deliberateness: The ship was hit repeatedly, first by planes dropping thousand-pound bombs and napalm, and then by torpedo boats. Israeli forces also jammed the Liberty’s antennas and communication channels, took out the four .50-caliber machine guns on board, and reportedly shot at life rafts and crew members as they attempted to evacuate the vessel. “It was an attack in broad daylight,” said Bamford. “They were flying a large U.S. flag. [The ship] said USS Liberty on the back. … I mean, what do you need?”