New documents released this week by America's National Security Agency support Israel's version of a long-festering controversy between the two countries: Israel's sinking of an American spy ship, the USS Liberty, off the coast of Gaza during the1967 Six-Day War.
Israel has always said it had no idea the ship was American, but conspiracy theorists and anti-Israel propagandists still claim Israel sank the ship in the full knowledge that it was American.
The documents, originally defined as top secret, were made public by Florida Judge Jay Cristol, who has been investigating the Liberty incident for years and published a book on the subject last year. On Monday, the NSA gave him a transcript of conversations held by two Israeli Air Force helicopter pilots who were hovering over the Liberty as it was sinking, and these tapes confirm Israel's claim that the sinking of the ship, which killed 34 American servicemen and wounded 171, was a tragic error.
After the Liberty was bombed by both the Israel Air Force and the Israel Navy, the two helicopter pilots were summoned from their base to assess the damage and evaluate the possibility of rescuing the surviving crew members. An American spy plane, which had been sent to the area as soon as the NSA learned of the attack, recorded their conversations, which took place between 2:30 and 3:37 P.M. on June 8, the third day of the war.
The spy plane also recorded the orders radioed to the pilots by their supervisor at Hatzor Base, which instructed them to search for Egyptian survivors from the "Egyptian warship" that had just been bombed - thus supporting Israel's claim that it had believed the ship was Egyptian when it ordered it attacked. "Pay attention. The ship is now identified as Egyptian," the pilots were told.
Nine minutes later, Hatzor informed the pilots that it was not an Egyptian warship, but an Egyptian cargo ship. Only at 3:07 were the pilots first informed that the ship might not have been Egyptian at all: Hatzor told them that if they found Arabic-speaking survivors, they should be taken to El-Arish, but if they found English-speaking survivors, they should be taken to Lod. "Clarify by the first man that you bring up, what nationality he is, and report to me immediately," the supervisor instructed, according to the transcript. "It's important to know."
Then, at 3:12, one of the pilots informed Hatzor that he saw an American flag flying over the damaged ship. He was asked to investigate and determine whether it was really an American ship.
This is not the first time such transcripts have been made public: Israel gave its own recordings of the pilots' conversations to the British television station Thames in 1987. But conspiracy theorists charged that Israel had doctored the tapes before handing them over to the station in order to hide the fact that it sank the Liberty intentionally. No such imputation can be made about these new transcripts, as they were never in Israeli hands.
Israel has always said it attacked the Liberty, which America sent to the region to gather intelligence on the progress of the war, because it believed it was an Egyptian supply ship ferrying supplies to the Egyptian troops that Israel was then fighting. When it discovered the error, it immediately informed the Americans, apologized and paid compensation to the victims' families.
The incident was investigated by inquiry commissions in both Israel and the United States, and both concluded that it had, indeed, been a tragic error. Nevertheless, the controversy never died. In 1979, one of the survivors, James Ennes, published a book accusing Israel of bombing the American ship deliberately. Ennes claimed an Israeli spy plane had hovered over the ship all morning and had surely identified it as American, since the American flag was clearly visible.
A later book, written by James Bamford, charged that Israel sank the ship in order to keep America from learning of its plans to attack Syria, and further claimed that the NSA had tapes of conversations among Israeli pilots that not only confirmed this, but also proved that the tapes released by Israel had been doctored.
Another claim that appears frequently on the dozens of Internet sites devoted to the affair is that Israel sank the ship to conceal a mass murder of Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai peninsula.
In its letter to Cristol, the NSA stressed that, contrary to the claims that often appear in such books and Web sites - that the agency has tapes from both the Liberty and from a nearby American submarine that confirm Israel's guilt - the only tapes that exist were those made by the spy plane and given to Cristol this week.
"It's the last piece of intelligence that remained classified, and every rational person that will read it will understand that there is no truth in these conspiracy theories against Israel," Cristol said Tuesday. But he added: "Those who hate Israel, who hate Jews, and those who believe in conspiracy will not be convinced by anything."
Cristol, a former U.S. navy pilot and legal officer, began investigating the Liberty incident 14 years ago. Since publishing his book, which vindicates Israel, he has received threats and been accused of being an Israeli agent. "I take this lightly, but I am saddened to learn that there is this kind of hate toward Israel," he said.