Attack on US spy ship 47 years ago still stirs controversy
By TERESA STEPZINSKI | The Florida Times-Union | Published: January 13, 2014
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --- A former U.S. Navy aviator said Sunday that evidence, including declassified National Security Agency tapes and documents, shows that a deadly Israeli attack on an American spy ship nearly 47 years ago was a mistake resulting from errors on both sides.
A. Jay Cristol authored "The Liberty Incident Revealed: The Definitive Account of the 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship," which is in its second edition. Cristol successfully sued the NSA to declassify the previously secret materials during his decade-long research of the attack that remains the subject of controversy and conspiracy theories.
"The facts are clear: The tragedy was the result of mistaken identity caused by a series of blunders by both Israel and the United States, said Cristol, a retired captain who was an aviator in Korea and Vietnam.
Thirty-four American servicemen died and 171 were wounded aboard the USS Liberty, an intelligence gathering ship, when it was attacked by the Israeli Air Force and Navy on June 8, 1967, during the Six Day War. The spy ship was on a surveillance mission offshore of El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula when it was bombed.
Those mistakes were compounded by the standard operating procedure of secrecy about intelligence gathering activities, said Cristol, who serves as a federal bankruptcy court judge in Miami and previously was special assistant attorney general for Florida.
Cristol discussed the attack and his research Sunday morning at the Jewish Community Alliance during its final special event for the 17th annual Jewish Book Festival. The festival began Nov. 4. In partnership with the nationwide Jewish Book Festival, the festival was a series of discussions with a diverse group of authors about their works. The programs covered topics relating to Jewish history and culture, said Lior Spring, JCA communications director.
About 40 people attended Cristol's program. The Liberty incident has been investigated by independent researchers, including Cristol, as well as by American and Israeli government authorities. The incident "is the primary focus point of anti-Israel interests," and there are more conspiracy stories about it than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Cristol said.
Mathew Silverton of Jacksonville asked Cristol "wouldn't it have been very wise" at that time for an Egyptian warship to have flown an American flag as a ruse so it could move in without raising alarm to attack Israeli positions.
"What would have been very wise would have been for the United States to have said, 'Hey, Israel, we've got a ship in your area.' But the concept of intelligence in the intelligence community is everything is secret and subject to the need to know," said Cristol, noting the NSA's position back then was "why should we?"
After the program, Silverton said he came to learn more about the Liberty incident, which he has heard about for years. What makes the incident worse is that anti-Israel conspiracy theorists continue using it as anti-Semitic propaganda, he said.
"I'm Jewish ... and I love Israel. And it burns [me] that they [anti-Israel conspiracy theorists] are using it," said Silverton, his voiced choked with emotion.
The cascading set of circumstances and errors that led to the attack began on the fourth day of the Six Day War. At that point, the Liberty "failed to receive five sets of military communication orders telling her to stay 100 miles away from the combat zone," Cristol said.
"She sailed right into the middle of a hot war." Cristol told the audience.
The day before the Liberty came under fire, an Egyptian destroyer offshore had shelled Israeli positions in that vicinity.
Then, shortly before the Liberty was attacked, the Israelis mistakenly assumed that explosions they saw on shore resulted from shells fired by the American ship. Cristol said in reality those explosions were ammunition dumps being blown up by "Egyptian sappers," but nobody knew that at the time. A sapper is a soldier who performs various engineering-related duties including demolition.
Israel ultimately paid $12 million in reparations to the families of the servicemen killed, and to those injured on the Liberty. It also paid $6 million to the United States for the damage to the ship but didn't admit liability in the incident.