Today marks twenty-nine years since the shootdown by the USS Vincennes of Iran Air flight 655, which killed all of the plane’s 290 civilian passengers. This shootdown of a civilian airliner by a US naval ship occurred on July 3, 1988, toward the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.
This incident is, of course, something that the people of Iran well remember. Americans who rely on the US mainstream media, on the other hand, would have to be forgiven for never having heard about it.
Furthermore, in the rare instances when the media do mention it, to this day they tend to maintain official US government falsehoods about what occurred and otherwise omit relevant details that would inform Americans about what really happened.
The lack of mention of the incident or, when it is mentioned, the deceptive reporting about what occurred illustrates an institutionalized bias in the media. The consequence is that Americans seeking to understand US-Iran relations today fail to grasp a key historical event that has helped to define that relationship.
How the Mainstream Media Report the US Shootdown of Flight 655
If one does a quick Google search for relevant keywords specific to the shootdown, only a handful of US mainstream media reports turn up on first-page results.
Max Fisher in the Washington Post wrote a piece about it several years ago, appropriately titled “The Forgotten story of Iran Air Flight 655”. For context, Fisher asserted that “the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf.” As explanation for how the Vincennes “mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet”, Fisher suggested it was “perhaps” due to “the heat of battle” or “perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself.”
The Washington Examiner a couple years ago ran a piece with the headline “Iran says 1988 airliner shootdown is why U.S. can’t be trusted”. The author, Charles Hoskinson, stated simply that “An investigation revealed that the cruiser’s crew mistook the airliner for an attacking F-14 fighter jet while involved in a confrontation with Iranian gunboats.”
Fred Kaplan in Slate noted in a 2014 piece that the incident “is almost completely forgotten” (at least in the US). His article was appropriately subtitled “The time the United States blew up a passenger plane—and covered it up.” As a journalist who had reported on the incident at the time and challenged the US government’s official story, Kaplan noted that “American officials told various lies” intended to blame the Iranians for the tragedy.
The government had claimed that the Vincennes was in international waters at the time, that the plane was flying “outside of the prescribed commercial air route” and descending at the “high speed” of 450 knots directly toward the Vincennes, and that the plane’s transponder was squawking a code over a military channel.
In truth, the Vincennes was in Iran’s territorial waters, the plane was ascending through 12,000 feet at 380 knots within the established commercial air route, and its transponder was squawking the plane’s identity over a civilian channel.
Like Fisher and Hoskinson, however, Kaplan nevertheless maintained the US government’s narrative that “the Iranian Airbus A300 wandered into a naval skirmish” and on that basis characterized it as a “horrible mistake”.
These are the only three examples from within the past decade that appeared in initial search results for various relevant keywords at the time of this writing. It’s also helpful see how America’s “newspaper of record”, the New York Times, has reported it over the years, by searching its online archives.
Doing various related keyword searches at the New York Times website turns up a smattering of articles. Without going further back, a November 1988 piece acknowledged that, contrary to the US government’s claims, “Flight 655 was behaving normally for a commercial jet”. The Times nevertheless maintained the government’s official line that “Iranian [air traffic] tower officials clearly are guilty of not listening to the dozens of radio warnings broadcast by the Navy and ordering the airliner to change course”.
The following month, the Times revealed that this attempt to blame the Iranians was also untruthful. As the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) determined in an investigation of the incident, seven of the eleven warnings issued by the Americans “were transmitted on a military channel that was inaccessible to the airliner crew.” The other four were transmitted on the international civil aviation distress frequency. Of these, only one, transmitted by the USS Sides “39 seconds before the Vincennes fired, was of sufficient clarity that it might have been ‘instantly recognizable’ to the airliner as being directed at it.”
The Times nevertheless sustained the US government’s narrative that Iran was at least partly to blame by “allowing an airliner to fly into the area at the time when warships were involved in an intense battle with Iranian gunboats.”
In May 1989, Iran sued the US in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the shootdown. The Times ran a piece in July about how the US was trying to settle the matter by offering to compensate victims’ families with up to $250,000. The only details of the attack the Times offered readers was to relay the claim from a senior State Department official that “the Vincennes was defending itself against what it believed was a ‘coordinated attack’”.
Another Times article that August reported that Iran’s case was proceeding at the ICJ. For context, the Times simply parroted the government’s official line that, “At the time, the Vincennes was part of a group of American warships protecting neutral shipping in the [Persian] gulf during the war between Iraq and Iran.”
(The ICJ case was dropped in 1996 when the US and Iran reached a settlement in which the US “expressed deep regret” and agreed to pay $61.8 million to the victims’ families.)
In 1992, a Times article reported on the further unravelling of the US government’s official account. It noted that, contrary to the government’s claims, Flight 655 was ascending and flying within the commercial air corridor. Vice President George H. W. Bush had told the UN that the shootdown occurred “in the midst of a naval attack initiated by Iranian vessels against a neutral vessel and subsequently against the Vincennes.” In fact, as government officials were now admitting, the Vincennes was in Iranian waters at the time. Furthermore, an investigative report for ABC’s Nightline determined that it was not the Iranian ships that started the naval skirmish, but the US Navy’s.
The US government maintained that, while the Vincennes was admittedly within Iran’s territorial waters, it was the Iranian ships who initiated hostilities. However, even the commander of the USS Sides, Captain David Carlson, whose ship was in the same American convoy, had stated three years prior that the actions of the Vincennes under the command of Captain Will Rogers were “consistently aggressive.”
The Times also noted that neither Captain Rogers nor any other officers or crew of the Vincennes were disciplined.
There are only scarce mentions of the incident by the Times since. Columnist Roger Cohen in an August 2009 piece referred in passing to “the mistaken 1988 shooting-down of Iran Air Flight 655, in which 290 people perished”. A 2015 article mentioned it, stating that the Vincennes was “patrolling the strait [of Hormuz]” and that its crew “apparently mistook the plane for an Iranian F-14 fighter.” The most recent mention that turned up was from February 2 of this year, in an article that states simply that “Iran called the attack deliberate and the United States called it a mistake.”
The above is not an exhaustive list, but these examples illustrate that, on the rare occasions when the US mainstream media do mention the incident, to this day they sustain the US government’s narrative that this killing of 290 civilians was simply a “mistake” for which no one should be held criminally responsible.
So how well does this narrative hold up?
The Facts about the US Shootdown of Flight 655
After the Vincennes shot down Flight 655, as Fred Kaplan noted in his Slate piece, Vice President George H. W. Bush responded by saying, “I will never apologize for the United States of America—I don’t care what the facts are.”
The facts were that the Aegis cruiser USS Vincennes, under the command of Captain Will Rogers III, had entered Iran’s territorial waters and opened fire on and sank two Iranian gunboats posing no threat to the American vessels. (Aboard another Iranian boat the Vincennes was passing by at the same moment Rogers gave the order to open fire, the crew was seen relaxing topside, as captured by the camera of US Navy journalists.)
At the time, as a Navy investigation later acknowledged, the Vincennes detected a plane ascending “on a normal commercial air flight plan profile” and squawking a transponder signal identifying itself as a commercial aircraft.
Aboard the Sides, with identical radar information as received aboard the Vincennes, Captain Carlson determined the plane was a “non-threat”.
Aboard the Vincennes, Lieutenant William Montford warned Captain Rogers that the plane was “possible COMAIR”, but Rogers nevertheless ostensibly convinced himself that his ship was under attack from an F-14 fighter plane and minutes later ordered it shot down.
(Incidentally, the US had sold F-14s to Iran in the early 1970s while it was under the thumb of Washington’s strongman, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was put in power after a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government by deposing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh for having nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The Shah was in turn overthrown during Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.)
Well aware that his action might kill civilians, Rogers ordered his gunner to open fire on the plane, shooting it out of the sky.
The Navy’s self-investigation attributed the discrepancy between the known facts and Rogers’ actions to “scenario fulfillment”. Rogers had made “an unconscious attempt to make available evidence fit a preconceived scenario.”
In other words, even though the information the officers and crew aboard the Vincennes were receiving indicated that the plane was ascending along a commercial flight path and squawking its identify as a civilian airliner, Rogers imagined it to be an F-14 fighter jet coming down out of the sky to attack his ship.
US government officials evidently also suffered from “scenario fulfillment” as they proceeded to make claims about what had happened bearing no relationship to reality.
President Ronald Reagan claimed that the killing of 290 civilians was justified as “a proper defensive action”.
Never one to apologize, Vice President Bush, while campaigning for the presidency, called it “just an unhappy incident” and reassured Americans that “life goes on.”
As he was scheduled to speak before the UN Security Council about the incident, Bush said, “I can’t wait to get up there and defend the policy of the United States government” by presenting “the free world’s case” for why 290 mostly Iranian civilians were dead.
Speaking before the Security Council, Bush blamed Iran for allowing a civilian airliner to go about its business carrying passengers to Dubai at a time when an American warship was “engaged in battle”.
He declined to explain how the pilot, Captain Mohsen Rezaian, or the air traffic controllers at the airport in Bandar Abbas, where Flight 655 had taken off, could possibly have known that a US warship with an imaginative captain on board was in Iran’s territorial waters firing at anything that moved.
Bush lied to the Council that the Vincennes had “acted in self-defense” against “a naval attack initiated by Iranian vessels” on the American ship when it “came to the aid” of an “innocent ship in distress.”
Also not wont to question the actions of the US government, the New York Times in an editorial published July 5, 1988, urged Americans via their headline to put themselves “In Captain Rogers’s Shoes”.
Sympathizing with the killer, the Times editors described the shootdown as “horrifying”, but “nonetheless an accident.” It was “hard to see what the Navy could have done to avoid it.” Captain Rogers “had little choice” but to open fire, they opined, assuming the US government’s account “turns out even approximately correct”.
Of course, the official account turned out to be pretty much the opposite of the truth in virtually every aspect, but the Times was, as ever, not over-eager to seriously question the government’s claims.
Thus, the editors maintained the deception that the Vincennes was “in a combat zone” and “engaged in action against Iranian gunboats making high-speed runs against it.”
The editors also relayed as fact that the radar operators aboard the Vincennes had “reported an aircraft heading toward the ship and descending.” Furthermore, they “apparently had indications, which the Navy refuses to discuss, that the plane was a powerful F-14 jet.”
Unimaginatively, the Times editors failed to conceive of the most obvious reason why the Navy would refuse to discuss that claim: because there were no such indications.
The furthest the Times would go to question the official narrative was to state that it was “not yet clear why sophisticated radar did not distinguish between an F-14 and a much larger Airbus.”
The lie the Times was upholding then—as to this day—was that the ship’s sophisticated radar had indicated it was something other than a civilian airliner.
After axiomatically accepting this lie, the editors immediately urged their readers to “put yourself in Captain Rogers’s shoes”. They proceeded to assert that the “evidence” suggested “an imminent attack” by the plane on the Vincennes.
Note that the word “evidence” in this context is being used euphemistically by the Times’ editorial board to mean claims by US government officials that were directly contradicted by the actual evidence available to them.
The Times proceeded to state that, if the US government’s account was at least “largely correct”, then we could safely conclude that the Iran Air pilot was to blame “for failing to acknowledge the ship’s warnings and flying outside the civilian corridor. Iran, too, may bear responsibility for failing to warn civilian planes away from the combat zone of an action it had initiated.”
They concluded that “the onus for avoiding such accidents in the future” fell not on the captains of American warships operating in the territorial waters of other countries, but “on civilian aircraft” flying in their own airspace.
The takeaway lesson presented by the Times was that civilian aircraft should just “avoid combat zones, fly high, [and] acknowledge warnings.”
Finally, the editorial concluded that ultimate blame lay with the government of Iran, with the “accident” instructing the world that it was time for Tehran “to bring an end to its futile eight-year war with Iraq.”
Of course, as the Times editors were perfectly well aware, it was Iraq who started the war, which dragged on for eight long years in large part due to the fact that the US was backing the aggressor.
Far from being held accountable for the mass murder of 290 civilians, Captain Rogers was later presented with the Legion of Merit award “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service” during his time as commanding officer when the shootdown occurred.
Rogers’ weapons and combat systems officer at the time, Lieutenant Commander Scott E. Lustig, received two commendation medals and was praised for “heroic achievement” for his conduct during the incident.
The entire crew of the Vincennes received combat action ribbons.
The US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 receives only rare mentions in the US mainstream media despite being a key incident in the history of the US’s relations with Iran that serves as critical context for understanding how Iranians today view the US government.
When it is mentioned, the media’s tendency is to characterize the mass killing as an honest “mistake”, resulting from an action any other country’s navy would have taken if put in the same position. Although it has long been known that the US government’s account of the incident was a pack of lies, the US media to this day characterize it as though the resulting death of civilians was just an unfortunate consequence of war.
When Max Fisher wrote in in the Washington Post in 2013 that “the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf”, it is hard to fathom that he was unaware that the US warship was in Iranian waters; and yet he declined to relay that critical piece of information to his readers.
It is equally hard to fathom that he was unaware it was the Vincennes that initiated hostilities; yet this fact, too, he omitted.
Fisher also unquestioningly parroted the US government’s claim that the Vincennes’ crew “mistook” the plane for an F-14, which he attributed either to “the heat of battle” or the plane’s failure to identify itself.
It may be true that, as the naval investigation determined, Captain Rogers imagined it to be an F-14. Yet, as Lieutenant Colonel David Evans wrote in the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine in August 1993, the information received by the American ships from the plane’s transponder unambiguously identified it as an ascending commercial aircraft.
“Both Captain Rogers and Captain Carlson,” Evans noted in his essay, “had this information.”
It is no less hard to fathom how Fisher could have been unaware of the fact that Flight 655 had been squawking its identify as a civilian aircraft, something even the most precursory research into the incident would have revealed to him.
It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that Max Fisher’s purpose in writing was not to educate Americans about what happened, but to sustain the central myth that the shootdown was merely an unfortunate accident of the kind that happens in the fog of war.
He was, in other words, dutifully serving his role as a propagandist.
Charles Hoskinson in his 2015 Washington Examiner piece was hardly more forthcoming.
Fred Kaplan was far more forthcoming in his Slate piece from three years ago; yet even in the face of his own contrary evidence, he still preserved the central myth that the shootdown was merely a “mistake” resulting from Iran Air Flight 655 having “wandered into a naval skirmish”.
This is the same false narrative that America’s “newspaper of record” maintains on those rare occasions when the incident receives a passing mention.
The real story, in sum, is as follows:
Twenty-nine years ago, on July 3, 1988, US warships entered Iranian waters and initiated hostilities with Iranian vessels.
The consoles of the radar operators aboard the USS Vincennes at the time unambiguously showed an aircraft ascending within a commercial corridor in Iranian airspace, with the plane’s transponder signaling its identity as a commercial aircraft.
Captain Rogers nevertheless ordered his gunner to open fire on the plane, shooting it out of the sky and killing the 290 civilians on board.
Subsequently, rather than being held accountable for committing a war crime, Rogers and his entire crew received awards for their actions.
Like Captain Rogers, the mainstream media establishment seems to suffer from institutional “scenario fulfillment”, in which this action did not constitute a war crime or, at best, an act of international terrorism.
In the case of the media, the preconceived notion is that the US is an exceptional nation whose government is sometimes capable of “mistakes”, but only ever acts out of benevolent intent.
It is an assumption that, while deemed axiomatic by the mainstream media establishment, is no less self-delusional than Captain Rogers’ imaginary scenario of this “forgotten” episode in US-Iran relations.
This article was originally published at Foreign Policy Journal and is adapted largely from material presented on pages 349-350 of the author’s book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. See the book’s references for additional resources.