Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, killing 34 U.S. sailors and injuring 172 others in one of the deadliest attacks suffered by a U.S. ship that remained afloat.
The Israeli government claimed it was a case of "mistaken identity" and that their pilots were gunning for a 1937-era Egyptian freighter, but this claim set off a 36-year controversy between the two countries. Both U.S. and Israel groups have investigated the attack over the years, but the issue has never been settled.
Coming now, the evidence becomes part of a controversy over Israelis influence in Washington and whether it has tilted the Bush administration toward Jerusalem.
A private commission headed by a former chief of naval operations, retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, made public an affidavit by retired Capt. Ward Boston, formerly of the judge advocate general's office and one of two senior naval officials investigating the attack.
"The evidence was clear. Both Admiral (Isaac) Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack, which killed 34 America sailors and injured 172 others, was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. I am certain that the Israeli pilots that undertook the attack as well as their superiors who had ordered the attack, were aware the ship was American."
Though Boston had made these charges informally, this was the first time a sworn affidavit supported them. Boston said he had been a serving naval officer and followed orders keeping quiet about his knowledge for 36 years. "I am outraged at the efforts of apologists for Israel in this country to claim this attack was a case of 'mistaken identity,'" he wrote. "In particular, the recent publication of Jay Cristol's book, the 'Liberty Incident,' twists the facts and misrepresents the views of those of us who investigated the attack. It is Cristol's insidious attempt to whitewash the facts that has pushed me to speak out." Cristol, a retired Navy pilot and member of judge advocate's office, published a book in 2002 that found the attack was accidental.
Boston said "I saw the flag, which visibly identified the ship as American, riddled with bullet holes, and heard testimony that made it clear the Israelis intended there be no survivors."
With the help of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the private commission arranged a news conference in the Rayburn House Office building. Moorer said the group wants the official naval report rescinded and a new court of inquiry convened and investigations launched by appropriate Capitol Hill committees.
The first court of inquiry was ordered by Adm. John S. McCain Jr. -- father of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- who was then commanding in London and over the vessels in the Mediterranean. Kidd and Boston conducted the inquiry in Malta where the Liberty had been taken for repairs and care of the wounded. Though they both agreed the attack was intentional, Kidd prepared a report that went with the Israeli version. "I know from personal conversations I had with Admiral Kidd that President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense (Robert) McNamara ordered him to conclude the attack was a case of 'mistaken identity,'" Boston's affidavit said.
There are numerous discrepancies between the Israeli version and the U.S. sailors' report. The U.S. sailors reported they were under aerial surveillance by Israeli planes for hours before the attack and were flying the American flag. They said they were hit by aircraft, torpedoed and strafed by fast-moving surface vessels. The Israelis said only aircraft were used in the attack. The sailors said that when they tried to launch lifeboats to secure the wounded the torpedo boats strafed and sank them. They reported that the Israelis jammed the radio so they couldn't call for help, but later when American aircraft were launched to help, they were recalled. Moorer said he has interviewed officers on the USS Saratoga, where the planes were based, who said the White House ordered them to abandon the rescue.
The Liberty was a World War II freighter converted to the role of a spy ship that the Navy said was very distinctive with massive aerials and satellite dishes. These spy vessels and spy flights later were replaced by satellite surveillance.
Why the Israelis would want to attack an American vessel has never been explained, but the incident came a few days into the 1967 Middle East war in which Egypt and Israel were adversaries.
(This story corrects the story filed Wednesday, making clear that the attack occurred during the 1967 Middle East war).