A Sea Of Lies
The 'Vincennes Incident' off the
coast of Iran on July 3, 1988
The inside story of how an American naval vessel blundered
into an attack on Iran Air Flight 655 at the height of tensions
during the Iran-Iraq War, and how the Pentagon tried to cover
its tracks after 290 innocent civilians died
July 13, 1992
Capt. Will Rogers III, USN, spent his career preparing for combat. Winning his commission in December 1965 at the age of 27, Rogers came late to the navy, but he made up for lost time with a gung-ho attitude and-after a spell on the staff of the chief of naval operations --friends in high places. In 1987, Rogers won command of the navy's most prized high-tech hip, an Aegis cruiser. The billion-dollar Vincennes seemed a sure ticket to flag rank. But Rogers, who, like many peacetime naval officers had never been under fire, longed to see action.
On July 3, 1988, Captain Rogers got his wish. He sought out and engaged the enemy in a sea battle in the Persian Gulf. From the captain's chair of a warship's combat information center, he made life-and-death decisions in the heat of conflict. It was the moment he had yearned and trained for, and it should have been the apex of his life in the service.
Only it wasn't much of a battle. Rogers had blundered into a murky, half-secret confrontation between the United States and Iran that the politicians did not want to declare and the top brass was not eager to wage. The enemy was not a disciplined naval force but ragtag irregulars in lightly armed speedboats. Fighting them with an Aegis cruiser was like shooting at rabbits with a radar-guided missile. And when it was over, the only confirmed casualties were innocent civilians: 290 passengers and crew in an Iranian Airbus that Captain Rogers's men mistook for an enemy warplane.
The destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 was an appalling human tragedy. It damaged America's world standing. It almost surely caused Iran to delay the release of the American hostages in Lebanon. It may also have given the mullahs a motive for revenge-and provoked Teheran into playing a role in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103. For the navy, it was a professional disgrace. The navy's most expensive surface warship, designed to track and shoot down as many as 200 incoming missiles at once, had blown apart an innocent civilian airliner in its first time in combat. What's more, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters at the time of the shoot-down--in clear violation of international law. The top Pentagon brass understood from the beginning that if the whole truth about the Vincennes came out, it would mean months of humiliating headlines. So the U.S. Navy did what all navies do after terrible blunders at sea: it told lies and handed out medals.
This is the story of a naval fiasco, of an overeager captain, panicked crewmen, and the cover-up that followed. A NEWSWEEK investigation, joined by ABC News's "Nightline," encountered months of stonewalling by senior naval officers. Some of the evasions were products of simple denial; a number of the seamen and officers aboard the Vincennes that morning in July 1988 are still in therapy today, wrestling with guilt. But the Pentagon's official investigation into the incident, the Fogarty Report, is a pastiche of omissions, half-truths and outright deceptions. It was a cover-up approved at the top, by Adm. William Crowe, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Captain Rogers insisted to "Nightline" last week that he had made the "proper decision." He opened fire only to protect his ship and crew, he said. But drawing on declassified documents, video and audiotape from the ships involved in the incident, and well over 100 interviews, NEWSWEEK has pieced together an account that belies the skipper's stoic defense. It is almost a parable for an era of "limited" warfare, with its blurry rules of engagement and its lethal technology in frightened young hands. It is as well an age-old story of hubris, of a warrior who wanted war too much.
A MURKY MORNING
At 6:33 local time on the Vincennes, on the morning of July 3, the phone buzzed in Will Rogers's cramped sleeping quarters. The captain was shaving. Already, just two hours after sunrise, the 100-degree heat of the sun was overwhelming the ship's air-conditioning system. Fine-grained sand whipped across the gulf from the Arabian Desert, creating a yellowish haze. Rogers picked up the phone. It was the duty officer in the ship's combat information center, the nerve center two decks below Rogers's sea cabin: "Skipper, you better come down. It sounds like the Montgomery has her nose in a beehive."
Some 50 miles to the northeast, the U.S. Navy frigate Montgomery was coming through the western entrance of the Strait of Hormuz. Every day, tankers bearing half the world's imported oil wend their way through the strait, only 32 miles wide at its choke point. The Iran-Iraq War had turned the strait into a gantlet. Gunboats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, based on the islands of Hengam and Abu Musa, had been attacking tankers and merchantmen bound to and from Kuwait, Iraq's main ally in the war. Anxious to keep Kuwait's oil flowing, the United States had agreed to provide escort to Kuwaiti tankers registered under the U.S. flag.
On this July morning, the Montgomery spotted a half-dozen Revolutionary Guard launches venturing out from their island hideouts. On his own, Rogers decided to enter the fray. At 6:33, the Vincennes log records, he ordered "all ahead flank." The cruiser's four massive gas-turbine engines cranked up 80,000 horsepower and sent the warship smashing through the waves at 30 knots.
By 6:50-according to the official version of events later offered by the navy-the Montgomery had spotted 13 Iranian gunboats in the strait. Several were said to be milling about near a Liberian tanker called the Stoval. At 7:11, the Montgomery reported hearing "five to seven" explosions coming from the vicinity of the tanker. It was only when the radio crackled with the report of these mysterious explosions that fleet headquarters in Bahrain thought to call the Vincennes. Rear Adm. Anthony Less, the commander of the Joint Task Force-Middle East, ordered the cruiser northeast to support the Montgomery. The Bahrain command wasn't interested in drawing the Vincennes into action, however. Admiral Less merely wanted to dispatch the Vincennes's helicopter on a reconnaissance mission. So Capt. Richard McKenna, Less's chief of surface warfare, relayed what he thought were clear orders to Rogers: send your helo north to investigate, but keep your ship farther south, in case more boats emerge from the Revolutionary Guard base on Abu Musa.
At 7:22, the Vincennes's SH-60B Seahawk helicopter lifted off and sped north; within 20 minutes it was circling over the Iranian gunboats. The pilot of Ocean Lord 25, Lt. Mark Collier, found the gunboats hovering around a German cargo vessel, the Dhaulagiri. They weren't shooting. It was a common harassment tactic.
In Bahrain as he listened to the radio traffic, Capt. Richard Watkins, Admiral Less's chief of staff, decided that the situation was, as he later put it, "defusing." He left the flag plot to do some paperwork. But aboard the Vincennes, things were just heating up. With a blast of the klaxon, Rogers sent his crew to battle stations and ordered the small-arms stations along the sides of his ship into readiness against small-craft attack.
The Vincennes had a dubious reputation inside the U.S. fleet in the gulf. Officers on other ships sarcastically referred to the ship as "Robocruiser." In deskbound war games in San Diego, just before the Vincennes left for the gulf, Rogers consistently pushed beyond the exercise's rules of engagement, according to another participant. At a Subic Bay, Philippines, briefing on the rules of engagement in the Persian Gulf, the most senior officer attending from the Vincennes was a lieutenant. In early June, Rogers infuriated Capt. Robert Hattan, the commander of the frigate USS Sides, by ordering him to close in on an Iranian warship in a w he deemed provocative. Hattan refused-and fleet headquarters in Bahrain backed him up. By early July, Rogers was widely regarded as "trigger happy," according to several high-ranking officers.
He was unquestionably eager to get at the gunboats trailing after the Montgomery. Onward the Vincennes charged, past the German merchantman (which nonchalantly flashed an "A-OK" signal) until it drew abreast of the Montgomery at 8:38. By now, Oman's coast guard was on the radio, ordering the Revolutionary Guard boats to head home. The Omanis wanted the Vincennes to leave, too. " U.S. Navy warship," an Omani officer intoned over the radio, "maneuvers at speeds up to 30 knots are not in accordance with innocent passage. Please leave Omani waters. "By chance, a navy cameraman named Rudy Pahoyo was aboard the Vincennes that day, shooting videotape on the bridge. His video captures the officers' response to the Omani request. They smirked at each other, and did not bother to reply.
The Omanis weren't the only ones who wanted the Vincennes out of the area. At 8:40, Captain McKenna in Bahrain returned to his command center and was startled to see that Vincennes was off the top of the Omani peninsula-about 40 miles north from where he believed he had ordered Rogers to remain. In some irritation, McKenna called Rogers and asked him what he was doing. Rogers replied that he was supporting his helo, and that he'd been having communications problems. Unimpressed, McKenna told him to head back toward Abu Musa. " You want me to do what?" Rogers bristled. Over the circuit, McKenna could hear chortles of laughter from the Vincennes combat information center. Now angry, McKenna delivered a flat order: the Vincennes must come south -and the Montgomery, too. He was furious at the attitude of the captain and officers of the hotshot billion-dollar cruiser. "Aegis arrogance," he muttered to himself. Rogers grudgingly obeyed the order-but he left his helo behind to watch the Iranian boats. It was to be a fatal mistake.
In the cockpit of Ocean Lord 25, pilot Mark Collier could not resist the temptation to follow the gunboats north, as they retreated toward their island lair. He later explained that he wanted to drop down and see how many men were aboard the launches, and how they were armed. He almost found out the hard way. As he banked around them, Collier saw what he later described as "eight to 10 bursts of light" and "sparks ... just a big spark" in the sky 100 yards from his helo. He thought for a moment it was the sun glinting off a boat, but then he saw puffs of smoke. "Did you see that?" Collier called out to Petty Officer Scott Zilge. "Yeah," Zilge replied. "Let's get out of here. That was an airburst-antiaircraft fire." As Collier dropped the helo to the safety of 100 feet, the aircraft's commander, Lt. Roger Huff, sitting in the copilot's seat, radioed the Vincennes: "Trinity Sword. This is Ocean Lord 25. We're taking fire. Executing evasion."
In the combat information center, this was all Rogers needed. At last the gunboats had committed a hostile act. Under the navy's rules of engagement in the gulf, Rogers could order hot pursuit. "General Quarters," he snapped. "Full power." Once again, the Vincennes forged north at 30 knots.
Meanwhile, some 200 miles to the southeast, on station just inside the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, lay the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. In his flag plot, Rear Adm. Leighton (Snuffy) Smith, commander of Carrier Battle Group 6, heard the Vincennes's breathless news that its helo had been fired upon, and that the cruiser was pursuing the attacker. At 9:14 , Smith ordered the launch of two F-14 fighters and two A-7 attack planes. By 9:28, they had blasted off from the carrier deck. The planes were not to jump into the fight: that was a sure recipe for "blue on blue," as the navy terms U.S. warships shooting down U.S. aircraft. Rather the warplanes headed for Point Alpha, a rendezvous point 50 miles outside the Strait of Hormuz. Once there, they would be less than 80 miles-seven minutes flying time-from the Vincennes.
But Rogers was not thinking about air support at that moment. He was intent on the Iranian gunboats swirling ahead. The task was not easy. Aegis cruisers are not designed for small-craft battles. They were built to take on the Soviet Navy in the North Atlantic. The Aegis's ultra-high-tech radar system is designed to track scores of incoming missiles and aircraft in a major sea battle. The Iranian launches were so small that as they bobbed on the swell, they flicked in and out of the Vincennes's surface search radar, showing up not as separate targets but as a single symbol on the radar screen. Impatiently, Rogers turned to his tactical action officer, Lt. Cmdr. Victor Guillory. "Can the bridge see anything?" he demanded. The bridge reported that it could occasionally glimpse the wakes of a few boats as flashes through the haze.
At 9:39, still lacking a clear target, Rogers radioed fleet headquarters and announced his intention to open fire. In Bahrain, Admiral Less's staff was uneasy. Captain Watkins quizzed Rogers on his position and the bearing of the gunboats. Finally, he asked, "Are the contacts clearing the area?" The question could have been a show stopper. Judging from later testimony, few in the Vincennes CIC that day believed that the ship was under attack. In fact, the gunboats were just slowly milling about--evidently under the impression that they were safe in their own territorial waters. Through the haze, it is doubtful that the low-slung launches could have even seen the Vincennes. Rogers, however, continued to argue for permission to shoot. On the bridge, the lookouts reported that through their giant binoculars-called "Big Eyes"-they could see the launches' wakes more clearly now, turning randomly this way and that. A couple seemed to be heading in the direction of the Vincennes.
For Rogers, that was enough. He reported to Bahrain that the gunboats were gathering speed and showing hostile intent. Again, he announced his intention to open fire. Aboard his command ship, Less finally concurred. The time was 9:41. On the bridge, the chief quartermaster had just called out that now crossed the 12-mile limit off the coast-into Iranian waters. The Vincennes was operating in violation of international law but Rogers was not paying attention to juridical niceties. Commander Guillory ordered the Vincennes's guns to fire when ready. Two minutes later the ship's forward five-inch gun opened up on its first target, a launch 8,000 yards away.
Some 25 miles to the east, aboard the frigate USS Sides, Capt. David Carlson listened and watched Rogers's maneuvering with mounting incredulity. "Why doesn't he just push his rudder over and get his ass out of there?" muttered one of the frigate's officers. When Carlson heard Less assent to Rogers's request to open fire, Carlson turned to his number two, Lt. Cmdr. Gary Erickson, and gave two thumbs down. Carlson thought there was going to be a massacre. He had no idea.
FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER
Some 55 miles to the northeast, at precisely 9:45:30, Iran Air Capt. Mohsen Rezaian announced to the tower at Bandar Abbas airport that his A300B2 Airbus was ready for takeoff. A minute later he throttled up his two General Electric CF6 engines and lifted the airliner into the haze. His course would take the plane and its human cargo southwest to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Though Rezaian could not know it, his flight path would also go almost directly over the USS Vincennes.
At that moment Captain Rogers was sitting in his own cockpit-the darkened, windowless combat information center of the Vincennes, directing a sea battle by remote control. To the uninitiated, the CIC of an Aegis cruiser looks like a luxury video arcade. Rows of operators hunch over radio consoles, each monitoring one element of the battle. All the information from their screens is then integrated by the mighty Aegis computer into, literally, the "big picture"--thrown up as symbols on maps displayed on four giant 42-inch-by-42-inch screens at the head of the room where the captain and his two "battle managers" sit. The $400 million Aegis system can track every aircraft within 300 miles. Its computers tag each contact with the symbol for "friendly," "hostile" or "unidentified" (chart, page 32). In war at sea, Aegis is expected to seek and identify all airborne threats to an entire carrier battle group, to display the speed and direction of each, and to rank them by the danger they present. Aegis is so powerful that it can not only track up to 200 incoming enemy aircraft or missiles, but also command missiles to shoot them down. In the full-scale war against the Soviet Union for which Aegis was designed, the captain and crew would have had little choice but to switch the system to automatic-and duck.
In the cramped and ambiguous combat environment of the Persian Gulf, however, Rogers chose to rely on his own judgment and the combat skills of his crew. Those skills had never been tested. Indeed, some experts question whether even the best-trained crew could handle, under stress, the torrent of data that Aegis would pour on them. A 1988 Government Accounting Office report accused the navy of rigging Aegis sea trials by tipping the crews off to the precise nature of the "threats" they were to face. The navy could not afford to risk failure in the trials for fear that Congress would stop funding the Aegis program.
Some of the Vincennes's most senior officers were less than adept at computerized warfare. Under normal procedures, Captain Rogers rarely touched his console. He would have delegated the battle against the launches to Guillory, his tactical officer for surface warfare. But Rogers didn't entirely trust Guillory, a former personnel officer who was uncomfortable with computers. (His fellow officers in personnel snickered because, one said, instead of plotting job changes by computer spreadsheet, he used his screen as a surface for "self-stick" notes.) In essence, the skipper pushed Guillory aside and ran the battle himself. Rogers set the range on the " big picture" display screen in front of him to 16 miles, to focus on the gunboats. He was oblivious to anything beyond.
At 9:47, the Vincennes's powerful Spy radar picked up a distant blip-a plane lifting off from the airport at Bandar Abbas. The blip was in fact Iran Air's Flight 655 on its twice-a-week milk run to Dubai. But since Bandar Abbas is a military as well as a civilian airport, any flight out over the gulf was automatically "tagged" by the navy ships as "assumed hostile. " At his computer console in the Vincennes's CIC, Petty Officer Andrew Anderson saw the blip for an incoming bogey go up on one of the big blue screens. Anderson's job in "Air Alley," the row of operators who handled air warfare, was to identify any air traffic within range of the ship. He told the Aegis system to query the incoming plane: Identify, Friend or Foe? By standard practice, all planes carry a transponder that automatically answers the IFF query with Mode 1 or 2 (military), or Mode 3 (civilian). Anderson got a Mode 3. "Commair" (commercial airliner), he figured. He reached beside his console for the navy's listing of commercial flights over the gulf. But as he scanned the schedule, he missed Flight 655. Apparently, in the darkness of the CIC, its a lights flickering every time the Vincennes's five-inch gun fired off another round at the hapless Iranian gunboats, he was confused by the gulf's four different time zones.
Anderson turned to the petty officer next to him in Air Alley, John Leach, and wondered aloud if the blip could be an Iranian warplane--an F-4 or F-14 perhaps? Their boss in Air Alley, Lt. Clay Zocher, overheard the two enlisted men talking. Zocher was already nervous. He had stood this watch only twice before during General Quarters, and he had never mastered the computer routines for his console. He was worrying at the moment about an Iranian P-3 patrol plane that was making its way down the Iranian coastline. Could the P-3 be coordinating an attack on the Vincennes with the unidentified bogey.? Zocher decided to pass the chatter in Air Alley up the chain of command to his boss, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Lustig, the Vincennes's tactical commander for air warfare.
Lustig ordered Zocher to flash the incoming plane a warning: "Unidentified aircraft ... You are approaching a United States naval warship in international waters." It was the standard challenge, broadcast over the international distress frequencies routinely monitored by military and commercial aircraft. Briefly, Lustig considered another option. On the display screen in front of him, Lustig could see that the Forrestal's F-14s were circling just five minutes away. There was enough time-barely-to call them in to check out the bogey.
The Forrestal, too, had seen the blip pop on its radar screens. In the air, the F-14 pilots were itching to close in; a bogey out of Iran, heading for an American warship, was a rare opportunity for combat-hungry aviators. Aboard the carrier, Admiral Smith held them off. His staff was telling him that the blip was most likely a commercial airliner. But Smith stuck to the navy rule that the captain on the spot makes the decisions. He decided to let Rogers fight his own battle.
Aboard the Vincennes, it was now 9:49. Rogers was totally consumed with his fire fight against the gunboats. He was shouting for the five-inch-gun crew to load faster, and ordering hard-right rudder to bring his stern gun to bear. The ship shuddered and heeled to starboard.
Military theorists write about "friction," the inevitability of error, accident and miscalculation in the stress of combat. The architects of modern warfare have tried to use technology to minimize battlefield blindness. But the electronic babble of a combat information center can be just as confusing. Officers and men communicate by headphones over several channels, with left and right ears usually listening to different circuits. Rogers and his key officers in the CIC were all on the same circuit-but so was half the ship. Ingenious crewmen had discovered they could tap into the "command net" to hear the action over their Sony Walkmans. But in so doing, they drained power and the volume faded. Whenever it got too low, Lustig had to yell "Switch!" so everyone could turn to an alternate command circuit. Then the hackers would switch to that channel, too.
Over this erratic "net," a few seconds after 9:50, someone called out that the incoming plane was a "possible Astro"-the code word for an F-14. No one was ever able to find out who. In Air Alley, the operators thought the word came from the technicians in the ship's electronic-warfare suite. The technicians thought the warning came from Air Alley. Galvanized by this warning, Petty Officer Anderson again beamed out an IFF query. Ominously, the response he now got back was different. Up on his console flashed a Mode 2: military aircraft. Only much later did investigators figure out that Anderson had forgotten to reset the range on his IFF device. The Mode 2 did not come from the Airbus, climbing peacefully above the gulf, but from an Iranian plane, probably a military transport, still on the runway back in Bandar Abbas.
"Possible Astro!" Anderson sang out, at a moment of near chaos in the CIC. It was 9:51. Having swung full circle, Rogers was now bringing his reloaded forward gun to bear on the Iranian launches. The gun fired off 11 rounds-and jammed. The skipper again ordered the rudder hard over. The stern swung around, and in the CIC, papers and books toppled off consoles as the ship heeled over. At his station to Rogers's left, Lustig looked at his screen. The incoming plane was 32 miles away. What do we do? he asked Rogers.
His commanding officer was not too overwhelmed by the Iranian speedboats to forget the woeful example of Capt. Glenn Brindel, the skipper of the USS Stark. A year earlier, the luckless Brindel had been in the head when his ship was struck and almost sunk by a pair of anti-ship missiles fired by the pilot of a lone Iraqi Mirage F-1. Rogers had decided that the Vincennes's fire-control radar would "paint" any possibly hostile plane that got within 30 miles. At 20 miles, the Vincennes would shoot it down.
Rogers was not absolutely sure that his ship did face an enemy warplane. The plane seemed too high--some 7,000 feet-for an attack approach. At his rear, another officer, Lt. William Mountford, warned "possible commair. " Three more times, the warnings went out: "Iranian fighter ... you are steering into danger and are subject to United States naval defensive measures."
Then something happened that psychologists call "scenario fulfillment"-you see what you expect. Petty Officers Anderson and Leach both began singing out that the aircraft, now definitively tagged on the big screen as an F-14, was descending and picking up speed. The tapes of the CIC's data later showed no such thing. Anderson's screen showed that the plane was traveling 380 knots at 12,000 feet and climbing. Yet Anderson was shouting out that the speed was 455 knots, the altitude 7,800 feet and descending.
Rogers had to make a decision. An F-14 could do little damage to the Vincennes. The version that Washington sold its ally the Shah of Iran in the early 1970s was purely a fighter plane, not configured to strike surface targets. Still, if Rogers meant to attack it with a missile, he had to fire before the aircraft closed much within 10 miles. At 9:54:05, with the plane 11 miles away, Rogers reached up and switched the firing key to "free" the ship's SM-2 antiaircraft missiles. In Air Alley, Zocher had been given the green light to fire. The young lieutenant was so undone, that he pressed the wrong keys on his console 23 times. A veteran petty officer had to lean over and hit the right ones. With a whoosh, two SM-2s launched into the haze. In the CIC, the lights dimmed momentarily, like a prison's during an electrocution.
Some 10 miles away, Captain 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.
On the Vincennes's bridge, cameraman Rudy Pahoyo was still filming. His audio captured a babble of voices: "Oh, dead!" "Coming down!" "We had him dead on!" One voice commanded: "Hold the noise down, knock it off" Another shouted, "Direct hit!" Then a lookout came in from the wing of the bridge. The target couldn't have been an F-14, he said. The wreckage falling from the sky, he murmured to the Vincennes's executive officer, Cmdr. Richard Poster, is "bigger than that."
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. Aboard the USS Sides, 19 miles away, Captain Carlson was told that his top radar man reckoned the plane had been a commercial airliner. Carlson almost vomited, he said later.
On the Vincennes, there was an eerie silence. The five-inch guns ceased their pounding. None of the Revolutionary Guard boats had come within 5,000 yards of the cruiser. No one was sure how many had been hit; perhaps one, perhaps more. Rogers gave the order to head south, out of Iranian waters.
ANATOMY OF A COVER-UP
In Washington almost 11 hours later, at 1:30 p.m. EST, Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stepped to the podium in the Pentagon press room. Formal in his summer whites, the admiral told reporters there had been a terrible accident. Stressing that the information was incomplete, relying on what he had been told by Captain Rogers, Crowe said that the Iranian airliner was flying outside the commercial air corridor and had failed to respond to repeated warnings. The plane had been descending and picking up speed when it closed in on the Vincennes. Rogers had only been protecting his ship. A large map showed the position of the Vincennes at the time of the shoot-down. It was well within international waters.
At the United Nations, the Iranians compared the tragedy to the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines 007 in 1983. The White House decided that Vice President George Bush should defend the United States before the U.N. Security Council. The job of preparing the case fell to Richard Williamson, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations. He found it exceedingly difficult to get answers out of Crowe's staff, who were handling the affair at the Pentagon. Suspicious, he warned the vice president's chief of staff, Craig Fuller, to be very careful about committing Bush to any facts. Fuller's reaction was that he never trusted the Pentagon anyway. Bush's speech focused on the need to end the Iran-Iraq War. But what facts it did include were wrong. The vice president claimed that the Vincennes had rushed to defend a merchantman under attack by Iran.
By July 14, the day of Bush's speech, the Pentagon knew the truth but failed to share it with the vice president. The tapes of the Vincennes's Aegis system, with its combat and navigational data, reached the United States on July 5 and what they showed was reported to the Pentagon on July 10. The Vincennes had been in territorial waters. The Iranian airliner was well within the commercial air corridor and had been ascending, not descending. There was no beleaguered merchant vessel.
The cover-up was compounded by the official report on the incident. On July 3, Crowe chose Rear Adm. William Fogarty, a senior officer on the staff of Central Command, which controls military operations in the Middle East, to investigate. Crowe sent his own legal adviser, Capt. Richard DeBobes, to sit at Fogarty's side at CentCom headquarters in Tampa as he prepared his report.
The investigation was notable for the questions it failed to ask. The commanders on the carrier Forrestal were never interviewed; nor was Captain McKenna, the surface-warfare commander in Bahrain whose order Rogers ignored. McKenna's staff mailed a tape of his tense exchange with Rogers before the sea battle, but never received a response. The report released to the public did not include any chart or navigational data to show the Vincennes's position at the time of the shoot-down.
The map displayed by Fogarty when he briefed Congress in September placed the Vincennes and its helicopter well clear of Iranian waters and erroneously reported the position of the Montgomery. Fogarty produced stills from the Aegis-generated map of events displayed in the Vincennes's CIC. According to three sources on board the Vincennes that day, the real map had shown Hengam Island, Iranian territory less than nine miles from the Vincennes at the time of the shoot-down. On the frames shown by Fogarty, the island was simply deleted--miraculously placing the Vincennes safely in international waters once more. Asked about the Forrestal's aircraft by inquiring lawmakers, Fogarty put them 180 miles, then 250 miles away-even though those same Aegis stills show them clearly tagged only 75 miles from the Vincennes.
Most mysteriously, Fogarty told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Vincennes had been racing to rescue a Liberian tanker, the Stoval, that morning. There is no such tanker reported in any ship registry. According to two sources, including officer involved in the investigation, the Stoval was a decoy, a phantom conjured up by fake radio messages to lure out the Iranian gunboats. According to these sources, the Iranian aggression that Vice President Bush so vigorously decried at the United Nations had in fact been the trial run for an American sting operation.
The navy might have gotten away with all these deceptions had it not been for the slow grinding of international law. A lawsuit by the Iranian government has now forced Washington to admit, grudgingly, that the Vincennes was actually in Iranian waters -although Justice Department pleadings still claim the cruiser was forced there in self-defense. The admission is contained in fine print in legal briefs; it has never received public attention until Crowe, confronted with the evidence, conceded the truth last week on "Nightline." Crowe denies any cover-up; if mistakes were made, he told NEWSWEEK, they were " below my paygrade." Rogers continues to insist that his ship was in international waters.
In the end, of course, Will Rogers did not get an admiral's two-inch gold stripe. He instructed navy captains in San Diego for two years before retiring honorably in August 1991. The men of the Vincennes were all awarded combat-action ribbons. Commander Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, even won the navy's Commendation Medal for "heroic achievement," his "ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire," enabling him to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure. "Given the target he was firing at, the commendation seems rather surreal. But so was the atmosphere in the Vincennes CIC that July morning, and the attempt, in the months and years that followed, to cover up what happened there.
COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER
On the hot and hazy morning of July 3, 1988, an unforeseeable but avoidable chain of events led to the deaths of 290 innocent civilians. It began as a reconnaissance of a minor skirmish involving Iranian gunboats. It ended with one of America's most sophisticated battle systems deployed against a commercial airliner that chose the wrong moment to stray into harm's way.
10 9:56: As the shattered Airbus plunges from 13,500 feet, observers on the Montgomery's bridge see a large wing and engine pod fall through the haze. They realize it's too big for an F-14. 9 9:54: The Airbus's four radio channels are busy reporting flight data to local air-traffic control. The pilot never hears the Vincennes's warnings. Forty-three seconds later, the first missile detonates. 8 9:51: The USS Sides's captain, less than 20 miles away, is perturbed by "Open fire' order. A radar tracker identifies the Airbus as "probable commercial air.' 7 9:50: The Vincennes identifies the approaching Airbus as an F-14. One minute later, it gets permission to open fire. 6 9:48: Two F-14 Tomcats from the carrier USS Forrestal are on station and eager to intervene--but are ordered to stay out. 5 9:47: Iran Air 655 takes off for Dubai with 290 aboard. It is unaware of the sea battle starting to the south. 4 9:40: The Vincennes enters Iranian waters and, three minutes later, opens fire on the gunboats. 3 9:10: The Vincennes's helicopter, inside Iranian territorial waters, reports it has been fired on by Iranian gunboats. The Vincennes turns north again. 2 8:40: The navy surface warfare commander in the gulf, angered to find the Vincennes so far north, orders it to return south. 1 7:20 a.m.: The USS Vincennes is told to send its helicopter north to investigate shooting reported around the USS Montgomery. The Vincennes speeds north, too.
THE FATAL SEQUENCE These radar screens, recorded from the Aegis system on board the USS Vincennes, provide vital clues to the untold story behind the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655. 9:47 a.m. The USS Vincennes is already inside Iranian waters. Dotted red line, drawn by Newsweek, indicates 12-mile limit. Later, in congressional testimony, the navy disguised proximity to Iran by deleting southernmost Iranian island. 9:48 The Airbus, though flying down a commercial air route (white line), is already tagged as a "hostile' aircraft. But a U.S. F- 14 is already on station, waiting to be called in. Never explained by the navy: two mysterious aircraft west of the Vincennes. 9:51 Blunders in the Vincennes's control room cause the Airbus to be misidentified as an F-14. Two F-14s from the American carrier Forrestal are now just minutes away, but they are told to stay out. 9:54:42 Two missiles from Vincennes streak out toward the Airbus. To focus on their flight, the screen's range has been narrowed. The first missile explodes one second after this frame. The USS Montgomery is clearly seen to the west.
THE MECHANICS OF A COVER-UP
The navy produced two maps of what it alleged had happened. The first has errors to be expected from reports only hours after the tragedy. But the errors were repeated and enlarged in the map later shown to Congress with the navy's official findings.
July 3: ADMIRAL CROWE BRIEFING
? Vincennes in wrong position, shown here just outside Iranian waters
? Helicopter in wrong position: it was some 15 miles to the west, inside Iranian waters
? Vincennes actually pursued Iranian gunboats farther north
Sept. 8-9: FOGARTY CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING
? False position shown for Montgomery
? Pakistani merchantman Sarghoda (name misspelled by navy) made no distress call
? Liberian tanker Stoval does not exist
The Vincennes fired two missiles (above) and knocked the Airbus into the water (D.O.D.)
PHOTOS (2): The combat information center is the nerve center of Vincennes, capable of tracking scores of incoming missiles and aircraft at a time, but Rogers (inset) and his jittery crew (not shown here) misread the complex system's signals (JOHN GAPS III-AP, IDI)
John Barry is NEWSWEEK's national-security correspondent. Roger Charles is a retired Marine colonel and military intelligence officer who is now a freelance writer in Washington. Also reporting were Daniel Pedersen in London, Christopher Dickey in Paris, Theresa Waldrop in Bonn, Donna Foote in Los Angeles, Tony Clifton in New York and Peter Annin in Houston.
© Newsweek 1992