WASHINGTON – Survivors of a U.S. spy ship attacked by Israeli fighters and torpedo boats 40 years ago are pressing the Pentagon for a full investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes for a strike that caused 205 casualties, including 34 killed.
The attack on the USS Liberty (search) occurred in international waters during the Six-Day War (search) in 1967 between Israel, Egypt and other Arab nations. The survivors claim the attack itself was a violation of the Geneva Conventions (search) regulating conduct of war and that further crimes occurred when Israeli sailors fired at rescuers and firefighters on the ship's bullet-riddled deck and into rubber life rafts thrown into the water to pick up survivors.
Gary Brummett, president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association (search), said the appeal to the Defense Department is nothing more than an appeal for justice for his shipmates. Brummett was a boiler tender aboard the Liberty.
"Politicians will not touch this issue," Brummett said. "All the presidents we have will not touch this issue. It's politically incorrect. All we are trying to do now is to follow the rule of law."
Their new action, a 35-page, heavily footnoted report demanding a full-scale, new investigation, quotes the laws of war in alleging that Israel didn't honor them.
On the afternoon of June 8, 1967, two days into the Six-Day War, Israeli warplanes began circling the Liberty as its nest of antennas collected intelligence in international waters between al-Arish, Egypt, in the Sinai near the Israeli border, and the Gaza Strip (search) west of Israel. The 7,725-ton Liberty, a former civilian cargo ship refitted into one of the era's top intelligence-gathering vessels, was flying the U.S. flag and bore U.S. Navy markings.
When the attack began, jets made six strafing runs, killing at least 10 and wounding others with gunfire, rockets and bombs. Three torpedo boats joined the fray, firing machine guns and cannon. One fired a torpedo, which missed the maneuvering ship. Another boat loosed its torpedo, which struck on the starboard side, forward of the command areas, caused more casualties, and Liberty began to list to the right. Those left among the crew of 294 officers and men kept her afloat.
Israel said its personnel mistook the ship for an Egyptian Navy vessel. U.S. officials said that ship was far smaller than Liberty and had none of the antennas the intelligence-gatherer had.
Previous official U.S. and Israeli investigations have found Israel guilty of nothing more than making a mistake, possibly by misidentifying the U.S. ship. A contentious State Department-sponsored conference of historians and other experts last year failed to reach consensus.
Israel apologized and paid damages of close to $13 million, some to families of the victims.
David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, repeated the Israeli position that the attack was in no way premeditated.
"I can state categorically that the Liberty incident was a tragic mistake, a case of mistaken identity," Siegel told The Associated Press. "These are old allegations, discredited years ago by successive U.S. administrations following numerous official investigations, including by the official historians of the State Department, the National Security Agency and other federal agencies."
The latest move by the Liberty survivors, who have pressed for decades to have the official record changed, was submitted to Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, who acts as executive agent for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for such cases.
Col. Thomas Collins, Harvey's spokesman, said he could not discuss the matter because the secretary had not received it as of Thursday. The document, shipped Tuesday by courier service, was dated Wednesday, the 38th anniversary of the attack.
Brummett, of Grand Cane, La., said the association has no idea what Harvey will do.
"He will look at this and will say, `Hey, OK, we've got to investigate it.' Or he will turn it down. Whatever they want to do.
"If future is like the past, if politicians get involved, they will certainly turn it down."