Captured British Marines ‘Gathered Intelligence’ on Iran

Sky News reports that the British marines taken hostage by Iran two weeks ago were “gathering intelligence” on Iranian activities.

The captain in charge of the 15 marines detained in Iran has said they were gathering intelligence on the Iranians. Sky News went on patrol with Captain Chris Air and his team in Iraqi waters close to the area where they were arrested – just five days before the crisis began. We withheld the interview until now so it would not jeopardise their safety. And today, former Iranian diplomat Dr Mehrdad Khonsari said if the Iranians had known about it, they would have used it to “justify taking the marines captive and put them on trial”.

Captain Air and his team were on an ‘Interaction Patrol’ where their patrol boats came alongside fishing dhows. The operation was mainly to investigate arms smuggling and terrorism but Captain Air said it was also to gain intelligence on Iranian activity.

He told Sky Correspondent Jonathan Samuels: “Basically we speak to the crew, find out if they have any problems, let them know we’re here to protect them, protect their fishing and stop any terrorism and piracy in the area,” he said. “Secondly, it’s to gather int (intelligence). If they do have any information, because they’re here for days at a time, they can share it with us. “Whether it’s about piracy or any sort of Iranian activity in the area. Obviously we’re right by the buffer zone with Iran.”

The UK Defence Secretary Des Browne told Sky News it was important to gather intelligence to “keep our people safe”. He said: “Modern military operations all have an element of gathering intelligence. “We need to understand as much as we can about the environment we operate in and intelligence gathering is an every day part of that.” He added: “The UN mandate would clearly empower the military taskforce to gather information about the environment in which they were working.”

Browne is right, of course: Gathering intel is part and parcel of most military ops. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with a coastal patrol mission during a shooting war, let alone one where a rogue state is smuggling weapons to your enemy.

What’s problematic here is the loose way in which language about intelligence operations is used. The admission by Captain Air [Is that he real name? -ed.] will be used by the Iranians to bolster their allegation that the marines were “spying” on Iran and many people will accept that given the admission. Uniformed military personnel operating in marked vessels in waters they have every right to be in using the naked eye to observe a hostile power are not, however, in any meaningful sense, “spies.”

FILED UNDER: General, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Archives December 2006 August 2006 June 2006 May 2006 April 2006 March 2006 February 2006 [IMG Outside The Beltway | OTB] Why Lefty Bloggers Are Owed a Living Captured British Marines ‘Gathered Intelligence’ on Iran Impeach Bush Chorus Growing Among Democratic Base Caption Contest Winners Beltway Traffic Jam Branding The Candidates McCain Losing with Honor? Is Fred Thompson the Answer? Britons Return Home Pelosi

  2. Jim Henley says:

    Uniformed military personnel operating in marked vessels in waters they have every right to be in using the naked eye to observe a hostile power are not, however, in any meaningful sense, “spies.”

    Absolutely!

    Unless they were in fact in Iranian waters, though the border is under such dispute that I doubt you can really say some patches are “Iraq” or “Iran” with neutral certainty. Or if someone aboard ship – say, a military intelligence officer or MI6 guy in an ensign costume – was using all those meetings with fishing boats to run agents into Iran.

  3. shipmate says:

    What’s problematic here is the loose way in which language about intelligence operations is used.

    Absolutely. As I was taught by the Navy during the Cold War, “Loose lips sink ships”.

  4. Anderson says:

    One would think that the good captain could keep his mouth shut a few days, at least.

  5. James Joyner says:

    One would think that the good captain could keep his mouth shut a few days, at least.

    That was my initial reaction as well but, re-reading the piece, it’s clear that the conversation occurred a few days before the capture and the report was embargoed until their safe return.

  6. Anderson says:

    Okay, but not a conversation he should’ve been having, period.

  7. Michael says:

    Okay, but not a conversation he should’ve been having, period.

    Why not? As James pointed out, they weren’t covert, they were doing what soldiers do while in a war zone. The interview sounded like he was describing his daily routine, nothing secretive. Iran surely knew they were being watched without him having to tell them.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Jim: Right you are. There’s no evidence of which I’m aware, though, that the Brits were in Iranian waters and at least some evidence (albeit supplied by the Brits) that they weren’t. Logically, too, one presumes the Brits would have at least been a bit more surreptitious were they in Iranian waters or in any doubt. Say, operating at night or something.

    (I wrote that a couple minutes after Jim’s comment. The combination of the Preview feature and a wonky internet connection made it not go through.)

  9. Boyd says:

    I think you’re pulling the wool over our eyes, James. You really wanted that 13:37 timestamp so you could be “leet.”

    Yeah, that’s the ticket.