For 36 years, the fate of the Navy spy ship USS Liberty, attacked by Israeli fighters and torpedo boats during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, has been a painful question mark in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations.
Was the attack a tragic mistake, as Israel has always contended, resulting from the attackers' belief that the ship in their sights was Egyptian, despite its U.S. flag, U.S. markings and odd array of antennas?
Or did Israel, determined to keep the Americans from uncovering sensitive military operations, deliberately unleash a ferocious assault on an ally's intelligence ship?
Now, in a highly unusual release of eavesdropping tapes, the National Security Agency has made public recordings that show an Israeli ground controller telling helicopter pilots after the attack that the vessel was "an Arab ship" or "an Egyptian supply ship."
For believers in the official Israeli explanation, the new evidence is proof that the attack, which killed 34 Americans and injured 171, was a horrible case of mistaken identity.
But emotions in the deadliest attack in history on a U.S. intelligence operation are so deep, and the evidence so ambiguous, that the new recordings have not come close to ending the controversy.
The recordings were released in response to a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act by A. Jay Cristol, a former Navy pilot and lawyer who has studied the incident for 16 years and published a book about it last year, The Liberty Incident, based on his doctoral dissertation. He says the recordings support his conclusion that the Israeli attackers had no idea they were targeting a U.S. vessel.
"These tapes contain nothing showing that the attack was deliberate, and, to me at least, they show it was a mistake," says Cristol, now a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Miami. Based in part on his analysis, Israeli news media are reporting that the material proves their government's case.
"There's nothing more of significance to be found," says Cristol. "I think it will settle the matter for all but that 2 percent of die-hard conspiracy theorists."
But James Bamford, a Navy veteran and author of two respected books on the NSA, says the tapes actually support the case he presented in his 2001 book Body of Secrets that the attack was deliberate.
The Israeli ground controller who called the ship "Arab" and "Egyptian" may be just repeating a bogus cover story, Bamford says. At one point, he notes, the controller directs the helicopter crews to check whether the survivors speak Arabic or English.
"If they knew it was an Egyptian ship, why did they think the crew might speak English?" Bamford asks.
In addition, the recordings show that one of the helicopter pilots spotted an American flag and read the ship's identification number. If the helicopter pilot saw those identifiers, Bamford asks, why didn't the fighter pilots and torpedo boat crews?
"All this backs up what the [Liberty] crew has said and disproves the lies the Israelis have told," Bamford says.
For Liberty veterans, most of whom have long been convinced that the attack was no mistake, the new tapes seem not to be changing minds.
"It's all hogwash," says Phillip F. Tourney, who was a 20-year-old sailor aboard the Liberty and now is president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association.
During the attack, he suffered burns and shrapnel wounds that left him disabled. Despite his injuries, he worked feverishly that day to patch holes in the ship and even assisted with surgery performed atop a desk, he says.
Tourney says the tapes may show merely that Israel knew that U.S. intelligence was listening; the helicopter communications were picked up by an NSA eavesdropping plane overhead. He believes the Israelis simply made sure that their radio communications supported their cover story.
"I lost a lot of friends on that ship," Tourney says, including a buddy he had just sent to check why a shipboard phone wasn't working. "This is just going to increase the survivors' determination to get our story out."
The posting of the Hebrew-language audio files and translations on NSA's Web site was a rare but not unprecedented move for the secretive eavesdropping agency based at Fort Meade. Other instances involved tapes of Soviet air communications during the 1983 shootdown of a South Korean airliner and recordings of Iraqi military officers apparently discussing hiding weapons from U.N. inspectors, which were played at the United Nations in February by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
But for the NSA, which lost a civilian Arabic linguist in the attack and had another wounded, the Liberty episode has long been a particularly sensitive subject. A tattered American flag taken from the ship is on display at the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum.
The Liberty was cut up in Baltimore's Curtis Bay shipyard and sold for scrap in 1973. But in the ensuing three decades, the dispute over what really happened on June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, has only become more heated.
If Cristol derides Bamford as a "conspiracy theorist" who won't accept the testimony of Israeli witnesses, Bamford calls Cristol "an apologist for Israel" who ignores the Liberty survivors. Cristol says he is amazed by the hate mail he receives, including "an e-mail today saying I should be deported to Israel."
Cristol asserts that there have been no fewer than 10 U.S. and three Israeli investigations, and that no more are needed. Bamford says all have been whitewashes and lists the many high-ranking U.S. government officials who believed that the attack was deliberate, including the late Richard M. Helms, the CIA director at the time.
But both sides of the story contain abiding puzzles.
Those arguing the Israeli case must explain how Israeli forces, despite having the Liberty under surveillance for hours, missed its large antennas, flag, number and markings, and decided it was the El Quseir, an Egyptian troop and horse transport ship docked in Alexandria 250 miles away. According to a 1981 NSA report on the incident, the El Quseir "was approximately one-quarter of the Liberty's tonnage, about one-half its length, and offered a radically different silhouette."
On the other hand, those who say the attack was intentional must come up with a credible motive. Some say Israel was afraid that the United States would learn of its intention to attack Syria; others think the goal was to sink the ship, kill all the witnesses and blame the attack on Arab nations to inflame the United States against Israel's enemies.
Bamford points to evidence of the possible Israeli massacre of 800 Egyptian prisoners at the time and suggests that Israeli officers wanted to cover up the war crime. But even if the massacre occurred - Cristol and some Israeli historians say it did not - the theory rests on the questionable idea that it would be more acceptable for Israel to slaughter U.S. military personnel than its Egyptian enemies.
Louis J. Cantori, a Marine veteran and Middle East expert who has taught at U.S. military academies, says the Liberty episode still festers because Israel never punished anyone, the U.S. government never expressed appropriate outrage and Congress never conducted an investigation. He thinks it's not too late to start one.
"To this day, there's enormous animosity toward Israel about this at the command level of the Navy," says Cantori, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "There's a lot of pent-up anger on the part of the crew. ... If this was a deliberate act, it's beyond anyone's comprehension."
Excerpts from National Security Agency intercepts of Israeli ground controllers talking to helicopter pilots after Israel's attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967. Audio files of the recordings and English-language transcripts are posted on the NSA Web site, www.nsa.gov.
Pay attention: The ship has now been identified as an Egyptian ship. ...
For your information, it is apparently an Arab ship. ...
It is an Egyptian supply ship. ...
Did it clearly signal an American flag? ...
Requesting that you make another pass and check again whether it is really an American flag.
If they speak Arabic - Egyptians - you're taking them to Al-Arish. If they speak English - non-Egyptians - you're taking them to Lod. Is that clear?