USS Liberty was operated and manned by the US Navy under operational control of the local commander and the technical control of the National Security Agency. The ship's specific missions were assigned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The ship was part of the US Atlantic Fleet and, contrary to much misguided public speculation, was always directly under military control. At the time of the attack, USS Liberty was under the immediate operational control of the US Sixth Fleet operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Next senior in the line of command were Commander in Chief US Naval Forces Europe (CINCUSNAVEUR, aka "Sink us Never") and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
In 1967 the US operated about a dozen such ships around the world, including five roughly similar to USS Liberty, several much smaller ships similar to USS Pueblo which was captured by Korea in 1968, and a number of ships with civilian crews and only small US Navy intelligence collection contingents.
Hours before the attack the Sixth Fleet Commander promised to provide jet aircraft support within ten minutes in the "unlikely" event of an "accidental" attack. When the ship did come under attack and aircraft were dispatched to our aid, USS America was involved in an aircraft drill and was unprepared to respond. USS Saratoga did respond, but those aircraft were recalled by orders from the White House while we were still under attack, an act which compounded American loss of life.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies that failure to provide assistance to US troops under attack is a crime punishable by courts martial and, upon conviction, by death or other penalties. Despite that provision, no one in or out of the military has ever been asked to explain why the USS Liberty was not protected while under fire.
The 1966-67 issue of "Janes Fighting Ships" describes the ship as follows:
A Technical Reseach Ship
Converted from SS Simmons Victory AG-168 (A WWII freighter)
Displacement: 7,190 tons light
10,680 tons fully loaded
General: Modified "Victory" ship. Conversion completed by Williamette Iron & Steel, Portland, Oregon, in December, commissioned 30 December 1964. Mobile base for research in communications and electromagnetic radiation.
The 1969-70 issue "Janes" reports frankly that these are considered to be "electronic intelligence" ships, and reports that USS Liberty was decommissioned 28 June 1968. The ship was later dismantled and sold for scrap for approximately $101,000. At the time of the attack she was valued at more than $40-million. In 1982, Israel paid $6-million in compensation for this damage. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others have said that this payment was meaningless, because the US Congress simply gave Israel extra money with which to make the payment.
It was widely understood that "research in communications and electromagnetic radiation" was a euphemism for electronic and communications intercept and analysis, i.e., intelligence collection.
Various official statements from the US Government since the attack have conceded that the ship's mission was to collect intelligence. Recent reports indicate that the actual primary mission of the ship was not to observe the Arab-Israeli War, but--using the war as an excuse for being in the area--to collect intelligence concerning the control and operation of Soviet TU-95 Bear intercontinental bombers then stationed in Alexandria by the Soviet Union.
At the time of the attack, the ship carried 294 men. All were American sailors except for three civilians from the National Security Agency who were sent as technical advisors and linguists, and three U.S. Marine Corps members who were also specialists in Russian and Arabic languages.
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors