On January 12 two U.S. Navy riverine boats were sailing south through the Persian Gulf to Bahrain near Iran’s Farsi Island. One of the boats had broken down and the other stayed with it. Six Iranian boats surrounded them and demanded their surrender at gunpoint. The Americans did. They were forced to their knees and taken into captivity on the island.
It’s not clear how the Iranians treated the U.S. sailors, but we know a few key facts. The Iranians seized Navy computers aboard the boats and copied their contents. The sailors were interrogated individually — constantly — and paraded before Iranian television crews. In footage broadcast internationally, they were apparently compelled to admit that they were in the wrong for entering Iranian waters — though the evidence showed they had not — and to apologize for doing so.
But every American soldier, sailor, airman and Marine is trained to refuse to aid the enemy in that manner. It’s a violation of their duty to do so. So were they abused? Tortured? Threatened with immediate execution? We don’t know because the Obama administration has classified everything about how the sailors were treated.
They were released after about sixteen hours. The only reaction from President Obama was a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry thanking the Iranians for their cooperation and patting himself on the back for effective diplomacy. There was never even a word condemning the Iranians for violating international law by seizing the American boats in international waters.
Two weeks ago Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) got our attention when he said that the classified information about the incident, if made public, would shock the American people. He said that we would be shocked by not only how Iran treated our sailors but also how the Obama administration responded. As Forbes pointed out, Obama did nothing at all to help the sailors while they were in captivity.
Forbes is chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. I spoke to him Thursday about the Farsi Island incident and some other key seapower issues.
Information is properly classified only when its release would damage the national security of the United States or one of our allies. That means, to put it simply, information shouldn’t be classified just because it would be politically embarrassing. But that’s apparently what happened in the case of the Farsi Island incident.
I asked Forbes directly: had anyone from the administration told him what the rationale was behind the decision to classify the Farsi Island information? He answered just as directly: no, they hadn’t. There hasn’t been even an attempt to justify that decision.
Moreover, Forbes said that he believed that the Navy would agree to declassify and release the information, but that it hadn’t received permission to do so from the president or the secretary of defense. Forbes told me that he believed that the information would be made public eventually — in weeks or months — but it probably wouldn’t happen before the November election.
The inescapable conclusion is that the administration’s refusal to release the Farsi Island incident information is purely a political decision to help protect Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Letting the Farsi Island information out now would give Republican opponents of the deal ammunition that could be highly useful in their campaigns this summer and fall.
Because Obama regards that deal — which guarantees Iran nuclear weapons — as a key part of his legacy, he won’t do anything to help arm its opponents. You can bet that if Hillary Clinton is elected president, we’ll never see that information declassified and made public.
Forbes spoke derisively about Obama’s foreign policy. His philosophy, he said, is pretty simple. When you give in to bullies, they get bolder and raise the stakes. He said, “The Russians are now flying over our ships at about thirty feet above the deck. We see the Chinese telling us we can’t even do a port call in Hong Kong. We see them intercepting our P-3s and trying to literally push us out of the South China Sea.
“And we see the Iranians’ actions” (such as the firing of missiles fifteen hundred yards from the carrier USS Harry S. Truman last December), “… and the fact that they seized the two Navy riverine boats in January in violation of all maritime rules.”
Forbes said, “The Iranians get bolder. They’re telling us to get out of the Persian Gulf or they’ll shut the Strait of Hormuz.”
Forbes, the leading advocate in the House of restoring American seapower, believes this is all due to Obama’s knuckling under whenever America is challenged. He’s right. He said that Congress should stand up and demand greater challenges to nations such as Iran when the next Iranian sanctions bill comes up.
But it will take a lot more: a lot of money and time to restore the seapower we need to have to protect America’s interests and allies abroad.
Forbes pointed out that as soon as Obama came into office he began about $780 billion of cuts in defense spending over ten years to which sequestration added another $500 billion in cuts. He said that one of the first things the Obama administration did was issue gag orders for everyone in the Pentagon — both military and civilian — so that they couldn’t even tell Congress what repercussions there would be from its massive cuts.
The Marine Corps is a good example. The reports that the Marines were going to museums to cannibalize parts for aircraft were, Forbes said, true. He added that the Marines tried to see what foreign ships were available to deliver them to trouble spots because we don’t have enough sealift ships to do it.
I asked Forbes about the fact that although we have ten carriers — and soon will have eleven — we have only enough pilots and aircraft to outfit six. He agreed that there was a grave shortfall in strike fighters.
Forbes told me that the Navy had testified to his committee that three out of four strike aircraft aren’t going to be ready for combat for at least twelve months. He said that the Navy is cannibalizing parts from some aircraft to outfit others. And it’s not just the aircraft that are being cannibalized.
The submarine force usually has priority over other ships for repairs, but the Navy is being forced to cannibalize parts from submarines to keep others at sea. All classes of ships are being affected.
Forbes said, “In 2007, the Navy could meet 90 percent of our combatant commanders’ needs around the globe. This year, they’ll only meet 42 percent.”
He gave the example of one of our submarines that went into drydock for repairs that had been estimated to take 28 months. It actually took over 40 months. In that time, the whole crew sat ashore. The captain of the ship, Forbes said, resigned in frustration saying he hadn’t signed up just to sit in a shipyard.
The Navy’s total fleet is down to 272 ships. President Obama, Forbes said, wanted to reduce it by another twelve percent and Congress refused. (The Chinese have 300 surface vessels and plan to have at least 78 submarines as well within two years.)
Forbes, and many of his colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee, are trying to restore sanity to defense spending but there is, in truth, not much they can do. If the next president doesn’t take this on as Job 1, the shortfalls will grow, which means our capability to perform essential national security missions will continue to shrink.