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USS Liberty and the NSA: One Deceit Too Many?
By Andrew M. Nacin
IN HIS 2001 book, The Liberty Incident, A. Jay Cristol—by day a Florida bankruptcy court judge—argued that Israel’s June 8, 1967 air and sea attack on the USS Liberty was a wartime accident based on a tragic case of mistaken identity. Declaring the case closed, he urged the National Security Agency (NSA) to release recordings by a U.S. Navy EC-121 airborne collection platform that he insisted would substantiate his thesis.
In April 2001, Cristol had filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the release of all communications intercept material related to Israel’s attack on the Liberty. The NSA denied the request that June, and Cristol appealed the denial the following month. After losing track of the appeal, the NSA denied it in August 2002. In January 2003, Cristol filed a lawsuit against the NSA seeking to force it to release the material and, six months later, the NSA released three audio recordings of voice communications between the attacking Israeli forces and their ground controllers, the English translations, and three follow-up reports. Hailed as the final chapter to Cristol’s research, the tapes showed there was a possible dispute over the identity of the ship, thereby seeming to substantiate Israel’s claim that it had attacked the American ship in error.
However, nothing related to the USS Liberty is as simple as it may seem. The recordings were not in fact between the attacking Israeli pilots and their ground controllers, but between two rescue helicopters and their ground controllers.
Cristol wants Americans to believe that since the ground controller of two helicopters on a rescue mission—not even involved in the attack—thought the Liberty was an Egyptian warship, the rest of the Israeli military chain of command thought the same. This is the same chain of command that claimed to have abundant communication errors throughout the day, causing the attack in the first place!
Were these helicopters even on a rescue mission? Not only does the rescue mission as described in the NSA recordings seem to be improvisational, but one might question why helicopters sent specifically to rescue the wounded survivors of an attack on a ship would be full of armed troops, as many attack survivors witnessed. As the Israeli helicopters approached, in fact, Liberty Captain William McGonagle issued a “Prepare to Repel Boarders!” message.
Israel has never acknowledged—let alone refuted—the claim of men in battle dress on the Super Frelon attack helicopters. Nor does Cristol address this in his book, even though he goes out of his way to refute other “conspiracy theories,” some called crazy even by the survivors themselves.
Was there a planned third phase of the attack? According to Israel, three high-speed torpedo boats requested air support, which quickly arrived and expelled its ammunition. The boats then fired five torpedoes at the Liberty. If the purpose of the air support simply was to intercept and delay the ship until the boats could finish it off, would a follow-up boarding party be necessary?
Let’s assume Israel deliberately attacked the USS Liberty. Why risk telling its entire military that an American ship was being deliberately attacked? Surely, the confusion on the part of the Israeli helicopter pilots and their controllers could be attributed to their having been given a simple order such as, “Go land on that ship.” After all, Israel was at war with neighboring countries.
Deplorably, the NSA itself has joined in the deception—and the evidence is provided by none other than A. Jay Cristol. In his 2003 lawsuit, Cristol cites Dr. Marvin E. Nowicki, who, as a U.S. Navy chief petty officer on an airborne collection platform the day of the attack, recorded voice transmissions of the Israeli attackers. Nowicki’s platform was a Navy EC-121 flying out of Air Force Security Service station USA-512J, a joint (“J”) station operated with the Navy.
According to the NSA, a Navy EC-121 had collected the transmissions. Follow-up NSA reports, however, state that the released transmissions were recorded by an airborne collection platform flying out of station USA-556. Because USA-556 was not a joint station, the airborne platform simply could not have been a Navy EC-121. Nowicki’s recordings are still at-large.
A 1981 history report re-released with the NSA recordings shows two routes for airborne collection platforms during the 1967 Six-Day War. One route was for Navy EC-121s, the other for Air Force C-130s. Besides operating control, there is a key difference between the EC-121 and the C-130. The former recorded and stored intercepts, which were analyzed after landing. C-130s, on the other hand, transmitted real-time to Air Force Security Service stations around the world.
Some former Air Force intelligence analysts said they read the complete real-time transmissions of an Air Force platform (this must have been USA-556, unless yet a third platform recorded the attack). Not only did the transmissions prove beyond a doubt that the attack was deliberate, but the analysts received a follow-up NSA report explicitly stating such. Yet, they later were ordered to destroy all copies. One former NSA analyst stationed in Morocco revealed he was ordered to mulch, dry, and incinerate all transcripts and reports related to the attack.
Why is Cristol so willing to believe Nowicki, but not these analysts? In his FOIA lawsuit Cristol sought Nowicki’s EC-121 tapes, not the “rescue” ones the NSA sent him. Why did he not push for the EC-121 tapes, instead of dropping his lawsuit? After 14 years of exhaustive research, surely he believed they would confirm his thesis. Or perhaps he thought the NSA didn’t release the EC-121 tapes because they would blow his thesis out of the water!
Instead of resolving the matter, the released NSA tapes, and Cristol’s acceptance of them, raise still further questions:
What was recorded by Nowicki’s EC-121 platform, from station USA-512J? What else did the USA-556 platform record?
Why did a CIA intelligence memorandum state, “None of the communications of the attacking aircraft and torpedo boats is available”?
Why did the NSA director write, “There are no COMINT [communications intelligence] reflections of the actual attack itself”?
And why did the NSA pull a fast one and release recordings other than those specifically described by Cristol—and then lie about it?
It seems that the tapes released by the NSA are not the final chapter to the story. Even 38 years later, the U.S. government’s cover-up of Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty continues.