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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Gertz says his Pentagon sources didn’t lie, he just didn’t report all of what they told him (PLUS some information from Larry Johnson)


Joe Miller at Annenberg FactCheck says he was told by the Pentagon that the USS Bainbridge arrived at the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama on Friday February 10th and that authorization to send in the first SEAL team came at 8:00PM that night, rebutting a purported word-of-sailor report of a 36 hour delay. But news reports on the 9th said that the Bainbridge actually arrived before dawn local time on THURSDAY. Since 8:00 P.M. Friday was 4:00AM Saturday in Somalia, that would make the actual delay, local time to local time, about 48 hours.

Bill Gertz at the Washington Times also talked to the Pentagon, but his report uses slightly different language than Miller's, relating that the Bainbridge “took charge” of the hijack scene on April 10th without being specific about when it arrived on the scene. Could the Pentagon have been making a distinction between arriving on the scene and taking control?

I thought that unlikely, given that a spokesman for the Maersk Alabama said on the 9th that the Navy took immediate control. As I quoted in my “Pentagon lied” post:
"When the Navy comes in, they're in charge," Speers told CNN.

Gertz says that the Pentagon WAS making a distinction between arriving on scene and taking control

Via email, from Bill Gertz:
April 10 was when the Pentagon was put in charge of the operation, which is different than arriving on the scene. Prior to that point, the owner of the ship was in charge and was advocating a money-for-hostage deal.
If this is what Gertz was told, why wasn’t it in his article? And why didn’t he question it, given that Maertz itself denied staying in control after the Navy arrived?

If Gertz let his readers know that the USS Bainbridge arrived on scene early on the 9th, then the Pentagon claim that the Captain of the Bainbridge waited a full day to ask for additional resources that he obviously might need becomes implausible. That grounds for skepticism should have been exposed, but Gertz covered it up.

Larry Johnson’s intel

Larry Johnson has some important information about the timeline, and an interesting take. First the intel (via email):
The Spec Ops folks received the first notice of the pirate attack around 8am edt on 8 April. They went forward with a recommendation to SOCOM [Special Operations Command]. SOCOM in turned made a recommendation to SecDef and it hung there in limbo until Friday at around 11 am edt.
At 8:00 AM edt on the 8th, the Bainbridge would have en route to the Maersk Alabama, but Johnson says that SOCOM was not responding to any request for resources from Bainbridge Captain Frank Castellano, since Castellano did not yet have any more information about the hostage situation than CENTCOM did. Rather, SOCOM was just reacting to the information then available (that the crew had regained control of the Maersk Alabama, and that the pirates had Captain Philips on a lifeboat).

Thus as far as Captain Castellano initiating his own request for special resources (a key point in both the Pentagon timeline and the SEAL-pals timeline), it seems the critical point would be the Bainbridge’s arrival at the Maersk Alabama, allowing Castellano to verify the situation for himself. Even if the Navy DID wait until the next day to officially “take control,” there was no reason for Castellano to delay in requesting resources that he obviously might need.

In the larger picture, Johnson’s intel makes Castellano’s role seem a bit of a red herring. The recommendation to send the SEAL teams was already put forward by SOCOM on Wednesday, and Johnson says that Castellano would not have been included in the discussions about whether to act on that recommendation, which would be undertaken at the Joint Chiefs/SecDef level. Once Castellano had verified what the Joint Chiefs had heard from the crew of the Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, they didn’t need Castellano to tell them what resources were called for. Castellano may well have made requests, but this seems almost irrelevant. The actual decision-makers already knew what he knew and they already had SOCOM’s recommendations.

From this point of view, the SEAL-pals account seems to have been a bit of good-luck for the Obama-defenders at the Pentagon. It put the focus on when Castellano made his request, which whenever it actually occurred would have been well after the Joint Chiefs' deliberations about sending in the SEALs actually began (back on Wednesday morning).

At the other end, Johnson says that the authorization to deploy the Kenya-based SEAL team came at 11:00 AM edt Friday, not 8:00 PM, as Joe Miller’s Pentagon source claimed. That again makes the real delay about 2 days: from Wednesday morning to Friday morning. (Add another 12 hours for the authorization of the SEAL sniper team, which was likely part of the original SOCOM recommendation.)

Does this mean that somebody did not want the Special Operations option to be available on scene?

I put that question directly to Johnson, because that is how it looks from the outside. Absent a pressing need for SEAL teams elsewhere, why in the world would there be ANY delay in deploying these teams to where they MIGHT be critical for a successful mission?

Deploying the teams and using them are two different things. If they turn out not to be needed, don’t use them. They don’t do any harm. Wouldn’t the only reason to keep the teams off-site be if somebody did not want the Special Operations option to even be available?

Johnson says no, that turf-battles ALWAYS happen, and that it is wrong to read so much into them:
The delay is quite normal. During the heat of the moment things are not always crystal clear. Then you get the turf battle of who is in charge and which agency is best positioned to help. Please recall that during the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 there was a huge fight at the scene between FBI, ATF, Port Authority Police and NYPD over who was in charge. It is just human nature.
This explanation for the delay sounds plausible, especially given that this was the first hijacking of an American-flagged vessel since forever, so the jurisdictional issues it raised had yet to be confronted. Johnson cites a host of agencies with a jurisdictional dog in the Maersk Alabama fight: “DOD, Homeland Security (because they are in charge of Coast Guard), State, CIA, DOJ and FBI.”

The outcome is bad: a resource that obviously might be needed should not be kept off-scene by turf battles, yet it happens. To attribute this to a particular agenda, we would have to have details about the positions the different parties were taking.

One bit of evidence that the delay WAS driven by Obama’s policy preferences is that claim from the second word-of-soldier account that:
He [Obama] reportedly question his staff, “Will ‘my’ FBI people get there before the Navy does?
Obama has been upfront about favoring a law-enforcement over a military approach to the Global War on Terror (now officially renamed “Overseas Contingency operations”). It was also circulated by the seemingly credible Captain Raymond Wellborn USN. Johnson is skeptical, however, because his own sources give a different account of the rescue than Wellborn’s do.

Three conflicting accounts of the rescue

From Wellborn’s source:
Pirates in a life boat at 30-meters could be compared to fish in a barrel. All that was necessary was to take out the plexiglass window so that it would not deflect the trajectory of the high velocity .308 round. So, a sniper (one of four) with a wad-cutter round (a flaxen sabot) would take out the window a split second before the kill-shot-- no change in sight-picture, just the window blowing out, clean.

… The pirate holding Captain Philips raised the gun to his head, and IMMINENT DANGER was so observed and noted in the Log as CO BAINBRIDGE gave the classic order: WEAPONS RELEASED! I can hear the echo in my earpiece now, "On my count (from 8.5 seconds), 3, 2, 1, !" POP, BANG! Out went the window, followed by three simultaneous shots. The scoreboard flashed: "GAME OVER, GAME OVER-- NAVY 3, PIRATES 0!"
Johnson’s paraphrase of his source’s account:
Phillips was at the doorway taking a piss. This was the first time after the lifeboat was hooked up to the tow line that the SEALs got all four people on board the lifeboat in sight at the same time. That's why they took the shot.
Neither of these accounts squares very easily with what McClatchy was told by the Navy:
Two of the captors had poked their heads out of a rear hatch of the lifeboat and the third could be seen through a window in the bow, pointing the rifle at the captain, who was tied up inside the 18-foot lifeboat, senior Navy officials told The New York Times. It took only three shots — one each by snipers firing from a distance at dusk, using night-vision scopes, the officials said.
Did the Navy not want to admit that Philips was relieving himself at the time of the rescue? Could be. Was there an extra wadcutter round that the Navy did not mention? Could be. Why didn’t Wellborn’s source mention that only one of the pirates was behind the plexiglass window? Because he didn’t know? And why is the busted window in the lifeboat near the stern (here and/or here), not the bow, as the Navy said? WTF????

Perhaps the sources for these different accounts will be willing to step up with clarifications. More information would be good, especially some credible details on why it took two days for CENTCOM to act on SOCOMS SEAL-team recommendations, when it must have been obvious to everyone that these resources MIGHT be needed. All else is to get to the bottom of the delay and the crazy ROE. Both are at this point well established facts, but were they agenda driven, or were they just bumbled onto?

What about that bogus claim that SEALs had the pirates sighted in when Philips jumped in the ocean on Friday morning?

At least part of this SEAL-pals claim is bogus. There were no SEALs on site Friday morning. This is apparently the explanation for Gertz’ one-sided report. Being convinced by this SEAL-pals error that the report is “obviously false,” he thinks there is something wrong with me for pointing out the holes in the Pentagon’s story:
Gen. Jones put his reputation out there for an internet rumor by agreeing to go on the record. He is the guy who was in the middle of it and he said he didn't recognize the rumors as being close to accurate. So you believe something which is obviously false versus the national security adviser to the president who spoke on the record? What's wrong with the picture.
The issue isn’t belief. It is getting to the bottom of what actually happened. Suppose the SEAL-pals report does turn out to be phony. Maybe it does not really come from any discussions with SEALs at all, never mind accurate ones. Then it provides no evidence for or against the claims that it puts forward.

If the report is bogus, does that mean that the Navy was NOT following the crazy “imminent danger” ROE that the SEAL-pals report claims? Of course not. Gertz own article confirms that Philips had to be in “imminent danger” for our military to take action. Opportunities where the hostage was out of danger were off limits. If the pirates ever left Philips unattended, our sailors were not allowed to rescue him by taking out the pirates, just as the SEAL-pals report said.

The question is how much the errant claim about SEALs having the pirates sighted-in on Friday morning vitiates the SEAL-pals report as a source of evidence.

The SEAL-pals report also described the pirates as being sighted in by “Navy shooters”

If you read past the bullet points at the top of the SEAL-pals account, the fuller account below does not say that it was SEALs who had the pirates in their sights, but “Navy shooters.”

Is it possible that regular sailors aboard the Bainbridge did have the pirates in their sights when Philips leapt in the water? If so, then the SEAL-pals report could still be genuinely sourced, but couldn’t be too carefully vetted. It would be more like a compilation of things that were getting passed around (which is about how it presents itself, at least in the bullet points).

A key to whether the Bainbridge’s own sailors could have had the pirates in their sights is the distance to the lifeboat. The third reporter involved in the Pentagon’s SEAL-pals rebuttal effort (after Gertz and Miller) is NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski. Mik’s Pentagon sources claim that the Bainbridge was a mile away:
Friday, April 10
Captain Phillips jumped into the sea in an attempt to escape his pirate captors, but the Bainbridge was a mile away from the lifeboat at the time and had no special operations forces in the water or the air that could have helped Phillips escape.
Again, contemporaneous accounts contradict the Pentagon’s claims. The New York Daily News reported that Phillips: “had hoped to swim the few hundred yards to the warship Bainbridge.”

CBS reported that the Bainbridge was staying:
a minimum of 200 yards away — too far to send its own lifeboat to pick up the captain in just a few seconds, and it has no helicopter on board, they said.
If the Bainbridge was within a few hundred yards then the lifeboat was almost certainly kept under armed surveillance. Here is drone surveillance from the previous AM (Thursday), showing the lifeboat illuminated by the Bainbridge:

There was a full moon on April 9th, which at 3:59 AM would have been to the west. Since the illumination in this image is from the east, it has to be from the Bainbridge (either searchlights or infrared).

We also know that the Bainbridge has a pair of twin-.50 caliber machine guns:

And a pair of 25mm chain guns:

A couple hundred yards is the length of the Bainbridge. When Philips jumped in the ocean, wouldn’t Bainbridge gunners have been crying for an order to take out the lifeboat?

LJ says no:
You do not shoot at a lifeboat on heaving seas, particularly if the guy you want to rescue is anywhere near the field of fire. Moreover, a .50 cal or a chain gun are not, repeat not, accurate fire systems. You can blow the shit out of the lifeboat but you are just as likely to kill the captain.
But were the seas heaving? And even if LJ is right, would this stop the gunners from thinking they could have pulled off the shot, and venting frustration to their buddies at not being given the chance? Such an incident might well trigger a round of woulda-coulda-shouldas and end up in a word-of-sailor compilation, fair or unfair.

From someone who certainly WAS there

The officer of the deck did an interview with his hometown newspaper. He says that Bainbridge gunners never got a clear shot, but for LJ’s reason--because Philips did not get far enough away from the pirates--not because the Bainbridge was too far away:
As Sieg acted as officer of the deck again, Phillips dived from the lifeboat into the water.

"We threw on our engines," Sieg said in a phone interview Sunday from the ship. "We were firing flares. We were doing everything we could to distract the pirates, but we couldn't afford to shoot at the pirates because the captain never got away."

Sieg said it was his worst moment because despite Phillips' nerve and will to escape, the Navy couldn't help him at the time.

"It was maybe a one-minute escape attempt," he said. "It was over too quickly, and we never had an opportunity to intervene and help him out. It was a pretty terrible moment to be (the officer of the deck) and to know there was nothing to do to help him out."

The pirates jumped in immediately after their prisoner, and Phillips could not get away.
The local reporter forwarded my email to Ensign Sieg, asking for detail on the distance. Will update if he replies, but at this point the Pentagon claim of the Bainbridge being a mile away looks pretty wobbly.


If all the information is this bollixed up, it may be impossible to sort anything more out, but we do know two things. We do know that there was a two day delay in getting the SEAL teams deployed, notwithstanding the Pentagon’s attempt to focus on the lack of delay in getting authorization from Obama once they asked him for it, to the exclusion of the two day delay in asking for authorization. Second, we know that the ROE precluded any rescue of Philips if there was actually an opportune moment to do so. Instead, our sailors were ordered to wait until they thought the pirates were about to shoot Captain Philips, which by the official account is exactly what happened.

If the Pentagon wants to engage in public relations efforts, it should acknowledge these issues and what there is to learn from them. That ROE needs to be changed. Hostage holders need to be taken out when the risk to their hostages is at a minimum, not a maximum. According to Captain Wellborn’s sources, the ROE that was in force was actually the most restrictive possible:
It's the law in Article 19 of Appendix L in the "Convention of the High Seas" that the Commanding Officer of a US Ship on the high seas is obligated to respond to distress signals from any flagged ship (US or otherwise), and protect the life and property thereof when deemed to be in IMMINENT DANGER.
If that is correct (anybody know where to find a copy of the Convention?), it is pretty bad. The maximum restriction allowed by international law is not the proper ROE for our military to be operating under.

The Pentagon should also be straight about the 2-day delay. If it came in asking for presidential authorization, don’t deflect the issue by saying that authorization came quickly once asked for. Misdirection just compounds the grounds for criticism, and probably makes it harder to learn a constructive lesson. Just say that a two day delay is not that bad, given the number of agencies weighing in, and the time it takes to get a clear picture. Denying a multi-day delay that the whole country just witnessed breeds distrust, even if the press is willing to look the other way.

People say good things about Gertz, but he managed to cover up both the real delay, and the perversity of the ROE. Maybe he is right about the SEAL-pals account. Maybe it IS counterfeit. That doesn’t mean there is no need to get to the truth, and he was certainly wrong to smooth over the contra-indications.

Thanks to Larry Johnson for his input. Mr. Johnson forwarded quite a bit more information than what I excerpted here. For instance, he says that POTUS did not nix any plan to take out the pirates with swimmers (claimed by Captain Wellborn’s sources), because no such plan was ever put forward. If anyone wants to see the rest of Johnson’s remarks, I have posted our whole exchange (with Larry’s okay) at my Crescent of Betrayal website.

"anybody know where to find a copy of the Convention?"

Is it this here:

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