“Set Up For Failure”: How Iran Captured 10 US Sailors at Farsi Island

Riverine Command Boats (RCB) 802 and 805 participate in a bi-lateral exercise with Kuwait naval forces in the Arabian Gulf. Photo by US Navy via Sipa USA

Despite the United States Navy’s insistence that “U.S. Navy Forces deployed globally are ready in all respects,” ProPublica’s ongoing investigation into the Navy’s combat readiness has revealed otherwise.

In the latest installment, Megan Rose, Robert Faturechi, and T. Christian Miller report on how failures up and down the Navy’s chain of command, coupled with a toxic “can’t say no” leadership culture, contributed to 10 US sailors getting captured by Iran in January, 2016, after navigational and mechanical glitches put their ill-suited vessel into Iran’s territorial waters.

In the wake of the Farsi Island incident, the outlines of the Navy’s fumbles were widely reported. But ProPublica reconstructed the failed mission, and the Navy’s response to it, using hundreds of pages of previously unreported confidential Navy documents, including the accounts of sailors and officers up and down the chain of command. Those documents reveal that the 10 captured sailors were forced out on dangerous missions they were not prepared for. Their commanders repeatedly dismissed worries about deficiencies in manpower and expertise.

Foley spotted a blue flag atop one of the boats. He pulled out a Navy reference manual. The flag belonged to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Foley shouted that the men were Iranians.

Nartker was holding up a wrench and pointing at his engine to indicate to the Iranians that his boat was in need of repair.

Inside the engine room, Escobedo made quick work of the repairs on the water pump and then started up the engines. With each movement, the more maneuverable Iranian boats blocked him and the men aboard them racked their weapons. He could see them squeezing their triggers.

“Stop boat!” they yelled. “Stop boat!”

Nartker decided to ignore the shouting men.

“Go!” he yelled at Escobedo.

Escobedo believed that if he followed the order, the Iranians would begin firing. He thought the rounds would cut clean through their boat. Someone was going to get killed. Rather than gunning the boat, Escobedo simply looked at Nartker: “Sir.”

Nartker later told Navy investigators that he had considered grabbing his M4 assault rifle and trying to shoot his way out. But he thought that if he began shooting he could start a war. He had never received a briefing on the region from the Navy, but he had been reading The Economist magazine. He knew about the looming nuclear accord.

Nartker’s superior officers had ignored protests. They had assigned him a mission beyond the capabilities of the gunboats. And they ordered him to proceed, even knowing about the shoddy equipment and the late start.

It was wrong to punish him, when so many others shared responsibility. Nartker, Fuselier wrote, “was set up for failure.”

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