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deemphasis on publicity since proximity of vessel to scene of conflict was
fuel for Arab suspicions that U.S. was aiding Israel." Shortly thereafter, a
total news ban was ordered by the Pentagon. No one in the field was
allowed to say anything about the attack. All information was to come
only from a few senior Washington officials.
At 11:29 A.M. (5:29 P.M. Liberty), Johnson took the unusual step of
ordering the JCS to recall the fighters while the Liberty still lay
smoldering, sinking, fearful of another attack, without aid, and with its
decks covered with the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Onboard the
flagship of the Sixth Fleet, Rear Admiral Lawrence R. Geis, who
commanded the carrier force in the Mediterranean, was angry and
puzzled at the recall and protested it to Secretary of Defense Robert S.
McNamara.
Admiral Geis was shocked by what he heard next. According to
information obtained for Body of Secrets, "President Lyndon Johnson
came on with a comment that he didn't care if the ship sunk, he would
not embarrass his allies." Admiral Geis told Lieutenant Commander
David Lewis, the head of the NSA group on the Liberty, about the
comment but asked him to keep it secret until after Geis died. It was a
promise that Lewis kept.


The hole in the Liberty's twenty-three-year-old skin was nearly wide
enough to drive a bus through; the ship had a heavy list to starboard,
most of its equipment was destroyed, thirty-two of its crew were dead
(two others would later die) and two-thirds of the rest wounded; its
executive officer was dead, and its commanding officer was badly hurt.
Despite all this, the Liberty was heroically brought back to life and slowly
made her way toward safer waters. To keep the ship from sinking, the


190
hatches to the flooded NSA spaces had been dogged down, sealing the
bodies of the twenty-five Sigint specialists inside.
Throughout the long night, propped up in a chair on the port wing of
the bridge, Commander McGonagle continued to conn his ship, using the
North Star ahead and the long wake behind for direction. Shortly after
dawn, 16½ hours after the attack, help finally arrived. Rendezvousing
with the Liberty, 420 miles east-southeast of Soudha Bay, Crete, were
the American destroyers Davis and Massey.
Helicopters soon arrived and began lifting litters containing the most
seriously wounded to the deck of the America, still 138 miles away. There
they were transported by plane to Athens and then to the naval hospital
in Naples. At the completion of the transfer, after eighteen continuous
hours on the bridge, the weary skipper finally headed to what was left of
his cabin. Despite his injuries, he remained with the ship until she
docked in Malta.
As the wounded landed at Athens Airport, NSA civilians at USA 512J
a short distance away finished transcribing most of the tapes from the
previous day's EC-121 ferret mission. They then sent the raw information
back to NSA over the agency's special channel, SPINTCOMM ("Special
Intelligence Communications"). Later, the civilians were instructed to
pack up the original tapes and send them by armed courier to NSA as
soon as possible.
At NSA, concern had shifted from the rescue of the crew to the
possible loss of sensitive documents from Liberty's ruptured signals
intelligence spaces. Boats from the destroyers were ordered to search
around the Liberty for two hours looking for classified papers that might
be washing out from the gaping, pear-shaped hole. Later, as the Liberty
sailed slowly toward Malta, a major concern was the possibility that
Russian ships would attempt to retrieve the flotsam. "Do whatever is
feasible to keep any Soviet ships out of Liberty's wake," the Sixth Fleet
commander was told. "Maintain observation of Liberty's wake and if
possible find out what sort of documents are being lost in the wake . . .
take whatever steps may be reasonable and appropriate to reduce
possibility of compromise, noting that a compromise could have both
political and technical aspects."
Like a shark sensing blood, a Soviet guided-missile destroyer did tag
along with the Liberty for a while, but the two American destroyers and a
fleet ocean tug trailed Liberty to recover any papers before the Russians
had a chance to grab them. Along the way, the tug used boathooks and
grab nets to pick up the top secret material. When the tug could not
recover a document, it ran over it with the propeller and then backed
down over it to shred the paper into small pieces. Despite this vigilance,
the bodies of five technicians washed out of the hole and were never



191
recovered.
Another concern at Fort Meade was the three NSA civilian Arabic
linguists on the ship. They had earlier been flown to Rota, where they
joined the crew. One, Allen M. Blue, had been killed; another, Donald L.
Blalock, had been injured; and a third, Robert L. Wilson, had survived
unscathed. Marshall Carter ordered an NSA official to meet the ship in
Malta and provide maximum assistance in getting Blalock and Wilson
back to the United States as quickly and as quietly as possible.
Once the Liberty pulled into Malta on June 14, the effort to bury the
incident continued at full speed ahead. A total news blackout was
imposed. Crewmembers were threatened with courts-martial and jail
time if they ever breathed a word of the episode to anyone”including
family members and even fellow crewmembers. "If you ever repeat this to
anyone else ever again you will be put in prison and forgotten about,"
Larry Weaver said he was warned.
Now that the ship was safely in dry dock, the grisly task of searching
the NSA spaces, sealed since the attack six days earlier, also began. "I
took a crew . . . down in the spaces to inventory the classified equipment
and info," said former senior chief Stan White. "The smell was so awful it
can't be described. We got the bodies out and then the pieces of bodies
were picked up and put in bags and finally the inventory. The sights and
smells I am still sometimes aware of today." Seaman Don Pageler also
spent two and a half days helping to search and clean out the cavernous
compartment. At one point he lifted a piece of equipment only to make a
grim discovery. "Below it was this guy's arm. ... I looked at the muscle
structure and I knew whose arm it was. I didn't know him well but I
knew who he was."
In July 1967, the Liberty returned to Norfolk from Malta. There it
languished while NSA tried unsuccessfully to obtain $10.2 million from
the Pentagon to restore her to signals intelligence operational status.
When that effort failed, the Liberty was decommissioned, on June 28,
1968. In 1970 the ship was turned over to the U.S. Maritime
Administration and sold for $101,666.66. In 1973 the ship came to an
ignominious end in Baltimore's Curtis Bay shipyard as welders' torches
at last did what the Israeli attack hadn't. She was cut up and sold for
scrap.
On April 28, 1969, almost two years after the attack, the Israeli
government finally paid about $20,000 to each of the wounded crewmen.
This compensation was obtained, however, only after the men retained
private counsel to negotiate with Israel's lawyers in Washington. A
substantial portion of the claim, therefore, went to lawyers' fees. Ten
months earlier, the Israelis had paid about $100,000 to each of the
families of those killed.



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Finally, the U.S. government asked a token $7,644,146 for Israel's
destruction of the ship, even though $20 million had been spent several
years earlier to convert her to a signals intelligence ship and another
$10.2 million had gone for the highly sophisticated hardware. Yet despite
the modest amount requested, and the agony its armed forces had
caused, the Israeli government spent thirteen years in an unseemly
battle to avoid paying. By the winter of 1980, the interest alone had
reached $10 million. Israeli ambassador Ephraim Evron then suggested
that if the United States asked for $6 million”and eliminated the
interest entirely”his country might be willing to pay. President Jimmy
Carter, on his way out of office, agreed, and in December 1980 accepted
the paltry $6 million.


In the days following the attack, the Israeli government gave the U.S.
government a classified report that attempted to justify the claim that the
attack was a mistake. On the basis of that same report, an Israeli court
of inquiry completely exonerated the government and all those involved.
No one was ever court-martialed, reduced in rank, or even reprimanded.
On the contrary, Israel chose instead to honor Motor Torpedo Boat 203,
which fired the deadly torpedo at the Liberty. The ship's wheel and bell
were placed on prominent display at the naval museum, among the
maritime artifacts of which the Israeli navy was most proud.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Israel had attacked the ship
and killed the American servicemen deliberately, the Johnson
administration and Congress covered up the entire incident. Johnson
was planning to run for president the following year and needed the
support of pro-Israel voters. His administration's actions were
disgraceful. Although Captain McGonagle was awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in saving the ship and
bringing it back to safety, senior White House officials decided to keep
the occasion as quiet as possible. Because the medal, the nation's
highest honor, is only rarely awarded, it is almost always presented by
the president in a high-profile White House ceremony. But McGonagle's
award was given by the secretary of the Navy in a low-profile, hastily
arranged gathering at the Washington Navy Yard, a scrappy base on the
banks of the smelly Anacostia River.
"I must have gone to the White House fifteen times or more to watch
the president personally award the Congressional Medal of Honor to
Americans of special valor," said Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, who
became Chief of Naval Operations within weeks of the attack. "So it irked
the hell out of me when McGonagle's ceremony was relegated to the
obscurity of the Washington Navy Yard and the medal was presented by
the Secretary of the Navy. This was a back-handed slap. Everyone else
received their medal at the White House. President Johnson must have


193
been concerned about the reaction of the Israeli lobby."
Later, a naval officer connected with the awards told Jim Ennes, a
lieutenant on the ship, the reason. "The government is pretty jumpy
about Israel," he said. "The State Department even asked the Israeli
ambassador if his government had any objections to McGonagle getting
the medal. 'Certainly not!' Israel said. But to avoid any possible offense,
McGonagle's citation does not mention Israel at all, and the award
ceremony kept the lowest possible profile."
In the period immediately after the incident, several quick reviews
were conducted by the Navy and CIA, among other agencies. However,
they dealt principally with such topics as the failure of the Naval
Communications System and how the crew of the ship performed during
the crisis. No American investigators ever looked into the "why" question
or brought the probe to Israel, the scene of the crime. Investigators
simply accepted Israel's bizarre "mistake" report at face value. This was a
document which included such statements as a claim by the torpedo-
boat crew that the Liberty”an ancient World War II cargo ship then
loitering at five knots”was attempting to escape at an incredible thirty
knots (the Liberty's top speed was seventeen knots)”outracing even their
torpedo boats. This was the reason, the report said, for calling in the air
force.
The Israeli report then said that their observers checked in Jane's
Fighting Ships and misidentified the Liberty as El Quseir, an Egyptian
troop and horse transport. But Jane's gave the top speed of El Quseir as
only fourteen knots; how could a ship supposedly doing thirty knots have
been mistaken for it? Jane's also contained details on the Liberty, the
same details that Commander Pinchas Pinchasy, at air force
headquarters, had used to positively identify the ship. (And Pinchasy had
reported the identification to Israeli naval headquarters.)
The Israeli report also said that the whole reason for the attack was to
stop the Liberty, with its few short-range machine guns, from
bombarding the town of El Arish, more than a dozen miles away. This
was nonsense.
Nevertheless, most of the U.S. investigations took the path of least
resistance, the one onto which they were pushed by the White House,
and accepted the "mistake" theory. Incredibly, considering that 34
American servicemen had been killed and 171 more wounded, and that a
ship of the U.S. Navy had been nearly sunk (no U.S. naval vessel since
World War II had suffered a higher percentage [69 percent] of battle
casualties), Congress held no public hearings. With an election coming
up, no one in the weak-kneed House and Senate wanted to offend
powerful pro-Israel groups and lose their fat campaign contributions.
But according to interviews and documents obtained for Body of


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Secrets, the senior leadership of NSA, officials who had unique access to
the secret tapes and other highly classified evidence, was virtually
unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate. They strongly
believed that Israel feared what the Liberty might have intercepted, and
therefore ordered it killed leaving no survivors.
Israel has never wavered on one critical point: that no one ever saw a
flag flying from the Liberty during either the air or sea attack, despite the
virtually unanimous agreement among survivors that flags were flying
during both periods. "Throughout the contact," said the "mistake" report,
"no Israeli plane or torpedo boat saw an American or any other flag on
the ship."
But former Chief Marvin Nowicki, the senior Hebrew linguist on the
EC-121 flying above the scene, knows what he heard. "As I recall, we
recorded most, if not all, of the attack," he said. "I heard a couple of
references to the flag during an apparent attack." Nowicki, who later
received a Ph.D. in political science and taught public administration at
the college level, is an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, who originally
assumed his information would help clear Israel. Instead, it convicts the
government. If the Israelis did see the flag, then the attack was
coldblooded murder”like the hundreds of earlier murders committed by
Israelis that day at El Arish.
As soon as the incident began, Marshall Carter appointed a small task
force led by Walter Deeley, a senior official in the Production
Organization, the agency's Sigint operations division. The task force was
to keep track of all information regarding the Liberty and prepare a
report for the director. Unlike the other probes, this one included all the
signals intelligence details”the intercept tapes from the EC-121, and
interviews with the signals intelligence survivors from the Liberty.
Because of the enormous secrecy in which NSA held its Sigint
operations, and especially because the information involved its most
secret activity” eavesdropping on a close ally”the details were never
shared with anyone else. In the end, Walter Deeley came to the only
possible conclusion, given his knowledge of Israel's intelligence
capabilities. "There is no way that they didn't know that the Liberty was
American," he said, suggesting premeditated murder.
NSA Director Carter agreed. "There was no other answer than that it
was deliberate," he told the author in a 1980 interview, although he
asked that the information be kept off the record at the time. Carter has
since died.
NSA's deputy director, Dr. Louis Tordella, also believed that the Israeli
attack was deliberate and that the Israeli government was attempting to
cover it up. According to highly classified and long-hidden NSA
documents obtained for Body of Secrets, Tordella not only put his belief



195
in an internal memorandum for the record but also expressed his view to
Congressman George Mahon (D-Texas) of the House Appropriations
Committee. "Mr. Mahon probed several times to discover the reason for

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