Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Big Schmooze in the Hormuz

I said a few weeks ago that the January 6 incident between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz might tell us more about the nature of today's news reporting than about the prospects for war and peace in the Middle East. It's now apparent that the affair was emblematic of America's post-modern Orwellian (Rovewellian) information environment.

Unreliable Sources

Initial media reports of the encounter were enough to make you wish you'd salted away an extra month's worth of beef jerky in the backyard fallout shelter.

A senior military correspondent with the Associated Press said that "an Iranian fleet of boats" had "charged at and threatened to blow up a three-ship U.S. Navy convoy" transiting the Strait of Hormuz. According to the senior correspondent, Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff said in a January 7 press teleconference that the Iranian fleet "fled as American commanders were preparing to open fire."

A Rupert Murdoch newspaper reported that an unnamed "Pentagon official said that US forces were 'literally' on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats," and that another Pentagon official (or maybe the same one) said "It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet."

An echo chamberlain with the Big Brother News Network squalled, "Was this a mistake not to blow these other Iranian speedboats out of the water? […] Why did we not destroy these speedboats? [...] We had an opportunity to send a message to a nation that has been needling us for 20 years."

Subsequent saner accounts revealed that the "Iranian fleet" consisted of five speedboats of the size that haul sunburned water skiers across American lakes in the summer. The official transcript of the Cosgriff press conference showed that the admiral had not said that American commanders were preparing to open fire, but that he had heard that story reported "on the news."

We discovered that the threats to blow up the U.S. ships broadcast over a VHF bridge-to-bridge radio circuit had almost certainly been part of the standard heckling from untraceable sources that American combatant vessels have heard in the Persian Gulf for more than two decades. The skipper of one of the U.S. ships involved said, “We gave them the opportunity to break off, so that we didn’t have to go the ultimate, which would have been deadly force.” That's a far cry from "preparing to open fire."

Something worth noticing happened between our Navy and the Iranians in the Gulf, all right, but it was merely an upsmanship shenanigan of the kind that has occurred in those waters many times since the Tanker War ended in 1988, and was hardly "the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet."

So where did all the alarmist disinformation come from?

Minister of Truth

On January 15, investigative historian Gareth Porter blew the lid off the mystery of who had "disassembled" about the Hormuz incident. Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, had held a separate briefing for the Pentagon press corps. Most of what he said was off the record, meaning he could not be directly quoted (when you read quotes from an "unnamed official" in a news story, it's generally propaganda that the initiators don't want traced back to their bosses). In an apparent slip up, a reporter for one major outlet revealed Whitman as the source of the "about to fire" rhetoric.

That the story of the Hormuz incident got "cooked" at the Pentagon reminds one of the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) established under then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shortly after September 11 in order to support the war on terror through information operations, including disinformation and other forms of black propaganda. Officially, Rumsfeld shut down the OSI amid outrage over the news that it would feed false stories to the foreign press, but in a November 2002 media briefing, he made it clear that it would live on in function if not form, saying " if you want to savage this thing fine I'll give you the corpse. There's the name. You can have the name, but I'm gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have."

War Is Sell

The Pentagon and the right wing media weren't the only ones who spun the Hormuz incident all across the information highway.

The military affairs fictioneer with the big online magazine generated a Chariot-of-the-Gods argument to explain why the U.S. and Iranian videotapes of the encounter were so different—they were tapes of two separate events! (The term "Chariot-of-the-Gods argument" derives from the book by Erich von Daniken that says since we can't easily explain who made all those weird giant patterns out in the desert, it must have been ancient astronauts.)

The fictioneer credited his counterpart with the blog of the newspaper that once actually guarded the Constitution from unitary executives like Richard Nixon for inspiring the "two tapes" theory. The counterpart accused the Iranians of "mendacity" without making any attempt to prove that they were actually lying about anything.

The old gray mare (she ain't what she used to be) that gave us Judith Miller and the Niger yellowcake hoax ran an article that compared the Hormuz affair to an incident that happened during a fictional 2002 war game that was mainly conducted by imaginary forces on battlefields in cyberspace in which Iranian small boats notionally sank an entire U.S. naval task force in the Persian Gulf. To make the analogy even more preposterous, in the game, the U.S. and Iran were in a state of declared conflict, which they are not in the real world despite the best efforts of Dick Cheney and his Iranian Directorate.

The same big eastern paper ran an unsolicited editorial by a Marine Corps reservist and Pentagon employee who suggested that a proper step to take against Iranian to deter small boat harassment might be to bomb two Iranian islands in the Gulf. The author is not part of a larger propaganda machine; he was simply relating his own experiences and opinions. But the fact that an opinion piece from an obscure government employee ran in the paper of record as well as other national and international news outlets gives you an idea how willing the major media are to whip Pavlov's Dogs of War into a slathering bloodlust.

The neoconservative mind control program has evolved far beyond anything the old Office of Strategic Influence could have achieved. It is as ubiquitous and dispersed as al Qaeda. It has spread past its original base of truth ministries like the ISO and the Iranian Directorate, think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, private propaganda contractors like Lincoln Group and the Rendon Group, media savvy American Caesars like General David Petraeus and unabashed media proponents of American military hegemony like William Kristol's Weekly Standard.

The neocons have successfully recruited the able services of mainstream media publishers and producers who have pillaged the truth for the sake of ever increasing plunder margins, journalists who gleefully trade their integrity for access to the halls of power, dime store strategists who write pro-war letters to editors who are eager to print them, and full time Pentagon correspondents who would more gainfully be employed as gossip columnists.


Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) will be available April 1, 2008.


  1. Anonymous12:23 PM

    a superb compendium. i'll be holding on to this.

  2. Glad you liked it, Petey. Thanks for the nice words.


  3. Anonymous2:38 PM

    One of the most overlooked (indeed, almost always overlooked) aspects of this incident is the fact that the US battleship was not in international waters, as is often stated or implied. (But I'm open to being corrected on this point.)

    So the hubris or provocation of the Iranian boats is not, and never was, at issue. I hasten to add to this my further understanding that, for its part, the US ship responded appropriately in the circumstances.

    In sum, I agree that this was much ado about nothing, with the proviso that the "normalcy" of the incident has nothing to do with the question of whether or not such speedboats could or did pose a threat - as far as that goes, I think they could - or the question of how close the American ship came to firing, because all of these angles miss the most salient point: namely, that dispatching speedboats was, and was probably intended to be, the antithesis of provocation, and an appropriate means for facilitating passage of this American boat through these particular waters (which, as I understand it, Iran could treat as territorial waters, but, again, I stand to be corrected on this point).

  4. Anonymous2:40 PM


    I am usually in perfect agreement with your sentiments, but I think you pass over the Van Riper war-game to easily. It proved a vulnerability, and culminated in Van Riper stepping down from his role as commander because he was not allowed to exploit the weaknesses. It was an early sign of Pentagon hubris.

  5. RK,

    I haven't seen an up-to-date version of that chart, so I don't know if the traffic channel is in intl. waters or not. If not, the U.S. ships had right of transit passage or innocent passage (one or the other), so it's not like they didn't have a right to be there.


    I don't pass over Van Riper's experience lightly at all. Several times in the past I have cited the MCO2 wargame as, like you say, a premier symptom of US military hubris and myopia.

    MCO2, however, bore almost no resemblance to this incident in Hormuz.

  6. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Hi, Jeff -

    Just a quick clarification - I'm not suggesting that the US ship didn't have a "right" to be there. But I am trying to suggest that both parties acted consistent with, and well within, their respective rights (at least, as I understand them).

    I'll add that, based on my reading (no special knowledge in play here!) that, strictly speaking, there are no "international" waters, per se, in this particular area.

    Oh, and I neglected to add first time, so let me do so here, lest you get the wrong impression: Job well done, Jeff!

  7. RK,

    Yeah, that's pretty much my take on it. I suppose one might make a case that a speed boat cutting across the bow of a ship in a transit lane is bad form, but it happens all the time in straits throughout the world.



  8. Anonymous3:02 PM

    Jeff, it looks like you double posted this entry.

  9. Thanks for the heads up, EE. Took care of it.



  10. Anonymous2:28 PM

    I just about fell off my chair when I noticed this excellent article posted, nay, SPOTLIGHTED on antiwar.com particularly because it somehow miraculously appears on the heavily medicated Military.com

    Having posted there for awhile, and having the un-dubious honor of being kicked off, I am pleasantly shocked.

    Though I will no longer participate (since over a decade ago)in America's sham municipal elections I am never-the-less closely watching Ron Paul's ascendance. In any event I will drive my better 3/4's (who's father - my in law - is a retired CDR and former airboss of the Kitty Hawk and fmr CO of an E-2 squadron - synchronicity - eh?) to the primary and national municipal polls so she can vote for Dr. No!!!!!!

    Bjørn Rafto
    Fmr US Naval Officer
    (AKA Ensign Flag Parker)

  11. LOL, Bjorn, and welcome aboard. Hmmm... Is your father in law's name Frank?

  12. Bryan Whitman was the turd whose name constantly floated to the top of the Early Bird, back when Rumsfeld moved the corrections and the Pentagon's demands for corrections up there. He wrote, or at least signed, at least a letter a day telling newspaper editors that they had made a factual error by allowing their newspapers to carry the claim that Iraq had been invaded with fewer troops than the generals wanted. The mere appearance of the name "Shinseki" was, and surely still is, enough to make The Turd whine for two or three hundred words. A sad use of oxygen, that one.

  13. Thanks for the additional info, Chris. Yep, he's a minister of truth all right.


  14. Anonymous5:26 PM

    I'm convinced something is up with Iran. I see the carriers we need to do something will be in a position to be on line late spring or this summer. But nothing will be done without a provocation to which we may respond. What type of provocation could happen in the Gulf to set up a war fever? Since many are suspicious of our government, it would have to be somewhat legitimate. I know Iran doesn't want to take us on but how do you think we arrange it so that it looks like it does.

  15. Monte,

    Everything the administration has put out propaganda wise since January 07 has been a war narrative. Whether they can find the straw that breaks the camel's back remains to be seen.


  16. The Secret Service called off weapon screening at an Obama event in Dallas today. Story at my place.