Newly declassified transcripts back up Israel's explanation that its attack on a U.S. spy ship during the 1967 Mideast War was an accident, a Florida judge who has been investigating the case for 16 years said Wednesday.
Israel has always maintained it thought the USS Liberty was an Egyptian military supply ship when it ordered its forces to attack on June 8, 1967, killing 34 American sailors and wounding 171. But critics charge Israel knew the ship was American. Questions about the case have long dogged U.S.-Israel relations.
A. Jay Cristol, a federal bankruptcy judge in Miami, received transcripts of transmissions from two Israeli helicopter pilots sent to check for survivors after the attack. The pilots referred to the ship as Egyptian and were surprised to discover it was flying an American flag.
The recordings, in Hebrew, were made by a U.S. spy plane hovering over the site.
The transcript of the transmissions records the air controller telling one of the pilots, "The ship is now identified as Egyptian, you can return home now."
Cristol told the Associated Press that he received the transcripts after submitting a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. National Security Agency, which had kept the recordings secret for 37 years. After his request was denied, Cristol filed suit in federal court and forced their release.
Agency spokesman Patrick Weadon confirmed Cristol had been sent the transcripts.
"We provided the tapes as part of the historical record," Weadon said. "The agency takes no official position on what happened to the Liberty."
Cristol, who has written a book about the case, said, the tapes "show both the helicopter pilots and their controller believed the Israeli air force had targeted an Egyptian ship."
A National Security Agency summary of the incident says the Israelis were confused over the stricken ship's identity more than an hour after the attack.
Cristol provided the summary and full transcripts of the pilot and tower recordings to the AP.
Israel has long maintained the attack was the result of a tragic mistake during the heat of battle. Israel was at war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan at the time.
An Israeli commission of inquiry concluded the Israeli air force believed the targeted ship was an Egyptian cargo vessel ferrying supplies to Egyptian troops fighting Israeli forces.
However, some of the Liberty's survivors and some officials in the U.S. defense establishment have rejected this view, contending Israel deliberately targeted the ship to keep the United States from learning that Israel was planning to attack Syria as part of its strategy during the war.
The Israeli daily Haaretz, which first reported the disclosures in its Wednesday edition, quoted Cristol as saying the tape transcripts were the last classified intelligence about the Liberty.