The U.S. government has not reached a definitive conclusion on whether Israel deliberately attacked the USS Liberty in 1967, but it appears that the Jewish state is guilty of “gross negligence,” a State Department official said yesterday.
The United States was negligent, too, the official noted, for failing to inform Israel that the Navy spy ship was in international waters off the Egyptian coast and for keeping the vessel in the region, even though the six-day Arab-Israeli war had just broken out.
The incident, in which 34 Americans were killed and more than 170 wounded, has been veiled in secrecy for nearly 37 years, giving impetus to numerous conspiracy theories.
“The conclusion we reached is that the attack constituted a flagrant act of gross negligence, for which the Israeli government should be solely responsible,” the official told reporters at the State Department.
But he said many questions have not been — and may never be — answered, mainly because the United States did not intercept any communication during the attack but only after it had happened.
That revelation came two weeks after the June 8 incident in a memorandum that the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Marshall S. Carter, wrote to President Johnson.
“This activity deals solely with the aftermath of the attack by Israeli jet aircraft and torpedo boats on the USS Liberty. There are no [communications intercept] reflections of the actual attack itself,” Mr. Carter wrote.
The State Department official said yesterday there was no reason not to believe the statement.
He also said the Israeli pilots might not have recognized the U.S. Navy ship, even though the pilots on an earlier flight that day had identified the vessel correctly.
“To me it sounds plausible that you would shoot first and investigate later,” he said.
A full-fledged investigation was never conducted — although the military initiated an early probe — and the U.S. government has been trying to reconstruct the events of the fatal day largely based on documents, the vast majority of which were classified.
Some of the documents have been declassified for use in the newly published 19th volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series.
“The good news is that information long sought by researchers is now out, and the bad news is that it does not settle it,” David Hatch, a technical director at the NSA, said at a State Department conference yesterday.
The Johnson administration never formally challenged Israel’s position that the attack was a result of mistaken identity.
The Israeli government said after the incident that its forces thought the Liberty was an Egyptian vessel. It apologized to the United States and paid nearly $13 million in compensation, some of which went to the victims or their families.
The State Department official called the attack — carried out with cannon fire and napalm — and U.S. actions in its aftermath “a classic case of Murphy’s law: everything that could possibly go wrong between two countries.”
He also said there is a good reason to believe that if the Israelis wanted to sink the Liberty, they “would have sent their best bombers” and done it “with no witnesses and no fingerprints.”
“Everybody makes mistakes,” he said.
Everything surrounding the case has been so secretive that it is not even known what the Liberty’s mission was that day, another State Department official said.
The official noted, however, that at the time “the administration was interested in what the Soviets were doing at the beginning of the war,” in which Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries.
After the attack, “the ship went on its own steam to Malta and was later scrapped,” the official said.