Saturday, February 23, 2008

Getting the Strait Story

Getting the Strait Story

By Brian Beutler

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The Pentagon spun a minor melee off the coast of Iran into a direct menace to US interests. Why isn't Congress concerned?

"You will explode in a few minutes." According to the Pentagon, those menacing words, directed at U.S. warships, came from an Iranian Guard Corps sailor aboard an armed speedboat that maneuvered uncomfortably close to the American ships in the Strait of Hormuz early last month. The incident very nearly escalated into a military confrontation with Iran.

But there's a problem with the Pentagon's version of events: it was highly misleading. The threat likely didn't come from an Iranian sailor, nor was the confrontation as dramatic as the Pentagon portrayed it. Yet, the administration nearly spun this fairly insignificant episode into a casus belli. How has the Democratic Congress reacted to the Pentagon's phony depiction of this encounter? It hasn't. Six weeks have passed without any hint of a congressional inquiry.

Should Congress decide to probe the administration's portrayal of the Hormuz confrontation, its jurisdiction over the issue would be fairly broad. An investigation into the matter could hypothetically involve any number of congressional committees, including the House and Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, as well as Henry Waxman's House oversight committee.

In the days following the January 6 confrontation, I asked staff members of all the relevant committees what action, if any, might be taken. The House Armed Services Committee, I was told, was following the matter closely. And in its first week back from the Christmas recess the Senate Armed Services Committee received a staff briefing on the incident. But since then neither committee has indicated that its members are concerned with the possibility that the Pentagon may have misled the public. (Aides on the House Foreign Affairs and the Senate Foreign Relations committees did not respond to repeated inquiries.)

The lone voice of congressional concern appears to be Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. Last fall, his committee held a series of hearings examining the tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran, including the possibility that a minor melee-quite like the one in the Strait-could trigger an accidental war.

"The recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz underscores the need for means to be developed to prevent inadvertent armed escalation between the U.S. and Iran," he says, adding that "incidents involving Iranian speedboats are not unforeseeable.... We've known about these tactics for many, many years." He notes that his subcommittee will continue to investigate "conflict de-escalation mechanisms that should be in place in order to ensure that our country does not fall into an armed conflict that would not be in our national security interests."

But the possibility of an accidental war is somewhat tangential to the matter at hand. The real question is whether key details of the Hormuz confrontation were distorted by the Pentagon.

And evidence suggests that they were.

During the January 6 confrontation, according to news accounts, three Navy ships crossed paths with five Iranian speedboats manned by perhaps one or two dozen Iranian sailors. The sailors taunted their American counterparts as they blazed through the Strait of Hormuz and passed near the Navy vessels. It was aggressive, to be sure, but too common an occurrence in this well-traveled waterway to be accurately described a threatening maneuver.

About a half-hour later, after warnings had been traded back and forth between sailors, a new male voice crept onto the radio frequency the Americans were using to communicate with the Iranians and issued the now infamous warning. He spoke in English, but, as an audio recording of the the encounter indicates, his accent was not Persian.

The Pentagon chose to describe the incident differently. Senior Pentagon officials attributed the mystery voice-now thought by many observers and Navy officials to belong to an infamous maritime prankster known as the "Filipino Monkey"-to the Iranians, ultimately releasing video footage of the confrontation with audio of the threat superimposed over it to the public.

What did the Bush administration stand to gain by emphasizing this confrontation? It's hard to say. But one possible explanation is that this was a way to play up the Iranian threat after the administration's claims about Iran's nuclear ambitions were seriously undercut by the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, released in November, which found that the country had terminated its nuclear weapons program four years earlier.

With Iranian naval forces threatening Americans, Iran could be depicted as a direct menace. Is that why the Pentagon engaged in this cut-and-paste exercise? Who ordered it? Was there any vetting before the Pentagon released its misleading account of the incident? Was anyone held accountable? There are many questions that linger in the wake of the January confrontation. But for the most part Congress seems uninterested in seeking the truth.

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