How the Pentagon planted a false
story By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - 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
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
Then 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.
between five small and apparently unarmed
speedboats, each carrying a crew of two to four
men, and the three US warships occurred very early
on Saturday January 6, Washington time. 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 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".
Just two weeks earlier, on December 19,
the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious warship, had
fired warning shots after a small Iranian boat
allegedly approached it at high speed. That
incident had gone without public notice.
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.
That decision in Washington was followed
by a news release by the commander of the Fifth
Fleet on the incident at about 4am Washington time
on January 7. It was the first time the Fifth
Fleet had issued a news release on an incident
with small Iranian boats.
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. "Following standard procedures," the
release said, "Hopper issued warnings, attempted
to establish communications with the small boats
and conducted evasive maneuvering."
release did not refer to a US ship being close to
firing on the Iranian boats, or to a call
threatening that US ships would "explode in a few
minutes", as later stories would report, or to the
dropping of objects into the path of a US 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
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
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.
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Gareth Porter is an
historian and national security policy analyst.
His latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,
was published in June 2005.