Monday, February 2, 2009

The Masonic Verses Part IV The Shootdown of Iranair Flight 655 - The "Vincennes Incident"

“All our misfortunes come from Amrika
- the Ayatollah Khomeini

The Iran-Iraq War:

In September 1979 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran with the objective of annexing “Arabistan”, the Arabic speaking provinces of Iran. Saddam Hussein had become President in 1977 following a Palace coup against his predecessor. Iraq had a recent history of conflict and rivalry with the more populous (and better armed) Persian neighbour ruled by US client Shah Pavlazi who a 1953 American sponsored coup d’etat had transformed from a constitutional to an absolute monarch. Iraq had given refuge to senior Iranian clerics including the Ayatollah Khomeini who were later expelled to Paris under pressure from the Imperial Iranian Government.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution (which Iraq had done much to encourage) posed a fundamental threat to the Iraqi regime. The Iranian revolutionaries threatened to export their Islamic revolution. While there were significant Shi’ite minorities in Saudi Arabia, Western Afghanistan, Pakistan and some Gulf States the majority of Iraqi citizens, almost entirely excluded from the ruling elite, were Shi’ites. If the Islamic revolution were to be spread it would be exported to Iraq.

The revolution had fundamentally weakened Iran’s armed forces, largely concerned with crushing internal dissent rather than defending the state. Many senior officers had fled Iran or had been imprisoned or executed. Having been lavishly equipped with the most advanced American weapons, American trainers and contractors had been expelled. Spare parts and new equipment would not be forthcoming. It was Saddam Hussein’s first opportunity to flex his military muscles possibly encouraged by the United States whose citizens were being held hostage.

While the US and the West were officially neutral de facto western policy was pro-Iraq. This pro-Iraq tilt was obscured following the Iran-Contra revelations that elements of the US administration, had tried to achieve some understanding with Iran or at least purported to, as a rationale for their arms dealing activities that also became entwined in the Beirut Hostage Crisis. (For example the “Hakim accords”, negotiated by an associate of Richard Secord’s in “The Enterprise” committed the US to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein)

Iraq was supplied with weapons by the West and by the Soviet Union. More importantly Iraq was received credit from the West and it’s Arab allies, notably Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Later the Americans supplied Iraq with intelligence and satellite photography.

Iraqi forces were numerically inferior and morale on the Iranian side was high. The fighting was largely confined to the disputed territory to the East of the Shatt Al Arab waterway where Iranian human wave tactics were often met by the Iraqis resorting to the use of chemical weapons. As the war ground on it was the Iraqis who sought a way out.

The Deployment of Western Naval Forces to the Persian Gulf:

Both Iran and Iraq were major oil producers and the Iranians attempted to exert an economic blockade on Iraq and its Arab allies by attacking tankers transporting oil to the West (and East.) Geography gave the Iranians a marked advantage. Tankers headed to and returning from Basra, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern ports had a long journey through hostile waters then through the chokehold of the Straits of Hormuz, the eastern shore of which was Iranian territory (the western shore being the Omani peninsular).

The Iranians had a small navy and the remnants of the Shah’s air force. Their main weapon to harass merchant vessels were small Swedish made motor patrol boats known as “boghammers” armed with machine guns, light weapons and RPGs. They had also acquired a number of Chinese made surface-to-surface Sikworm missiles which posed a threat not only to merchant shipping but to military vessels..

In response to the “War of the Tankers” which posed a significant threat to Western oil supplies the US Government and its Western allies deployed a Naval presence to the Persian Gulf and the approaches to the Arabian Gulf, where a US Aircraft carrier was deployed, in order to escort merchantmen flying the flag. Many Panamanian and Liberian registered vessels were hastily re-flagged.

The rules of engagement were imprecise. Although supposedly neutral, in 1987 in the United States had destroyed many of Iran’s off-shore oil installations in retaliation for an attack on a merchantmen flying the Stars and Stripes and for a US Navy vessel hitting an Iranian mine.

On the 17th March 1987 occurred an incident of crucial importance to the “Vincennes Incident”. The frigate, the USS Stark, was hit by two Excocet missiles fired from an Iraqi Mirage. 35 sailors were killed and the career of the Stark’s skipper Glenn Brindel, came to an ignominious end. Iraq was not supposed to be a threat to the US Navy.

The “Stark Incident” gave rise to grave concerns amongst the press and Congress. The President was widely criticised for putting American lives at risk on some vaguely defined mission. The fact that the Iraqi jet and missiles had been supplied by France, who while far more dependent on Gulf oil than the Americans was not contributing to the Naval presence, was noted. The rules of engagement were “clarified” and extended. The US Navy could fire on any aircraft that approached within 20 miles at the discretion of the Captain in order to eliminate any potential threat. (1) (The Iraqi Mirage had launched from a far greater distance - 40 miles.)

The Vincennes and Captain William J. Rogers III

The ROEs (rules of engagement) were modified to underscore the responsibility of the onscene commander to exercise the inherent right of self-defence in a timely fashion

The appropriate question should be: Are the ROEs weighted to protect American lives and property?

The answer – “absolutely”
- Captain William Rogers III”
(2 )

    The billion-dollar Aegis class guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes was one of the most sophisticated pieces of military hardware in the world. Packed with the most up to date computer system it was designed to be part of a carrier taskforce to fight a battle against Soviet forces and to track and intercept hundreds of incoming aircraft and missiles.

  The Captain of the Vincennes Captain Will Rogers III had been commissioned in 1965 at the age of 27.  He had spent the bulk of his career in staff postings. At the age of 50 The Vincennes was his first combat posting. It was a prestigious appointment. Captain Rogers was reputedly still ambitions and to reach the highest ranks of the navy would have been looking to be promoted to flag rank following a successful tour of duty. Indeed being given the Vincennes as his first command might indicate that this was the route planned for him.

The Vincennes soon acquired a reputation for aggression. The Vincennes had arrived in Bahrain on the 29th May 1988. During its first patrol on the 2nd June 1988 an Iranian frigate the Alborz had stopped a merchantman and had boarded it (as was it’s right) to search it.

The Vincennes closely approached the scene. Rogers took under his command another Navy ship the frigate USS Sides and ordered it in position close to the Vincennes. Captain Hatttan of the Sides protested to fleet HQ believing this might be seen by the Iranians as a threatening manoeuvre. The order was over-ruled and the Sides withdrew. The Vincennes was ordered to observe the search from a distance.(3)

In his memoirs Captain Rogers dates the incident as the 14th not the 2nd June and omits the dispute with Captain Hattan.(4) He also describes how, as a civilian helicopter carrying a news team flew across the bow of the Alborz, the Iranians fired two machine-gun bursts in their direction.

At 0633hrs on the 3rd July 1988 the USS Elmer Montgomery was entering the Straits of Hormuz from the Northwest side. Some 13 Iranian gunboats had emerged from their bases on Abu Musa Island and were said to be milling around a Liberian tanker the Stoval. (The Stoval may not have actually existed. It may have been a phantom created by fake radio communications to confuse the Iranians.) (5)

The Vincennes was situated south of the Straits in the Arabian Sea covering any threat from Silkworm missiles at the approach to the Straits. Fleet HQ at Bahrain ordered the Vincennes to dispatch its helicopter to observe the scene. Some thirty minutes later the Vincennes Apache helicopter was circling over the Iranian gunboats.

Under the rules of engagement the helicopter was forbidden from flying within four miles of the Iranians. The pilot, Lieutenant Mark Collier, subsequently denied being closer than two or to three miles. (He had been ordered to “investigate”.) It appears that a shot, possibly an RPG round was fired at or close to the Vincennes’ helicopter. The helicopter backed off and reported to the Vincennes. Rogers ordered the Vincennes north in support of his helicopter.(6)

Captain Rogers’ account was that he wanted to bring his helicopter under the protection of his air defence umbrella a result that could be achieved by the helicopter flying south towards the Vincennes. In 1992, Rogers later claimed that due to atmospheric conditions, communication with the helicopter was limited to 15 miles.(7)

As the Vincennes steamed north at 30 knots the Iranian gunboats were ordered by the Omani coastguard to withdraw as was the Vincennes which was warned that high-speed manoeuvres were not consistent with the rights of innocent passage.

At about this time (0840) Captaiin Richard McKenna, the surface operations commander and Captain Rogers’ immediate superior at Bahrain HQ was startled to see the position of the Vincennes and the Elmer Montgomery moving into the Persian Gulf and ordered the ships to return to their position south of the Straits of Hormuz.(8)

Also in the vicinity was the USS Sides under new Skipper David Carlson. The Sides was equipped with a computer system that allowed it to share information with the Vincennes, to “see” what the Vincennes saw. The taskforce commander in Bahrain did not have this facility.

As the Vincennes steamed north supported by the Elmer Montgomery the US ships passed two Iranian gunboats drifting in the swell. They did not seem to regard the Americans as a threat. At about this point, 0934hrs, Captain Rogers sought the permission of Fleet HQ to open fire on Iranian gunboats, which were retreating into Iranian waters. He claimed they were closing in on his position. Under the rules of engagement he did not require permission if under threat.

However the Vincennes was not under threat. A few minutes later the Vincennes (0940hrs) entered Iranian territorial waters in pursuit of Iranian gunboats that had not fired on the Vincennes. The claim the ship was under attack from a swarm of Iranian gunboats was untrue.(9)

At 0943 the Vincennes opened fire with its single five-inch gun lobbing shells at the distant Iranian gunboats that returned fire, their RPGs or mortars falling hundreds of yards short.

At 0947 Captain Rezian pilot of flight 655 commenced his take-off at Bandar Abbas Airport for the short journey to Dubai.(10) As the Airbus took off it was immediately monitored by the Sides and the Vincennes and was assigned a track number. Commander Carlson had being following the manoeuvres of The Vincennes with increasing alarm and incredulity. He was concerned at the Vincenes engaging in combat with small gunboats and felt the best course for The Vincennes would be to clear the area. (11)

On the Sides Captain Carlson followed the track of Iranair 655 as it ascended. Attempts to contact the plane on the International Air Distress (IAD) and Military Air Distress (MAD) bands met with no response. Carlson ordered that the plane be “lit-up” with targeting radar that generally served as a deterrent. The plane did not respond.

According to Carlson he made a verbal assessment that “track 4131” was not a threat. It was slow; it was ascending and did not respond to being “lit-up.” There was no precedent for an F-14 attacking a surface ship. Carlson overheard Rogers’ informing Bahrain HQ of his intention to shoot down “track 4131” if it approached within 20 miles.(12)

(Lieutenant Colonel David Evans’ analysis of the “Vincennes Incident” (13) refers throughout to the Vincennes’ perception that the plane was an F-14. The F-14 Tomcat was a formidable fighter plane 79 of which had been sold to the Imperial Air Force from 1975 onwards. The Iranian Air Force was the only overseas Air Force supplied with the Tomcat. Equipped with Sidewinder, Sparrow or Phoenix air-to-air missiles the Tomcat outclassed most Iraqi fighters. It was not equipped with air-to-surface missiles.

Captain Rogers’ memoir however refers to a message from Vice-Admiral Less of the 18th June 1988 warning of Iranian attempts to convert their Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom fighters to a ground attack role by equipping them with iron bombs or unguided Eagle missiles. (14)

Unknown to US Intelligence the Iranians may have had some new weaponry or may have acquired Excocets on the black market. These were the types of weapons the Vincennes was designed to defend against.

On board the Vincennes Captain Rogers was in the commander’s chair in the darkened Combat Information Centre (CIC) crammed with computers and VDUs. As the single gun fired there were temporary blackouts of the background lighting and as the ship rapidly charged course manuals and papers were thrown to the floor. Many of the crew were unfamiliar with the CIC and had not been in combat before.

According to the information passed to Captain Rogers the contact was not ascending but diving. (It is possible that this information was not clearly available). Attempts were made to contact “track 4131”. It is possible that Captain Rezian, several minutes into a routine flight did not realise these transmissions, if he received them, were addressed to him i.e. unidentified military plane. The black boxes were unofficially recovered by the US Navy but their transcripts were not released.(15)

While flight 655 was a scheduled flight it has been hinted that there was some confusion over the four different time zones used in the Gulf and the flight was not identified in the timetable in time. There was also confusion over the flights transponder, an automatic beacon that emits a signal identifying the flight as civilian or military.

Flight 655 was emitting a signal identifying it as a civilian flight and was identified as such by the Sides moments before it was destroyed. The Vincennes may have confused flight 655 with signals emanating from Military flights on the ground at Banda Abbas.

The Shooting-down of KAL 007:

On the 1st September 1983 a Soviet interceptor had shot-down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 flight KAL 007 from Anchorage to Seoul over the Soviet Island of Sakhalin killing all 269 passengers and crew (including a US Congressman). Either by accident or design the flight was hundreds of miles off course. There have been allegations that the flight was deliberately off-course as part of an intelligence gathering operation.

American officials castigated the Soviet Union for the callousness with which a civilian flight had been destroyed. Speaking that day from Santa Barbara California President Reagan called it “a horrifying act of violence” and in a national broadcast of the 5th September called for “a national day of mourning” stating “this was the Soviet Union against the world and the normal precepts which govern human relations among people everywhere.”(16) The Soviets tried to defend themselves against this PR disaster claiming, as with the Vincennes Incident, the plane had failed to respond to repeated warnings.

The US rhetoric was not backed up by any reprisals. The shooting down of flight KAL 007 was essentially used for propaganda purposes to castigate the inhumanity and incompetence of the “evil empire”.

The American Response;

The first official US comments on the “Vincennes Incident” were made by Admiral William J.Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a Press conference given at 1.30 p.m. in Washington some eleven hours after the shooting down. His comments were based on the initial account of Captain Rogers. Crowe was of course a naval officer.

In his briefing, while admitting his information was incomplete Admiral Crowe claimed that flight 655 was flying outside commercial corridors, had not responded to repeated warnings, that the flight was descending and picking up speed and that the Vincennes was defending itself in international waters. Nearly all these claims were untrue. It was a mistake that an officer of Crowe’s seniority should have given a press briefing before the full facts were known.

Within 48 hrs. the tapes and logs of the Aegis system were being analysed at the Pentagon and information contradicting Admiral Crowe’s initial account began to emerge.

The Iranians took the matter of the “massacre of 290 innocent civilian passengers” (18) to the United Nations Security Council chaired by the United States. Vice-President Bush was delegated to present the US response. The Secretary of State or the US Ambassador could have responded. While evidence was emerging contradicting elements of the initial account, the Pentagon did not share these doubts with the White House. In his speech Vice-President Bush claimed the shootdown occurred as the Vincennes was rushing to the defence of a merchantman under attack by Iranian gunboats.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati described it as a “dastardly attack by a reckless and incompetent naval force led by aggressive and expansionist policymakers”.

The crew of the Vincennes were awarded combat ribbons and several of the officers including Captain Rogers and a Commander Lustwig, the air warfare commander for “heroic action” “in maintaining his poise under fire”.

The Investigation of Admiral Fogarty;
An investigation into the “Vincennes Incident” was conducted by a senior naval officer based at Central Command HQ, Tampa, Florida Admiral Fogarty. The enquiry, aspects of which were made public, has been the subject of some criticism.

This criticism was that the enquiry failed to interview other senior officers who had some involvement in the incident for example Commander Carlson skipper of The Sides, Captain Rogers superior Captain McKenna and the commander of the aircraft carrier the USS Forrestal who was, electronically, observing the incident.

The enquiry, allegedly, did not properly investigate Captain Rogers’ claim that The Vincennes had been fired on a claim that could have been substantiated or otherwise by an examination of the hull. The enquiry glossed over the fact that The Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters. Above all the investigation was criticised for its conclusion of “scenario fulfilment” to explain how the staff of the CIC concluded that track 4131 was diving and accelerating when in reality it was climbing at a steady speed.

According to the now retired Commander Dave Carlson, a critic of Captain Rogers’ actions in the shoot-down of flight 655 the Navy faced a huge problem in confining responsibility to Captain Rogers. Rogers had sought permission to open fire from his superior Vice-Admiral Anthony Less who had apparently, if reluctantly concurred.

However Less and fleet HQ were not equipped with the sophisticated computer link that allowed, for example, The Sides to view the same data that the crew of The Vincennes saw. Carlson also believed that to discipline Rogers would have brought the Navy’s training and selection procedures under unwanted scrutiny.(18)

Charles Bilyeau:

A very interesting comment on the “Vincennes Incident”, Captain Rogers and the shoot-down was made in a review of Captain Rogers’ memoirs Storm Centre posted on Amazon. Lieutenant Commander Charles Bilyeu, an officer on the Vincennes, castigates Captain Rogers giving the book one star out of five. He drew attention to the fact that on return to San Diego 32 members of the crew were arrested and discharged for drug offences. “ WAS THE CREW THINKING CLEARLY AT THE TIME IT HAPPENED” (Bilyeu’s capitals.) “The book fails to even fully disclose what did happen between July 1988 and May 1989. The NCIS, FBI, myself and those onboard know what happened but no-one is talking.” Despite this he concludes without a breath of explanation “
yes, the downing was justified.” (19 )


Was the downing “justified?” How do you justify killing 290 innocent civilians? Captain Rogers has been widely presented as an officer who was over-aggressive, looking to take on the Iranians on any pretext, an officer who sought to impress his senior officers. Were these the qualities looked for in an officer of flag rank? Rogers’ actions that day had done nothing but irritate his immediate superior Captain McKenna and dumped responsibility for his own decisions onto the taskforce Commander Rear Admiral Less for whom the “fog of war” arose only from Captain Rogers’ actions.

Save for the failure to respond to the transmissions, for reasons known to the US Government, who have declined to release the transcripts of the black boxes or share them with the I.C.A.O. or the Iranian authorities the pilot of flight 655 behaved correctly. He was not to know he was flying over a “fire-fight”. Indeed even the Iranian gunboats didn’t know they were involved in a “fire-fight” until minutes before the shoot-down.

In his own mind and in terms of the Rules Of Engagement Captain Rogers saw the shoot-down as justified. Captain Rogers knew there were commercial aircraft crossing the Straits. He was probably aware that the Iranians had nothing flying, even some sort of kamikaze attack, that could threaten The Vincennes.

Rogers was in a critical situation, under appalling pressure of time to make a decision, but it was a situation entirely of his own making. He had been erroneously told the target was accelerating and descending. His primary, indeed sole responsibility was to the safety of his crew and command. The Vincennes did not share the fate of the USS Stark.

At the time The Vincennes was having enormous difficulty trying to hit the Iranian gunboats with his single 5” gun and the Captain was starting to look foolish. With its array of missiles an airplane was a different proposition and The Vincennes did what it was designed to do.

The Americans did not help the situation by their response of blaming the Iranians for this wholly avoidable disaster and far greater care could have been taken with the response.

However none of this really mattered. A discussion of whether or not Captain Rogers was justified in his actions or whether the US response could have been more considered is to a large extent futile. Captain Rogers did what he did and his actions could not be undone.

Yet in the official version of events the “Vincennes Incident” had no further significant consequences. The Iranians complained to the security council and to the I.C.A.O. but with the regime on the brink of collapse following its capitulation in the Iran-Iraq war decided to let bygones be bygones.  They apparently accepted that the United States had every right too shoot down an Iranian civilian aircraft if it posed a potential or theoretical threat to the safety of a US warship looking for a fight in Iranian territorial waters.

There were bloodcurdling threats of revenge but these were apparently for domestic consumption despite the statements of official spokesmen such as Mohamed Beshti who said at a press conference at the Iranian Embassy in London:-

What our response will be we do not say – but it will be an appropriate response to the magnitude of the American crime.”
A statement in English at the London Embassy was not for the Iranian public.

While there is copious evidence that the Iranians tried to retaliate in October 1988 through the PFLP-GC “Autumn Leaves” cell this effort was foiled as the cell had amongst its members at least one CIA informant. After this they gave up.   The Americans were obviously too clever for them and the task of smuggling a single IED on a single aircraft was obviously beyond their capabilities. Curiously Libya managed it quite easily.

( 1 )Sea of Lies Newsweek 13th July 1992 reporters John Barry, Roger

(2) see also Captain Will Rogers comments in the postscript to Naval Science 302, Navigation and Naval
Operations II, Lesson 20 Crisis Decision Making USS Vincennes a case study byLieutenant

Colonel David Evans US Marine Corps (Retired). (online)

(3) Naval Science 302, Navigation and Naval Operations II, Lesson 20 Crisis Decision Making USS

Vincennes a case study by Lieutenant Colonel David Evans US Marine Corps (Retired). (online)

(4) Storm Centre Will and Sharon Rogers (with Glen Gregson) Naval
Institue Press 1992 page 88 – see also Newsweek Sea of Lies

(5)& (6) Newsweek Sea of Lies & Naval Science 302, Navigation and Naval Operations II, Lesson 20

Crisis Decision Making USS Vincennes a case study by Lieutenant Colonel David

Evans US Marine Corps (Retired). (online)

(7) Navy Times 3.8.92 (quoted in Evans)

(8) (9) & (10) Newsweek & Evans
(11)BBC Correspondent The Other Lockerbie features critical interviews with Commander Carlson,

Captain McKenna and “real-time” footage of the “Vincennes Incident”.

(12) & (13) Evans

(14) Storm Centre page 89

(15) BBC Correspondent The Other Lockerbie (on which Lieutenant Colonel Evans is credited asconsultant).

(16) Statement of President Reagan Santa Barbara 3rd September 1983.

(17) Newsweek Sea of Lies

(18) Security Council expresses “deep distress” at downing of Iranian
civilian plane
UN Publications December 1988 (online)

(19) Sea of Lies Newsweek 13th July 1992 reporters John Barry, Roger
Charles see also Captain Will Rogers comments in the postscript to
Naval Science 302, Navigation and Naval Operations II, Lesson 20 Crisis Decision Making USS

Vincennes Case Study. by Lieutenant Colonel David Evans US Marine Corps (Retired). (online)
Also BBC Correspondent The Other Lockerbie

( 20) Review of Storm Centre by Lieutenant Commander Charles Bilyeu
USN (Retd.) at

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