A U.S. Navy signals intelligence ship festooned with huge antennae, the Liberty was attacked by Israeli aircraft and gunboats in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sinai in June 1967 with the loss of 34 crewmen killed. The Liberty had been commissioned in December 1964, ostensibly as a naval auxiliary research vessel, but was actually a signals intercept platform controlled by the National Security Agency. The former World War II cargo ship was manned by wireless technicians, linguists, and other intelligence personnel. Commanded by William McGonagle, the clearly marked and flagged Liberty had been stationed in international waters north of Port Said when the Six-Day War broke out. The ship was strafed and bombed with napalm by two pairs of Mirage and Super-Mystère jets, before being attacked by three torpedo boats. Holed below the waterline, and with 171 wounded personnel, Commander McGonagle nevertheless sailed his ship to Malta.
Israel later claimed that the attack had been a case of mistaken identity—insisting that the Liberty had been erroneously reported to be an Egyptian troopship, the El Quseir—and paid compensation to the U.S. Navy, the survivors, and the dependants of those killed. Several subsequent investigations uncovered no evidence that the episode was anything other than a tragic accident, although the U.S. Navy’s official court of inquiry was conducted in conditions of such secrecy, and its subsequent report was so highly classified, that there was considerable speculation about the possibility that the attack had been a deliberate attempt to prevent the NSA from collecting information about the Sinai campaign that might have been damaging to Israel’s interests. Others have suggested that Israel intended to obliterate the Liberty and pretend the Egyptians had been responsible, so as to draw the United States into the conflict. The issue remains live, especially among the Liberty’s surviving crew.