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.
hen 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 Department.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.