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Testimony Reveals That ‘liberty’ Failed to Get Messages Ordering It to Move

The disclosure in Congress today that a Navy communications foul-up led to the presence of the U.S.S. Liberty off the Sinai coast in June, 1967, where it was mistaken for an Egyptian vessel and attacked by Israeli torpedo boats and planes, touched off a Congressional demand that the U.S. refund to Israel the $3,323,500 paid in damages. Rep. Seymour Halpern, New York Republican, declared in the House that “since testimony just released by a House subcommittee discloses that it was U.S. Government communications system negligence, mistakes and incompetence which jeopardized the Liberty, why should Israel have to pay for our own tragic comedy of errors.”

The testimony, published by the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, was given at hearings last April and May on the Defense Department’s 1969 budget. Released Tuesday, it revealed a series of blunders and misroutings of messages. The Liberty never received an order from the Pentagon to withdraw from the Sinai war zone. The Liberty, a communications ship, was attacked repeatedly by Israeli planes on June 8, 1967, at the peak of the Six-Day War. Thirty-four Americans were killed and 75 were wounded. Israel expressed regret at the time and said it was “prepared to make amends for the tragic loss of life and material damage,” which it subsequently did. The U.S. claimed that the ship was 13.6 nautical miles off Sinai when the attack occurred.

According to the testimony, the order to the Liberty to move out of Sinai waters was first “misrouted by personnel in the Army communications center at the Pentagon to the Naval communications center in the Philippines. There a second personnel error misrouted the message to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., where it was filed.” It was never delivered to the Liberty.

Lt. Gen. R.P. Klocko, director of the U.S. Defense Communications Agency, admitted that because of personnel failures, “the message was sent to the Pacific instead of the Atlantic.” Additional errors were also revealed. According to the published testimony, “the routing clerk aboard the flagship U.S.S. Little Rock (flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean) failed to detect…(that) the Liberty was monitoring the fleet broadcast from the Naval Communications station at Asmara, Ethiopia” and as a result another message was misrouted to the Naval Communications Center in Morocco.

Congressmen at the hearing were apparently infuriated, Rep. John Rhodes, Arizona Republican, asked Gen. Klocko why a message was not sent directly to the ship to move its position “100 miles from the shore” instead of going “through all this rigamarole to move that ship.” “Here we are with the most sophisticated communications system ever known to mankind and maybe its so sophisticated that we do not know how to use it,” Rep. Rhodes declared.

CONGRESSMAN SAYS ADMINISTRATION SHOULD REASSESS ISRAEL’S RESPONSIBILITY

Rep. Halpern said that “the revelation of the fact that American mistakes were responsible for the terrible losses sustained in American dead and wounded would indicate that the Administration’s legal authorities (should) reassess Israel’s responsibility in the restitution question. Israel,” he said, “voluntarily offered at the time of the incident to make restitution. It would have been only fair and honorable for the Administration to have disclosed to Israel and to American public opinion that U.S. incompetence rather than Israeli irresponsibility was culpable.”

He suggested that “a grave disservice appears to have been done to Israel by bureaucrats anxious to cover up orders that were dispatched but never received. It was obvious that the Israeli action would never have occurred.” He urged that all the new facts available and material still allegedly suppressed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff be made available to a court of appropriate jurisdiction. The testimony did not reveal why the orders were issued to move the Liberty.

A U.S. Navy board of inquiry had ruled that the attack on the Liberty was “unprovoked” and said that Israeli forces had ample opportunity to identify the ship correctly. Israel said that when the Liberty had been challenged by an Israeli torpedo boat, it had replied with the signal used by Egyptian ships during the 1956 Sinai campaign. The Liberty, built during World War II, was a standard American cargo ship type known as a Victory ship. There are several Victory ships in the Egyptian merchant marine.

Israel is expected to refer to the newly disclosed information about the Liberty in the course of talks now in progress on the settlement of further claims, official sources said today. The Israelis were unaware of facts revealed prior to publication of the testimony by Congress, they said. A considerable sum is at stake. In addition to the compensation claims of 75 injured Navy personnel, there is a bill for the damage to the ship and its sophisticated equipment.

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