Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More On Who Spun The Hormuz Incident

By Cernig

Gareth Porter at IPS has done great work following the various threads of the incident last week involving Iranian speedboats and three US capital warships. Yesterday, he wrote a must-read article on who exactly spun what and when.
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.
Whitman is a long-term spinmeister for the DoD who was also responsible for the Pentagon's "media support plan" in the run up to and during the invasion of Iraq. He also worked as a Public Affairs Specialist in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs during Clinton's first term.

Porter writes that a full day after receiving first reports of the incident - one which wasn't at all unusual - the Pentagon took "a decision to play it up as a major incident". An initial Fifth Fleet report:
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.
And the famous voice?
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.
The big question now is - how separate in time and space from the five minute encounter with the buzzing Iranian speedboats was the "voice" transmission. Certainly those white boxes that were hyped as a threat weren't regarded as such by commanders on the scene, who say they sailed blithely through them. Moreover, the only mysterious objects in the water on the full on-scene video are separated by more than 20 minutes - much of it at flank speed of 38 knots - from the "buzzboat" encounter and seen at a time when no Iranian speedboats are nearby at all.

Porter concludes:
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."
That may be true, but Fifth Fleet and its officers are still being less than forthcoming about questions surrounding the Pentagon spin, as is to be expected.

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