Adam Larson / Caustic Logic
May 15 2009
Among the greatest controversies of the USS Liberty saga is the widespread allegation of “secret recordings” of the attack, which revealed that the Israeli pilots were ordered to attack the ship despite the US flag they reported. I haven’t examined the history of when the issue was first publicly mentioned and so on, and for the most part I’m relying on John Crewdson’s ambitious 2007 Chicago Tribune piece that cites at least eight witnesses (with accounts of varying quality) who claim first-hand knowledge of the transmissions that show IDF command knew full well what there ordering sunk. 
Judge Cristol’s 2003 book cites the allegation as pushed by survivors James Ennes and George Golden (among “many others”), neither of whom would be in a position for first-hand knowledge of the recordings. He names no others and give neither detail nor citation, and offers in retort “thus far, no one has produced such a tape.”  Mitchell Bard’s rebuff is the same; “also, contrary to claims that an Israeli pilot identified the ship as American on a radio tape, no one has ever produced this tape.” 
Most of the witnesses Crewdson cites, and I’ll present below, seem to have no problem with the lack of a hard audio copy. Well, of course we aren't going to hear that... now. They are fairly consistent on how they received this information; the evidence claimed is paper-printed, English-language translations of the original Hebrew recordings. These were seen at, primarily, Air Force intelligence stations, at different locales around the world, and seen within hours of the attack (or during it, depending).
The original tapes these would be of UHF transmissions, which the IDF used at the time, meaning line-of-sight, or limited rage, reception would be needed. That is, the listener had to quite near the scene of attack. The Liberty is of course a spy ship itself, quite capable of recording the attack on itself, but I’m aware of no reports of surviving material released and attributed back to Liberty – anything it recorded and survived the attack is secret and unacknowledged. There is also the little-known case of the submarine(s) allegedly in the area, swimming secretly beneath the Liberty, for some top-secret reconnaissance of their own  I don’t think receiver antennae work as well underwater, but it is an interesting aside.
Then there is the third level, an airborne platform also in the vicinity well above the Liberty – a U.S. Navy EC 121, obviously unacknowledged then and for decades since. Its presence and mission were only published with the release of James Bamford’s 2000 Body of Secrets, and since then presumed as the origin of any recordings of the attack. They had different linguists on board, including Hebrew – monitoring on many frequencies, recording some for later analysis, and taking notes along the way. Their stories will be touched on in part two, for now, suffice to say, they believe they recorded and brought back all relevant transmissions of a lengthy attack, by air and surface vessels, on a U.S. ship. 
Once these tapes were transcribed and analyzed, copies might well be forwarded to certain locations at some security level or other – I’m not certain the reason diverse stations would be informed of such details in such an unusual case, but it’s possible – according to the witnesses this is just what happened. As I list them and some key details of their account to Crewdson and elsewhere, The debunker/debunk-pre-emptor in me has to note questions about each account as well as boosters as they occur.
THE WITNESSES: BOTHERED FOR LIFE
- Dwight Porter: U.S. ambassador to Lebanon at the time, Porter was a (relatively) early proponent of the recorded orders story; in a November 1991 interview with Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, as the website If America Knew reports:
“Porter says that during or immediately after the attack on the Liberty the CIA station chief showed him transcripts of intercepted Israeli messages. One has Israel ordering the attack on the Liberty, another has an Israeli pilot replying it’s an American ship. When the order to attack is repeated, the pilot insists he can see the American flag. The pilot is told again: “Attack it.” In Crewdson’s article, the transcript was shown through a different channel, an embassy official. Either is a bit unusual, as most other witnesses the Air Force loop. I’m not sure what to make of it.
- Oliver Kirby: Deputy Director of the then-secret NSA at the time of the attack on an NSA-commissioned spy ship. Decades later, when asked about the alleged transcripts, he said he “certainly did" read them, and it has “bothered me all my life.” He recalls the content, in part: "They said, 'We've got him in the zero […] And then one of them said, 'Can you see the flag?' They said 'Yes, it's U.S, it's U.S.' They said it several times, so there wasn't any doubt in anybody's mind that they knew it."  Of course the attack was then carried out. Sounds possibly authentic, and certainly no hack crank. We've got the big wigs testifying - this one on "a stack of bibles" if he had it, that they shot our flag knowingly.
- Richard Block: Capt. Block (USAF) commanding an intelligence wing monitoring the War from Crete, only 400 miles from thee Liberty attack. The “beyond top secret” translations re recalls reading demonstrated that “some of the pilots did not want to attack. The pilots said, 'This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?' And ground control came back and said, 'Yes, follow orders.’”  Sounds good – right job and location, a few details, consistent with the others. Unfortunately when he talked to the dismal American Free Press, as found re-posted on David Duke’s site, he sounded far less convincing. Calling the Israeli excuse “complete bull****,” he told the paper “They knew it was an American ship. We heard it with our own ears, several times.”  Ears? Indeed – Block’s story is that “We were getting the translations in real-time,” intercepted, tanslated, re-spoken, and broadcasting live for them? Even if that’s not quite what he’s arguing, it’s so far off the mark it can’t help but be an incorrect story. Block's hob-nobbing with the AFP crowd is also none too good for his credibility, and casts a pall over his public confrontations with Judge Cristol.
- Steve Forslund: An intelligence worker at Offutt AFB at the time, Forslund claims he saw the transcripts roll off at his station, and he gives a dramatic retelling:
"The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it […] The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag. […] The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors. […] He kept insisting the mission had to sink the target, and was frustrated with the pilots' responses that it didn't sink." The details of his account carry a ring of authenticity to my ears. He asserts he was not alone; "everybody saw these." In a statement to the USS Liberty Survivor’s Association, he elaborated “We read these in real time during the day the attack occurred. […]On the day of the attack on the Liberty, I read yellow teletype sheets that spewed from the machines in front of me all day.”  His apparent claim of live transcription is about as dumb as Block’s real-time audio – perhaps he didn’t consider the hour as the attack was happening half-a-world away – 6:00 am Nebraska time, and continuing for about two hours maximum. If it was actually day, and “all day” when he read these, they weren’t real-time. This helps his case. But then he cites other gems including “intercepts of messages between the USA and Israel in which our government stated their knowledge of the Israeli's pre-emptive attack that began the war and warned Israel to cease their activities.” I see this as more diplomat talk than radio chatter material for "everybody" to hear, but I really am no expert.
- James Gotcher: Working at a NSA-linked Air Force Security Service center in Vietnam had the ink run past his eyes as well: “It was clear that the Israeli aircraft were being vectored directly at USS Liberty […] Later, around the time Liberty got off a distress call, the controllers seemed to panic and urged the aircraft to 'complete the job' and get out of there."  This account doesn’t sound totally right, but that could just be me. Gotcher is affiliated with the USS Liberty Survivors Association. In a sworn statement with them, he summarized the content in part: “the aircraft were flying a planned mission to find and sink USS Liberty. My understanding of what I read led me to conclude that the Israeli pilots were making every effort possible to sink USS Liberty and were very frustrated by their inability to do so.” No glitch this, he explains how the first time he saw it was a rough translation, and then the “final translations” were sent the same way the next day, even though there were “virtually no differrence between the two versions.” These were followed first by an internal NSA report announcing a deliberate attack, and then a conspicuous recall and order to destroy all three. 
- W. Patrick Lang: That copies of these papers survived any attempted erasure would explain Lang’s story. An Army colonel studying advanced military intelligence at Ft. Holabird, MD, he claims he saw these transcripts used as source material in an advanced intelligence class some time after the attack.
"In the transcript, the flight leader spoke to his base to report that he had the ship in view, that it was the same ship that he had been briefed on and that it was clearly marked with the US flag. I think he said that the ship was displaying the US flag on an upper deck, but my memory of that might be inexact. He asked for confirmation of his orders to attack the ship and seemed reluctant (understandably) to attack the ship. He asked more than once and was told to carry out his orders and attack the ship.” The implied “briefing” is very interesting, something I’ve not noticed in other accounts. Lang’s own website – which mostly reviews quality fictional films – explains more in detail how this came to be. The information was produced on the base for limited use in the class. I imagine these were not “take home” books. This was in winter 1967/68, so about six months after the attack, he recalls. Sounds plausible, just enough detail for a Tom Clancey flick.
All in all that’s a case – not a lot of credible witnesses, but how many would there be with top secret clearance at that time, or with talkative friends who did? Enough people have agreed in a fairly consistent manner that something interesting can’t help but be at work here – either a widespread campaign to lie this myth into being, or the transcripts really did show what these people have said they did. That a NSA deputy Director and a State Department diplomat are among the witnesses lends weight to the notion, and it seems highly likely that such transcripts were circulated at the time. If true, it is interesting to note – this stuff was not hushed up among the intelligence sector, even if the news media was gagged in the trunk over it. One at least saw it well after any “lid” was clamped on, and as only a prospective member of the intelligence community.
For all we know the transcripts were physically real but factually phony - some kind of forgery slipped in to the intelligence system by someone with a grudge against Israel. This sounds outlandish enough on its own, and gets further complicated if we’re discussing real-time dispersal. So probably not. Whatever its informational origin, if this were a real circulated artifact, there would be multiple copies still in existence – telex printouts on paper, or photocopies/photographs of same, and to my knowledge have never been published, posted on the internet, or definitively claimed by anyone, or even forged to my knowledge. Everybody seems to agree – once widely seen, the papers are all gone to oblivion or the vault, and only human memory cells hold the imprint. And presumably most of those are tighter-lipped than the ones we've heard.
The recordings themselves are at least as distant, and as noted at the outset, no one has produced such a tape. There were those on the U.S. side who said they recorded the attack, and the Israelis, to their credit, have produced their own tape of the incident. These will be the subject of part two.
 Crewdson, John. "New revelations in attack on American spy ship." Chicago Tribune. October 2 2007. (Additional material published Dec 2). http://www.chicagotribune.com/services/newspaper/printedition/tuesday/chi-liberty_tuesoct02,0,1050179.story
 Cristol, Jay A. "The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship." Brasseys, 2003. Page 58.
 Bard, Mitchell G. "Myths & Facts Online: The 1967 Six-Day War." Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/myths/mf6.html