Conspiracy of Errors

Christian Lorentzen

An old friend of mine told me that watching the first plane hit the World Trade Center from a commuter bus in Queens he assumed pilot error was to blame. (If only.) Like many editors, my friend saw the world as a conspiracy of errors and believed, despite my attempts to convince him otherwise, that emailing manuscripts resulted in digital corruption – the sort of thing where ‘too’ replaces ‘two’ or ‘to’.

But mistakes do happen, sometimes with dire consequences, especially if they involve planes and missiles. The seventh deadliest aviation disaster in history – the tenth if you’re counting 9/11 – is the downing of Iranian Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988.

According to the official US version of the story, the Vincennes, a Ticonderoga class Aegis missile cruiser, was protecting the frigate USS Elmer Montgomery in the Strait of Hormuz as it engaged with several Iranian gunboats that had been hounding a Pakistani merchant vessel. The fight was going on when the Iranian Airbus took off from the joint military/civilian airfield at Bandar Abbas on a daily trip to Dubai. The official report emphasises that ‘special occasions, such as Moslem or American holidays inevitably precipitated intelligence reports that the Iranians were preparing a particular operation directed at Americans.’ (Happy Fourth of July, in other words.) There was other intelligence that Iranian F-14 Tomcats and other aircraft were being tricked out for suicide assaults. ‘It is hard to overemphasise the fact that Bandar Abbas is also a military airfield,’ the report says. ‘The Airbus was probably not informed of the surface action taking place in the strait. Informed or not, Flight 655 logically appeared to have a direct relationship to the ongoing surface engagement.’ In addition to logic, Captain Will Rogers III of the Vincennes was told the climbing Airbus – which was carrying 290 passengers, among them 66 children – was a diving F-14 Tomcat (even though it was identifying itself on civilian frequencies, as recorded by the Vincennes’ own combat system) and ordered it shot down with a salvo of missiles. So a mistake. In another version, that of Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of the USS Signs, then under Rogers’s tactical control, it was the ‘horrifying climax to Captain Rogers’s aggressiveness’. In the Iranian government’s version, it was a deliberate crime.

The US at first denied responsibility for Flight 655’s destruction, and no president, from Reagan on, has ever apologised. In 1996 the US paid £77 million to the victims’ families, though without accepting legal responsibility. As has been mentioned in the international press, though hardly at all in the UK, the incident has had a lot of echoes in the suspected shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Then of course there were the downings of Korean Air Flight 007 by the Soviets in 1983 and Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 in 2001. Everybody makes mistakes.

Anyone looking for a treatment of the Flight 655 disaster in fiction – is anyone? – should dig up Adam Haslett’s novel Union Atlantic, where it serves as the prelude to one Vincennes crewman’s dastardly career in the finance industry. As for Will Rogers III, he was at the centre of another attack, this one still unsolved. Nine months after Flight 655 was shot down, a pipe bomb exploded in the Toyota minivan Rogers’s wife, Sharon, was driving in San Diego. Sharon Rogers survived. Terrorist plot, disgruntled naval colleague, or deranged individual? The FBI never solved the case. The Iranians said the FBI did it.


  • 22 July 2014 at 9:42pm
    ikmacbeth says:
    I think it's also worth mentioning that when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie some six months later, Western intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that it was a revenge attack carried out by the Syrian-backed PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) acting as a proxy for the Iranian government. Indeed this line of inquiry (the 'Autumn Leaves' investigation) was pursued vigorously and a substantial body of evidence painstakingly built up - only to be unceremoniously scrapped when the first Iraq war required that Syria be (temporarily) brought in from the cold and suddenly Gaddafi's Libya became the prime suspect.

    Wheels within wheels within wheels...

    • 26 July 2014 at 1:13am
      hass says: @ ikmacbeth
      So it isn't enough to blow up iranians in midair and not accept responsibility now the memory of the victims has to be tainted by trying to link their deaths to another terrorism incident without any proof. Nice.

    • 29 July 2014 at 4:25pm
      ikmacbeth says: @ hass
      This comment makes no sense, hass. Does one taint the memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks by stating the obvious point that their deaths were used to justify the 'War on Terror' and all its attendant crimes and horrors? The logic of your argument seems to imply that the victims of terrorism are culpable, post mortem, for any actions taken by their government to avenge them, which is not only absurd but actually taints the memory of the dead.

      I, on the other hand, was merely making a statement of fact regarding the early years of the Lockerbie investigation intended to illustrate that the ramifications of this terrible crime potentially extend far beyond what is described in the original post.

  • 24 July 2014 at 2:53pm
    telzey says:
    Lorentzen is being rather selective and disingenuous in his account of the settlement of this affair. The US accepted the authority of the ICC to settle the matter with Iran, which is rather novel for the US. In the agreement reached with Iran at the ICC, the US did in fact accept reponsibility and expressed regret for its actions. So it's simply not true that the US never apologized. Whether Reagan did personally or not is not really material. Here's a link to the settlement agreement. Read the second paragraph.

    • 26 July 2014 at 1:11am
      hass says: @ telzey
      No, in fact the US has never accepted responsibility -- the payments made to Iran were on an "ex gratia" basis.

      What the author is missing is the main point of the story which emerged in 1992: the Vincennes was inside Iranian waters when it shot down the airliner, a fact that was covered-up until Adm Crowe had to admit it to Ted Koppel in Nightline

    • 28 July 2014 at 1:11pm
      telzey says: @ hass
      But you're obviously wrong, Hass. Read the second paragraph of the ICC decision.

  • 26 July 2014 at 1:15am
    hass says:
    Christian, you're missing the most important issue in the Iran Air 655 incident: why was the Vincennes miles inside Iranian waters when it shot down the airliner, and why did the US claim for years that the Vincennes had been 'defending itself in international waters' when in fact the Vincennes had started the shooting after it entered Iranian waters to chase after some patrol vessels that had not threatened it, according to even fellow US Navy officers such as Carlson. Self defense? No. Internatonal waters? No.

  • 28 July 2014 at 8:33am
    RO says:
    Coming at this from a different context of error, the failure of American naval personnel to truly understand the complex systems onboard the Vincennes was also a decisive factor in the disaster. Whether this complexity was a deliberate part of the conspiracy is arguable...

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