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Conference Finds 1967 Israeli Attack on U.S. Ship Probably Not Deliberate

January 14, 2004
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Newly declassified intelligence reports on a deadly Israeli attack on a U.S. ship in 1967 reinforces Israel’s claim that the attack was a mistake — and critics’ charges that it was an act of gross negligence.

Historians at the U.S. National Security Agency and the U.S. State Department on Monday addressed a State Department conference on the 1967 Six-Day War. The first panel, and the one that attracted the largest audience, was about the attack on the USS Liberty, which killed 34 sailors.

The attack by Israeli Air Force planes and torpedo boats on the spy ship 12 miles off the Sinai coast on June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the war between Israel and its neighbors, has rattled U.S.-Israel relations ever since. Some survivors have joined Israel’s most strident critics in saying the attack was deliberate.

Israel has maintained that its forces believed they were attacking an Egyptian vessel that had shelled Israeli positions in Sinai and was headed north to shell Israel.

Both sides have maintained that classified U.S. documents would bolster their theories, focusing especially on NSA intercepts of conversations between an Israeli control tower and two helicopters surveying the attack scene.

The NSA — one of the most secretive U.S. agencies — finally released the intercepts last summer. This week’s conference was the first time the agency allowed one of its historians to interpret them.

“The intercepts to me suggest strongly that the Israeli attackers did not know they were aiming deadly fire at a vessel belonging to the United States,” NSA official David Hatch told the conference. “In a careful reading, the intercepted communications between the air controller at Hatzor and helicopters dispatched in the wake of the attack show a progressive reversal of perception on their part.”

“At first — confidence the aircraft were to inspect an Egyptian ship. Then — signs that the ship might not be Egyptian after all. And finally — growing evidence that it could belong to a friendly nation,” he said.

Hatch cautioned, however, that the intercepts did not provide “absolute proof” of Israel’s claim of mistaken identity because there were no intercepts of conversations during the actual attacks.

“We must admit that we cannot learn from it what the higher-ups knew, what they ordered or why they ordered it,” Hatch said.

State Department historian Harriet Schwar made a similar point in her review of material from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which was declassified for the first time at the conference.

“I saw no transcripts of the attack itself or any indication there had been such transcripts,” Schwar said.

Still, Schwar noted that the CIA soon concluded the attack was a mistake.

According to the CIA report, “the Israelis were not aware at the time of the attack they were attacking a U.S. ship,” Schwar said. The report “concluded that the attack was not made in malice but was by mistake, representing gross negligence.”

The Defense Intelligence Agency and an extensive review by presidential adviser Clark Clifford concurred with those conclusions, Schwar said.

Clifford’s conclusion was significant because initially he had advised President Johnson to treat the attack the way he would if the Soviets or Arabs were responsible — in other words, as an act of war.

The negligence charge has dogged U.S.-Israel relations since the attack. Hours after the attack, Israel expressed “abject apologies,” but a few days later that was downgraded to “regrets.”

Israeli historian Michael Oren told the conference that an Israeli inquiry concluded that “the errors committed, though unfortunate, were reasonable in a combat situation, and not criminally negligent in nature.”

That was at odds with the conclusion of the CIA report, which said the attack showed “gross negligence,” and an angry note from then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Israel calling the attack “an act of military recklessness and wanton disregard for human life.”

Israel eventually paid $12 million in compensation to survivors and families of the dead.

The revelations at Monday’s conference reinforce conclusions drawn from documents that long have been part of the public record.

A U.S. naval court of inquiry concluded in 1967 that the Liberty attack was a case of mistaken identity. The Clifford report, declassified in 1995, called the attack ” a flagrant attack of gross negligence for which the Israeli government should be held completely responsible and the Israeli military personnel involved should be punished.”

Advocates of the deliberate attack theory and those who believe it was a case of mistaken identity each made presentations at the conference.

Charles Smith, a University of Arizona historian chosen by the State Department to assess the conflicting views, suggested that gross negligence was a more likely conclusion than deliberate attack.

“Gross negligence is not the same as deliberate complicity, in knowingly attacking a ship of a friendly power,” Smith said. “But it does indicate that not all precautions at identification were taken.”

Smith suggested that Israel might have avoided the decades of skepticism that have dogged its actions surrounding the incident had it acknowledged negligence at the time.

Oren agreed that the Israeli military — which forced several officers into retirement after the incident — should have gone further. He said there were signs of “severe negligence.”

He also cited U.S. negligence. The 6th Fleet, to which the Liberty belonged, somehow did not receive an order to keep at least 100 miles away from the war zone.

The conference did little to assuage the psychic scars of the attack.

Survivors were furious that they were not invited to join the panel. Their views were presented by James Bamford, a journalist who has covered the NSA extensively.

Some survivors, who insist that the attack was deliberate, cried “Whitewash!” when the chief State Department historian, Marc Susser, cut them off during a question-and-answer session.

“Israeli gunmen fired at our lifeboats,” said Phil Tourney, a survivor.

Whether or not the Israelis believed such targets were Egyptian or American, he said, “You don’t shoot unarmed anybody. That’s a war crime.”

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