The Crying of Flight 655: The Washington Post and the White-Washing of a War Crime
Here’s how Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher tells the story – virtually unknown here in the United States – of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which occurred 25 years ago during the Iran-Iraq War:
Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil trade routes. As the American and Iranian ships skirmished, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was used by both civilian and military aircraft. The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself. It fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board.
Fisher – who based his post on a new TIME magazine piece noting a number of valid Iranian grievances with the West – writes that the “horrible incident” helped cement Iranian enmity toward the United States government, but intimates that the whole episode was just a random mistake, an innocent fluke, albeit with tragic and long-lingering consequences. To this end, he quotes notorious war propagandist Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center, presumably because Pollack was the most egregious serial fabricator Fisher could find with a quick Google search of “Iran Air Flight 655″ and “accident.”
Quoting from Pollack’s 2004 compendium of conventional wisdom and glaring inaccuracies, “The Persian Puzzle,” Fisher adds, “The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran. The Iranian government assumed that the attack had been purposeful… Tehran convinced itself that Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq’s side.”
Fisher recounts this story in order to explain why Iranian officials and diplomats might not view their American counterparts as trustworthy interlocutors when it comes to diplomacy over its nuclear program. He writes, “If Iran believes that the United States is so committed to its destruction that it would willingly shoot down a plane full of Iranian civilians, then Tehran has every incentive to assume we’re lying in negotiations.”
Yet, both Pollack’s explanation and Fisher’s insinuation grossly decontextualize and sanitize the American role in the later stage of the Iran-Iraq War in general, and the destruction of Flight 655 in particular. To claim that – in mid-1988, no less – Tehran had to somehow “convince itself” that the Reagan administration was merely attempting to enter the war as a combatant, in aggressive and lethal support of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, is bizarre. Iran didn’t have to invent such a scenario; it was already an established fact.
Beyond training Iraqi troops, providing intelligence and shipping arms to Iraq, and facilitating the use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians, by 1987 the U.S. military was also helping Iraq “carry out long-range strikes against key Iranian targets, using U.S. ships as navigational aids,” according to Barry Lando in his book, “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.”
As one senior U.S. officer told ABC’s Nightline, “We became forward air controllers for the Iraqi Air Force.”
In July 1987, the CIA began a reconnaissance program, code-named Eager Glacier, that, as reported by John Barry in Newsweek some years later, “sent spy planes and helicopters flying over Iranian bases… Navy SEALs, manning Mark III patrol boats, were stationed on two giant floating barges, and special operations helicopter units first the Little Birds of the army’s Delta Task Force 160, later joined by the specially built gunship Warriors of Task Force 118–roamed the gulf by night.”
The purpose of this kind of American firepower in the Persian Gulf was clear. Lando writes, “Their mission was to destroy any Iranian gunboats they could find. Other small, swift American vessels, posing as commercial ships, lured Iranian naval vessels into international waters to attack them. The Americans often claimed they attacked the Iranian ships only after the Iranians first menaced neutral ships plying the Gulf. In some cases however, the neutral ships which the Americans claimed to be defending didn’t even exist.”
By August 1987, the U.S. Navy was conducting direct military attacks on Iranian aircraft and sea vessels. In early August, the Financial Times reported that “a carrier-borne F-14 Tomcat fighter unleashed two missiles at an Iranian jet spotted on its radar which had flown too close for comfort to an unarmed US surveillance aircraft.” On September 23 of that year, the Washington Post reported, “U.S. Navy commandos yesterday boarded and captured the Iranian navy ship that was attacked by American helicopters Monday in the Persian Gulf,” killing three Iranian sailors. An additional 26 Iranian crew members were detained. The same day, “the U.S. frigate involved in the attack fired warning shots at an Iranian hovercraft as it sped toward U.S. warships gathered near the disabled Iranian vessel, officials said.”
A few weeks later, in early October, three Iranian ships were sunk by the U.S. Navy; later that month the Americans attacked two Iranian oil platforms. In April 1988, not only did a U.S. warship fire missiles at Iranian jets over the Persian Gulf, but two more oil platforms were destroyed and at least six Iranian ships were either crippled or sunk by American naval forces.
Fifteen years after these events, the International Criminal Court determined that “the actions of the United States of America against Iranian oil platforms on 19 October 1987 (Operation Nimble Archer) and 18 April 1988 (Operation Praying Mantis) cannot be justified as measures necessary to protect the essential security interests of the United States of America.”
Then, on July 3, 1998, shortly after taking off from Bandar Abbas, the Dubai-bound Iran Air Flight 655 was blown out of the sky on the orders of U.S. Navy Commander William C. Rogers III of the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS guided missile cruiser. The two surface-to-missiles fired at the Iranian Airbus A300B2, a commercial flight that traveled along the same route every morning, obliterated the aircraft in broad daylight, killing all 290 civilians on aboard, including 66 children under the age of 12.
U.S. government white-washing was swift.
In a statement issued soon after the attack, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the incident “a terrible human tragedy,” but justified it as “a proper defensive action by the U.S.S. Vincennes” after “the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings.”
Reporting on the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 an Associated Press report claimed on July 3, 1988 that the “Pentagon said U.S. Navy forces in the gulf sank two Iranian patrol boats and downed an F-14 fighter jet in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday during an exchange of fire.” Iran disputed this version of events, insisting that plane attacked had been a civilian airliner and that nearly 300 civilians on board had been killed in the assault. AP noted, “U.S. Navy officials in the gulf denied the Iranian claim.”
In reaction to Iranian statements, President Reagan reportedly quipped, “Well, I don’t go by what the Iranians say, ever.”
Following the attack on Flight 655, Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined what he called the “threatening flight profile” of the airplane the U.S. Navy ship had blown up. He told reporters that the Iranian plane had been “outside the prescribed commercial air corridor,” that it “headed directly for Vincennes,” that “there were electronic indications on Vincennes that led it to believe that the aircraft was an F-14″ and that the plane was “decreasing in altitude as it neared the ship.”
Crowe also maintained that the Vincennes, which, according to the Washington Post at the time, “was equipped with the most sophisticated radar and electronic battle gear in the Navy’s surface arsenal,” was “outside of Iranian territorial waters” when it fired at the Iranian aircraft.
“We do have some eyewitness reports that saw the vague shape of the aircraft when the missile hit,” Crowe told reporters, “and it looked like it disintegrated.” He also defended Commander Rogers’ actions as “logical”, saying, “The commanding officer conducted himself with circumspection and, considering the information that was available to him, followed his authorities and acted with good judgment at a very trying period and under very trying circumstances.”
The official story was that the crew of the Vincennes mistook the massive, lumbering Airbus for a small, supersonic F-14 Tomcat making attack maneuvers.
The following day, July 4, Reagan issued a report to Congress in which he stated the USS Vincennes had been “operating in international waters of the Persian Gulf” and that following “indications that approximately a dozen Iranian small boats were congregating to attack merchant shipping, the Vincennes sent a Mark III Lamps Helicopter on investigative patrol in international airspace to assess the situation.” The helicopter, Reagan claimed, was fired upon and returned to the ship.
Reagan further declared, “The actions of U.S. forces in response to being attacked by Iranian small boats were taken in accordance with our inherent right of self-defense.” These actions included the downing of Flight 655, which, he said, was “believed to be a hostile Iranian military aircraft.”
In a press briefing on the White House lawn the same day, Reagan claimed that the Iranian airliner had been “lowering its altitude,” indicating an aggressive posture, at the time it was shot down.
The next day, the New York Times editorialized that “while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident,” concluding, “The onus for avoiding such accidents in the future rests on civilian aircraft: avoid combat zones, fly high, acknowledge warnings.”
At the time, a report by Norman Solomon in Extra! revealed how the U.S. “government’s public relations spin quickly became the mass media’s: A tragic mishap had occurred in the Persian Gulf, amid puzzling behavior of the passenger jet. Blaming the victim was standard fare, as reporters focused on the plight of U.S.S. Vincennes commander Capt. Will Rodgers III, whose picture appeared on tabloid covers (7/5/88) with bold headlines: “Captain’s Anguish” (Newsday) and “Captain’s Agony” (New York Post).”
Naturally, if the Iranian military had blown up a Pan Am flight taking off from Dubai, protestations of self-defense probably wouldn’t find many sympathetic ears in the United States; fewer still would empathize with the personal trauma of murderer who gave the order.
Ten days later, on July 13, 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard S. Williamson continued to insist that the Vincennes was “at the time of the incident, in international waters.” The next day, speaking in defense of American actions before the United Nations Security Council, Vice President George H.W. Bush declared, “One thing is clear, and that is that the USS Vincennes acted in self-defense.”
Iran’s allegations that the warship was far too technologically advanced to make such a catastrophic mistake were dismissed by the American government. When questioned about the incident, Bush announced, “I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are!”
Nearly all of these claims made by U.S. military and government officials about why Flight 655 was fired upon were lies, and the subsequent investigation was effectively one big cover-up, reports in Newsweek and by Nightline later revealed.
There had been no merchant vessel in distress and no helicopter was ever dispatched from the Vincennes, let alone fired upon. The warnings by Vincennes radio operators had not been broadcast to air traffic control frequencies. There had been no visual confirmation of an approaching or attacking aircraft. Iran Air Flight 655 – with its nearly 300 passengers aboard – was well within its flight corridor, flying comfortably at 12,000 feet and steadily climbing. It had been in the air less than seven minutes. At the time it was hit, it was gradually turning away from where the Vincennes was located. It would have landed in Dubai about twenty minutes later. As John Barry reported in 1992:
Captain [Mohsen] Rezaian of Iran Air was calmly reporting to Bandar Abbas that he had reached his first checkpoint crossing the gulf. He heard none of the Vincennes’s warnings. His four radio bands were taken up with air-control chatter. “Have a nice day,” the tower radioed. “Thank you, good day,” replied the pilot. Thirty seconds later, the first missile blew the left wing off his aircraft.
There were other American naval vessels in the area at the time, none of which mistook the Iranian commercial airliner for a jet fighter, but were unable to act quickly enough to save Flight 655. “A few miles away, on the bridge of the Montgomery, crewmen gaped as a large wing of a commercial airliner, with an engine pod still attached, plummeted into the sea,” Barry reported. “Aboard the USS Sides, 19 miles away, Captain [David] Carlson was told that his top radar man reckoned the plane had been a commercial airliner. Carlson almost vomited, he said later.”
Vincennes commander Rogers was himself known to other naval officers as especially trigger-happy. Captain Carlson, who commanded the Sides, a frigate in the same Surface Action Group as the Vincennes, later said that the Flight 655 disaster “marked the horrifying climax to Rogers’ aggressiveness.”
According to the subsequent government review of the downing of Flight 665, and particularly its Aegis targeting system and the “complex network of radar and computers” onboard the Vincennes, TIME magazine reported that “blame fell not on the machines but on the men who were operating them.”
Nevertheless, not a single member of the crew of the Vincennes received official reprimand or opprobrium from the U.S. Navy or government. Moreover, in what can only be described as an act of staggering hubris, following the end of their deployment in 1989, all crew members aboard the Vincennes were awarded combat-action ribbons, while both Commander Rogers and Lieutenant Commander Scott Lustig, the ship’s tactical coordinator for air warfare, were specifically granted the Navy’s Legion of Merit medal for “meritorious service” and “heroic achievement.”
Rogers was honored “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer… from April 1987 to May 1989,” while Lustig received his citation for his “ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire,” enabling him to “quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure.”
Iran’s only act of retaliation or retribution for the downing of Flight 655 was bringing forth a legal case for responsibility and restitution. The International Court of Justice awarded the victims of the attack $61 million in compensation for unwarranted loss of life. The U.S government has still never officially apologized to the Iranian people for this heinous crime.
Last year, the Iranian Foreign Ministry Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in commemoration of the tragedy. “This inhumane crime is clear proof of the innocence of the Iranian nation,” it read, “and (provides) clear evidence that the United States is not committed to any international legal and ethical principles and norms, and (it) will remain in the historical memory of the Iranian nation.”
The Washington Post‘s Max Fisher concludes his column, writing, “Americans might not know about Flight 655. But Iranians surely do — they can hardly forget about it.”
While he – and TIME’s Michael Crowley – should be commended for reminding (or informing) their readership about the events of July 3, 1988 and its implications today, they should also remember that telling only part of the story – and allowing American aggression, dishonesty and denial to be dismissed uncritically as an “accident” – does a great disservice to the truth.
The 290 innocent victims deserve better.