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January 11, 2008

Official Version of Naval Incident Starts to Unravel

by Gareth Porter

Despite the official and media portrayal of the incident in the Strait of Hormuz early Monday morning as a serious threat to US ships from Iranian speedboats that nearly resulted in a "battle at sea," new information over the past three days suggests that the incident did not involve such a threat and that no US commander was on the verge of firing at the Iranian boats.

The new information that appears to contradict the original version of the incident includes the revelation that US officials spliced the audio recording of an alleged Iranian threat onto to a videotape of the incident. That suggests that the threatening message may not have come in immediately after the initial warning to Iranian boats from a US warship, as it appears to do on the video.

Also unraveling the story is testimony from a former US naval officer that non-official chatter is common on the channel used to communicate with the Iranian boats and testimony from the commander of the US 5th fleet that the commanding officers of the US warships involved in the incident never felt the need to warn the Iranians of a possible use of force against them.

Further undermining the US version of the incident is a video released by Iran Thursday showing an Iranian naval officer on a small boat hailing one of three ships.

The Iranian commander is heard to say, "Coalition warship 73, this is Iranian navy patrol boat." He then requests the "side numbers" of the US warships. A voice with a US accent replies, "This is coalition warship 73. I am operating in international waters."

The dramatic version of the incident reported by US news media throughout Tuesday and Wednesday suggested that Iranian speedboats, apparently belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy, had made moves to attack three US warships entering the Strait and that the US commander had been on the verge of firing at them when they broke off.

Typical of the network coverage was a story by ABC's Jonathan Karl quoting a Pentagon official as saying the Iranian boats "were a heartbeat from being blown up."

Bush administration officials seized on the incident to advance the portrayal of Iran as a threat and to strike a more threatening stance toward Iran. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley declared Wednesday that the incident "almost involved an exchange of fire between our forces and Iranian forces." President George W. Bush declared during his Mideast trip Wednesday that there would be "serious consequences" if Iran attacked US ships and repeated his assertion that Iran is "a threat to world peace."

Central to the depiction of the incident as involving a threat to US warships is a mysterious pair of messages that the sailor who heard them onboard immediately interpreted as saying, "I am coming at you...," and "You will explode after a few minutes." But the voice in the audio clearly said "I am coming to you," and the second message was much less clear.

Furthermore, as the New York Times noted Thursday, the recording carries no ambient noise, such as the sounds of a motor, the sea or wind, which should have been audible if the broadcast had been made from one of the five small Iranian boats.

A veteran US naval officer who had served as a surface warfare officer aboard a US Navy destroyer in the Gulf sent a message to the New York Times on-line column "The Lede" Wednesday pointing out that in the Persian Gulf, the "bridge-to-bridge" radio channel used to communicate between ships "is like a bad CB radio" with many people using it for "hurling racial slurs" and "threats." The former officer wrote that his "first thought" was that the message "might not have even come from one of the Iranian craft."

Pentagon officials admitted to the Times that they could not rule out that the broadcast might have come from another source

The five Iran boats involved were hardly in a position to harm the three US warships. Although Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman described the Iranian boats as "highly maneuverable patrol craft" that were "visibly armed," he failed to note that these are tiny boats carrying only a two- or three-man crew and that they are normally armed only with machine guns that could do only surface damage to a US ship.

The only boat that was close enough to be visible to the US ships was unarmed, as an enlarged photo of the boat from the navy video clearly shows.

The US warships were not concerned about the possibility that the Iranian boats were armed with heavier weapons capable of doing serious damage. Asked by a reporter whether any of the vessels had anti-ship missiles or torpedoes, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, Commander of the 5th Fleet, answered that none of them had either of those two weapons.

"I didn't get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats," said Cosgriff.

The edited Navy video shows a crewman issuing an initial warning to approaching boats, but the footage of the boats maneuvering provides no visual evidence of Iranian boats "making a run on US ships" as claimed by CBS news Wednesday in its report based on the new video.

Vice Adm. Cosgriff also failed to claim any run toward the US ships following the initial warning. Cosgriff suggested that the Iranian boat's maneuvers were "unduly provocative" only because of the "aggregate of their maneuvers, the radio call and the dropping of objects in the water."

He described the objects dropped by the Iranian boat as being "white, box-like objects that floated." That description indicates that the objects were clearly not mines, which would have been dark and would have sunk immediately. Cosgriff indicated that the ships merely "passed by them safely" without bothering to investigate whether they were explosives of some kind.

The apparent absence of concern on the part of the US ships' commanding officers about the floating objects suggests that they recognized that the Iranians were engaging in a symbolic gesture having to do with laying mines.

Cosgriff's answers to reporters' questions indicated that the story promoted earlier by Pentagon officials that one of the US ships came very close to firing at the Iranian boats seriously distorted what actually happened. When Cosgriff was asked whether the crew ever gave warning to the Iranian boats that they "could come under fire," he said the commanding officers "did not believe they needed to fire warning shots."

As for the report circulated by at least one Pentagon official to the media that one of the commanders was "close to firing," Cosgriff explained that "close to" meant that the commander was "working through a series of procedures." He added, "[I]n his mind, he might have been closing in on that point."

Despite Cosgriff's account, which contradicted earlier Pentagon portrayals of the incident as a confrontation, not a single news outlet modified its earlier characterization of the incident. After the Cosgriff briefing, Associated Press carried a story that said, " US forces were taking steps toward firing on the Iranians to defend themselves, said the US naval commander in the region. But the boats – believed to be from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy – turned and moved away, officials said."

That was quite different from what Cosgriff actually said.

In its story covering the Cosgriff briefing, Reuters cited "other Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity" as saying that "a US captain was in the process of ordering sailors to open fire when the Iranian boats moved away" – a story that Cosgriff had specifically denied.

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Gareth Porter's Bio

Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist and historian specializing in U.S. foreign and military policy. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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