The Pentagon has been caught with its pants down on the bogus story of Iranian boats threatening to "explode" U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz January 6. Now that that patently false story has blown up in its face, Congress should find out who is responsible and make them accountable.
Here's a tip for anyone in Congress who cares about the public trust: the trail of lies and fabrication in this case leads to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. As I reported earlier this week for Inter Press Service, the lurid press stories of an Iranian threat to blow up U.S. ships that began the coverage of the incident did not come from some rogue freelancer. They were a direct result of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bryan Whiteman's briefing for the Pentagon press corps on the morning of January 7.
It was Whitman who supplied all those juicy details that filled the press stories, including the Iranian phone threat, the objects dropped in the water which reporters were told could have been explosives, and the titillating story that at least one Iranian boat was "a heartbeat from being blown up," as reported by ABC News. All of which turned out to be flatly untrue.
Whitman could not have given that briefing, however, without the authority of the Secretary of Defense himself. The responsibility goes to the top of the Pentagon.
Equally blatant in its intent to deceive was the decision to put together a short video clip of the incident in which a mysterious voice seems to issuing a taunting threat against the U.S. ships. That voice was grafted on to the soundtrack of the video in order to dramatize that element of the story.
The question many were asking when it became clear that the voice on the video was that of the "Filipino monkey" -- the heckler or hecklers who have been horning in on ship-to-ship communication in the area to hurl insults, threats and racial epithets for many years -- was who was responsible for fabricating such a ridiculously lurid and obviously phony video.
When I started to investigate that question, the Pentagon press office referred me to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet information office in Bahrain. But both that office and the Navy's Office of Information steered my back to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And sure enough, the press office at the Pentagon, which is part of the OSD, confirmed that the "leadership" of the Department of Defense was in on the decision on what to release to the public.
So Gates was in on both the original decision to disseminate a false account of the incident in the Strait and the decision to release a video that was deliberately rigged to dramatize the supposed threat by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps navy to blow up a U.S. warship. In both cases there can be no doubt that the decisions made only after consulting with the White House.
Could Gates and the White House have been taken in by reports from overeager commanders in the Gulf who sent panicky reports that presented an exaggerated sense of threat -- like the nervous sonarmen who thought they were under attack in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964, at least for an hour or so?
Not very likely. The commander of the 5th Fleet, Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff told Pentagon reporters on January 7, "I didn't get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats."
Furthermore, an official at the 5th fleet headquarters told me that everyone there knows about the "Filipino Monkey" problem. Anyone who has ever transited the Strait is told to expect such taunts and threats over the ship-to-ship channel. It is inconceivable that any of the naval officers involved would have failed to make clear in their reports on the incident that they believed the threat that came over the VHF channel was probably that of the infamous heckler.
When high officials are caught deliberately creating a phony threat to American ships, Congress has a duty to investigate. It seems very likely that laws were broken in this bumbling effort at deception. But thus far we have had only pained silence from the Democratic leadership in Congress. And apparently there are no plans by either the Senate or House committee on Armed Services to carry out an investigation into the outrage.
Are the Democrats protecting Bob Gates? He has been widely credited with helping to restrain Dick Cheney's desire for military action against Iran, which men of good will must applaud. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Gates is also personally responsible for using the Pentagon's propaganda machine to support a political line -- both at home and abroad -- aimed at keeping up political pressure on Iran, even it means doing violence to the facts.
In the post-NIE phase of American policy toward Iran, protecting Gates from the consequences of the Strait of Hormuz scandal no longer a matter of preventing a war. It will only implicate the Democrats in the administration's broader anti-Iran scheme -- and all the lies that seems to require.