From the June 26 2002 issue of Navy Times:
CONFLICTING COMMENTS REKINDLE LIBERTY DISPUTE
KEY INVESTIGATORS EXPRESS BELIEF THAT ISRAEL DELIBERATELY ATTACKED U.S. SHIP
By Bryant Jordan
Times staff writer
Thirty-five years after Israeli air and naval forces attacked a lightly armed U.S. Navy spy ship during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the CIA director at the time and the legal counsel to the Navyís court of inquiry say the attack was deliberate. "It was no accident," former CIA director Richard Helms said May 29, bucking that agencyís June 13, 1967, report that indicated the incident could have been a mistake.
Retired Navy legal counsel Capt. Ward Boston says he and the courtís president, the late Rear Adm. Isaac "Ike" Kidd, always believed Israeli forces knowingly attacked the Liberty.
"I feel the Israelis knew what they were doing. They knew they were shooting at a U.S. Navy ship," said Boston, who lives in Coronado, Calif. "Thatís the bottom line. I donít care how they tried to get out of it."
The attack killed 34 men and wounded 172 others, and sparked a long-running controversy: Did Israel knowingly try to sink the American ship or did it believe the ship was an Egyptian vessel?
Officially, the Navy exonerated Israel on June 18, 1967 ó 10 days after the attack ó when the Navy court of inquiry found that available evidence indicated the attack was a case of mistaken identity.
THE COURT OF INQUIRY
Boston said Kidd told him he believed the attack was deliberate and that the Israelis knew the ship was American.
That flies in the face of the findings of Kiddís court, and also what the author of a new book on the Liberty says Kidd told him in interviews in the early 1990s.
A. Jay Cristol, a federal judge in Florida and retired Navy aviator who also served in the serviceís Judge Advocate Generalís Corps, is the author of the upcoming "The Liberty Incident."
"Kidd told me an entirely different story," said Cristol, whose new book is dedicated to Kidd, who died in 1999.
Cristol said that during one interview with Kidd in December 1990, Kidd related that when he brought the courtís report to then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. David Lamar McDonald, the CNO asked him, "Ike, was it intentional?"
"Ike said, ĎNo, Admiral,'" Cristol recalled.
But Boston remembers that when Kidd returned from Washington, he said officials were not interested in hearing the truth.
"In military life, you accept the fact that if youíre told to shut up, you shut up. We did what we were told," Boston said.
He explained that he is willing to talk now because "everyone else is shooting their mouth off."
Boston said he does not know whether his beliefs were shared by the other members of the court, Capts. Bert M. Atkinson Jr. and Bernard J. Lauff.
Lauff could not be located for comment. Atkinson died in 1999.
But Bostonís statements do put him now in the camp of retired Adm. Merlin Staring, who as a captain and staff legal officer in London was initially told to review the courtís report.
Staring said June 3 that the report was taken from him before he finished his review, but based on what he had seen, the evidence did not support the contention that the attack was an accident.
Staring concedes he still has not read the entire report.
Staring, who went on to become the Navyís top JAG officer, is now part of a newly formed Liberty Alliance, which includes former CNO and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Thomas Moorer and two Marine Medal of Honor recipients, Gen. Ray Davis and Col. Mitchell Paige.
The group wants a full congressional investigation into the attack and is lobbying military organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, hoping to garner support among their members, said Tito Howard, the groupís executive director.
SURVIVORS ALLEGE CONSPIRACY
Many Liberty survivors and their supporters long have maintained that the attack was deliberate and that the Kidd report excluded testimony from crew members that would have shown that.
Boston recalled that testimony was taken from crew members who said the Israelis fired on life rafts when they were put into the water.
The courtís report includes testimony indicating the shooting of the life rafts was incidental, occurring when the ship was strafed by Israeli jets.
Some allege Israel wanted the spy ship sunk to ensure it did not pick up communications showing Israel was planning to seize the Golan Heights from Syria. Others say it was to prevent Liberty from intercepting communications dealing with an alleged Israeli massacre of Egyptian POWs in the Sinai.
Some Liberty survivors and supporters claim the U.S. government covered up the incident to avoid a conflict with Israel that could have cost the Johnson administration support among Jewish voters and supporters. Subsequent administrations and Congresses have avoided a thorough airing of the incident for the same reasons, they say.
But Cristol says there have been 10 U.S. investigations, ranging from the court of inquiry and the CIAís report to several conducted by House and Senate committees.
Five drew no conclusions regarding Israel, according to a list compiled by Cristol, while others accepted that it was an accident.
The most recent official look at the incident was in 1991, when the House Armed Services subcommittee on investigations found no evidence to support the Liberty survivorsí claim that Israel attacked the ship deliberately.
REPORTS AND RECOLLECTIONS
The CIAís report, the earliest of those assembled, held open the possibility that the attack was a case of mistaken identity ó the finding that the Kidd court went on to make five days later ó though it did not present that as a conclusion.
In the June 13, 1967, report, the CIA stated that "an overzealous pilot" could have mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, the El Quesir. Helms, the former CIA director, declined to discuss the incident at length.
"Iíve done all I can. I donít want to spend the rest of my life in court" testifying about the incident, he said.
Mike Weeks, a naval aviation writer and amateur historian who studied the official Navy communications that occurred during and after the attack and believes it was an accident, said there is more information on the Liberty still classified and believes the government should release all of it.
"Just put it out there and see how it flows," he said. "The bottom line, all this stuff ought to be let loose, for heavenís sake."
Bryant Jordan is a staff writer for Marine Corps Times.