Bogus Iran story was product of Pentagon spokesman, reporter says
John Byrne
Published: Wednesday January 16, 2008 |
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An American journalist and historian who was the first to break the story of a secret Iranian peace overture to the Bush Administration in 2006 alleges that the latest Pentagon encounter between Iranian ships and a Navy vessel was a deliberate fabrication.

The incident, on Jan. 5 in Strait of Hormuz off the Iranian coast, was originally described as a non-event -- then quickly became one in which Iranian boats threatened to "explode" American ships.

At about 4 am on Monday Jan. 7, the commander of the Fifth Fleet issued a news release on an incident with small Iranian boats. According to reporter Gareth Porter, writing in the Asia Times, "the release reported that the Iranian "small boats" had "maneuvered aggressively in close proximity of [sic] the Hopper [the lead ship of the three-ship convoy]. But it did not suggest that the Iranian boats had threatened the boats or that it had nearly resulted in firing on the Iranian boats."

"On the contrary, the release made the US warships handling of the incident sound almost routine," he adds. "'Following standard procedures,' the release said, "Hopper issued warnings, attempted to establish communications with the small boats and conducted evasive maneuvering.'"

No reference was made to a US ship nearly firing on an Iranian vessel, or suggestions that the US ships would "explode," or white boxes dropped into the water in the path of the US fleet.

This press release, however, went ignored by the media, Porter notes. Instead, the focus turned to CNN's Barbara Starr, who touted allegations that military officials told her Iranian boats were carrying out "threatening maneuvers." CBS soon followed up with a story positing that the Persians had dropped white boxes in the water around the American ships.

Starr added that one American boat had been given the order to fire, and the Iranians had moved away just in time.

Porter identifies Bryan Whitman, the Pentagon's top spokesman, as the culprit for the spurious account. Most of Whitman's remarks that formed the basis for Starr's and other stories were drawn from an off the record press briefing that was held on the condition he not be identified as a source.

But, "in an apparent slip-up, however, an Associated Press story that morning cited Whitman as the source for the statement that US ships were about to fire when the Iranian boats turned and moved away - a part of the story that other correspondents had attributed to an unnamed Pentagon official," he writes.

After facing suspicion, the Pentagon released a four-minute, 20-second condensed video clip that appeared to show small Iranian boats swarming around a US Navy vessel. A voice was heard to say, "I am coming to you. ... You will explode after (inaudible) minutes."

In the wake of reports, the Iranians said the footage had been fabricated.

What later emerged was a more complex view of the incident -- that in fact the threatening transmission did not come from the Iranian ships.

On Jan. 13, Pentagon officials said they did not know the source of the radio transmission, backing off a previous claim that it came from one of the boats. The Navy Times said the voice in the audio sounded different from the one belonging to an Iranian officer shown speaking to the cruiser Port Royal over a radio from a small boat in the video released by Iranian authorities.

Some now believe the threats actually emanated from a heckler known as the "Filipino Monkey," likely more than one person, who listens in on ship-to-ship radio traffic and then jumps on the net shouting insults and vile epithets.

Ultimately, other elements of the story swallowed by Pentagon correspondents were also discredited. The commanding officer of a missile cruiser said the white boxes "didn't look threatening."

Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff denied that his ships had been close to firing on the Iranians. So did destroyer commander Jeffery James.

Porter asked a spokeswoman for the Navy's Fifth Fleet whether or not commanders were upset with Washington's portrayal of the incident.

Lydia Robertson of Fifth Fleet Public Affairs would not comment directly, he wrote. "There is a different perspective over there," Robertson said.

By January 11, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was already disavowing the story that Whitman had been instrumental in creating only four days earlier. "No one in the military has said that the transmission emanated from those boats," said Morrell.

The other elements of the story given to Pentagon correspondents were also discredited. The commanding officer of the guided missile cruiser Port Royal, Captain David Adler, dismissed the Pentagon's story that he had felt threatened by the dropping of white boxes in the water. Meeting with reporters on Monday, Adler said, "I saw them float by. They didn't look threatening to me."

The naval commanders seemed most determined, however, to scotch the idea that they had been close to firing on the Iranians. Cosgriff, the commander of the Fifth Fleet, denied the story in a press briefing on January 7. A week later, Commander Jeffery James, commander of the destroyer Hopper, told reporters that the Iranians had moved away "before we got to the point where we needed to open fire".

The decision to treat the January 6 incident as evidence of an Iranian threat reveals a chasm between the interests of political officials in Washington and navy officials in the Gulf. Asked whether the navy's reporting of the episode was distorted by Pentagon officials, Lydia Robertson of Fifth Fleet Public Affairs would not comment directly. But she said, "There is a different perspective over there."

Last week, RAW STORY's Nick Juliano spoke with Steven Aftergood, an expert on military secrecy, who has recently published an NSA assessment on a notorious incident during the Vietnam war in which Vietnamese ships were said to have attacked American vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin.

"The parallels (between Tonkin and Hormuz) speak for themselves, but what they say is that even the most basic factual assumptions can be made erroneously [or] can prove to be false," Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, said. "Therefore extreme caution is always appropriate before drawing conclusions ... that might leave to violent conflict. That's almost so obvious that I feel embarrassed saying it, but there is a history of mistaken interpretations of these kinds of encounters that ought to teach us humility."

"It's also surprising that President Bush was permitted to get so far out in front on this issue, even though there were significant uncertainties on what transpired," Aftergood added.

Read Porter's full story here, and Juliano's story linking the Iranian incident and the Gulf of Tonkin here.