ISRAEL MAKES UNPROVOKED ATTACK
Several official US and Israeli investigations maintained the initially published conclusion that the event was a tragic mistake through misidentification. The scope of the Israeli investigations was to decide whether or not anyone in the Israeli Defense Forces should be tried on crimes (no criminal wrongdoing was found), accepting as a premise that the attack was a mistake. The scope and performance of U.S. congressional investigations and four other U.S. investigations subsequent to the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry did not satisfy some parties. The majority of those subsequent U.S. reports were issues such as communications failures rather than culpability. The Naval Court of Inquiry conclusions continue to be disputed (see below). According to Raymond Garthoff, nonetheless, US military and intelligence agencies are unanimous in finding that the the Israeli attack was “deliberate and unprovoked.”
Three subsequent Israeli inquiries concluded the attack was conducted because Liberty was confused with an Egyptian vessel and because of failures of communications between Israel and the U.S. The three Israeli commissions were:
The Israeli government said three crucial errors
were made: the refreshing of the status board (removing the
ship's classification as American, so that the later shift
did not see it identified), the erroneous identification of
the ship as an Egyptian vessel, and the lack of notification
from the returning aircraft informing Israeli headquarters
of markings on the front of the hull (markings that would
not be found on an Egyptian ship). As the general root of
these problems, Israel blamed the combination of alarm and
fatigue experienced by the Israeli forces at that point of
the war when pilots were severely over-worked.
Ten official American investigations are claimed regarding the Liberty incident.
Critics -- including an active group of survivors from the ship -- assert that five U.S. congressional investigations and four other U.S. investigations were not investigations into the attack at all, but rather reports using evidence only from the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, or investigations unrelated to the culpability of the attack but rather discussing issues such as communications. In their view, the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry is the only investigation on the incident to date. They claim it was hastily conducted, in only 10 days, even though the court’s president, Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, said that it would take 6 months to properly conduct.
The incident exposed possible weaknesses in the military capabilities of the U.S., in that the USA was apparently unable to reliably transmit orders from Washington to its naval ships in the field and count on them being received and promptly obeyed. The USS Liberty was a highly sophisticated electronics eavesdropping ship with the best radio equipment in the fleet, yet it claimed to have not received orders to leave the battle zone. Investigations threatened to publicly expose and emphasize either an inability of U.S. warships to receive orders from Washington dependably or else a failure of a U.S. naval captain to follow orders. One possibility is that the U.S. Navy sought to avoid embarrassing discussions of its operational deficiencies.
The National Archives in College Park, Md., includes in its files on Liberty's casualties copies of the original telegrams the Navy sent out to family members. The telegrams called the attack accidental. The telegrams were sent out June 9, the day before the Navy court of inquiry convened.
Captain Ward Boston, JAGC, U.S. Navy, has in recent years said the court's findings were intended to cover up what was a deliberate attack by Israel on a ship it knew to be American. He has prepared and signed an affadavit in which he claimed that Admiral Kidd had told him that the government ordered Kidd to falsely report that the attack was a mistake, and that he and Kidd both believed the attack was deliberate. He wrote, in part,
"The evidence was clear. Both Admiral Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack, which killed 34 American sailors and injured 172 others, was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. Each evening, after hearing testimony all day, we often spoke our private thoughts concerning what we had seen and heard. I recall Admiral Kidd repeatedly referring to the Israeli forces responsible for the attack as 'murderous bastards.' It was our shared belief, based on the documentary evidence and testimony we received first hand, that the Israeli attack was planned and deliberate, and could not possibly have been an accident."
However, there is no record of Kidd ever publicly expressing such opinions.
Critics of Boston believe that he is not telling the truth in regard to Kidd's views and any pressure from the government. In particular, A. Jay Cristol, who also served as an officer of the Judge Advocate General in the U.S. military, suggests that Boston was responsible in part for the original conclusions of the Court of Inquiry, and that by later declaring that they were false he has admitted to "lying under oath." Critics also note that Boston's claims about pressure on Kidd was hearsay, and that Kidd was not alive to confirm or deny them, and they note that Boston did not maintain prior to his affadavit and comments related to it that Kidd spoke of such instructions to him or to others. Supporters of the intentional-attack theory believe that Boston's statement invalidates the conclusions of the Court, and that Boston would not have made such an accusation if he did not know it to be true.
Ongoing Controversy & Unresolved Questions
Several key intelligence and military officials dispute Israel's explanation:
• "...the board of inquiry (concluded) that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing in attacking the Liberty."- Former CIA Director Richard Helms
• "I was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation. . . . Through diplomatic channels we refused to accept their explanations. I didn't believe them then, and I don't believe them to this day. The attack was outrageous "- Former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk
Some of the survivors claim that this incident stands as the only peacetime attack on a U.S. naval vessel not investigated by Congress, and want a full Congressional hearing; they claim that a proper investigation has never taken place and that all previous reports including the ones by the U.S. Congress are incomplete, mention the incident in passing, and either that they are intended to exonerate Israel or that they do not even question the culpability of the attack (instead, they hold, it focuses on other topics, such as American communication problems).
Israel stated that the attack was not deliberate using the following arguments:
•The previous day, Israel's warplanes had erroneously attacked an Israeli armored column, demonstrating unintentional mistakes, where the IAF had even attacked Israel's own forces.
• The incident took place during the Six Day War when Israel was engaged in battles with three Arab countries, creating an environment where mistakes and confusion were prevalent. For example, at 11:45, a few hours before the attack, there was a large explosion on the shores of El-Arish followed by black smoke, probably caused by the destruction of an ammunition dump by retreating Egyptian forces. The Israeli army thought the area was being bombarded, and that an unidentified ship offshore was responsible. (According to U.S. sources, Liberty was 14 nautical miles from those shores at the time of the attack.)
• Had Israel intended to attack the USS Liberty, IAF aircraft would have been sent out with bombs, not light machine gun ammunition, sinking the Liberty within the first few minutes of the incident.
• The attacking aircraft used napalm rockets and machine guns, and napalm is an ineffective armament for doing real damage to a steel-hulled ship—other than starting fires in combustibles. Machine guns, though, are often used to keep a ship's company under cover, thus keeping the company from manning weather deck stations and doing damage control topside.
• Liberty opened fire first on the gunboats. This, though, was after the aerial attacks.
• No adequate benefit has been put forward that the Israelis would derive from the attack on an American ship, especially considering the high cost of the predictable complications that must inevitably follow such an attack on a powerful ally, and the fact that Israel immediately notified the American embassy after the attack.
Details in dispute
The events surrounding the attack, even very simple elements such as its duration, are the subject of fierce controversy. Among the disputed facts:
• Visibility of ensign: The most vehemently debated point is the visibility of the American flags that the ship was flying; Americans claimed the flags were clearly visible in the wind. The Israeli pilots claimed they did not see any flag. Official reports have the Liberty cruising at 5 knots on a calm day, so that the flag would have been furled or fouled, while others maintain the ship was cruising at 28 knots, and insist the flag should have been clearly visible.
• USS Liberty bore an eight-foot-high
"5" and a four-foot-high "GTR" along either
bow, clearly indicating her hull (or "pendant")
number (AGTR-5), and had 18-inch-high letters spelling the
vessel's name across the stern. These markings were not cursive
Arabic script but in English. Israeli pilots claim initially
they were primarily concerned with making sure the ship was
not Israeli and that they called off the attack when they
noticed the English markings.