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TV interview 'tipped off' Iran about ship's intelligence role

London Observer | April 9, 2007
Jamie Doward and Andrew Wander

Iranian intelligence officers told the 15 British captives they first became suspicious about their activities after watching an interview with one of them on British television.

Families of the hostages said that their loved ones had told them the Iranians had made the claim soon after capturing them.

The revelation is likely to raise questions about the Ministry of Defence's decision to allow the media to accompany Cornwall, the ship on which the service personnel were based, and report on its activities.

On 13 March - 10 days before the 15 were seized - Channel 5 broadcast an interview with Captain Chris Air, one of the captured Royal Marines, in which he stated that his crew's role was to liaise with Iraqi vessels to 'let them know we are here to protect them, protect their fishing and to stop any terrorism or any piracy in the area'.
The Iranian interrogators told their captives, who were seized while travelling in two dinghies during a patrol, that this had alerted them to Cornwall's role.

However, Channel 5 said it had taken care to edit the footage so as not to jeopardise the frigate's activities or the safety of the hostages once they had been taken by the Iranians. The full footage of the interview with Air was not released to the media until after the hostages had been released.

In the footage that was held back, Air confirmed the ship was engaged in collecting information on the Iranians from passing shipping traffic. 'It's partly a hearts and minds type patrol,' Air 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, because obviously we're right by the buffer zone with Iran.'

The MoD confirmed last night that the Iranians had made the claim that they had become interested in Cornwall's activities after learning about it on British television, but denied the decision to allow the ship's crew to be interviewed while on active duty had jeopardised the mission.

'HMS Cornwall's activities in the north Arabian Gulf are legitimate and open,' a spokeswoman for the MoD said, pointing out that the ship's presence in the area was well known. 'Details of her activities as part of the Combined Task Force 158 are published on both the MoD and Royal Navy websites. Also, as a Type 22 frigate, it would be hard to miss her physical presence.'

The MoD's decision to allow media access to Cornwall had been welcomed by newspapers and broadcasters keen to tell the story of the navy's role in patrolling the seas off Iraq. Also on board the frigate was a BBC film crew and a journalist from the Independent

But as attention now turns to the MoD's role in handling the affair, questions are likely to be asked as to whether lessons will have to be learnt regarding the media's relationship with the armed forces.

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