The U.S. military inflicts more damage on its own credibility

Factually dubious claims about the Strait of Hormuz incident are part of a larger, highly destructive pattern.


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Glenn Greenwald
January 10, 2008 7:49pm (UTC)

(updated below - Update II)

It seems increasingly clear that the U.S. military's initial claims about its interaction with those five Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz was exaggerated in significant ways, approaching Jessica Lynch/Pat Tillman/Iraq-is-going-great territory. It's impossible to resolve all of the conflicting details of each side's self-serving version, but the most inflammatory facts which the Navy originally asserted, and which the American news media uncritically regurgitated, are quite dubious, if not demonstrably false.

Here, for instance, was the first paragraph of Tuesday's Washington Post story by Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson, highlighting the most dramatic and scariest part of the U.S. military's narrative:

We're coming at you, the Iranian radio transmission warned. Your ships will explode in a couple of minutes.

The next paragraph summarized the Navy's version that "five Iranian patrol boats sped toward the USS Port Royal and two accompanying ships as they crossed the Strait of Hormuz" and then "'maneuvered aggressively' on both sides of the U.S. ships." The next paragraph recounted:

After the radio transmission, two of the Iranian boats dropped "white box-like objects" into the water, [Vice Adm. Kevin J.] Cosgriff said.

Those are the two "facts" that infused the story with such a sinister tone -- explicit threats from the Iranian boats to destroy the American ships, followed by their dropping of unidentifiable boxes, which, one was supposed to infer, could easily have been explosive devices.

But the first "fact" seems almost certainly false, and the second one is highly questionable. Iranian Hooman Majd at The Huffington Post noted that the voices on the tapes issuing the melodramatic threats were unquestionably not Persian. As he put it: "the person speaking doesn't have an Iranian accent and moreover, sounds more like Boris Karloff in a horror movie than a sailor in the elite branch of Iran's military." A regular Iranian commenter at Cernig's blog made the same point. Listen for yourself to the audio and see how credible the threats sound.

Since then, additional facts have emerged strongly negating the claim that that message came from those Iranian boats. The audio of the threats is crystal clear in sound quality, with no ambient noise -- something highly unlikely to be the case if delivered from a small, speeding boat. Moreover, as the New York Times' Mike Nizza reports today, quoting a reader claiming to be a former Naval officer, the channel that was used to convey the transmission is easily accessible to all sorts of private parties and is often the venue for hoaxes, pranks, and false messages.

Even the Pentagon itself is now acknowledging the lack of proof for the initial version, "saying that the voice on the tape could have come from the shore or from another ship." As Nizza put it: "The list of those who are less than fully confident in the Pentagon's video/audio mashup of aggressive maneuvers by Iranian boats near American warships in the Strait of Hormuz now includes the Pentagon itself."

The video released by the U.S. military contained video and audio that were patched together, and as Cernig notes, the audio containing the threatening messages was suspicious from the start:

The section of the released tape which contains the actual threat to "blow up" anyone, as I noted yesterday, comes at the very end and is very much unconnected in any causal sense to the rest of it. The sound is clearer and less cluttered by background noise, while there is no video accompanying it -- the only such section of the tape -- just an ominously black screen. The accent of the alleged Iranian threatener is way wrong. I've known several Iranians well in the UK and their accents when speaking English were all very different from that on the tape -- less gutteral.

Moreover, the audio and video released by the Iranians, from the vantage point of one of the Iranian speed boats, shows verbal interaction between them and one of the American ships, in which each is identifying themselves to the other.

The bit about the "white boxes" being dropped into the water seems almost equally dubious. Neither the video of the incident released by the U.S. military, nor the video version released by the Iranian government, includes any such event, nor are there any references to it at all on the audio.

The Bush administration issued the most threatening possible rhetoric as part of its original, now-discredited rendition of events. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley warned ominously: "This is a provocative act -- not a smart thing to do, and they are going to have to take responsibility for the consequences, if they do it again," a threat issued as he flew with the President to Israel. Bush himself issued his standard threat about all options being on the table when dealing with Iran, about which, The Washington Post's Wright reported today: "some diplomatic and military officials in Washington said inflated the significance of the brief incident."

Needless to say, as Cernig documents, Bush followers, who believe it's the duty of every American to click one's heels and blindly accept every statement made by our Government and military, are in full attack mode, with The Weekly Standard predictably labelling any deviations from blind acceptance as A New Disgrace. Nobody takes pleasure in suggesting that the statements from the U.S. military are unreliable or false, but given their history, what else would a sentient, rational person do?

As Chris Floyd notes today, intelligence documents just released by the National Security Agency demonstrate more conclusively than ever before that the Vietnam War "was launched under precisely the same kind of knowingly false, manufactured pretext as" the invasion of Iraq. Floyd links to this article, which quotes the Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood, whose organization obtained the documents, describing one of the newly disclosed U.S. intelligence reports on the Gulf of Tonkin "attack" as follows:

The author of the report "demonstrates that not only is it not true, as (then US) secretary of defense Robert McNamara told Congress, that the evidence of an attack was 'unimpeachable,' but that to the contrary, a review of the classified signals intelligence proves that 'no attack happened that night,'" FAS said in a statement.

"What this study demonstrated is that the available intelligence shows that there was no attack. It's a dramatic reversal of the historical record," Aftergood said.

"There were previous indications of this but this is the first time we have seen the complete study," he said.

None of this is to compare the incident in the Strait of Hormuz with the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The video released by the Iranians appears truncated and edited, and there is good reason to believe that the Iranian speed boats were acting unusually, if not recklessly and provocatively. But when the U.S. military issues factually dubious claims, and the U.S. media (as it almost always does) uncritically regurgitates them -- at least at first -- all that does is further erode their own credibility as well as the ability for a rational person to believe anything they say.

UPDATE: In comments, Mr. Jones offers this quasi-defense of the U.S. military's conduct here:

The first thing I recalled wasn't the Gulf of Tonkin but when the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. Iranian gunboats had been behaving similarly, putting the ship's inexperienced crew on edge. They mistook the radar blip for an incoming fighter and launched missiles. What a disaster.

Anyway, I'm reluctant to place the blame on the military in this case. When you have large US forces maneuvering around in semi-hostile waters, with 20-year olds manning the stations, how can you not get into these situations. A midshipman mistaking a foreign voice on the radio as Iranian and coming from the boats seems far less serious than mistaking a passenger jet from an incoming fighter and shooting it down, yet that is exactly what happened. I could believe that this was the crew's initial determination. I'll save my criticism for the people who put them in this situation.

That's fair enough, as far as it goes. It's not hard to see how initial reports from such a tense situation could be unreliable. But that's why the Pentagon -- and the U.S. media -- shouldn't uncritically broadcast reports of this kind to the world as though they are corroborated fact. Additionally, it's precisely because of the ease with which miscalculations of this sort can arise when warmongering rhetoric and belligerent behavior are the norm that such conduct is so ill-advised and dangerous.

UPDATE II: There are (at least) two issues raised by this incident:

(1) Did the American ships reasonably perceive that the boats posed a threat?

(2) Did the U.S. military make factually dubious claims about what occurred?

Questions (1) and (2) are separate and distinct. The topic of this post is question (2), not question (1). Therefore, making arguments about question (1) as though it addresses question (2) is incoherent. You can think that the answer to question (1) is clearly "yes," but that doesn't change in any way the answer to question (2). Even if the perception of a threat was reasonable, that doesn't justify -- obviously -- issuing false or dubious claims about what happened.

Nonetheless, for those who can't or won't recognize that distinction, here is an article from Inter Press Service that should be read (h/t Mad Dogs):

Despite the official and media portrayal of the incident in the Strait of Hormuz early Monday morning as a serious threat to U.S. 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 U.S. commander was on the verge of firing at the Iranian boats. . . .

The U.S. 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 U.S. ships" as claimed by CBS news Wednesday in its report based on the new video. . . .

Cosgriff's answers to reporters' questions indicated that the story promoted earlier by Pentagon officials that one of the U.S. ships came very close to firing at the Iranian boats seriously distorted what actually happened.

Again, whether there was a reasonable threat perception is completely independent of whether the U.S. government's original version had any basis in fact, but -- at least according to Adm. Cosgriff's latest statements -- there appears to be ample evidence to call both propositions into question.


Glenn Greenwald

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