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CENTCOM: SIM cards missing from detained sailors' phones

This story has been updated.

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — U.S. Central Command released new details Monday about Iran’s seizure of two Navy boats and 10 sailors last week, saying one of the riverine command vessels experienced mechanical problems in Iranian waters.

The sailors all were released, along with most of their equipment, after about 15 hours, according to the timeline from Tampa-based CENTCOM.

The Iranians did keep two satellite phone SIM cards, which function in part as identification keys, but their loss likely did not represent a security breach, one Tampa expert says.

Pentagon officials still is investigating why the boats, traveling in the Persian Gulf, wound up in Iranian waters. They are also looking into the treatment of the crews during their detention.

The new timeline still does not answer why the boats were in Iranian waters.

The commander of the mission will likely face disciplinary action if crew error is a factor, said Jon Bayless of Tampa, who worked at Naval Forces Central Command and retired as a rear admiral in 2009.

The incident caused a political firestorm in Washington, D.C., after the Iranians released video of the sailors, their hands over their heads and held at gunpoint. The video also shows the officer in charge apologizing to Iranian officials. He was identified in news reports as Lt. David Nartker.

CENTCOM, at MacDill Air Force Base, oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

The new information provided by CENTCOM is based on a number of reports received by Naval Forces Central Command in the first 24 to 48 hours after the incident,” according to CENTCOM’s new report.

Naval Forces Central Command oversees naval operations in the CENTCOM region.

“A Navy command investigation initiated on Jan. 14, will provide a more complete accounting of events,” CENTCOM said.

———

Here are highlights of the timeline provided by CENTCOM.

Shortly after noon local time Jan. 12, the boats left Kuwait, headed on a roughly 300-mile trip south to Bahrain, headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates in the region.

The planned route was down the middle of the Persian Gulf, with no stops in the territorial waters of any nation besides Kuwait and Bahrain.

The boats, which travel in pairs, were scheduled to be refueled en route by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy at around 5 p.m. local time.

But the boats never reached the cutter.

Shortly after 5 p.m., Naval Forces Central Command received a report that the boat crews were being queried by Iranians. About a half-hour later, naval command officials learned of “degraded communications” with the boats.

At 5:45 p.m., the officials learned of a total loss of communications with the boats and immediately began an intensive search and rescue operation from the air and sea, including aircraft from the carrier Harry S. Truman and from the Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard, U.K. Royal Navy and U.S. Navy surface vessels.

At the time of the incident, two carrier strike groups were operating nearby. The Truman group was 45 miles southeast of Farsi Island and the French Charles de Gaulle group was 40 miles north of Farsi Island.

The naval command attempted to contact Iranian military units operating near Farsi Island by broadcasting information regarding their search and rescue effort over marine radio, and separately notified Iranian coast guard units via telephone about the search for their personnel.

At 9:15 p.m. local time, the Navy cruiser USS Anzio received a communication from the Iranians that the sailors were in Iranian custody and were “safe and healthy.”

Based upon initial reports, the first Iranian boats on scene were two small craft with armed personnel on board. Soon after, two more Iranian military vessels arrived on scene, also with armed personnel on board.

Initial reports indicate there was a verbal exchange between the sailors and the Iranians but no gun fire. Armed Iranian military personnel boarded the Navy boats while other personnel aboard the Iranian vessels kept watch with mounted machine guns.

The Navy boats were escorted to a small port center on Farsi Island, where the U.S. sailors disembarked and were detained for approximately 15 hours.

At this point, there are “no indications that the sailors were physically harmed during their detainment.”

The sailors departed Farsi Island at 11:43 a.m. local time Jan. 13 aboard their two boats. The sailors were later transferred ashore by U.S. Navy aircraft from the Anzio and the Truman. Other sailors took charge of the boats and continued to Bahrain, the boats’ original destination.

The boats arrived in Bahrain at 1:38 p.m. local time, Jan. 13.

An inventory showed that all weapons, ammunition and communication gear were accounted for, but that the two SIM cards appear to have been removed from two handheld satellite phones.

The sailors are in good health and are undergoing a reintegration process. The Navy command investigation continues and more details will be provided when it is completed.

———

Initial reports from Naval Forces Central Command showed that while in transit from Kuwait to Bahrain, the boats deviated from their planned course on their way to refueling. The command investigation will determine what caused the change in course and why the boats entered into Iranian territorial waters.

At some point, one of the boats seemed to have a mechanical issue in a diesel engine, causing the crews to stop both boats and begin troubleshooting. The stop occurred in Iranian territorial waters, although it’s not clear the crew was aware of their exact location.

While the boats were stopped and the crew was attempting to evaluate the mechanical issue, Iranian boats approached.

The Navy command investigation will focus on the sailors’ treatment while in Iranian custody, including any interrogation by Iranian personnel. All indications are that the U.S. Navy crews were detained by Iranian military personnel operating from Farsi Island.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, visiting leaders at CENTCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command last week, told reporters the two Navy vessels experienced “a navigational error of some kind” but did not have details.

Carter urged patience in the face of outrage among some political leaders and on social media that the capture of the sailors was being used as propaganda.

“I don’t like to see our people being detained by a foreign military,” Carter said. “I’m very glad they’re safe. What we don’t know is the full context.

“Remember what you are looking at is through the lens of the Iranian media, so I think we need to give these guys the opportunity to tell us what was really going on.”

———

Bayless, the retired rear admiral, was a captain and deputy commander of Task Force 57 during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said the Iranians milked the wayward boats for propaganda value.

“The Iranians exploited what little time they had and pushed it to the limit, knowing they had the Iranian nuclear deal to be executed in a few days,” Bayless said. “They exploited it for propaganda purposes.”

The seizure of the SIM cards, he said, likely did not represent a security breach because they don’t typically contain classified information.

Nartker, the lieutenant in charge of the mission, should not have apologized, Bayless said.

“He should not have done it,” said Bayless. “It is not something we do.”

If Nartker is found to be at fault, “he will be reprimanded and probably lose his command,” Bayless said. “I suspect his career will be over based on the results of this investigation that could divulge poor command decisions and/or navigation error that contributed to the incident.”

During his time at Naval Forces Central Command, Bayless said, there was a lot of “cat and mouse” between U.S. and Iranian vessels but no direct contact or detentions.

However, one Orion P3 aircraft did stray into Iranian airspace, he said, and the commander was reprimanded.

haltman@tampatrib.com

©2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)
Visit the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.) at www.tampatrib.com
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