BROOKE GLADSTONE: On January 6th, three American warships and five Iranian speedboats confronted each other in the Strait of Hormuz. American officials said the Iranian vessels behaved aggressively. The Iranian government said the incident was peaceful, blown out of proportion by the U.S. And each government released a videotape to support its version and called the other’s videotape baloney.
In the nearly two weeks since, the story has played out like a geopolitical Rashomon. Bill Arkin is a military affairs expert and an online columnist for The Washington Post. He says that the two antagonists interact all the time in the Strait. This time it became a media event because this time the Pentagon decided to have a press conference. BILL ARKIN: Why did it decide to have a press conference? It decided to have a press conference because the President of the United States was about to go to the Persian Gulf.
I can't help, then, therefore, to see the entire incident as part of a broader strategic communication effort on the part of the administration, and that was to put a big giant banner behind the President when he spoke about Iran. And that banner was to say, these are the bad guys and we've proven it this week by showing you the videotape. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do we know about this Pentagon video? It shows the Iranian speedboats buzzing around the warship. We hear an American sailor trying to communicate with the boat and to warn it against aggressive action, and we hear some weird-accented, almost Boris Badenov-type voice saying that something would explode in a few minutes. [BEGIN CLIP] U.S. SAILOR: - your course immediately to remain clear. MAN: You will explode after a few minutes. U.S. SAILOR: You will explode after a few minutes. [END CLIP] BILL ARKIN: What we were watching in the pictures was not necessarily what was associated in the audio. The two were melded together, and there was a manipulation involved there that people were made to think that the actual speedboats were conveying the words that were on the video. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there was an intention to deceive. BILL ARKIN: Well, there was a creative process [BROOKE LAUGHS] that went on, Brooke. You know, I think that probably at the White House level, at the administration level, there was an intention to create a video moment and confrontation that was going to be used for political purposes.
But what’s been obscured by how clumsy the Pentagon put together this video was that the Iranian speedboats, in fact, were buzzing the American ships; that they, in fact, were at least exhibiting potentially aggressive behavior.
And had we known on January 7th, when the Pentagon revealed this incident, that there had been other incidents involving the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy and that there had, in fact, been an incident on December 19th where a U.S. ship felt so threatened that it fired warning shots against similar Iranian speedboats, then we might have had some context to understand what we were looking at.
But instead what happened was they put out this video, which seemed to them to be the slam-dunk of confrontations, and that video ended up being flawed. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And part of what made it flawed was this accented voice talking about the explosion. Who is the "Filipino Monkey"? BILL ARKIN: Who knows? It’s a prankster. It’s somebody either operating from one of the Gulf States or operating from Iran who speaks on Channel 16, which is an open channel of bridge-to-bridge communications amongst all ships. This is sort of the equivalent, if you will, of CB radios at sea. Anybody can break in.
What was most interesting about it, Brooke, is that it had happened before and this admiral who stood before the Pentagon press corps didn't say so. And my guess is, Brooke, he didn't know it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Everybody else knew it. And the Iranians knew it, so they could accuse the tape of being doctored, which it was, and then respond with their own tape showing a peaceful interaction in the Strait on that day. Which tape was truer or falser?
BILL ARKIN: Well, here’s the irony. Both tapes are true, because the Iranians showed a peaceful passage with peaceful audio. Like the American videotape, the audio and the video were put together from two separate incidents.
What we now know about what happened that morning was at about 6 a.m. in the morning, these three American ships passed through the eastern part of the Strait of Hormuz. They were met by and interrogated by an Iranian Navy vessel, and then they were allowed to pass peaceably.
And about two hours later, at the western side of the Straits of Hormuz, these three Navy ships were approached by these five speedboats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is a sort of paramilitary terrorist organization that is independent of the Iranian Navy.
And what the Iranians did in releasing [LAUGHS] their videotape was they released the audio from the 6 A.M. passing together with the speedboat video, and then they tried to make it look as if those two were synonymous. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How would you assess the American media coverage of this event as it unfolded? BILL ARKIN: What the media failed in, in my mind, was asking some of the obvious questions from the get-go. Was this the only incident that had ever occurred? How does the Navy assess this in terms of the seriousness in comparison to other things that had happened?
And I think that, to some degree, the video itself, this manufactured video from the Pentagon, set the tone of what the questions were, because most of the questions at the press conference were, explain to us what we're looking at.
And so that swamped other questions about trying to put some context into this incident. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think this incident has harmed our credibility in the region? Do we have any left? BILL ARKIN: The presumption is certainly that this administration is a liar. But I think it was the clumsiness of the Bush administration itself and the clumsiness of the Pentagon that as much exposed all of the problems associated with this story as it was anybody who wrote anything in the news media. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you very much.
BILL ARKIN: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Arkin is a military affairs expert and an online columnist for The Washington Post.