In a foreign policy controversy dating back almost 40 years, the U.S. State Department has concluded that the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was the result of “gross negligence.” The Liberty was a spy ship operating off the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli air and naval forces attacked the ship on June 8, killing 34 and wounding 171 crewmen. The ship’s commander received a Medal of Honor and several crewmen were decorated for heroism and valor. Israel apologized for what it termed a “mistaken action” and offered to compensate the victims and their relatives.
On some occasions over the years the major media have entertained the theory that Israel deliberately attacked the American ship because it had monitored Israeli communications. But if this were the case, why didn’t Israel finish the job and sink the ship? Liberty survivors, who say an American flag on the ship should have been visible to the Israeli attackers, believe it was deliberate and that the U.S. government covered up the truth for the benefit of Israel and its supporters in the U.S. The 2001 book, Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, charged that the National Security Agency had evidence proving the Israeli attack was a deliberate attack on a U.S. ship.
Several retired officials, who participated in or signed off on the original investigations of the attack that let Israel off the hook for a deliberate attack on a U.S. ship, have changed their minds. These include a Navy captain who was the chief legal counsel to the Navy’s 1967 Court of Inquiry and who had sworn at the time that he believed that Israel did not deliberately attack a U.S. ship. Now he accuses Israel of a deliberate atrocity. He is accused of lying then or now. On the other hand, Admiral Thomas Moorer, the former chief of Naval Operations who is a well- respected military authority, says the evidence has convinced him that it was not an accidental attack on an American ship.
A recent State Department conference featured presentations on the Liberty attack by Bamford and two authors who take the opposite view, A. Jay Cristol and Israeli scholar Michael Oren. At one point, Bamford seemed to back off his claim that the attack was deliberate. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” he told the audience, urging yet another investigation.
Last summer, NSA declassified and released transcripts of intercepts of Israeli radio communications collected at the time by a U.S. surveillance aircraft. The NSA historian at the conference said that these intercepts, gathered in the attack’s immediate aftermath, “suggest strongly” that Israel did not know the Liberty was a U.S. vessel.
Liberty survivors charged the State Department with a continuing cover-up and were told to sit down and be quiet or be ushered from the event. Referring to Cristol and Oren, they agreed with Bamford that the panel was stacked with representatives or agents of Israel, although Cristol is a retired U.S. navy aviator. The controversy is not over but the critics of Israel will have to come up with more evidence if they are going to prove their case.