Survivors of one of the most hotly disputed incidents in American military history – the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty spy-ship in 1967 – on Monday accused the US authorities, past and present, of a cover-up in backing Israeli claims that it was a tragic mistake.
Emotions boiled over in the basement of the State Department as the Office of the Historian opened a public conference on the six-day Arab-Israeli war with heated debate over newly released intercepts from the archives of the secretive National Security Agency.
Most of the basic facts are undisputed. On June 8 1967, Israeli aircraft and later torpedo boats struck the Liberty just off the Mediterranean coast, killing 34 crew and wounding 172. The ship, one of the world’s most sophisticated listening vessels but only lightly armed, limped into port.
From there the controversy begins. An immediate US Navy court of inquiry backed the Israeli claim that it had been mistaken for an Egyptian warship. The US accepted $12m (?9.4m, £6.5m) in compensation.
While some historians have accepted this, survivors and a varied group of academics and former military officials insist the attack was deliberate.
“You’re trying to whitewash it,” one survivor shouted from the audience as Marc Susser, the State Department’s historian, acted as moderator and sought to keep order, refusing to allow speeches from the floor. Even debate on the panel of invited historians descended into acrimony with one contributor accused of being an Israeli agent.
Two recent developments added fuel to the controversy.
Last week Ward Boston, a naval captain who acted as senior legal counsel for the Navy’s court of inquiry in 1967, signed an affidavit declaring that the late Admiral Isaac Kidd, president of the court, had told him that President Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, defence secretary, had ordered a cover-up.
And on Monday, David Hatch, the National Security Agency’s own historian, elaborated on the recently declassified NSA material, the first time the eavesdropping agency had released real voice intercepts.
Mr Hatch confessed that the information “doesn’t settle much”. But his analysis of the conversations between an Israeli air controller and two helicopter pilots “suggested strongly” that the Israelis did not know at first they were attacking a US vessel, although there was mention of a US flag flying.
He also regretted that the new NSA material did not clarify why the Liberty had not received orders sent to it to leave a war zone.
Joseph Lentini, a survivor who has spent the past 36 years researching the tragedy, told reporters he remained convinced that the attack was deliberate.
He admits it is hard to understand why the Israelis would want to sink a ship of its closest ally at a time of war. Conspiracy theories abound.
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