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The Pretext for War

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/tonkin.jpgPainting by: EJ Fitzgerald, "Gulf of Tonkin" Courtesty of: Library of Congress

The pictures earlier this month felt familiar. Grainy photographs showed U.S. battleships in foreign waters, dangerously close to small, fleet gunboats from an enemy nation. It was unclear what transpired — the implication was something had. This was the Middle East and not Southeast Asia. The technology had changed over 40 years, but the situation seemed eerily the same.

The television images of Jan. 6 had been dramatic. Menacing blue speedboats belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were speeding in the Straits of Hormuz near the powerful American warships USS Hooper and USS Port Royal. Then there were shots of an officer in one of the small boats followed by audio of chilling threats: “I am coming to you” and “You will explode after two minutes.” Finally, the video showed men in one of the boats placing small white boxy-objects in the rough sea.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In Washington, there was tough talk of war. “I’d much rather prevent a war than fight one,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He then spoke of “the threat posed by Iran” and how the ships will use “deadly force if need be.” Referring to the boxes, he said the United States has “been concerned for years about the threat of mining those straits.” The incident, he said, was the most “provocative and dramatic” encounter he could recall in the area.

Traveling in Israel, President George W. Bush issued a stern warning. “Iranian boats came out and were very provocative,” he said. “It was a dangerous gesture on their part. We have made it clear publicly, and they know our position, and that is, there will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple.”

On Fox and other cable networks former generals rattled sabers and the commentators were breathless. “Five boats like that could have . . . probably killed over 100 American sailors and perhaps even sunk them,” said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. “Wouldn’t have bothered me one bit, Geraldo, if we would have blew those ships right out of the water,” said Sean Hannity on the Fox News program Hannity & Co. “What harm would have come if we had fired a 50-caliber machine gun at one of those vessels?” added Geraldo Rivera.

And in the Republican debate in South Carolina, candidates were tripping over each other to show their muscle against Iran. “One more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins,” Fred Thompson crassly threatened. Rudy Giuliani added, “This incident should wake a lot of people up.” John McCain warned, “Don’t think this wasn’t a serious situation.” Only Ron Paul declined to bite into the red meat. “People are looking around for an excuse to bomb Iran,” he said as the mostly Republican audience laughed.

The problem was, the “threatening” incident was as phony as the mobile biological weapons vans in the Iraqi desert, or the meeting between Mohamed Atta and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agents in Prague, or the transfer of yellow cake from Niger. Like the pretexts that helped launch the country into war in Iraq, there never were any threats from the Iranian sailors. Worse, the incident was intentionally manufactured by the Pentagon and then dangerously hyped by the White House, Republican candidates, and political pundits into a near-war event.

It’s now clear that the open, unarmed speedboats were never threatening and were of no great concern to the top Navy commander in the Gulf, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, who said his men were never perturbed. “I didn’t get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats,” he said. The Iranian ships had “neither anti-ship missiles nor torpedoes,” he said, “and I wouldn’t characterize the posture of the U.S. 5th Fleet as afraid of these small boats . . . We are familiar with their presence; they’re familiar with ours.”

Nor did the Iranian boats make any threats. They simply identified themselves to the U.S. ship, saying, “Coalition warship No. 73 [the USS Port Royal, CG-73] this is an Iranian navy patrol boat.” The “threats” were just harassing comments by an unidentified broadcaster on a completely different channel. Even the sound of his voice was different from that of the Iranians, and there was also no background noise that would have been generated by a loud speedboat. “We don’t know for sure where they came from,” Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for 5th Fleet in Bahrain, finally admitted. “It could have been a shore station.” Nonetheless, the Pentagon decided to deliberately edit the disassociated jibe into the non-threatening actions of the Iranian boats, thereby turning an innocent action into a potential act of war.

The freelance broadcaster – referred to by an ethnic slur, “the Filipino monkey” – had actually been sending similar harassing messages regularly for decades. In fact the moniker is simply a generic term for the many anonymous insults and jibes that come over the common radio channel monitored by ships as they traverse the Straits and the Persian Gulf. American sailors are well aware of this and warned about it.

News articles even described the activity over the years. In November 1987, for example, The Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled “Filipino Monkey: On Backs Of Many In Tense Gulf.” “Sailors in this part of the world are by now well-acquainted with the rogue radio operator who calls himself ‘The Filipino Monkey.’ He has been interjecting jokes and taunts into radio conversations between ships at the southern end of the Persian Gulf for at least three years.”

But then there were the small, boxlike objects dropped in the water by the boats. Again, the U.S. commanders on the scene took little notice. After passing them, the commanders on the USS Hooper and USS Port Royal thought there was so little threat that they never even bothered to warn other ships about them.

In 1964, instead of the Hooper and the Port Royal in the Straits of Hormuz, it was the USS Maddox and the Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin. The USS Maddox was sailing slowing along the North Vietnamese coast, within that country’s territorial waters, collecting electronic intelligence for the National Security Agency. In order to generate signals for the ship to collect, the Pentagon had sponsored deadly guerrilla raids against coastal villages and on islands off shore.

The North Vietnamese Navy logically assumed the ship was directing the raids. Thus when the Maddox later came close to one of the islands that had been attacked, they believed another village was about to be destroyed. As a result, in a defensive move they launched three patrol boats that fired several torpedoes at the U.S. ship. They missed and the incident was over.

At the time, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Pentagon were longing for a pretext to launch an all-out war against North Vietnam. Despite the fact that the United States was attacking the country and invading its territory, the White House and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara spun the incident in the media as if the failed assault on the Maddox was an unprovoked act of war against the United States. Then, rather than move the ship back into international waters beyond the 12-mile limit, the Pentagon sent another ship, the USS Turner Joy, to join the Maddox and continue the raids – despite McNamara’s firm belief that the guerrilla attacks were useless.

On the next night, Aug. 4, there was a great deal of fog and the captain of the Maddox, thinking he was being attacked, sent out emergency messages indicating that the ship had picked up radar signals of three unidentified vessels closing fast. In the end, however, it was determined to be a mistake. “Freak radar echoes,” McNamara was told, “young fellows” manning the sonars, who “are apt to say any noise is a torpedo.” Nonetheless, in testimony before Congress, McNamara spoke of “unequivocal proof” of the new attack and both houses of Congress passed the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” thus plunging the United States officially into the Vietnam War.

In 40 years, there has been an enormous improvement in technology to help prevent an accidental war from taking place. Radar satellites now have the ability to see through fog — as well as clouds and darkness; reconnaissance aircraft can take infra-red pictures of runways and see from their heat signature how many planes were there a half-hour before; signals intelligence is able to determine what countries are buying which precursor chemicals and who is ordering parts of a centrifuge; the relatively new science of masint (measurement and signature intelligence) can “sniff” a passing ship to determine if it is carrying any nuclear materials. Many of these techniques contributed to the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that determined the country had years before given up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But what hasn’t changed is a desire by presidents for far off wars, and a dangerous need to invent pretexts to justify them.

James Bamford is the author, most recently, of “A Pretext For War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies.” He is also the author of “The Puzzle Palace” and “Body of Secrets,” both about the National Security Agency.

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