Iran showdown has echoes of faked Tonkin attack
January 11, 2008
A dramatic showdown at sea. Crossed communication signals. Apparently-hostile craft nearby. Sketchy intelligence leading to ratcheted up rhetoric.
The similarities between this week’s confrontation between US warships and Iranian speedboats and events off the coast of North Vietnam 44 years ago were too hard for many experts to miss, leading to the question: Is the Strait of Hormuz 2008’s Gulf of Tonkin?
On Aug. 2nd and 4th, 1964, the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy, patrolling off the North Vietnamese coast, intercepted signals indicating they were under attack. Within days, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way to the escalation of the Vietnam War. However, as some intelligence agents suspected at the time, the Aug. 2nd attack took place after the USS Maddox fired first, according to a National Security Agency report released in 1995.
This week another NSA report surfaced, confirming suspicions that the Aug. 4th attack never happened.
The researcher who uncovered the most recent NSA assessment tells RAW STORY that the Strait of Hormuz confrontation, and the immediate saber-rattling from the Bush administration and its allies, demonstrates the extent to which officials must be wary about politicizing shaky intelligence in times of war.
“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,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, told Raw Story. “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.”
Humility and caution, of course, don’t seem to be the most popular buzz words in the Bush White House.
“It is a dangerous situation. … I think it was a provocative act,” Bush warned two days after a handful of small Iranian speedboats spooked a fleet of US Navy warships.
The Pentagon’s initial account of the Jan. 6 confrontation said the Iranian boats “charged” the US ships, dropped boxes in the water that were thought to be mines and threatened to set up “explosions.” An unnamed US Defense Department official told the Associated Press the day after the incident that it was “the most serious provocation of its sort” in the Gulf, although Iranian officials tried to downplay the incident as a simple misunderstanding.
It was not until Thursday, after the Pentagon and Iran had each released videos of the encounter, that the US acknowledged the verbal threats they had associated with the Iranian speedboats from day one could have been broadcast from virtually anywhere.
Aftergood said he was surprised at the uncertainty regarding the origin of that message, which was broadcast on a public communication channel and superimposed onto the end of the Pentagon video.
“One might’ve thought that they would be able to pinpoint it exactly, but it turns out that’s not so,” said Aftergood, who runs FAS’s Project on Government Secrecy. “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.”
Others have questioned the supposed mines that were claimed to be dropped form the Iranian boats.
“The bit about the ‘white boxes’ being dropped into the water seems almost equally dubious,” writes Glenn Greenwald. “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.”
Aftergood said the information should have been more fully vetted before the White House began warning Iran of “serious consequences” of future showdowns.
“What you hear talking is the child on the schoolyard, not the sober national leader,” he said. “And i don’t think that serves anyone’s interest.”
Aftergood noted that America is less poorly equipped to avoid international incidents than it was during the Cold War.
“The credibility at least of the administration has taken a hit by the way this episode played out,” Aftergood said, but the near-confrontation could provide an opportunity for Bush to learn from his mistakes.
The US has largely given Iran the diplomatic silent treatment during the Bush years, which Aftergood said increases the likelihood that the next Strait of Hormuz-type incident won’t de-escalate so quickly.
“If we could have a hotline with the Kremlin while they had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at our country, one would think we could do the same for Iran,” he said. “With some skillful statesmanship … this could serve as the impetus for that, but it would be one way to turn a negative into a net positive.”
“The National Security Agency has long resisted the declassification of material on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, despite efforts by Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Carl Marcy (who had prepared a staff study on the August 4 incident); former Deputy Director Louis Tordella, and John Prados to push for declassification of key documents. Today’s release is largely due to the perseverance of FOIA requester Matthew M. Aid, who requested the Hanyok study in April 2004 and brought the issue to the attention of The New York Times when he learned that senior National Security Agency officials were trying to block release of the documents. New York Times reporter Scott Shane wrote (“Vietnam Study, Casting Doubts, Remains Secret” by Scott Shane, New York Times, October 31, 2005) that higher-level officials at the NSA were “fearful that [declassification] might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.” The glaring light of publicity encouraged the Agency’s leaders finally to approve declassification of the documents.” (emphasis added) (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEB/NSAEBB132/press20051201.htm)
U.S. ’60s Vietnam intelligence flawed
Jan. 9, 2008
WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) — Newly declassified U.S. documents show there were inaccuracies and errors in intelligence intercepted before and during the Vietnam War.
The National Security Agency had some 10,000 cryptographers and other intelligence gathering and translation personnel in Southeast Asia in 1964, yet NSA historian Robert Hanyok wrote in the agency’s history that two key points in the war had intelligence problems.
The first was the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a purported second North Vietnamese attack on U.S. forces triggered a major escalation in the war, The Christian Science Monitor reported. However, it later became clear the second attack never occurred as a radio intercept had been mistranslated, the report said.
The second incident was the start of the Tet offensive Jan. 31, 1968. U.S. intelligence picked up communications talking of an attack on Saigon and other cities on “N-day,” which never materialized, the report said.
Hanyok said “critical information was mishandled, misinterpreted, lost, or ignored” in both major incidents.
Gulf of Tonkin – 11/30/2005 and 05/30/2006
National Security Agency, Central Security Service
On 30 November 2005, the National Security Agency (NSA) released the first installment of previously classified information regarding the Vietnam era, specifically the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This release includes a variety of articles, chronologies of events, oral history interviews, signals intelligence (SIGINT) reports and translations, and other related memoranda.
On 30 May 2006, NSA released the second and final installment of Gulf of Tonkin materials. This final release includes additional articles, chronologies of events, oral history interviews, and other related memoranda.
The opinions expressed within the documents in both releases are those of the authors and individuals interviewed. They do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Security Agency.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, like others in our nation’s history, has become the center of considerable controversy and debate. It is not NSA’s intention to prove or disprove any one set of conclusions, many of which can be drawn from a thorough review of this material. Instead, through these public releases, we intend to make as much information as possible available for the many scholars, historians, academia, and members of the general public who find interest in analyzing the information and forming their own conclusions.
Declassified study puts Vietnam events in new light
US signals intelligence during the war came up short in major turning points, according to an NSA history.
By Peter Grier, The Christian Science Monitor, January 09, 2008
US signals intelligence — the much-vaunted ability of American military and spy units to eavesdrop on the radio calls and other electronic communications of an adversary — failed at crucial moments during the Vietnam War, according to a just-declassified National Security Agency history of the effort.
The 10,000 cryptographers and other signals personnel in Southeast Asia at the time did not predict the start of the Tet offensive on Jan. 31, 1968. Prior to that, signals intelligence may have actually misled President Johnson and other top policymakers about the nature of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a supposed North Vietnamese attack on US forces triggered a major escalation in the war. [cont.]
Bogus Iran story was product of Pentagon spokesman, reporter says
Filed by John Byrne, Raw Story
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.
How the Pentagon Planted a False Hormuz Story
Analysis by Gareth Porter*
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (IPS) – Senior Pentagon officials, evidently reflecting a broader administration policy decision, used an off-the-record Pentagon briefing to turn the Jan. 6 U.S.-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 defence 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 U.S. warships would “explode” in “a few seconds”. Although it was ostensibly a Navy production, IPS has learned that the ultimate decision on its content was made by top officials of the Defence Department.
The encounter between five small and apparently unarmed speedboats, each carrying a crew of two to four men, and the three U.S. warships occurred very early on Saturday Jan. 6, Washington time. But 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 that 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 U.S. Navy by any stretch of the imagination”.
Just two weeks earlier, on Dec. 19, the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious warship, had fired warning shots after a small Iranian boat allegedly approached it at high speed. But that incident had gone without public notice.
With the reports from 5th Fleet commander Vice-Adm. Kevin Cosgriff in hand early that morning, top Pentagon officials had all day Sunday, Jan. 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 5th Fleet on the incident at about 4:00 a.m. Washington time Jan. 7. It was the first time the 5th Fleet had ever 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 U.S. 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 U.S. ship being close to firing on the Iranian boats, or to a call threatening that U.S. ships would “explode in a few minutes”, as later stories would report, or to the dropping of objects into the path of a U.S. 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 9 a.m., 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 U.S. 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 Jan. 9, the U.S. 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 U.S. ship in the Iranian video — appears to threaten the U.S. 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 Lt. Col. 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 defence and other top policymakers at the department. An official in the U.S. 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 defence.
That decision involved a high risk of getting caught in an obvious attempt to mislead. As an official at 5th 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 Jan. 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, Capt. 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. Vice-Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of the 5th Fleet, denied the story in a press briefing on Jan. 7. A week later, Comdr. 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 Jan. 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, Cmdr Robertson of 5th Fleet Public Affairs would not comment directly. But she said, “There is a different perspective over there.”