WASHINGTON -- Reviewing documents covering 36 years, the State Department concluded yesterday that Israel's attack on the US spy ship Liberty during the 1967 Six-Day War was an act of Israeli negligence.
The United States also was negligent, a State Department official said, for failing to notify Israel that the electronic intelligence-gathering ship was cruising international waters off the Egyptian coast and for failing to withdraw the Liberty from the war zone.
A daylong conference that studied fresh documents as well as the established record failed to produce a consensus for any of three views voiced most often: Israel intentionally attacked what it knew to be a US Navy ship; the attack was accidental; or the attack resulted from faulty judgment.
Thirty-four Americans were killed in the June 8, 1967, attack; more than 170 were wounded.
Israel has maintained since the attack that it was a case of mistaken identity, an explanation the Johnson administration did not challenge formally. Israel said its forces thought the Liberty was an Egyptian horse carrier, apologized to the United States, and paid almost $13 million in compensation, some to victims or their families.
Since the United States did not intercept the order to attack the ship with cannon fire and napalm, precise facts of the attack remain elusive, the State Department official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He called the Israeli attack and the US actions a classic example of Murphy's law: "If anything can go wrong, it will."
David Hatch, a technical director at the National Security Agency, said, "The good news is that information long sought by researchers is now out, and the bad news is that it does not settle it."
The occasion for the State Department conference was the release of historical documents about the 1967 war, in which Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and other Arab countries in six days.
Charles Smith, a professor at the University of Arizona, said in his presentation that Israel should have known the Liberty was an American ship.
"If they didn't know, they didn't try hard enough to find out," he said.
James Bamford, an investigative journalist who has written about the attack, demanded further investigation.
"There were coverups," Bamford said, citing a signed affidavit by retired Navy Captain Ward Boston, who was a leader of a military investigation into the attack.
Boston said in the affidavit in October that President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had told those heading the Navy's inquiry to "conclude that the attack was a case of `mistaken identity' despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary."
Boston, 80, who did not attend yesterday's conference, said the Navy investigators were given only one week but still were able to amass "a vast amount of evidence, including heartbreaking testimony from young survivors."
However, Jay Cristol, a US bankruptcy court judge who has written about the attack, cited the finding of the inquiry as proof it was a mistake. "There was no indication they had any knowledge they were attacking a US ship," Cristol said at the conference.