Published: October 22, 2010
This article is one of several being published by The New York Times, based on a trove of secret field reports from the battlegrounds of Iraq. The archive is the second such cache obtained by the independent group WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations.
Iran has accused three American hikers of illegally crossing into Iranian territory in July 2009 and is still holding two of them in prison. But a classified American military report made public by WikiLeaks, which describes the chaotic day when the hikers were detained, asserts that the hikers were on the Iraqi side of the border when they were seized.
The initial reports of any incident are not always correct. But one American government official who served in Iraq said that the field report was generally consistent with what he had been told by Iraqi officials — namely, that the hikers were close to the border but on the Iraqi side.
The episode began when four Americans traveled from Syria to northern Iraq, planning to hike up the Ahmed Awa, a mountainous area with a dramatic waterfall. One American, Shon Meckfessel, became ill and stayed behind when his friends — Shane M. Bauer, Joshua F. Fattal and Sarah E. Shourd — set out on July 31.
A July 31 field report states that Mr. Meckfessel learned of the arrests when a “female called him saying they were being surrounded by armed men.”
At first, the American military did not know who was holding the Americans. An intelligence officer at the American Army division based in northern Iraq, the report notes, initially described the event as a “kidnapping” and said the three American tourists “were being taken to the Iranian border.”
The report lists a number of military grids where the Americans were believed to have been hiking or had been detained — all on the Iraqi side of the border.
As documented in the report, the frenetic effort to locate the American hikers and to interview Mr. Meckfessel appeared to support the claim that they were tourists and not American intelligence operatives, as Iran has alleged. A drone aircraft was sent to look for the missing Americans, and two F-16s jet fighters were alerted. American Special Operations forces were sent to pick up Mr. Meckfessel, so he could be taken to Baghdad for questioning.
As the day wore on, the Americans received a report from an officer with the pesh merga, the Kurdish military force in northern Iraq, that the Iranians had detained three American citizens “for being too close to the border.” The July report reflects some frustration with the hikers for their “lack of coordination” in venturing to northern Iraq and offers some thoughts on the episode’s broader implications.
“The leadership in Iran benefits as it focuses the Iranian population on a perceived external threat rather than internal dissension,” it notes.Read the Document »