The story that the Pentagon presented to the world through the news media a week ago about the naval encounter with Iran in the Straits of Hormuz has now largely unraveled. We now know the following:
- the audio threats that appeared on the Pentagon video were spliced in.
- the Pentagon cannot say where the threats came from.
- it is now almost certain that the audio threats did not come from the Iranian boats. The radio channel on which the threat was picked up is well-known to contain "heckling" by unknown parties. The audio doesn't have the noise that one would expect if it came from the moving Iranian boats. Farsi speakers and Iranians told the Washington Post the voice did not sound Iranian. (This was all reported last week.)
- it is not true that the U.S. was "about to fire" on the Iranian boats.
- whatever happened, it appears to not have been at all unprecedented in terms of naval encounters between the U.S. and Iran, and the immediate U.S. reaction following the incident suggests it was not initially perceived as being out of the ordinary. (These assertions are documented here.)
Therefore, a reasonable conclusion, based on what we now know, is that this was a manufactured incident, in the sense that the account that the Pentagon presented to the world through the media was significantly false, and they knew or should have known that it was significantly false when they presented it.
A further reasonable conclusion is that the motivation for releasing the video was to ratchet up tensions prior to President Bush's trip to the Middle East, whose purpose appears to have been to clarify that the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran did not indicate any change in U.S. policy towards Iran -- the U.S. was still committed to confrontation -- and to try to prevent or reduce moves by the Arab allies of the US towards rapprochement with Iran.
The key questions that remain: who at the Pentagon authorized the release of the video, which we now know gave a false account? Who authorized false statements to the media? What procedures are in place to prevent the Pentagon from releasing false information to news media about military encounters between the United States and Iran (or anyone else?) What procedures should be put in place to prevent this from happening in the future?
There shouldn't be any doubt that Congress should prevent this from happening and that it can do so if it has the will. It is unacceptable that the Pentagon can release false information that makes military conflict more likely, thus hijacking democratic accountability at the great risk of blood and treasure, and greatly damaging the credibility of the U.S. government, at home and abroad. It is likely that there would never have been a new Iran intelligence estimate if it had not been for Congressional pressure and the reforms that were implemented after the White House manipulated intelligence prior to the invasion of Iraq. If Congress could create the conditions in which the new Iran intelligence estimate was released in spite of the strong opposition of the White House, it can create the conditions in which the Pentagon cannot release significantly false information about military encounters to the news media.
Ask Congress to investigate the release of the Iran video.
Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy