When news first broke of the detention of two U.S. ships in Iranian territorial waters, the U.S. media — aside from depicting it as an act of Iranian aggression — uncritically cited the U.S. government’s explanation for what happened. One of the boats, we were told, experienced “mechanical failure” and thus “inadvertently drifted” into Iranian waters. On CBS News, Joe Biden told Charlie Rose, “One of the boats had engine failure, drifted into Iranian waters.”
Provided their government script, U.S. media outlets repeatedly cited these phrases — “mechanical failure” and “inadvertently drifted” and “boat in distress” — like some sort of hypnotic mantra. Here’s Eli Lake of Bloomberg News explaining yesterday why this was all Iran’s fault:
Iran’s handling of the situation violated international norms. … Two small U.S. sea craft transiting between Kuwait and Bahrain strayed into Iranian territorial waters because of a mechanical failure, according to the U.S. side. This means the boats were in distress.
Lake quoted John McCain as saying that “boats do not lose their sovereign immune status when they are in distress at sea.” The night the news broke, Reuters quickly said the “boats may have inadvertently drifted into Iranian waters” and “another U.S. official said mechanical issues may have disabled one of the boats, leading to a situation in which both ships drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters.”
The U.S. government itself now says this story was false. There was no engine failure, and the boats were never “in distress.” Once the sailors were released, AP reported, “In Washington, a defense official said the Navy has ruled out engine or propulsion failure as the reason the boats entered Iranian waters.”
Instead, said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at a press conference this morning, the sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” when, in the words of the New York Times, “they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base.” The LA Times conveyed this new official explanation: “A sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course. Or the crew members may have taken a shortcut into Iranian waters as they headed for the refueling ship, officials said.” The initial slogan “inadvertently drifted” — suggesting a disabled boat helplessly floating wherever the ocean takes it — has now been replaced in the script by “inadvertently strayed,” meaning the boats were erroneously steered into Iranian waters without any intention to go there.
It is, of course, theoretically possible that this newest rendition of events is what happened. But there are multiple reasons to suspect otherwise. To begin with, U.S. sailors frequently travel between Bahrain and Kuwait, two key U.S. allies, the former of which hosts the Fifth Fleet headquarters; these were familiar waters.
Moreover, at no point did either of the ships notify anyone that they had inadvertently “misnavigated” into Iranian territorial waters, a significant enough event that would warrant some sort of radio or other notification. “U.S. defense officials were befuddled about how both vessels’ navigational systems failed to alert them that they were entering Iranian waters,” reported the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youseff on Tuesday night. Carter sought to explain this away by saying, “It may have been they were trying to sort it out at the time when they encountered the Iranian boats.” Not one sailor on either of the boats could communicate the “error”? Beyond that, “misnavigating” within a few miles of an Iranian Guard Corps naval base is a striking coincidence (the LA Times summarized an exciting and remarkable tale of how the boats were perhaps running out of gas, entered Iranian waters merely as a “shortcut,” experienced engine failure when they tried to escape, and then on top of all these misfortunes, experienced radio failure).
What we know for certain is that the storyline of “mechanical failure” and “poor U.S. boat in distress” that was originally propagated — on which Lake exclusively relied to blame the Iranians — was complete fiction. At least according to the government’s latest version, the boats were working just fine. But, as always, the bulk of the U.S. media narrative was built around totally unverified, self-serving claims from the U.S. government, which, yet again, turned out to be completely false.
Perhaps there are valid reasons why the U.S. military — while the sailors were still in Iranian custody — would falsely claim that the boats experienced “mechanical failure” and were in “distress,” as that would excuse an otherwise intentional act (one of the sailors in the video taken by Iran claimed they were “having engine issues”). But the fact that there is a good reason for the U.S. government to make false claims does not excuse the U.S. media’s uncritical regurgitation of them nor the construction of a narrative based on them depicting Iran as the aggressor; it may be shocking to hear, but the U.S. government and U.S. media are supposed to have different functions.
This happens over and over. A significant incident occurs, such as the U.S. bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The U.S. government makes claims about what happened. The U.S. media uncritically repeat them over and over. And then the U.S. government just blithely changes its story repeatedly, implicitly admitting that the tales it originally told were utterly false. But the next time a similar event happens, there is no heightened skepticism of U.S. government claims: its media treat them as Gospel.
The behavior of the U.S. media in this case was downright embarrassing, even by their standards. CNN’s Erin Burnett openly and repeatedly suggested that this was a calculated move by Iran to humiliate the U.S. and Obama during his State of the Union address (as though Iran hypnotized the sailors into entering its territorial waters on cue). And more generally, this unauthorized trespass into Iranian territorial waters was continuously depicted as an act of Iranian aggression (contrast that with how the U.S. government suggested it would be in Turkey’s rights not only to intercept but to shoot down any Russian jet that even briefly traverses its airspace). Article 25 of the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, titled “Rights of protection of the coastal State,” states that “the coastal State may take the necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage which is not innocent.”
All you need to know about the U.S. media is this: Just imagine what they would be saying and doing if two Iranian ships had entered U.S. territorial waters with no warning or permission, and then the Iranian government lied about why that happened. And that’s to say nothing of the massive apologia that spewed forth in 1988 when, in roughly the same areas as these ships “misnavigated” into, the U.S. Navy blew an Iranian civilian jet out of the sky, killing 290 passengers, 66 of whom were children, and then tried to cover up its responsibility.
So, to recap the U.S. media narrative: when the U.S. Navy enters Iran’s territorial waters without permission or notice, and Iran detains them and then releases them within 24 hours, Iran is the aggressor; and the same is true when Iran aggressively allows one of its civilian jets to be shot down by the U.S. Navy. And no matter how many times the U.S. government issues patently false statements about its military actions, those statements are entitled to unquestioning, uncritical treatment as Truth the next time a similar incident occurs.
Additional reporting: Andrew Fishman