<<

. 33
( 118 .)



>>

his leg shredded, was still clinging to life. Lockwood was later awarded
the Silver Star for his heroism. Lentini survived. He was one of two
sailors Lockwood saved.
Immediately after the attack, one of the boats signaled by flashing
light, in English, "Do you require assistance?" McGonagle, with no other
means to communicate, hoisted the flags indicating that the ship was
maneuvering with difficulty and that they should keep clear. Instead, the
torpedo boats continued to terrorize the crew, firing at the ship, at
firefighters, at rescue personnel, and even at the life rafts in their racks.
Larry Weaver, whose raft was destroyed, said: "They must have known
where they [the rafts] were. They tried to blow them out in their racks."
To prevent anyone from escaping the badly wounded ship, the Israelis
even destroyed the few surviving life rafts that were put into the water
following the call to abandon ship. "I watched with horror as the floating
life rafts were riddled with holes," said Lieutenant Lloyd Painter, in
charge of the evacuation. "No survivors were planned for this day!" Stan


184
White, the top enlisted man on the ship, also witnessed the lifeboat
attack. "When 'prepare to abandon ship' was announced, what was left of
our lifeboats were released overboard; these were immediately machine-
gunned by the torpedo boats. It was obvious that no one was meant to
survive this assault."
Jumping overboard to escape the sinking ship was also not an option.
"If you don't go down with the ship," said Seaman Don Pageler, "you're
going to jump overboard. If you jump overboard, the way these people
were attacking us, we knew they would shoot us in the water. We did
firmly believe that there was no way they intended to capture anybody."
Earlier that day, the Israelis had massacred civilians and prisoners in
the desert; now they were prepared to ensure that no American survived
the sinking of the Liberty. Another witness to the lifeboat attacks was
shipfitter Phillip F. Tourney. "As soon as the lifeboats hit the water they
were sunk. They would shoot at us for target practice, it seemed like.
They wanted to kill and maim and murder anyone they could. . . . One of
the torpedo boats picked a life raft up and took it with them."
"They made circles like they were getting ready to attack again," added
former petty officer Larry B. Thorn, who also witnessed the sinking of the
life rafts. "Our biggest fear was that the Israeli commandos . . . would
come back and get us that night and finish the job," said Phillip Tourney.
The Israelis, not knowing what intelligence NSA had picked up, would
have had reason to suspect the worst”that the agency had recorded
evidence of the numerous atrocities committed that morning only a few
miles away. This would be devastating evidence of hundreds of serious
war crimes, approved by senior Israeli commanders.
Indeed, many Israeli communications had been intercepted. "We
heard Israeli traffic," said section supervisor Charles L. Rowley. Much of
what was recorded was to be listened to and analyzed later, either at the
secret processing station in Athens or back at NSA.
As the Liberty continued to burn and take on water from the forty-
four-foot hole in its starboard side, damage control crews dodged Israeli
shells to try to save it. Commander McGonagle, however, was quietly
considering killing it himself. He had glimpsed an Israeli flag on one of
the torpedo boats, and he feared that next the Israelis would attempt to
board the ship, kill everyone not yet dead, and capture the supersecret
NSA documents. (Because of the constant strafing by the fighters and the
torpedo boats, the crew had been unable to throw overboard any of the
ditching bags.) Rather than let that happen, he told his chief engineer,
Lieutenant George H. Golden, about the Israeli flag and, said Golden,
"told me that he wanted to scuttle the ship. I told him that we were in
shallow water [the depth was 35 to 40 fathoms], that it would be
impossible to do that. If it came to that point we would need to get our


185
wounded and everybody off the ship and move it out into deeper water
where we can scuttle it. And he asked me how long it would take me to
sink the ship. And I gave him a rough idea of how long it would take for
the ship to sink after I pulled the plug on it. But we had to be out in deep
water”we were too shallow, and people could get aboard the ship and
get whatever that was left that some of them might want."


High above, the intercept operators in the EC-121 ferret continued to
eavesdrop on voices from the war below, but they heard no more
mentions of the American flag. "Finally," said Chief Nowicki, "it was time
to return to Athens. We recorded voice activity en route home until the
intercepts finally faded. On the way home, the evaluator 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."
After landing on the Greek air force side of the Athens airport, Nowicki
and the intercept crew were brought directly to the processing center.
"By the time we arrived at the USA-512J compound," he said, "collateral
reports were coming in to the station about the attack on the USS
Liberty. The first question we were asked was, 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." At the time, based on the fractured
conversations he heard on the intercepts, Nowicki just assumed that the
attack was a mistake.
The question then was whether to send a CRITIC to NSA, CRITIC
being the highest priority for intercept intelligence. "After much
deliberation," Nowicki said, "we decided against the CRITIC because our
information was already hours old. To meet CRITIC criteria, information
should be within fifteen minutes of the event. ... 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 message sent by the Liberty shortly after the attack requesting
immediate help was eventually received by the Sixth Fleet, which was
then south of Crete, 450 miles to the west. Suddenly high-level


186
communications channels came alive. At 2:50 P.M. (Liberty time), fifty
minutes after the first shells tore into the ship and as the attack was still
going on, the launch decision was made. The aircraft carrier USS
America, cruising near Crete, was ordered to launch four armed A-4
Skyhawks. At the same time, the carrier USS Saratoga was also told to
send four armed A-1 attack planes to defend the ship. "Sending aircraft
to cover you," the Sixth Fleet told the Liberty at 3:05 P.M. (9:05 A.M. in
Washington). "Surface units on the way."
At 9:00 A.M. (3:00 P.M. Liberty) bells sounded and the first CRITIC
message, sent by either the America or the Saratoga, stuttered across a
role of white Teletype paper in NSA's Sigint Command Center. The senior
operations officer then passed it on to Director Marshall Carter. With
Carter in his ninth-floor office was Deputy Director Tordella. At 9:28 A.M.
(3:28 P.M. Liberty) Carter sent out a CRITIC alert to all listening posts.
"USS Liberty has been reportedly torpedoed by unknown source in Med
near 32N 33E," said the message: "Request examine all communications
for possible reaction/reflections and report accordingly."
Eleven minutes after the CRITIC arrived at NSA, the phone rang in the
Pentagon's War Room and European Command Headquarters told the
duty officer that the Liberty had been attacked by unknown jet fighters.
At that moment in Washington, President Johnson was at his desk,
on the phone, alternately shouting at congressional leaders and coaxing
them to support his position on several pieces of pending legislation. But
four minutes later he was suddenly interrupted by Walt Rostow on the
other line. "The Liberty has been torpedoed in the Mediterranean,"
Rostow told Johnson excitedly. A minute later, the adviser rushed into
the Oval Office with a brief memorandum. "The ship is located 60 to 100
miles north of Egypt. Reconnaissance aircraft are out from the 6th fleet,"
it said. "No knowledge of the submarine or surface vessel which
committed this act. Shall keep you informed."
In the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara called
Carter at NSA for precise information on the ship, its personnel, and
other details. Carter told him what he knew but said that the Naval
Security Group, which manned and operated the ship, would have the
most up-to-date facts. Carter told McNamara that he would have Captain
Ralph E. Cook, the Security Group's director, call him immediately.
Carter then called Cook's office, only to discover that he was at the
dentist's. Cook's deputy, a Captain Thomas, got on the phone, and
Carter told him to call McNamara at once. About ten minutes later
McNamara again called Carter and said he still hadn't heard from
anyone. After a few more minutes of crossed wires, McNamara and
Thomas finally talked.
NSA's worst fears had come true. "After considerations of personnel



187
safety," said Tordella, "one of General Carter's and my immediate
concerns, considering the depth of the water and the distance of the ship
off shore, had to do with the classified materials which she had on
board." Tordella got on the phone to the Joint Reconnaissance Center
and spoke to the deputy director, a Navy captain named Vineyard. "I
expressed my concern that the written material be burned if at all
possible and that the electronic equipment be salvaged if that were
possible," he said.
But Tordella was not prepared for what he heard. According to NSA
documents classified top secret/umbra and obtained for Body of Secrets,
Tordella was told that some senior officials in Washington wanted above
all to protect Israel from embarrassment. "Captain Vineyard had
mentioned during this conversation," wrote Tordella, "that consideration
was then being given by some unnamed Washington authorities to
sink[ing] the Liberty in order that newspaper men would be unable to
photograph her and thus inflame public opinion against the Israelis. I
made an impolite comment about the idea." Almost immediately Tordella
wrote a memorandum for the record, describing the conversation, and
then locked it away.
Concern over the secrets on the ship grew and Carter said he was
prepared to order the ship scuttled to prevent their loss. He only
reconsidered when informed that the shallowness of the water made
compromise of materials and equipment "a distinct possibility." Then he
began worrying about the security of the material if the ship ended up
sinking. "If it appeared the ship was going to sink," Carter told Vineyard,
"it was essential that the security of the sinking site be maintained. ... It
would be necessary to get down and remove the sensitive material from
the ship."
Also, there was discussion of sending in a replacement ship, the USS
Belmont. A cover story for the Liberty was then quickly devised. "She was
a communications research ship that was diverted from her research
assignment," it said, "to provide improved communication-relay links
with the several U.S. embassies around the entire Mediterranean during
the current troubles."
On the America and Saratoga, the pilots were instructed to "destroy or
drive off any attackers who are clearly making attacks on the Liberty."
They then catapulted into the air toward the Liberty at 3:45 P.M. Liberty
time (9:45 A.M. Washington).
At 4:00 P.M. on the Liberty (10:00 A.M. Washington), the crew was
still screaming for help. "Flash, flash, flash," Radioman Joe Ward
shouted into his microphone. "I pass in the blind. [That is, he didn't
know who was picking up the transmission.] We are under attack by air-
craft and high-speed surface craft. I say again, flash, flash, flash." By



188
then, unencrypted voice messages had been filling the open airwaves for
two hours. If the Israelis were monitoring the communications, as they
did continuously during the war, they would now have begun to worry
how soon the American fighters would arrive.
From the White House Situation Room, Rostow phoned Johnson at
10:14 A.M. (4:14 P.M. Liberty) to tell him that the ship was "listing badly
to starboard. The Saratoga has launched 4-A4's and 4-A1's." Johnson
feared that the attack had been conducted by Soviet planes and
submarines and that the United States was on the verge of war with
Russia. Later he called all his advisers for an emergency meeting in the
Situation Room.
About the same moment that Joe Ward was again pleading for help,
Commander Ernest C. Castle, the U.S. naval attach© in Tel Aviv, was
summoned urgently to Israeli Defense Force Headquarters. There, he was
told that Israeli air and sea forces had attacked the Liberty "in error."
Castle raced back to the embassy and at 4:14 P.M. Liberty time (10:14
P.M. Washington), he dashed off a Flash message to Washington
concerning this development. Strangely, NSA claims that it first learned
of Israel's involvement fifteen minutes before Castle was called by the
Israeli Defense Forces and half an hour before Castle's Flash message. It
has never been explained how NSA discovered this.
At the White House, Johnson was relieved to learn that the attackers
were not Soviet or Egyptian. There would be no war today. But he
became very worried that the Russians, through Sigint, radar, or
observation, would become aware that a squadron of American fighters
was streaking toward the war zone, and that if the USSR suspected that
America had suddenly decided to become involved, it would launch an
attack. So at 11:17 AM. (5:17 P.M. Liberty) he sent a hot-line message to
Kosygin in Moscow.
The small office next to the War Room had lately become a busy place.
Supervisor Harry O. Rakfeldt, a Russian-speaking Navy cryptologic chief,
was already pounding out a hot-line message to Moscow, one of a
number he had sent during the crisis, when the White House phone
rang. Army Major Pawlowski, the presidential translator, picked it up,
listened for a moment, then told Rakfeldt to notify Moscow to stand by
for an emergency message. Immediately Rakfeldt stopped typing,
dropped down several lines, and sent "Stand by for an emergency
message." Then, as Major Pawlowski dictated, Rakfeldt typed the
following alert:


We have just learned that USS Liberty, an auxiliary ship,
has apparently been torpedoed by Israel Forces in error off
Port Said. We have instructed our carrier Saratoga, now in


189
the Mediterranean, to dispatch aircraft to the scene to
investigate. We wish you to know that investigation is the
sole purpose of this flight of aircraft and hope that you will
take appropriate steps to see that proper parties are
informed. We have passed the message to Chernyakov but
feel that you should know of this development urgently.


The message arrived in the Kremlin at 11:24 A.M. Washington time;
Kosygin replied about forty-five minutes later that he had passed the
message on to Nasser.
Black smoke was still escaping through the more than 800 holes in
the Liberty's hull, and the effort to hush up the incident had already
begun. Within hours of the attack, Israel asked President Johnson to
quietly bury the incident. "Embassy Tel Aviv," said a highly secret, very-
limited-distribution message to the State Department, "urged

<<

. 33
( 118 .)



>>