Seymour Hersh writing in The New Yorker:
A Gallup poll taken last November, before the NIE was made public, found that 73 per cent of those surveyed thought that the United States should use economic action and diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, while only 18 per cent favored direct military action. Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to endorse a military strike. Weariness with the war in Iraq has undoubtedly affected the public’s tolerance for an attack on Iran. This mood could change quickly, however. The potential for escalation became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports of the incident made public by the Pentagon press office said that the Iranians had transmitted threats, over ship-to-ship radio, to “explode” the American ships. At a White House news conference, the president, on the day he left for an eight-day trip to the Middle East, called the incident “provocative” and “dangerous,” and there was, very briefly, a sense of crisis and of outrage at Iran. “TWO MINUTES FROM WAR” was the headline in one British newspaper.
The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of US naval forces in the region. No warning shots were fired, the Admiral told the Pentagon press corps on January 7, via teleconference from his headquarters, in Bahrain. “Yes, it’s more serious than we have seen, but, to put it in context, we do interact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their Navy regularly,” Cosgriff said. “I didn’t get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats.”
Admiral Cosgriff’s caution was well founded: Within a week, the Pentagon acknowledged that it could not positively identify the Iranian boats as the source of the ominous radio transmission, and press reports suggested that it had instead come from a prankster long known for sending fake messages in the region. Nonetheless, Cosgriff’s demeanor angered Cheney, according to the former senior intelligence official. But a lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the US didn’t do more. The former official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.