Hormuz: anyone still doubt conspiracies?


Richard Moore


How the Pentagon planted a false story
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - Senior Pentagon officials, evidently reflecting a broader 
administration policy decision, used an off-the-record Pentagon briefing to turn
the January 6 US-Iranian incident in the Strait of Hormuz into a sensational 
story demonstrating Iran's military aggressiveness, a reconstruction of the 
events following the incident shows.

The initial press stories on the incident, all of which can be traced to a 
briefing by deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in charge 
of media operations, Bryan Whitman, contained similar information that has since
been repudiated by the navy itself.

Then the navy disseminated a short video into which was spliced the audio of a 
phone call warning that US warships would "explode" in "a few seconds". Although
it was ostensibly a navy production, Inter Press Service (IPS) has learned that 
the ultimate decision on its content was made by top officials of the Defense 

The encounter between five small and apparently unarmed speedboats, each 
carrying a crew of two to four men, and the three US warships occurred very 
early on Saturday January 6, Washington time. No information was released to the
public about the incident for more than 24 hours, indicating that it was not 
viewed initially as being very urgent.

The reason for that absence of public information on the incident for more than 
a full day is that it was not that different from many others in the Gulf over 
more than a decade. A Pentagon consultant who asked not to be identified told 
IPS he had spoken with officers who had experienced similar encounters with 
small Iranian boats throughout the 1990s, and that such incidents are "just not 
a major threat to the US Navy by any stretch of the imagination".

Just two weeks earlier, on December 19, the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious 
warship, had fired warning shots after a small Iranian boat allegedly approached
it at high speed. That incident had gone without public notice.

With the reports from Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff in hand 
early that morning, top Pentagon officials had all day Sunday, January 6, to 
discuss what to do about the encounter in the Strait of Hormuz. The result was a
decision to play it up as a major incident.

The decision came just as President George W Bush was about to leave on a Middle
East trip aimed in part at rallying Arab states to join the United States in an 
anti-Iran coalition.

That decision in Washington was followed by a news release by the commander of 
the Fifth Fleet on the incident at about 4am Washington time on January 7. It 
was the first time the Fifth Fleet had issued a news release on an incident with
small Iranian boats.

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. "Following standard procedures," the release said, "Hopper 
issued warnings, attempted to establish communications with the small boats and 
conducted evasive maneuvering."

The release did not refer to a US ship being close to firing on the Iranian 
boats, or to a call threatening that US ships would "explode in a few minutes", 
as later stories would report, or to the dropping of objects into the path of a 
US ship as a potential danger.

That press release was ignored by the news media, however, because later that 
Monday morning, the Pentagon provided correspondents with a very different 
account of the episode.

At 9am, Barbara Starr of CNN reported that "military officials" had told her 
that the Iranian boats had not only carried out "threatening maneuvers", but had
transmitted a message by radio that "I am coming at you" and "you will explode".
She reported the dramatic news that the commander of one boat was "in the 
process of giving the order to shoot when they moved away".

CBS News broadcast a similar story, adding the detail that the Iranian boats 
"dropped boxes that could have been filled with explosives into the water". 
Other news outlets carried almost identical accounts of the incident.

The source of this spate of stories can now be identified as Bryan Whitman, the 
top Pentagon official in charge of media relations, who gave a press briefing 
for Pentagon correspondents that morning. Although Whitman did offer a few 
remarks on the record, most of the Whitman briefing was off the record, meaning 
that he could not be cited as the source.

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.

On January 9, the US Navy released excerpts of a video of the incident in which 
a strange voice - one that was clearly very different from the voice of the 
Iranian officer who calls the US ship in the Iranian video - appears to threaten
the US warships.

A separate audio recording of that voice, which came across the VHS channel open
to anyone with access to it, was spliced into a video on which the voice 
apparently could not be heard. That was a political decision, and Lieutenant 
Colonel Mark Ballesteros of the Pentagon's Public Affairs Office told IPS the 
decision on what to include in the video was "a collaborative effort of 
leadership here, the Central Command and navy leadership in the field".

"Leadership here", of course, refers to the secretary of defense and other top 
policymakers at the department. An official in the US Navy Office of Information
in Washington, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the 
issue, said that decision was made in the office of the secretary of defense.

That decision involved a high risk of getting caught in an obvious attempt to 
mislead. As an official at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain told IPS, it is 
common knowledge among officers there that hecklers - often referred to as 
"Filipino Monkey" - frequently intervene on the VHF ship-to-ship channel to make
threats or rude comments.

One of the popular threats made by such hecklers, according to British 
journalist Lewis Page, who had transited the strait with the Royal Navy is, 
"Look out, I am going to hit [collide with] you."

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 

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 

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."

Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest 
book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, 
was published in June 2005.

(Inter Press Service)

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