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As a result of these new concerns, the JRC sent out a message
indicating that the Liberty's operational area off the Sinai was not set in
stone but was "for guidance only." Also, it pulled the ship back from 12½
to 20 nautical miles from the coast. By now it was about 6:30 P.M. in
Washington, half past midnight on the morning of June 8 in Egypt. The
Liberty had already entered the outskirts of its operational area and the
message never reached her because of an error by the U.S. Army
Communications Center at the Pentagon.
About an hour later, with fears mounting, the JRC again changed the
order, now requiring that Liberty approach no closer than 100 miles to
the coasts of Egypt and Israel. Knowing the ship was getting dangerously
close, Major Breedlove in the JRC skipped the normal slow message
system and called Navy officials in Europe over a secure telephone to tell
them of the change. He said a confirming message would follow. Within
ten minutes the Navy lieutenant in Europe had a warning message
ready.
But rather than issue the warning, a Navy captain in Europe insisted
on waiting until he received the confirmation message. That and a series
of Keystone Kops foul-ups by both the Navy and Army”which again
misrouted the message, this time to Hawaii”delayed sending the critical
message for an incredible sixteen and a half hours. By then it was far too
late. More than twenty years had gone by since the foul-up of warning
messages at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet it was as if no
lesson had ever been learned.


At 5:14 A.M. on Thursday, June 8, the first rays of sun spilled softly
over the Sinai's blond waves of sand. A little more than a dozen miles
north, in the choppy eastern Mediterranean, the Liberty continued


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eastward like a lost innocent, 600 miles from the nearest help and
oblivious to at least five warning messages it never received. The "Plan of
the Day" distributed throughout the ship that morning gave no hint of
what was in store. "Uniform of the Day" for officers was "tropical wash
khaki" and, for enlisted men, "clean dungarees." The soda fountain,
crewmembers were informed, would be open from 6:00 P.M. until 7:30
P.M.
Just after sunup, Duty Officer John Scott noticed a flying boxcar
making several circles near the ship and then departing in the direction
of Tel Aviv. Down in the NSA spaces, Chief Melvin Smith apparently also
picked up signals from the plane, later identified as Israeli. Shortly after
the plane departed, he called up Scott and asked if he had had a close
air contact recently. Scott told him he had, and Smith asked which
direction it had gone in. "Tel Aviv," said Scott. "Fine, that's all I want to
know," replied Smith. Scott glanced up at the American flag, ruffling in a
twelve-knot breeze, to check the wind direction, and then scanned the
vast desert a little more than a dozen miles away. "Fabulous morning,"
he said without dropping the stubby binoculars from his eyes.
But the calmness was like quicksand”deceptive, inviting, and
friendly, until too late. As the Liberty passed the desert town of El Arish,
it was closely watched. About half a mile away and 4,000 feet above was
an Israeli reconnaissance aircraft. At 6:03 A.M. the naval observer on the
plane reported back to Israeli naval headquarters. "What we could see
was the letters written on that ship," he said. "And we gave these letters
to the ground control." The letters were "GTR-5," the Liberty's
identification. "GTR" stood for "General Technical Research"”a cover
designation for NSA's fleet of spy ships.
Having passed El Arish, the Liberty continued on toward the Gaza
Strip. Then, about 8:30 A.M., it made a strange, nearly 180-degree turn
back in the direction of El Arish and slowed down to just five knots. The
reason for this maneuver was that the ship had at last reached Point
Alpha, the point on the map where it was to begin its back-and-forth
dogleg patrol of the Sinai coast.
For some time, Commander McGonagle had been worried about the
ship's proximity to the shore and about the potential for danger. He
called to his cabin Lieutenant Commander David E. Lewis, head of the
NSA operation on the ship. "How would it affect our mission if we stayed
farther out at sea?" McGonagle asked. "It would hurt us, Captain," Lewis
replied. "We want to work in the UHF [ultra-high-frequency] range. That's
mostly line-of-sight stuff. If we're over the horizon we might as well be
back in Abidjan. It would degrade our mission by about eighty percent."
After thinking for a few minutes, McGonagle made his decision. "Okay,"
he said. "We'll go all the way in."



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The reconnaissance was repeated at approximately thirty-minute
intervals throughout the morning. At one point, a boxy Israeli air force
Noratlas NORD 2501 circled the ship around the starboard side,
proceeded forward of the ship, and headed back toward the Sinai. "It had
a big Star of David on it and it was flying just a little bit above our mast
on the ship," recalled crewmember Larry Weaver. "We really thought his
wing was actually going to clip one of our masts. . . . And I was actually
able to wave to the co-pilot, a fellow on the right-hand side of the plane.
He waved back, and actually smiled at me. I could see him that well. I
didn't think anything of that because they were our allies. There's no
question about it. They had seen the ship's markings and the American
flag. They could damn near see my rank. The under way flag was
definitely flying. Especially when you're that close to a war zone."
By 9:30 A.M. the minaret at El Arish could be seen with the naked
eye, like a solitary mast in a sea of sand. Visibility in the crystal clear air
was twenty-five miles or better. Through a pair of binoculars, individual
buildings were clearly visible a brief thirteen miles away. Commander
McGonagle thought the tower "quite conspicuous" and used it as a
navigational aid to determine the ship's position throughout the morning
and afternoon. The minaret was also identifiable by radar.
Although no one on the ship knew it at the time, the Liberty had
suddenly trespassed into a private horror. At that very moment, near the
minaret at El Arish, Israeli forces were engaged in a criminal slaughter.
From the first minutes of its surprise attack, the Israeli air force had
owned the skies over the Middle East. Within the first few hours, Israeli
jets pounded twenty-five Arab air bases ranging from Damascus in Syria
to an Egyptian field, loaded with bombers, far up the Nile at Luxor. Then,
using machine guns, mortar fire, tanks, and air power, the Israeli war
machine overtook the Jordanian section of Jerusalem as well as the west
bank of the Jordan River, and torpedo boats captured the key Red Sea
cape of Sharm al-Sheikh.
In the Sinai, Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers pushed
toward the Suez Canal along all three of the roads that crossed the
desert, turning the burning sands into a massive killing field. One Israeli
general estimated that Egyptian casualties there ranged from 7,000 to
10,000 killed, compared with 275 of his own troops. Few were spared as
the Israelis pushed forward.
A convoy of Indian peacekeeper soldiers, flying the blue United
Nations flag from their jeeps and trucks, were on their way to Gaza when
they met an Israeli tank column on the road. As the Israelis approached,
the UN observers pulled aside and stopped to get out of the way. One of
the tanks rotated its turret and opened fire from a few feet away. The
Israeli tank then rammed its gun through the windshield of an Indian



169
jeep and decapitated the two men inside. When other Indians went to aid
their comrades, they were mowed down by machine-gun fire. Another
Israeli tank thrust its gun into a UN truck, lifted it, and smashed it to the
ground, killing or wounding all the occupants. In Gaza, Israeli tanks
blasted six rounds into UN headquarters, which was flying the UN flag.
Fourteen UN members were killed in these incidents. One Indian officer
called it deliberate, cold-blooded killing of unarmed UN soldiers. It would
be a sign of things to come.
By June 8, three days after Israel launched the war, Egyptian
prisoners in the Sinai had become nuisances. There was no place to
house them, not enough Israelis to watch them, and few vehicles to
transport them to prison camps. But there was another way to deal with
them.
As the Liberty sat within eyeshot of El Arish, eavesdropping on
surrounding communications, Israeli soldiers turned the town into a
slaughterhouse, systematically butchering their prisoners. In the shadow
of the El Arish mosque, they lined up about sixty unarmed Egyptian
prisoners, hands tied behind their backs, and then opened fire with
machine guns until the pale desert sand turned red. Then they forced
other prisoners to bury the victims in mass graves. "I saw a line of
prisoners, civilians and military," said Abdelsalam Moussa, one of those
who dug the graves, "and they opened fire at them all at once. When they
were dead, they told us to bury them." Nearby, another group of Israelis
gunned down thirty more prisoners and then ordered some Bedouins to
cover them with sand.
In still another incident at El Arish, the Israeli journalist Gabi Bron
saw about 150 Egyptian POWs sitting on the ground, crowded together
with their hands held at the backs of their necks. "The Egyptian
prisoners of war were ordered to dig pits and then army police shot them
to death," Bron said. "I witnessed the executions with my own eyes on
the morning of June eighth, in the airport area of El Arish."
The Israeli military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki, who worked in the
army's history department after the war, said he and other officers
collected testimony from dozens of soldiers who admitted killing POWs.
According to Yitzhaki, Israeli troops killed, in cold blood, as many as
1,000 Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai, including some 400 in the sand
dunes of El Arish.
Ironically, Ariel Sharon, who was capturing territory south of El Arish
at the time of the slaughter, had been close to massacres during other
conflicts. One of his men during the Suez crisis in 1956, Arye Biro, now a
retired brigadier general, recently admitted the unprovoked killing of
forty-nine prisoners of war in the Sinai in 1956. "I had my Karl Gustav
[weapon] I had taken from the Egyptian. My officer had an Uzi. The



170
Egyptian prisoners were sitting there with their faces turned to us. We
turned to them with our loaded guns and shot them. Magazine after
magazine. They didn't get a chance to react." At another point, Biro said,
he found Egyptian soldiers prostrate with thirst. He said that after
taunting them by pouring water from his canteen into the sand, he killed
them. "If I were to be put on trial for what I did," he said, "then it would
be necessary to put on trial at least one-half the Israeli army, which, in
similar circumstances, did what I did." Sharon, who says he learned of
the 1956 prisoner shootings only after they happened, refused to say
whether he took any disciplinary action against those involved, or even
objected to the killings.
Later in his career, in 1982, Sharon would be held "indirectly
responsible" for the slaughter of about 900 men, women, and children by
Lebanese Christian militia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps
following Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Despite his grisly past, or maybe
because of it, in October 1998 he was appointed minister of foreign
affairs in the cabinet of right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sharon later took over the conservative Likud Party. On September 28,
2000, he set off the bloodiest upheaval between Israeli forces and
Palestinians in a generation, which resulted in a collapse of the seven-
year peace process. The deadly battles, which killed over 200
Palestinians and several Israeli soldiers, broke out following a provocative
visit by Sharon to the compound known as Haram as-Sharif (Noble
Sanctuary) to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews. Addressing the
question of Israeli war crimes, Sharon said in 1995, "Israel doesn't need
this, and no one can preach to us about it”no one."
Of the 1967 Sinai slaughter, Aryeh Yitzhaki said, "The whole army
leadership, including [then] Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of
Staff [and later Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin and the generals knew
about these things. No one bothered to denounce them." Yitzhaki said
not only were the massacres known, but senior Israeli officials tried their
best to cover them up by not releasing a report he had prepared on the
murders in 1968.
The extensive war crimes were just one of the deep secrets Israel had
sought to conceal since the start of the conflict. From the very beginning,
an essential element in the Israeli battle plan seemed to have been to
hide much of the war behind a carefully constructed curtain of lies. Lies
about the Egyptian threat, lies about who started the war, lies to the
American president, lies to the UN Security Council, lies to the press, lies
to the public. Thus, as the American naval historian Dr. Richard K.
Smith noted in an article on the Liberty for United States Naval Institute
Proceedings, "any instrument which sought to penetrate this smoke
screen so carefully thrown around the normal 'fog of war' would have to
be frustrated."


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Into this sea of lies, deception, and slaughter sailed the USS Liberty,
an enormous American spy factory loaded with $10.2 million worth of
the latest eavesdropping gear. At 10:39 A.M., the minaret at El Arish was
logged at seventeen miles away, at bearing 189 degrees. Sailing at five
knots, the Liberty was practically treading water.
By 10:55 A.M., senior Israeli officials knew for certain that they had
an American electronic spy in their midst. Not only was the ship clearly
visible to the forces at El Arish, it had been positively identified by Israeli
naval headquarters.
The Israeli naval observer on the airborne reconnaissance mission
that had earlier observed the Liberty passed on the information to
Commander Pinchas Pinchasy, the naval liaison officer at Israeli air force
headquarters. "I reported this detection to Naval Headquarters," said
Pinchasy, "and I imagine that Naval Headquarters received this report
from the other channel, from the Air Force ground control as well."
Pinchasy had pulled out a copy of the reference book Jane's Fighting
Ships and looked up the "GTR-5" designation. He then sent a report to
the acting chief of naval operations at Israeli navy headquarters in Haifa.
The report said that the ship cruising slowly off El Arish was "an
electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy, named Liberty,
whose marking was GTR-5."
Not only did the ship have "GTR-5" painted broadly on both sides of
its bow and stern, it also had its name painted in large, bold, black
letters: "U.S.S. LIBERTY."
Although no one on the Liberty knew it, they were about to have some
company.


"We were 'wheels in the well' from Athens about mid-morning," said
Marvin Nowicki, who was aboard the EC-121 headed back to the war
zone. In the rear NSA spaces, the crew strapped on their seat belts. It
was an everyday routine. The VQ-2 squadron would fly, on average, six
to twelve missions per month against Israel and the Arab countries of the
Middle East. Exceptions took place when higher-priority Soviet targets
came up, for example when the Soviet fleet conducted exercises in the
Mediterranean or Norwegian Sea. Nowicki himself accumulated over
2,000 hours in such spy planes over his career.
Back at Athens Airport, the 512J processing center had been beefed
up to help analyze the increasing flow of intercepts. Three NSA civilian
Hebrew linguists had arrived and were attacking the backlog of recording
tapes. The pile had grown especially large because the Air Force had no
Hebrew linguists for their C-150 Sigint aircraft. "As it turns out," said
Nowicki, "they were blindly copying any voice signal that sounded
Hebrew. They were like vacuum cleaners, sucking every signal onto their


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recorders, with the intercept operators not having a clue as to what the
activity represented."
In charge of the half-dozen Elint specialists aboard the EC-121,

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