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U.S. sailors ill-prepared for Iran encounter in Gulf, investigation says

WASHINGTON — Weak leadership, poor judgment, a lack of “warfighting toughness” and a litany of errors led to the embarrassing capture and detention by Iran of 10 U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf in January, according to a Navy investigation released Thursday.

Six officers and three enlisted sailors have been disciplined or face disciplinary action. The report said the boat captains and crews were “derelict in performing their duties,” including by failing to get approval before deviating from their planned transit route. It also faulted them for failing to report an engine failure that led to their capture.

The partially censored report also cited instances of unnamed sailors violating the military’s code of conduct while in captivity. One sailor made “statements adverse to U.S. interests” during interrogation. A different sailor encouraged fellow crewmembers to eat food offered to them while being videotaped by the Iranians.

A sailor was said to have failed to uphold the code of conduct standards when he ordered crewmembers to cooperate with the Iranian video production and “acquiesced” in making an Iranian-scripted statement on camera in exchange for the crews’ release.

Officials said that as a result, the Navy is stepping up training in adherence to the code of conduct.

The trouble for Riverine Command Boats 802 and 805, each with five sailors aboard, began even before they left port in Kuwait Jan. 12 on a short-notice, 300-mile journey to Bahrain, home of the Navy’s 5th Fleet. They were delayed, unprepared, poorly supervised and ill-suited for the mission, the report said.

“Crewmembers lacked navigational awareness, proper communication with higher authority, and appreciation of the threat environment throughout the transit,” the report said. For each boat, two of the five on-board weapons were mounted but not manned.

At least one sailor had been up all night with boat repairs. Their higher headquarters failed to arrange air or surface monitoring of the boats’ transit. Such monitoring “would likely have prevented” the sailors’ capture by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, according to the report.

In addition to the range of problems that plagued the crew and the sailors’ chain of command, the incident has raised questions about the Navy’s preparedness in a waterway known to pose risks amid tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The Navy’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, presented the investigation’s results at a Pentagon news conference. He declined to go into some details, saying he must avoid being seen as influencing the outcome of disciplinary actions that in some cases have not been completed.

Last week, the Navy announced the firing of Capt. Kyle Moses, who was commander of the Navy task force that was in charge of the boats during their mission. The officer who was executive officer of the squadron at the time of the incident, Cmdr. Eric Rasch, was removed from his position in May.

Richardson said the scope of problems uncovered in the investigation was so great that the embarrassing episode will become a case study.

“This will be something we can mine for a lot of lessons,” he said.

The lengthy investigation concluded that while the boat crews erred in entering Iranian waters, the Iranians violated international law by impeding the boats’ “innocent passage,” and violated U.S. sovereign immunity by boarding and seizing the boats.

“Those boats and crewmembers had every right to be where they were that day,” Richardson said, even though they got there by mistake.

The report said seven of the 10 Americans were interrogated during their approximately 15 hours in captivity on Farsi Island, an outpost in the middle of the Gulf that has been used as a base for Revolutionary Guard speedboats since the 1980s.

“Crewmembers’ response strategies and actual answers varied,” the report said. “Some were honest, while others lied or played dumb. Interrogators employed intimidation tactics such as slapping the table, spinning the captive’s chair, or threatening to move them to the Iranian mainland.” It said no crewmember was harmed.

The trip planning “ignored established crew rest directives and sound navigational practices,” the report said.

The boat crews had planned their route but made an unauthorized deviation that took them into Saudi and Iranian territorial waters. More mistakes followed as both boats stopped inside Iranian waters while one crew was attending to an engine failure. They could see Iran’s Farsi Island in the distance but thought it was Saudi territory.

Other rules were “ignored for convenience,” resulting in the boats being “unable to present the appearance of a hard target or to defend themselves against (Iranian) aggression.” The Iranians boarded the U.S. boats, confronted the sailors at gunpoint and took them to Farsi Island, where they remained overnight before being released after Washington intervened.

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