WASHINGTON -- A North Korean cargo vessel suspected of carrying Scud missiles bound for Iran or Syria eluded a U.S. Navy fleet and docked undetected at an Iranian port, U.S. officials acknowledged yesterday.
Independent naval experts were dumbfounded by the Navy's failure to intercept the ship. One suggested the interception was called off to avoid upsetting U.S. allies in the region.
Pentagon officials denied that. "We were certainly looking for it, right up until the time we found it in Bandar Abbas," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said in an interview.
At a minimum, he said, U.S. ships wanted to challenge the freighter's movements and raise questions about its cargo. That fTC would let North Korea know the United States objected to its arms exports, even though, under international law, the ship would have been allowed to continue, he said.
Apparently, the Pentagon -- after leaking news of the vessel and of U.S. plans to intercept it late last week -- was outwitted when the ship didn't proceed directly to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, midway through the Strait of Hormuz. "It either followed a circuitous route or perhaps it hugged the coastline and wasn't picked out of the heavy coastal traffic in that area," Mr. Williams said.
He said the hunt for the Dae Hung Ho was not the "highest priority" for the 22 Navy ships in the region, whose primary goal is to enforce the U.N.-sanctioned embargo against Iraq. While a U.S. ship located the North Korean vessel in the Indian Ocean last week, it was later lost, he said.
Naval experts were stunned by the Pentagon's failure to track and halt the ship, especially in the narrow strait linking the Gulf of Oman to the Persian Gulf.
"It makes our Navy look like a bunch of monkeys," said Eugene Carroll Jr., a retired rear admiral who now serves as deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group critical of many Pentagon policies.
"There were more than 20 warships, dozens of airplanes and helicopters, satellite intelligence coming from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency," said. "They could have tracked it foot by foot by foot."
Mr. Carroll said he believed orders were given to abandon the hunt to avoid upsetting U.S. allies in the Middle East. "I think it was politically inconvenient to find it," he said.
"It's unbelievable," said Norman Polmar, a naval scholar and author. "With the air, surface and submarine capabilities we have in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, we should have been able to keep track of that ship."
Mr. Carroll, who spent some of his 37 years in the Navy supervising U.S. military operations in and around the Persian Gulf, said the vessel could have been tracked even if it had tried to hide along the coastlines of Iran and Pakistan.
Navy officials, speaking anonymously, denied that any decision was made to let the ship escape. "We know how to do this, and if we had really wanted to capture that ship, we would have," one officer said.