New papers shed little on Liberty attack

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO, UPI Crime & Terrorism Reporter   |   July 15, 2003 at 2:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 15 (UPI) -- Recently declassified documents from the National Security Agency archives provide additional information on the 1967 attack by Israeli naval and air units on a U.S. spy ship, but offer no conclusions on whether the attack was intentional. With 34 U.S. intelligence employees killed and almost 200 wounded, the attack represents the single largest loss of life for U.S. spy agencies.

The incident occurred on June 8 during the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While Israeli and official U.S. government officials contend the attack was a case of mistaken identity, Liberty crewmembers and some historians have argued the attack was intentionally directed at the U.S. ship.

A former merchant marine vessel, the USS Liberty was retrofitted with surveillance equipment and operated by the National Security Agency to collect "signal intelligence" off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula during the conflict. It was operating between 17 and 25 miles -- in international waters -- off the Egyptian town of al-Arish, which had just fallen to the Israel Defense Forces.

The attack came in clear daylight and was conducted by two waves of jets, followed by an attack by three Israeli torpedo boats. The lightly armed ship's crew says it never returned fire on either the jets or boats, though the torpedo boats contend that gunfire from the stricken ship motivated the last round of attacks.

After years of controversy over the attack, it was revealed that an NSA spy plane was also in the area and had intercepted Israeli communications. Kept classified until last week, the documents were expected to hold definitive proof about the motives for the attack.

"These transcripts prove that this was absolutely a tragic case of mistaken identity," says Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

"These transcripts confirm that the Israeli claim they couldn't see a flag was not true," says James Bamford, who has written two books on the NSA, and contends that the attack appears deliberate. "They could see a flag."

The newly released conversations between Israeli helicopter pilots observing the torpedo boat attacks manage to raise more questions than they answer.

Although the Israelis have always contended they believed the ship was an Egyptian vessel able to fire on IDF troops in the Sinai, the transcripts reveal the helicopter pilots believed the vessel was showing the U.S. flag and had not operated its weapons. In one exchange, the pilots discuss the lack of response from the ship, but it remains unclear if the helicopter pilots were discussing a lack of fire from the Liberty during the air assault, or its inaction during the air and torpedo assault.

"Pay attention," says one crewmember on an Israeli helicopter. "There was a ship there ... a warship we attacked. People jumped into the water from it. Try to pull them out."

"Roger," replies the other crew. "Understand that she is hit and cannot fire."

"No fire was seen from her," is the response. "They didn't even fire at the ones attacking her."

A few minutes later, as the helicopter closed to within visual sight of the Liberty, which was being attacked by the torpedo boats at the time, the helicopter crews discussed what to do with the men if any were rescued.

It was determined that the first move would be to determine their nationality. It was decided that if the men spoke Arabic, they would be taken to al-Arish. And if they speak English, a possibility specifically discussed, the men should be taken to the Israeli city of Lod.

To Bamford this shows some doubt in the minds of the attackers about the nationality of the ship being attacked.

"Why would they consider what to do with the men if they spoke English if they didn't have some idea it was an American ship?" he asks.

But before any survivors were found, the helicopters noticed the flag and sounded surprised, because earlier they had relayed to one another that it was supposed to be an Arab ship.

"Did you clearly identify an American flag?" asked one, and a few minutes later asked for confirmation.

"They request that you make another pass and check once again whether it is really an American flag," the crew said.

Regev said this shows the helicopters -- but not the boats or jets -- saw the flag as they were attempting to rescue survivors. The transcripts hold no information specific to what the boats or jets saw on the Liberty.

Regev points to transcripts released by Israel in 1987 detailing conversations between the fighter pilots. They show the jets discussed the flags at about the same time the helicopters did -- after the attacks took place.

Other NSA documents say there are no intercepts of the conversation that took place during the attack itself, apparently leaving these final transcripts as the final word on what happened.

The NSA released the documents after a Freedom of Information Act request by Judge Jay Cristol, who has written a book on the attack concluding it was a case of mistaken identity.

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