Monday, January 14, 2008

More On The Hormuz Spin (Updated)

By Cernig

Following on from the full Pentagon tape of the incident in the Gulf last week, which shows no multiple white boxes and has no mysterious voice promising explosions, there's been some interesting comment and speculation from a couple of journalists.

Gareth Porter, in an interview with Democracy Now!:

Porter: Well, this alleged crisis or confrontation on the high seas is really much less than what met the eyes of the American public as it was reported by news media. And the story really began from leaks from the Pentagon. I mean, there were Pentagon officials apparently calling reporters and telling them that something had happened in the Strait of Hormuz, which represented a threat to American ships and that there was a near battle on the high seas. The way it was described to reporters, it was made to appear to be a major threat to the ships and a major threat of war. And that's the way it was covered by CNN, by CBS and other networks, as well as by print media.

Then I think the next major thing that happened was a briefing by the commander of the 5th fleet in Bahrain, the Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, which is very interesting. If you look carefully at the transcript, which was not reported accurately by the media, or not reported at all practically, the commander -- or rather, Vice Admiral Cosgriff actually makes it clear that the ships were never in danger, that they never believed they were in danger, and that they were never close to firing on the Iranian boats. And this is the heart of what actually happened, which was never reported by the US media.

So I think that the major thing to really keep in mind about this is that it was blown up into a semi-crisis by the Pentagon and that the media followed along very supinely. And I must say this is perhaps the worst -- the most egregious case of sensationalist journalism in the service of the interests of the Pentagon, the Bush administration, that I have seen so far.

Gonzalez: And there have been some reports about the apparent splicing of audio onto the actual video that appear to be from two different sources. Could you talk about that?

Porter:: Well, that's right. I mean, we don't yet know exactly what the sequence of events was in this incident. We don't know exactly when the voices that we hear making what appear to be a threat to the American ships, where--when that occurred in the sequence of events in this incident. And it seems very possible that indeed the Pentagon did splice into the recording, the audio recording of the incident, the two bits of messages from a mysterious voice in a way that made it appear to occur in response to the initial communication from the US ship to the Iranian boats. And it seems very possible that, in fact, those voices came at some other point during this twenty-minute incident.

So this is something that really deserves to be scrutinized and, in fact, investigated by Congress, because of the significance, in the larger sense, of a potential major fabrication of evidence in order to make a political point by the Bush administration.
And, on the other side of the "who spun what?" coin, Jim Lobe notes the relative silence of the bomb-Iran crowd and points to:
the possibility that the Navy and the Pentagon chose to dramatize the incident not so much to isolate and embarrass Iran as to enhance the chances for a new “incidents- at-sea” agreement that they have been pushing on the White House without success for many months now.
He continues with cites of articles by military-friendly journalists on that very subject and writes:
It’s been no secret for some time now that the Pentagon, and the head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Adm. William Fallon, in particular, have been pressing the White House — without success — for negotiating a new “incidents at sea” agreement with Iran that would reduce the risk of a an accidental confrontation in the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf itself.

...Within that context, the timing of the Pentagon’s decision to publicize what really an apparently not-particularly-threatening incident involving Revolutionary Guard speedboats is particularly intriguing as I suspect there have been more serious incidents in the recent past. Frustrated until now in their efforts to get the White House to authorize negotiations over a new agreement, could it be that Fallon (who worked very hard to improve military ties — sometimes over the objections of Donald Rumsfeld — with China as the commander of the Ninth Fleet), Cosgriff, and other Pentagon and Navy officials decided to dramatize the danger just as Bush was embarking on his trip, anticipating that the president would get an earful from his Gulf state hosts about their fears that a naval confrontation could quickly escalate into a real war in which they would suffer significant collateral damage?
Maybe. I'd much rather Lobe was right but I fear Gareth Poretr has it when he says:
there's no doubt that the motivation for the Pentagon to blow this incident up was precisely the timing of President Bush leaving on a trip to the Middle East, in which one of his major purposes was to try to keep together a coalition of Arab states...So this is definitely part of the reason, very clearly, that what was a very minor incident which did not threaten US ships, as far as we can tell from all the evidence so far, was turned into what was presented as a confrontation and a threat of war.
(Hat tip for both articles to Cursor.)

Update Another bit of spin. Via War In Context to the Asia Times and expert testimony from Kaveh L Afrasiabi:
Tension spiked markedly last week when Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) speedboats were involved in an "incident" with three US Navy vessels, which claimed they were international waters.

Yet there is no "international water" in the Strait of Hormuz, straddled between the territorial waters of Iran and Oman. The US government claimed, through a Pentagon spokesperson, Bryan Whitman, that the three US ships "transiting through the Strait of Hormuz" were provocatively harassed by the speedboats. This was followed by the Pentagon's release of a videotape of the encounter, where in response to Iran's request for ship identification, we hear a dispatch from one of the US ships stating the ship's number and adding that "we are in international waters and we intend no harm".

Thus there is the issue of the exact whereabouts of the US ships at the time of the standoff with the Iranian boats manned by the IRGC patrolling the area. According to Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgiff, the US ships were "five kilometers outside Iranian territorial waters". Yet, this is disputed by another dispatch from the US ships that states, "I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law."

Given that the approximately three-kilometer-wide inbound traffic lane in the Strait of Hormuz is within Iran's territorial water, the US Navy's invocation of "transit passage" harking back to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, (UNCLOS) is hardly surprising.

Although the US has yet to ratify the UNCLOS, it has been a strong advocate of its provisions regarding navigational rights, thus explaining the US officers' availing themselves of "international law".
There's far more detail on what the rules say about this at the Asia Times link. UNCLOS Article 34 says that "warships transiting the Straits of Hormuz must act as non-war ships, 'temporarily depriving themselves of their armed might'. And any 'warning shots' fired by US ships at Iranian boats, inspecting the US ships under customary international laws, must be considered an infringement on Iran's rights". Moreover, flying military helicopters off ships, as seen in the full pentagon tape, is not allowed.

Paul Woodward at War In Context writes:
Let’s repeat that: there are no international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. The U.S. ships were in Iranian territorial waters exercising the “right of transit passage” afforded to them in international law by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which the United States has signed but which Congress has yet to ratify. This is why in the video of the incident, a U.S. naval officer can be heard saying, “I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law.”

However provocatively the Iranian speedboats might have been behaving, if from the outset, this incident had been reported as occurring inside Iranian territorial waters, the Pentagon’s first task would have been to educate the press and the public about some of the technicalities of international law as it applies to the Straits of Hormuz. That lesson would have sucked the air out of the story and Bush would have landed in Tel Aviv deprived of what he was clearly eager to employ in his latest round of fear-mongering rhetoric. Absent this rallying cry, there might have been a tiny possibility that he pay a bit of attention to the real concerns that resonate across the region.
Amazingly, the US Navy, who according to some are unimpeachable officers and gentlemen of the kind that were largely a myth even back in Napoleonic times, utterly forgot to mention any of this.

Update 2 Commenter Grand Moff Texan raises an intriguing possibility. Since at the time of the "buzzing" the US vessels were "in transit passage in accordance with international law" - that is, not in international waters - and during the mysterious "voice" transmission say that they are in international waters, there's a fair possibility that the two were separate by considerable time and space from each other and only conflated later for propaganda purposes.