Adam Larson / Caustic Logic
April 15 2009 [last edit 4/19]
Among the many reasons given by the Israelis for the USS Liberty mistake, over four decades ago now, is a report concerning the unarmed US spy ship’s speed. This is crucial, since standing orders for the Navy were to regard as hostile any ship traveling over 20 knots – warship speed. The Liberty, incapable of more than 17 or18 knots, should have been safe from any speeding-induced confrontations even though it was making its circuit just off the Sinai coast war zone.
According to Captain McGonnagle, the ship was on a course set around 11:30am and maintained until the attack - 283° degree heading, slightly north of west, and a leisurely 5 knots pace.  The Liberty was navigating by the minaret et El Arish 15 miles distant, then under Israeli control. Around 1 pm the captain noticed a massive plume of smoke from the distant shore a ways west of El Arish, then another just east of the city. He later testified:
"So that they would be impressed I pointed out to the crew at that time that the column of black smoke on the beach should be sufficient evidence that the ship was in a potentially dangerous location." 
These explosions, according to Isreali records, starting happening shortly before 11:30, and soon urgent and repeated reports started flooding IDF headquarters – the cause was believed to be shelling of the area by a warship. This concern prompted an order from Naval general headquarters for a sortie to find and punish the ship that was shooting at them. Squadron 914, code-name Pagoda, consisted of three motor torpedo boats (MTBs), each with a crew of 15 and two torpedoes. Led by commander Moshe Oren, they took off to the southwest at 12:05 pm. [3 – general source for the below as well]
The first thing they found was a radar track, locked in around 1:40, of a ship about 20 miles ahead. They got enough to plot a basic course – west-southwest towards the main Egyptian coast – and a speed of 30 knots. So important was this point that Oren ordered it double-checked, and the speed was refined to 28 knots. This looked like fair game – but too fair; the mystery ship was moving close to the MTBs top speed, meaning they could never catch up before it reached shore. So they let it go but put in a call for air recon to follow it, which somehow turned into a three-phase aerial attack on the virtually motionless Liberty.
Aside from their massive blunder of later misidentifying the Liberty as the El Quseir (a size factor of three), their inability to read hull markings or see flags clearly, to receive important orders like 'don't sink that ship yet...', this error in speed (a factor of six, and double-checked equally wrong), in particular casts an air of absolute farce on the Torpedo boat crew's explanation.
The well-made if reaching 2001 BBC documentary Dead in the Water explained – incredulously – the accepted story that these Naval experts grossly misread the Liberty’s speed. They cite the one crew member they were able to talk to – Udi Erell – who, for what it’s worth, is the son of the Navy Minister at the time, Shlomo Erell, and has become the public face of this tragic operation. He explains the speed discrepancy as the result of an overly short sampling, leading to what he calls “a very normal mistake.” The range of error from this could be “anything between, going backwards, and thirty knots forward.”  By this, it seems possible to misread a stationary ship as moving at 30 knots, which would then explain the Liberty’s 5 knot crawl showing up that way.
OREN’S SECOND SHIP
As the “Salans report” puts it, “the implication of such reports [of naval shelling] was obviously that a ship capable of such shelling was present in the immediate offshore area, i.e., within gun range of the shore.”  And a faster warship would also be necessary to be seen cruising at 30 knots. But a gross misreading must be the explanation, since all official stories cite the Liberty at only 5 knots and all reputable sources agree there were no such ships in the area – or do they?
Another view is quite intriguing, makes a lot more sense, and gives more credit to the MTB crews’ intelligence. It’s a version I’ve never heard stated explicitly, but it was strongly hinted at by, of all people, Israeli-American historian Michael B. Oren, who seems confident nothing but mistake was at work in the Liberty attack, and is frequently cited to that effect. Presumably of no direct relation to the MTB commander, Oren's excellent 2000 analysis The USS Liberty: Case Closed, he’s tipped me off to another clue that might just help keep the case open.
At 1:41 p.m., Ensign Aharon Yifrah, aboard the flagship of these torpedo boats, T-204, informed its captain, Cmdr. Moshe Oren, that an unidentified ship had been sighted northeast of El-Arish at a range of 22 miles. The ship was sailing toward Egypt at a speed, Yifrah estimated, of 30 knots. Yifrah's assessment, twice recalculated and confirmed by him, was pivotal. It meant that the ship could not be the Liberty, whose maximum speed was 18 knots.” [6 - emph mine]
Well holy cow, that’s an ingenious inversion of the usual story – what if the reading was right and they were seeing a different ship? It’s a leap he hasn’t necessarily made, but there it is to be taken, and it’s got a ring to it. “When added to the ship's direction,” Oren adds, the speed “indicated that the target was an enemy destroyer fleeing toward port after having shelled El-Arish.” He never draws this conclusion outright, but based on these clues, they may just have identified a destroyer that had been shooting at them and was fleeing the scene at high speed, a classic sign of a guilty conscience.
Supporting this non-explicit construct, Oren’s report also mentioned the improbable official explanation for the prolonged reports of shelling that had the MTBs sent out and all this drama set up. “Though the explosion probably resulted from an ammunition dump fire, that fact was unknown at the time” Or, not that I’d ask Oren to go there, it could just be that that excuse hadn’t been fabricated yet. The concerns sound a little more substantiated than jumpy response to fireworks going off. “In El-Arish itself,” Oren continues, “Israeli forces were convinced they were being bombarded from the sea, and the IDF Southern Command reported sighting two unidentified vessels close offshore.” [7 – emph. mine]
CONFIRMATION OF MYSTERY SHIP
Two vessels in the area, as well as indications of actual shelling, is supported by an Isreali Defense Forces report from a week after the attack:
At 11.24 a.m. a message was received from the Command Post and by the Air Force that El-Arish was under bombardment from the sea. This message was transmitted on the basis of a message received from the Southern Command and had been repeated several times - based on repeated similar messages from the Southern Command. Said messages also contained reports on two ships or one ship shelling El-Arish. [8 – emph. mine]
These tidbits show if multiple channels were reporting shelling, there may be more going on than a single fire with random explosions. If there were indeed two ships around there, and Liberty to my knowledge did not see this neighbor (see below), they must have been several miles from each other. If two ships were seen at such range, aerial recon would be the way, and Air Force is a cited source. As it’s hard to imagine someone correlating two separate sightings into a single two-ship report, a single pilot who saw both ships on the same flight seems most likely.
Indeed, non-attacking over-flights were reported by Liberty crewmembers at 10:56, 11:26, 11:45, 12:20, and 12:45. It can and has been contested these were not reconnaissance flights focusing on the Liberty. In fact, they almost seem to have explicitly ignored it; according to Oren, IDF records show no aerial reports regarding the Liberty after 9:00 am. But as the shelling reports came in we have at least one likely report mentioning two ships, and one has to be the doomed spy ship.
Searching for Liberty crew recollections for any hint of nearby ships before the attack on them, I found survivor Richard Carlson mentioning, a few days earlier "traffic on the Med was busy. Freighters and ships from all nations. It was fascinating to be sailing in this arena until we spotted three Soviet destroyers matching our course and speed to the starboard of us.”  Oddly, he also recalls a Soviet spy ship trying to physically block their entry at Gibralter. Unless the culprit was Soviet, which is an intriguing thought, this just clutters the picture; the trailing destroyers were long-gone by the point he recalls, around lunchtime on June 8: “We couldn’t seem to shake the mystery ship following us. Who was it we wondered?” [10 - emph mine] With no additional clues aside from feelings of apprehension, this could as well be a metaphorical ship of anxiety as the steel-bellied one I’m wondering about. It's worth further exploration.
THE GETAWAY AND THE SCAPEGOAT
But it seems quite possible there were indeed two ships in the area as the shore sustained damage that mid-day – it would appear one was shooting and was soon clocked by the Pagoda crew around quarter of two, the other took the blame and was mauled by successive aerial assaults over the next half hour. Since the airplanes had already marked it enemy by attacking, the same MTBs that had been unable to catch up to the suspect 45 minutes earlier followed with the attempt to sink it… that darn Arab ship must’ve slowed way down as soon as it got out of view… and got a “splash of red” on its flag.
We’re not sure of what this mystery ship was or what happened to it after it was last observed by Oren, Erell and company. It may have had guns capable of shelling the shore, it apparently was doing so, it was moving at warship speed. What happened next with the airplanes and the Liberty is outside their jurisdiction, but it may be the torpedo boats' first act of the day was to unwittingly preside over the getaway as the mystery ship slipped into the mists of time, pulling a wave of blitzkrieg wrath onto the innocent bystanders left lingering in the way.
If you find this lead at all intriguing, please see my subsequent, in-the-works further analysis of the evidence.
 Testimony of William L. McGonagle, U. S. Navy, Commanding Officer, USS LIBERTY. US Naval Court of Inquiry. http://www.ussliberty.org/ncitext.htm
 Oren, Michael B. The 'USS Liberty': Case Closed. Azure, Spring 2000. http://web.archive.org/web/20000917231200/http://www.azure.org.il/9-Oren.htm
Dead In The Water. BBC films. 2006 update viewable here - part in question around 33:30
US Department of State. Memorandum by legal counsel Carl F. Salans. September 21, 1967. http://www.gtr5.com/evidence/salans.htm
 See 3.
 Col. Ram Ron. June 16 1967. http://www.gtr5.com/evidence/ramron.htm
 Carlson http://www.ussliberty.org/carlson.htm