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U.S.: Israel was negligent in 1967 ship attack

Survivors not satisfied with review's conclusion

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

The USS Liberty was damaged in the attack.
The USS Liberty was damaged in the attack.

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• 7,725 ton Belmont class technical research ship
• Built in 1945 as civilian cargo ship Simmons Victory
• Acquired by U.S. Navy in 1963, commissioned 1964
• Mission: To collect, process foreign communications
• Attacked June 8, 1967
• Escorted to Malta for repairs
• Decommissioned in June 1968
• Sold for scrap in 1970
Source: U.S. Navy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After reviewing documents dating back 36 years, the State Department has concluded that Israel's attack on a U.S. spy ship in 1967 was an act of gross negligence for which it should be held responsible.

The USS Liberty was attacked off the Egyptian coast June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War, while gathering electronic intelligence. The attack killed 34 Americans and injured another 171.

"In many respects this is kind of a classic bi-national case of Murphy's Law," a State Department official said Monday. "Everything that could possibly go wrong, on either side, did."

The official said that though Israel should be held responsible for the attack, the United States was also negligent for failing to notify Israel the Liberty was in international waters and for failing to withdraw the ship from the war zone.

"This is a ship that should have been hundreds of miles away from the war zone," the official said.

Israel fought the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and other Arab states, emerging victorious after six days.

The State Department opened a two-day conference on U.S. foreign policy during the period, with a panel dealing with the USS Liberty attack. The conference was scheduled around the release of historical documents about the war.

The Israelis have always said the attack on the Liberty, which was monitoring communications in the war, was a tragic accident. The Johnson administration never formally challenged the Israelis' account. But some survivors and senior U.S. officials at the time have said they believe the attack was a deliberate effort to stop American surveillance of Israeli activities during the conflict.

In July the National Security Archive released tapes of Israeli pilots and ground control speaking in Hebrew, along with English transcripts. The recordings were made by a nearby American surveillance aircraft after the attack. (Full story)

The NSA released the tapes and transcripts under the Freedom of Information Act in response to a request from Judge Jay Cristol of Miami, Florida. Cristol, who wrote a book about the attack, said the tapes show it was a tragic accident in a time of war -- that the Israelis mistook the ship for an Egyptian one.

"There was no indication they had any knowledge they were attacking a U.S. ship," Cristol told participants at the conference.

The State Department official said that though some maintain the Israeli military was too good to make such a mistake, "if they were that good and if they were that efficient and they deliberately sought to sink a ship, they damned well would have sunk it."

The official noted the Israelis attacked the ship first with cannon fire and then napalm, not specialized air-to-sea weapons.

The State Department's analysis, the official said, is "that if it was a deliberate, planned attack, you would think an air force as good as the Israelis' would have served up their best bombers, with their biggest bombs. They would have sunk this ship in 30 seconds flat, no witnesses, no evidence, no fingerprints. That didn't happen."

James Bamford, the author of a history of the NSA, believes the released tapes suggest the Israelis may have deliberately attacked the Liberty, perhaps fearing -- for some reason not known -- that it was spying on them.

Calling for a formal investigation of the incident, Bamford said, "The Israelis said it was a mistake. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't.

"There were cover-ups," he added, referring to an affidavit by a retired Navy captain, Ward Boston, who charged that then-President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ordered a Navy inquiry to "conclude that the attack was a case of 'mistaken identity' despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary."

Phil Tourney, who was injured in the attack and is now president of the USS Liberty Survivors' Association, said the association is not satisfied with the "gross negligence" conclusion. Tourney said the survivors were kept from telling their ordeal.

"War crimes were committed by the Israelis that day," Tourney said. "A thorough investigation should be done, and the Israelis should be held accountable."

CNN's David Ensor and Beth Lewandowski contributed to this report.

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