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Freed British Sailors Detail Captivity in Iran

April 6, 2007 at 5:00 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: After 13 days in captivity in Iran, seven of the 15 British sailors and marines described their ordeal publicly for the first time.

LT. FELIX CARMAN, Royal Navy: I operate out of Frigate Foxtrot 99…

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Felix Carman appeared on Iranian television last week, apparently apologizing for straying into Iranian waters. Today, he said they had done nothing of the kind.

LT. FELIX CARMAN: Let me make it absolutely clear: Irrespective of what has been said in the past, when we were detained by the IRG, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, we were inside internationally recognized Iraqi territorial waters. And I can clearly state we were 1.7 nautical miles from Iranian waters.

MARGARET WARNER: Royal Marine Captain Chris Air described a tense situation when, after a routine inspection of a merchant ship near the Shat al-Arab waterway, they were accosted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

CAPT. CHRIS AIR, Royal Marines: Some of the Iranian sailors were becoming deliberately aggressive and unstable. They rammed our boats and trained their heavy machine guns, RPGs and weapons on us. Another six boats were closing in on us.

We realized that our efforts to reason with these people were not making any headway, nor were we able to calm some of the individuals down. It was at this point that we realized that, had we resisted, it would have been a major fight, one which we could not have won, and with consequences that would have major strategic impacts.

We made a conscious decision not to engage the Iranians and do as they asked. They boarded our boats, removed our weapons, and steered the boats towards the Iranian shore.

Let me be absolutely clear: From the outset, it was very apparent that fighting back was simply not an option. Had we chosen to do so, then many of us would not be standing here today. Of that, I have no doubts.

The Iranian navy did not turn up lightly armed. They came with intent, heavy weapons, and very quickly surrounded us. We were equipped, armed and had rules of engagement for boarding operations in Iraqi water. We were not prepared to fight a heavily armed force, who, in our impression, came out deliberately into Iraqi waters to take us prisoner. Reasoning with the Iranians was our only option.

'Rough' handling by Iranians

MARGARET WARNER: The details of their captivity, provided today by the marines and sailors, stood in contrast to the video images shown on Iranian television.

LT. FELIX CARMAN: The questions were aggressive and the handling rough, but it was no worse than that. The following morning, we were flown to Tehran and transported to a prison where the atmosphere changed completely. We all at one time or another made a conscious decision to make a controlled release of non-operational information.

On Day 12, we were taken to a governmental complex, blindfolded, and given three-piece suits to wear. We watched the president's statement live on television, and it was only then that we realized we were to be sent home.

It goes without saying that there was a great deal of elation at this point. We were made to then line up and meet the president one at a time. My advice to everyone was not to mess this up now, we all wanted to get home.

MARGARET WARNER: The seamen said, while they were in captivity, they felt completely isolated and didn't know if the outside world even knew they were missing.

JOURNALIST: What was the worst moment for you guys?

CAPT. CHRIS AIR: We were sort of under the impression that we were going to be taken to the embassy and probably be released. However, there was a lot of trickery and mind games being played, and we were then taken to a cell and left there.

LT. FELIX CARMAN: All times, initially, we were kept in solitary confinement. There was absolutely no speaking. We were blindfolded to go to the toilet.

However, later on -- I'd say probably a week into it -- we were taken out in the evenings for maybe a couple of hours just to play chess together or just to socialize. But that was in the full glare of the Iranian media, as we previously stated, so it was very much a setup, very much a stunt for Iranian propaganda.

MARGARET WARNER: Seaman Faye Turney was not present at today's press conference. The only woman in the group, she was separated from her colleagues during much of their captivity. She wrote a letter demanding that British forces pull out of Iraq.

Captain Air explained her absence today.

CAPT. CHRIS AIR: Coming home to her family is clearly a great relief. And she just wants to sort of have some time with them now, out of the media spotlight, because, like all of us, she's been exploited.

JOURNALIST: Can you go into what kinds of pressures she might have been under when she composed her letters?

CAPT. CHRIS AIR: She was separated from us as soon as we arrived in Tehran in the detention center and isolated in a cell well away from any of us. She was told shortly afterwards that we had all been returned home and was under the impression, for about four days, that she was the only one there. She coped admirably and retained a lot of dignity and has maintained that throughout.

MARGARET WARNER: The marines and sailors said they were happy to be back with their families and asked that their privacy be respected.

Training for captivity

MARGARET WARNER: For more on how servicemembers are trained to deal with being held captive and how to resist being captured in the first place, we turn to retired U.S. Army Colonel Stanley Florer, former chief of staff of the Army Special Operations Command. He's now with a defense consulting firm.

And welcome, Colonel Florer.

No doubt, British and American militaries have slightly different procedures. But, in general, how are military personnel trained to deal with the situation such as that, that the seamen found themselves on, on the water that day?

COL. STANLEY FLORER, Army Special Forces (Ret.): Well, the primary thing is to have good situational awareness so that they know what is going on around them. That's the most important thing, so you can protect yourself.

And they always have -- I'm sure the British -- I know we do -- have the requirement to have self-defense and the right of self-defense. If it looks like there's an aggressive force coming at you, you do have the right to defend yourself, especially if they're heavily armed and they're showing that they're aggressive.

However, we don't know all the details that the lieutenant had guidance on, that sort of situation for him. Obviously, they were not prepared for that kind of confrontation, as he said in his interview. He didn't have heavy weapons with him.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, once they were taken into captivity, from what they described -- and we've run quite a bit of that -- how typical were the methods that the Iranians subjected them to in an attempt to get them to admit wrongdoing?

COL. STANLEY FLORER: I think they're very typical. You separate all your captives. You blindfold them. As they talked about, they made them take their uniforms off, put pajamas on. And kept them in, as they said, up against a wall so that their situation was always -- he said "rough handling," but at least it was not comfortable.

And I think that's very typical. You want to isolate and then possibly get them to admit things because they're scared. And there's a level of fear there. You don't know what's coming next.

In the hands of uniformed folks -- and, in this case, the Iranians were uniformed, I assume -- and I think there's a little more confidence that you're going to be taken care of or that you're going to be handled in a way that conforms to international standards.

But in irregular warfare today, you can't always depend on that. And you may fall into the hands of other forces, militias, et cetera, that don't follow international standards, and then the fear factor goes very much higher.

Levels of resistance training

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how intensive and of what nature is the kind of training that service personnel receive and how to stand up to this kind of psychological pressure?

COL. STANLEY FLORER: It is in a tiered fashion, really. The vast majority of our soldiers and sailors and marines get the very basic resistance training, which is code of conduct, which is how to handle yourself if you're taken prisoner.

The two overarching pieces are, you are in one with your comrades. You always maintain your dignity and your respect as a soldier, American soldier, or sailor or marine or airman.

But then, as you go into other areas of our military that have more likelihood of being captured behind the lines, such as aviators, such as, obviously, our Navy and Air Force pilots and air crews, but Special Forces, Navy SEALs or combat controllers in the Air Force, all of those folks have a much higher likelihood of being captured. And they get more intensive, much more intensive resistance training.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I think it was the captain said, or maybe it was the lieutenant, that, you know, they were told, OK, you have a choice. You either confess and you'll be flown home, or you cannot confess, and you could be here for seven years.

And he said the following. He said, even though they were all separated at the time, "We all at one time or another made a conscious decision to make a controlled release of non-operational information." Now, is that an option on the table? Is that an allowable option, to sort of give a little in hopes of saving your life or that of your comrades'?

COL. STANLEY FLORER: You can never second guess the guy on the ground. And those folks had to make decisions based on what they were seeing, anticipating and feeling.

But I think it's safe to say all of us, all servicemembers want to resist complying with the enemy as far as we possibly can and have faith with our fellow comrades.

Now, in this case, there may be an element of taking care of my buddies, and maybe if, you know, if I comply a little bit, that I'll be taking care of others. That could be a factor, as well, and that is always a factor, of taking care of your fellow comrades in captivity.

MARGARET WARNER: And would the same go for making statements that at least the Iranians portrayed as admissions of guilt? Now, the seamen said today they were very careful to say, "We apparently were in your waters" or "according to Iranian evidence," but it was read worldwide as some kind of a confession of guilt. Do the same kind of guidelines and boundaries apply there?

COL. STANLEY FLORER: Sure. You need to, again, resist as long as you can. However, if you think that you're going to be able to, maybe in his case, take care of his seamen, that he may do something like that, and knowing full well that he can return home and tell everybody, "This was coerced. This was part of the coercion." And we all understand that.

You hold out as best you can, but you've got to take care of yourself and your comrades in captivity, and you've got to do that the best way you see it at the time. However, we do have a standard that we want to resist that compliance with the enemy as long as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: As you said, but everyone has a breaking point. Well, Colonel, thank you very much for being with us.

COL. STANLEY FLORER: My pleasure, thank you.