Navy Report: ‘Failed Leadership at Multiple Levels’ in Iran Sailor Abduction

U.S. sailors captive in Iran (Sepahnews via Associated Press)
Sepahnews via Associated Press

On Thursday, military investigators released a partially redacted version of their report on January’s hostage crisis, in which Iran held ten U.S. Navy personnel captive on the eve of President Obama’s final State of the Union Address.

The report said, “this incident was the result of failed leadership at multiple levels from the tactical to the operational,” according to CNN.

For example, investigators found “the crews were poorly prepared, their boats not properly maintained, communication almost entirely lacking, and their conduct after being captured by the Iranians wasn’t up to military standards.”

The report confirmed a long-standing rumor that the Navy crews got lost — they “veered off course almost immediately after heading out to sea” — and did not realize they were in Iranian waters. They ended up adrift, and surrounded by Iranian patrol boats, due to a mechanical failure that should not have happened, and they did not have a “coherent plan” to communicate the details of their situation back to Navy commanders.

Once the sailors were in captivity, they made more mistakes, such as giving away more information to Iranian interrogators than they should have, allowing themselves to be filmed in compromising situations (such as while eating), and making inappropriate statements. When the Iranians asked how their small boats could have traveled so far, one of the sailors reportedly replied, “Yeah, I wish you could tell my people that because we told them these boats don’t do that.”

Reuters adds that the captured Navy personnel were criticized for revealing “sensitive information, such as phone and laptop passwords, to the Iranians.” One crew member revealed details of his vessel, such as its top speed, to Iranian interrogators.

Investigators faulted the Navy culture in Persian Gulf operations for “informality,” saying, “they conducted no patrol briefings, and missions were supported by no formal mission analysis, standard planning factors, risk assessment, or overwatch.”

According to CNN’s account of the Navy report, the sailors were not educated about the weather, geography, or threat potential of the area in which they were operating.

The mission was a “complex transit” from Kuwait to Bahrain that called for more than the 24 hours of advance notice given to the crews. According to the report, the short notice gave the sailors a false sense of urgency for the mission, which accounted for some of their errors in judgment. At least one of the sailors was obliged to stay up all night making repairs for the short-notice mission.

USA Today notes that the crews took an “unauthorized shortcut through Iranian territorial waters because they were in a hurry, and were not prepared to resist or evade the Iranian naval ships that surrounded them.”

The Navy Times said the report makes it clear that, “while the original route would have avoided Iran’s territorial waters around Farsi Island, the crew immediately deviated from their original course to make up for a late start.”

The Associated Press adds that “higher headquarters failed to arrange air or surface monitoring of the boats’ transit,” which “would likely have prevented” the capture of the sailors.

They were only 1.5 nautical miles from the Iranian naval base on Farsi Island when they were captured, so there were plenty of opportunities to change course. The crew mistakenly believed it was a Saudi island they could see in the distance.

Reuters cites an observation from the Navy report that the crew was equipped with a computerized map system that would have shown them they were approaching Farsi Island, but they failed to zoom the map in far enough to read the name of the land mass they were approaching.

“Decision-makers at every level failed to intervene when the boats could not achieve minimum communications standards… and when the (boats) violated Saudi and Iranian territorial seas,” said the Navy report.

The Navy report also hammered the Iranians for violating international law during the incident, as detailed by USA Today:

The Iranians boarded the U.S. boat, forced the U.S. sailors to kneel with their hands behind their heads and replaced the U.S. flag on the vessel with an Iranian flag, the report said.

The crew was interrogated by the Iranians, who attempted to intimidate them by slapping the table and threatening to take them to the mainland, but did not physically harm them, according to the investigation. The Iranians also collected passwords to the U.S. sailors’ personal phones and laptops.

The Iranians videotaped a crewmember making an apology scripted by the Iranians, who said the crew would not be released unless he read the script. The report, which does not name the officer, said his actions violated the code of conduct for servicemen who are held captive.

They were held by the Iranians for 16 hours before being released. The Navy report said the Iranians violated basic maritime law and practice despite the U.S. mistakes. Ships often enter territorial waters and are generally allowed to transit through as long as they do not stop.

The report said the Iranians were justified in coming out to investigate the American ships, but not in holding them or preventing them from continuing their journey.

“Across the Navy, around the globe, hundreds of commanding officers and hundreds of thousands of U.S. sailors are making tough decisions and performing their duties in a way that should make every American proud, and strike fear into anybody who would want to take us on. Those sailors also clearly know our actions in this incident did not live up to our expectations of our Navy,” Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, declared at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday.

“Two officers have already been fired after the fiasco – Capt. Kyle S. Moses and Cmdr. Eric Rasch – and the report indicated that six more crew members of the Coastal Riverine squadron could be punished,” CNN reported.

The Iranians, on the other hand, gave medals to the commanders who supervised the capture and detention of the American sailors. “The event was an act of Allah, it happened at a good time, and you acted admirably,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told his sailors during the award ceremony.


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