— Domani Spero
Thirty four years ago today, the US Embassy in Tehran was taken over by a mob of Iranian students supporting the Iranian Revolution. 52 embassy employees were held hostage for 1 year, 2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days until their release on January 20, 1981.
Below are some excerpts from ADST’s Oral History project’s interviews with Ambassador Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires at that time, Ambassador John W. Limbert who was assigned as Political Officer at the US Embassy in Tehran from 1979-1981, and Penelope Laingen, the wife of Ambassador Laingen.
“Their real intent was not to get the Shah back, despite the slogans that were so useful to them in that sense to get passions in the streets aroused. Their intent was to use that device to destabilize and undermine the provisional government of the revolution and to facilitate a greater role for the more radical elements.
At any rate, it did not seem that the situation was all that bad at the outset. In retrospect we should have begun destruction earlier. I, obviously as chief of mission, had that responsibility and today bear that responsibility for the way in which not enough of our classified documentation was destroyed. We had too much, we started too late, and we had equipment that was not the best….
Of course, a lot of the paper that did not seem to have that urgency of destruction, including unclassified biographical material, would also in time prove to be a very damaging element of the situation, because lots of that stuff has Central Intelligence Agency logo stamped on it even if it is unclassified. That was enough to fire the fury of the more radical elements of the revolution, even though it was material of an unclassified, descriptive nature. That was sufficient to cause a great deal of pain and hurt to a lot of Iranians.
And that is the real pain that I have felt since. Not that our security was threatened, our strategic interests, or political interests in Iran and the region. They were not seriously affected by what was leaked. It was clear in any event at that point that our relationship with the Iranians was not going to be reestablished very soon. But the human hurt for a lot of people in Iran because of the way we were not able to destroy incriminating documentation, that is the legacy that hurts me very much today.”
“I did probably one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done in my Foreign Service career. I volunteered to go out and talk to these guys. I’m a Persian speaker, so perhaps I can go out and see if we can defuse this someway, or delay it, defuse it, divert it. We did not see these guys being armed or anybody getting hurt. So that’s what I did. I went out, they opened the door, I went out the door and started talking to these guys. And at first they were shocked, because they thought I was an Iranian. I kept reassuring them, “No, no, no, I’m not an Iranian, I’m an American employee of the embassy, you should get out of here.” I took my most professorial tone with them and was as overbearing as I could be and saying, “You are where you should not be. You have no business here. You should get out as soon as you can. You are causing trouble. Who do you think you are?” So forth and so on. And they weren’t having any of it.
I’ll tell you a little story about this. About 1991 or ’92 there was a made-for-TV movie about the hostage taking. It wasn’t a great bit of moviemaking but it was not bad. And part of the movie shows this particular incident, where the actor playing me goes out to talk to these guys and gets taken. I was showing this at one point to an audience, using this as an example and one of the people in the audience, perhaps he didn’t realize this character was supposed to be me and in this stage whisper said, “God, what an idiot!” although he didn’t use the word “idiot.” He used a more anatomical descriptor. True, I must admit he had a point. I’ve always called this the low point of my Foreign Service career and my least successful negotiation.”
Penelope Laingen | Read her 1986 interview here.
“In my whole history of being connected to the Foreign Service, whenever I’d started a project, for instance — I am a writer and I had three chapters written in a novel and my teacher said “You have a real winner here and should get an agent now” — then, Bruce was taken hostage, so I put that away and I’ve not gotten back to it. I will someday, I hope. I had also upholstered a chair and I had everything but the back done when we went to Malta, (so I had to put that away, too). I mean, it’s just been a history of deferring or putting aside something. So when he was taken hostage, I just had to put everything else out of my mind and concentrate on that. I also called all my training in the Foreign Service to bear, even though I felt I had been “dismissed” by the Foreign Service.
So, here we come to the hostage crisis, a terribly public, international crisis, where you are on television. I think most people recognize and say, okay, this is the wife of the Chief of Mission (and how she behaves reflects not only on her husband, but perhaps on the whole Foreign Service or on Americans on the world scene). If I had gone on television and cried nightly, if I’d flown off to Iran and called the President stupid or the Government’s policy stupid, I think I would have heard in two minutes just how private a person I was! (I would have been reprimanded by the very Department of State which had proclaimed me to be a private person with no responsibility to my husband’s career). I mean, I’m being sarcastic and I realized I wasn’t a private person. You can’t be a private person. You are a part of the Foreign Service and particularly when you are on the public stage like that. It’s a public life. How can you be a private person in a public life? See, this is what Sandra Gotlieb found out. You cannot be a private person in a public arena. There’s no way.
So, the hypocrisy of this official policy has just gnawed no end at me. And I got no support from the Department in that role. I got sort of superficial support. Well, not even that, not even that.
One thing that made it difficult was the lack of esprit de corps among the families. I mean, we had never served together, so that was one of the drawbacks. And there were all different services involved. There’s a study done of fourteen hostage wives. Those of us who had served the longest in the Foreign Service expected the most, yet felt we had received the least support. Those foreign-born spouses in the group expected nothing and were deeply grateful for whatever they received in the way of support. They had no great expectations of the Department, which was perhaps a cultural difference. And the military wives felt they received the greatest support, which they did, and in return kept their allegiance to those services in tact. I believe Sheldon Krys and other Department managers did the best they could under the circumstances, but they had much to learn from the Iran crisis in the management of families during a crisis. It was always a source of great disappointment to me, for instance, that not once during the crisis did any of my husband’s colleagues offer to take our youngest son to a basketball game or call to inquire about the house or other personal matters. It was up to us unite ourselves and support one another in that personal way.”
According to the CRS report dated September 2013, “the former hostages and their families did receive a number of benefits under various civil service laws, and each hostage received from the U.S. government a cash payment of $50 for each day held hostage. The hostages have never received any compensation from Iran through court actions, all efforts having failed due to foreign sovereign immunity and an executive agreement known as the Algiers Accords, which bars such lawsuits.” Also see this Brief from USDOJ before SCOTUS dated April 2012. See Roder, et.al v. Iran to catch up on the litigation history.
So 444 days by $50 is exactly $22,200.00.
Currently in Congress, is Senate bill S. 559, the Justice for Former American Hostages in Iran Act of 2013, which would establish a fund to compensate the former hostages. The American Hostages in Iran Compensation Fund would pay to each former hostage or estate of a former hostage $150,000 plus $5,000 per each day of captivity ($2.37 million total per former hostage). Over at the House, the Justice for the American Diplomats Held Hostage in Tehran Act, H.R. 904, was introduced and referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. Each former hostage or estate of a former hostage would receive $10,000 for each day of captivity ($4.44 million each); each spouse or child of a former hostage would receive half that amount.
In both bills, the funds would come from fines and penalties imposed for violations related to Iran. Both cases also include a provision that recipients waive and release all existing claims against Iran and the United States arising out of the hostage crisis.
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