Tempers Flare At USS
Liberty Attack Conference

By Matthew Lee in Washington

A State Department conference has failed to quell the raging controversy over Israel's attack on a US spy ship during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as an expert panel was unable to agree whether the strike was intentional.
All but one of four panelists said they either accepted or tended to accept Israel's stated explanation ñ that the attack on the USS Liberty had been a case of tragic misidentification and an accident.
A senior State Department official said Washington had not changed its initial, nearly 35-year-old assessment that the attack was the result of "gross negligence" on the part of the Israeli military, but not an intentionally hostile act against the United States.
But survivors and families of victims of the incident, many of whom believe Israel deliberately attacked the ship, angrily charged the State Department with helping cover up Israel's role.
Controversy has raged for years over the June 8, 1967, attack on the Liberty, a US signals intelligence ship, in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli jets and torpedo boats struck the ship, killing 34 US sailors and wounding 171.
Israel maintains that its forces mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian warship, but many dispute the Israeli account and demand a new investigation of the sinking.
The senior State Department official said the panel, part of a two-day conference on the 1967 war, had not intended to re-evaluate long-standing US acceptance of the Israeli explanation.
"In many respects, I think this is kind of a classic binational case of Murphy's Law: everything that could possibly go wrong on either side did," the official said after the panel adjourned.
The official said nothing presented in new documents released today as part of the US diplomatic history of the 1967 war had changed the evaluation of Israel's explanation at the time.
"The unprovoked attack on the Liberty constitutes a flagrant act of gross negligence for which the Israeli government should be held completely responsible," the official quoted the US conclusion as saying.
However, that official and others, all of whom participated in the conference, admitted it was unlikely the panel had closed the matter or stemmed any of the controversy surrounding the case.
"I don't know if we settled anything, but I think perhaps we've shed a little light on different aspects of this question," Marc Susser, the State Department historian, told the conference.
One leading sceptic of the Israeli explanation is James Bamford, the author of several books on US intelligence.
Bamford, who repeated his call for a new investigation into the incident, argues that the Israelis intentionally sank the Liberty to cover up a massacre of Egyptian prisoners of war on the Sinai.
Then US president Lyndon Johnson's administration hid the facts to avoid harming ties with Israel, Bramford claims.
Bramford urged in a 2001 book that intelligence data from a US spy plane in the area be released to shed light on the attack.
David Hatch, technical director for the Centre for Cryptologic History, said at least some of those intercepts, released by the ultra-secret National Security Agency last year, indicated that the Israelis had not deliberately targeted a US vessel.
"While falling short of proof, 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," Hatch told the panel.
The senior State Department official agreed with that analysis, although he allowed that there were still "some documents that could not be declassified" for the conference.
The conference also heard from Michael Oren, an Israeli historian, and Jay Cristol, a federal judge, both of whom have published investigations into the incident that have supported the Israeli explanation.
The panelists and their conclusions clearly irritated some in the audience, who appeared to believe that the United States was letting Israel ñ which paid $US12 million ($15.49 million) in compensation afterwards ñ get away with murder.
"There have been so many half-truths and misstatements made up here today," Liberty survivor Joseph Lentini said angrily before being cut-off by Susser.
"Let's hear from another survivor, one more survivor, two Israelis and one survivor," protested an unidentified man when Susser tried to end the question and answer period. "One more survivor has the right to talk."




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