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EX-OFFICER ALLEGES COVER-UP IN PROBE OF SPY SHIP ATTACK By James W. Crawley UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
February 17, 2004
Ward Boston is an unassuming octogenarian who resides in a gated community on Coronado's Silver Strand.
A retired Navy captain, he hardly attracts attention in a town full of active-duty and retired sailors.
Yet Boston is in the maelstrom of a nearly 37-year-old controversy surrounding Israel's deadly attack on the Navy's spy ship Liberty during the Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The June 1967 attack killed 34 Americans and wounded 171.
Last October, Boston broke decades of silence and declared that the Navy admiral who investigated the incident had been ordered by President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to conclude it was a case of mistaken identity, despite evidence to the contrary.
As the chief counsel for the Navy's court of inquiry, Boston had an insider's view.
"I didn't speak up earlier because I was told not to," Boston said in an interview.
His revelation, repeated last month before a State Department conference about the Six-Day War, has rekindled a smoldering debate over how it happened and whether the United States and Israel covered up the truth.
Anti-Israel factions portray Boston's words – true to his legal background, memorialized in two affidavits but rarely spoken to an audience larger than one person – as proof of Israel's guilt.
Israel's supporters, including a federal bankruptcy judge who researched the attack and wrote a book on it, say Boston is lying. Some pin an anti-Semitic badge on his lapel.
On Web pages and through e-mail, an electronic brawl is raging over Boston's disclosures among his admirers and detractors.
But, for the men who survived the attack, Boston's comments endorse views smelted in cordite, blood and smoke.
"We feel we've been vindicated," said James Ennes, the Liberty's officer of the deck the day of the attack, which left him severely wounded.
"We've been saying for 37 years that the court of inquiry was a fraud, that it was corrupted, that it ignored evidence and made findings not supported by the evidence," said Ennes, whose book about the incident claims it was a deliberate Israeli attack.
Boston's cover-up allegation is "enormously significant," said author James Bamford, who has written several books about the super-secret National Security Agency, which analyzed radio intercepts from Liberty and other U.S. surveillance ships.
"It's equivalent to former Supreme Court (Chief) Justice Earl Warren coming out and saying 'the Warren Commission report on (the) Kennedy (assassination) – everything we said was not what we believed, but we were pressured to say it,' " Bamford said.
"It puts an enormous shadow over everything that was in the (Navy) report," he said.
Even with Boston's affidavits and some newly released documents presented at the State Department conference, no consensus was reached on whether the attack was deliberate, accidental or the result of negligence.
The Liberty was a Navy spy ship, plain and simple.
Like its ill-fated sister vessel Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea six months later, the Liberty was festooned with antennas and its cargo holds were converted into top-secret locked compartments lined with receivers where petty officers eavesdropped on other nations' militaries.
During the Six-Day War, the Liberty loitered off the Sinai Peninsula, listening to Israel's lightning victory over Egypt.
On the afternoon of June 8, 1967, Israeli jets strafed the ship. Hours later, Israeli torpedo boats attacked. By the evening, 34 U.S. sailors were dead and 171 injured.
Israel said the attack was a terrible mistake caused by the misidentification of the Liberty as an Egyptian vessel. Investigations followed, including the Navy's court of inquiry.
That's when Ward Boston's involvement began.
If Hollywood had discovered Boston, he could have been the real-life prototype for Cmdr. Harmon Rabb, one of the leads on the television show "JAG."
In the Pacific during World War II, Boston flew harrowing photo-reconnaissance missions over Tokyo and Iwo Jima in Navy Hellcat fighters, sometimes making three passes over a single target – once to take pre-bombing pictures, then joining other planes in attacking the target and, finally, a post-attack pass to photograph the damage.
After the war, Boston went to law school, passed the bar and entered private practice. Meanwhile, he continued to fly Navy fighters as a reservist, including its first jet, the FH-1 Phantom.
In the late 1940s, he joined the FBI and was assigned to field offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. During the Korean War, he rejoined the Navy, this time as a JAG officer.
By June 1967, Boston was legal officer for then-Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd Jr. when the flag officer was assigned to head the hastily convened inquiry into the Liberty attack.
Unable to interview hospitalized sailors and Israeli military and civilian officials, the investigative panel was given just a week to examine the battered ship, interview survivors and collect radio intercepts and other information.
Boston said it was obvious then who was responsible.
"There's no way in the world that it was an accident," Boston said.
In his affidavits and a recent interview, Boston recounted how he and Kidd discussed their conclusions about the survivors' testimony.
"(Kidd) referred to the Israelis as 'murderous bastards,' " Boston said.
After Kidd delivered the panel's report to Washington officials, Boston said the admiral told him, "they aren't interested in the facts or what happened. It's a political issue. They want to cover it up." Then Kidd admonished Boston to keep silent.
Boston said Kidd told him privately that orders came from Johnson and McNamara to find the incident was a mistake and not a deliberate act.
There is no documentation to support Boston's account.
Kidd died in 1999 at 79 after a career topped by command of the Atlantic Fleet. He never spoke of a cover-up.
The late '60s was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were backing the Arab nations; the United States was allied with Israel. U.S. troops were fully engaged in Vietnam and the United States was fearful of growing Soviet influence, especially in the oil-rich Mideast.
Those who claim the attack was no accident argue that Israel wanted to stop the Liberty from snooping on its military during the war.
Boston kept quiet too, until the 2002 publication of "The Liberty Incident," by Judge Jay Cristol, provoked him.
Cristol's book, based on more than 10 years of research and hundreds of interviews and the collection of thousands of documents, argued that Israeli pilots, sailors and top military officials, in the heat of combat and the fog of war, were unaware the Liberty was a U.S. ship, mistaking it for an Egyptian vessel.
The two men spoke twice during the 1990s while Cristol researched his book, but Boston said recently that he only discussed his career and did not reveal details of the inquiry.
"It is Cristol's insidious attempt to whitewash the facts that has pushed me to speak out," Boston said in a Jan. 8 affidavit, read by Bamford at the State Department conference last month. Boston did not attend the conference.
Boston's affidavit was passed to Bamford by a friend who believes that Israel is responsible for the attack on the Liberty.
The judge, during a recent telephone interview, discounted Boston's contention that Johnson and McNamara covered up Israel complicity.
"I think those (accusations) are kind of nonsense," Cristol said.
Referring to Cristol, Boston said, "I'm not going to get into a spitting contest with a skunk."
He also rejected suggestions that he is anti-Semitic, while acknowledging some sympathy for the plight of Palestinian refugees.
As he splits his day between local organizations and daily visits to the gym to loosen up arthritic joints, Boston remains largely oblivious to the electronic cacophony of e-mail and Internet chat that makes him out to be either a patriot or a patsy for anti-Israel factions.
That's because Boston doesn't have a computer. Friends print out and pass along Internet postings mentioning him or his statements.
"I'm a dinosaur," he said. "I use a pencil with an eraser and a typewriter."
James W. Crawley: (619) 542-4559; [email protected]