BODY OF SECRETS
Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century.
By James Bamford.
721 pp. New York: Doubleday.
An account of the Liberty doomed fate
Air Force C-130 + EC-121M + EA3B
SHIPS: Liberty + Valdez
With the growing possibility of U.S. involvement in a Middle East war,
the Joint Chiefs of Staff needed rapid intelligence on the ground situation
officials at NSA considered their options … to collect the narrow
line-of-sight signals used by air defense radar, fire control radar,
microwave communications, and other targets.
Using the ships was the best option. Because they could sail relatively close, they could pick up the most important signals.
Also, unlike the aircraft, they could remain on station for weeks at a
time, eavesdropping, locating transmitters, and analyzing the
Technical research ship
Despite the advantages, not everyone agreed on the plan. Frank Raven,
the G Group chief, argued that it was too risky. "The ship will be
defenseless out there," he insisted. "If war breaks out, she'll be alone and
vulnerable. Either side might start shooting at her. ... I say the ship
should be left where it is." But he was overruled.
The need for linguists was especially critical on the Liberty, which carried
only French and Portuguese language experts. Therefore, five Arabic
linguists were ordered to Rota to rendezvous with the Liberty. Although
the ship already had numerous Russian linguists, it was also
decided to add one more, a senior analytical specialist.
Another ship, the Valdez, had also conducted "hearability studies" for NSA
in order to help determine the best places from which to eavesdrop.
Off the eastern end of Crete, the Valdez discovered what amounted to a "duct" in the air, a sort of aural pipeline that led straight to the Middle East. "You can sit in Crete and watch the Cairo television shows," said Raven. "If you're over
flat water, basically calm water, the communications are wonderful." He
decided to park the Liberty there.
But the Joint Chiefs of Staff had other ideas. In Rota, Commander
McGonagle received orders to deploy just off the coasts of Israel and
Egypt but not to approach closer than twelve and a half nautical miles to
Egypt or six and a half to Israel.
On June 5, 1967, at 7:45 A.M. Sinai time, Israel launched virtually its entire air force against Egyptian airfields, destroying, within eighty minutes, the majority of Egypt's air power. On the ground, tanks pushed out in three directions across the Sinai toward the Suez Canal. Fighting was also initiated along the
Jordanian and Syrian borders.
President Johnson's national security adviser, Walt Rostow, even stayed home from the office and turned off his bedroom light at 11:00 P.M. But he turned it
back on at 2:50 A.M. when the phone rang, a little over an hour after
Israel launched its attack. "We have an FBIS [Foreign Broadcast
Information Service] report that the UAR has launched an attack on
Israel," said a husky male voice from the White House Situation Room. "Go to your intelligence sources and call me back," barked Rostow.
As the first shots of the war were being fired across the desert
wasteland, NSA had a box seat. A fat Air Force C-130 airborne listening
post was over the eastern Mediterranean flying a figure-eight pattern off
Israel and Egypt. Later the plane landed back at its base, the Greek air
force section of Athens International Airport, with nearly complete
coverage of the first hours of the war.
From the plane, the intercept tapes were rushed to the processing
center, designated USA-512J by NSA. Set up the year before by the U.S.
Air Force Security Service, NSA's air arm, it was to process intercepts—
analyzing the data and attacking lower-level ciphers—produced by Air
Force eavesdropping missions throughout the Mediterranean, North
Africa, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, they were not able to listen to
the tapes of the war immediately because they had no Hebrew linguists.
However, an NSA Hebrew linguist support team was at that moment
winging its way to Athens. (To hide their mission and avoid the
implication of spying on Israel, Hebrew linguists were always referred to
as "special Arabic" linguists, even within NSA.)
A few days before, a temporary Navy signals intelligence processing center had been secretly set up at the Athens airport near the larger U.S. Air Force Sigint
facility. There, intercepts from the missions were to be analyzed and the
Another plane, the EC-121M, was slow, lumbering, and ideal for
eavesdropping—capable of long, twelve- to eighteen-hour missions,
depending on such factors as weather, fuel, altitude, intercept activity,
and crew fatigue. The mission commander decided to fly between Crete and
Cyprus and then head diagonally toward El Arish in the Sinai along an
established civilian air corridor. Upon reaching a point some twenty-five
Another signals intelligence plane, the EA3B, could fly
considerably higher, above 30,000 to 35,000 feet.
"Eerily, our Comint and Elint positions were quiet." But that changed as
the early-morning sun lit up the battlefields. "Our receivers came alive
with signals mostly from the Israelis as they began their second day of
attacks," Nowicki remembered. Around him, Hebrew linguists were
furiously "gisting"—summarizing—the conversations between Israeli
pilots, while other crew members attempted to combine that information
with signals from airborne radar obtained through electronic intelligence.
From their lofty perch, they eavesdropped like electronic voyeurs. The
NSA recorders whirred as the Egyptians launched an abortive air attack
on an advancing Israeli armored brigade in the northern Sinai, only to
have their planes shot out of the air by Israeli delta-wing Mirage aircraft.
The JRC began reevaluating the Liberty's safety as the warnings
mounted. The Egyptians began sending out ominous protests
complaining that U.S. personnel were secretly communicating with Israel
and were possibly providing military assistance.
Marvin Nowicki, who was aboard the EC-121 headed back to the war
zone. In the rear NSA spaces, the crew strapped on their seat belts. It
was an everyday routine. The VQ-2 squadron would fly, on average, six
to twelve missions per month against Israel and the Arab countries of the
Middle East. Nowicki himself accumulated over
2,000 hours in such spy planes over his career.
Back at Athens Airport, the 512J processing center had been beefed
up to help analyze the increasing flow of intercepts. Three NSA civilian
Hebrew linguists had arrived and were attacking the backlog of recording
tapes. The pile had grown especially large because the Air Force had no
Hebrew linguists for their C-150 Sigint aircraft.
To record all the traffic, they had a four-track voice recorder
with time dubs and frequency notations. Chief Nowicki, the supervisor, had an additional piece of equipment: a spectrum analyzer to view the radio activity in the form of "spikes" between 100 to 150 megahertz and 200 to 500 megahertz. It was very useful in locating new signals.
About noon, the activity began getting hectic. soon all our recorders were going full blast, with each position intercepting signals on both receivers."
A key piece of equipment was known as Big Look. It enabled the Elint operators to intercept, emulate, and identify the radar signals, and to reverse-locate them—to trace them back to their source.
The giant moon-bounced antenna dish was used to communicate quickly, directly, and securely with NSA back at Fort Meade, and for this purpose both locations had to be able to see the moon at the same time.Below deck in the Research Operations Department, as the NSA
spaces were known, Elint operators were huddled over round green
scopes, watching and listening for any unusual signals.One deck down, just below the waterline, were the Morse code as well as Russian and Arabic voice-intercept operators, their "cans" tight
against their ears. Lined up along the bulkheads, they pounded away on typewriters and flipped tape recorders on and off as they eavesdropped on the sounds of war.In another office, communications personnel worked on the ship's
special, highly encrypted communications equipment.
Nearby in the Coordination—"Coord"—spaces, technicians were
shredding all outdated documents to protect them from possible capture.
Without warning the Israeli jets struck—swept-wing Dassault Mirage
IIICs. Lieutenant Painter observed that the attacking aircraft had "absolutely no markings," so that their identity was unclear.
"It appears to me that every tuning section of every HF antenna had a hole in it," he said. "It took a lot of planning to get heat-seeking missiles aboard to take out our entire communications.
In the communications spaces, radiomen James Halman and Joseph
Ward had patched together enough equipment and broken antennas to
get a distress call off to the Sixth Fleet, despite intense jamming by the
Israelis. "Any station, this is Rockstar," Halman shouted, using the
Liberty's voice call sign. "We are under attack by unidentified jet aircraft
and require immediate assistance."
Now the operators began frantically searching the airwaves,
attempting to discover who was attacking them. At the same time, Lock-
wood and some others started the destruction procedure.
At 2:09, the American aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, operating near
Crete, acknowledged Liberty's cry for help. "I am standing by for further
traffic," it signaled.
For nearly thirty-five years NSA has hidden the fact that one of
its planes was overhead at the time of the incident, eavesdropping on
what was going on below. The intercepts from that plane, which answer
Two hours before the attack, the Navy EC-121 ferret had taken off
from Athens and returned to the eastern Mediterranean for its regular
patrol. Now it was flying a diagonal track from Crete and Cyprus to El Arish and back.
"Sure as the devil," said Nowicki, "Israeli aircraft were completing an attack on some object. I alerted the evaluator, giving him sparse details, adding that we had no idea what was taking place." For a while the activity subsided.
Deep down in the NSA spaces Terry McFarland, his head encased in
earphones, was vaguely aware of flickers of light coming through the
bulkhead. He had no idea they were armor-piercing tracer bullets slicing
through the Liberty's skin.
A later analysis said it would take a squadron of fifteen
or more planes to do such damage as was inflicted on the ship.
I heard a couple of references to the flag during an apparent attack. The
attackers weren't aircraft; they had to be surface units (we later found
out at USA-512J it was the Israeli motor torpedo boats attacking the
To prevent anyone from escaping the badly wounded ship, the Israelis
even destroyed the few surviving life rafts that were put into the water
following the call to abandon ship. "No survivors were planned for this day!" said Stan White.
have had reason to suspect the worst—that the agency had recorded
evidence of the numerous atrocities committed that morning only a few
miles away. This would be devastating evidence of hundreds of serious
war crimes, approved by senior Israeli commanders.
Indeed, many Israeli communications had been intercepted. "We
heard Israeli traffic," said section supervisor Charles L. Rowley.
Much of what was recorded was to be listened to and analyzed later, either at the secret processing station in Athens or back at NSA.