Ash Carter: ‘Navigational error’ behind U.S. sailors ending up in Iran

Updated 3:35 AM EST, Fri January 15, 2016
10 sailors released Iran apology sciutto dnt lead_00013921.jpg
10 sailors released Iran apology sciutto dnt lead_00013921.jpg
Now playing
01:49
Disputed apology to Iran before release of U.S. sailors
us sailor apologizes iran brooke nr_00003627.jpg
Press TV
us sailor apologizes iran brooke nr_00003627.jpg
Now playing
01:25
Video shows U.S. sailor apologizing to Iran
Iran State TV
Now playing
02:37
Video shows U.S. sailors' capture
kerry speech iran detainees at this hour_00004520.jpg
kerry speech iran detainees at this hour_00004520.jpg
Now playing
01:23
Kerry thanks Iranian authorities for 'quick' response
sailors freed by iran dnt gorani wrn_00001622.jpg
sailors freed by iran dnt gorani wrn_00001622.jpg
Now playing
02:16
Ten U.S. sailors captured by Iran now free
151026-N-CJ186-098
ARABIAN GULF (Oct. 26 2015) Riverine Command Boat (RCB) 802, assigned to Combined Task Group (CTG) 56.7, conducts patrol operations in the Arabian Gulf. RCBs were originally used in shallow-water and tropic environments, now joining operation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, these boats have been repurposed for open-sea patrol.  CTG 56.7 conducts maritime security operations to ensure freedom of movement for strategic shipping and Naval vessels operating in the inshore and coastal areas in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Torrey W. Lee/Released)
U.S. Navy/FILE
151026-N-CJ186-098 ARABIAN GULF (Oct. 26 2015) Riverine Command Boat (RCB) 802, assigned to Combined Task Group (CTG) 56.7, conducts patrol operations in the Arabian Gulf. RCBs were originally used in shallow-water and tropic environments, now joining operation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, these boats have been repurposed for open-sea patrol. CTG 56.7 conducts maritime security operations to ensure freedom of movement for strategic shipping and Naval vessels operating in the inshore and coastal areas in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Torrey W. Lee/Released)
Now playing
01:04
Officials: Iran expected to release U.S. sailors
iran us sailors released es lklv_00000424.jpg
iran us sailors released es lklv_00000424.jpg
Now playing
01:37
Iran frees detained U.S. sailors
nancy pelosi iran us sailors newday_00005029.jpg
nancy pelosi iran us sailors newday_00005029.jpg
Now playing
00:55
Pelosi: Sailors' release proves effective Iran negotiations
american sailors in iran custody live sciutto qmb_00014403.jpg
american sailors in iran custody live sciutto qmb_00014403.jpg
Now playing
01:36
Iran news agency: U.S. sailors being interrogated
obama white house press secretary earnest on american sailors detained iran, sotu_00021803.jpg
obama white house press secretary earnest on american sailors detained iran, sotu_00021803.jpg
Now playing
06:09
White House: Iran says U.S. sailors safe
This picture released by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, shows detained American Navy sailors in an undisclosed location in Iran.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards
This picture released by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, shows detained American Navy sailors in an undisclosed location in Iran.
Now playing
01:42
Officials: 10 American sailors held by Iran
CNN
Now playing
01:53
Iran seizes U.S. Navy boats, detains 10 sailors

Story highlights

The two U.S. Navy boats seized by Iran with 10 sailors on board were within three miles of Iran's Farsi Island when the Iranians took them

The boats had drifted off course, but one was also suffering engine trouble

(CNN) —  

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that a mistake in navigation was the reason U.S. sailors entered Iranian waters earlier this week.

“I think that this much is clear, there was a navigational error of some kind,” he said at a press conference on Thursday. “All the contributing factors to that we don’t know yet, and we’re still talking to those folks, and we’ll find out more … but they were clearly out of the position that they intended to be in.”

The two U.S. Navy boats seized by Iran with 10 sailors on board were within three miles of Iran’s Farsi Island when the Iranians took them, according to a U.S. defense official directly familiar with the latest information about the incident.

The boats had drifted off course, but one was also suffering engine trouble, making it impossible for the Americans to rapidly back off and return to international waters when they were approached by armed Iranian naval boats, the official said.

The U.S. Navy has initial statements from the sailors but is now conducting a full debrief, so additional information may come to light, the official said.

READ: U.S. sailors’ release: Diplomatic coup or cowing to Iran?

While the sailors appear to be fine physically they are “tired and upset” about what happened, according to the official.

One of the boats began to have its engine “run roughly” during the transit from Kuwait to Bahrain, according to the details of what the crew has said. It’s not yet clear at what point they drifted off course, or if they even understood they were off course. It’s not believed the engine trouble was the cause of going off course.

But when they got so close to Farsi Island, and were approached by the Iranians, it is believed the U.S. boats could not rapidly get out of way because of that engine trouble.

Iranian territorial waters extend for three miles around Farsi Island, according to the official. The boats were supposed to stay out of that area. Farsi Island is a naval base for Iran’s naval component of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and is considered extremely sensitive.

Commanders in the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the region became alarmed when the sailors missed a planned check-in call on their radios. At that point, commanders checked the GPS system tied to the boats and realized they were off course and inside Iranian waters.

A search-and-rescue effort was launched – including sending a U.S. Navy vessel inside Iranians waters due to concern the sailors could have been overboard and in the water. The U.S. Navy informed Iranian military vessels in the area they were coming in for a search-and-rescue, the official said. There were “robust bridge-to-bridge communications” during that time, but there was no trouble, the official said.

But it then became known the 10 sailors had been taken ashore and diplomatic efforts to get them out quickly kicked in. The Pentagon is trying to confirm reports that one of the U.S. sailors spoke on bridge-to-bridge radios to the U.S. Navy during the incident.

Both boats were returned to the U.S., and the Navy does not believe the Iranians removed any gear or weapons, the official said.

The U.S. Navy unit was scheduled to return to its home port in San Diego in the next few weeks.

The airing of footage of the incident, which shows the sailors on their knees with their hands up while surrounded by armed Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has generated controversy, with Carter telling reporters Thursday, “Obviously I don’t like to see our people being detained by a foreign military.”

Carter, speaking at U.S. Central Command headquarters, said he would defer judgment until the sailors could be debriefed fully, saying, “I want to give them the chance to tell us what they saw.”

The White House told reporters Thursday that President Barack Obama had seen the images of the detained sailors.

With the administration on the defensive over the video, State Department spokesman John Kirby told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” that the images were “hard to look at” but urged critics to concentrate on the fact that the sailors were returned quickly.

“What we are most happy about here in the State Department is that we were able to get them home in less than 24 hours, (with) 10 fingers, 10 toes, nobody hurt. They are all safe and we got our boats back, and I think that is the most important thing.”