Two alternative storylines have emerged in recent weeks around who really blew up the Nord Stream pipeline, the Hersh story and the sailboat story. Now that the latter has been thoroughly dissected in the media, it is time to re-focus on the details of the Hersh story. One of its puzzle pieces, the point in time when the sabotage operation was allegedly executed, leads to a previously unreported presence of a US Navy ship, the USNS Patuxent, near the two crime scenes. But what does it mean?
by Sebastian Okada
Neither the general public, nor we, know whether Seymour Hersh’s original report is the true story of what happened or not. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that it is and follow it a bit further. Hersh wrote, according to his source:
Last June, the Navy divers, operating under the cover of a widely publicized mid-summer NATO exercise known as BALTOPS 22, planted the remotely triggered explosives […] The Americans provided one vital element: they convinced the Sixth Fleet planners to add a research and development exercise to the program. [highlighted sections: my emphasis]
So the time was allegedly the month of June. More specifically, the time of the „added“ mine-hunting exercise.
The locations where the pipes were blown up are also known, of course.
When time and place converge like this, investigators finally have something to focus on. An obvious question that no one in the media has bothered to write about since Hersh’s report on 8 February is this:
Were US (or Norwegian) navy ships present at the later explosion sites in June? If so, what ships?
Let us narrow down the point in time some more. The US Navy’s own press release stated that from 5 June on, they conducted „experimentation“ and „research and testing“ in the area of mine-hunting off the coast of Bornholm. Purportedly, this is the „added exercise“ mentioned by Hersh – if his source is to be believed. The press release is dated 12 June, so that puts the alleged time of the bombs‘ placement sometime between 5 and 12 June.
There is only one US military vessel visible in public tracking data on the east side of Bornholm in that particular timeframe. (And zero Norwegian warships, by the way.) Military vessels can, of course, turn their tracking transponders on and off. So the other warships, if any were present, must have switched their signals off when they conducted their special exercise.
Except for the USNS Patuxent. The ship is a so-called replenishment vessel, sometimes also called an „oiler“ – essentially a floating gas station for other US warships. Its presence in the relevant timeframe may thus indicate that other US warships were in the same waters. Because why else would an oiler be there if not to refill other warships.
As for the act of refuelling itself, there are descriptions available online, for instance on Wikipedia.
„Underway replenishment“ is a technique that has been used since World War II. The ships usually drive parallel to one another in long, straight tracks while refuelling. This parallel-run technique is still used today, according to a former member of the navy consulted for this piece.
A US Navy replenishment ship was operating close to the later explosion sites in the relevant timeframe between 8 and 10 June when the US Navy held its „added exercise“.
Presumably, the ship’s presence means that other US warships were nearby. These ships likely had their tracking devices off, which would not be unusual during a military exercise, particularly in times of war.
To be clear: Taken by iteself, this does not prove that Hersh’s story is true.
But at the very least it confirms the US Navy’s presence near the later explosion sites in the very timeframe, 5-12 June, that Hersh’s source specified. Readers will have to make up their own minds whether this bolsters the anonymous source’s credibility, or is irrelevant.
If one day the Hersh story turns out to be true – and that is a big If – the USNS Patuxent may end up being the one light the planners forgot to turn off before executing their operation.
Another piece of the puzzle. Hopefully, to be continued.
(Full disclosure: The author is by no means a naval investigator, but instead an investigator of white-collar crime. For context, former members of the navy were consulted for this piece.)
Sebastian Okada, heads the intelligence and investigation department at Corporate Trust Business Risk & Crisis Management GmbH in Munich, Germany. He has been an investigator for 19 years.
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