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Navy investigation into how U.S. sailors were detained by Iran reaches top admirals

A handout picture released on Jan. 13, 2016, by the news website and public relations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Sepah News, shows U.S. sailors detained after their patrol boats entered Iranian waters.  (Handout/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The findings of the Navy’s investigation into how 10 U.S. sailors were detained by Iranian forces after drifting into the country’s territorial waters have been forwarded to the service’s top officers, moving the U.S. military closer to disclosing more details about the case.

The incident has been under investigation since the sailors were taken captive off Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf on Jan. 12 after their two riverine command boats were surrounded at gunpoint by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard navy. The sailors were released the following morning after Iran took a series of photographs and videos, whose subsequent release angered Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and prompted allegations by the Navy that the sailors had been exploited for Iranian propaganda purposes.

The investigation was launched by the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates in the Middle East and has headquarters in Bahrain. Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said that Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, the senior admiral in the Middle East, has reviewed the findings and forwarded them to the office of Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations. Stephens declined additional comment, saying Navy officials will not speak about the case until the investigation is finalized.

Pentagon releases new details on how U.S. sailors were taken captive by Iran

A spokesman for Richardson’s office, Cmdr. Chris Servello, said the findings will next be reviewed by Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of Fleet Forces Command, and Adm. Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, before the investigation is reviewed more closely by Richardson and the service’s No. 2 officer, Adm. Michelle J. Howard. It’s likely the results could be shared with Congress by sometime in May, Servello said.

Richardson told The Washington Post last month, after returning from a trip to the Middle East, that the investigation was in the review process and that he had seen the two boats involved while in Bahrain. The Pentagon has said that the only equipment apparently taken from them were two digital SIM cards from satellite phones.

“We’ve got to let the review process for the investigation play out,” Richardson said last month. “You know, it’s complicated. I think it was hundreds of interviews involved, and literally it got around the world, from San Diego to Bahrain and a lot of places in between. It’s a big effort, and it’s going to take some thoughtful review, and there will probably be some follow-up questions before we are ready to talk about it.”

It isn’t clear whether the sailors involved could face any kind of criminal charges or administrative discipline. They were using a well-traveled route in international waters from Kuwait to Bahrain when they ended up off-course. Defense officials have said it is believed they “mis-navigated” into Iranian territorial waters, and one of the boats experienced a mechanical problem as Iranian forces closed in.

The sailors departed from Kuwait the day of the incident at 9:23 a.m. and were taken captive some time between 2:10 and 2:45 p.m. U.S. Naval Central Command (NAVCENT) launched an extensive search and rescue operation that included aircraft from the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and the Air Force, and vessels from the Navy, Coast Guard and British navy.

Iran just made another claim about the Navy sailors it detained. Add it to the list.

Two Iranian craft carrying armed troops approached the Navy boats, followed by two more. No gunfire was exchanged, but some Iranians boarded the U.S. craft while others wielded machine guns, U.S. defense officials have said. The Iranians released the sailors and the boats the following morning, after Secretary of State John F. Kerry intervened on their behalf, U.S. officials said.

Iranian television broadcasts video of one of the ten U.S. sailors, held overnight by Iran after entering Iranian waters by mistake, apologizing for the incident. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)

The incident came at a sensitive time, just days before a landmark nuclear deal reached between the Obama administration and Tehran took effect. In subsequent days, Iran released videos showing one U.S. sailor apologizing for the mistake, another of an unarmed Iranian drone flying over the USS Truman and a third of a sailor crying in captivity. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, bestowed valor awards on commanders who were involved in the detention.

Related on Checkpoint:
Iranian weapons keep getting smuggled at sea. Why the Navy can’t stop it.

Iran’s Ayatollah pins ‘medal of conquest’ on commanders who detained U.S. sailors

How intense diplomacy between Kerry and Iranian counterpart helped lead to the release of U.S. sailors

These are the U.S. Navy riverine command boats that Iran just took into custody