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Navy Probe: US Sailors Were Ill-Prepared for Iran Encounter

Members of Riverine Squadron 1 based in San Diego were deployed to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain when their two small vessels drifted into Iranian waters

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Ten U.S. Navy sailors detained and freed by Iran earlier this month arrived safely in San Diego to reunite with their families, the U.S. Navy announced. NBC 7’s Matt Rascon reports. (Published Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016)

    The 10 San Diego-based U.S. sailors captured and humiliated by Iran after mistakenly steering their boats into Iranian waters in January were beset not just by poor judgment and faulty equipment. They also showed a remarkable lack of curiosity about potential dangers in one of the world's more dangerous waterways, according to an in-depth Navy investigation.

    Members of Riverine Squadron 1 based in San Diego were deployed to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain when their two small vessels drifted into Iranian waters after experiencing mechanical problems during a training mission, NBC News reported.

    In deviating from their planned Persian Gulf route from Kuwait to Bahrain -- without asking approval or notifying superiors -- they passed an island to their east and wondered whether it might be Saudi territory, rocks or oil platforms. The crews of both boats consulted their navigation systems, which depicted the mass as a small purple dot.

    Despite being unsure of their surroundings, the sailors did not adjust their on-board navigation displays to enlarge the purple dot; if they had, they would have seen that it was labeled Farsi Island, a well-known base for the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.

    "No crewmembers on either (boat) utilized a paper navigational chart in order to plot their exact location or to identify the island they had seen, even though the charts were available" on their boats, known as Riverine Command Boats, the investigation report said. No crewmember even bothered to log the fact that they had seen the island.

    "Crewmembers lacked navigational awareness, proper communication with higher authority, and appreciation of the threat environment throughout the transit," the report said.

    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. They were delayed, unprepared, poorly supervised and ill-suited for the mission, the report said.

    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 Iranians, according to the report.

    A short time after coming within view of Farsi Island, one of the boats suffered an engine problem. Both boats cut their engines while the crew troubleshot the problem, even though standard procedure was to maneuver to a safe location using the unaffected engine. Neither boat captain ordered his gunners to stand lookout or to man their weapons for purposes of self- defense.

    An estimated five to 15 minutes later, two armed Iranian boats approached from Farsi Island, about 1.6 miles away. The coxswain, or driver, of one of the Navy boats later told investigators he thought they were seeing "just people on the boats, nothing in my mind said they were Iranian or anyone like that or military, just normal boats."

    With the Iranians pointing their guns at the U.S. crewmembers, the ranking U.S. sailor decided to try to talk his way out of the predicament. He later characterized what happened as both a "surrender" and a "capture."

    "If I had decided to start a firefight, I know a lot of my guys would be dead," the unnamed sailor told investigators. "... I didn't want to start a war with Iran either. ... My thought at the end of the day was that no one had to die for a misunderstanding."

    He added, "I made the gamble that they're not going to Tehran and parade us around like prisoners of war."

    The Iranians boarded the U.S. boats, confronted the sailors at gunpoint and took them to Farsi Island, where they were fed, interrogated and kept overnight before being released after Washington intervened. The incident caused uproar in the United States, coming on the day of President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address. Republicans criticized the administration's response, which included thanking Iran for releasing thesailors.

    The 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," Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, told a Pentagon news conference, even though they got there by mistake.

    Richardson outlined the investigation's results but 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.

    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." It also cited their "lack of preparedness and warfighting toughness," while adding that those problems do not seem to be widespread within the Navy's 5th Fleet.

    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.

    The partially censored Navy report 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 sailorencouraged 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.