People's Weekly Brief: Criticism Abounds After British Hostage Situation

Loyal followers of the People's Weekly Brief will recall that last week we examined the case of the Iranian pirates taking 15 U.K. sailors and marines hostage and the ensuing brouhaha (the definition of “brouhaha” is somewhat unclear but is generally accepted to mean “kerfuffle,” and occasionally it can be substituted with the term “goat rope”).

Just before the troops' fortunate release and return to the United Kingdom, I was asked to do an interview regarding the situation. In a talking point provided to the show prior to the interview, I mentioned that “Upon their return to the U.K., it will take about five minutes before the local British media and others start criticizing the returning sailors and marines for how they responded. …”

Well, I was wrong with that prediction. It actually took less than five minutes for the negative comments to start piling up.

First came the criticism that the sailors and marines should have put up a fight when the Iranian actions on the high seas turned aggressive and muskets were drawn. Frankly, I’m not surprised that they didn’t engage the Iranians.

As mentioned in the last PWB, the HMS Cornwall, the home ship for these British personnel, was positioned some 10 miles away from the scene. There was no top cover, as the helicopter that had been monitoring the team had returned to the Cornwall, apparently to refuel. The sailors and marines were lightly armed compared to the Iranian gunboats that jumped them.

Finally, while the marines are no doubt capable and ready to step into a firefight, they had to take into consideration the capabilities, training and situational awareness of the U.K. sailors. I do not think it unfair to say that the sailors, in general, were not up for it.

Criticism then started mounting regarding the hostages' behavior and comportment while in captivity. The Iranians displayed fine public relations skills, as well as a keen understanding of how to take advantage of hostages, by compiling piles of video showing the hostages smiling, chatting away, eating, playing ping pong, drinking tea, joking and eventually accepting gift bags prior to getting on the flight for home.

Generally, when hostages are taken, we anticipate scenes of hardship and isolation, not buffets and table tennis. As Americans, our reference point tends to be along the lines of Sen. John McCain’s story of suffering and anguish at the hands of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War or, more pointedly in this particular case, the 444-day hostage situation in Tehran during the Carter years.

Again, in terms of this criticism, I think you need to be fair to those involved. The Iranians clearly stage-managed many events for the cameras. They were fully aware that they would need propaganda to counter any accusations of mistreatment once they released the hostages.

While under the care and feeding of President “One lump or two?” Ahmadinejad, the hostages ate the food they were given, took opportunities they had to talk with each other and cheer each other up and complied with their “hosts'” instructions to apologize for their alleged trespassing into Iranian waters and to thank their “hosts” for the civil treatment.

Unfortunately, they may have been a bit too robust in their actions, resulting in propaganda opportunities for their captors.

As soon as they had returned to U.K. soil, the hostages stated that they had been subjected to psychological torture, held in isolation and generally mistreated. They did what they did while in captivity because they feared what the Iranians would do if they failed to comply.

And then, on cue, the Iranians released more video of the hostages in an effort to show how well the sailors and marines had been treated. And this is where some of the critical comments regarding their behavior may be relevant. There doesn’t appear to have been a leadership structure within the hostage group working to maintain a proper response to the captors' actions.

Now typically, in escape and evasion training, you aren’t told how to react when your captors throw you in a game room with nothing but a ping pong table and cold cuts. The sailors and marines decided the proper course of action was to have a round robin tournament and a snack.

The officer in charge perhaps could have advised the team to eat what they’re given, maintain a somber disposition and avoid parlor games when possible. The idea theoretically is to avoid giving your captors any opportunities to use you for propaganda purposes.

You could argue that the group could have maintained a bare minimum level of cooperation with the captors, which wouldn’t have involved the apparent joviality seen in the newly released footage.

So, let’s review our criticism checklist:

Item 1: The HMS Cornwall’s policies and procedures for protecting its ship-boarding teams during routine anti-smuggling operations: Criticism is fair, since they appear to have left the 15 sailors and marines without a sufficient level of coverage while operating close to Ahmadinejad’s territorial waters.

Item 2: The sailors and marines' decision not to engage the Iranian gun boats when they were jumped: Criticism isn’t fair. I base this in part on what I perceive as a lack of combat training and readiness for the group of sailors.

Item 3: The behavior of the hostages while in captivity: Criticism seems relevant. Where was the overall leadership for the group? What was their level of training for such a situation? Who won the table tennis?

It used to be that in a similar situation we’d all shrug our shoulders and assume that the sailors/marines would be debriefed, the military would carry out a review and those who need to know will eventually know what they need to know. But times are different, our expectations are different, and every event, even a hostage-taking, becomes an opportunity for instant cash and prizes.

Only a handful of days after the troops' release and return to U.K. soil, it appears that some of the sailors and marines (these are active duty personnel, mind you) are considering deals with various publishers and media outlets to sell their stories. I’m not making this up.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence (often spelled “Defense” when typing on non-British typewriters) has decided that it is powerless to prevent its personnel from cashing in on the event.

The decision reportedly was made by the Royal Navy after consulting with the MoD. From what I can gather, they decided that short of ordering them not to sell their stories there was little that they, as the senior commanding officers, could do. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

“Mornin’, admiral… how’s your bits and bobs?”

“Good God, Defence minister, haven’t you seen the papers? Seaman Turney wants to sell her story to the tabloids.”

“Quite… well, not much to be done there. Bit tricky if you ask me… I mean, I suppose we could order her not to, but really, that seems a bit over the top.”

“Right you are. Tea?”

Leading Seaman Faye Turney, featured in some of the Iranian home movies, reportedly has reached a deal worth approximately $200,000 with a tabloid newspaper and possibly a local television station. Others in the group have said that they might give their earnings to charity. Still others have indicated they aren’t interested in talking.

I understand the Iranian captors are talking to Middle Eastern tabloids in an attempt to structure a lucrative book and film deal in order to get their own story out. As always, there are disputes over who will get a producing credit.

And finally, after the release of the hostages there was a general hue and cry from some who pointed to the release and said, “See? Diplomacy works. If you talk to Ahmadinejad and negotiate in good faith and act nice and don’t be aggressive and whisper sweet nothings and maybe buy him some candy and sit on his lap, good things will happen.”

The idea generally was that the hostages were released because the U.K. government took the time to use diplomacy. But the subsequent inference from those who were watching through rose-colored glasses was that the Iranian leadership could be reasoned with on the far more important nuclear issue and that they just need a hug on occasion.

Perhaps. But more to the point is the announcement by Ahmadinejad regarding operations at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran: “With great honor,” Ahmadinejad said, “I declare that as of today [Monday], our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale.”

Great. Who feels like hugging him now?

Let me know your thoughts. Send your comments to Stay safe.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.