In Persian Gulf Incident, Some Suspect Hecklers

The USS Hopper was one of the three warships approached last week by Iranian patrol boats. Navy officials have been frustrated by speculation linking the incident to persistent hecklers.
The USS Hopper was one of the three warships approached last week by Iranian patrol boats. Navy officials have been frustrated by speculation linking the incident to persistent hecklers. (By Daniel A. Barker -- U.s. Navy Via Bloomberg News)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Navy has a monkey on its back.

Since at least 1982, U.S. Navy ships plying the Persian Gulf have been taunted by mysterious radio transmissions that are alternately obscene, nonsensical, racist, infantile, misogynistic and menacing. Sometimes they threatened U.S. ships; at other times they simply babbled away, all night, in falsettos.

Few were taken seriously, until five Iranian patrol boats sped around three U.S. warships last week. Now there are questions about whether the unidentified radio transmissions could be linked to the verbal threat, made at the height of the Jan. 6 encounter, to blow up an unspecified target "in minutes."

U.S. officials initially thought the message was from Iran and aimed at the American vessels, but have since said they cannot prove its origin or target. The confrontation became an international episode. President Bush threatened Tehran with "serious consequences" for any future provocation.

"I don't think it was the Iranians. It was not related. It was someone spoofing. It was someone getting on your circuit and trying to interfere with military operations," said Rick Hoffman, retired captain of the USS Hue City, an Aegis guided-missile cruiser , who listened to the harangues during tours in the Gulf between 1982 and 2002.

In the early 1980s, the source of the tirades became known as the Filipino Monkey because he slurred Filipinos with the term, according to Navy officials who have heard the broadcasts. Since then, the transmissions -- all on Channel 16, the open frequency for maritime traffic -- have spawned a legion of copycats who are collectively known as the Filipino Monkey, because no one has discovered the identity or origin of any of them. All the transmissions come from somewhere around the Gulf.

"It could easily be a lot of people, even a network of people, and I suspect it is," said G.I. Wilson, a retired Marine colonel who served in the Gulf and compared the tirades to "Tokyo Rose chitchat."

During his later deployments, Hoffman said, the radio interruptions escalated. "It wasn't the same person night after night. They feed on each other. It's like people with a can of spray paint. It's radio graffiti," said Hoffman. "It could be anyone near a radio that feels like being a knucklehead."

The possibility that the Filipino Monkey was linked to last week's verbal threat, first reported by the Navy Times on Friday, has caused frustration in the Navy's 5th Fleet in the Gulf. A Google search produced more than 20,000 sites yesterday that picked up reprints and blogs about the story around the world, including in Iran.

Navy officials said speculation about the radio threat has diverted attention from the provocative action by Iran's speedboats, which was the primary issue. "While we don't know where the transmission came from, we do believe it is related to the aggregate of actions. It could be a coincidence, but it would be a pretty significant coincidence in the midst of the five boats speeding rapidly," said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet.

Over the weekend, Cmdr. Jeffery James of the USS Hopper acknowledged that the transmission, which came about seven minutes after the Iranian speedboats approached, may have been a coincidence. But he insisted the danger was real.

"Whether it was coincidental or not, it occurred at exactly the same time that these boats were around us, and they were placing objects in the water -- so the threat appeared to be building," he said at a news conference Sunday.

But military communications experts say radio interruptions are easy to accomplish and the Jan. 6 threat could have come from anywhere. "It's very, very simple. The radio is omnidirectional. He could have been in any direction from the ship, from east, north, west or south," said Joel Harding, a former army intelligence officer and electronic-warfare expert who served in the Gulf and has heard the Filipino Monkey.

Hoffman said that many of the later radio taunts coincided with times that American ships were talking either to each other or to Iranian vessels in the Gulf. "You'd get heckling. Anyone within 30 miles and sometimes further, they heard the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the U.S. talking and they are getting on the line and ranting and raving," he said. "It was generic to all of the Gulf."

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