Fury and frustration still mount over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and justly so. But before accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes or dismissing the entire episode as a tragic fluke, it’s worth looking back at another doomed passenger plane—Iran Air Flight 655—shot down on July 3, 1988, not by some scruffy rebel on contested soil but by a U.S. Navy captain in command of an Aegis-class cruiser called the Vincennes.
A quarter-century later, the Vincennes is almost completely forgotten, but it still ranks as the world’s seventh deadliest air disaster (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is the sixth) and one of the Pentagon’s most inexcusable disgraces.
In several ways, the two calamities are similar. The Malaysian Boeing 777 wandered into a messy civil war in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border; the Iranian Airbus A300 wandered into a naval skirmish—one of many clashes in the ongoing “Tanker War” (another forgotten conflict)—in the Strait of Hormuz. The likely pro-Russia rebel thought that he was shooting at a Ukrainian military-transport plane; the U.S. Navy captain, Will Rogers III, mistook the Airbus for an F-14 fighter jet. The Russian SA-11 surface-to-air missile that downed the Malaysian plane killed 298 passengers, including 80 children; the American SM-2 surface-to-air missile that downed the Iranian plane killed 290 passengers, including 66 children. After last week’s incident, Russian officials told various lies to cover up their culpability and blamed the Ukrainian government; after the 1988 incident, American officials told various lies and blamed the Iranian pilot. Not until eight years later did the U.S. government compensate the victims’ families, and even then expressed “deep regret,” not an apology.
As the Boston Globe’s defense correspondent at the time, I reported on the Vincennes shoot-down, and I have gone back over my clips, chronicling the official lies and misstatements as they unraveled. Here’s the truly dismaying part of the story. On Aug. 19, 1988, nearly seven weeks after the event, the Pentagon issued a 53-page report on the incident. Though the text didn’t say so directly, it found that nearly all the initial details about the shoot-down—the “facts” that senior officials cited to put all the blame on Iran Air’s pilot—were wrong. And yet the August report still concluded that the captain and all the other Vincennes officers acted properly.
For example, on July 3, at the first Pentagon press conference on the incident, Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Iranian plane had been flying at 9,000 feet and descending at a “high speed” of 450 knots, “headed directly” for the Vincennes. In fact, however, the Aug. 19 report—written by Rear Adm. William Fogarty of U.S. Central Command—concluded (from computer tapes found inside the ship’s combat information center) that the plane was “ascending through 12,000 feet” at the much slower speed of 380 knots. “At no time” did the Airbus “actually descend in altitude,” the report stated.
When I pointed out this discrepancy at the press conference where the report was handed out, Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci waved me away and said, “It’s really questionable whether a different reading would have affected the judgment” to shoot down the plane. (I still find this astonishing.)
There were other equally disturbing discrepancies between Crowe’s July 3 press conference (which struck me as suspicious even at the time) and Fogarty’s Aug. 19 report. Crowe had said the plane was flying “outside the prescribed commercial air route”; the report said it was flying “within the established air route.” Crowe had said the plane’s transponder was “squawking” a code over the “Mode 2” military channel; the report stated that it was squawking over the “Mode 3” civilian channel. Crowe had said the Vincennes issued several warnings; the report confirmed this, but noted, “Due to heavy pilot workload during take-off and climb-out, and the requirement to communicate with” two air traffic control centers, the pilot “probably was not monitoring” the international air-distress channel.
Adm. George B. Crist, head of U.S. Central Command, issued a “non-punitive letter of censure” to the ship’s anti–air warfare officer, but Secretary of Defense Carlucci withdrew the letter. Not only that, but two years later, Capt. Rogers was issued the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service” as the Vincennes’ commander “from April 1987 to May 1989.”