[What follows is excerpted from a report published on this date in 1988 in the The Washington Post. It provides evidence of the official disinformation that was being disseminated by the United States Government in the immediate aftermath of the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes:]
A US warship fighting gunboats in the Persian Gulf yesterday mistook an Iranian civilian jetliner for an attacking Iranian F14 fighter plane and blew it out of the hazy sky with a heat-seeking missile, the Pentagon announced. Iran said 290 persons were aboard the European-made A300 Airbus and that all had perished.
"The US government deeply regrets this incident," Adm William J Crowe Jr, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference.
The disaster occurred at mid-morning over the Strait of Hormuz, when the airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, on what Iran described as a routine 140-mile flight from its coastal city of Bandar Abbas southwest to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, apparently strayed too close to two US Navy warships that were engaged in a battle with Iranian gunboats.
The USS Vincennes, a cruiser equipped with the most sophisticated radar and electronic battle gear in the Navy's surface arsenal, tracked the oncoming plane electronically, warned it to keep away, and when it did not fired two Standard surface-to-air missiles.
Navy officials said the Vincennes' combat teams believed the airliner to be an Iranian F14 jet fighter. No visual contact was made with the aircraft until it was struck and blew up about six miles from the Vincennes; the plane's wreckage fell in Iranian territorial waters, Navy officials said. (...)
Iran accused the United States of a "barbaric massacre" and vowed to "avenge the blood of our martyrs."
President Reagan in a statement said he was "saddened to report" that the Vincennes "in a proper defensive action" had shot down the jetliner. "This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew, and their families . . . . We deeply regret any loss of life."
Reagan, who was spending the Fourth of July holiday at Camp David, said the Iranian aircraft "was headed directly for the Vincennes" and had "failed to heed repeated warnings." The cruiser, he said, fired "to protect itself against possible attack."
News of the downing of the plane began with sharply conflicting accounts from Iran and from the Defense Department of what had transpired in the Persian Gulf. Early yesterday, Tehran broadcast accusations that the United States had downed an unarmed airliner.
The Pentagon at first denied the Iranian claims, declaring that information from the fleet indicated that the Vincennes, equipped with the Aegis electronic battle management system, had shot down an attacking Iranian F14 jet fighter. But after sifting through more detailed reports and electronic intelligence, Reagan directed the Pentagon to confirm there had been a tragic case of mistaken identity in the war-torn gulf.
Crowe, in his hastily called news conference at the Pentagon, also backed up the skipper of the Vincennes and faulted the Iranian airline pilot.
Crowe said the Airbus had flown four miles west of the usual commercial airline route from Bandar Abbas to Dubai and that the pilot ignored repeated radioed warnings from the Vincennes to change course.
Why and how the Vincennes mistook the bulky, wide-bodied Airbus A300 for a sleek, supersonic F14 fighter plane barely a third the transport's size will be the subject of "a full investigation," Reagan promised. A military team under the command of Rear Adm William N Fogarty of the US Central Command will leave this week to begin that investigation, Defense Department officials said.