/ Language: English / Genre:nonfiction,

Guests of the Ayatollah

Mark Bowden

On November 4, 1979, a group of radical Islamist students, inspired by the revolutionary Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They took fifty-two Americans hostage, and kept nearly all of them hostage for 444 days. The Iran hostage crisis was a watershed moment in American history. It was America’s first showdown with Islamic fundamentalism, a confrontation at the forefront of American policy to this day. It was also a powerful dramatic story that captivated the American people. Communities across the country launched yellow ribbon campaigns. ABC began a new late-night television news program—which would become Nightline—recapping the latest events in the crisis, and counting up the days of captivity. The hostages’ families became celebrities, and the never-ending criticism of the government’s response crippled Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign. In the end, the crisis changed the way Americans see themselves, their country, and the rest of the world. In Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden, “a master of narrative journalism” (The New York Times Book Review), tells this sweeping story through the eyes of the hostages, the soldiers in a new special forces unit sent on the impossible mission to free them, their radical, naive captors, and the diplomats working to end the crisis. Bowden takes us inside the hostages’ cells, detailing their daily lives, and inside the Oval Office for meetings with President Carter and his exhausted team. We travel to international capitals where shadowy figures held clandestine negotiations, and to the deserts of Iran, where a courageous, desperate attempt to rescue the hostages exploded into tragic failure. This is Mark Bowden’s first major work since Killing Pablo. He spent five years researching the crisis, including numerous trips to Iran and countless interviews with those involved on both sides. Guests of the Ayatollah is a remarkably detailed, brilliantly re-created, and suspenseful account of a crisis that gripped and ultimately changed the world.

Mark Bowden

GUESTS OF THE AYATOLLAH

The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam

To Aaron, Beth, Anya, BJ, Dan, and Ben

The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

—Philip Roth

PART ONE

The “Set-in”

(Tehran, November 4, 1979)

Students storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran, November 4, 1979. (Courtesy: Russ Kick, thememoryhole.org)

Jerry Miele paraded to the embassy gate, November 11, 1979. The man on Miele’s left is believed by some to be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president of Iran. (Courtesy: AP)

1. The Desert Angel

Before dawn Mohammad Hashemi prepared himself to die. He washed according to ritual, then knelt in his dormitory room facing southwest toward Mecca, bent his head to the floor, and prayed the prayer for martyrdom. After that the stout, bushy-haired young man with the thick beard tucked a handgun in his belt, pulled on a heavy sweater, and set out through the half darkness for the secret meeting.

It was, in Iran, the thirteenth day of Aban in the year 1358. The old Zoroastrian calendar had been resurrected a half century earlier by the first self-appointed shah in the Pahlavi line, Reza Khan, in an effort to graft his royal pretensions to the nation’s ancient traditions. That flirtation with Persia’s gods and bearded prophets had backfired, sprung up like an uncorked genie in the previous ten months to unseat his son and the whole presumptuous dynasty. Aban is Persia’s old water spirit, a bringer of rebirth and renewal to desert lands, and the mist wetting the windows of high-rises and squeaking on the windshields of early traffic in this city of more than five million was a kept promise, an ancient visitation, the punctual return of a familiar and welcome angel. As it crept downhill through the sprawling capital and across the gray campus of Amir Kabir University, where Hashemi hurried to his meeting, Iran was in tumult, in mid-revolution, caught in a struggle between present and past. Towering cranes posed like skeletal birds at irregular intervals over the city’s low roofline, stiff sentinels at construction sites stranded in the violent shift of political climate. The fine rain gently blackened concrete and spotted dust in the canals called jubes on both sides of every street, fanning out like veins. Moisture haloed the glow from streetlamps.

Hashemi was supposed to be a third-year physics major, but for him, as for so many of Tehran’s students, the politics of the street had supplanted study. He hadn’t been to a class since the uprising had begun more than a year ago. It was a heady time to be young in Iran, on the front lines of change. They felt as though they were shaping not only their own futures but the future of their country and the world. They had overthrown a tyrant. Destiny or, as Hashemi saw it, the will of Allah was guiding them. The word on campus was, “We dealt with the shah and the United States is next!”

Few of the hundred or so converging from campuses all over the city on Amir Kabir’s School of Mechanics that morning knew why they were gathering. Something big was planned, but just what was known only to activist leaders like Hashemi. Shortly after six, standing before an eager crowded room, he spread out on a long table sketches of the U.S. embassy, crude renderings of the mission’s compound just a few blocks west. He and others had been scouting the target for more than a week, watching from the rooftops of tall buildings across the side streets, riding past on the upper floor of two-decker buses that rolled along Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue in front, and waiting in the long lines outside the embassy’s newly opened consulate. The drawings showed the various gates, guard posts, and buildings, the largest being the chancery, the embassy’s primary office building; the bunkerlike consulate; and the airy two-story white mansion that served as home for the American ambassador. There was a murmur of satisfaction and excitement in the crowd as Hashemi announced they were going to lay siege to the place.

* * *

In retrospect, it was all too predictable. An operating American embassy in the heart of revolutionary Iran’s capital was too much for Tehran’s aroused citizenry to bear. It had to go. It was a symbol of everything the nascent upheaval hated and feared. Washington’s underestimation of the danger was just part of a larger failure; it had not foreseen the gathering threat to its longtime Cold War ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the now reviled, self-exiled shah. A CIA analysis in August 1978, just six months before Pahlavi fled Iran for good, had concluded that the country “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.” A year and a revolution later America was still underestimating the power and vision of the mullahs behind it. Like most of the great turning points in history, it was obvious and yet no one saw it coming.

The capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was a glimpse of something new and bewildering. It was the first battle in America’s war against militant Islam, a conflict that would eventually engage much of the world. Iran’s revolution wasn’t just a localized power struggle; it had tapped a subterranean ocean of Islamist outrage. For half a century the tradition-bound peoples of the Middle and Near East, owning most of the world’s oil resources, had been regarded as little more than valuable pawns in a worldwide competition between capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship. In the Arab states, the United States had thrown its weight behind conservative Sunni regimes, and in Iran behind Pahlavi, who stood as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the region. As the two great powers saw it, the Cold War would determine the shape of the world; all other perspectives, those from the so-called Third World, were irrelevant, or important only insofar as they influenced the primary struggle. An ignored but growing vision in the Middle East, nurtured in mosque and madrasah but considered quaint or backward by the Western world and even by many wealthy, well-educated Arabs and Persians, saw little difference between the great powers. Both were infidels, godless exploiters, uprooting centuries of tradition and trampling sacred ground in heedless pursuit of wealth and power. They were twin devils of modernity. The Islamist alternative they foresaw was an old twist on a familiar twentieth-century theme: totalitarianism rooted in divine revelation. It would take many years for the movement to be clearly seen, but the takeover of the embassy in Tehran offered an early glimpse. It was the first time America would hear itself called the “Great Satan.”

How and why did it happen? Who were the Iranian protesters who swarmed over the embassy walls that day, and what were they trying to accomplish? Who were the powers behind them, so heedless of age-old privileges of international diplomacy? What were their motives? Why was the United States so surprised by the event and so embarrassingly powerless to counter it? How justified were the Iranian fears that motivated it? How did one of the triumphs of Western freedom and technology, a truly global news media, become a tool to further an Islamo-fascist agenda, narrowly focusing the attention of the world on fifty-two helpless, captive diplomats, hijacking the policy agenda of America for more than a year, helping to bring down the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and leveraging a radical fundamentalist regime in Iran into lasting power?

The U.S. embassy in Tehran stood behind high brick walls midway down the city’s muscular slope, where the land flattened into miles of low brown slums and, beyond them, the horizon-wide Dasht-e Kavir salt desert. Inside the enclosure was a parklike campus, a twenty-seven-acre oasis of green in a smoggy world of concrete and brick. Its primary structure, the chancery, bathed now in the swirling mist of the water angel, stood fifty or so feet behind the front gate, a blocks-long structure two tall stories high built in the dignified art deco style typical of American public buildings at midcentury. It looked like a big American high school, which is why years ago it had been dubbed “Henderson High,” after Loy W. Henderson, the first U.S. ambassador to use it, in the early fifties. Scattered beneath a grove of pine trees behind the chancery were the new concrete consulate buildings; the white Ambassador’s Residence, a two-story structure with a wraparound second-story balcony; a smaller residence for the deputy chief of mission; a warehouse; a large commissary; a small office building and motor pool; and a row of four small yellow staff cottages. There were tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a satellite reception center.

When the embassy opened more than four decades previously, Tehran had been a different place, a small but growing city. The United States was then just one among many foreign powers with diplomatic missions in Iran. Before the chancery stood a low, decorative wooden fence that allowed an unobstructed view of the beautiful gardens from Takht-e-Jamshid, which was then just a quiet side street, paved with cobblestones. In those days, the new embassy’s openness and its distance from the row of major missions on busy Ferdowsi Avenue contributed to America’s image as a different kind of Western power, one that had no imperial designs.

In the years since, Tehran itself had grown noisy and crowded, a bland, featureless, unplanned jumble of urgent humanity that flowed daily in great rivers of cars through uninteresting miles of low, pale brown and gray two-and three-story boxlike buildings. Takht-e-Jamshid’s quaint cobblestones had long since been paved and the avenue widened. In daylight it was clogged with cars, motorbikes, and buses. The embassy’s main entrance, Roosevelt Gate, was named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose distant cousin CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore’s grandson, had helped engineer the 1953 coup d’état that toppled an elected Iranian government and replaced it with the shah. At the time, the coup had powerful Iranian backers and was welcomed by many in the country, but today it was seen simply as a tawdry American stunt, another example of cynical CIA meddling in the Third World.

By the fall of 1979, in the receding tide of the revolution, the old embassy had become a provocation. It was moored like an enemy battleship just a stone’s throw from the street, a fact demonstrated repeatedly. For a country in a fit of Islamist, nationalist, and increasingly anti-American fervor, such a grand and central presence in the capital city was a daily thumb in the eye. Lately most of the harassment had been relatively minor. The walls that now surrounded Henderson High and its campus were covered with insults and revolutionary slogans and were topped by three feet of curved and pointed steel bars. A few days earlier a band of young men had sneaked into the compound and were caught shinnying up the big pole in front of the chancery to take down the American flag. The marines had since greased the pole. As a defense against rocks and an occasional gunshot from passing motorists, all of the windows facing front had been layered with bulletproof plastic panels and sandbags. The chancery looked like a fort.

While the Americans inside saw these changes as purely defensive, the picture they presented strongly encouraged suspicion. The embassy was an enemy foothold behind the lines of the revolution. Washington had been the muscle behind the shah’s rule, and a big part of throwing off the monarchy had been the desire to break Iran’s decades-long fealty to Uncle Sam. Yet here the embassy still stood. Those Iranians who supported the United States—and there were many still among the prosperous middle and upper classes—prayed that its obdurate presence meant the game wasn’t over, that the free world was not really going to abandon them to the bearded clerics. But these were an embattled, endangered minority. To the great stirred mass of Iranians, afire with the dream of a perfect Islamist society, the embassy was a threat. Surely the architects of evil behind those walls were plotting day and night. What was going on inside? What plots were being hatched by the devils coming and going from its gates?

Why was no one stopping them?

2. Would the Marines Shoot?

A big demonstration was already in the works that morning, which had been proclaimed National Students Day, in honor of collegiate protesters who had been gunned down by the shah’s police the year before. The numbers of those massacred had been wildly inflated, from a few score to “thousands,” which played to Shia Islam’s obsession with martyrdom. In addition to honoring the slain students, this rainy Sunday had also been declared an official day of mourning for more than forty pasdoran, Revolutionary Guards, who had been killed in a clash with Kurdish separatists the week before. There would be thousands of people in the streets. Hashemi and the others planned to launch their surprise from inside this larger crowd.

Standing before a crowded room he explained that the assaulters would be divided into five groups, one for each of the embassy’s larger buildings. The initial thrust would be through Roosevelt Gate. Local police would not interfere—their support had been quietly enlisted—but there was no telling what the Americans would do. If they opened fire, then the bodies of those martyred in the vanguard would be passed out to the crowd and carried aloft through the streets, sure to incite rage. When the planning session ended, the students drifted across town to the rallying point, the corner of Takht-e-Jamshid and Bahar Street, several blocks west of the embassy. Thousands had already begun to assemble in groups of twos and threes, in cars and on foot.

The plan had been hatched by a dozen young Islamist activists, representatives from each of Tehran’s major universities, who had formed just weeks before a group that called itself Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, to differentiate itself from factions with agendas that varied from the teachings of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. Hashemi was the son of an Isfahan cleric and had been raised in the devout traditions of Shia Islam. Unlike the city’s other large universities, Amir Kabir was strictly Islamist. Classes were conducted as though teachers and students were together in a mosque, and prayer was a big part of every day and night. Robed women students did not speak to men other than family members unless the situation required it, such as working together in a lab. While Marxist and other leftist groups tended to dominate on the bigger, more secular campuses such as Tehran University, where the religious students were often still an unpopular minority, Amir Kabir was known as a center for Islamist radicals, young people strictly allied with Khomeini and the new mullah establishment.

All men in the Islamic organizations called each other “brother,” but Hashemi was part of a smaller, militant inner circle called the Brethren—“brothers who were more brothers than others,” was how one would later explain it. Most of those recruited for the takeover effort were simply students, but the Brethren were something more. They would eventually form the nucleus of the new Iran’s intelligence ministry. They were armed at all times and had connections with the powerful clergy and with high-ranking officials in the police and the provisional government who had sympathy for their political agenda. Hashemi had not been one of the instigators of the plot to seize the American embassy that day, but when those plans were formed he was naturally one of the first approached for help.

The plan was the brainchild of three young men, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, an engineering student from Sanati Sharif University, Mohsen Mirdamadi from Amir Kabir University, and Habibullah Bitaraf from Technical University. Asgharzadeh was the first to suggest it. They would storm the hated U.S. embassy, a symbol of Western imperial domination of Iran, occupy it for three days, and from it issue a series of communiqués that would explain Iran’s grievances against America, beginning with the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 and decades of support for the shah, now a wanted man in Iran accused of looting the nation’s treasure and torturing and killing thousands. America’s imperialist designs had not ended when the shah fled Iran the previous February. The criminal tyrant had recently been allowed to fly to America on the pretense of needing medical treatment and was being sheltered there with his stolen fortune. America was stirring up political opposition to the imam, instigating ethnic uprisings in the various enclaves that made up the border regions of their country, and had recently begun secretly collaborating with the provisional government to undermine the revolution. A clandestine meeting in Algiers between secular members of the provisional government and White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had been revealed to dramatic effect in Tehran. All of it added up to only one thing in the students’ eyes: America was determined to hang on to its colony and restore the shah to his throne. The danger was pressing. The provisional government had sold out; it was nothing more than a group of old men wedded to Western decadence bent on tamping down the ardor of the Islamist uprising. One thing the revolution had taught the students was the folly of waiting for something to happen. They had seen the fruits of bold, direct action. Seizing the embassy would stop the American plot in its tracks and would force the provisional government to show its hand. Any move against the heroic embassy occupiers would expose acting Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his administration as American stooges. The students believed that if they did not act soon to expose him if his government weathered its first year, then the United States would have its hooks back in Iran for good, and their dream of sweeping, truly revolutionary change would die.

When Asgharzadeh had proposed the move two weeks earlier at a meeting of an umbrella activist group called Strengthen the Unity, it was opposed by two students, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from Tarbiat Modarres University and Mohammed Ali Seyyedinejad from Elm-o-Sanat University. Both preferred targeting the Soviet embassy instead. Asgharzadeh, Mirdamadi, and Bitaraf voted them down and then had expanded their planning cell by inviting activists from various local schools, including Hashemi, Abbas Abdi, Reza Siafullahi, and Mohammad Naimipoor, all young men experienced with street demonstrations and organizing. These Brethren were both students and members of the fledgling intelligence services. All of these men, including Ahmadinejad and Seyyedinejad, eventually joined ranks behind the seizure of the American embassy. They were all committed to a formal Islamic state and were allied, some of them by family, with the clerical power structure around Khomeini. Several, including Asgharzadeh, had been closely associated with the Keramat Mosque, home base for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one of the most powerful young clerics in the country (and the man who would ultimately succeed Khomeini as supreme leader). The revolution was shaping up as a struggle between leftist nationalists who wanted a secular, socialist-style democracy and young Islamists like these who wanted something the world had not yet seen, an Islamic Republic.

The mullahs’ ideas about Iran and the world had merged with the naive idealism of students like these over the previous years to create a simple powerful vision. For years the banned writings of the philosopher-activist Ali Shariati had been circulating underground on Iran’s campuses, firing the imagination and national pride of students who dreamed of creating a new kind of Iranian state and of seizing center stage in the dreamy “revolution” of world youth that was raging in America and Europe. Shariati had embraced the leftist rhetoric of the era without endorsing the Soviet Union and regarded capitalism as a root evil. He saw in Islam a third path toward utopia, one that was neither communist nor capitalist but founded on “authentic,” divine principles. The philosopher saw the materialism of the West as the biggest threat to the purity of an Islamic state, and his writings had spawned a whole school of thought that interpreted the freedoms and excesses of America and western Europe as a plot to ensnare the virtuous and enslave the world in a capitalist, godless dystopia. Shariati himself had not been impressed with Iran’s clerical establishment, and much of what he had written was critical of old mullahs such as Khomeini, but in the heat of the revolution those differences had been forgotten. The idea of the third path, one rooted in the rich history of the Shia faith, dovetailed in most ways with the vision of the mullahs. The clerics lived a cloistered existence; their knowledge of history and current events was grounded exclusively in the Koran’s prerenaissance, seventh-century ideology. Theirs was a world suspended in an eternal struggle between good and evil, and one where neither was just an abstract concept. To the devout, Allah was alive in the world and so was satan, working with superhuman powers of deception and ruthless application of force. Only one superpower fit that description, and that was the godless, mercantile, devious monster known as the United States of America. To them, America was quite literally the embodiment of evil, the Great Satan, and their ultimate enemy. Young activists like Asgharzadeh, Mirdamadi, and the others were among the brightest of their generation—competition for places at Tehran’s universities was fierce—but most of them had excelled in math, engineering, or science. Few were well traveled or well read. It was easy for them to see the U.S. embassy behind its high walls as, quite simply and literally, the source of all evil.

In sessions during the previous week at Amir Kabir, they had divided up the work into six committees: Documents, Operations, Public Relations, Logistics, Hostage Control, and Information. They would need about four hundred students to carry out the assault and thousands more to rally in support outside the embassy walls. Preparations were made to feed the occupiers and the hostages for three days. Others worked on organizing mass demonstrations in support of the siege on the streets around the embassy. Given the anti-Americanism in Tehran, one of the group’s biggest fears was that opposition camps would either get wind of the idea and execute it first or move in and take over the demonstration once it had started, muddying the intended political message; they were primarily worried about the well-organized, militant leftist factions such as Mujahedin-e Khalgh and Fadaeian-e Khalgh. They knew the provisional government would move against them if it could, so it was critical that right from the start they be recognized as a strictly Islamic organization, one loyal to Khomeini, which is why they had come up with the name Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, to make their allegiance perfectly clear. At first it was just Students Following the Imam’s Line but then it was decided to add “Muslim” to distinguish theirs from the more secular student groups that also professed allegiance to Khomeini, most notably the well-organized communist Tudeh party. To make clear their affiliation on the day of the action they formed a committee to copy a photograph of their inspiration, the white-bearded, brooding imam, and prepare plastic-covered placards that would be hung around their necks on a length of string. “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line” was written on each photo, and armbands were made with the slogan “Allahuakbar” (God Is Great) and featuring a picture of the imam. This would also help them recognize one another in the confusion of the first hours. Hashemi had been charged with planning the assault. He figured there were about one hundred Americans working at the embassy. One of his subcommittees had prepared strips of cloth to bind and blindfold that many.

The planners had also dispatched several of their members to tip off in advance a member of the Assembly of Experts, the body drafting Iran’s new constitution, and four more of the student leaders, Bitaraf, Mirdamadi, Siafullahi, and Asgharzadeh, had called on Mousavi Khoeniha, a young, black-bearded radical cleric whose preaching they admired. A slight man who spoke softly outside the pulpit, Khoeniha was considerably to the left of the conservative mullah establishment, and he was popular with the Islamist youth organizations at the universities who shared his more free-form, interpretive take on Koranic doctrine. Khoeniha immediately endorsed the idea of the takeover. He agreed with the planners that the devilish practices inside the U.S. embassy needed to be derailed, and that its emerging secret ties with the provisional government needed to be broken. The young cleric saw clearly that seizing the American embassy would also put great pressure on Prime Minister Bazargan and his government. They would be obliged to protect their American friends. Yet if the embassy was seized correctly, and by what was seen to be a group of pious, nonviolent youth allied to Khomeini, then it would make it virtually impossible for Bazargan to act without an order from the imam himself. The planners asked him to take their plan to Khomeini, but on this the radical mullah demurred. Why ask permission? In the years of building a movement against the shah, students and more radical clerics many times had successfully pressured the more powerful and moderate mullahs simply by acting without asking. Khomeini had a stake in preserving the provisional government; after all, he had appointed it. Asking him to approve an act that could topple it might invite disapproval. But if the embassy were occupied by his own professed supporters, and a large crowd was massed around the wall cheering them on, it would make it very hard, perhaps even impossible, even for the imam to oppose it, which would paralyze Bazargan and his traitorous administration.

The students had also secured the support of the Revolutionary Guards through Mohsen Razaee, one of the young leaders of that organization (he would become its head in two years). With the quiet backing of both the police and Razaee, they were confident that no authority would chase them from the grounds before they had a chance to seize the Americans and make a statement.

Everyone involved knew this could be a deciding moment in the revolution. If Khomeini condemned the takeover and ordered the students out of the embassy, it would signal his firm support for the provisional government and would likely mean that the clerical establishment would not directly run the state. If he supported the takeover, it would most likely collapse the Bazargan administration and the hopes of those who preferred at least some separation of church and state. To the students, the former course meant nothing less than total defeat, since they saw Bazargan as an American collaborator. They felt the weight of history and saw a chance to change the world.

Days after the plan was hatched, Khomeini gave a speech urging “all grade-school, university, and theological students to increase their attacks against America.” Asgharzadeh thought at first that the imam had been told of their plan and was signaling his support. He was elated, and then surprised and disappointed to learn from Khoeniha that the imam had not been consulted and knew nothing of the takeover plan. The remarks may have been coincidental, but they certainly suggested that Khomeini would support the assault.

Now, as Hashemi moved among the throng just blocks away from the embassy, he could see all the pieces coming together as planned. He would be one of the first through the gates. Abbas Abdi carried a loudspeaker from which he would issue the command to begin. Asgharzadeh was there too. He would stay back and try to make sure that those entering were members of his own group, and then see that the gates were locked behind them—if they were going to maintain control of the action they needed to prevent rival political organizations from storming inside. Mohammad Naimipoor had his large group of protesters assigned with forming a giant human ring around the chancery. Some of the chador-wearing women carried bolt cutters under their robes, for the chains on the gates, and also new chains and locks with which to secure the gates behind them. In addition to the laminated photos and armbands, all carried cards identifying their organization. Some carried the strips of cloth to bind and blindfold their American captives. It was both thrilling and daunting. Many saw the fine Aban rain that morning as heavenly approval, a symbol of Iran purifying itself, washing itself clean of its relationship with the Great Satan.

Hashemi’s concealed weapon was more to deal with rival factions than with the Americans. A short-lived takeover of the embassy in February had devolved into gunfights between competing militias. The students had decided that their assault would be strictly nonviolent. They would not harm the Americans, even if they opened fire. But there was also a chance things would get out of control. Would the marines shoot? If they did, and the bloodied bodies of martyrs were passed out to the crowd, what would happen then?

3. The Morning Meeting

Walking down the wide corridor that ran the length of the chancery’s second floor, John Limbert mapped out his day in hopes of finding an hour to slip out for a haircut. He was on his way to the meeting that officially began each workday at the embassy. The second secretary in the political section, he had been traveling the week before in southern Iran, and it occurred to him that his thick brown hair, which now fell over the tops of his ears, must look pretty shaggy.

Ordinarily Limbert did not attend the morning meeting, which was chaired by the acting ambassador, Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires, and included the various embassy departmental heads. Today he had been invited to sit in for his boss, First Political Secretary Ann Swift, who was coming in late. Everyone was eager to hear about his swing through the cities of Abadan and Shiraz. Limbert was an ambitious foreign service officer, but about him there was nothing pushy or abrasive. He was a loose-limbed, affable man with a narrow face and a nose so ample, starkly framed by dark-rimmed glasses above and by a heavy brown mustache below, that it ruled his face. Behind stylish, lightly tinted lenses were the playful eyes of an intensely curious and fun-loving soul. The loose cut of his suit advertised that he had lived primarily outside of the United States in recent years. This assignment to Iran had been ideal for him, one for which he was particularly well suited. He had spent years in the country, first in the Peace Corps and later as a teacher working on his doctorate in Middle Eastern studies, and he spoke Farsi so well that when he wore locally made clothes he passed for Iranian. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing in an American embassy, where there was an institutional suspicion of foreign service officers who had “gone native,” but Iran was suddenly of utmost importance in Washington, and Limbert’s set of skills and experience was rare. He had been at this job for only a few months and was still conscious of making the right impression. He wished he’d gotten the haircut earlier.

Limbert was one of two political officers who worked with Swift. The other was Michael Metrinko, whom Limbert had known before this assignment. Metrinko had partly learned his Farsi from Limbert’s Iranian wife, Parvaneh, who had taught him when he was a Peace Corps volunteer; she considered him to have been her best student. Along with the head of that section, Victor Tomseth, who was also acting deputy chief of mission, these three were among a very small number of fluent Farsi-speaking Iran experts in the State Department. With their years in the country and language skills, they were prized sources of information in the embassy, which even at its highest levels was filled with newcomers. Limbert, Tomseth, and Metrinko formed an especially sharp contrast to the three-man CIA station, which had no Farsi speakers and a combined experience in Iran of fewer than five months. This tour was a chance for all three to shine. Because they could read the local newspapers, listen to the radio and TV, and talk to a wide variety of Iranians, they were the only ones with a real feel for the place.

The morning meeting was held around a long table in the “The Bubble,” a bizarre room with walls made of clear plastic, a complete enclosure inside a normal room on the second-floor front of the chancery that was designed to avoid electronic eavesdropping. The clear plastic walls insulated the space and prevented the hiding of listening devices in the walls, floor, or ceiling. At the head of the table, the compact, athletic, and tanned chargé d’affaires was feeling upbeat, as was his way. A Minnesota farm boy, Laingen had retained his youthful appearance well into middle age, with stray locks of dark hair that fell casually across his forehead. Laingen had been in Tehran since June, dispatched on short notice to fill in after the new regime had summarily rejected Walter Cutler, the man President Carter had appointed ambassador. No new ambassador had been named, so Laingen was the top American official in Tehran. He was no Iran expert, but he had served in the city more than a quarter century earlier as a young foreign officer in the heady days after Kermit Roosevelt’s legendary coup, when he had learned enough Farsi to hold simple conversations. Languages did not come as easily to Laingen as they did to some of those on his staff. His assignment now was to begin a dialogue with the country’s new rulers and convince them that the despised United States, despite its close ties to the toppled monarchy, was ready to accept the new Iran. He felt a big part of his job was to project confidence and cheer into this small American community, which was reduced to a fraction of its normal size, having sent home all nonessential personnel and family members of those who stayed. A more cautious leader might have spent more time preparing for the worst, destroying files and further paring down the staff, but Laingen had a constitutional bias toward hope; he believed things were getting better and heading back toward normal. He worked hard to improve morale, arranging a number of social outings for the staff, such as a tennis tournament against other embassies and softball games, and had even allowed a slight easing of security restrictions—he had approved, for instance, opening a new drinking club for the marines in their apartment building just off embassy grounds, which, given the revolution’s abhorrence of alcohol, might have been considered needlessly provocative. His efforts were working. The mood at the embassy had noticeably lifted since his arrival, and Laingen was popular with his coworkers and staff, and although some saw his chipper outlook as distinctly rose-tinted, even the skeptics had to admit there were encouraging signs. Despite daily torrents of rhetorical venom, the revolutionary powers had chased away the group that had invaded and briefly occupied the embassy in February, and had cooperated in the construction of the compound’s new consulate, a modern concrete structure designed to more efficiently handle the thousands of Iranian visa seekers who still lined up outside the embassy every day—voting with their feet. Khomeini had recently denounced such Western-yearning Iranians as “traitors,” and as “America-loving rotten brains who must be purged from the nation.” Vitriol like this and the imam’s recent encouragement of “attacks” on America were so commonplace now that they had ceased to cause alarm. It was just considered the climate. John Graves, the flamboyant United States Information Agency chief, had cabled Washington that week that the mood in Tehran had improved sufficiently to resume his program and increase his staffing. Laingen had even recommended allowing some family members of those working at the embassy to return to Tehran on a case by case basis.

The decision to allow the shah to fly to New York City for cancer treatment had threatened to undo everything. In a meeting weeks earlier with Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi to inform him that the shah was being admitted to the United States, Yazdi had promised to do what he could to protect the embassy, but warned that it would be a tall order—he had doubted they would be able to do it. In an equivocating cable to Washington at the end of September, Laingen had predicted that the move would be a setback, but gave little hint that it might mean serious trouble for the mission itself. He had written of an overall improvement in American-Iran relations—itself a very rosy estimate—but admitted that progress was slow. “It is not yet of the substance that would weather very well the impact of the shah entering the United States.” He noted the ascendancy of the clerics, which “I fear worsens the public atmosphere as regards any gesture on our part toward the shah,” who was being denounced as a traitor and criminal whom justice demanded be returned to Iran to stand trial and, presumably, join the general parade of former regime officials to the killing grounds. “Given that kind of atmosphere and the kind of public posturing about the shah by those who control or influence public opinion here, I doubt that the shah being ill would have much ameliorating effect on the degree of reaction here.” In the next sentence he slightly backed off that assertion. “It would presumably make our own position more defensible if we were seen to admit him under demonstrably humanitarian conditions.” In other words: they won’t like it but, if it is well handled, the effect shouldn’t be catastrophic.

It was one of several factors that weighed in favor of allowing the shah to come to New York for surgery. In October, Carter had polled his top advisers on the question, and most of them supported letting the shah in.

“What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” asked the president. No one had answered.

The embassy had braced itself for the worst. Just three days earlier, fearing violent demonstrations, Laingen had ordered all nonessential personnel off the compound and had placed the entire complement of embassy marines on alert. But the protests, which turned out an estimated two million people at nearby Tehran University, had resulted in nothing more than some additional spray-painted graffiti on the compound walls. Friday and Saturday, the Iranian weekend, had been calm, and that Sunday morning there was a palpable sense of relief in the building, the sense that they had weathered the worst.

In its heyday the embassy staff had numbered nearly a thousand; now it was down to just over sixty. Even in its stripped-down state it remained a complex enterprise with scores of objectives and tasks. Laingen and his small political and economics sections were busily trying to give Washington fresh insight into current conditions in the country. The defense attaché and newly organized military liaison staff were sifting through what remained of the two countries’ long-standing defense ties, and the small staff of information officers had begun the challenging task of convincing Iran that America was not the enemy. The consular section was coping with a flood tide of applications for visas from the substantial number of Iranians who needed no convincing—a line a quarter of a mile long had begun forming days before the new consulate opened that summer. There was the small CIA presence at the embassy, three officers who were trying to make sense of shifting conditions and to make friends with anyone close to the new centers of power. Administering the compound, buildings, and employees, managing security operations and the embassy’s commissary, was a big job with scores of employees, many of them Iranian. In the mix were foreign service officers concerned with cultural ties, some of them working on site and others scattered around Tehran. It was a busy mission, like that of any large country with wide-ranging interests. The faces in Laingen’s conference room represented all of the facets of this ongoing effort, serious professionals who in some cases had been doing their jobs in one country or another for decades.

Malcolm Kalp, a CIA officer who had arrived only four days before, told the group of meeting with David Rockefeller shortly before he had left the States. Rockefeller had been one of the powerful Americans who, along with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had lobbied hard for President Carter to admit the shah. Kalp said that Rockefeller had told him, “I hope I haven’t caused you all too many problems.” From around Laingen’s conference table came the laugh of the powerless. Clearly this group lacked the clout to compete with the combined influence of Kissinger and Rockefeller, and the latter’s belated words of concern for them rang hollow. But few in this room felt bitter about it. Most of those now stationed in Tehran, especially professionals like Limbert, Tomseth, Metrinko, CIA station chief Tom Ahern, and his two officers, Kalp and Bill Daugherty, as well as the military liaisons and aides, were comfortable with risk. Some were motivated by patriotism, some by ambition, and some, especially the lower-level State Department communicators and staffers, for the danger pay—Tehran was a 25 percent differential post, meaning one earned a full fourth more than the usual pay. For some it was a chance to escape a failing marriage or family obligations that had become too onerous. Many of them were in Tehran precisely because they sought exotic or dangerous postings. The tension created esprit among those who could rise above it; it made everyone’s job seem all the more vital and rare. Yet not everyone could rise above it.

Some of those in this room periodically approached youthful, muscular Al Golacinski, the embassy’s security chief, to ask for his assessment of the risk, weighing whether to stay on or quit and clear out. He was always reassuring. Golacinski felt they had turned the corner. After the violent February invasion, the compound had been patrolled for months by a band of roguish local gunmen whom he had finally managed to ease out. Anxiety remained, but he felt events were coming under control. Golacinski expected continued demonstrations and thought there might even be occasional, isolated assassination attempts—a German diplomat had been gunned down in Tehran weeks earlier. But these were low-percentage risks. He personally assured everyone who asked that another invasion was unlikely and advised them to ride it out. To buttress his argument he made a point of keeping up a brave, confident front.

Just that morning he had averted a potential showdown. A local khomiteh, a gang of armed young men who dispensed revolutionary justice in the neighborhood, had shown up to complain about the removal of a large Khomeini poster that had been hung on Roosevelt Gate during the big demonstration. Golacinski had defused the encounter by tracking down the poster—it had been taken down by Navy Commander Donald Sharer, who thought it would make a nifty wall decoration for the marines’ new bar. Golacinski returned it and extracted a promise that it would not be hung where it obscured the view of embassy guards. He told the story at the morning meeting, the point being that confrontation, if well handled, could be peacefully resolved.

Limbert then talked about his trip south, promising a more complete written report, and the discussion turned to the “Students Day” demonstration planned for that morning. Some of those present thought that the embassy should be closed for the day to avoid trouble, but others argued against it. Tomseth wanted to keep the embassy open.

“If we close the embassy down every time there’s a demonstration in Tehran we would be closing down just about every day,” he said.

This opinion prevailed. There was some debate over whether to acknowledge the day of official mourning by flying the Stars and Stripes at half-mast before the chancery, and it was decided not to do so. In light of the attempt to steal the flag off the pole, lowering it halfway might tempt another try. Golacinski briefed the meeting on what to expect. There was already a crowd of about 150 to 200 people outside Roosevelt Gate, and they had been peaceful so far. The big rally was expected to draw together various rival elements among the revolutionary student groups, the more numerous religious conservatives from various universities around the city, and the smaller but better-organized leftists who were centered mostly at the University of Tehran. Because the street out front led directly to the university, large crowds of students marching toward the rally would be passing by the embassy all morning, which would mean more noise and the usual chanting and nastiness. Still, Golacinski said, the protest “is not aimed at us.”

To Iranians, Aban the thirteenth had an additional significance that went unnoted by the American staff. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the day the shah had exiled the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Laingen concluded the meeting by announcing that he had an appointment at the Foreign Ministry that morning, so he and Tomseth would be away for a few hours. Golacinski advised his assistant, Howland, who would accompany Laingen to the Ministry, to avoid streets around the University of Tehran on their way.

As he walked back down the corridor to his office, Limbert decided against visiting the barber. It would keep him from his office for several hours and he didn’t feel right getting a haircut on government time. Instead, he would start writing up his report of the trip.

* * *

Michael Metrinko was just arriving for work. He ignored the larger-than-usual crowd outside the east-side entrance. The protests were often worse later in the morning. Metrinko was a night owl and was customarily one of the last to show up. He did his real work after hours, meeting with Iranians, eating, drinking, smoking, and talking, trying to figure things out. As he saw it, that’s what his job was about. And what a fascinating job it was.

For a student of politics, being in Tehran just then was like being a geologist camped on the rim of an active volcano. Iran had gone temporarily insane. Revolution gives ordinary people the false belief that they can remake not just themselves, their country, and the whole wide world but human nature itself. That such grand designs always fail, that human nature is immutable, that everyone’s idea of perfection is different—these truths are all for a time forgotten. Those in the grip of righteousness saw the opportunity—no, the need—to weed the impure from their new and glorious garden. It started as always with the officials of the overthrown regime, authors of the criminal past, who were given show trials and marched out in the streets or to rooftops to be shot or hanged. With the taste of blood, the executioners then turned on those who had merely collaborated with the old order or its foreign sponsors or allies. Next, as former revolutionary brothers vied for permanent power, the killing turned inward.

This was where things had arrived after nine months. Various political and religious streams had joined in the exciting years before, Islamist fanatics, nationalist democrats, European socialists, Soviet-sponsored communists…they had all allied to bring down the shah. Now they were eyeing one another dangerously. The competition was not academic; it was a matter of life and death. The losers were being imprisoned, assassinated, or marched to the rooftop shooting galleries, outmaneuvered and denounced as traitors and spies. Tehran was a cauldron of intrigue, mysterious factions, uprisings, plots, clandestine maneuvers. Clerics considered too liberal were being gunned down in the streets by their more radical brothers, and some considered too conservative were being killed by violent leftists; Khomeini was cracking down on women who ignored the new mandates for hijab, traditional Islamic dress; the Kurds were rebelling in the northwest. This was the big leagues, people playing politics for keeps, reinventing themselves and their country, borrowing from Marx, from Jefferson, from Muhammad. And Metrinko wasn’t on the sidelines, either, he was right in the middle of things. While others studied the dynamics of political upheaval in libraries, he was present for one, and this revolution was particularly intriguing and original. He would describe it to his friends at home as “Delightful chaos with lots of blood!”

At thirty-three he was still a young man in the State Department, that ponderous, mysterious, plodding bureaucracy that could be, depending on the time and place, brilliant or utterly blind. It was an organization that respected age and tradition to a fault, and while it cultivated worldly expertise, grooming young officers like Metrinko to become expert in their region of the world, it was famous for ignoring or distrusting them. It had a mission to explore and understand foreign politics and cultures, but the farther afield its officers wandered the more suspect they became, as though distance from Foggy Bottom meant distance from the truth. The more one’s reports deviated from the venerated status quo and challenged established policy, the more readily they were dismissed. There was an institutional fear of going native.

Metrinko was aware of this but undaunted. He was working Iran. He was ambitious, but not for promotion or pay. His ambitions were intellectual and personal. He was from a small town in Pennsylvania, from a family of eccentrics. The Metrinkos owned a huge, rambling apartment and tavern complex of more than fifty rooms in Olyphant, a coal-mining town about an hour and a half north of Philadelphia. Growing up surrounded by the immigrants and travelers who wandered through the family home had broadened his horizons, and he had grown to be a man more at home abroad than anywhere else. He had wide-set blue eyes and a broad forehead, with the thickening features of his Pennsylvania Slav ancestry. A mustache partly framed his full lips. His wide wire-rimmed glasses were stylish, but he kept his brown hair well trimmed in a way that was out of step with the shaggier fashion of the day. Metrinko did things his own way. He was stout but solid; he studied judo with an Iranian policeman, but efforts at fitness were no match for his nightly bull sessions with food, wine, and tobacco. He held forth in such sessions with a peculiarly proud, precise way of speaking, building long complex sentences that came out fully sanded and polished, like he had written them down beforehand and memorized them. They sounded like comments delivered between long thoughtful puffs on a pipe, except Metrinko’s vice was cigarettes, which he smoked habitually. He sometimes found it hard to mask his impatience with others, which could make him seem high-toned and superior. He dealt with Iranians daily who knew their own history and language less well than he did, and with Americans, in both Tehran and distant Washington, most of them his bosses, who lacked his language skills, his experience in the country, and his complete absorption in the work. He was used to knowing more than anyone around him about the subject matter at hand.

The way he had it figured, Iran was about the size of a big state back home. It held about thirty-eight million people, the vast majority of whom would never play even a slight role in deciding the country’s fate. Decisions were made, as they were in any state back home or in any small country, by a tiny fraction of the educated and well connected. In a country the size of Iran, he figured, it was theoretically possible to know most of those people. He had collected hundreds of names and profiles, a vast network of acquaintanceship. He preferred not to meet with people in their offices but in restaurants, or in their homes, where they relaxed and said what they really felt. And nothing bad ever came of unburdening oneself to Michael Metrinko, because his reports were never published inside or outside Iran. He was a sponge and a valuable contact. He offered people a perfectly neutral, sympathetic sounding board. He listened well, asked questions, empathized, and almost never argued, unless it was to better flesh out his subject’s feelings and ideas. A person like that is rare anywhere, but in a society as notoriously closed and fearful as Iran’s—and things had gotten worse even in that respect since the overthrow of the shah—Metrinko was addictive. People sought him out, trying to glean intelligence as they positioned themselves on ever shifting grounds. He reaped fascinating insights nightly and wrote incisive, well-grounded, and reasoned reports for the department, reports that would be thrown into the mix with all the others that guided American policy. Metrinko had no illusions that the brilliance of his fieldwork and insights would outshine those of the CIA, military, press, and various other foreign service departments at work in the field. He was content to play his part. His reports floated off into the mists of Foggy Bottom. He loved the work for its own sake, for giving him a chance to live well overseas. If he could serve the United States at the same time, all the better. In the deepest sense, though, Metrinko was working for himself.

Most American staffers overseas lived in carefully constructed American cocoons, safe inside the walls of the embassy grounds or at home in apartment clusters with their coworkers. They shopped for the usual American foods at the well-stocked embassy commissary, watched American TV, and hung out with other staffers after hours. Not Metrinko. He was the opposite of that kind of foreign service officer, a man fully and warmly immersed in the local culture. He was thoroughly familiar with Iran, having worked in the country off and on for three years in the Peace Corps before joining the State Department. He took pride in his ability to blend. It was his special talent. To the other Americans at the embassy he was considered a loner, an oddball, and even something of an elitist. Joan Walsh, a secretary in his section, thought he was strange, a man whose idea of a good time was sitting up all night smoking scented tobacco with a bunch of mullahs. More than any of the other places he had worked—Syria and Israel—Metrinko had fallen in love with the place, with its language, its bazaars, its quaint, courtly customs, its food, its art, and its spirit. His nightly dinner outings were a chance to show off this passion, especially rare for an American, and they usually lasted until the wee hours.

This morning he was the last in, but he was much earlier than usual. He had set his alarm for eight. Two sons of the Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, the city’s onetime Friday prayer leader who had died under fishy circumstances weeks earlier, had urged Metrinko to meet with them early that Sunday. The sons were convinced that their father, a revered figure in Iran (the street in front of the embassy would eventually be renamed for him), had been murdered by clerics loyal to Khomeini, but there was no proof. Nobody really knew what was going on in Tehran, but it was assumed that around Khomeini was a circle of men—sometimes called “the Bureau”—that was pulling strings behind the scenes. In Tehran there was the provisional government, headed by Bazargan, which was managing things until a constitution was written. Writing the new constitution was the Assembly of Experts, made up of select members of the Revolutionary Command Council, but beyond all this there were further layers of power and connection, shadowy factions, plots, and maneuvers that no one could fully fathom. Taleghani was the most recent prominent victim of these treacherous, shifting waters. He had advocated keeping mosque and state separate, a concept now opposed by the imam. Because he was widely revered, his opinion was dangerous. His family insisted his murder had been arranged by the clergy, but nothing was certain. They were now reaching out to him. One of the sons, Mehdi, had said he was about to leave the country for a meeting with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader. Metrinko was both surprised and a little pleased that Mehdi and his brother wanted to confer with him beforehand. A PLO connection would make an intriguing addition to his next report.

So Metrinko paid little heed to the crowd he passed that morning. It was just the usual rabble, young men with beards, women in loose black manteaus, white-bearded old men with stained teeth, most of them carrying signs, chanting slogans both triumphant and hateful, shaking their fists in the air, burning American flags and giant dolls of President Carter and other Western leaders—the standard background noise. Metrinko didn’t underestimate what these mobs could do; he had been in Tabriz during the riots that followed the shah’s exit and he had seen the bodies dangling from trees. He had come close to a similar fate. But what he felt for the rabble was more contempt than fear. The way he saw it, they were nothing more than the tools of more powerful men.

Entering the relatively calm green enclosure, he was met with the familiar scent of pine. He walked up the chancery’s rear steps and mounted the stairs to his office on the second floor, where he poured himself a cup of coffee, lit another cigarette, and waited for the call from the guards to tell him the Taleghani brothers had arrived. He had a full schedule that day. After meeting with the brothers, a University of Tehran official was coming by to pick up a passport. Metrinko then planned to lunch with friends from Tabriz, including the former mayor of that city. An old roommate from the Peace Corps was in town and they planned to meet for dinner. As he looked through the milky plastic over the sandbags in his window, he was startled to see some people scaling the walls out front, forty or so feet away.

Picturing the job faced by the embassy guards, he watched amused as the protesters darted across the front yard.

4. We Only Wish to Set-in

Kevin Hermening, who at nineteen was the youngest of the marines assigned to the embassy, woke up in the seven-story apartment building across Bijan Alley from the back wall of the embassy, where he lived with the other marines. Hermening had worked from afternoon to eleven o’clock the night before, so he was not assigned guard duty that morning. He got up at eight, late for him, and did his laundry in the apartment building basement. Then he decided to tackle some paperwork. One of his jobs was to account for the copious amounts of food and drink he and the other marines consumed, documenting the money collected for meals, and planning menus for the coming week. So instead of putting on one of his uniforms, he donned his “office clothes,” a powder blue suit with a vest, and strode across the empty alley, entered the compound, and walked toward the chancery.

He was stopped at the front door by his boss, Al Golacinski, who had been trying in vain to raise on his walkie-talkie the Iranian police captain who was stationed at the motor pool just inside the front gate. Golacinski asked the marine to find him. When Hermening stepped back outside he was surprised to hear the volume of crowd noise jump. The mob was reacting to him, which was unnerving. He noticed for the first time that some of the protesters had gotten inside the walls. Instead of walking, he trotted in the direction of the motor pool, where he found the Iranian captain.

“Al wants you to call him,” Hermening said.

“Fine,” the captain said.

When Hermening turned to go back, the masses outside the gate seemed to lurch toward him, so he broke into a run, which provoked gleeful cheering. As he bounded up the front steps he saw the big front doors of the chancery closing and heard panic in his voice as he shouted, “I’m coming in! Don’t close the doors yet!”

He took the rest of the steps three at a time and made it back into the building before the doors were closed and locked.

* * *

Inured to months of angry public displays, the Tehran embassy staff was slow to recognize that this one was different. It was late morning when Tom Ahern first noticed that there were young Iranians in the compound. The CIA station chief was a tall, slender man with a concave face, deep-set eyes, and straight, thin, brown hair. The Eagle Scout son of a Wisconsin plumbing contractor, Ahern had earned a degree in journalism from the University of Notre Dame before joining the agency. He had a studious, retiring manner and a wry sense of humor and worked in a complex of offices behind an unmarked door on the east end of the chancery’s second floor. He usually started early, reading through the cables collected overnight and chatting with people in the political section. Early that morning he had encountered Laingen on the front steps conferring with a gardener and, pausing to say hello, had quipped, “Sorry to interrupt a meeting of the Fine Arts Committee.”

When he saw protesters inside the walls he called downstairs to alert the marines, but when he looked back out the window a few minutes later the number of invaders had grown. He checked with the political folks across the hall, who seemed unconcerned. They demurred when Ahern suggested they might want to consider destroying sensitive files.

Given his position, it made sense that Ahern would be more sensitive about protecting sources and files than the others. At that moment, all of his office papers fit into a file only three inches thick. This was partly because the spy agency was cautious about keeping written records on site in a precarious post, but it also reflected the paucity of CIA activity in the country. Ahern himself had arrived only four months earlier and the two officers on his staff, Bill Daugherty and Malcolm Kalp, had even less time in the country. Daugherty had arrived fifty-three days earlier and Kalp just a few days ago. They had been focusing their efforts on trying to sort out the political mess and find sympathetic Iranians from the ranks of the more moderate mullahs and nonreligious factions in the emerging power structure. They had plans. They wanted to get back up and running the vital Tacksman sites, telemetry collection centers along the northern Iran border that had been essential for monitoring Soviet missile tests, but which had been shut down by khomitehs earlier that year. If the current unrest and instability continued, they hoped eventually to figure out how to influence events in a more America-friendly way. But they were still a long way from making these things happen.

The difficulty excited Ahern, who at forty-eight was an old agency pro. He had held posts throughout Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, during the long years of conflict there, and he had signed on for Tehran knowing that its future would be tumultuous and uncertain. He didn’t have much to work with, however, only his two officers, neither of whom spoke Farsi, and no real agents to speak of, only a handful of prospects. The language barrier invited misadventure. Once, Ahern had gone to a high-rise apartment house to meet with an informant. The two men stepped into an elevator to go upstairs and their car abruptly halted in mid-ascent. It went completely black inside. Trapped for more than an hour, they held their meeting right there in the dark. Ahern learned only later that he had walked past a large sign in Farsi on the apartment house front door warning of a power shutdown at that hour. In the four months since he’d arrived, he had mostly managed to reestablish links with people who had spied for the agency in the past. His file was thin, but it was important that none of it fall into the wrong hands. The information was ruinous to his own meager efforts, embarrassing to the United States, and potentially catastrophic (even fatal) to the Iranians involved. Ahern walked down the hall to the other end of the building, to the communications vault, and began feeding his files into the disintegrator, a drum-shaped device with a metal feeding chute like a mail slot. It had blades, grinders, and chemicals inside that tore, pulverized, and deconstructed documents and electronic parts, rendering all into a fine, dry, gray-blue ash. The machine made such a terrible racket that users were supposed to wear earplugs to protect their hearing. For now, Ahern began feeding short stacks of paper into it. The machine worked methodically but slowly, and kept jamming, so Ahern started feeding some of his files into a shredder that cut the paper into long, thin, vertical strips.

* * *

In his office over by the motor pool, Barry Rosen, the embassy’s press attaché, was closest to the demonstration and among the first to see Iranians coming over the walls. He was working on a ridiculous directive from his superiors in the International Communications Agency (ICA) in Washington, who wanted him to draw up a chart of the current power structure in Iran. Were they kidding? Nobody he knew had a clear idea of what was going on. Rosen had a better fix than most Americans; he spoke Farsi and had worked in Iran as a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago. He had networks of friends all over the country. He had been in Tehran on this ICA tour for nearly a year, through the fall of the shah, the return of Khomeini, the February siege of the U.S. embassy, when he had briefly been held hostage, to the current provisional government phase and ongoing struggle to form a more permanent state. This year on the ground had made him, like Metrinko and Limbert, one of the old heads at the embassy at age thirty-five. But the little he knew only underscored how much he didn’t. Iran was like the intricate designs on its famous Persian rugs: the closer you looked the harder it was to discern a pattern.

Nevertheless, after attending the morning meeting, he dutifully inserted paper in his typewriter and started banging out a response. When the demonstration outside grew louder he got up from his desk and went into his outer office to stand with his secretary and watch out the window. The demonstrators were all very young, and he noticed many of them had plastic-covered placards around their necks with photos of Khomeini. As he watched, the mob swelled rapidly.

Then a few of the young men began scaling the front gates. Rosen locked the door to his outer office and slid a locking metal bar into place. He told his secretary, Mary, not to open the door for anyone.

Then he ran back to his inner office and began flipping through his files looking for classified documents to destroy. Things were happening fast. He heard some of his colleagues being taken from their offices down the hall. Rosen was not unduly concerned. When it had happened nine months earlier he had been convinced as he was led out into the tear-gas-filled compound that he was going to be shot. When he had not been, along with the enormous sense of relief came a reduced fear of the demonstrators. Their bark was worse than their bite. He assumed this would be another rude interruption; his biggest concern was that it might convince Washington to close the embassy and bring everyone home. He hoped that didn’t happen. He was enjoying the work too much to go home now.

Rosen figured the bar on the outer door would buy him enough time to destroy the most vital papers, so he was surprised when he heard the scrape of metal. His secretary, an Armenian woman apparently frightened by threats from behind the door, was removing the metal bar.

“Don’t!” Rosen shouted.

It was too late. He was at once surrounded by young Iranians, boys and girls, the girls in manteaus and the boys carrying clubs, many of them with kerchiefs wrapped around their faces.

“Get out!” he shouted in Farsi.

“Either you move out of this room or we are going to drag you out,” one of the invaders said.

“This is United States property. Get out of this building immediately.”

Rosen’s defiance was not simply bravado. He found it hard to take this bunch seriously. They were so young, for one thing, shabbily dressed and clearly nervous. He was more angry than frightened.

The growing crowd in his office didn’t budge. Some of them began pulling open drawers to his desk and file cabinets and removing his files. His secretary was curled in the corner, frightened.

“Leave this room immediately or you will be hurt,” one of the demonstrators ordered Rosen. “This is no joke. We’re now in control of this place. You are flouting the will of the Iranian people.”

You leave immediately,” said Rosen. “You have no right to set foot in here, any of you. You are violating diplomatic immunity. It is totally illegal.”

When a club was waved in his face, Rosen relented. He was led out of his office.

* * *

Inside the front door to the chancery, Golacinski felt events slipping out of control. He flipped the switch on his radio and with unmistakable urgency in his voice ordered, “Recall! Recall! All marines to Post One!”

The plan Golacinski and Mike Howland had put together in case of an invasion, which was designed to prevent Americans from being taken hostage, involved locking down part of the workforce and encouraging others to flee. The second floor of the chancery could be closed off behind a steel door, so employees had been instructed to congregate there in an emergency and wait for help from the provisional government. If the door to the second floor were breached, the communication vault on the west end was a final fallback position. It was large enough to accommodate dozens of people and was well stocked with food and water, so theoretically it could protect the chancery staff long enough for help to arrive. Those working in the buildings spread out across the campus would be told to move toward the relatively quiet back gates, where protesters rarely gathered, and slip out toward the British, Canadian, or Swiss embassies. Ordinarily Howland would have helped coordinate this response, but he had gone to the Foreign Ministry with Laingen and Tomseth. By radio, Golacinski told his assistant to stay there and press for an immediate local rescue force.

Several of the young Iranians who had climbed the gate now severed its chains with bolt cutters and swung the doors open wide. Protesters flooded in. On his radio, Golacinski heard reports from the various marine guard posts.

“They’re coming over the walls!” shouted Corporal Rocky Sickmann from another spot on the compound.

This was clearly a coordinated action.

Golacinski’s emergency call had awakened four marines who had worked the night shift and were asleep in the apartment building behind the compound. They quickly dressed but, as they prepared to leave the building, saw protesters and Iranian police massed around their building.

“Stay where you’re at,” said Golacinski.

Usually there would have been only three or four marines in the chancery at that hour, but today there were about a dozen. Some had come in to get paid and others had been attending a language class. Corporals Billy Gallegos and Sickmann had just come running through the front door, having abandoned their guard posts, as instructed. Gunnery Sergeant Mike Moeller, the top-ranking marine at the embassy, gathered his force together and couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.

“All right, guys,” he said with a grin. “Let’s go for it.”

Sickmann noticed that his hands were trembling as he fed rounds into his shotgun and .38 pistol. Outside, the protesters were now ramming a long wooden pole into the large, locked front doors. Inside, every impact shook bits of plaster off the frame. He watched this until the frame was almost completely shattered and then called Sergeant Moeller on his walkie-talkie to tell him that the doors were not going to last much longer.

Outside the door, demonstrators with bullhorns were repeating reassurances in both Farsi and English, “We do not wish to harm you. We only wish to set-in.”

Staffers throughout the building were standing on chairs in their offices, watching the drama unfold. The security barriers on the windows blocked the view on the lower half, so they had to climb to see outside. Joan Walsh, the blond-haired secretary in the political section, was frightened as she watched the now dozens of protesters running around the building. She knew the chancery was virtually a fortress but also that one of the windows on the basement floor was not barred like the others. It had been secured only by a single lock to provide ready egress in case of fire. Seeing some of the protesters with bolt cutters, she assumed it would be only a matter of time before they were in the building.

Gallegos ran to the front door duty station and changed clothes quickly, donning fatigues. He was annoyed because he had polished his combat boots the night before and had left them in his apartment. He had reported to work in the regulation short-sleeve tan shirt, blue pants, and black dress shoes, but the dress shoes looked stupid with the cammies, and it bugged him, but there was nothing to do. He pulled on his emergency gear and ran to his post upstairs, which was in the ambassador’s spacious office. There were floor-to-ceiling windows looking south over the compound. Gallegos saw that the safe doors were still open in Laingen’s office—his secretary, Liz Montagne, had not finished emptying them—and ordered them shut and locked. He stretched himself prone on the floor pointing his weapon out the window. It was a great spot. If he were ordered to shoot, he could pick off targets all day. He kept cocking and aiming his empty rifle at the demonstrators below, pretending to shoot. Corporal Greg Persinger saw this and worried that his buddy, always a little too gung ho, was going to get them all killed.

Golacinski pulled on riot gear and watched images of disorder on an array of closed-circuit TV screens. There were easily thousands of protesters on the grounds now. Four of his marines had surrendered to the mob, and he suspected correctly that Rosen, Graves, and the others in the motor pool office building had also been taken. He had told the marines still in the Bijon Apartments to stay there.

Laingen phoned.

“I’m coming back,” he told Golacinski.

“No, you won’t be able to get near the embassy,” Golacinski said. He could picture the chargé d’affaires’ limo engulfed in a sea of hostile Iranians. Laingen, Howland, and Tomseth might be torn limb from limb. He advised them to turn right around and go back into the Foreign Ministry building and stay there.

Laingen said that under no circumstances were the guards to open fire on the demonstrators. Golacinski asked if, as a last resort, they could use tear gas.

“Only as a last resort,” Laingen said.

In earlier discussions, when they had expected trouble immediately after the shah had been allowed to enter the United States, they agreed that tear gas was not to be used anywhere on the embassy grounds, only inside the buildings. Tehran’s protesters were accustomed to tear gas and had learned how to cope with it during the months of their uprising—that explained the kerchiefs many of them wore wrapped across their faces. Using it would only further incite them. Given that the grounds were completely overrun, the buildings were now the line of defense. Most areas of the second floor were off-limits to those without the highest levels of security clearance, so Golacinski ordered all the local employees to the basement and all Americans to the top floor. Howland came up on the radio seeking an update.

“Look, I can’t talk to you right now,” Golacinski told him. “I’m trying to get this under control.”

At the Foreign Ministry, an impressive collection of large ornate buildings several miles east, Laingen and Tomseth implored Deputy Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to send help to their besieged embassy. Only a short while earlier they had concluded a polite lower-level meeting over sugary tea, in which Laingen had officially thanked the provisional government for its help in controlling the large demonstrations outside the embassy the week before. They had discussed obtaining diplomatic immunity—a touchy subject in Iran—for the embassy’s new military liaison group, commanded by Army Colonel Chuck Scott. After leaving that meeting, Laingen had gone out to the courtyard to his car, where Howland told him what was going on. They had driven only about two blocks from the ministry when Golacinski advised them to turn back. The chargé and his deputy had raced back into the ministry building, where they first confronted the chief of protocol. He was a gentle, nervous man, who immediately began wringing his hands with anxiety. He was sympathetic but powerless. He had led them back in to Kharrazi.

Ibrahim Yazdi, the foreign minister, and Mehdi Bazargan, the prime minister, had been away for a few days to attend the conference in Algiers, where the informal meeting with President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had set off alarms in Tehran. Yazdi was due back that day but had not returned to his office.

So Laingen and Tomseth listened impatiently as Kharrazi phoned various police and security officials trying to get some force over to the embassy to restore order. It was clear from the tenor of his conversations that no one was eager to intervene. The police had their hands full dealing with the mass demonstrations at Tehran University. Help would come eventually, Kharrazi said, but it would take more time.

5. Michael, I’m Really Sorry

Inside the consulate, on the east side of the compound, there were a small number of staff and about sixty Iranians who had made appointments that day to discuss their visa applications. Consul general Richard Morefield had closed the building to the normal flood of applicants while the graffiti painted on the new walls was removed, but scheduled appointments were being honored and most of the staff was at work. Among them was Bob Ode, a retired foreign service officer who had taken a temporary assignment to help out in Tehran. He had a backlog of about three hundred visas to review and hoped that a quiet morning would allow him to put a dent in it. Another was Richard Queen, a lanky, shy, bookish vice consul with big glasses, who was working with three other consulate officers typing data into AVLOS, the building’s new computer system. Assisted by four of his colleagues, he was pulling from the files of rejected visa applicants those who had been convicted of crimes or who had been turned down within the past year and entering that information into the computer, which was linked to American consulates around the world. That way, if the same applicant popped up at an office in a different country, there would be a record of what the Tehran office had discovered. It was boring work, and Queen was looking forward to finishing early and spending some time exploring Tehran.

Ode was helping a pretty young American woman, married to an Iranian, who wanted to check on her mother-in-law’s passport. He got up from his desk with the passport number and was flipping through his files when outside his office he heard Morefield urgently announce, “All right, everybody upstairs! Everybody upstairs!”

“What’s the matter?” the young woman asked.

“I don’t know,” said Ode.

“Does this sort of thing happen often?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” said Ode. “It’s never happened before since I’ve been here, but I’ve only been here a short time.”

Ode cleared the paperwork off his desk and locked it in a small safe, which contained his personal things, passport, travel orders, American money, and some letters and other items that he thought were more secure in the office safe than at the apartment where he had been staying. Then he accompanied the young woman upstairs.

“Stay away from the windows,” Morefield said as people filed past him. Queen saw clumps of young Iranians milling around in the compound below, and noted the curious laminated photos of Khomeini that hung from their necks. They didn’t look too menacing, but some had makeshift weapons. One carried nunchucks, another had what looked like a croquet mallet, and another held a length of broken board.

Downstairs, demonstrators were breaking windows and reaching in through the bars trying to grab anything inside they could reach. Marine Sergeant Jimmy Lopez moved from window to window, whacking arms and hands with his nightstick, then herding everyone up to the second floor. If they turned off the lights on the first floor and everyone stayed upstairs, it was hoped the protesters outside would assume the building was empty. The Iranians were asked to sit on the floor of the visa processing room and stay low.

Lopez and Morefield were discussing what to do next when the power went out. Then they heard footsteps on the roof.

* * *

In his second-floor chancery office, Michael Metrinko’s amusement at the activity outside quickly soured. As the numbers of intruders grew, he realized that the demonstration was now severe enough to disrupt the busy day he had planned. When the embassy had been overrun in February—he was in Tabriz—he heard it had screwed things up for days. He wondered how much this fracas would set them back.

Staff members from the lower floors were massed in the hallway outside his door. When word came that the basement had been breached, Metrinko phoned his friend Mehdi Taleghani.

A security guard answered and there was a delay before he came back on the line.

“Michael, he won’t talk to you,” the guard said.

“Do you know what is happening here at the embassy?” Metrinko asked.

“Yes, we know,” the guard said, and then, “Michael, I’m really sorry.”

He hung up.

Metrinko thought, So much for Persian friendship. He felt set up.

* * *

Golacinski was losing his TV cameras. One by one the monitors in the chancery front guard post went blank. The invading protesters were either destroying the cameras or tilting them up to the ceiling. There were four marines lined up behind the front door, each down on one knee with his weapon up. The door shook more with each impact from the wooden ram. Then, abruptly, it stopped. Sickmann looked through one of the thick Plexiglas windows and saw that the group on the porch had dropped its battering ram and gone off.

Then Gallegos radioed the news that protesters had broken through a basement window. The front side of the building had a sunken concrete porch that ran its full length, letting sunlight in the basement windows. It looked like an empty moat. The protesters had found the one window that had not been completely secured. It had a steel mesh over it and a lock but it was clearly a weak point. Golacinski wondered if they had known about it in advance.

Downstairs, Gallegos confronted the intruders at the foot of the basement stairs. He cocked his shotgun when he saw the first three enter the hallway and they all retreated. Behind Gallegos crouched Persinger, who was handed a tear gas grenade by army Sergeant Joe Subic, a pudgy young man with dirty-blond hair and glasses who worked as a clerk in the defense attaché’s office and whom the marines regarded as a wannabe. Persinger had no use for the grenade, which he did not yet have permission to use. So he set it down on the step next to him and then heard a tink! When he looked down he noticed the grenade’s pin was missing and that the safety lever had popped open. Before handing it over, Subic must have pulled the pin! It went off as he bent to pick it up, blasting a scalding stream of gas into his lower leg. He screamed in pain and the tear gas sprayed off into the basement.

Upstairs, Golacinski smelled the gas. He shooed the remainder of the staff up the stairs. Persinger arrived on a run from downstairs and pulled off his tear-gas-covered pants, uncovering a nasty burn on the outside of his calf. He stripped down to a T-shirt, pulled on cammie pants and boots, then ran upstairs with everyone else. At the bottom of the steps, Gallegos had been joined by Sickmann. Before the two marines was a growing crowd of Iranians, crying and choking from the gas, all with the Khomeini placards, some hand-lettered in English, “Don’t be afraid. We just want to set-in.” Those in the back were pushing and those in front were shouting, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” and inching forward.

Sickmann and Gallegos had donned gas masks. The blood was pounding in their ears and they heard only the whoosh of their own breathing inside the masks, misting up the glass visors. The marines would pump their shotguns and the crowd would jump back. That was the scene Golacinski encountered as he descended the stairs with his Browning 9mm pistol drawn. He joined the protesters in shouting at the marines, “Don’t shoot!”

“No, no, no,” coaxed a woman in the crowd. “We don’t mean any harm.”

More armed marines appeared behind Golacinski on the steps.

One of the young men seemed to be the leader, so Golacinski grabbed him by the arm and asked if he spoke English. When he nodded, Golacinski told him that they all had to get out.

“We are not going to stand for this,” he said, angrily. “Maybe you didn’t realize it but we are prepared to defend this place.”

“Yes, yes,” the young man said. “We don’t want problems. We just want a peaceful demonstration. That’s all we want.”

“You can’t do a peaceful demonstration in the embassy,” Golacinski said. “Now you all are going to have to get out of here.”

The young man nodded. He told the others in Farsi to go back out the window, and the crowd complied. Golacinski directed Gallegos and the other marines to head upstairs.

Golacinski watched until all of the trespassers except the ringleader were out the window. He then took the young Iranian up the stairs, leading him by the arm. Perhaps he could be useful.

On the radio, Howland reported that Laingen and Tomseth had obtained assurances from officials in the Foreign Ministry that help was on the way.

“Just hold out as long as you can,” Howland said. “We are trying to contact the chief of police.”

“That’s fine,” Golacinski said, “but we have a force of police over by the motor pool and they’re not doing anything!”

Upstairs, the hallway was crowded now with American and Iranian staffers. Marines were handing out gas masks and the mood was still calm, although some of the Iranian workers were crying. They knew how ugly these revolutionary confrontations could get. The sting of tear gas was in the air. Joan Walsh walked up and down the hall with a wooden box offering to take any valuables the staffers wanted to secure—during the February takeover, people had been robbed. Up and down the hall staffers dropped jewelry, watches, and wallets into the box, which Walsh then locked in her safe.

Limbert found his boss Ann Swift in the anteroom outside Laingen’s empty office standing before a bank of phones. She was supposed to have gone with Laingen that morning to the Foreign Ministry, but she had been out late the night before and been delayed getting in that morning, so she had asked Tomseth to take her place. Now, with the two ranking diplomats across town, she was in charge. She seemed calm and decisive.

She asked Limbert to call Washington and talk to the State Department watch officer—it was about three o’clock in the morning there. He waited as a secretary placed the call, and when it got through he learned that the department had already received word of what was happening. He handed the phone to Swift and listened to one end of a conversation about what the marines should do, how far they should go in trying to fend off the protesters. In the February episode there had been a lot of shooting before the provisional government provided a local thug, Mashallah Khashani, to drive out the invaders. Khashani had then camped with his gang at the embassy for months, collecting protection fees and running it like his own private concession. That was what they wanted to avoid. Limbert started phoning local Iranian authorities to plead for official assistance.

Both he and Metrinko had done a lot of favors for officials in the provisional government, mostly helping them to obtain visas. It was pay-back time. Limbert tried to reach a friend at the prime minister’s office. He got a secretary on the phone, introduced himself hurriedly, and began to explain to her what was going on.

“Oh, Mr. Metrinko!” the woman said, mistaking him for his colleague. “It’s so nice to hear from you! Tell me, are those visas we sent over ready?”

Limbert explained that he was not Mr. Metrinko, and that if she didn’t find him some help soon she could kiss her visa applications good-bye. He explained what was going on at the embassy.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the woman said dismissively. “We have a relief force of Revolutionary Guards and police on the way over. You have nothing to worry about. In twenty minutes or so they should be there.”

“I’m happy to hear it,” Limbert told her. “I hope what you say is true.”

“All the students want to do is read a declaration that they have, and leave.”

“Fine,” said Limbert. “We have no problem with their reading a declaration. Our concern is that there be no blood shed. We’re glad you have a group on the way. They should get these people off the embassy grounds as soon as possible or something might happen for which we feel your government would be responsible.”

Limbert hung up the phone, and when Swift took a break he got on the phone to Washington and explained to Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders what had been promised.

Downstairs, Golacinski was preoccupied with the radio. He knew that the marines he had told to stay at the Bijon Apartments had been captured there, and that those in the small office building off the motor pool, most notably ICA staffers John Graves and Barry Rosen and their staffs, had also been taken. The only hope of restoring order was for the provisional government to act, so his hopes rested with Laingen and Tomseth at the Foreign Ministry. He requested permission from the chargé to send Washington a “flash” message, the highest emergency protocol, and the chargé authorized it.

The wiry young Iranian Golacinski had taken by the arm kept insisting that all he and the others wanted was to stage a sit-in, and that he wanted to speak directly to Laingen. Golacinski relayed this to Howland, but they all agreed that the chargé d’affaires shouldn’t get on the phone with an Iranian protester. Golacinski asked for permission to go outside with the guy and face the crowd himself, acting as a go-between on the radio for Laingen.

“This can’t go on,” he told the young Iranian. “If somebody breaks through these doors we’re going to have to defend ourselves, and people are going to get hurt.”

“We must stop this,” the young man agreed.

“Yes,” said Golacinski.

Laingen told the security chief that he could go out so long as his personal security was assured. There wasn’t much chance of that. Golacinski felt responsible for the embassy staffers who had already fallen into the hands of the demonstrators. He believed somebody had to do something to turn this around, and he wasn’t nicknamed “Bulldog” for nothing. He loped up the staircase to the top floor and told Bert Moore, an administrative consul, about the authorization to send a flash message, and that Laingen had authorized him to go outside. That meant that decisions regarding security inside the embassy, including supervising the marines, were now Moore’s responsibility.

As he went back downstairs, Golacinski got a radio call from Sergeant Lopez at the consulate.

“Sit tight,” he told Lopez. “You have a very secure building. I’m going outside to try and get this thing resolved.”

Upstairs in the chancery’s communications vault monitoring events on the radio, State Department communicator Bill Belk thought Golacinski was nuts. The vault was the embassy’s most sensitive and secure spot, and Belk had been at work since early that morning, downloading messages from the satellite and sorting through them. Being in the vault gave him a sense of distance from the events just downstairs, which were increasingly compelling. He had stepped out to look out a window at the demonstrators, and back in the vault later he heard someone gasp into the radio, “My God, they are in the basement!” Then he heard people shouting, evidently at a marine downstairs, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”; and then “Don’t throw any more tear gas!” It sounded pretty hairy. When he heard that Golacinski was going out he thought, Great, give them a hostage!

Golacinski handed his weapon to Gallegos and removed his flak jacket. He wanted to appear nonthreatening.

“I’ve got to talk to these people,” he said. “I know what’s going on.”

“Al, don’t go out there,” Gallegos said.

“I’ll be all right,” he said.

The security chief had made up his mind. Gallegos followed him and the Iranian back downstairs to the open window. Golacinski sent the Iranian out first and then said to Gallegos, somewhat dramatically, “Cover me,” and climbed out himself.

Hermening, the young marine who was still wearing his blue suit, watched the security chief go out alone with amazement and admiration. He wouldn’t want to go out there for the world. But he had seen Golacinski intervene several times in tense situations and resolve them. That’s what this situation needed.

6. Hostage to Whom? For What?

As soon as he stepped out into the gray drizzle, Golacinski was surrounded. With the wiry Iranian by his side translating, he demanded that everyone leave. Some of the leaders of the crowd quieted the others, which heartened him. They were listening.

His handheld radio crackled with the voice of a State Department communicator upstairs.

“Should we start destroying files?” he asked.

“No, hold off,” Golacinski said. “I think we’re going to get this under control.”

Sergeant Lopez radioed again to say that protesters were now on the consulate roof and were trying to get through windows, so Golacinski began moving in that direction. The crowd tried to stop him.

“Look!” Golacinski complained. “I’ve got to go over there and get that calmed down. You want to help me or not?”

So they all followed him through the rain. He felt like the pied piper, leading a train of placard-wearing demonstrators across the compound, their number swelling as they moved. At the consulate, Golacinski was let inside by Lopez, and they ran upstairs to confer with Morefield.

At the top of the stairs, Lopez moved quickly to deal with a protester who was climbing in through the second-floor bathroom window, having lowered himself from the roof. The marine handed his shotgun to Gary Lee, the senior general services officer.

Lee held it awkwardly. He was not used to guns and couldn’t tell if the safety was on or off.

Lopez popped a tear gas grenade and entered the bathroom with pistol in hand. The intruder saw him approaching and backed out the window, and Lopez flipped the grenade out after him. Then he popped the pin on another grenade, dropped it and closed the bathroom door behind him. He went to work securing the handles to both the men’s and women’s bathrooms from the outside with a length of electrical cord, which he tied to a post between the two doors.

One of the secretaries passed around candy. Invaders were banging hard on the roof, trying to break through, but Lee assured those around him with a smile that the roof was solid concrete. “They’ll never break through,” he said.

* * *

Golacinski and Morefield agreed that those trapped in the consulate should choose a moment to head over and take shelter on the second floor of the chancery with everyone else. The security chief then went back outside to lead his growing entourage of Iranians away from the building. His radio crackled to life. Protesters were coming through the chancery basement window again. Golacinski started jogging in that direction with his retinue, which now numbered almost one hundred.

As he approached the motor pool he saw Bill Keough, a giant of a man who stood six-six and weighed almost three hundred pounds, towering in the fine rain over a small mob of chanting protesters. Keough was a school headmaster who had come to Tehran for only a few days to sort out the records from the closed American school. He looked down on his tormentors like a bemused Gulliver.

One of the young men in the crowd around Golacinski was filming him now with a small 8mm camera, and it slowly dawned on the soggy security chief that he was no longer so much leading this crowd as being led by it. He heard Farsi coming from his walkie-talkie; the protesters had evidently grabbed some of the marines’ radios.

His own was then snatched from him. The wiry young man he had seized in the basement had melted off into the crowd. He was now addressed by a bigger man with a gruff voice, who appeared to have taken charge. Golacinski recognized him as one of the Revolutionary Guards who had chased off Mashallah, and was at first relieved. Then the man said, “No more on the radio.”

“Okay, but I told you, I’ve got to get permission for you people to be on the compound here. If not, something bad is going to happen.” His bluff sounded lame.

He was led toward the motor pool office building. Looking over his left shoulder, Golacinski saw that the chancery was now ringed by thousands of protesters, who were holding hands and chanting. It looked like they were performing an exorcism, and it reminded him of the Pentagon demonstration more than a decade ago when flaky antiwar protesters had tried to levitate the building.

“Let me have a cigarette,” he asked one of the Iranians. A young man handed him one and then lit it for him.

At the motor pool garage, he phoned Sergeant Wesley Williams, a marine guard at the chancery’s main post inside the front door.

“Look, things are starting to turn here, Williams,” Golacinski told him. “It’s absolutely essential that you get Laingen on the phone for me.”

From the speaker on his radio in the Iranian’s hand he could hear Williams—the systems were linked—talking to someone at the Foreign Ministry, trying in vain to track down the chargé. The consulate was still holding on. Someone grabbed Golacinski by the arm and steered him in that direction. As he was being pulled out, he caught the gaze of the Iranian police captain, who was sitting with his men, watching. The captain looked at Golacinski apologetically and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, What can I do?

* * *

Inside the consulate, Sergeant Lopez had gotten a similar response from the local police. His contact at headquarters listened politely as the marine described what was going on and responded with a simple, “Thank you.” No help was coming from that front. The battery on his radio was going dead, and he was no longer getting a response from the guard post in the chancery. The bulk of the crowd outside the building had left with Golacinski, but there were still protesters beating on the windows with sticks and some had come in through the open second-floor bathroom window again and were trying to break through the cords he had used to secure them. Morefield ordered the visa plates destroyed. Vice consul Don Cooke and Richard Queen got them out of a safe and began whacking them to bits with a steel bar.

“Well, no matter what happens, we won’t have any work to do now for five or six weeks,” said Morefield. “It will take that long to get new plates, and we can’t issue new visas without them.”

Lopez collected embassy ID cards from the Iranian employees, which they handed over readily—none of them wanted to be caught on the streets and identified as American collaborators. Morefield and Lopez decided they would let the visa applicants go first, and then the American staffers would walk together over to the chancery. The women were told to walk together.

“Be prepared for a mob,” said Lopez. “If anyone grabs for your purse, let them have it. Let them take whatever they want.”

As they prepared to leave they noticed that the demonstrators outside the consulate had suddenly vanished. Lopez heard on the radio that the chancery had been breached again. Apparently all the protesters had rushed off in that direction, so instead of going that way themselves, Morefield decided they would all leave in the opposite direction, out the consulate’s front door and into the side street. From there maybe they could melt into the city.

One of the marines at the chancery radioed, “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

Lopez destroyed his shotgun and pistol. Then he, Morefield, Queen, and the other American staff waited until the east-side alley looked clear before peeking out of the garage door. Traffic barred by the mob on Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue was trying to get around the embassy on their side, so it was jammed with cars. Outside were two pasdoran, but they seemed to have their hands full with the traffic. Morefield let the Iranian visa applicants go first. One embassy worker stood at the door, looking out, and another at the top of the stairs. When the street was clear, the door would open and ten of the Iranians would be let down the stairs and out the door. They did this until all sixty or so of them, including the young American woman, had gotten away. Bob Ode came down the steps holding the arm of a terrified, elderly Iranian man who was nearly blind. “God bless you, my son,” the man kept saying, patting Ode on the wrist. “God bless you, God bless you.” Ode led him out the door into the side street alongside the embassy, which was fairly quiet. A car was waiting there to pick up the old man, and Ode helped him into the car and saw him safely off.

Then the first of the American workers walked out, accompanied by the Iranian staff.

Cora and Mark Lijek, Joe and Kathy Stafford, Bob Anders, and Kim King, a tourist who had stopped by the consulate that morning, walked across the street and proceeded at a brisk pace down a road that paralleled Takht-e-Jamshid. They went straight ahead for four blocks, then turned left toward the British embassy. Mark Lijek felt odd walking in a three-piece suit in the light rain with no coat or umbrella. He was getting soaked. King separated from them and headed for a local police station; he was trying to work out a passport problem prior to his scheduled departure. The Americans offered to bring the Iranian employees with them to the British embassy, still a few blocks away, but all but one of them decided to melt off on their own. So the Lijeks and Staffords proceeded with Anders and the remaining Iranian staffer, who said she would show them the way—they were not used to walking the streets in Tehran.

They came upon a square crowded with demonstrators, so the Iranian woman offered to take them to her house. They thanked her but decided it was a bad idea, that it might place her in a dangerous position. But they agreed that they needed to get off the street. People were beginning to stare at them. Anders suggested they go to his apartment. They turned around and headed back in the direction from which they’d come. They made their way circuitously, searching out streets that were relatively quiet, and crossing them in staggers, two at a time. About an hour after leaving the consulate they arrived safely. Anders cooked chicken curry for a late lunch.

After helping the old man, Ode had not followed the Lijek group but had gone back to the remaining staffers. He was carrying a briefcase that Mark Lijek had handed him for some reason, no doubt expecting him to come with them. As he made his way back toward the door, one of the armed pasdoran grabbed at the briefcase. Ode didn’t know what was in it but he wasn’t going to give it up that easily, and even though the Iranian was armed Ode shoved him backward and pulled the briefcase out of his grasp.

“Keep your hands off me!” Ode said. The startled gunman backed off.

Ode was joined then by Morefield, Lopez, Queen, and several other staffers. The marine pulled the door shut behind them, inserted keys in the locks, and broke them off. He had taken off his uniform shirt, torn the red stripes from his blue uniform trousers, and replaced his Marine Corps belt with its shiny buckle with Queen’s plain black one. He was wearing an old army fatigue jacket and still carrying his two-way radio. Queen grabbed his pipe, tobacco, lighter, briefcase, and a flashlight. They chose a direction at random and started walking fast. They could not have been more conspicuous. Morefield looked like an American businessman, a short, wide, balding pale man in a business suit who had turned fifty the month before. Lopez had the standard high-and-tight marine haircut, and the others were wearing ties and suits or sport jackets and carrying briefcases. The streets were crowded with excited demonstrators. Someone shot at them. Lopez heard the snap of a round close by, and then the loud report of the gun. They encountered some local police, who eyed them dubiously, and one demanded the radio. Lopez smashed it hard against the side of a building and then handed it over, broken. The police scowled at them and walked off.

Morefield proposed they go to his house, which was nearby. Others wanted to try the Swiss embassy, only a few blocks away. There was some question about whether the Swiss mission was open on Sunday. Lopez wished they’d stop arguing and make a decision.

“I’ve got a radio at my house,” said Morefield.

So the six of them started toward there, spreading out so that they would be less of a target. They made it a few blocks without being noticed, but then one young man began running alongside, shouting, “See-ah! See-ah! [CIA! CIA!]” His alarm summoned others, and soon a crowd had formed around them. Some were shouting in English, “Go back! Go back!” The Americans ignored the mob and tried to push on through, but then they heard another shot and suddenly Morefield was surrounded by armed men carrying pipes, clubs, pistols, and automatic rifles.

“Look, the embassy is yours, do what you want with it,” the consul said. “No, you are a hostage!” one of the armed men answered.

“What do you mean, hostage? Hostage to whom? For what?” Morefield asked.

All six of the Americans were roughly steered back to the embassy, and then were marched through the misty rain across the compound through mobs of jeering protesters. At first they were told to put their hands over their heads. Ode held up his, including the briefcase, and hung on to it even when one of his captors tried to pull it away. They walked for a while this way, then were ordered to put their hands down.

“Make up your minds,” complained Ode. He didn’t get far before the briefcase was finally wrested from him. It was opened on the spot, and Ode leaned in for a look, as curious about it as his captors. All that it held were some in-house newsletters and press releases. Why on earth had Lijek wanted me to carry that?

A cameraman filmed them as they made their way toward the ambassador’s residence.

7. Shoot Me, Don’t Burn Me!

On the top floor of the chancery, inside the thick metal walls of the communications vault, Rick Kupke had only a vague notion of what was happening outside. He was a State Department communicator and was busily feeding papers into the raucous disintegrator. The vault had a heavy steel door like the ones on bank safes. It had been open all morning and news of the excitement outside had been drifting in, reaching him secondhand. He knew they wouldn’t be destroying everything unless the circumstances were dire. This was confirmed when Bert Moore stepped in and told him to send Foggy Bottom a flash message.

“Tell them the demonstrators have entered the compound and the embassy,” he said.

Kupke didn’t usually write messages himself, he just copied them.

“Do you want me to write it?” he asked.

Moore nodded, hurrying away, so Kupke sat down before the teletype and composed his own short message. He began with five Zs, which would cause alarm bells to ring in the relay centers.

Kupke typed: “Demonstrators have entered embassy compound and have entered the building.”

Then he went back to destroying the piles of cables and messages that had been accumulating for months. Helping him were Bill Belk and Charles Jones, the other State Department communicators, Army Sergeant Regis Regan, and CIA communicators Phil Ward, Cort Barnes, and Jerry Miele. Air Force Captain Paul Needham had joined them.

All along Kupke had figured it was just a matter of time. A few weeks ago he had watched on a monitor at the guard station downstairs as one or two intrepid locals had scaled the front gate, and he and the guards had placed bets then on whether the whole mob was going to come over. Kupke was from rural Indiana and spoke with a slow country drawl. He was on temporary duty in Tehran, in part because he was ambitious and had made a point of accepting difficult assignments, and in part because of an act of kindness. His primary posting was to an isolated outpost in the Sinai Desert, where staffers were rotated out periodically on temporary jobs to give them a break. The temporary duty was usually in Athens or Rome, and when one of his married colleagues drew Tehran instead, a hardship post where he could not be reunited with his wife and children, Kupke offered to take it instead. He was single and, besides, he knew that hardship posts were a short path to promotion in the department. He had arrived two months ago and by now was accustomed to the low cloud of anxiety that hung over the embassy, the fear of being taken hostage or of being torn apart by one of the bombs that were occasionally lobbed over the walls. When he and his buddies played poker in one of the small cottages near the east wall, and gunfire outside grew close, they would just duck their heads under the table and keep playing. Kupke originally had been scheduled to leave in October but had extended his stay after discovering that, hidden beneath their dark robes, Iranian girls had the same charms as girls at home. He was particularly interested in a spirited young woman he had met at a party thrown by the marines a few weeks earlier. Once inside the door she had lifted off her black manteau to reveal an amazing skin-tight silver dress. Some of the girls at the marine parties were as wild as any girls they had ever met back home. Kupke had been scheduled to leave tomorrow, November fifth, and even had seven crisp hundred-dollars bills in his pocket for that travel, but he wasn’t eager to return to the desert and had asked to be extended a second time. He fully expected that his request would be approved, as it wasn’t easy at that point to find Americans who wanted to work in Tehran.

When he heard on the radio that protesters were in the building, Kupke put down his papers for a moment and stepped out in the hall for a look. People were sitting on the floor on both sides of the hallway, and some of the female Iranian staffers were wailing. Walking down the corridor, tear gas stinging his eyes and nose, he stepped into Laingen’s office to listen as Swift, Limbert, and the others worked the phones. He quickly gathered that help was not on the way. Phone lines were being kept open to a number of places, and at one point Kupke was handed a phone with an open line to the crisis operations center at the State Department. He was holding it to his ear when a voice came on and asked, “Have you started destroying files?”

“We are now,” Kupke told him.

“Have you destroyed the back channel?” This was the highest-level State Department information kept at the embassy, kept in a separate safe.

“No,” said Kupke.

“Can you confirm to me that you’ve destroyed it and get right back to me?” the crisis center man asked.

Kupke put down the phone and ran to the safe that contained those files. He scooped them up, mostly papers concerning the shah’s travel to the United States, and carried them back to the disintegrator. Kupke hurriedly fed this stack in, bunching the papers more thickly than before. The blades of the machine began loudly tearing at the pile. Then he ran back down the corridor and picked up the phone.

“Yeah, all the back channel stuff on the shah is gone,” he said.

Seeing Kupke arrive with that pile of documents sent Belk down the crowded corridor to ask the chargé’s secretary, Liz Montagne, if there were any more classified documents in Laingen’s office that had to go. She said she had already handed over everything, but the chargé’s personal safe was locked—Gallegos had earlier demanded that it be closed—and she didn’t know the combination.

Trying to escape the gas thickening in the hall, some of the staff began crowding into the vault. Kupke began handing out gas masks and bottled water. One woman gave Kupke her diamond ring and a wad of cash, saying, “Here, hold this for me, Rick.” When others who had not given their valuables to Walsh saw this they began pulling off their rings and producing more wads of money. Soon Kupke’s right front pocket bulged with money and jingled with jewelry. One Iranian woman became hysterical and began to hyperventilate inside the gas mask; Kupke noticed that she had not taken a tape off the air filter at the bottom and so was suffocating herself; he gently removed the mask and tried to calm her. An American woman, one of the secretaries, was sobbing. Kupke put his arm around her and assured her that it would be okay.

“We’re diplomats, they don’t just murder diplomats,” he said. He hoped it was true.

Not all the women were distraught. Terri Tedford, who worked on the clerical staff, was very poised.

“You’re not worried, are you?” Belk asked her.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m fine.” She was working to encourage the others to stay calm.

For some reason the tear gas didn’t bother Belk that much; it only made his eyes water a little, so he didn’t bother putting on a mask. He brought a small fan out to the hallway and started it in order to blow the gas away from the vault, but it quickly shorted out.

Until that point, the communicators had been picking out for destruction only the classified material from the piles, but now Kupke sensed that time was running out. He had seen how easily the machine had handled the stack of back channel files, and noticing that Barnes and Miele had finished feeding their CIA documents into the device he suggested, “Let’s just start destroying everything.” He felt odd giving directions, but nobody else was.

* * *

At the foot of the basement stairs, Corporal Gallegos heard a crash, and when he went to investigate he saw Iranians climbing back in through the broken window. He pulled the pin on another tear gas grenade, threw it, and backed up toward the stairs, calling for help on his handheld radio.

“If we can get somebody down there, we will,” said Sergeant Moeller.

Then Gallegos heard the order, “Everybody upstairs.” He opened the weapons cabinets at the foot of the stairs, wrapped both arms around shotguns and rifles, and started up the stairs. He got to the small landing on the second floor and the big door was already closed. It had a wood veneer but was steel inside, and it hurt his foot when he kicked it. He was wishing all the more he had his boots on. “It’s me! It’s me!” he shouted. “Open up!”

“Go downstairs,” someone shouted through the door. “Get the guns in the cabinets.”

Gallegos already had as many as he could carry, but he knew there were more radios and weapons in the lockers at the guard post. So he set down the weapons he had and ran back down to the first floor. Hermening was struggling with the combination locks. Gallegos knew the combination, but in his excitement he couldn’t make it work. So he found a pair of bolt cutters and severed the locks. He and Hermening pulled radios and weapons from the lockers.

The odor of tear gas was now mingled with smoke. The protesters downstairs were burning paper to ward off the sting of the gas. They would be coming up the steps any minute. The two marines broke the closed-circuit TV monitors, grabbed all the weapons they could carry, and ran up the stairs to the second floor. The door was opened for them and then slammed shut and locked. A barricade was pulled back into place against it, a table with a refrigerator on top and a couch wedged behind both.

Gallegos was surprised to find all the marines on the top floor unarmed.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked Moeller.

“Put your weapons up,” the sergeant said.

“You’re crazy!” said Gallegos. “I’m not giving up my weapon.”

Moeller yelled at him to obey orders, and then Ann Swift stepped out into the hallway, angry, harried, and not in the mood for discussion.

She pointed to all the weapons Gallegos and Hermening had hauled upstairs and said, “Put them away!”

* * *

Looking down from an upstairs chancery window through a determined gray drizzle, Hermening saw his boss, Al Golacinski, being led across the compound by a small mob of young Iranians. The security chief looked soaked and defeated. One of the protesters had a pistol pointed at his head.

Someone from another window shouted down, “Al, are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m okay!” he shouted back.

It was midafternoon, almost two hours since the protesters had come over the walls. Hermening leveled his weapon nervously and surveyed the chaos below. The spacious compound was now swarming with protesters, thousands of young bearded men, most of them in blue jeans and many wearing green khaki army jackets, and young women draped in long tunics and wearing head scarves like the nuns he had known as a boy back in Wisconsin. Golacinski’s decision to go out and reason with them now appeared to have been a mistake.

A muscular man with a thick mop of dark hair that now clung wetly to his head, Golacinski’s vision was blurry and his eyes stung from tear gas. He yelled up at the windows, “Have you gotten hold of Laingen?”

There was no answer. Golacinski bellowed up that he needed a phone number there. The ones who had taken him were demanding that he get the chargé d’affaires on the phone.

“Look, this is just like February fourteenth!” Golacinski shouted up, referring to the brief invasion of the grounds nine months earlier. He wanted to reassure those inside that this was going to be over shortly, that they should sit tight. He was then led to the front of the building, where one of the protesters demanded that he tell the others to open up and come out.

“They can’t hear me inside,” Golacinski said.

Someone held a bullhorn up to his face.

“Tell them to come out,” he was told. “If not, you are going to see what we are going to do.”

Golacinski’s amplified voice echoed off the orange brick of the front wall. “These people say if you come out they won’t hurt you. This is just like February fourteenth,” he said.

The militant with the gun was growing irate. He spoke in Farsi to two of the others, who ran off toward the motor pool just east of the chancery.

“They are going to get the rope!” explained a young man in a rugby shirt who spoke fluent English.

Golacinski gathered from this that they intended to string him up, a fear quickened by the jeering multitude behind him, both inside and outside the embassy walls, which had been roaring thunderously ever since he had been led around to the front of the building, thrilled to see a hated American captured. He felt a sudden quiver in his knees and bowels.

One of the other protesters pounded on the door and shouted in English, “Open these doors! You will see what we do to your brother!”

Nothing happened. The doors stayed shut and the gunman returned without a rope. Golacinski was relieved, and also struck by the apparent confusion among these protesters. There seemed to be violent ones, like the one with the gun, more moderate ones, like the one in the rugby shirt, and others who just seemed to be going with the flow. No one appeared to be in charge.

One of the Iranians tied a cloth strip over his eyes.

“Okay,” the gunman said. “We are going to go in there. You are going to go in first. If anything happens, you die.”

They walked him down to the concrete moat and, with the gunman holding the pistol to the back of his head, he was directed to climb back down the same opened window he had climbed up and out of an hour earlier. Held by both arms and blindfolded, Golacinski eased himself down awkwardly, feeling his way. They had rigged a chair on top of a table that he had to negotiate blind. The air inside was choked with tear gas and smoke. Right behind him was the gunman, and Golacinski knew it didn’t take much pressure on the trigger. A sudden slip by either of them might end his life. When he got both feet on the floor he was grateful. The Iranians who followed then pushed him through the basement hallway, advancing warily past the office doors on either side.

“Tell them, no shoot!” the gunman said.

Golacinski knew that by now everyone was upstairs, but nevertheless he shouted, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” as they made their way up the steps to the first floor and then up the steps to the second-floor landing. The door had a cipher lock by the handle. Tear gas had pooled in the stairwell, which was now crowded with invaders.

The blindfolded captive’s nerves were about shot, and when one of his captors rolled up a magazine and lit it and he felt the flame near his face, he panicked.

“Don’t burn me!” he screamed. “Shoot me, don’t burn me!”

“No, no, no,” one of the Iranians told him. “For the gas. For the gas.”

Another demanded, “Open the door.”

“Open the door or you will see what we will do!” shouted several of the men around him.

“They have eight of us!” yelled Golacinski, referring to the others he knew were being held by the protesters outside.

Behind the door he heard one of his colleagues shouting, “They’re trying to burn it down!”

* * *

After seeing Golacinski outside with a gun to his head, it was clear that this demonstration had aims beyond simply the reading of a “declaration,” which is what the aide in the prime minister’s office had assured Limbert would happen.

He phoned the provisional government once more and this time spoke with an assistant in the office of Mahdi Chamran, a deputy minister. Limbert explained the situation with more vehemence, and once again was told not to worry.

“Everything is under control,” the assistant said.

Limbert said that things didn’t look under control from his vantage point. There was no sign of the force that had been promised earlier.

“What is being done?” Limbert asked. “What are you going to do?”

“What we are going to do is have a meeting this afternoon to decide what to do about this problem,” the assistant said peevishly.

Limbert understood that they were on their own. The government was neither inclined to nor capable of coming to their rescue, so delay wasn’t going to solve anything. The goal now was to protect the embassy personnel and employees, which could probably best be accomplished by surrender. His greatest fear was that one of the marines would shoot a protester. He could imagine the frenzy a martyr’s blood would ignite. They would all surely be killed.

He spoke to the demonstrators on the radio. They had taken walkie-talkies from the marines and from the security chief, and Limbert could hear them talking back and forth, trying to figure out how the equipment worked.

The smell of smoke sent a ripple of alarm through the crowd of Americans and embassy workers in the corridor upstairs. The downside of being locked on the top floor was that there was no way out. Now smoke began to curl up from underneath the furniture piled against the door. Limbert tried to get someone on the other side to talk to him. He spoke briefly to Golacinski, who told him that there was a gun to his head and that if the door wasn’t opened they would shoot him. Limbert told them all to stand back.

“We’re going to open the door and I’m going to come out to talk,” he said.

It was a decision Limbert made on the spot. Once he learned that help was not coming, it was clear that someone who spoke Farsi would have to try talking to the protesters. If he could find what they wanted, perhaps they could work out an arrangement where nobody would get hurt. Two of the marines pulled back the barricade and one of them opened the door enough for Limbert to slip out to the landing. The door slammed shut behind him.

Crowded on the staircase before him leading down to the first floor were fifty or more very excited young Iranian men, unshaven, wet, and wearing rumpled, worn clothing. Limbert knew immediately that he was going to get nowhere with this bunch. As the door closed behind him he thought, Of all the stupid things you have ever done, this is the topper.

Golacinski was four or five steps down. Limbert rubbed his tearing eyes and felt his nose begin to run from the pungent stab of gas and smoke. He tried to speak calmly. He introduced himself and adopted a scolding professorial tone—he had taught students exactly like these years before at Shiraz University.

“You really need to get out of here before someone gets hurt,” he told them in Farsi. “We have been in contact with the authorities. They are sending police to clear the compound. You have no business here. If someone is hurt it’s going to be your responsibility. You are going to be responsible for the bloodshed.”

His words stunned the crowd momentarily. The last thing they had expected from the top floor of the American embassy was a stern lecture from someone in fluent, unaccented Farsi.

“You’re not an American,” one of the students protested. “You’re a Persian speaker.”

“Yes, but I am an American,” Limbert said. He pushed ahead, asking questions: “Who are you?” and “What do you want?”

“Are you armed in there?” one of the militants asked.

“That’s no business of yours,” said Limbert. “What do you care?”

“We want to get in.”

“Is there somebody here from the government?” he asked.

“We don’t care about the government,” came the answer.

“What about the Revolutionary Council?” Limbert asked.

“We don’t care about the Revolutionary Council,” one of the young men said.

The Iranians were now arguing among themselves. They kept referring to their own “five-man council” that made decisions, but apparently no one from that controlling group was here on the steps. So they quarreled.

“Let’s go in now!” said one.

“No, we’ve got to discuss this.”

“Let’s just knock the door down!” shouted another.

“We do what the council says!” another answered.

As Limbert saw it, to the extent that the crowd on the steps had a leader, it was a young man with a thick Isfahani accent. He was bouncing with excitement and anxiety, capable of anything.

“Tell them if they don’t come out we’re going to kill everybody,” he said.

From inside the door Metrinko bellowed in Farsi, “We just heard on the radio that Khomeini has ordered the Revolutionary Guards to clear the embassy!”

The mob on the stairs wasn’t buying it. Limbert was grabbed and blindfolded. One of the Iranians shouted at the door, “Look, if you don’t come out in fifteen minutes, we are going to shoot both of these people!”

Now Limbert was even more frightened. He judged that this crowd would carry out the threat. He wondered if his colleagues would open the door; he wondered if they should open it. He had volunteered to come out and he had to accept the consequences. He expected this to end badly, for him and for everyone else.

8. Ann, Let Them In

On the other side of the heavy door, Ann Swift was on the line to Washington, while Colonel Chuck Scott, the military liaison officer, and Colonel Tom Schaefer, the defense attaché, were talking to Laingen at the Foreign Ministry, giving him running reports on the situation.

The whole point of holding out on the second floor was to protect personnel and documents until local authorities arrived and restored order. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen. With so many Americans already in the hands of the protesters, and with the threats to kill Golacinski and Limbert, a consensus was emerging that holding out further was pointless. That’s what Laingen told Scott, and when the colonel handed the phone to Swift the chargé said, “Ann, let them in.”

They prepared to open the door. The stash of weapons was carried down to the coms vault, where Bert Moore stepped in and announced, “We’re going to surrender.”

“Mr. Moore, I’ve got more documents to destroy,” Kupke said. “We’ll surrender when we can.”

He had no intention of giving up, although he didn’t say that.

“I’m going to close the door,” Kupke shouted. “Anybody who wants to surrender, leave now.”

All of the embassy staffers and Iranian employees filed out, and as Kupke swung the heavy door shut he saw that his tall friend Bill Belk was among those in the hallway. He thought about holding the door and trying to get his attention, but the marines had begun pulling apart the barricade down the hall. He closed the vault door and locked it.

One of the marines shouted through the main stairwell door, “Do not shoot! We are not armed. We are letting you in.”

Then the door swung open.

Belk felt more disgusted than angry or frightened. He had gone to retrieve more files for the disintegrator, and when he saw that the vault door was shut he knew he was stuck. Why were they surrendering? They had water and some food. Belk figured they could easily have held out for a few days or more, long enough for these yahoos to give up and go away.

But it was too late for that. Protesters swarmed into the corridor, men and women, all young, draped with their Khomeini placards, wet and excited. Some of them were armed. They began to charge off down the hallway but stopped abruptly when one of their leaders raised his hands over his head and bellowed, “We are going to do this in a well-organized way! You will come out one at a time.”

The invaders resumed moving down the hallway, more methodically now, ignoring those seated against the walls and moving instead from room to room. Swift was still on the phone giving Washington a blow-by-blow when an Iranian grabbed it from her hand.

Scott was talking to Mike Howland, who was with Laingen at the Foreign Ministry.

“Surrender with your head held high,” Howland said.

Scott didn’t get to respond. An angry young Iranian grabbed the phone out of his hand.

“Who were you talking to?” he demanded.

“Ayatollah Khomeini,” said Scott. “He told me to tell you all to leave here and let us go.”

The Iranian hit Scott across the face with the back of his hand.

Everyone was herded into the halls. They were ordered to line up single file and their captors started binding their hands and blindfolding them with the prepared strips of white cloth.

Behind the closed door of the vault, standing before the still loudly grinding disintegrator, Kupke watched the surrender on the black-and-white closed-circuit monitor. He saw Iranians running from office to office, carrying out drawers and files. His colleagues, including poor Belk, were being herded out the door. Kupke watched until an Iranian, young and bearded like the rest, peered up curiously at the camera that was mounted outside the vault in the hallway and then removed his jacket and tossed it upward. The screen went blank.

There were eleven others with Kupke in the vault: CIA chief Tom Ahern and his agency communicators Phil Ward, Jerry Miele, and Cort Barnes, Army Sergeant Regan, foreign service officer Steve Lauterbach, two marines, Hermening and Persinger, Air Force Captain Paul Needham, Navy Commander Bob Englemann, and another State Department communicator, Charles Jones. So far, the Iranians didn’t know they were there.

* * *

Golacinski was hustled down the stairs and captives were led out the chancery door one by one. Word of the successful storming of the embassy spread throughout the city and soon enraged masses roared outside its walls like some mindless, insatiable, million-throated monster, screaming for American blood. It was as though an impregnable fort had been breached and taken. It was a great victory, a cleansing, an exorcism. A deafening cheer rose as each blindfolded, bound American emerged.

One of the marines who came down the steps asked Golacinski, “What’s going on?”

“Just stay cool,” Golacinski said. “Stay cool.” He said it as much to himself.

As he emerged the crowd chanted joyfully, “Allahuakbar! Allahuakbar!”

After the smoke and tear gas, it was a relief to breathe fresh air. The rain seemed to be coming harder and colder.

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dave Roeder was led down the staircase, held gently on both sides by young Iranian men. Immediately outside the door they had placed a partly burned American flag, which he was made to walk over on his way out.

The strip of cloth tied tightly around navy Commander Don Sharer’s eyes burned like hell. It felt like it had been soaked in tear gas.

As Morehead Kennedy, the embassy’s chief economics officer, was being led down the stairs, the Iranian who had hold of his arm kept repeating with each step, “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam…”

Belk was grabbed and blindfolded. His hands were bound with a nylon rope. When the young man tying the rope used a knife to cut off a strip he had inadvertently jabbed Belk with it in the side.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

The tall State Department technician was led down the stairs and out the front door. He towered over his captors, a middle-aged father of two boys back in South Carolina, with longish hair and sideburns wrapped in a cloth blindfold, wearing an open-collared shirt, hands bound in front, surrounded by triumphant students. His captor kept telling him, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” but with a multitude screaming for his blood it was hard not to feel like he was being led to his death. “We will teach you,” his captors said. “We will bring to you Khomeini’s thoughts.” He was surprised by how gentle they were. In the din he heard camera shutters clicking. Photographs of Belk emerging from the chancery would be transmitted around the world and would become emblematic. He was urging himself to maintain his dignity. If they are going to kill me, then at least I’ll keep my head up. He squared his shoulders and held high his blindfolded head.

Bruce German was convinced that he was being led to his execution. He had been asked before leaving the building if he would make a statement to cameras outside denouncing President Carter.

“I won’t say anything,” he said.

As marine guard Rocky Sickmann was being led through the fine rain he heard the protesters around him making hissing sounds. Some would come right up to him and hiss loudly in his ear. He didn’t know what it meant. It sounded like they were shushing him, telling him not to say anything. He had nothing to say. The large angry crowd outside the embassy was apparently being held back, and inside the compound there were photographers snapping pictures of him and everyone else. One of the protesters came up to him and held a knife to his temple, which made the others around him laugh. Someone snapped a picture of it.

Joe Hall felt oddly elated. A young army warrant officer from Oklahoma with a broad forehead, dark straight hair, and mustache, he had never liked the idea of being stationed in Tehran and had arrived with great reluctance that summer to work in the defense attaché’s office. He and his wife, Cherlynn, had worked together for four years at the U.S. embassy in Athens, and it had been the best four years of Hall’s life. This assignment meant they would have to live apart for a full year. They had been missing each other terribly. Hall had taken the post only because the army had tied it to the warrant officer promotion he felt he had earned, and he had resented it from the start. He had found Tehran to be dusty, dry, hot, crowded, and hostile. Now, bound and blindfolded, reeling under the waves of hatred from the Iranian mob, he walked with captors holding him on either side, feeling the drizzle on his face, the first rain he remembered since he had arrived, convinced that this meant his stay in Tehran would be over a lot sooner than planned. So his first reaction to being taken hostage was delight. He figured it meant they would all be evacuated as soon as the local authorities got things in hand. This was going to be the shortest assignment of his career. He would be back home with Cheri soon!

John Limbert was delighted to get out of the tear gas and smoke. The rain felt soothing. He felt a sudden enormous rush of relief at having escaped death on the staircase and he was overjoyed just to be alive.

In answer to the chanting crowd he shouted, “Allahuakbar!” in agreement, rejoicing.

They must have thought he was nuts, an American official, a “spy” flushed from the very bowels of America’s espionage machine, blindfolded, shouting earnestly with them in the rain, “Allahuakbar!

* * *

President Jimmy Carter was awakened at Camp David with news of trouble at the embassy in Tehran. It was four-thirty in the morning and the call was from Zbigniew Brzezinski, his crisply efficient national security adviser. Carter then spoke briefly with his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. The hostage takers were demanding the return of the shah, which was, of course, out of the question. Brzezinski was optimistic. So far none of the hostages had been shot, he said, which was a good sign, because such actions were usually the most violent in the first hours. But before he went back to sleep the president had an awful vision of hostages being executed, one a day, for his refusal to be blackmailed. What would he do then?

As Carter tried to get back to sleep, word flew from phone to phone throughout the highest levels of the American government. White House staffers, generals, and diplomats were awakened before dawn. Word reached out and down to those who would need to know immediately. The train of early morning calls eventually found U.S. Army Colonel Charlie Beckwith in a hotel room in Hinesville, Georgia.

He was awakened by Delta’s CIA liaison, Burr Smith.

“I thought you’d like to know, Boss,” he said. “The American embassy in Iran has gone down. The entire staff is being held hostage.”

Beckwith, who had slept only two or three hours, got dressed, checked out, and pointed his car north on Interstate 95. It was a five-hour drive to Fayetteville, to the Stockade, the unit’s headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As he drove through sunrise over the spectacular fall display, the colonel, who had once been a lineman at the University of Georgia, thought, What a great day for football!

9. I Told You So

Farouz Rajaeefar was elated. An engineering student at Amir Kabir University, she had been among the first wave into the compound. Raised in a secular family, she had spent time in the United States and in fact had been enrolled earlier that year at the University of Texas. But she hadn’t made it back to the States for classes. Swept up by the revolutionary and religious fervor at Amir Kabir, she had joined the embassy invaders as a translator. Her English was fluent.

She was thrilled with their success. The demonstration was similar to ones she had heard about in the United States and in Europe, where young people had seized campus or government buildings in order to publicize their grievances. She marched that morning dressed in a long pullover and blue jeans, with her Khomeini picture pinned to her chest, waving her fist in the air and chanting anti-American slogans. The takeover had gone more smoothly than they had dared to hope. Many of the men felt sure there would be shooting, and that there would be martyrs, but the whole invasion had succeeded without anyone firing a shot, so far as she knew.

On the chancery second floor, in the heart of the evil beast, she and the others stared in amazement at the piles of shredded documents they found on the floor of some offices. What more proof of American plotting and trickery was needed? What were these spies trying so desperately to hide? This would be the students’ next great task, to piece together not just these documents but the whole place, who was who, what work was going on in these offices, what secrets were hidden in these files. They would study this den of espionage and piece it all back together and reveal its evil machinations to Iran and to the world.

But first Rajaeefar had to call home. How should she tell her parents that she had taken part in invading and occupying a foreign embassy, and not just any embassy but a superpower’s?

She picked up one of the embassy phones and dialed home. Her mother answered.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“Listen to the radio,” Rajaeefar said triumphantly, and, with a goodbye, she hung up.

* * *

Other excited occupiers were using the phones in the chancery, calling family and friends to boast of their success. One of the young women involved phoned a local radio station, which at first refused to believe her when she said she was calling from “the former American embassy, the present Den of Spies.” She directed them to phone the main number for the U.S. embassy and ask for the extension of the phone she was using.

The students had prepared a communiqué, which was read over the phone to the radio station. It reflected the full idealistic and naive sweep of the students’ intentions, which were nothing less than to ignite a worldwide spiritual uprising of the virtuous oppressed masses.

“In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate,” it began, and then quoted from the imam’s recent speech urging students throughout Iran to “forcefully expand their attacks against America and Israel.”

The Islamic Revolution of Iran represents a new achievement in the ongoing struggle between the peoples and the oppressive superpowers. It has kindled hope in the hearts of the enchained nations and has set an example and created a legend of self-reliance and ideological steadfastness for a nation contending with imperialism. This was in reality a conquest over the curse of blindness that the superpowers had imposed so that even the intellectuals of the oppressed world could not conceive of any other freedom than under the benediction of another superpower.

Iran’s revolution has undermined the political, economic, and strategic hegemony of America in the region.

It went on to explain that “the world-devouring America,” which for years had been exploiting Iran’s resources, was now engaged in “spiteful attempts” to regain power.

We Muslim students, followers of Imam Khomeini, have occupied the espionage embassy of America in protest against the ploys of the imperialists and the Zionists. We announce our protest to the world; a protest against America for granting asylum and employing the criminal Shah while it has on its hands the blood of tens of thousands of women and men in this country…. And, finally, for its undermining and destructive role in the face of the struggle of the peoples for freedom from the chains of imperialism, wherein thousands of revolutionary and faithful humans have been slaughtered.

It was signed, “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line.”

* * *

A few miles away from the embassy compound, a furious Bruce Laingen was finally allowed to see the foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi, a gentle, professorial man with a sparse, graying beard who had been out of sight—conspicuously, Laingen thought—throughout the ongoing siege. Laingen unloaded on the minister, protesting the seizure of his embassy and reminding Yazdi of his obligation and promise to protect it under long-standing rules of international diplomacy.

Yazdi heard this out patiently. He seemed troubled, acknowledged his government’s responsibility to protect the embassy, and apologized for what had happened. He was surprised by how agitated Laingen seemed. After all, this sort of thing had happened before. The foreign minister spoke English fluently; his exile during the shah’s years had been spent primarily in Waco, Texas, where he had worked as a medical researcher and had been Khomeini’s man in America in the years leading up to the revolution.

“Calm down,” he told Laingen, and couldn’t keep from adding, “I told you so.”

Yazdi had warned weeks ago that there would be consequences he might not be able to control if the United States admitted the shah. In a meeting with the State Department’s top Iran hand Henry Precht, the foreign minister had likened welcoming the shah to “opening a Pandora’s box.” Yazdi was in a position that both Laingen and Vic Tomseth, the chargé’s acting deputy, recognized as precarious. Tomseth thought now that he had not fully appreciated how precarious. The foreign minister was one of a group of primarily secular intellectuals who had formed a brain trust around Khomeini when he was in the last months of his exile in Paris. Along with Prime Minister Bazargan, he was part of a practical political faction that wanted to see the new Iran form a Western-style democracy. They wanted to show the world that postrevolutionary Iran was not some renegade nation of religious fanatics but a serious country, one that understood its obligations in the world, and one that was led by sober, practical, well-educated people. But he was increasingly under attack, as was Bazargan, by hard-line clerics who claimed the revolution for Allah alone and who wanted a radical Islamist state. These street demonstrations, and the rampant anti-Americanism, were tools in the mullahs’ arsenal. Any politician who dared step up to defend the need for continued ties with the Great Satan before the pious mob put not only his political goals and career in jeopardy but his freedom and quite possibly his life. Yazdi had warned that admitting the shah would play right into the hands of these powerful forces, who fully embraced the fantasy of devilish American omnipotence. They would tell the people that President Carter was plotting to restore the monarchy, and if that happened Yazdi and his government were in trouble. Yazdi had answered Precht, “The responsibility is yours if you let him in.” It was not a threat. He knew what the mullahs would make of such a gesture, and he suspected his fragile government would not survive the storm that followed.

When it happened, they had considered severing relations with America but had dismissed the idea as impractical. Even Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council had agreed. There were too many outstanding issues—military contracts, the shah’s vast bank accounts in the United States—that needed resolution. It was decidedly not in Iran’s interest, at least in any short-term sense, to completely shun America.

The foreign minister had earned some credibility with his American guests. He had personally defused the February takeover, when as deputy prime minister he had gone to the embassy as the invaders were chased off and the compound restored to the American mission. It had taken courage. But much had changed in nine months. Yazdi’s current position as foreign minister was a less powerful post, and Carter’s decision to admit the shah had badly eroded his authority. Just as he had predicted, the mullahs had been fanning fears of an American countercoup. Yazdi believed this was nonsense, but politics is based not on reality but on perception. Leaked reports of the private meeting with Brzezinski in Algiers days before had worsened matters. It had provoked wild speculation in Tehran. Now he and Bazargan were openly branded as sellouts and traitors. This was intensely serious business. Yazdi had a better appreciation of the dangers than did his American guests, who had not fully grasped the fury of suspicion in Iran.

Laingen brought up Yazdi’s contribution in February, as though nothing had changed. Yazdi was tactful. He tried to explain.

“Then, there was a risk of violence,” he said. This situation, from all accounts, was peaceful. It involved university students. It would take a little time, he said, but the situation was at least “under control.” To Yazdi, living in a world of firing squads, a sit-in at the American embassy was not a crisis.

He allowed the Americans to use the phones at a table in his own office. Laingen got on the line with the small group of his colleagues still holed up in the vault, and to his superiors in Washington. Yazdi was also working the phones, including a special red one, which was a direct line to Khomeini’s offices in Qom.

After some time at this, Yazdi said confidently, “We will solve this tonight. I have just had some good news.”

He explained that high-level discussions were under way between the provisional government, the Revolutionary Council, and the imam himself. None of the Americans had been harmed, he said. The embassy had not been seriously damaged and tomorrow, at the latest, Laingen’s staff would be released and the embassy returned.

10. I’m Going to Cut Out This Eye First

Inside the chancery vault, Rick Kupke continued to feed documents into the clamorous disintegrator. The other communicators set about destroying their communications equipment. This was not as simple as banging things with a hammer. They had a list instructing them step by step. First they had downloaded a program called “Terminal Equipment Replacement,” which would enable them to get most of their electronics back up and running quickly in case the invaders were chased off and the crisis suddenly ended. Then they began taking apart the machines in a selective, nondestructive way, but one that would make it exceedingly difficult for anyone unused to them to restart them. A telex machine in pieces that could not be readily reassembled by anyone but an expert was preferable to a broken telex machine. So it was very deliberate work, and because some of the machines, like the teletype, had been in use all day, they were hot. Barnes would read off the serial number of the selected piece and Regan would write it down. The list was prioritized, so that the last items to go were the secure teletypes that kept them connected to Washington. When it was decided to begin destroying them, selected parts were culled from the various bits and either smashed with a hammer or cut in half with a saw. Miele held the computer list and would cross off items one by one as they were destroyed. Some of the people in the vault didn’t work there and were unfamiliar with the equipment, but everyone pitched in. Those who knew what they were doing gave instructions to those who didn’t. The center of all this activity was the over-stressed disintegrator, which kept churning and banging away.

Tear gas came through the air-conditioning vent, so Phil Ward put on a gas mask. He wore it for only a few minutes and then took it off.

“I can’t breathe in this,” he said. Cort Barnes inspected the mask and saw that Ward, like the Iranian woman earlier, had not removed the tape at the bottom that covered the airholes. They got a laugh out of that. Barnes tried the gas mask for a few minutes but he had to remove his glasses to wear it and he couldn’t see well enough to do his work. So he also discarded it and just fought through the discomfort. They had earlier donned blue and yellow flak jackets, but took those off, too. Barnes thought the colors looked silly.

About two hours after Kupke closed the vault door they were finished. They performed a complete check of the master list, and then took a careful look around, pulling open drawers and safes, making sure that nothing had been accidentally left behind. They left open only the one or two phone lines to Washington. The vault was a mess; strewn across the floor were papers and broken equipment. When they were done they broke open some of the stock of C rations and snacked on peanut butter and chocolate.

Kupke then noticed the weapons. He had been stepping over them for hours but hadn’t looked down. Kevin Hermening had brought them into the vault and dumped them on the floor. There were long rifles, Uzis, handguns, and shotguns and boxes of ammo.

Tom Ahern was talking on the phone with Mike Howland, the assistant security chief, who was at the Foreign Ministry with Laingen and Tomseth. Howland was concerned about the weapons falling into the hands of the Iranians, which had happened during the February crisis.

“Get rid of them,” he advised.

Ahern passed along this instruction to Hermening. More than turning over the weapons, the CIA station chief was worried about how it might look for this mob of fired-up protesters to find them holed up in a vault armed to the teeth.

They set to work breaking the weapons down and stashing the parts in the now empty safes. They had planned to leave the safes open to show that there was nothing inside, but now they decided to lock away the remains of the guns. They tossed in the handguns and Uzis. Most of the guns fit into the safe’s drawers. The ammo was placed in the main chamber. The shotguns were too long to fit, so Kupke looked around for another way of getting rid of them. The vault consisted of two small rooms, divided by a wall of electronic equipment, power panels, wires, and transmitters. One of the chambers had a steep, narrow spiral metal ladder that led up to the roof.

“I’m going to take some of these guns and stick them up there,” he said.

At the top of the ladder was a flat steel door about a quarter of an inch thick on rollers. With an armful of shotguns under one arm, Kupke used the other to slide the door open. He swung the weapons out to the roof and then climbed up after them. Toward the center of the building was a wooden shed, which he crawled to on his belly, being careful to keep his body below the eighteen-inch lip of wall around the roof. Kupke wasn’t worried about being seen from below—the roof was about fifty feet up—but he was concerned about being seen from the window of one of the multistory buildings that ringed the compound. He was wearing a yellow shirt, so he would have been easy to spot. With the shotguns, he feared that if he was seen someone might start shooting at him. He stayed close to the wall.

As Kupke was disposing of the guns, Ahern wanted a better idea of what was happening outside so he and Hermening climbed up to the attic that ran the length of the building and, using a flashlight, eased out along the ceiling studs. They walked stooped in the darkness, stepping over crossbeams. At one point they had to balance their way along a beam for about fifteen feet—falling would most likely have meant crashing through the ceiling and into the middle of the occupied hallway underneath. At each end of the building were triangular windows that had big fans in them. They were both badly startled by a loud bang from overhead—Kupke was dropping weapons up there but they didn’t know that. They assumed that somehow the invading Iranians had made their way to the roof. They eased out to the window, shut off the fan, and Ahern had a good look around the compound. There were Iranians everywhere.

Above them, Kupke peeked over the rim and saw the same scene. Some of his colleagues were blindfolded and being led across the compound toward the ambassador’s residence at the south end. There were still mobs of excited Iranians running in all directions; outside the walls was a growing mass of cheering people, urged on by protesters with mega-phones. He placed the shotguns on a short pile of wooden planks beside the shed, crawled back to the sliding door, and backed down the ladder. He got on the phone with the State Department.

“I was just on the roof,” he said. “There are hundreds of demonstrators on the grounds.”

“Did you see any Americans?” asked the man on the other end.

“I saw some Americans blindfolded.”

When he returned to the disintegrator, he found Barnes smoking a cigarette and looking worried. Barnes’s hands were shaking. He had been evacuated from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon only four years earlier. Now that the documents had all been destroyed, they were feeding circuit boards from the computers and encryption devices into the disintegrator, which was hot and roaring. Both Kupke and Barnes were sweating profusely.

The State Department communicator screamed to his CIA friend over the noise, “Cort, when you were flown off that embassy, were you more scared then, or are you more scared now?”

“Now,” he said.

“I didn’t want to hear that,” Kupke said.

Barnes fed a thick piece of circuit board into the machine and, abruptly, it came to a halt. The blades stopped and wouldn’t move. Kupke picked up a two-by-four and prepared to give the blades a whack.

“Don’t do that!” Barnes protested.

Kupke slammed the two-by-four into the blades and they started to turn so quickly that the machine bit the end of his two-by-four right off, then sputtered to a stop again. Kupke next found a four-by-four, whacked at the blades with that, and the machine once more began churning.

There were still shotguns on the floor; some time later Kupke took a break and carried more of them up to the roof.

* * *

The phone lines started to go inside the vault. The Iranian invaders had control of the main switchboard. Soon, the only ones functioning were local lines: one to the Foreign Ministry, where Howland had stayed on the line, and another across town to the Iran-America Society offices, where the director, Kathryn Koob, and her assistant Bill Royer were acting as go-betweens for Washington. Royer stayed on the line to the vault and Koob would relay questions or instructions from Washington to him, then he would pass them to Jones.

“I think it’s just a sit-in that got out of hand,” said Jones. “They said they were just going to sit-in, but it sounds as if they’ve gone wild.”

At the Foreign Ministry, Laingen remained optimistic.

“Help is coming,” Howland told Ahern.

The station chief still had a direct teletype link to his supervisors at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There wasn’t anything headquarters could do, of course, except to wish him well and ask for frequent updates. So the agency’s station chief decided there was no point holding out further. Files and sensitive material had all been destroyed or shredded and the weapons had been broken down and removed. The Iranians outside were working on the vault door with a sledgehammer and would eventually break through. Refusing to open it would only further antagonize them, and any attempt they made to blow open the door would probably injure those inside.

At the Foreign Ministry, Howland was urging Ahern to hang on.

“Tom, we think you’re more valuable not surrendering,” he said.

Then, outside the vault, the Iranian invaders produced Howland’s boss, Golacinski.

The security chief had been marched through the rain with the others to the ambassador’s residence, where he had briefly been tied to a chair in the dining room with a large number of other captives. The residence was a mansion, with huge rooms designed for entertaining on a grand scale. The dining room was furnished like an old French palace. The Iranian invaders had removed cushions from the chairs and placed them on the floor, where they lounged with their weapons. The hostages all sat on the hard, straight-backed chairs, which in time grew quite uncomfortable. Still, the mood had been surprisingly light. Everyone was talking and joking. The protesters were a little giddy with success. Both they and their captives assumed that government forces would arrive shortly to restore order. But then Golacinski had been taken from his chair and led back out across to the chancery and upstairs to the vault door at the west end of the second floor, the final holdout. He figured that the men inside were still destroying documents and resolved to buy them as much more time as he could.

His captors took off his blindfold and one who spoke English told him to talk his colleagues inside into opening the door.

“There’s nobody in there,” he said, but then they distinctly heard someone shouting on the other side of the door.

“Look, it’s a very thick door,” Golacinski said. “They’ll never hear me.”

He suggested that instead of him shouting through the door that they use a phone.

“No,” said his lead captor.

“Then I can’t talk to them.”

They relented and took him into an office a few steps down the hall. Golacinski said he didn’t remember the phone number, so they searched for an in-house phone book. The guards opened drawers and poked through bookshelves. They could not find anything. Finally, disgusted, they led Golacinski back out to the vault door. They banged on the door and Golacinski shouted in.

He heard Hermening’s voice inside saying, “It’s Mr. Golacinski out there!”

“Al, are you okay?” Hermening asked through the door.

“I’m okay. Everybody is over at the ambassador’s house. These people want you to come out, and they say they won’t hurt you.”

“Do we have some time, Al?” he heard Tom Ahern shout.

“I don’t know,” Golacinski said.

At the Foreign Ministry, where Howland had been talking to Ahern on a phone in a small office downstairs, Howland set the phone down on the desk in order to keep the line open and ran upstairs to Yazdi’s office to confer with Laingen.

He explained that Ahern was ready to open the door and the reasons why he thought it should not be done.

“No, I agree,” said Laingen. “Tell them to hold on.”

Howland ran back downstairs, but when he got there he found the phone on the cradle. Someone had seen it off the hook and hung it up. Howland dialed the number for the vault but he didn’t get through. It was about four o’clock.

He hung up the phone, and seconds later it rang. Howland picked it up and heard an American voice. It was a sergeant calling from Germany who had somehow, in all this confusion, tracked him down to this office inside the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

“How did you—” he started to ask, but the sergeant cut him off. “Hold on for just a minute, sir.”

Then a four-star general was on the phone, asking for a full situation report. Howland was shocked and impressed. He began explaining things to the general.

On his end, when the line went dead, Ahern decided to wait another five minutes and then instructed everyone to make one last check of all the drawers, files, and equipment. Hermening went to work helping Jones and the others destroy heavy “core boards” from the computers. They were as thick as books and had to be cut into pieces with a knife before being fed into the disintegrator, which would loudly break them down further.

Kupke made one more trip to the roof to get rid of the last four shotguns. He slid open the door, pulled himself back up, and sat squatting with two shotguns under each arm. His yellow shirt was wet and filthy, covered with dirt and tar from his belly-crawls on the roof. He dropped down again and moved along the edge of the low wall. There was a din of thousands outside the embassy walls, urged on by voices amplified with loudspeakers.

Downstairs, unaware that Kupke was alone on the roof, Ahern swung open the vault door. On the other side stood an angry, excited, but dumb-founded crowd of young Iranians, one of whom stepped up and drove an elbow hard into Ahern’s ribs. He managed to keep his feet, then was quickly blindfolded and bound. Golacinski was thrown to one side and cracked his head on the wall. He heard the sounds of his colleagues being beaten. Bob Englemann’s black-rimmed glasses were broken and he doubled over with his hands up, trying to protect himself from the blows.

Hermening made one last pass through the vault, gathering up anything left on the tables and floor and throwing them down the disintegrator chute. As he did this he was grabbed from behind by both arms. Two Iranians had hold of him, and one demanded that he put his hand down the chute and retrieve whatever he had thrown in. He refused and was then roughly hauled out of the vault to the hallway.

Barnes saw a tiny Iranian man waving a big gun. As the line of Americans filed out of the vault, the tiny one kicked and punched at them, so Barnes flicked his cigarette to the floor and scooted over as close behind Ward as he could, figuring it would make it harder for Tiny to land a clean blow. It worked.

Hermening was not so fortunate. Held from behind by both arms, one of his captors slapped him hard across the face. The young marine was determined not to cry out or complain. He took the blow and stared furiously back at his attacker, which earned him another hard slap. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Golacinski and some of the others lined up on the floor against one wall. Some were blindfolded and some had bags over their heads. He was pushed down in the same line between Ward and Paul Needham, who thought the bag over his head was a very bad sign. For months they had been seeing pictures of executions, and in most the victims had bags over their heads. There was a lot of shouting in the hallway; the Iranians were going down the line demanding that their newest captives identify themselves and their jobs. Hermening wondered what he should say. He thought, name, rank, and serial number, but he could see right away that this answer was going to get him in trouble. If he didn’t tell them he was a marine guard, they were going to make other damaging assumptions about him. He hadn’t been caught with the other marines, he wasn’t in uniform, and he had been hiding in the secret vault. Was he allowed to tell them his job at the embassy? To his relief, Needham, the air force captain, promptly told them who he was and described his position with the military liaison group. Hermening thought, if an officer can do that, then it’s okay for me to do it, too. When they asked him he said his name and then, “I’m a marine security guard.”

“What’s that?” his questioner shouted.

He did his best to explain, but because he was wearing a blue suit with a vest, he could see that they didn’t believe him.

Still alone on the roof, Kupke was startled when the loud incinerator downstairs suddenly went silent. He hurried back to the door and, looking down, saw a group of Iranian men gathered below. Ahern had opened the door!

He slowly slid the door to the roof shut and sat alone, perplexed. Should he give himself up? He looked around him on the roof and saw the shotguns alongside him and those piled next to the shed. Kupke didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to be discovered on the roof with weapons; they would probably assume he had been preparing to open fire. He looked across the compound and saw people in the windows of the tall building across the street. Surely they could see him. It was only a matter of time before they alerted someone.

He cracked open the door to the vault again and listened. If there’s gunfire, he thought, I’m staying put. It was quiet. He reluctantly and slowly descended.

The burn room was empty so he stood there alone for a moment. He tiptoed over to peer into the adjacent room. At the far end were two Iranian men in green army jackets sitting with their backs to him before the destroyed radio equipment. He raised his hands and walked up behind them.

“Excuse me,” he said.

The two jumped up when they heard him and began shouting at him in Farsi.

“Americano,” he said.

One of the two smashed his fist into Kupke’s glasses, right between the eyes. There’s got to be an easier way to surrender, Kupke thought. He dropped to one knee and reached for his glasses, which had broken and scratched him under the eye. He shoved the pieces into his pocket, an instinctive move for which he would later be very glad. Suddenly the small room was filled with irate Iranians. They surrounded him, pulled him to his feet, and began pushing him back and forth. Some took swings at him, hitting him in the back and face. Kupke covered his head and ducked, trying to remember the protective moves he had learned in tae kwon do class. One of the men in the circle was leaning back on one leg and had the other elevated, trying to aim a kick. He was taking up so much space that it allowed Kupke room to dive into a corner with his back to the wall, fending off blows. He was pulled to his feet and dragged back out into the middle of the room, where the beating resumed until somebody slammed him hard from behind, probably with the same two-by-four he had used on the incinerator. It struck him more in the neck than in the head, but the force of the blow momentarily blacked him out. He came to with everything around him swirling in slow motion. He felt no pain.

He could hear the men speaking in Farsi. Most were young, although a few looked middle-aged. With their beards it was hard to tell. Most had guns. Kupke immediately doubted that they would shoot him. There were too many people in the room, for one thing, and they might hit each other. One of the men leveled a handgun at his head and asked, in English, “Where were you? Do you work for the CIA?”

“No, no,” Kupke said. “I was over by the burn machine.”

“No, you weren’t. Tell us who you work for. If you don’t tell us right, I’m going to shoot you.”

He told them the truth. “I work for the State Department,” he said.

The man pulled the trigger and the hammer snapped on an empty chamber. Kupke’s legs gave way. He was pulled back to his feet.

“Open the safe,” the English-speaker demanded.

“I don’t know the combination.”

The Iranian spun the chamber of the revolver and pressed the muzzle to his captive’s left temple. Kupke’s eyes were rolled so far to the left he was afraid they would lock in that position as he strained to see if there were rounds in the chamber. The trigger was pulled and the hammer snapped. The blow to the head had dazed him, so the sound reached him in a slow-motion haze. He was not consciously afraid. He was more worried about being put back into the circle and being kicked and beaten again. But what happened next did scare him, knock on the head and all.

Kupke was thrown to the floor and one of the older Iranians, a short fat man, sat on his stomach. Others grabbed his feet and pinned his arms. Kupke could smell the man sitting on him as he leaned close with a knife.

“I’m going to cut your eyes out,” he said. “I’m going to ask you some questions.” He tapped the flat of the blade against Kupke’s left eye. “I want you to open these safes, and if you don’t open them I’m going to cut out this eye first. Then, I’m going to cut out this eye,” he said, tapping Kupke’s right eye.

“You’ve got to believe me,” said Kupke, pleading now. “I work here in the coms center. I send and receive messages for the embassy! If I knew the combination to the safe, I would open it right now. I don’t want my eyes cut out!”

The man got up and led Kupke into the hallway where Jones was standing blindfolded against the wall, looking disheveled, with his hands tied behind his back.

“Charles,” Kupke blurted. “If you know how to open the safe, open it.”

Jones knew the combinations. The Iranians grabbed him by the necktie and choked him, but he refused to help. He was terrified but something in him balked at the threats, and he was convinced beyond reason that this wasn’t real, that it would all be over soon and things would be back to normal. He was more concerned about protecting his jewelry, which he kept in a drawer in one of the vault’s safes, figuring it was the safest place on the compound. When they had begun emptying the safes earlier, Jones decided to put on all his valuables—he had heard that in the February embassy invasion none of the Iranians had patted down the embassy personnel—so he had put it all on, three chains, seven rings, three watches. Before Ahern opened the vault door, he had reached under his collar and removed one of the chains, which held a golden Star of David, a gift from the years he had spent assigned to Israel. Figuring it was a symbol that might provoke his captors, he had hidden it under one of the counters.

Mostly, Jones was angry about getting roughed up. When they had first taken him, he had been blindfolded and led out into the corridor.

“Hey, who’s next to me?” asked the man next to him, who was Ahern.

“It’s me, Charles,” said Jones, at which point an Iranian had slammed his head against the wall. The man had snatched a chain off Jones’s neck, and then knocked him to the floor and kicked him. In the process he had stepped on his hand, which hurt.

Now, as he was being choked by his necktie, Jones was angry and determined to be unhelpful.

“What’s wrong with you?” Kupke pleaded. “Man, they’re bouncing me off the walls in the other room, Charles.”

Jones was pushed to the ground, beaten and kicked again.

Englemann was ordered to open the safes, which he did not know how to do. Instead he led some of his captors out of the vault and down the hall to his own office. He had already emptied his safes of anything sensitive and fed his files into the disintegrator, so in a great show of helpfulness he spun the combination locks and opened them. Inside were unimportant files and a pile of picture books. They seemed pleased.

Hermening was pulled to his feet and led back into the vault. One of the Iranians now pressed the barrel of a pistol hard into his temple, right beside his eye.

“Open the safe!” he demanded.

“I don’t know the combination,” Hermening protested. He was shaking.

“Open the safe!” the man shouted again.

“I don’t know the combination. I don’t even work in this office.”

“Sure,” the Iranian said. “Then what were you doing in here?”

Hermening had never been so scared. He didn’t know the combination, and he was afraid he wasn’t going to be able to convince the man with the gun that he was telling the truth.

“If I did know it, what good is it going to do for you to shoot me?” he said. “Then you’ll never get the combination.”

Eventually he was led back out to the hall and a gas mask bag was pulled over his head. He heard someone being beaten in the room behind him.

Golacinski was on the floor with them, blindfolded again, his head still ringing, when he saw out of the bottom of the blindfold that one of the Iranians was unscrewing a wall socket.

“We’re going to burn you,” he said. They were still trying to force someone to open the safes for them.

Golacinski spoke up to his colleagues in a loud voice, “If any of you can open the safes, open the damn safes!”

Everyone still refused. Golacinski was taken into the vault and ordered to open them.

“None of us can,” he said. “All of the combinations were written down and they have been destroyed. They burned them all.”

In the midst of all this conflict over the safes, a group of young Iranians showed up with food—bread and eggs and pickles. It was strange; one minute Hermening had a gun pressed to his head and in the next an Iranian was offering him an egg salad sandwich. How was he supposed to feel like eating?

He refused the food and was taken to one of the offices down the hall. The door was shut behind him. When the bag was taken off his head he faced several protesters seated in the office chairs and on the desk. The office had been ransacked, the drawers pulled out, pictures were crooked on the walls. Framed photos of President Carter and Secretary of State Vance had been thrown to the floor and their glass covers smashed. He thought it was his turn to be beaten and his tough marine mask crumbled. He was instead a frightened nineteen-year-old, and he started to cry.

“I don’t know the combinations!” he pleaded. “I’m just a security guard!”

One of his captors was clearly in charge. He told Hermening in English that unless he was more helpful, the others were going to be “turned loose” on him. The marine fought to free his hands so that he could fend off the blows, but apparently he had managed to convince his questioner that he knew nothing. He was not assaulted. Instead, he was led downstairs.

“We want to see where you work,” the Iranian told him.

On the foyer floor downstairs he saw the American flag, scuffed and dirty. One of the protesters was sitting in a chair at the front entrance guard post wearing a marine helmet. Scattered around were the half-burned newspaper torches the protesters had used to battle the tear gas. He was taken into Gunnery Sergeant Mike Moeller’s office, where earlier he had been working on the meal accounting. Hermening showed them the money box and the papers he had been working on and explained what he had been doing. Then they took him to the guard post’s electric switchboard, which controlled locks for various portions of the building. They had been unable to open a door that led to the east-side hallway on the first floor. They told him to push the right buttons to release the locks. Hermening reached under the switchbox, where they could not see his hands, and yanked out the wires that connected the switches to the electric locks. Then he pushed buttons at random. Of course, nothing happened.

He looked up with a confused expression. “It’s always worked before,” he said.

11. Gaptooth

Kupke’s pockets were emptied of cash and jewelry and he was taken down the hall to Laingen’s office, where he had the distinction of being the first American hostage to meet Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam, a skinny young man with a dreamy, distracted manner, a thick unruly mop of curly black hair, and a full black beard, a radical filled with the absolute certainty of divine purpose, whose occasional sweetness itself was in service of a brutal righteousness. He was missing his left front tooth, and the hostages, who would come to know him well, called him “Gaptooth,” or “Snaggle-tooth.” Because he spoke perfect English, he would become for them the most visible member of the students’ leadership. In the early seventies he had studied at the University of California, Berkeley, a center of student radicalism in America during the anti–Vietnam War era. Sheikh-ol-eslam had digested the fervent rhetoric of those activist years, the rants against the “tyrannical,” “racist,” “imperialist” American establishment, and now, back in Iran, where there had been a real tyrant to oppose, he had taken part in something the old fire-breathers at Berkeley had only dreamed about—an actual revolution. And here, at his mercy, were the very agents of American imperialism denounced in that hyperbolic campus rhetoric. He would make the most of it.

Outside the tall windows it was growing dark; Kupke figured it was about five o’clock.

“Who do you work for?” Sheikh-ol-eslam asked.

“I work for the State Department,” Kupke told him.

“Why didn’t you surrender with everyone else?”

“I was destroying documents.”

“Why were you destroying documents? What were you hiding?”

“Nothing. Those documents were the property of the United States,” Kupke told him. “It’s our job to destroy them before letting them fall into your hands.”

The questioning went on. Clearly, the circumstances of his capture, hiding out, and destroying documents made Kupke and the others in the vault particularly suspicious. Sheikh-ol-eslam asked where he had been hiding when the others were taken from the vault. Kupke, afraid that the students would find the weapons on the roof, said that he had crouched behind the incinerator. It occurred to him that there was information in the vault that might reinforce the idea he was a spy. When he had been working in the Sinai outpost, he had obtained two sets of passports, one for passage into Arab countries and the other for traveling to Israel—Arab nations would not let anyone enter whose passport had been stamped in Israel.

“You know, eventually you’re going to find a lot of IDs in one of those safes, both Arab and Israeli,” Kupke said. “And that doesn’t mean I’m a spy. It just means I was working and passing through the Sinai Desert on both sides.”

Sheikh-ol-eslam listened and nodded with evident disbelief.

* * *

With men grabbing both his arms, CIA station chief Tom Ahern was led down the littered second-floor corridor to his office. How did they already know which one was his? Ahern figured somebody in the first hours must have started helping these thugs. He was alarmed but not terribly surprised. He remembered a conversation he had shortly before leaving on this assignment, with an agency friend who had just returned from Tehran. He had asked how much he might count on the staff there to protect his identity.

“If they bring everybody in the embassy staff out and they line them up against the wall and they say, ‘Now, we want to know who the CIA people are,’” Ahern had asked, “are my embassy colleagues going to protect me?”

His friend had laughed.

Ahern was pushed into a chair, his blindfold was removed, and the first thing he noticed was a file folder on his desk that he had overlooked. He was the one who all morning had been most concerned about destroying sensitive material and, indeed, he thought he had rounded up everything of his own, but there, sitting on his desk, was an informal report he had written the day before to “Edward J. Ganin” (a code name for CIA director Stansfield Turner) under his own cover name, “Donald C. Paquin,” and with his title “Station Chief, Tehran.” It was a routine summary for headquarters of everything he and his agents had been doing, and his assessment of what was likely to happen in Iran, nothing very dramatic or important (and, as time would show, mostly wrong) but under the circumstances a very damaging document.

In it, he described the four months he had been in Iran as a period of “elbowing and maneuvering for position” among the country’s various political factions, and predicted “the gradual erosion of Khomeini’s personal authority.” This would lead, he had written, to a period of disorderly—sometimes violent—competition, with no single contender possessing enough guns or popularity to prevail. “Things could be very different if the military chooses sides,” he had written, “but they are still thoroughly intimidated. Discipline is poor, professional élan practically nonexistent, and no prospective leaders have yet emerged who look as if they can restore institutional pride.”

It went on:

You asked me to comment at some point about our prospects for influencing the course of events. Only marginally, I would say, until the military recovers, and that is a process we can do almost nothing to affect. What we can do, and I am now working on, is to identify and prepare to support the potential leaders of a coalition of westernized political liberals, moderate religious figures, and (when they begin to emerge) western oriented military leaders. The most likely catalyst for such a coalition is Ayatollah [Kazem] Shariatmadari; I have compartmented contacts with several of his supporters.

Prospects are not bright for resuming operation of the TACKS MAN sites in a role which will provide us telemetry on Soviet missile testing. The reason is that this would require a degree of American participation which the Iranians are not likely to find politically acceptable. Accordingly, we are proceeding with an operation designed to provide clandestine collection of telemetry; this is proceeding well, and with some luck could be functioning fairly early in 1980.

Ahern had concluded the cable by requesting an additional case officer, and by acknowledging the help he had received weeks earlier in the form of Bill Daugherty, whom he had named in the cable!

He tried not to stare at the folder but was stunned at his oversight. There was, in summary, the current feeble efforts of the CIA to sort out what was going on in Iran. Given in particular that the letter named Ayatollah Shariatmadari, and discussed the deeply clandestine effort to replace the Tacksman telemetry collection effort, it was an egregious lapse. The paragraph about potential for “influencing the course of events” would confirm the Iranians worst suspicions about American intentions in their country, particularly in light of the 1953 coup. That effort had succeeded with the help of Western military leaders, too. It was a shock, an embarrassment, and sure to be trouble.

For the moment, his captors paid no attention to the folder on his desk. They wanted Ahern to open the office safe. He refused. There wasn’t much in it, only what little was left of his files, some correspondence related to the earlier regime, and some chemicals used in preparing or reading invisible ink. Ahern wasn’t eager to share it with them, and if help was going to be arriving soon—as he and the other captives all assumed—then there was much to be gained by delay. He also didn’t want to acknowledge that it was his safe.

Then one of the older captors produced a .38 caliber handgun and pointed it at his face. He told Ahern to open it or be shot.

The veteran CIA officer was unconvinced. He’s not going to shoot me, maybe later, but not now. Ahern knew that it was always a mistake to open an interrogation with your heaviest threat. If these people wanted the combination to his safe, then shooting him would be self-defeating.

“It’s not my safe,” Ahern lied.

The man with the gun grumbled at him threateningly, but gave up and walked away.

12. Go And Kick Them Out

By midafternoon nearly all of the Americans seized on the compound had been herded into the ambassador’s residence or into the four small cottages behind the chancery. Most were blindfolded and had their hands tied. Their captors were giddy with success but seemed not to know what to do next. The five American women seized during the takeover were taken to a separate room, where they were tied to chairs and blindfolded. They were asked to state their name, section, and title.

“Terri Tedford, administrative section, secretary,” said the slight, brown-haired woman in the first chair.

“Joan Walsh, political section, secretary,” said the second, and so on, around the room, until they came to Ann Swift.

“Ann Swift, first secretary, political section,” she said. Swift spoke some Farsi, and when she heard her job title being translated as “typist,” her ego bristled and she immediately corrected them, a reflex she would live to regret.

“I’m not a typist,” she corrected. “I’m the first secretary,” and went on to explain that she was, in effect, the highest-ranking embassy official they had in captivity.

A small group came for Limbert in the ambassador’s residence. He asked where they were taking him.

“We want you to come with us to the vault,” one said.

“Oh, of course, I’d be pleased,” Limbert said. “Nothing would make me happier. It would be an honor.”

Relaxed now after the ordeal on the staircase, he fell back on the elaborate formal courtesies of Farsi. So long as they spoke to him nicely, as this student had, then he would respond in kind. He was, after all, a diplomat. And under the circumstances it didn’t hurt to remind them of their culture’s traditional politeness.

They escorted him across the darkening compound to the chancery, showed him the basement window where they had broken in, and then led him to the top floor. The coms vault at the west end looked like it had been ransacked. He saw Ahern, Jones, Barnes, and the others who had evidently locked themselves inside for hours sitting outside it on the corridor floor against the wall with their hands tied. Limbert was led into the vault.

“What is the combination to this safe?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” Limbert said. “I don’t work here.”

“What is in these safes?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, truthfully.

“What are they in here for?”

“I presume for safekeeping,” he said. “I am not even allowed to enter here.”

Then they showed him his wallet. He had left it in the vault early that afternoon before stepping out to talk to the students on the steps. Ordinarily he was not allowed in the vault, but today it had seemed prudent to leave his wallet there.

“If you don’t give us the combination, we’ll shoot everybody here,” his questioner said.

It seemed unlikely. In the few hours he had spent with this crowd so far he had judged them to be amateurish and, in their own way, well intentioned.

“That’s an empty threat,” Limbert said. “I can’t give the combinations to you because I don’t know them.”

Taken back to the residence, Limbert passed Barry Rosen in the hall and said, “Barry, here it goes again,” referring to the February takeover, in which Rosen had been briefly held captive. “You should have known better than to hang around.”

Rosen, the embassy’s press attaché, was a cipher to his captors. He was short, dark-skinned, and bearded, and he spoke such fluent Farsi that they were reluctant to believe he was an American.

“I’m an American and proud of it,” he told them, still cocky and still convinced that these renegades would be chased off the embassy in short order.

He was taken to the bedroom of the Pakistani chef who lived and worked at the ambassador’s residence, where he was briefly questioned by a young woman who wore a long brown jilbab, or robe, and khimar, or head scarf, which covered most of her face. She had beautiful eyes, Rosen thought, but nothing else about her was appealing. She seemed to regard him as the personification of evil. Here before her was the architect of everything wrong in Iran in modern history, and she nearly spat out the words she spoke.

“What is your job?” she asked.

Rosen told her the truth.

“What is the true function of a ‘press attaché,’” she asked, implying that the job description was a cover. “Who are the Iranian ‘journalists’ you had contact with?”

He told her that he would be happy to discuss his job with her at some other time.

“This isn’t the time or place,” he said. “This is the territory of the United States, which you have invaded.”

She responded angrily. This was their country, not his. The so-called embassy was actually a spy den, and now she and the other students had taken it back. He and his colleagues were the invaders, planning their “conspiracies and corruptions.”

Rosen had noticed that Yusef, the chef, had a large bottle of scotch on a nearby shelf, so instead of engaging in pointless argument with the woman he reached out to the bottle and suggested that they both have a drink. Her eyes widened in horror. In the new Iran to offer alcohol to a pious daughter of the faith was unforgivably rude, an insult to the purity of Muslim womanhood. She threw up her arms in disgust and exited the room, slamming the door behind her in a dismissive swish of fabric.

* * *

Ibrahim Yazdi, the foreign minister, had left Laingen, Tomseth, and Howland at midafternoon for the hour-and-a-half drive to Qom to meet with Khomeini. Before leaving, Yazdi asked Laingen, “Where do you and your colleagues propose to go?”

The chargé, still hot, told Yazdi that it was up to the provisional government.

“You have an obligation to protect us,” Laingen told him. There were anti-American mobs on the streets all over Tehran; indeed, the chargé had learned that an armed gang had already been asking for him and the other two Americans at the front gates of the Foreign Ministry.

Yazdi said he didn’t believe the situation was that bad but made arrangements for the three to spend the night in the Foreign Ministry building. He was exhausted. His plane from Algiers had flown through the night and arrived only that morning, and he had not slept for two days. He snoozed in the car on the drive east to the holy city.

Khomeini normally rested in the afternoon and received guests early in the evening. When Yazdi was shown into the imam’s receiving room he sat on a floor cushion alongside the white-bearded cleric and told him what had happened at the U.S. embassy. It was his impression that Khomeini was hearing the news for the first time.

“Who are they?” he asked. “Why have they done this?”

Yazdi explained that the hostage takers appeared to be university students, and that they were demanding the immediate return of the shah and his assets.

“Go and kick them out,” Khomeini said.

Yazdi did nothing with those instructions at first. There didn’t seem to be any reason for haste. The takeover was accomplished. With the imam’s permission it would be a simple matter to clear out the students and give the compound back to the American mission, and it might be best to let things cool off for a few hours before starting. He briefed Khomeini on the now controversial meeting he and Bazargan had held with Brzezinski in the prime minister’s hotel room in Algiers. Then he got back in a car for the drive to Tehran and figured he would relay the imam’s instructions about the embassy to Bazargan when he returned.

So the weary foreign minister was startled that evening in Tehran, after he had been driven back from Qom, when he heard on the radio the imam’s first public statement endorsing the takeover and the goals of the students. It wasn’t halfhearted either. In a complete reversal of the sentiments he had expressed earlier, Khomeini warmly supported the move and praised the students. Yazdi was not surprised. He had come to know Khomeini, and despite the ayatollah’s fierce visage, he was a maddeningly vacillating man. In political matters, he tended to side with whomever last had his ear, and because he often regarded the affairs of state as trivial compared to his spiritual concerns, he was usually reluctant to make unpopular decisions. The jubilant scene outside the embassy was being shown on television throughout the country. Yazdi was impressed by the way this stunt had been orchestrated. Whoever was responsible, he thought, had wisely avoided informing the imam in advance, knowing that Khomeini would be less likely to oppose a popular fait accompli than a half-baked idea. The planners had done a great job of getting out the crowd, too. Yazdi had reports of food being served, street performances, and people being delivered by the busload from all over the region. Some of it might have been spontaneous, and the celebratory mood was definitely real, but some serious planning had gone into it.

In between the imam’s meeting with Yazdi and the radio broadcast, several things had happened in Qom. Ahmad Khomeini, the imam’s son, had received a phone call from his friend the popular young Tehran cleric Mohammad Asqar Mousavi Khoeniha, the students’ “spiritual leader.” He had assured the younger Khomeini that the geroghan-girha, the hostage takers, were devout Muslims, not the leftist hooligans who had seized the embassy in February. They had acted, Khoeniha said, in response to the imam’s call for students to “attack” America. Ahmad Khomeini agreed to fly by helicopter to the U.S. embassy and see for himself what was going on.

Arriving on the scene, the younger Khomeini had literally been carried away by the rapture of the mob dancing in the streets. He was lifted bodily over the embassy walls, his presence alone interpreted as the imam’s imprimatur. The young cleric briefly lost his black turban and a slipper in the excitement. After touring the embassy and viewing the captive Americans he had returned to Qom with a glowing report on the students and the suspicious American spy documents and equipment they had seized. When it was clear that what had happened was enormously popular, and that the action had the support of influential clerics like Khoeniha, the imam understood that what to Yazdi was a nuisance was in fact an opportunity.

As he prepared finally for bed, Yazdi knew there was now nothing he or the provisional government could do. The matter was out of their hands.

13. Wheat Mold

Before he was blindfolded again, John Limbert watched from a chair at the residence as the twilight faded, sitting alongside the Filipino cashier, whom the students had not yet decided whether to consider an American spy or an oppressed Third World national. Limbert had given his name and job title when asked and had refused a cigarette. He had learned that these protesters called themselves “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line,” and understood that they were religious and more aligned with the mullahs than the leftists, who predominated on the college campuses. Most of those he had talked to so far were more curious than hostile. Some were from rural areas, small towns, and they reminded him of the students he had taught in Shiraz. He saw that they were in over their heads but didn’t know it yet. They had been brought up with a very narrow idea of the world. Most of them probably had no idea where America was on a map, much less any understanding of U.S.–Iran relations. For most, this was probably their first encounter with Americans and, given the ridiculous propaganda in the previous year, they were no doubt surprised to find that the embassy personnel didn’t have horns. Limbert couldn’t help himself; he liked them.

As soon as he figured out who they were the events of the day came into better focus. It wasn’t clear if they were acting with the approval of the imam, as their name implied. Limbert suspected not. The atmosphere in the crowded residence was strange. Some of the initial tension evaporated for the Americans when it was evident that they were not going to be harmed, at least not immediately. Captors and prisoners were talking freely to each other, and at one point a student brought a radio into the room, and everyone sat together listening eagerly to hear how the day’s event was reported. They listened to Radio Tehran and the BBC international report, and he could see that the students seemed a little disappointed when the embassy takeover was treated in the London report as a relatively minor story. The students considered their “victory” nothing short of miraculous. They had stormed the American fortress and overrun it without a casualty! In one sense it was too good to be true, and in another…what were they supposed to do now?

He heard the guards whispering excitedly among themselves about the visit of Ahmad Khomeini, and then, passing the word from guard to guard, they removed the blindfolds from Limbert and the other hostages in the room. They apparently did not want the imam’s son to see that they had blindfolded the hostages. When Limbert’s came off he saw that seated alongside him was Charles Jones, who kept trying to tell his captors that he had high blood pressure and needed his medicine. Jones asked Limbert to explain in Farsi. The two of them started nagging the guards, in English and in Farsi, pleading for the medication, which worked, although it took a few tries. The guards kept coming back with the wrong medicine, and each time Limbert complained to them about the seriousness of Jones’s condition. Were they trying to kill him?

Limbert sat up late in a downstairs bedroom talking earnestly with his young captors. They said they were staging the demonstration in order to force the United States to return the shah in order to stand trial for his crimes.

“I don’t think you have much of a chance,” said Limbert.

They tried to engage him further in a political discussion but Limbert avoided it. The little training he had been given about being taken captive warned against getting drawn into political discussions. So he kept changing the subject, asking questions. They were shocked at how well he spoke Farsi, and how much he knew about their country, its history and literature—more than they themselves did.

Throughout the residence, Americans were bound to chairs. Joe Hall, the warrant officer who was convinced his capture meant he would be sent home early, was in the basement TV room, which had a door to a storage area stocked with sodas, canned goods, and candy. He watched as a procession of the young Iranians raided the stash. One came out grinning, and with hands that seemed grubby to Hall he popped a piece of candy into the captive American’s mouth.

The same young Iranian who had earlier posed with a knife pressed against the side of marine guard Rocky Sickmann’s head now offered him candy.

“No, I don’t want your fucking candy,” said Sickmann.

“I’ll take it,” said vice consul Richard Queen. “I’m hungry.”

“The shah didn’t feed prisoners,” said one of the Iranians, who nevertheless placed a date in Queen’s mouth and then held up a small plastic bowl for him to spit out the pit.

As the hours dragged on, Hall’s hands, which were tied behind his back, began to hurt, and he asked if the cloth could be loosened.

“They’re cutting off my circulation,” he said.

A young Iranian bent over and removed them, and for a while Hall sat with his hands in his lap. Then an older student saw him untied and angrily instructed the others to retie him. This time his hands were bound in front, which was a little more comfortable.

In the room with him was an angry little guard with a big nose whom Hall dubbed “Rat Face.”

“You are See-ah [CIA],” he sneered at the bound American.

“I am not CIA.”

“Yes, you are all spies here.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said Hall facetiously. “I’m See-ah.”

Rat Face brightened at this, accepting it as an admission.

“What was your job?” he asked.

Hall thought for a moment, and then said, again facetiously, “I was in charge of wheat mold.”

“What is wheat mold?”

“You know the wheat that grows and that you use to make bread?” Hall explained, warming to the joke. “Well, mold is something that happens to the wheat that makes it no good. I did all that. I was the CIA agent in charge of wheat mold.”

The young Iranian absorbed this intently—indeed, the CIA plot to destroy Iranian crops would become part of the list of “revelations” later claimed by the hostage takers.

“How long is this stuff going to go on anyway?” Hall asked. “You guys aren’t going to be able to carry this off very long.”

“Maybe one year,” said Rat Face.

He then bent over and removed one of Hall’s shoes. He pulled the TV cord from the wall, doubled it over, and, grabbing Hall’s foot by the toes and pulling it up, slapped the cord across the bottom of his foot.

“This is the way the shah’s army tortured innocent Iranians,” he said, and he slapped the cord across Hall’s foot again.

He didn’t hit Hall hard enough for it to hurt. When he dropped his foot, Hall slid it back into his shoe.

Later, he was taken upstairs, to one of the residence’s larger rooms, where the Iranians were intrigued by decorations left over from a Halloween party that had been organized the week before by Hall’s subordinate, Joe Subic. One of them fingered a hanging cartoon skeleton and asked, “What’s this?”

“It’s part of a holiday celebration, a holiday for children,” Hall said.

“You do this sort of stuff for children?” the Iranian asked, surveying the images of witches, goblins, and spooky pumpkin heads.

“It’s an old custom,” Hall started to explain but then realized how peculiar the holiday actually was. “We give candy to children.”

Hall saw Subic in that upstairs room, and true to form the eager young sergeant was volunteering to be helpful. He had a yellow legal pad and was pointing out all the captives and giving their names, job titles, and descriptions. He seemed to be enjoying himself. They would stop at a blindfolded prisoner, and Subic would say, “This is Greg Persinger. He’s a marine sergeant,” and then they would move on to the next person. Before Sharer, he said, “This is Commander Don Sharer, he’s an F-14 expert, he works for the United States Navy, and he was in Vietnam.” Sharer had earlier given his name as “Mickey Mouse.” Many of the top embassy officials had been trying to keep their status and responsibilities obscure. “It would probably be best to just drop ‘sir’ from your vocabulary for the time being,” consular officer Don Cooke had advised the marines bound to chairs near him. Whatever Subic’s instincts were, they didn’t run along these lines. Before Colonel Scott, Subic said, “This is Colonel Chuck Scott, the military liaison officer. He’s been in Iran many times before. He was an attaché here in the sixties and he speaks fluent Farsi.” Scott would like to have punched the young sergeant in the face, both for being so helpful to their captors and for calling him “Chuck,” a level of familiarity that ignored their difference in rank and actual relationship. Some of those identified asked Subic, “Why are you doing this?” or told him angrily, “Keep your mouth shut,” or “Leave it alone, Joe.” It didn’t seem to bother or deter him at all. Hall had found Subic a difficult employee ever since he had arrived in Tehran. The chubby soldier with glasses and dirty-blond hair was so eager to take on responsibility and to get involved with work others were doing in the embassy that he tended to neglect his own duties. Subic was a well-meaning busybody, who seemed compelled to be at the center of attention, and now he was doing it here, with all of his colleagues tied to chairs.

“Joe, sit down and mind your own business,” Hall told him.

“Shut up!” one of the guards shouted at him. “No speak!” The way the guards pronounced “speak” added a vowel to the front end, so it came out as “Eh-speak,” a phrase the hostages would hear again and again in the coming months.

Subic kept talking. Hall overheard the sergeant say, “Well, I can take you and show you.”

Marines Sickmann and Persinger were bound next to each other. They were approached by an English-speaking Iranian who had a cameraman with him. He asked them their names and what their jobs were.

“We’re pizza runners,” said Sickmann.

“We work for the laundry department,” said Persinger. “We clean laundry, and this guy”—nodding toward Sickmann—“he gets pizzas for all the marines. In fact, I’d like a pizza right now.”

They speculated on how long they would be held. Some felt it might be until Christmas. Sickmann, who had heard that his captors were students, assumed that like American college students they would all be finishing their school year next May, so he predicted it might last until then.

Dinner was served in shifts in the residence kitchen. Young women in jilbabs threw frozen steaks into frying pans, cooked them until the outsides were brown, and served them—inside, the meat was still frozen. Richard Queen was not allowed to use a knife, so he picked up the slab of meat and tried to gnaw off a corner.

“Would you like a beer?” a young man asked him.

“Yes, I would,” said Queen.

The young man left and never returned.

* * *

After the moment captured in the much-reprinted photo of Bill Belk, he had been marched across the compound to one of the yellow cottages.

“We are going to teach you,” his captor told him.

Belk wondered what that meant.

“We will teach you about God,” the young man said. “We will teach the CIA not to interfere with our country.”

Uncomfortable with his hands tied behind his back with nylon rope, Belk fidgeted for about three hours, listening to the din outside. He kept asking his guards if they would give him one of the cigarettes in his shirt pocket.

“Don’t speak!” the guard said.

He persisted, and finally one of them removed a cigarette, put it between his lips, and lit it. Belk almost choked trying to smoke it. He had no way of taking it from his mouth. He did the best he could, but after a few puffs he spit it out. At one point, early in the evening, somebody fed him a spoonful of ice cream. Later he was escorted to the toilet, where his hands were unbound and, still blindfolded, he did his best to hit the bowl. When he finished his hands were retied and he was returned to the chair.

Belk was miserable, hungry, and increasingly worried about what would happen next. The nylon rope cut into his wrists. He finally managed to fall asleep in the chair.

Charles Jones finished the day in Bruce Laingen’s upstairs bedroom with some of the marines. He flopped on Laingen’s bed and fell asleep, snoring contentedly. Hermening watched him with admiration. How could he just fall asleep? Now and then a big, bearded Iranian would step into the room. In one hand he carried a club, which he tapped menacingly against his other hand and glared down at his American prisoners.

When Kupke’s questioning ended, he was taken to the ambassador’s residence and deposited on the floor in an upstairs bedroom, blindfolded and tied hand and foot. He turned on his side and tried to get comfortable on the carpet, but he was bruised and sore. His head was pounding with pain and it felt like his jaw was broken; he could not completely close his mouth.

In the middle of the night he was awakened by an Iranian.

“Can I get you anything?” he was asked.

Kupke asked for some water and was given some.

“I would give anything for some aspirin,” he said. His guard fetched him two tablets, then left. Kupke had forgotten to ask for more water, so he put them in his mouth and chewed them.

Queen and Limbert got beds of their own. After his long, harrowing day, Al Golacinski slept fitfully on the floor under his chair.

At the Foreign Ministry, Bruce Laingen, the chargé, dozed on a couch in the huge formal dining room.

Marine Kevin Hermening woke up at about three in the morning in the bed alongside two fellow hostages. He lifted his head and looked around and was surprised to see about twenty of the students in the room in various postures of sleep, some of them in chairs, others sprawled on the floor. It was like a big sleepover.

Downstairs, Joe Hall woke up at five. It took him a second or two to focus. Around him were guards and beneath the blanket one of his hands was still bound with cloth.

My God, he thought. It wasn’t just a nightmare!

14. Okay, Go Ahead and Shoot

There was to be little sleep for Bill Daugherty, who was taken early in the evening from the ambassador’s residence by a student with a .38 caliber pistol, who called out his name and told him that he was wanted for questioning. The novice CIA officer was escorted across the embassy grounds back to the chancery, up the steep staircase of the back entrance, and then up the central stairway to the second floor. He was taken into his own office, still bound and blindfolded, and leaned gently against the wall. It was well after midnight but crowds were still celebrating outside. He was exhausted and could still taste tear gas deep in his nose and throat.

He had more reason than most of the newly taken hostages to fear questioning. Daugherty had been assigned to Tehran only six months after joining the agency. He did not speak Farsi, and had been in Iran for only fifty-three days, barely long enough to figure out what his job was and how to get it done. Each of the spy agency’s employees at the embassy had a cover, a regular State Department job, but their identity was an open secret in-house. Everybody knew who worked in the suite of offices on the west end of the second floor. It included a small reception area manned by the agency’s secretary and the offices of Tom Ahern; Ahern’s senior field officer (who had left on home leave only a few weeks earlier); Malcolm Kalp, the newly arrived field officer; and Daugherty. There was a large vault in Daugherty’s office, which was ordinarily closed and locked. He figured there were only three obvious ways his role could become known to his captors: they would have to discover some written record of it in the embassy files, one of his colleagues would have to tell them, or he would have to break down and tell them himself. The only one of the three he could hope to control was the last.

The chancery had been ransacked. Already the Iranian intelligence agents at the core of the takeover, led by Hashemi, had collected all the intact documents they could find, boxed them up, and carted them off the compound for scrutiny. They planned to stay for only a day or two, so it was important to get this done quickly. They had been disappointed to discover the disintegrator in the coms vault. What unrecoverable mysteries did it contain? Had the Americans managed to destroy all the evidence of their counterrevolutionary plots? There was no hope of restoring the blue powder left by the disintegrator, but perhaps there was a way to reassemble the piles of paper that had been fed through the shredder. Surely anything the Americans had taken such pains to destroy must contain valuable information.

Daugherty tried to prepare himself for what was coming. He was new to the spy agency and to Tehran, but he wasn’t innocent. He knew most of the embassy’s secrets, the small string of Iranian spies on the agency’s payroll, the secret efforts to independently replace the Tacksman sites. He knew procedures, codes, and methods…a lot that his captors would like to find out. How should he handle himself? He was worried, but he was also determined not to act disgracefully. At the same time, there was no point in trying to play the hero. He was supposed to be a diplomat, that was his cover story, so he would act like one. The truth is he was so green that he could as easily assume the identity of a foreign officer as any other. He would engage his questioners, attempt to challenge them for this unwarranted outrage. It would not be an act.

It occurred to him that his captors must believe him to be someone more important than he was. His office was large and well furnished, and it was the only one in the suite with a walk-in safe. Sure enough, when the questions began, he was accused of being the “real power” in the embassy.

Daugherty was blindfolded so he couldn’t see his questioner, but the voice was male and soft, and the English was very good, only lightly accented and with an educated vocabulary. The CIA officer would later write out a reconstruction of the session.

“Is this your office?” he was asked.

“Well, not really.”

“What do you mean, ‘Not really’?”

“Well, I’m here temporarily because I’m a new arrival and my office—you can go see—it’s down the hall. It’s the room that serves as the library, but they haven’t gotten around to moving the books out yet.”

“Okay,” said his questioner. “Who sits here outside this office?”

“The secretary who works for the guy in the other office [Ahern’s suite].”

“Who’s the guy in the other office?”

“He’s the drug enforcement representative.” This was Ahern’s official cover.

“What’s his name?”

“I’m not sure. Like I said, I’m new here, and I haven’t gotten to know everyone yet.”

“What does he do?”

“He works with your police forces, I think, to try to do something about stopping drugs. I don’t know. I don’t really know him well.”

His interrogator pressed on in a steady, unemotional way and followed up quickly, probing, testing. This was not an amateur. He never lost control of the dialogue, even though Daugherty was looking for a way to derail it.

“You mean they put you in this office with people you don’t know?”

“Yeah, because my office isn’t ready yet.”

“Who’s your secretary?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Do you write cables back to Washington?”

“Yes.”

“Well, who does that for you?”

“The secretary across the hall who works in the political section, because I’m a political officer.”

“What about this secretary out here?”

“No, she just sits outside this office. I’m just here temporarily.”

The questioner was getting frustrated but he kept his cool. He didn’t raise his voice, though he spoke a little faster. The questions came back more quickly. He doubled back over the same ground, asking the same questions several times, waiting for Daugherty’s story to slip up. He was not buying the answers. He mentioned the possibility of a firing squad and how many Iranians were familiar with torture methods, having been practiced upon by SAVAK. He played with an apparently empty pistol as he spoke, spinning the cylinder, cocking the hammer, and then easing it back down. He would pull the trigger when he wanted to emphasize a point, which made a sound that concentrated Daugherty’s mind.

He didn’t believe he would be shot…at least not yet. If they were going to shoot people, it wouldn’t make sense to do it right away, not when they were looking for information. Daugherty could see that the embassy invaders were trying to figure the place out, who was who, what their jobs were, what exactly they were doing here. He had already deduced that these “students” did not have official government approval and were unsure how this sit-in, if you could call it that, was going to play. If they were going to be chased out of the embassy, which Daugherty still believed was the most likely outcome, they wouldn’t want to have American blood on their hands.

Still, his interrogator seemed to know that Daugherty wasn’t telling the truth. He had already learned from someone that Daugherty was CIA. How could he be simply a junior foreign service officer when no one else had such a giant vault in his office, not even Bruce Laingen, who was supposedly in charge? His questioner pointed out that Daugherty’s age disproved his claim of subordinate status—he was six or seven years older than most of the junior staff members. He wanted Daugherty to confess that he was running America’s “spy operations” in Iran. And he wanted him to open the vault. There was a clicking noise coming from inside it that sounded like it might be someone tapping on an electric typewriter. The Iranians were convinced that someone was communicating with Washington from inside, and they were determined to open it and find out.

Daugherty forced himself to laugh at the suggestion that he was secretly in charge, but inwardly he was stunned by how rapidly they had homed in on him. Was it only a coincidence? Did they know he was CIA? If they knew, how did they know?

He kept talking.

“I am just a junior officer,” he said. “I’ve only been here for less than two months. You can verify that. You guys have my wallet. Go look at my embassy ID card, it’s got the date of issue in it, which was a couple of days after I arrived. They checked me in through the border control at the airport, go pull up my arrival card.”

“Are you sure you didn’t sneak in?”

“Go to the personnel section, look at my arrival date.”

“We will.”

“Go to the airport authorities and check there. You’ve got my passport.”

“These documents can be faked. You can pay people off to get them.”

“Talk to the Iranians who work here at the embassy,” Daugherty suggested. “Ask them when I came.”

“Well, who do you know in the embassy?”

“I hardly know anybody.”

“Where have you been in Iran?”

“I’ve been to a couple of restaurants in town, and I’ve been, as your records will show, I’ve been with the chargé down at the Ministry of Defense a couple of times and to the Foreign Ministry. But otherwise I’m in the apartment building right behind the embassy. I haven’t had time to find my way around. I’m just here, this is a new job for me, what do I know?”

Daugherty talked about how he had just finished his doctoral studies in California. It was all true…mostly. He said the man who normally had that office was in the United States—indeed, the senior field officer had left on home leave only weeks before—and that he was the only one he had ever seen open the vault. He had no idea himself.

He had been standing for a long time. At one point he said he had to use the toilet and, much to his surprise, the questions stopped and he was led down the hall to the bathroom. He used the toilet and then splashed water on his face and collected his thoughts.

When he returned the interrogator pressed harder about the vault. He never raised his voice but he wanted the vault opened.

Daugherty tried to fight back with indignation. The invasion and interrogation were against all rules of diplomatic behavior. He demanded to be returned to his colleagues and that they all be released. He knew it was ridiculous of him to be making demands, but he said anything that came into his head to change the subject.

The truth was, of course, that it was his office and he did know how to open the vault. There wasn’t anything in it, so far as he knew, that merited a heroic defense. But unlike the State Department, the spy agency had a strict culture of secrecy. No documents were kept at the embassy beyond thirty days, and the rule specified that the amount of files should not exceed a pile that could be destroyed in thirty minutes. The most sensitive material was kept in the larger coms vault, where Ahern and the others had locked themselves. That morning, as soon as the embassy grounds were invaded, Daugherty had emptied the four safes in his own vault and personally passed all of it through a shredder. He had left the shredded paper in a big pile on the floor when he had closed the door on it earlier. He had thought about flipping a match into the pile but he decided against it, figuring this demonstration would probably be over in a few hours and he didn’t want to damage the interior of the vault. How could a government allow a bunch of college kids to seize a foreign embassy, the embassy of a country that had been so important to it, a country that, to consider only the practical concerns, was holding more than six billion dollars of Iran’s assets in military contracts? To grab the embassy made no sense. If the contracts were to be canceled, then the money would have to be returned. These were matters that required discussion, planning…the kind of things embassies did. When a country was unhappy with another nation’s diplomatic mission, that country’s authorities simply ordered diplomatic personnel to leave. It happened all the time. But to seize the embassy, these buildings and twenty-seven acres, at the risk of forfeiting billions…how would that figure? It was self-defeating beyond belief. If this was all going to be over in a few hours, Daugherty didn’t want to be known as the guy who panicked and burned down an American embassy. So he hadn’t thrown the match.

He knew there was no overwhelming reason to keep them out of the vault, except his reluctance to cooperate. But now his cover story depended on it. If they found out now that he could open it, they would know he had been lying to them. He kept insisting that he didn’t know how.

The interrogator left. Daugherty was led into the agency secretary’s office and his blindfold was removed. He was surrounded now by an angry group, about a dozen men, all of them a lot smaller than he, very young—they looked like college students—wearing the standard jeans and army jackets or worn sweaters, with long hair and beards or half beards. Several had automatic weapons, including Uzi machine pistols.

What looked like the eldest of the group, one with a .38 pistol, ordered him to open the vault.

“I just got here. I don’t know how,” said Daugherty.

This set them off. Now they were all shouting at him at once, waving weapons.

“Open the vault!” one of them screamed at him.

“I can’t open it, I can’t open it,” Daugherty told them.

Voices were heard shouting down the hall. He smelled smoke and heard gunshots from somewhere on the grounds. Something was burning inside the building. The crowd noise outside seemed to have grown louder, even though it was now nearly two in the morning. It all notched up his sense of alarm.

One of the young men with an Uzi, a teenager, then pointed at the secretary’s desk.

“Who sits here?” he asked.

“A secretary.”

“Can she open it?”

“Like I said before, she’s the other guy’s secretary. I don’t know. I’ve never seen her open it. I don’t think she can open it. She never came in that office. I don’t think she knows how to open it.”

“Go get the secretary,” the elder of the group told one of the others, in English. “Go bring her up here.”

That did it for Daugherty. He had carried on the charade as long as he could. He did not want to subject the woman to this scene. Daugherty had a courtly manner with women, and the idea of putting the secretary—even if she was a CIA employee—in this position was not acceptable to him. She was not getting paid to take the same risks that he was taking. He was not going to let them bring that woman up here and subject her to their guns and threats. She was just a secretary, and tended to be fairly high strung.

“No, leave her be,” he said. “I’ll open it for you.”

And he did. They would know he had been lying to them but he would simply have to deal with the consequences.

He got a big laugh out of the astonished looks on their faces when they swung open the unlocked door. It was empty, lined with open safes with drawers hanging out, and a pile of shredded paper on the floor. The clicking sound had been coming from the door’s alarm system, which had been set improperly. They looked at him as if he were crazy and then pushed him across the room, shoving him hard in the back.

“Who was in the vault?” one of them demanded. “Who shredded the paper?”

Minutes later, deposited in the chair behind the secretary’s desk, he watched a parade of Iranians file into his office for a look in the vault. They moved in groups, silently, shuffling through papers that were scattered across the floor, moving around him as though he wasn’t there. Among them were three junior clerics in turbans, one in a powder blue robe, another in cherry red, and the other slate gray, all wearing Reebok athletic shoes. They stopped to stare at Daugherty, no doubt, he thought, looking for horns on his forehead. He glared back at them with contempt. When he was left alone, he saw a pack of matches on the secretary’s desk and again considered setting fire to the drapes. He decided against it.

When the line of gapers ended, Daugherty’s group of young tormentors lifted him and threw him against the wall alongside another safe. He had been told when he first arrived that no one knew the combination for that safe; it had been lost in one of the changeovers of personnel. The secretary had been using the safe as a plant stand.

“Open it!” the leader demanded. One of the younger men had his Uzi pointed at Daugherty’s belly. He noticed that the gun’s safety was off.

“I can’t,” he said.

“You said you couldn’t open the vault and you did, so open the safe,” the young man said.

“This one I really can’t open.”

“Open it or I will shoot you,” he said.

“Okay, go ahead and shoot,” Daugherty said.

They were stumped. It was not the answer they had expected. He saw them looking at one another, as if to say, Okay, what do we do now? The young man with the Uzi had a look on his face that Daugherty interpreted as a mental shrug.

“What about the secretary?” the leader suggested. It had worked before, and at the suggestion they all stared at him, waiting for him to capitulate again.

“Okay, bring her up,” Daugherty said. “I don’t care. She can’t open it either.”

At that they gave up. They didn’t send for the secretary. Instead, Daugherty was blindfolded again and led back across the compound. He felt like sunrise must be close, but he could see out of the edges of his blindfold that it was still dark. He was taken to the residence dining room and placed in a wooden chair. At the center of the room was a long table, a beautiful piece of furniture made of highly polished maple, which one of the invaders had apparently marred deliberately with a long, nasty scratch down the center. Around the table were eight other hostages, including Ahern and Golacinski.

They were not kept blindfolded or tied, and one of the students guarding them offered cigarettes. Daugherty had not smoked in months. He had picked up the habit as a teenager and had all but given it up when he went to Vietnam, where he had resumed it, figuring tobacco couldn’t be any more dangerous than the missions he was flying. He had since, after considerable effort, at last given it up. But somehow these circumstances seemed to demand a cigarette, and he smoked one after another for an hour or so until he and the others were ordered to get up off their chairs and onto the floor to sleep.

Daugherty curled up around the foot of his chair, and awoke with his head throbbing, sick to his stomach. He asked to be taken to the toilet and retched up what little he had in his stomach. His head was pounding, and the taste of the tobacco was in his mouth and throat. All their captors would say was that they would be released “when the shah is returned.” That and “Don’t speak.” The mobs outside still sounded as if they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and kept up a constant, bloodthirsty din. However this embassy takeover would play in the rest of the world, in this city it was clearly a hit. He fell asleep eventually, even though his butt hurt from sitting in the same position for so long. He woke up some hours later feeling slightly better but foolish. What if he was taken for interrogation again, or saw an opportunity to escape? Had he weakened himself by his own stupidity? As the world awoke to the second day of a crisis in Tehran, Daugherty sat on a chair feeling stiff, sore, and ill, one of sixty-three Americans at the eye of an international storm, furious with himself for smoking cigarettes.

15. An Island of Stability

Across a continent and a wide ocean, at roughly the same time that Iranian students had gathered in the Tehran morning rain for their bold intrusion, a different and more professional assault was being launched on a dark runway in a remote corner of Fort Stewart, a sprawling preserve of Georgia forest immediately west of Savannah. A parked Boeing 727 and a fortified building nearby were loudly and violently raided by two squadrons of seasoned, handpicked American soldiers. The exercise featured “hostages” and “hijackers,” played by volunteers from the FBI and military intelligence units. On both sides of the plane, from padded ladders that had been stealthily leaned against the outer frame, the raiders blew off aircraft doors from the outside, tossed flashbang grenades, and then invaded, while at the same time across the tarmac others burst through doors and windows of the building. In a sudden crescendo of noise and confusion, the hostage takers were confused and overwhelmed by agile men moving with practiced speed and expert violence. The takedowns were the final and most dramatic exercise in a days-long official demonstration by Delta Force, a new army special operations unit. Observing the exercises were top government and military officials, including Army Chief of Staff General Edward C. Meyer and emissaries from the equivalent special forces units in England, France, and West Germany. Delta Force hadn’t just passed the test, it had wowed the panel. The American military officially had a new tool in its arsenal.

That success had crowned two years of hard work by Colonel Charlie Beckwith, the unit’s founder, his operations officer Major Lewis H. “Bucky” Burruss, squadron commanders Logan Fitch and Pete Schoomaker, and their approximately eighty men. The colonel and his top officers sat up until after midnight at the motel in Hinesville with several visiting generals, reviewing the exercise, drinking, unwinding, and celebrating. These were men who worked hard and drank hard, and they shared a strong feeling of accomplishment. They were eager to put their rough talent to work in the real world. At about half past two in the morning the group went out together for an early breakfast, and then at last came back to the motel to sleep. Many of them had been up for several days.

For Beckwith this was the capstone of his military career. A gruff, take-charge man, he had been preaching the virtues of a small, secret, unorthodox team of operatives for more than fifteen years, a force that could be deployed quickly in small numbers for very specific, difficult, and often dangerous tasks. The idea was at first a nonstarter in the army, in part because it created a privileged corps outside the normal chain of command that would get all the most daring and interesting missions, the kinds of missions that made and advanced ambitious officers’ careers. Beckwith’s personality hadn’t helped. He was a difficult man, proud, tough, and at times arrogant and capricious, traits aggravated when he drank, which was often. A chain-smoker, he had mastered the art of keeping a cigarette dangling from his lips with up to an inch and a half of ash hanging precariously. Trailing the colonel around was an obsequious adjutant, a captain who smoothed his path and flattered him constantly, much to the annoyance of the men who worked most closely with him, who didn’t feel Beckwith’s ego needed encouragement. He disdained the often necessary rigmarole of army life, and his personal arrogance showed itself in constant run-ins with regular army officers, those who ranked above him and below, whom he tended to consider idiots until proven otherwise. Beckwith believed he and his men were engaged in the nation’s most serious and important work, and even though it was entirely secret, anyone who failed to immediately recognize their claims to priority was considered a boob, an incompetent, or worse. If an army officer in Germany with the job of getting the colonel’s possessions shipped back to the States persisted in trying to locate him—after Beckwith had mysteriously disappeared—his efforts made him, to the colonel, not annoyingly efficient but a “numb nuts.” And God help the MP at Fort Bragg who failed to recognize Beckwith—he rarely wore uniform or insignia—and refused to let him immediately pass; the colonel would threaten to bust the man’s rank.

He had the bureaucratic finesse of a middle linebacker. He looked like one, too, a broad, thick, active man whose short hair had gone white but whose dramatic, expressive eyebrows had not. The colonel was impulsive, demanding, fearless, and legendarily tough—as an officer in Vietnam he had survived being shot in the gut with a .51 caliber round, large enough to poke a hole the size of a grapefruit in cinder block. He was also breathtakingly impolitic. A year before this final Delta evaluation, at a time when the concept of such a force was still controversial, the newly assembled teams were forced by skeptical brass to take a proficiency test that they easily passed. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the surly colonel had taken the occasion to lambaste the generals who had demanded the exercise, accusing them of trying to undermine him. He had only one method and one speed. He was the kind of officer who everybody knew was important, but who was destined to retire as a colonel. And despite his down-home, just-folks manner, he was a determined elitist. He considered himself to be the best, and wanted a force composed of men just like himself. This was neither a man nor a dream calculated to win allies, especially in an organization as tradition-bound and formally hierarchical as the U.S. Army.

But events had finally caught up to Beckwith’s fixed idea. The rash of airplane hijackings, the successful Israeli hostage-rescue missions at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, and the successful takedown of a hijacked airliner in Somalia by German special forces in the following year had all combined to make the case for a hostage-rescue force. After the Somalia rescue, President Carter had written a note to the joint chiefs asking, “Do we have the same capability as the West Germans?”

It turned out the American military did not. Patterned after the British Special Air Service (SAS), considered the premier counterterrorism force in the world, Beckwith and his staff had handpicked skilled, experienced soldiers, many of them Vietnam veterans, and had put them through a grueling selection process. The men chosen had demonstrated not only superior physical, mental, and basic soldiering talent, but had passed psychological tests and rigorous interviews designed specifically to weed out the macho supersoldiers such an elite, secret force might be expected to attract, what would eventually be called “Rambo types.” Field testing for the army’s special forces typically involved assessing a candidate’s endurance and ability to handle stress. Delta deliberately added elements of confusion and uncertainty designed to break down a candidate’s self-confidence. He would be dropped off in a remote area with directions to proceed cross-country alone and on foot to a distant point on the map, carrying a heavy rucksack. Without a time frame, only “Get there quickly,” he was left to work against the clock without knowing what standard he was expected to meet. On arrival, hours later, he was curtly given a new destination. This went on for as long as the selection staff wished. For the candidate, there was no finish line; he kept going until he was told to stop. He would be deliberately driven to physical exhaustion, a point that marathon runners recognize as the place where a body has used up all of its fuel and begins feeding on itself. Yet unlike the marathon runner, who begins the race knowing where the finish line is and what time he wants to beat, the Delta candidate just kept going. They were never given an indication they were doing well; in fact, often they were deliberately led to believe that they were failing, just to make continuing that much more difficult.

After Logan Fitch, a tall, taciturn Texan, had hiked from rendezvous point to rendezvous point for days, he was finally told, “Get on the truck,” and driven back to the unit’s camp. He was left there without a word of explanation.

“What do I do?” he asked.

“Just stay here until we come and get you.”

He spent a long depressing day, certain that he had been dropped from selection when just the opposite was true.

Many hard men cracked under treatment like this. If the physical demands didn’t defeat them, the uncertainty did. Some foundered because they couldn’t cope with operating alone in the wild for days on end. Their judgment failed them. Many of those who failed did so because they chose to give up.

It resulted in a different kind of military force, one in some ways starkly at odds with tradition. Armies had always been about teamwork, formal recognition for achievement, and a rigidly enforced hierarchy. Delta attracted men who preferred working alone, who shunned attention, and who had little patience for the protocol and rituals that defined military life. It was made up of mature, independent soldiers who had been chosen in part for their ability to function outside the chain of command. The unit’s “operators,” as they were called, or “shooters” (they disliked the term “commando”), dressed in civilian clothes, had civilian haircuts, and unless they were involved in a mission or exercise kept their own hours. When one of Beckwith’s superiors floated the idea of coming down to Fort Bragg to do early morning physical exercises with the men, an honor for any other army unit, Beckwith had backhanded the gesture. It would be inconvenient, he responded. His men did not exercise together, but individually or in pairs, whenever they wished.

No matter how unpopular Beckwith and his unit were, however, they had cleared the army’s last official hurdle. The colonel had gone to sleep shortly before dawn that morning with a sense of triumph.

Two hours later he was on the interstate back to Fort Bragg to begin the planning of Delta’s first mission.

* * *

Beckwith was northbound on Interstate 95 when Hamilton Jordan arrived in Washington. The White House chief of staff had spent Saturday on Maryland’s eastern shore at the home of a presidential friend and with two top members of Carter’s reelection committee, plotting moves for the coming election year. The night before, he had received news that Senator Edward M. Kennedy, from whom President Carter expected a tough challenge in the coming Democratic primaries, had performed badly in a prime-time interview to air on CBS that night, stumbling over questions about his embarrassing role in the accidental drowning of a young woman ten years earlier at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. Despite that scandal, the Massachusetts senator had been an unofficial crown prince for almost two decades after the assassinations of his famous brothers, and was expected to announce his long-awaited campaign for the White House. Jordan hadn’t seen the interview yet, but if the reports were true, then it was the kind of TV moment that might destroy Kennedy before he got started. Carter’s longtime campaign manager, Jordan had gone to bed that night delighted with the news and scheming about how to capitalize on it. The call from the White House situation room awakened him at about four, informing him of the troubling events in Tehran.

Iran was not even on the radar as an important issue. Ever since World War Two, the oil-rich nation had figured prominently in American foreign affairs as a significant oil supplier and a bulwark against Soviet ambitions in the Middle East. On New Year’s Eve in 1977, Carter had toasted the shah of Iran at a state dinner in Tehran, calling him “an island of stability” in that region. He had also saluted the ruler’s “wisdom,” “judgment,” “sensitivity,” and “insight,” words that stuck in the craw of human rights activists in and out of Iran, who knew the shah as a patronizing dictator who employed brutal methods to suppress dissent and political opposition. It had been an uncharacteristic moment in Carter’s term, because during his campaign and in office he had made morality a controversial priority in his foreign policy.

In style and character, the Georgia peanut farmer’s administration could not have been more different than the Pahlavi monarchy. Carter came from rural Georgia, and despite his background as a naval officer in the nuclear submarine command he sold himself as a man with humble roots. His election in 1976 was in part a national purging of the Watergate scandal. Public distrust of the nation’s traditional governing, ruling class was at its height, and the humble peanut farmer who promised he would never tell a lie to the American people had looked like an attractive alternative. His political cabinet was made up primarily of men like Jordan and press secretary Jody Powell, fellow Georgians who had been with him through the years he had served as governor of that state. They were exemplars of the modern South, with unpretentious good ole boy manners, first-rate educations, and solid liberal ideals. Carter was the latest beneficiary of the American electorate’s occasional need to scratch a populist itch, a citizen president, shunning the trappings of power, right down to refusing a limousine and walking from the inaugural stand to the White House on the day he assumed office, making a point of carrying his own luggage. The Machiavellian style of the Nixon-Kissinger years was out, and in was the simple decency of Carter’s born-again Christian faith. The new president bent the long-standing priority of containing communism, which had for decades justified American support and alliance with all manner of tyranny, to accommodate a stronger emphasis on human rights. Most recently and notably, he had withdrawn vital American support for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and, after he was chased from power, backed millions in aid to the leftist Sandinistas. Carter’s rhetoric and actions had stirred hope to many in Third World countries, including those in Iran who wanted to oust the shah and form a truly representative government. Carter had dashed those hopes with that effusive televised toast at the state dinner in Tehran. It had been a mere formality for the president, a perfunctory salute to a longtime American ally, but the words carried tremendous significance in Iran. To the percolating revolutionists, America had once again chosen sides against the people. It marked Carter as a hypocrite and an enemy.

As tyrants go, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was fairly tame. He was a timid, vain, vacillating man with good intentions who had been raised to rule and who bought readily into the anachronistic notion of the divine right of kingship. But it wasn’t Allah who had placed him on the throne; it was Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s man in Tehran. Pahlavi’s father had been elected shah in 1925 four years after the military coup and ruled until Great Britain and the Soviet Union ousted him early in World War Two after he leaned openly toward Nazi Germany. The Allied powers occupied Iran during the war, commandeering the nation’s vast oil supplies to fuel Stalin’s fight against Hitler. The young Pahlavi was handed his father’s throne because it was convenient to maintain the fiction of Iran’s independence. Educated in Switzerland, the young king passed his time during those years as an unimaginably wealthy international playboy, and he probably never would have assumed real power were it not for the Western appetite for Iranian oil.

To his credit, the young shah had tried to mollify the outright plunder of his country’s natural resources after the war by urging the United States and Great Britain to share the profits from selling Iranian oil with Iran. Still just a figurehead leader, he argued that letting his country keep half of the profits would underwrite domestic prosperity and undercut the gathering socialist and nationalist political movements. The idea was rejected out of hand by the powerful Anglo-Iran Oil Company, one of the richest private corporations in the world. Outraged Iranians rallied behind the odd but charismatic Mohammed Mossadeq, a dour, frail, but principled descendant of the family that had ruled Iran for almost two hundred years before the Pahlavi family seized power. Voted prime minister by the Majlis in 1951, Mossadeq immediately did what the shah would never have dared; he defied the great powers by enforcing nationalization of the oil industry. The move was hugely popular at home and so potentially world-altering—a Third World country asserting ownership of its own resources—that Time magazine named Mossadeq its “Man of the Year.” In a speech before the United Nations, Mossadeq said, “The oil resources of Iran, like its soil, its rivers and mountains, are the property of the people of Iran.” While self-evident, the concept proved much too bold. The financial interests of the Anglo-Iran Oil Company and America’s concern that Mossadeq would drift further toward a centralized socialist system and into the Soviet sphere combined to inspire a coup d’état, which was ordered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and (with perhaps fewer pangs of conscience) by Britain’s most famous diehard colonialist, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The young Pahlavi was perfectly situated to legitimize this plot. Through nearly all of its history, reaching back to ancient Persia, the country had been ruled by kings called “shah.” Pahlavi’s father had assumed power after ousting the nearly two-hundred-year-old Qajar dynasty, but assumed the title “shah” only with the approval of Iran’s Congress, the Majlis. In those years, Iran was gradually evolving into a representative democracy, and the ouster of the elder shah during the war had speeded that transition. Mossadeq’s popularity made it appear as though the young shah would remain an honorary figure at best. Roosevelt preyed upon Pahlavi’s vanity and royal presumption by offering him “full” power (Iran would remain, of course, America’s client state). The shah’s support would give an authentic Iranian imprimatur to what was in truth a foreign-backed coup, enabling America to claim it was “rescuing” the government, not overturning it. A more honorable, selfless man would have said no.

Pahlavi said yes. Roosevelt shuttled back and forth to meetings with the shah in 1953, hidden in the backseat of a car under blankets, plotting to dismantle Iran’s elected government and hand full power to him. By then, Mossadeq had been weakened politically by the financial fallout from nationalization; Iran lacked the know-how and resources to profitably operate its oil pumping and refining plants. Its customers found new suppliers, and economic stagnation set in. The affluent upper class that had profited under the old oil arrangements, including military leaders, had grown increasingly impatient with this radical nationalist experiment. Mossadeq turned in vain to the Eisenhower administration for help in brokering a deal with the British that would restart its oil industry under Iranian supervision. Instead, Washington decided to shove the vulnerable old man offstage.

Roosevelt orchestrated street demonstrations and a campaign of false stories in the Iranian press against Mossadeq, and systematically bought off military leaders, who arrested the prime minister on trumped-up charges of treason (he was convicted and after a three-year term in prison remained under house arrest until his death in 1967). During the days of the actual coup, the shah fled to Rome with his wife until it was safe to return—“to avoid bloodshed,” he said, most conspicuously his own—and then assumed the throne offered on a platter by his American friends, adorning himself “Light of the Aryans” and with pomp befitting a position known historically as the “Peacock Throne.” The new regime was offered a far better deal on oil revenues, and the shah promised nothing less than the complete modernization of his country in his lifetime, to make it the financial and cultural equal of Europe. The United States subsidized this Pahlavian fantasy, cynically betraying its democratic principles in the name of containing communism and facilitating the uninterrupted flow of oil. And to some extent it worked, most of all for the United States. The shah’s Iran helped keep the Soviet Bear from Middle East oil supplies and provided a strong guarantee of Western access. Roosevelt’s successful plot became the textbook CIA-engineered coup, and its fame spread well beyond the secret walls of Langley, Virginia. An article by Richard and Gladys Harkness, in the 1954 Saturday Evening Post (widely reprinted in Iran), laid out the whole scheme as a clever American triumph against the creeping Red Menace. It made Roosevelt a legend in the world of clandestine operations. Nearly a quarter of a century later Carter would be toasting the elaborately bedecked, gray-haired shah’s “stability.”

Eventually the shah did wrest billions in oil profits for his nation and presided over several decades of relative prosperity, empowering women and moving his country away from literal adherence to the Koran. His rule became increasingly strict and self-assured as he became more and more self-deceived, believing that God Almighty was behind the squalid machinations that had placed him in power, and that his state decisions, being divinely inspired, were infallible. “My visions were miracles that saved the country,” he boasted to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in a series of interviews two decades after the coup. With American help he had blossomed into an openly arrogant monarch, proud of his unflinching willingness to shoot dissidents, convinced of the inherent inferiority of Western-style democracy. He presided over a military large and modern enough to rival Israel’s but wasted billions on ill-conceived economic schemes. Despite his “expert” personal reconstruction of Iran’s economy and culture, the majority of his people stayed poor, and remained devout. Land reforms improved agricultural production, but not fast enough for Iran’s mushrooming urban population, and by the mid-1970s more than 40 percent of its people were undernourished. Oil wealth fed urban enclaves of educated, Westernized, well-connected citizens, loyal to the regime, but the disparity between this small affluent class and the majority of Iranians was vast and growing. By the twentieth year of his reign, the shah was deeply unpopular, reviled by Iran’s educated class as a tyrant and American puppet and by the multitudes of poor and uneducated for his efforts to dismantle their religious traditions. As discontent grew, the usual cycle of repression and rebellion set in. The shah relied more and more on SAVAK, his secret police, to root out and smash rebellion, which spread discontent and turned it into hatred. Dissident mullahs such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, too popular to imprison or kill, were exiled.

Carter’s natural inclination was to knock the shah down a peg by insisting on democratic reforms in Iran, but the country’s geopolitical importance and the uncertain prospect of what might come after the monarchy counseled a warm outward acceptance of the status quo. In private, the shah was pushed to make his country more tolerant and liberal, and he responded with democratic gestures that had the unintended effect of uncapping decades of suppressed anger. As Iranians tasted new freedom to express themselves, the volume of protest grew and the population was further emboldened. Long-simmering economic problems came to a boil. There were crippling strikes and a mounting series of humiliating and threatening street demonstrations that the shah dared not ruthlessly suppress. No one opposition faction had the power to remove him, but together they were unstoppable. By 1978 the Peacock Throne was teetering. Not that American intelligence and military assessments realized it; it was uniformly predicted that the shah would weather the storm.

What the Western intelligence reports missed was the awakening giant of traditional Islam, a grassroots rebellion against the values of the secular, modern world. The rise of Khomeini and the mullahocracy took everyone by surprise. The turbaned classes were overlooked because they were considered vestiges, representatives of a fading ancient world. But away from the affluent, Westernized neighborhoods where American diplomats and visiting military officers lived and visited, the mullahs had been building a national network of mosques, which waited patiently for the moment Islam would rise up and smite the infidels and their puppet king. The true believers found unlikely allies among the more worldly socialists and nationalists of the middle and upper classes. Support for change grew openly on college campuses, and even among the vast military bureaucracy that maintained the shah’s war machine. In this, Iran’s secular rebels underestimated the mullahs. They saw in the mosque network a useful method of rallying huge public displays and giving their movement muscle, but assumed the ayatollahs would retire to Qom after the revolution and tend to strictly spiritual matters. United in their hatred of the shah, they accomplished the revolution that one State Department official had called “unthinkable.” Sick with cancer, the shah, along with his family, had flown out of Iran in February 1979, never to return.

Nine months later, the crisis seemed to have passed. In Washington, the collapse of the Peacock Throne had been a shock and a blow, but from all appearances the mullahs and other factions involved were feuding too badly to agree on what to do next. And despite the steady stream of anti-American rhetoric from Khomeini and lesser Iranian leaders, there were signs that the practical value of a working relationship with the United States was beginning to offset ideological objections. In the previous month, the country had accepted Bruce Laingen’s appointment as chargé d’affaires, resumed importation of spare parts for its American-built jets, and unofficially initiated closer ties—Prime Minister Bazargan’s unscheduled meeting with Brzezinski in Algiers. Carter knew that allowing the shah into America would set back these gains, but despite an immediate outpouring of anger none of the dire predictions had come to pass. By this first week of November, the shah was recovering from surgery in a New York hospital and Iran had become just one of many troubling situations around the world, one that seemed to require observation more than management.

More pressing for Carter and his inner circle was the coming election. Going into that contest, the administration’s foreign policy record was counted a strength. Chief among Carter’s successes had been the hard-won Camp David accords, which had ended years of hostility between Egypt and Israel and placed on more hopeful footing the seemingly implacable Arab-Israeli conflict. There was also the historic new nuclear arms pact with the Soviet Union (the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement). At its essence, the Cold War was an ideological clash stalled on the doorstep of an annihilating nuclear exchange, and for decades most experts feared the most likely trigger would be war in the Middle East. With its vital oil resources, both the communist and capitalist worlds had a huge stake in the region’s local disputes, so any time there was war in that part of the world there was the overarching fear that it could escalate and engulf the planet. Carter’s efforts had made that prospect less likely.

The frightening potential for an all-out nuclear war, however, is what first occurred to Jordan when he heard the news of the embassy takeover. If it meant the United States would be going to war against Iran, how would Moscow react? Where would that lead? The possibilities were scary, but upon reflection the episode, while an outrage, appeared less portentous. When the embassy had been overrun in February, it had taken only a few hours for the country’s provisional government to chase off the invaders; it had behaved very responsibly. There was every reason to think this would happen again. Ties between the United States and the interim authority had marginally improved, and Iran’s best interests, always the most reliable guide to a nation’s actions, dictated a swift and peaceful resolution. Jordan decided against calling the president. As he drove into Washington a few hours later he was disappointed to find that the talk on the radio was all about Tehran instead of about the pending Kennedy interview.

National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski presented a measured assessment of the crisis at a meeting with the president and vice president later that morning, and chaired the first session of a newly constituted Special Coordinating Committee, formed to deal with the situation in Tehran. There he heard CIA director Stansfield Turner explain that the spy agency was not even sure which faction in Iran’s roiling political pot was responsible. Turner, an admiral who had been a classmate of the president’s at Annapolis, was embarrassed by his agency’s lack of sources and access in Iran; the most reliable information was coming from news reports, as there was a significant international news presence in Tehran, including several American newspaper reporters and the BBC. Yet no one seemed to know who was behind the attack. Because they didn’t know for sure what was going on, all agreed that caution in public statements would be wise—an angry or belligerent response might alienate a potential ally. The committee decided to send two special emissaries to Tehran immediately to explore a resolution and resolved to ask two prominent Americans who might be viewed favorably by the revolutionary powers there: former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark and William Miller, staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. A frequent critic of American foreign policy, Clark had befriended many anti-shah Iranians living in the United States prior to the revolution and in the previous year had marched with anti-shah protesters, and Miller some years earlier had protested America’s relationship with Iran’s monarch by resigning as political section chief in Tehran, the same position now held by Vic Tomseth. After deciding on emissaries, Brzezinski’s committee took up other options. What impact might it have on international oil supplies? Iran was responsible for only about 4 percent of the oil imported to the United States, a percentage that could be readily made up from other sources, so there wasn’t much concern that the incident would return the nation to gas lines and rationing. What countersteps might the government take against Iranian diplomats and the thousands of Iranians living in the United States? What punitive measures might be taken? How feasible was a rescue attempt?

To address this last question, a special group consisting of Turner and joint chiefs chairman General David Jones met with Brzezinski afterward in his office. They agreed to set up a planning group immediately to figure out what, if anything, the military could do. The wiry, Polish-born intellectual was more cold-blooded about foreign affairs and American power than the president and most of his advisers. Carter had apprenticed himself to the former Harvard professor a decade earlier when he first began considering a run for the White House, in recognition of his shortcomings in this area, and had called himself Brzezinski’s “eager student.” He had installed his tutor at his right shoulder in the White House, where Brzezinski was the voice of experience and hard-edged realism in an often idealistic inner circle. The national security adviser was the son of Polish diplomat Tadeusz Brzezinski, and living abroad with his family as a boy he had watched the Nazis come to power in Germany in the 1930s and, later, lived in Moscow during the years when Stalin was at the height of his murderous rule. His home country had been conquered twice in the ensuing world conflict and was still a Soviet satellite. Educated in Canada and at Harvard, Brzezinski knew foreign policy as a “game for grown-ups,” as he put it, and knew that sometimes the imperatives of state, driven as they were by the vital interests of millions, could not be swayed by concern for the well-being of individuals trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was something of an anomaly in Carter’s inner circle, but was placed there for precisely that reason. Even though he wanted various military options explored, Brzezinski was initially confident that this outrage in Tehran would swiftly be put right by the Iranian authorities.

Across town, on the seventh floor of the State Department building, Iran Desk chief Henry Precht held a less sanguine view, especially when word reached Washington that Khomeini had endorsed the action. He suspected this meant they were in for a long standoff. The Iranian “promise” that the White House was leaning on so heavily had been tentative at best. Precht had been in the room in Tehran when it was given, after he had personally informed the provisional leadership of Carter’s decision to admit the shah.

It was at that meeting that Ibrahim Yazdi had predicted trouble. He had said, “We’ll do our best…we’ll do what we can.”

It was hardly an ironclad assurance. Now, with Khomeini backing the students, Precht knew Bazargan’s government would be powerless.

He had heard about the embassy takeover in his car, driving home from upstate New York on Sunday with his wife after a day visit with their son at Colgate University. He had gone straight into the office, where he had helped set up the crisis room, right around the corner from the office of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. It was equipped with a long table and lines of telephones and telex machines.

Precht was asked to draft a letter from President Carter to Khomeini, something that could be hand-delivered by Clark and Miller. The standing instructions for such letters was that they be written with the expectation that they would be leaked, that they would soon appear on the front page of the New York Times, which meant, Precht knew, that the White House would want to sound tough. The mood in the country was angry. But from what he knew about Iran he doubted tough talk would help. In Shia Iran, the threat to spill blood only played into the country’s fetish for martyrdom. Khomeini would almost certainly call America’s bluff, and Carter would then be compelled to act. Precht counted many friends among those now tied to chairs in Tehran, and he knew that any American military action would likely mean death for some or all of them. He had talked some of those Americans into taking postings in Tehran, including one junior consulate officer who had told him during his last visit there that things were “crazy” and that they all ought to come home. Precht had reassured him, as well as plenty of the others. Now he felt personally responsible for their safety. His draft of the letter to Khomeini struck a conciliatory tone, one that acknowledged the legitimacy of some of Iran’s grievances and that was less concerned with expressing American indignation than with persuasion. He wanted to convince the imam, not confront him.

The letter would get a stern reworking by Brzezinski, but remained a remarkably restrained document. It contained neither threats nor concessions. America wished to reopen a dialogue with Iran and to restore friendly ties. The shah would stay in the United States until his treatment was finished but there were assurances that the stay would be temporary, and to offset suspicion that he had been admitted for reasons other than medical, Iranian authorities were offered access to the doctors treating him. The independence and territorial integrity of Iran were acknowledged, and the mutually beneficial possibility of reestablishing a military supply relationship was mentioned, but in the final draft there was no hint of Precht’s “legitimate grievances.” It read, in part:

In the name of the American people, I ask that you release unharmed all Americans presently detained in Iran and those held with them and allow them to leave your country safely and without delay. I ask you to recognize the compelling humanitarian reasons, firmly based in international law, for doing so.

I have asked both men to meet with you and to hear from you your perspective on events in Iran and the problems which have arisen between our two countries. The people of the United States desire to have relations with Iran based upon equality, mutual respect and friendship.

Clark and Miller were invited to the White House, and indirect contacts with Ayatollah Mohammed Behesti, head of the Revolutionary Council, indicated that if these two men came as Carter’s personal emissaries—unlike the formal American mission in Tehran—they would be politely received.

This mission was supposed to remain top secret, but Richard Valeriani, who covered the State Department for NBC, found out. A veteran on the beat who had traveled the world with Henry Kissinger, Valeriani had gotten to know people in the State Department office who handled the logistics of official travel. On the hunch that the White House would be sending an emissary to Iran, he called up the office and pretended to know there was a mission afoot.

“Do you know yet who is going?” he asked his friend.

“Ramsey Clark,” the source said, “and some other guy.” As Valeriani scribbled, the man turned away from the phone and yelled across his office, “Who’s going to Tehran with Clark?” Then he came back on the line. “Bill Miller,” he said.

Valeriani took the scoop to Hodding Carter, the State Department spokesman, for confirmation.

“You can’t use that story,” Carter told him.

Valeriani had already alerted his bosses in New York, who were excited to have it first. Valeriani said he didn’t think he could stop them, so the White House intervened with top executives to hold the story.

“We don’t have formal permission yet for them to land in Tehran,” explained Carter. “If you run the story tonight, it will make it look like we are putting pressure on them. It could kill the mission.”

NBC agreed to sit on the story, but not for long.

16. Two Minutes of Hate

Monday morning brought sunshine to Tehran. It slanted in through the tall windows of the ambassador’s residence, which was now crowded with Iranian guards and blindfolded Americans tied to chairs or beds or scattered on floors everywhere. In fewer than twenty-four hours the carefully planned demonstration had stirred an international storm. Protests would come from most of the world’s nations, but there was also approval. The embassy seizure had tapped a well of Muslim resentment that stretched well beyond the borders of Iran. In practical terms it was nothing more than a cheap shot—the embassy had been defenseless—but symbolically it was a major blow.

The students who had spent a cramped night with their hostages didn’t understand this yet, but they could feel it. Overnight, with Khomeini’s endorsement, they had become national heroes. It was as if they had captured a dragon. The jubilant throngs ferociously cheered as the embassy’s new occupiers carried out trash in American flags or led an American out a door bound and blindfolded. Their glee rattled the walls and vibrated the floors. The crowd also acted as a human shield, protecting its new young champions from an anticipated American counterattack. The imam’s decision to endorse the takeover had dramatically undercut the provisional government and strengthened the hand of religious radicals.

Inside the residence and at various other places where hostages were being held on the compound, the almost giddy mood of the first night had evaporated. After a traumatic day and night, the new morning brought a sense of heightened risk and darker consequences.

“No speak! No speak!” the guards kept shouting.

They seemed fearful, as though expecting an attack. Some of the hostages’ chairs had been moved directly in front of windows, apparently to inhibit anyone trying to shoot their way in. Nearly all of the students were now armed, many with weapons they recovered from the embassy, and which they were unsure how to use or even hold safely. Some of the young men strutted triumphantly, cocking and recocking their new toys. The military men among the American captives cringed. They figured it was only a matter of time before there was an accident.

Joe Hall noticed that one guard across the dining room was casually cradling a shotgun that was pointed right at him. The guard even had his finger resting on the trigger as he chatted animatedly with one of his comrades. Hall finally got the attention of another guard, closer to him, and asked, “Could you ask that guy to point that thing somewhere else?”

The request was relayed to the guard with the shotgun, who immediately pointed it at the ceiling and gave Hall a sheepish smile.

In a sense, the enthusiastic endorsement of their action had called the students’ bluff. The overwhelming acceptance of their act trapped them in it; rooted them in the spotlight. It was both exciting and frightening. The tension was evident in the way guards were now shouting at the hostages and treating them much more roughly. It alarmed Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, the tall young man with a neatly trimmed beard who had come up with the idea of seizing the embassy. He sensed that control of the event had already slipped out of his and the other students’ hands, that powerful men had moved into position behind them. In their planning sessions, he and the other students had imagined something nonviolent and symbolic; they would treat the American captives gently and with respect while at the same time dramatizing to the whole world the offended sovereignty and dignity of Iran. Instead, some of the captives had been paraded blindfolded before threatening, jeering crowds. Some had been threatened with guns and roughed up. While he and the other original planners remained ostensibly in charge, the others they recruited, men like Mohammad Hashemi and his crew, the men with guns, seemed to be pursuing their own agenda. The demonstration had become something else, but they were not free to leave. History had them in its grip, protesters and hostages alike.

But most of the hostage takers basked in their sudden enormous popularity, at least for the first few days. They held press conferences at the embassy to display the piles of shredded documents, the smashed communications equipment in the vault, and the invisible ink kit they had found in Ahern’s office. They were particularly thrilled with the Bubble. It all seemed to make a compelling case for the students’ claim that the embassy had been engaged not in diplomacy but in espionage. Individual students took turns mounting the walls of the chancery to harangue the adoring multitudes and lead them in prayers. The various student committees scrambled to organize food preparation and living arrangements for the hostages, who it seemed they were going to be watching for longer than expected.

For the hostages, the anger many had felt in the first hours was largely overtaken by fear. They sat bound, blindfolded, and helpless, at the mercy of these young Iranians who seemed ill-organized, arrogant, and capable of anything. If they didn’t turn their captives over to the bloodthirsty mob, they might lead them all out and shoot them—some hostages had been threatened with both possibilities. Then there was the prospect of being killed in the crossfire of an American rescue attempt.

John Limbert was discovering degrees of terror. The political officer with the shaggy hair and dark-rimmed glasses had come down from the intense fear he had felt on the chancery steps the day before, when he had tried vainly to negotiate. The night before, he had relaxed and even felt a certain professorial rapport with some of his captors. But this morning dawned with dark flutters of foreboding. He kept hearing the sound of helicopters overhead. Could they be American? Would President Carter attempt a rescue? The thought at once excited and terrified him, but then he thought, no, it wasn’t possible. It’s the sort of thing that happens only in the movies. Where would American helicopters come from? Tehran was too far from any air base where Americans would be able to launch such an assault.

Every new sound had an ominous implication. Just behind him he heard crumpling paper, and because he knew the custom was to pin a list of the condemned’s crimes to his shirt before execution, he worried that such lists were being prepared.

Playing outside over a loudspeaker were the moody, ominous notes and brooding drums of Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” well known from the haunting electronic version in the movie A Clockwork Orange. The music formed a surreal backdrop to the viciously joyful chanting beyond the walls. The whole scene reminded Limbert of the “two minutes of hate” in George Orwell’s novel 1984, in which everyone stops for a brief period each day to publicly vent hatred for the country’s enemy, the source of all fear and evil. These “two minutes,” however, kept on hour after hour, and Limbert and his colleagues were the enemy.

Limbert tried to reason through his fear. There was nothing he could do. Either he would survive this or not. They would probably all be shot. That was the worst thing that could happen. Everyone dies. Perhaps this was his time. He decided that he had lived a good thirty-six years. He thought of his wife, Parvaneh, who was in Saudi Arabia with his children. They were no doubt worried about him. The prospect of their grief over his death pained him. Combined with the chanting and the soaring funereal music of Purcell, these thoughts were chilling. Then he had a different thought. He still had plane tickets to Saudi Arabia. He was scheduled to fly there on Friday for a visit. This thing would probably be over by then, and what a story he would have to tell! God, I hope I’m out by then. I hope I make that flight. Maybe the crumpling paper sounds he heard were just someone reading a newspaper. If they were going to be shot, that would be better than to be turned over to that crowd. They would surely be lynched or torn limb from limb. Such thoughts made him shake. He tried to stop worrying about it, since there was nothing he could do to influence matters. He worked at accepting whatever came, but as he waited his mind turned these thoughts over and over.

It seemed bitterly ironic that he, John Limbert, of all people, had come to such a spot. He loved Iran, arguably more than any other American. He had first visited in 1962 when his father was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. A college student, he had felt instantly at home. Everything about the place had fascinated him, its people, its history, its culture, its language. Limbert was a language sponge, and Farsi he found deeply melodic and beautiful. When he graduated from college he joined the Peace Corps and returned. He taught for two years in Kurdistan, where he had met and married Parvaneh. He had come back to the States to get a Ph.D. in history at Harvard, and then the two returned to Shiraz, where Limbert finished his thesis and took a job teaching at the university. He had left that to join the foreign service, and, given his background, he was immediately asked if he would like to be assigned to Tehran. He declined, in part because he wanted to try something new, but also because he disapproved of the relationship between the United States and the shah. He did not want to be party to that policy.

Only after the shah’s flight had he agreed to return, and when he did in August he had found the revolution’s potential to be thrilling. In former years, political discussion in Iran had always been fearful and muted. When people spoke about issues and current events they did so in hushed tones and in language laden with double meanings. Now politics was a loud public obsession. There were at least a hundred different newspapers, each barking a different line, and the TV, radio, and coffeehouses were filled with discussion and argument. The country was remaking itself, riding a burst of emotion and creative power that had been suppressed for a generation. Everything about the country was up for grabs. A new Iran was struggling to take shape, and Limbert was delighted to help design America’s new role in it.

At some point that first morning he was able to get a glimpse in the direction of the paper noise behind him and saw to his relief that one of his captors was reading a newspaper. Then the hostages were untied late in the afternoon, two at a time, and taken to the kitchen, where they were fed.

Limbert thought, They probably wouldn’t be feeding us if they were going to shoot us, and that was a turning point. Gradually, he was able to untie the knot in his stomach. Late on the evening of the second day, a group of his captors approached him with a Super 8 movie camera and a small cassette tape recorder. One by one, they were questioning the men tied to chairs.

“What is your name?” Limbert was asked in English.

He told them.

“What do you do?”

“I am the second secretary.”

That was all he said. The others in the room responded in the same way, offering only their name and job title.

As the night wore on, he and the others nagged at the guards to let them out of the chairs so that they could sleep, and eventually this was allowed. A long rope was used to tie their feet together; Limbert was bound this way to Charlie Jones. They stretched out on their backs on the floor, and for the first time in two days the second secretary dropped off into a heavy sleep.

* * *

Through that long second day there were still nine Americans attached to the embassy who were at large in Tehran. Kathryn Koob had waited out the beginning of the hostage crisis across the city at her Iran-America Society campus. After losing touch with the men in the embassy vault, she and her assistant Bill Royer and their staff had stayed on the phone with Washington all day and into the night, relaying whatever information they could find.

Koob was an officer in the International Communications Agency (ICA), a branch of the American foreign service (soon to be called the U.S. Information Agency) that dealt with cultural affairs. She was a big, wide, soft woman of prodigious energy and idealism, who brought a missionary zeal to her work. As she saw it, politics dealt with the things that kept people apart, but culture—theater, painting, literature—dealt with the things that tied all people together. She was an idealist but not a cockeyed one. She knew her effort to forge creative ties with this hate-filled new order would be fraught with difficulty. At her apartment she had a bag packed at all times in case there was an emergency evacuation, and she had sat in on the regular security briefing at the embassy where the practical risks had been evaluated. She and Bill Royer, who had arrived six weeks earlier, had been issued two-way radios to monitor the frequency used by the marine guards. In the event of an emergency they had been instructed not to call the embassy; it would only add to the confusion. So as their colleagues were taken hostage, Koob and Royer had stayed by the phones in Koob’s office.

Close to midnight Mark and Cora Lijek, Bob Anders, and Kathy and Joe Stafford arrived. They had been among those who just walked away from the consulate and, unlike some of their less fortunate colleagues, had made it back to their apartments. They manned the society’s little phone bank through the night while Koob and Royer got some sleep, curling up on couches. In the morning of the second day, the others left to link up with Lee Schatz, the agricultural attaché who had watched the takeover from his office in a high-rise across the street from the embassy and who was now being sheltered at the Swedish mission.

Suspecting that it was only a matter of time before her own complex would be overrun, Koob had some of the society’s most important papers—those defining its status as an Iranian organization—removed to the home of one of her board members, and even arranged to have several rugs she had borrowed from a local merchant returned. She and Royer were both on the phone to Washington when a staff member interrupted at about one-thirty in the afternoon to say, “They’re here.”

They both knew immediately who “they” were.

Koob and Royer set down the phones, walked quickly down a back staircase, and left the building through a door to the parking lot. A secretary was waiting in a car, and she pulled out of the lot and into the busy street in front of the campus. As part of her preparations for this, Koob had phoned the West German Goethe Institute and had been assured of safe haven there by its director. The institute was only three blocks away, and she and Royer were received warmly. They sipped tea and discussed their next move when a secretary from the society called to say that the “students” who had come for her had left. So Koob and Royer went back to their own complex and once again successfully dialed up the connection to Washington.

She kept the line open until the students arrived again late that afternoon. Koob and Royer tried to sneak out the back door again with Lillian Johnson, one of the embassy secretaries who had been stranded at the airport the day before waiting for a flight home, but this time the students had surrounded the building.

Koob and Johnson hid in a basement lavatory, crouched silently in a toilet stall, but were eventually found. As the three were being driven through slow-moving traffic across Tehran toward the embassy, Koob contemplated jumping from the car with her colleagues and making a run for it, but she decided against it. Where would they go? In the present climate, if Iranians on the street saw Americans being pursued they might attack. The students in the front seat were talking softly to each other and she strained to listen. They were speaking in Arabic. They must have known she understood some Farsi.

As they approached the embassy neighborhood, Koob could hear the roar of the demonstrators outside. It was an ugly, hateful sound, “Magbar Cartar! Magbar Ahmrika!” Their car was enveloped by the mob as they approached the gates to the motor pool. Revolutionary Guards pushed the crowds back, but people leaned toward the car waving their fists, their faces twisted with hatred. One of the Iranians in the front seat triumphantly held up Royer’s radio and briefcase to the guards at the gate, as if to say, Look, we caught another American spy red-handed!

They were let out of the car near the motor pool gate and advised to keep their heads down as they ran the short distance into the compound. Once inside they were instructed to sit on a small plot of tall grass behind the chancery. It had been raining the day before but the ground and grass were already dry, even dusty. A short while later they were led to the second of the three staff cottages by a female guard in a chador, the full-length black drape worn over the head. Inside, passing the living room, Koob caught a glimpse of some of the embassy men tied to chairs. Royer found it strange that none of the Americans he saw, all of whom looked him up and down as they entered, uttered a word of greeting. Koob was searched, first hesitantly by a young woman clearly embarrassed to have her hands on her, and then a second time, more aggressively, by the same young woman after she had been instructed to do a more thorough job. This time she told Koob to remove her dress and then carefully patted down the American woman’s ample girth front and back and ran her fingers through Koob’s thin brown hair. Dressed again, she was reunited with Royer.

The guards demanded that they turn over their jewelry. Koob handed over her rings.

“One of our experts will examine these,” a guard told her.

“For what?” she asked and was amused to be informed that they were checking for communications or homing devices. If it hadn’t been so serious, Koob was inclined to laugh.

In another room, Royer was asked to hand over his wallet and watch, which was examined carefully—for what, he wasn’t sure—and handed back to him. His briefcase was opened gingerly, as if it might hold some kind of explosive device. As a veteran ICA officer, Royer was used to people in foreign countries assuming he was a spy—his was only another obscure American foreign operation with its own set of initials, wink, wink—even though his primary responsibility had always been to teach English. Any suspicions these young Iranians had about the initials ICA were overwhelmingly reinforced by the bulky two-way radio he had been carrying. There was nothing he could say that would explain that satisfactorily to this bunch. He could only look on and patiently deny that he was a spy. Inside the case was a set of prized gold Cross pens. The students examined these with care, unscrewing the tops and taking out the ink cartridges, shaking them and holding the parts up to their ears. It was all Royer could do to keep from chuckling. He was told to remove his shoes, and the heels and linings of these were checked. His possessions were then placed in plastic sandwich bags and he was promised he would get them back.

He was put in a bedroom with Koob, who hadn’t slept more than a few hours the night before. She was overcome with fatigue but was too anxious to fall asleep. There was a steady procession of students in and out of their room, male and female. The embassy compound had become an exhibit, with all of these Americans on display. Groups of young Iranians, obviously excited and fascinated, would enter the room and gape at them for a few minutes, then move off to look at the next group of “spies” on display.

Koob finally fell asleep late in the night. Blankets had been hung from the windows to block out glare from the spotlights outside. She wrapped her green wool cape around her and on the other bed Royer slept in his tweed sport coat. She had finally dozed off when she was awakened by a voice.

“Hahnum,” said a male guard, using the polite honorarium for a woman. “You mustn’t do that.”

“Do what?” she asked.

“Signal your partner with your eyes.”

Koob blinked with astonishment and asked him to explain.

“Your eyes,” he said. “You mustn’t use them to signal your partner. That is foolish and dangerous.”

When the guards learned the next morning that Koob and Royer were not husband and wife, they were appalled to have left them together in the same room and immediately separated them.

There were now sixty-six hostages.

17. Obviously, We Don’t Want to Do This

Two days after the embassy takeover, General David Jones, chairman of the joint chiefs, and the rest of the Pentagon brass met in the “Tank,” the top-secret briefing room in the massive building’s inner rim, to hear what kind of emergency plan their staff had prepared for rescuing the hostages. A twelve-man team had been working around the clock for two days, sketching out a reckless thrust that, if necessary, could be attempted immediately.

From first word of the hostage taking, President Carter’s fear was that the students would begin executing the captives. What could the United States do? There were plenty of punitive options. Iran’s oil refineries and ports could be leveled, for one thing, and under such circumstances most Americans might applaud. That had been the underlying logic of the nuclear age: our enemies dared not attack because they would be annihilated. But the logic of deterrence seemed not to apply to rogue hostage takers in a country that celebrated martyrdom. If the threat of retaliation wasn’t enough, could the hostages be rescued? It would demand something a lot more difficult than air strikes, naval blockade, or bombardment. What was needed was a fast, pinpoint strike, one that relied on a few well-trained men who could descend on the embassy in a sudden, furious thrust. This, of course, was why Colonel Charlie Beckwith’s new counterterrorism force had been created.

When the Delta Force commander had arrived at Fort Bragg on the first day of the takeover, he had told his men, “This is going to be a hard nut to crack.” He had hoped for something a bit simpler their first time out.

He had immediately sent his operations officer, Major Bucky Burruss, and a legendary special operations veteran, Dick Meadows, who was serving as a civilian adviser for Delta, to join the small planning cell that was setting up shop in the J3 Special Operations Division, behind a door labeled 2C840, which opened to an L-shaped suite of offices that even in the inner rim of the Pentagon was secured with coded locks. Led by Major General James B. Vaught, a lean, flinty-looking man with a deeply lined face who was both a scholar and a decorated battle veteran, the entire operation was going to be run “off line,” which meant it would have no visible budget and would be unknown even at the highest levels of Pentagon bureaucracy. Even the mission’s code name, Rice Bowl, was deceptive; it was meant to suggest an operation in Asia. General Vaught had received his orders in London to report back to Washington “ASAP, on the next direct flight,” which had happened to be an Air France Concorde. It got him to the Pentagon fast, but the general had charged the trip to his personal credit card, and it would be months before the army could be persuaded to reimburse him. To help maintain secrecy, Vaught spent much of his day working his regular job in the Pentagon heading an army counterterrorism command, and would drop down to the planning suite at odd hours of the day and night. Both Burruss and Meadows were decorated combat veterans. Burruss, whose Virginia drawl and fun-loving manner belied a serious and careful mind, had led a “Mike Force” battalion, a daring mobile strike unit made up primarily of Montagnard soldiers that operated in some of the most dangerous fields during the war in Vietnam. The smoother of the two was Meadows, who had fought in the Korean War as the army’s youngest master sergeant and had received a battlefield commission in Vietnam running a special forces unit that captured more North Vietnamese troops than any other. Dark-haired, impeccably groomed, with a quiet, unflappable, and unassuming manner, he seemed more like a business executive than an elite soldier. Both men were prototypes of the soldiers who made up Delta Force, in that their manner and appearance were deceptive. They didn’t look or act like soldiers. In fact, they were two of the best the army had, not just smart but possessed of battle-tested cunning and courage. They were tough, poised, irreverent to the edge of cynical, and impatient with military bureaucracy. They had been told to design a mission that would leave for Tehran directly from American soil without intermediary stops.

The Tank is a small conference room with a table large enough for the four service chiefs and the chairman, and with a few chairs on the side for staff members. Burruss presented what they had. The sandy-haired, ruddy veteran was nervous. There was no higher-ranking audience in the American military.

“Obviously, we don’t want to do this,” he began, and explained that with more time a better plan could be devised. Tehran was remarkably isolated from an American military point of view. The nearest friendly country was Turkey, but given how important it was to surprise the hostage takers, asking for help there posed an impossible security risk. Asking any nation other than a close ally for help invited leaks. Just to position forces in Turkey would arouse suspicion—the Soviets kept a vigilant watch on American troop deployments from satellites and high-flying aircraft, especially in that part of the world. There was already a fleet of warships in the Persian Gulf, five hundred miles away. The United States did not have helicopters that could fly those kind of distances without refueling, and choppers that refueled in air were not yet available. Launching a mission without help in the region seemed impossible, but asking for help would likely betray the mission. Burruss said that Delta Force could assault the compound and free the hostages, but getting there and back was a different order of problem.

What they had come up with in two days was a plan so reckless it was just shy of ludicrous. It proposed parachuting soldiers at low level into an area east of Tehran where there was a road that was usually busy with trucks. They would then hijack the vehicles needed to drive their force into central Tehran, raid the embassy compound, load the hostages on the trucks, and then drive and fight their way to the Turkish border four hundred miles away. One variation of this plan, provided the Turkish government would cooperate, would be to fly helicopters in from that country and pick up the rescue force and freed hostages. Another variation called for driving the hostages out of the city either to an airport seized by a second team of soldiers or to a makeshift airstrip in the desert, where everyone could board planes and be flown out of Iran.

“As I said, we don’t want to do this,” reiterated Burruss, noting his audience’s disbelieving looks. The action would be accompanied by both punitive and diversionary air strikes and raids throughout Iran. One recommended target was the Abadan oil refinery; crippling key components there could effectively disable fuel oil production in Iran for months. Since it was the beginning of winter, there was little doubt such a loss would be felt throughout the country. The cell had already begun to identify and recruit Farsi-speaking soldiers or translators to take part in the action.

Burruss and Meadows explained how their men would choose an hour soon after midnight to storm the compound over or through the back walls, with the aid of a high-flying AC-130 gunship, which could lay down curtains of intense fire with great precision on the streets around the embassy. The raiding parties would be wearing night-vision devices, which would give them a major advantage as they took down the various buildings in the compound and rounded up the hostages. They had only a vague notion of where in the compound the diplomats were being held, most of it gathered from close satellite surveillance and TV reports; the CIA at that point had nothing to offer.

As the joint chiefs questioned and discussed the option, General Robert Barrow, the Marine Corps commandant, said he was uncomfortable with the whole plan, which prompted General E. C. Meyer, the army chief of staff, a hard-bitten character who was sitting with his feet up on the table, to quip: “These are soldiers, not marines.”

Accepting or rejecting this emergency plan was not an issue, it was the only plan, and if American diplomats were being publicly executed in Tehran the United States would have to try something. The principals left this meeting praying that wouldn’t happen. What the crash exercise had done was identify the biggest hurdle to such an operation: getting Delta Force in and getting them and the hostages out.

At this point, even the soldiers planning a rescue mission doubted it would ever be undertaken, and not only because it was so difficult and unlikely to succeed. As frustrating as the embassy takeover was to Americans, it was clearly a provocation that called for a measured response. It seemed likely that the seizure had taken Iranian authorities by surprise as much as it had Americans, and it made sense to allow time for the confusion of powers in that country to sort out its response. At a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House that morning, Carter had approved the idea of sending Ramsey Clark and William Miller to Tehran with their carefully composed letter, but on his way out of the room the president vented his impatience.

“By the way, I’m tired of seeing those bastards holding our people referred to as ‘students,’” he said. “They should be referred to as ‘terrorists,’ or ‘captors,’ or something that accurately describes what they are.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jody Powell, his press secretary. After the president left the room, Powell mused, “How about ‘Islamic thugs’?”

Any hope of the higher powers in Iran backing away from the embassy takeover dimmed further when Khomeini gave another speech in praise of the students.

“When we face plots, our young people cannot wait around,” he said. “Our young people must foil these plots…. We are facing underground treason, treason devised in these very embassies, mainly by the Great Satan, America…. They must be put in their place and return this criminal to us as soon as possible. If they do not, we shall do what is necessary.”

Predictably, public endorsements had quickly followed up and down the emerging Tehran establishment, from Ayatollah Mohammed Behesti to Ayatollah Husayn-ali Montazari, the spiritual leader of Tehran. Close behind came news that Prime Minister Bazargan and his entire cabinet had resigned. Given their precarious status since news of the meeting with Brzezinski in Algiers, they were in no position to buck the tide. They lacked the power to evict the students anyway. Khomeini had made efforts to talk Bazargan into staying on—the beleaguered prime minister had tried to resign three times earlier that year as it had become increasingly apparent that the new Iran would be ruled directly from Qom—but had been induced to stay. Not this time. He told Ahmad Khomeini, the imam’s son, “My existence as prime minister has become useless in this country.”

In less than forty-eight hours, a group of students from the big universities in Tehran had engineered a mini–coup d’état. The takeover of the U.S. embassy had ignited a great storm of anti-Americanism and anti-secularism, which swept aside any prospect of a conventional, Western-style nation. Religious conservatives were going to shape Iran’s future, not the secular nationalists, socialists, and communists who had dominated the movement’s educated class. The young leftist cleric who had “advised” the students, Mousavi Khoeniha, had foreseen the possibility of this happening but had never guessed that it might work so well, and so fast.

Ibrahim Yazdi left his office at the Foreign Ministry that day feeling defeated and angry. He was angry at the United States for historically bad policies in his country, and for the colossally insensitive and unnecessary blunder of allowing the shah to travel to New York; why couldn’t the doctors have gone to see him? Yazdi didn’t know what was going to happen, but even beyond the danger of provoking the United States he was convinced that taking diplomats hostage was going to do lasting damage to his country. Since when was national policy set by secret societies on college campuses?

He was not that angry with Khomeini. Despite having been personally accused of treason by the more rabble-rousing elements of the religious camp for meeting with Brzezinski, Yazdi was comfortably ensconced in Khomeini’s good graces; he had served him tirelessly during his years in the United States and in Paris during the year before his triumphal return to Iran. The imam urged Yazdi to take a position with the now ruling Revolutionary Council (as Bazargan did), but the departing foreign minister declined. He didn’t trust the mullahs; behind closed doors they said one thing and publicly they did another. Instead, he accepted an appointment as Khomeini’s special emissary to resolve political disputes in outlying provinces. He knew that the old man was well intentioned, but he was also largely ignorant of the outside world and vulnerable to manipulation. When he had the imam’s ear, as he had briefly the previous day, Yazdi could convince him that holding diplomats hostage was not something that a responsible government did, that the world of diplomacy was vitally important for all countries; at its best it preserved options in a time of crisis, it prevented misunderstandings, and when circumstances seemed hopeless it sometimes provided a peaceful way out. Violating the protocols of statesmanship so blatantly would withdraw Iran from the community of nations and would deprive it of this essential tool for interacting with the rest of the world. Such arguments appealed to Khomeini’s humility and wisdom, asking him to look past the passions of the moment toward Iran’s long-term interests. But he knew the ambitious mullahs around Khomeini had their powerful ways of appealing to him, too. They would argue that severing ties with the Western world was critical for ensuring the success of the revolution and in creating a pure Islamist state. They fed him the stories about American plots, some of which Yazdi himself believed were true. There were those in Khomeini’s religious inner circle in Qom who were sincere, but others were like power-hungry courtiers anywhere. They were opportunists, and in this embassy seizure they saw their chance. Yazdi counted Ahmad, the imam’s son and heir apparent, as one of those. There was no mistaking who had the imam’s ear last.

In his speech that day, Khomeini called the takeover “a second revolution, more glorious than the first.”

In Washington all this removed the best hope for an early resolution. At a second meeting of the National Security Council that afternoon, General Jones presented the rescue option he had heard from Burruss that morning with his own pessimistic assessment of its chances. Ramsey Clark and William Miller flew from Washington to Greece, and then to Turkey, awaiting permission to enter Iran and deliver the letter crafted so carefully by Precht and White House officials. Their mission stalled there, as they waited for confirmation that they would be welcomed in Tehran. NBC’s Richard Valeriani, who had been sitting on the story, finally aired it on the Today show after the State Department relented. The network had cameras pointed at the stalled plane in Turkey, where it sat and sat. Finally official word came from Tehran that the emissaries would not be allowed into the country. To make matters worse, the students issued a statement promising to execute the hostages if America made an effort to free them. Carter was hamstrung. He lacked a viable military option and there seemed to be no one in Iran willing to negotiate.

As Hamilton Jordan left the White House that evening, November 6, he noticed a big crowd outside the Iranian embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.

“Let our people go!” they chanted, as passing cars honked in approval.

Jordan was struck by the contrast: the powers in Iran applauding the seizure of America’s embassy, while in D.C. police had carefully roped off an area around the Iranian embassy and were busily protecting it from angry Americans.

18. Yes, and This Is for You

The hostages at the embassy had no idea what effect their kidnapping was having around the world. They lived in enforced silence, cut off from anything outside the four walls of whatever room held them. With mobs howling outside for their blood, it was hard to think past their immediate predicament.

Bill Belk spent most of his first week in captivity tied to a chair in one of the cottages. A picture of him snapped on the day of the takeover, a tall man with longish hair and long sideburns, blindfolded, bound, and proudly erect, standing a good foot taller than his captors with his head held high, had been reprinted in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Unbeknownst to Belk, his image had come to symbolize the crisis.

He was a well-traveled member of the foreign service, an adventurer who often volunteered for difficult assignments around the world. He had discovered that the danger in these places was often overstated, that prices were generally low and the food was good. He had known little about Iran before taking the post in Tehran. He knew there had been a revolution only weeks before he had arrived, but he neither knew nor cared much about how or why it had happened. His job was to operate the new communications equipment called TERP, which had simplified a lot of the old teletype rigmarole by projecting a video image of the received message before it was printed out. It eliminated the need to retype the coded material because an optical character reader translated the messages and gave the communicator a chance to make small corrections on the video screen before printing it out. The flow of messages in and out was brisk, and keeping track of it was a full-time job. His was a narrow but necessary skill, and with it Belk had seen the world. Of all the places he had been in his career, mostly in Asia and Africa, he thought Iran was the prettiest, with its beautiful snowcapped mountains and endless deserts. Tehran was inexpensive and had good restaurants and shops. People would stop him on the street, grabbing his hand to admire his diamond rings and watch. Belk collected beautiful things, and he enjoyed shopping for exotic treasures. In Iran he had particularly admired the delicate workmanship on picture frames fashioned out of camel hair, copper, and wood.

Being tied to a chair for three days was mighty uncomfortable, but even worse, thought Belk, were the windy lectures of a pious guard named Seyyed. Filled with the arrogance of youth and flush with triumph, he held forth endlessly in passable English to his captive audience on the theocratic and philosophical underpinnings of the revolution. It held little interest for Belk, who was tired, hungry, stiff, and sore, and who was disinclined to deal in deep abstraction under the best of circumstances. To him, all this heated reasoning was Seyyed’s way of convincing himself that it was right to hold diplomats hostage.

The nylon rope that dug sharply into Belk’s wrists was finally replaced by a strip of white cloth, which was a tremendous relief. The cloth was more a token than actual restraint, because it would have been easy to slip his hands out. On the fourth day he was placed in a room with Don Hohman, a lean, red-haired army medic who had been deployed to Tehran for six months because the State Department had been unable to find a civilian nurse who would take the job. He was the embassy’s official doc. Hohman was less stoic than most about the treatment they were receiving, and he amused Belk by his sturdy defiance—Belk saw him as a typical red-haired hothead. He complained to the guards constantly and about everything. He refused the mashed peas and rice they offered at mealtime—“I don’t want your goddamn food”—and even water—“I don’t want your goddamn water.” He constantly interrupted Seyyed with such determined insults that Belk was certain the medic was going to be taken out and shot.

After several days together, Belk felt the sting of an insect bite and, shortly afterward, the symptoms of an allergic reaction. His breathing began to grow labored.

Hohman knew exactly what was happening. Belk’s windpipe was swelling up, choking him from the inside. He screamed at the bewildered guards that his colleague needed a shot of adrenaline immediately or he was going to die. Two of the Iranians were medical students, and they could see that Hohman was right. Belk’s skin was flushed and forming hives, and his breathing was so strained he looked ready to pass out. They untied Hohman and he took off running for his medical office. The guards ran after, trying to maintain the pretense of escorting him. There was a real danger of Hohman being shot as an escapee; that’s what he looked like, racing across the compound with armed guards in hot pursuit, and when he got to the chancery a startled guard there hit him with the butt of his weapon. He then pointed it at the two Iranian guards who came running up behind the stunned medic.

The medical students explained the emergency while Hohman swore and fumed, and finally he was allowed to run to his office, where he grabbed a bottle of epinephrine, Benadryl, a bottle of oxygen, and a cardioverter, a device for administering an electrical shock to the heart in case things got really bad. He ran back to the cottage, found Belk unconscious, and injected him with epinephrine. That quickly restored his normal breathing and Belk woke up.

His eyes were swollen shut and he was covered with hives. The guards asked him if he wanted to go to a hospital and Belk said no. He had heard of a hostage taking in Africa where a woman was taken to the hospital and never seen again.

“I’ll stay here with my friends,” he said. Hohman gave him some Benadryl for the hives. The guards brought a mattress in so that Belk could lie down instead of sitting in the chair, and they allowed Hohman to sit beside him. The medic sat up all night monitoring Belk’s pulse and breathing. Hohman had impressed the guards with his competence and quick action and he would be accorded a measure of respect for the remainder of his captivity. Belk felt better in a few days and remained deeply grateful to the young red-haired sergeant who had risked being shot as an escapee in order to save his life.

* * *

As the students scrambled to organize themselves for a longer siege, one decision made quickly was to take a small group of hostages away from the embassy, to be held as insurance against a rescue attempt.

One of those chosen to go was Dick Morefield, the balding consul general, who was awakened in the middle of the night.

“Are you Mr. Morefield?” the guard asked.

He was handcuffed and a blanket was draped over his head, then he was led out of the ambassador’s house. He assumed the worst. Since he was one of the highest-ranking members of the embassy staff, he assumed he was being taken out somewhere to be executed.

From the backseat of a car he watched as men in military fatigues led other hostages out of the building. They were all driven someplace else in Tehran and led down to a basement, where they were placed on a bench. A bright light was shone down. Morefield’s hands were cuffed to the men on either side of him.

Then they were all told to lie prone on the cold concrete floor. Out of the bottom of Morefield’s blindfold he could see a drain on the floor. He heard the guards preparing their weapons.

For him the moment was surreal. Three years earlier, in March 1976, his nineteen-year-old son and namesake had been murdered in a holdup at a Roy Rogers restaurant in Fairfax County, Virginia. It was one of the most sensational and cruel murders in the D.C. area in many years. Young Morefield had been one of four workers who were forced to lay prone on the concrete floor of the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator. The robbers then methodically shot each three times in the back of the head. It had been an agonizing loss that had left Morefield and his wife and daughter shattered. The pain had created a rift in his marriage, and he had accepted the Iran assignment (after initially turning it down) in part because he felt the need to escape for a while. And here he had managed to place himself in precisely the same predicament as his dead son, facedown on the concrete with a gun over his head. He felt himself entering into his son’s terrified last moments.

The muzzle of the rifle was pressed against the back of his head and he heard the click of the firing mechanism…then nothing. The chamber was empty.

When he was pulled back to his feet he was spent. The shock had been cathartic. He no longer felt as frightened and he knew two things. First, these people meant business and he was unlikely to be freed any time soon; and second, nothing they could do to him from then on could be worse. He was a man acquainted with the random unfairness and cruelty of life and had arrived at a hard-bitten acceptance of it. He calculated his odds of getting out of this alive at about 10 percent, but for him, dead or alive, the worst was over. His fear for himself and his anger at this situation were real, but paled in comparison to the helpless rage he had been carrying around with him for more than three years. If they killed him…well, he had seen his wife and daughter battle through the tragic and senseless loss of his son, so he knew they could cope with his loss if it came to that.

* * *

Bob Ode, the eldest of the hostages, seemed to feel the injustice of captivity more deeply than his colleagues. He had signed on for just a short tour in the Tehran consulate, and as the days dragged on, without a rescue or sign of release, his outrage grew. He had struggled briefly with the guards on the first day when they’d confiscated his jewelry, concerned particularly about losing his precious rings, one given to him by his parents on his long-ago twenty-first birthday and his wedding ring—he had met and married his wife, Rita, a fellow foreign service officer, twenty-two years earlier. He clenched his hands into fists and resisted as the guards tried to pry his fingers open.

“Leave him alone,” protested marine guard Rocky Sickmann. “He’s just an old guy.”

At sixty-four, Ode still bristled when he was called “old,” but he was grateful for the marine’s sentiment.

“You’re a bunch of goddamn thieves,” he told the guards, who eventually got his hands open and removed the rings, assuring him that he would get them back.

“Look,” said one, holding up a big yellow envelope with “Odie” written on it.

“You don’t even have my name spelled correctly. How in the hell are you ever going to get these things back to me?”

They took the rings.

“Goddamn thieves,” said Ode.

Ode was tall and thin, with a face that looked like it belonged in a Norman Rockwell painting, long and narrow with a high forehead and a chin that got lost somewhere between his lower lip and his collarbone. He wore big glasses that accentuated the narrowness of his face and magnified his eyes, which gave him, with his big nose, the slightly comical appearance of someone peering into a fish-eye lens. Four years earlier he had been forced out of the State Department because of its mandatory retirement age of sixty. The postwork lifestyle hadn’t suited him, or his family budget. He had gotten himself a real estate license and was making a decent living at that, but he had always been a world traveler, a kind of professional tourist, and selling homes in the Virginia suburbs didn’t excite him. So when the department began offering retirees a chance to take temporary postings around the world, filling in for full-time officers who needed a break, Ode had embarked on a series of foreign adventures. He had gone to Guyana to help out after the messianic preacher Jim Jones and his followers committed mass suicide, and had taken a three-month posting to Jamaica. In Tehran he was filling in for a consular officer who was taking a three-month medical leave. Ode had not even agreed to the full three months. He had stipulated that he would take the job only if he could be home in time for Christmas, so the department had enlisted him for only forty-five days, thirty of which were gone. He had spent his free time in Tehran taking long walks around the city and snapping pictures.

He lost his defiant, seen-it-all attitude only once in the first weeks, when his captors demanded that he tell them where he had been living. He had been using the apartment of the vice consul on leave, and he realized he didn’t know the address. He knew how to walk to the apartment, however, so he drew them a map.

A navy veteran of World War Two, he was so certain in the beginning that President Carter would attempt a rescue that he refused to remove his shoes. They were new ones, Hush Puppy loafers, and were still a little stiff and hard to pull on without a shoehorn. He had taken them off the first night, and it had been such a struggle to get them back on that he kept them on, for fear of being shoeless when the time came to run. He could see how disorganized and amateurish his captors were and figured they would be a pushover for any military unit with the smallest level of discipline and training. Surely somewhere in the multibillion-dollar American military arsenal was a commando unit similar to the Israelis who had made the rescue at Entebbe. He tried to picture in his mind how the attack would happen, how the American force would enter the building, how they would take them out. He was good to go.

He had no patience whatsoever for the idealism or rhetoric of his tormentors, and more than most of the hostages, perhaps with the license of old age, Ode flaunted his contempt. On the night of the second day the students had brought a camera crew through the residence and had awakened him with its bright lights. He rolled over and elevated a long, bony middle finger.

“This is for television!” one of the crew gasped.

Said Ode, lifting the finger still higher, “Yes, and this is for you.”

* * *

In the first week of his confinement, Limbert was roughly awakened.

“Come on,” the guard said. “Get up.”

His first thought was they were being released. A blanket was thrown over his head and he was led downstairs and placed in the back of an open truck with several other hostages. As they drove off, he reluctantly concluded that they were not bound for freedom. They stopped just a short distance away, still inside the compound, and were led into a large waiting room at the consulate. It was the room where visa applicants were lined up as they waited to submit their applications, windowless, with parallel rows of railings to control the flow of the lines, brightly lit by fluorescent ceiling strips. Limbert and the others were assigned blankets that were spread out on the hard floor. He counted nineteen other hostages, about one-third of the staff. Two armed guards roamed among them rapping long sticks against the railings, enforcing the rules against speaking or standing, and a third guard with a machine gun stood at one end of the room. They would spend the next two weeks there.

They communicated with gestures and facial expressions. Limbert was pleased to see that no one seemed unduly intimidated or upset. There were occasional chances to whisper to the person on the next blanket over, and a rumor made its way around the room that they were to be visited by some international figure, which made sense, because they continued to count the passing days with disbelief. Surely there would be a resolution soon. Occasionally the students would pass around copies of a document they had found in the seized files that they considered particularly damning. The only time Limbert got to stir from his blanket was when he had to use the toilet. He would stand, wait to be blindfolded, and then was led to the bathroom. The students distributed some magazines and books—Limbert got a copy of Apartment Life, which dealt with home decoration—and brought in fast food, mostly hamburgers, but once from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, which, despite the Iranians’ loathing for all things American, apparently was still thriving.

The first group of students who had taken them hostage was largely replaced. The new guards were about the same age as the first crowd but seemed all business. They rarely spoke to Limbert; he could see that any of them who began to converse with him was glared at by the others, so clearly they were under instructions not to interact with the American devils.

Limbert found a small way to break through that reserve at mealtime. He exploited ta’arof, the elaborate ritual protocol of Iran. When he was served food he would offer some to the student who delivered it.

“Please, before I take a bite, go ahead and have some of my food.”

“No, thank you,” the server would respond.

“But you must,” Limbert would insist.

“No, please, excuse me, but I wouldn’t dream of it,” the server would say, following the standard rules of this game.

The guards were disarmed by his fluency with their language and customs. As Limbert saw it, such moments forced them to set aside their stern demeanor and act more human.

Some of the military officers were annoyed by this behavior, which they interpreted as inappropriate cozying up to the enemy. It particularly bothered Colonel Leland Holland, an assistant defense attaché. When he overheard one of the young naval officers addressing a guard with what he regarded as excessive politeness, he took advantage of the first opportunity to whisper to his colleague, “Tell these motherfuckers to shove it. Don’t be so goddamn nice to them.”

After a few days on the hard consulate floor, the hostages were given mattresses, which were a terrific comfort, and which had the effect of more clearly defining each man’s space, which some found vaguely reassuring. The fear of execution was still strong. Richard Queen requested a pencil and piece of paper and wrote out a will to his parents, telling them, “I don’t expect to ever be seeing you again,…I love you more than I can say. Thank you for being my parents.”

Occasionally the higher-ranking students would come through trying to confirm the name and job of each captive. Limbert noticed that his colleagues were being taken off one by one, and would return hours, or sometimes days, later. He assumed they were being interrogated.

* * *

Bruce Laingen, the embassy’s indignant but ever hopeful chargé d’affaires, along with Tomseth and the embassy’s second-ranking security officer, Mike Howland, were undergoing captivity of a different sort. Still stranded at the Foreign Ministry, they were in the curious position of being both inside and outside the ordeal.

They had watched the provisional government collapse, which reduced them to being vagabond emissaries to a government that did not exist. In the first days they had been treated like diplomats, important men. They had received visitors from other embassies during the day in the ministry’s diplomatic reception room—struggling to keep themselves presentable in clothing they had worn day and night—and talked to Washington regularly by phone. Tomseth spoke fluent Farsi, so he translated the reports on television, radio, and in Tehran’s newspapers. They followed with hope and then disappointment the aborted mission of Clark and Miller. An effort at mediation by the Palestine Liberation Organization was reportedly under way, but, so far, had yielded no results.

They were not officially hostages. They had not been directly forbidden to leave for a friendly embassy, but even if they were not stopped on their way out, the practical problems were considerable. Any embassy that accepted them would itself become a target for these fanatics. How could they impose on their friends like that? And how could they just walk out on their colleagues? Staying on had its own logic. Laingen not only believed but expected that the outrage would be set right. After the failure of the Clark/Miller mission, there seemed to be no way for Washington to establish a dialogue with Iran. The crisis then worsened with a round of spiteful gestures. Carter froze six billion dollars of Iranian assets and suspended oil imports from Iran, and the imam responded by banning exports to America, which said, in effect, You can’t refuse to buy our oil because we refuse to sell it to you. The crisis was at a complete impasse. But so long as he stayed under the foreign minister’s feet, a constant reminder of the ongoing insult to his country and to their shared profession of diplomacy, Laingen felt there was always a chance that such a dialogue might begin with him.

They slept on sofas in the ministry’s long and narrow formal dining room and spent most of their time during the day in the reception area’s central salon, a larger room forty feet wide and seventy feet long. The wood floors were creaky, the ceilings high and hung with beautiful crystal chandeliers. It was a sunny, airy space. Large windows faced north toward the snowcapped mountains, but most days the city’s heavy smog completely cloaked the view. The ornate rugs were thin and faded with age and traffic. Unlike their colleagues, they were not bound, blindfolded, harangued, and interrogated, and they had access to the local news. Laingen, an avid tennis player, was used to being outdoors and exercising, and as the ordeal crept along through the first week, and then into another, he could not recall a time when he had been so long indoors. A kindly official in the protocol section had brought them clean socks and underwear, so they could alternate, washing the dirty underclothes in the morning and hanging them on the legs of the table leaves that were set upside down on the dining table. They could still communicate with Washington via telex, but because it was an open line they could not have candid exchanges.

Laingen was bewildered. He was a true believer in the diplomatic calling, in the power of polite dialogue between nations. Iran was clearly hurting itself more than the United States by this assault on that tradition. It was, in his eyes, blindly self-destructive and utterly unwarranted. His entire professional frame of reference had been upended. He began a diary on the eighth of November, and in its first entry asked:

Why? To what end? What purpose is served? We have tried by every available means over the past months to demonstrate, by word and deed, that we accept the Iranian revolution, indeed, that we wish it well—that a society strongly motivated by religion is a society we, as a religious nation, can identify with. Far from wishing to see this nation, this government, stumble, we wish it well and hope it can strengthen Iran’s integrity and independence.

Laingen’s sympathetic spin on the revolution was of no use now. Perhaps the hardest part of his predicament was being rendered irrelevant. Trapped in the grand halls of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, he and Tomseth had ringside seats to the unfolding drama, but Laingen felt increasingly cut off from the powers in that country and his own. Watching the unanimous chorus of hatred directed at Americans from all directions, he saw early on that the embassy takeover, if it had in fact been conducted by idealistic students (and he doubted this), had evolved very quickly into something else. Less than a week into his velvet confinement, he wrote:

We feel compelled and obliged to watch the TV news, even though the constant barrage of anti-American propaganda becomes hard to take after a while. What is it doing to public opinion out there? What’s behind it? What is its purpose? Clearly it is the product of something more by now than an “unanticipated” attack by a crowd of students. Others have clearly seized upon it and are carrying this to ends not then planned or seen. Or is our assessment of this place again flawed, as it has been so often in the past?

His new irrelevance was brought bitterly home on the twelfth, when the newly appointed foreign minister, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, meeting with his staff for the first time, needed the reception room that had become home to the stranded Americans. Laingen, Tomseth, and Howland were removed to the big dining room, and while Bani-Sadr presided over his formal introduction in the next room, the three waited alone in grand emptiness next door, their shabby presence mocking the grandeur of their surroundings and the ritual in the next room. They sat at one end of a table built to accommodate forty. One played solitaire, one read a book, and the third took a long walk around the room, again and again, making circles.

19. George Lambrakis

Having accomplished more than they could have hoped, the students were at a loss. They owned the American mission, the embassy, the grounds, sixty-six Americans, and many thousands of pages of confidential files, but what were they going to do with it? They were convinced they knew in a general way exactly what had been going on in the embassy. The intelligence scandals of the 1970s in America had provided plenty of examples of CIA handiwork against revolutionary leaders—the clumsy attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the successful hunting and killing of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the plot to kill the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, the overthrow and murder of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende, to name just a few. They had the example of Mossadeq in their own modern history. But whatever the current plot was, it wasn’t immediately clear. Neither the students nor the clerics advising them had any practical understanding of how espionage or even how such a large embassy worked, or what all these people now in custody had been doing inside its high brick walls.

Before storming the compound, if the students had an idea about espionage it had been shaped more by Ian Fleming than by reality. This explained their suspicion of American watches, shoes, radios, and communications equipment. But apart from the apparatus of institutional secrecy, what they had found was for the most part opaquely pedestrian, an office building and its people. In their eyes, every American inside the compound was implicated in sinister doings, as either a spy or an employee in the service of the nefarious spy enterprise. Their task would now be to unravel the mystery.

Who had they actually taken hostage? At the Foreign Ministry were the embassy’s two highest-ranking officials, Laingen and Tomseth. Among those at the embassy were the heads of the mission’s eight sections: politics (headed by Tomseth), economics (Morehead “Mike” Kennedy), security (Golacinski), administration (Bert Moore), the consulate (Dick Morefield), the ICA (John Graves), the defense attaché (Colonel Tom Schaefer), and the military liaison group (Colonel Chuck Scott). Each section employed military or foreign service officers, and each had a support staff—clerks, secretaries, and several had communications specialists. The marines were under Golacinski. Koob and Royer, who had worked across town at the Iran-America Society, reported to Graves, as did the press attaché, Barry Rosen. Reporting to Laingen but operating with greater independence was the small CIA contingent, station chief Tom Ahern and his two subordinates, Daugherty and Kalp, who reported directly to Langley and had their own secure communications equipment. All had perfectly ordinary “cover” jobs at the embassy, so at first the students had no idea which of their captives they were. Thus the captors assumed everyone was a spy.

In the beginning, the students lacked this overview of the embassy bureaucracy. They had an overheated, sensational idea of what an embassy did that did not account for the more mundane tasks that formed the bulk of its activity. In that sense, their prize would prove to be something of a disappointment. They hadn’t imagined someone like, say, Bill Keough, the towering middle-aged former principal of the American school in Tehran, an institution that at one point had taught more than four thousand students, the sons and daughters of the then extensive U.S. government presence in Iran. To his captors, Keough was just a very large middle-aged white American of some importance, which meant he was probably a top spy. In fact, he was a lifelong educator who had spent most of his career teaching or managing schools in rural Vermont. He had been lured to the school in Iran by his love of classical history and literature—he had read of ancient travels in Persia and wanted to see the place himself. When his school had been depopulated and then closed after the revolution, Keough had transferred all the books and student records from the old building to the embassy grounds for safekeeping. He had since accepted a position as principal of the International School in Islamabad, Pakistan, and had briefly returned to Tehran to recover the most current of those old records—those for boys and girls still in school or applying to universities who needed their transcripts. He had been scheduled to fly back to Islamabad on November 5. When the students came over the walls he had been packing suitcases with the most critical of the old student files, and his biggest worry in the first days was that those files might be lost.

There had been some real spying going on at the embassy, but most of it had little to do with Iran itself. Major Neil Robinson, who worked for the defense attaché, was employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency and was trying to make sure that the sophisticated U.S. surveillance equipment used to monitor Soviet missile testing did not fall into the wrong hands. Navy Commander Donald Sharer had been working to make sure that some of the systems the American air force had installed on Iranian F-14s did not fall into Soviet hands. The plane itself was state-of-the-art, and it had the AWG-9 weapons system (Airborne Warning Group-9), which was capable of radar-tracking twenty-four targets simultaneously and firing upon six of them at the same time at a range of well over one hundred miles. It was classified. There were similar but less pressing issues surrounding Iran’s fleet of F4s, F5s, C-130 transports, and the surface-to-air antiaircraft I-Hawk weapons system. Sharer had managed to find and destroy an I-Hawk manual inadvertently left behind in Iran that contained secret electronic countermeasures, which had not been shared with the Iranian army. He had volunteered to help clean out old American offices and, discovering the manual in a safe, had tossed it on a pile of trash, which had been taken out and burned. He regarded it as the most significant thing he had accomplished in his brief stay in Iran.

These kinds of things were not, of course, what the Iranian students had in mind when they set about unearthing American plots. Certain that they had seized a gold mine of proof about America’s clandestine efforts, the students set about trying to solve the mystery for themselves. They would dissect this beast and lay its slimy entrails in the sun. It was not an objective study but one driven by prior conviction. They set about unearthing facts and confessions to substantiate their beliefs. Part of this effort involved cataloging all the “Spy Den” documents, including a project to painstakingly reassemble shredded files, but the other big part would be the methodical interrogation of nearly all the Americans in custody.

Colonel Chuck Scott was told to strip to his shorts, and as he sat and watched they tore apart his clothing inspecting pockets, linings, everything, looking for secret communications devices. He then endured an abusive session during which he was accused of being someone else, in particular, someone named George Lambrakis, a former embassy political officer who they were convinced had been CIA. Scott, a short, solid man with a square face and big glasses, resembled Lambrakis and had met him but could not convince his questioners that they were not the same person.

“You were born in Greece and you have worked many years for the CIA and the shah’s SAVAK to oppress, torture, imprison, and kill innocent Iranian people,” said his interrogator. “We have proof of this from files in the embassy and from some of your friends who have already given us information. We do not want to have to hurt you, or to kill you, but that is up to you.”

Scott found the accusation insulting. He regarded his position as chief of the military liaison group to be more significant than any post Lambrakis had held; why wasn’t his real identity interesting or significant enough?

Vice consul Richard Queen spent long hours explaining to his interrogators AVLOS, the new computer system in the consulate, the one he had been working on the day of the takeover. A precise man, he described in detail how it provided a database of visa applicants that could be readily accessed by American consulates around the world. He was telling the truth, but it was clear to him that his questioners didn’t believe him. Nothing about his work or his life was remotely secret; he was a relatively low-level functionary at the embassy, a beginner in the foreign service profession. But no matter what he told them, the truth wasn’t cutting it. There were no innocent explanations. Everyone was guilty; everyone was a spy. He could see his captors working hard to see through all the imagined lies in order to grasp the true devious machinery of the place. If it weren’t so sad it would have been funny.

“How much money do you earn?” he was asked.

“About eleven hundred a month,” he said.

“Don Cooke said you make thirteen hundred a month.”

Cooke, another vice consul, handled payroll, so Queen wondered if he had been given a raise without being informed.

Kathryn Koob walked her questioners patiently through her foreign service career, from the eight-hour foreign service exam she took in Denver in 1969 to her first posting in Abidjan, then on to Bucharest and then Zambia. She explained how she was drawn more to the job than to the place. A foreign service officer she had met early in her career had advised her, “If you have a miserable job in a wonderful place, you will be miserable, but take a wonderful job in a miserable place and you will be happy.” Iran was a “miserable place,” she explained, only in the sense that there was so much anger and mistrust of Americans. Koob’s life was devoted to knocking down barriers and grew right out of the prairie Lutheranism that she had absorbed growing up on a farm in Iowa. Her tradition informed her that all conflict was rooted in misunderstanding, and her passion was to crush misunderstanding with art. Koob laid it all out, from Iran backward, providing places and dates of arrivals and departures.

“You made that up,” her questioner said when she was done, pointing out how deftly she had produced places and dates off the top of her head. In fact, she had recently been asked by the ICA to write out a history of her employment, so the details were fresh in her mind.

A copy of that cable was in her files.

“You will find it in my office,” she told them.

Al Golacinski was questioned about his watch, which was a modern style with a blank face that lit up with a digital display of the time when a button was pressed on its side.

“Is this a radio?” he was asked.

“No, it’s a watch.”

“Well, if we find out it’s a radio you’re in big trouble.”

“It’s not a radio.”

One interrogator later threatened to put the security chief’s feet in a pan of boiling oil, an ultimatum Golacinski found too grotesque to actually believe. The line they had used on the day of the takeover, “You will see what we will do,” had been far better. It had left the terror to his own imagination. If you were going to scare a man with a pan of boiling oil, you would show him the red-hot pan and start taking off his shoes. The State Department security man felt professional disdain; he saw his questioners as amateurs playing at some cinematic notion of torture and interrogation.

John Limbert was questioned by a young man wearing a bag on his head, one of the embassy’s “burn bags.” He had cut holes in it for his eyes. It was all Limbert could do not to laugh. It seemed to him that they had things backward—he was the one being interrogated, shouldn’t he have the bag on his head?

“I am sorry to have to talk to you in this way,” the young man said.

“It’s all right,” Limbert told him. “Don’t worry about it.”

“What was your role in the coup of 1953?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Limbert said. “I was ten years old at the time.”

Those interrogated were struck by how determined their captors were to believe any scrap of information that buttressed their theory, and by how dismissive they were of anything that contradicted it. Joe Hall, the army warrant officer, found himself being questioned about the “wheat mold” plot he himself had made up as a joke on the night of the takeover.

Many of these sessions were conducted by Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam, the gap-toothed former Berkeley student. In the second interrogation of Golacinski, Sheikh-ol-eslam presented the embassy security officer with evidence of his “secret counterrevolutionary activity.” In a search of his office and home they had found grenades and other weapons and a number of other suspicious items, including counterfeit twenty-dollar bills. They had also learned some things about him from Joe Subic, the unusually cooperative army sergeant whom the hostage takers had dubbed “Brother Subic.” The helpful sergeant had told them about a project Golacinski had undertaken with the U.S. Secret Service. He didn’t know much about it, just that Golacinski had been working on the project, and that it involved fake twenty-dollar bills. In fact, it was an investigation into an Iranian counterfeiting ring. Golacinski had a big file on the case that contained a stack of counterfeit notes; he had been excited by the opportunity to work on the case. His interrogators, however, surmised from the suspicious title “Secret Service” and the counterfeit bills a vague plot to somehow undermine the Iranian economy by flooding the country with fake American currency. It wasn’t clear exactly how this was supposed to have worked, which is one of the things Sheikh-ol-eslam wanted Golacinski to explain. The files revealed that Golacinski had helped question some of the suspected Iranians, so to the other allegations against him was added the label “torturer.”

“Where are the rest of your weapons?” Sheikh-ol-eslam asked him.

“I don’t have any more weapons.”

“Why were you torturing Iranians?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have never tortured anyone.”

He told Sheikh-ol-eslam about guard shifts and talks with the local police about problems at the gates, and whenever he got the chance he asked a question. Sheikh-ol-eslam, in particular, could not resist the chance to hold forth on his theories. He explained to the security chief how in the United States oppressed minorities and politically enlightened Americans were rallying behind Khomeini and assured him that the revolution in Iran was just the beginning. Eventually the whole world would embrace the perfection of Islamic heaven on earth. “The American people will revolute!” he said.

Golacinski listened happily. So long as Gaptooth was holding forth, he didn’t have to say anything, which suited him fine.

* * *

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dave Roeder was privy to national secrets in his defense attaché job; he held one of the most important and sensitive positions at the embassy so as he awaited his interrogation, he plotted an opening gambit.

Seated on a chair in a room he thought was the chancery basement, blindfolded, he heard male voices speaking in Farsi and was then addressed by a woman who spoke flawless, American-accented English.

“Who are you?” was the question. The voice belonged to Nilufar Ebtekar.

She was a round-faced young woman with doe eyes and a pretty smile who was among several fluent English-speakers recruited by the students after the takeover. She had spent part of her childhood in Philadelphia while her father had worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and she had fully absorbed the language. In fact, when she had returned to Iran as a young girl, her English had been better than her Farsi. At Amir Kabir University, she was formally a second-year chemical engineering student, but she had long since grown more interested in the turbulent postrevolutionary politics playing out on campus. She had been raised in a Western-style home but had embraced the distinctively political Islam taught by Ali Shariati and others, who subscribed to the traditional leftist belief that capitalism was, at its core, the systematic exploitation of the weak. In the years prior to the revolution, she had come to see the popularity of American culture and consumerism among her peers as evidence of a Western plot to undermine Iranian culture and traditional morality and to further the imperialist designs of the United States. She had embraced hijab as symbols of her liberation from this plot and wore a black chador that covered everything except her face. Ebtekar was one of many smart young Iranian women swept off their feet by the revolution, who despite their education and ambition voluntarily adopted the submissive role accorded women by the Koran. She regarded submission as liberation. It offered freedom from capitalism’s soulless marketing of female sexuality. Unlike the women of an earlier generation, who covered themselves out of modesty, Ebtekar covered herself out of pride. Her black robes and veils announced her Islamist beliefs. She had actually met Shariati once, in 1977, before he had fled Iran for London, where he had died weeks later. Along with many students who for years had circulated his banned writings and lectures hand to hand on Iran’s campuses, Ebtekar was inspired by his vision of Islam as a divine third force, a deeply rooted traditional alternative to the demons of capitalism and communism that were at that time vying to control the world.

She knew Mohammad Hashemi and several of the other leaders of the protest, and three days after the takeover she was approached on campus and asked to help out with interpretation and “public relations.”

The next morning Ebtekar had presented herself at the front gate and was immediately introduced to the “Central Committee.” Despite some hostility from male students who disliked the idea of a female spokesman, she would soon become the public face of the hostage takers. She was thrilled in every way by the action, which she saw as a great victory of righteousness over evil, an historic and world-altering event that she was privileged to join. Thrust before the cameras to answer questions from the press, local and international, she became famous overnight in Iran and infamous in the United States. The day after she started, she was visited at the front gate by a starstruck delegation from a shoe factory where she had taught for several months as a volunteer in a literacy program. Her former students were delighted that their teacher had become one of the “conquerors of the embassy.” They carried a banner that read, “All Our Sufferings Are from America.” Ebtekar was moved; the encounter convinced her that she and the other students were the true representatives of the people.

Inside the compound she worked as an interpreter.

“I am Lieutenant Colonel Dave Roeder,” was the answer to the question she had posed to the former fighter pilot. “I’m the assistant air force attaché of the United States.”

“No, you’re not,” she said.

The interrogator spoke in Farsi again, and Ebtekar said, “We have found evidence in your embassy here that you are a member of the CIA.”

Roeder said nothing.

In fact, they said they had found a copy of a recent memo from CIA station chief Ahern to Laingen asking what classified operations Roeder had been briefed about prior to his arrival. This they said, confirmed that he was secretly “See-ah.” Roeder ignored them. It was the approach he had decided on. In the first session he would tell them his name and rank…period. They could do whatever they wanted with him, it was all he was going to say. So he sat silently, which he found easier to do blindfolded. He was asked a few more questions but he continued to pretend he hadn’t heard. Years before, in his survival school training class, Roeder had gotten the instructors angry using this tactic. They told him that the only reason he had the nerve to pull the silent act was because he knew he was taking part in a training exercise, but in a true war experience, where the fear was real and the threat of punishment, torture, and execution was real, nobody had the guts to play that game for long. By holding his tongue, Roeder had decided to prove an old point to himself.

He heard chairs move and then people leaving the room. He sat alone for about ten minutes but sensed the whole time that someone was standing right behind him. Then his questioners returned and his blindfold was removed. His questioner was a young man with a beard, and beside him sat Ebtekar.

She translated a series of questions and Roeder pretended he didn’t hear her. He found her manner particularly grating. Because her English sounded like the girl next door in America, there was something that seemed traitorous about her, even though Ebtekar was Iranian through and through. She had the smug self-righteousness of her cause; that was what truly burned Roeder and would so annoy the other Americans who dealt with her in the coming months. Her familiarity with America added profound emphasis to her rejection of it.

Ebtekar translated a few more questions and Roeder continued to stare off into space. They left him again, tying the blindfold back on. He sat alone for a long time, until he could see under his blindfold what looked to be the first glimmer of morning light from a basement window. When his questioners returned, the interrogator was angry.

“You had better start talking to him,” advised Ebtekar, “because I can’t protect you anymore.”

Roeder was amused by the idea of this woman “protecting” him. He said nothing. Then Ebtekar said something to the man in Farsi and he heard her get up and leave the room.

The air force officer tensed for whatever was going to happen next. He was hit in the head from behind by something that felt like wet cardboard. It didn’t hurt, but it surprised him and dazed him a little. Once again he heard Ebtekar enter the room and speak to the man in Farsi, and then leave.

This time he heard or sensed something coming, because he ducked and the blow missed him. His chair was violently upended, leaving him on his back, still tied to it, his feet sticking up in the air. He was being kicked, but the arms of the chair prevented his attacker from landing a solid blow. Then it stopped. He lay there a long time on his back, blindfolded, until about an hour later someone came in, untied him, and led him back upstairs.

* * *

If they had a hard time believing in the innocent intentions of Queen, Koob, Golacinski, and others, there was no way the students were ready to accept that Michael Metrinko was just a diplomat. Multilingual, well connected, widely traveled and hyperkinetic, he was made to order for spying.

He possessed a stubborn streak that at times made him oblivious to danger. He had spent the first few days of the takeover tied to a chair, irate about missing his dinner engagement and standing up his friends. He didn’t have time for this nonsense. What did they think they were going to accomplish by this stunt? One of the students offered him a cigarette and Metrinko had reflexively said no. He was dying for a smoke…but, no. It was a standard politeness; if you were going to light a cigarette, first you offered one to anyone else in the room. But under these circumstances the gesture was jarring. Accepting anything from these bastards, no matter how small, was acquiescence; it would imply that there was something normal or acceptable about the situation, which there was not. Metrinko resolved right then that, no matter how long this took, he would take nothing from them. He would deny them even the smallest satisfaction.

“This is ridiculous,” Metrinko told one of the students who spoke English. “The American government has accepted your revolution. We were trying to come to terms with it. We’re trying to find mutual interests, something to build on. What you’ve done is counterproductive.”

The Iranian shrugged off Metrinko’s argument. He made it clear that he didn’t believe a word of it, that he regarded everything this American spy said as a lie.

Metrinko didn’t speak to him in Farsi because he felt he would lose an important advantage if they knew he was fluent in the language. They were all conversing around him freely in their own language, assuming that he couldn’t understand. Having that secret had saved his life and that of eight other Westerners ten months earlier in Tabriz.

He had been there in the weeks after the shah fled, camped out at the empty American consulate. Iran was in its ecstasy of fulfillment and expectation. The executions had not yet begun. Metrinko was the only American in any official capacity to stay on in the northwestern city. When the facility was evacuated, he had offered to remain in part to keep watch on things, and in part because he felt responsible for four young Americans who had been locked up in a car-smuggling operation several months earlier. The consulate was a fifteen-acre walled estate with beautiful gardens, tennis courts, and a swimming pool. He had opened up the grounds to local Iranians the previous summer. Now whatever goodwill that gesture earned was forgotten in a tidal wave of anti-Americanism. Demonstrators gathered to stone and jeer the compound and to taunt its Iranian guards, who like most of the police and army (as opposed to the air force) had stayed loyal to the shah. They felt angry and betrayed by his departure. There had been a few testy moments at the gates. Once, when his army guards had responded to taunting demonstrators by leveling their guns, Metrinko had stepped between them and talked the guards into backing down. He felt relieved and even vindicated in those days, being the one American in Tabriz who had judged the situation safe enough to stay. At that point, no matter what was happening outside his walls, the maid and the cook were still showing up for work, the guards were still keeping watch, and he was enjoying himself, watching TV at night, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and playing cards. He was excited to be there, by the buzz of possibility in the air.

He was also glad that the shah was gone. The whole story of American involvement in Iran twenty-five years earlier was a disgrace. As a freedom-loving American, he was embarrassed by his country’s abandonment of its basic principles and by its support of the shah’s often heavy-handed regime. Back when he was a Peace Corps volunteer, he had seen some of his students hauled off to jail by the police just for speaking critically of government policy. He was in Tabriz because of his enthusiasm and fascination with the unfolding changes. He was looking forward to rebuilding relations between America and Iran on sounder footing. Metrinko wished the revolution well. He understood what most Iranians wanted from it. On the first of February he had watched on TV as Khomeini returned to Tehran, a day of intense national celebration. He and the guards heard the cheers and blasts and blaring car horns outside their walls. It wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. Public enthusiasm had elevated Khomeini to the status of a king, or a god, which made him dangerous, but most indications were that he would retire to Qom and continue leading a nice, quiet, religious life. The more secular revolutionaries who had surrounded him in Paris, men like Bazargan, Yazdi, and Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, had advocated free elections and an Islamic-flavored but essentially democratic state. There was reason to hope for a return to stability and a whole new and better Iran. America would have a lot of repair work to do, but there were deep connections between the two countries—financial, military, and geopolitical—that would be foolish to discard.

Those weeks before Khomeini’s return were like living in the calm before a pending eruption. The headless regime’s army and police were still in place, people were still going to work every day, things appeared normal but you could feel the pressure building. When Khomeini’s plane landed all hell had broken loose. Revolutionary forces rose up everywhere to tear down all remnants of the shah’s power. In the days before it happened, Metrinko got a tip from some Iranian friends allied with the revolt that the prison in Tabriz was going to be liberated, so he had visited the young Americans locked up there and advised them to come directly to the consulate when they were freed. He gave them small maps to show them the way and promised not to leave without them. He liked them. They were victims, nice, adventurous kids who had been given two hundred dollars each to drive cars to Tehran during their school break. They had delivered the cars as promised, but had been arrested when they tried to take the train west out of Iran with their money back to Europe. Their passports indicated they had entered the country with cars, and now they were leaving without cars, and without having paid the customs fee. So they went to jail, charged with smuggling. They had been there through Iran’s eruption. Now they were an afterthought, accused of a minor crime by a regime that no longer existed. As predicted, the prison was stormed and all of its inmates freed. The four arrived on foot, elated, still wearing their inmate pajamas and slippers, enormously relieved to be free but now imprisoned with Metrinko in the consulate with the country coming apart all around them. They were joined by four fellow escapees, two Germans, an Austrian, and an Australian.

Tabriz was in chaos. Anger, revenge, religious fervor, and revolutionary zeal combined to unleash a nationwide spasm of bloodletting, a season of murder. Many associated with the former regime were hunted down and killed, policemen, bureaucrats, local and national leaders, civilian and military. In some cities the entire police force was executed. Nobody was even keeping track. The raid on the prison had been followed by an attack on the main military base and a general collapse of authority. The armory had been looted and the streets were full of excited amateur gunmen with a seemingly limitless supply of ammunition. It seemed as if everybody was fighting everybody. Metrinko heard by radio that the American embassy in Tehran was in danger of being overrun. Telephone service was up and down, but mostly down. Much of the fury at large was anti-American, but for a time it seemed to bypass the consulate, which looked empty. His guards and staff had melted away. Metrinko and his eight charges huddled down. It was too dangerous to go outdoors, even inside the compound. Next door, a SAVAK crew was cornered and fighting for its life. Once they counted more than seventy rounds fired in a minute. Metrinko had been able to arrange with the besieged staff in Tehran to have a team of Americans waiting for him and the students across the border in Turkey, but with the violence in the streets there was no safe way to move. They were stuck and for a time, it appeared, forgotten. Metrinko had put his charges to work helping him to destroy every letter, file, memo, note, and report in his office.

On Valentine’s Day, the embassy in Tehran was invaded. In Tabriz, Metrinko was in his office when he saw a group of armed men in Iranian air force uniforms come over the compound’s back wall. They opened fire on the consulate, shooting out the windows. He dropped to the floor behind the desk and made a quick phone call—the phone was working!—to an Iranian friend, Ali, who was part of an activist group allied with the revolution. The man’s mother-in-law picked up the phone. Metrinko told her who he was and what was happening before the armed invaders burst in, grabbed him, and tied his hands.

Metrinko and his charges were marched to one of the kangaroo courts that were in full swing throughout the city. This one was a former government building, the Youth Palace, which had been commandeered. There were several bodies dangling from a tree in the front yard. They were placed in a holding room with others awaiting their turn before the kangaroo court—Metrinko would later see some of those he waited with hanging with the others out front.

They were rescued by his friend Ali, who had gone immediately to the Youth Palace when he got the message from his mother-in-law, but he’d arrived there before Metrinko and the others had. No one at the palace knew what he was talking about. Ali had then set out on a dangerous search, braving heavy gunfire on the streets, going from one place to another until he finally ended up where he had started, and found his friend Metrinko and the eight others. Ali’s revolutionary credentials and bravado, combined with many shouted threats, succeeded in getting Metrinko released, but then the American consul refused to leave without his eight young companions. Finally, the self-appointed enforcers relented, and all nine of them were allowed to go. Ali took them all to his family home for dinner and then delivered them back to the consulate, where he left them under the protection of a group of revolutionary soldiers.

Still the saga continued. No sooner had Ali left than the soldiers guarding them turned on them, ordering the nine to sit on chairs in the living room, pointing guns at them. The guards spoke to each other in Turkish. They had heard Metrinko speaking with his friend in Farsi and never dreamed he was also fluent in Turkish. So the soldiers spoke freely over the course of the day, as higher-level revolutionary figures came and went from the consulate. The men were bored with the detail and began planning among themselves to shoot Metrinko and the students in the yard that night and claim the group had tried to escape. Metrinko didn’t bother to tell the students what he had learned; he figured they were better off not knowing. But when a higher-ranking official stopped by to check in on them that afternoon, Metrinko told him that he had some communications gear in a back bedroom he wanted to show him. When they retreated there, Metrinko hurriedly explained the guards’ plan.

“I can’t do anything about them now,” said the official. “They aren’t my men. Hold on, and I’ll try to get some help.”

Some time later the official returned with a new group of soldiers to replace the guards who had planned to kill them.

Over the next two days, whatever semblance of leadership that existed in Tabriz decided that it would be best to ship Metrinko and the others to Tehran, where, for the time being, a deal had been worked out to protect the U.S. embassy. Metrinko outfitted his charges with his wardrobe; he was five-ten and wide and the students were much taller and thinner. Ill-fitting clothes and all, they had made their comical arrival just as the bulk of the American mission was being evacuated. Buses were taking wives and children and unessential personnel to the airport in convoys. The American students all returned home safely. Metrinko had no intention of going home. Things were getting interesting. That was when he had agreed to stay on in Tehran as a political officer.

He had reason to remember all this in November as he sat listening to the guards laughing and joking freely with one another. But Metrinko’s fly-on-the-wall status was short-lived. A student shouted a question in Farsi at one of the other hostages, and the man, rattled and at a loss, said, “Ask Metrinko, he speaks Farsi.”

So that was that. In the chummy atmosphere that prevailed for the rest of that evening, Metrinko had sat with a young Iranian science student and translated an article from Time magazine for him. He had been a teacher in his years with the Peace Corps, and the role came naturally. Then he was escorted into another room and allowed to watch a TV program. He had tea and chatted amiably with several of the students. He found them quite intelligent and politically astute. They told him that they had cased the embassy by coming in to apply for visas, mapping out where all the buildings and offices were. They were very proud of themselves.

“It had to be done,” one of them told him. “We had to do something to show people that Americans would not be allowed to regain control of Iran.”

Metrinko told them the truth about himself, and they didn’t believe him. They demanded that he open his safe for them and he complied. Inside were a few papers, nothing important. He did not keep many files in his office. The most damaging thing, what he worried about, was his personal directory, full of names, addresses, and phone numbers, which he kept at his apartment. He figured it was only a matter of time before they found that. Any of his many friends listed there could be subjected to the dictates of this inquisition. In this first interrogation session he was relieved right away to see that the papers in his safe contained nothing even remotely compromising.

His questioners were persistent but not abusive. The daily sessions continued over weeks. Eventually they stopped blindfolding him, which he saw as a bad sign; it suggested that they were not afraid of his knowing who they were. Over time, they grew more irritated and hostile. He was not telling them what they wanted to hear. They told him that they knew he was lying and tried to coerce him by keeping him awake all night, but then they would leave him alone for hours during the day. Metrinko had a fortunate facility for dozing. He had always been able to put his head back and nod off. It was a talent that had gotten him in trouble in meetings from time to time, but now it served him well. Whenever he was left alone, even briefly, he would nap. It was enough to foil their amateur efforts at sleep deprivation. Metrinko had not been trained in methods of resisting interrogation, but he found he could manage quite well. The sessions were a welcome break from staring at the walls. He was able to figure some things out from the questions they asked. For instance, he was heartened by the realization that his captors had no access to Laingen or Tomseth, who had left for the Foreign Ministry before the takeover. They were asking him questions that both men could and would have answered readily, but which Metrinko could not. That meant the chargé and his assistant had either gotten away or were being protected by the provisional government (he did not know that it had resigned).

Like Koob, Metrinko went through his entire history in the foreign service with them, from high school in Scranton to Georgetown, to his work in Turkey for the Peace Corps. He talked their ears off. He gladly told them about the two years he had spent teaching English at a literacy training center outside Tehran, how he had joined the foreign service five years earlier, and then had spent two more years in Turkey, as a staff aide, before moving to Damascus. He had been in Tabriz since 1977 and had come to Tehran only after bozos like them had closed the consulate there. Of the things he could be open about he spoke freely. He was especially glad to tell them about the lovely dinners and drinks, cocktails and wine—especially the cocktails and wine—he had shared with the families of prominent religious leaders. Still angry at the Taleghani brothers for what he thought had been a setup, making sure he was at the embassy to be taken along with the others, Metrinko talked freely about the late ayatollah, about how strongly it appeared that he had been set up and murdered by their pious religious bosses. What his captors saw as divinely inspired leadership, Metrinko saw as simply another ugly political faction using treachery and violence to prevail. He tried very hard to avoid mentioning the names of his friends. He would talk only about those he knew had already fled the country. After a session he would sit alone and go back over every question and answer, examining his performance and analyzing the questions they had asked to figure out what was going on. In a sense, he was still doing his job.

In the beginning, Metrinko was kept with a large group of his colleagues on the floor of the consulate waiting room, but in mid-November he was isolated in a chancery basement room. It was a very small, windowless storeroom that was about ten feet long and narrow enough so that when he held his arms outstretched he could touch both walls. When he held his hands over his head they touched the ceiling. The air was stale and there was a fluorescent light overhead that was left on continuously. He was given an air mattress that pretty much covered the floor space.

This is where he would spend the next five months.

20. “R” Designation

Despite their clumsy and sometimes comical methods, the students did make some headway toward sorting out the embassy and learned things that would have dire, even fatal, consequences for some Iranians who had cooperated with the American mission. They suspected from the start that Bill Daugherty, the former marine flier, was a spy, and believed wrongly that he was the station chief. He was the one whose office on the east wing of the chancery’s top floor had the biggest safe, and under duress on the first night he had relented and opened it. They knew from preliminary interviews with several hostages that that part of the chancery was CIA.

Daugherty was treated like any other hostage in the first days, shuffled from room to room in the staff cottages, where a marine showed him how to slip a piece of wire into the lock of his handcuffs and pop them open at will, a great relief. He wore the cuffs whenever the guards were present, but when he could, such as at night with his hands under a blanket, he would slip them off. On the evening of November 22, he was taken from a cottage and placed alone in the office of Tom Ahern, his boss. Everything had been removed from the room but a desk, a chair, and a foam-rubber pallet on the floor. Its windows overlooked the front of the chancery and Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue, which seemed permanently jammed with demonstrators. Their angry din echoed in the empty space beneath the room’s high ceiling, rattling Daugherty, who fantasized about easing down over the city in his old F-4 and painting the crowded avenue with a long string of napalm.

After a few days alone in this space, Daugherty was taken for six interrogations over the next two weeks. He was prepared for them, and had given a lot of thought about how to handle himself. Years earlier he had taken a training program for marine aviators who might find themselves in a North Vietnamese prison camp and had been through exercises designed to help resist hostile interrogation—he had even been locked for several hours in a small metal box. He had already decided that his circumstances in Iran did not require him to adhere to the military code of “name, rank, and serial number.” Since he was in Iran ostensibly as a foreign service officer, not a spy, he was determined to act like a State Department employee, that is, he would talk at length and try to engage his captors in dialogue. He had two personal guidelines. He would do his best not to reveal secrets or to say or do anything that might make life harder for his fellow captives.

For each of the sessions he was taken to the top floor of the chancery. The last three sessions were in the bubble. Each time his interrogator was Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam, the former Berkeley student with the missing front tooth. The work seemed to be wearing Sheikh-ol-eslam down; he looked exhausted, with big bags under his eyes. With him were two others, a large Kurdish man and a high-strung young man who spoke little but who had also spent some time in the United States.

Sheikh-ol-eslam asked most of the questions. For the first two nights, blindfolded and handcuffed in his chair, Daugherty was harangued. He was shown grotesque photographs of dead men stretched on slabs at the morgue, their bodies mutilated. There were books filled with such pictures, all purported victims of SAVAK and, by proxy, the CIA. It seemed very important to Sheikh-ol-eslam and the others that Daugherty understand that their revolution, the widespread arrests and executions that followed, and this seizure of the U.S. embassy were morally justified. So Daugherty deliberately challenged them on it, to waste time. He argued with them and asked questions that he knew would set them off. He stuck to his story of being a foreign service officer. The three did their best to maintain the atmospherics of an interrogation session—each claimed to have been interrogated by SAVAK—but they were not especially good at it. Their problem was not getting their subject to talk but to get him to stop talking. Daugherty led them into long conversations about American life and values, taking advantage of any opportunity to turn the discussion back to the familiar safe ground of home.

“We’re not interested in what you did in the United States!” Sheikh-ol-eslam would complain. “We are only interested in what you have been doing here in Iran.”

Daugherty frequently asked to use the toilet and would be given a break. He would splash water on his face, do deep breathing exercises, and collect his thoughts. There were further breaks for tea, during which the conversation would proceed informally. Eventually his questioners dispensed with the blindfold. Daugherty felt that he had the process so well in hand he began looking forward to the sessions. It was better than sitting alone in his room and listening to the mob outside.

In the third interrogation the tone changed. Sheikh-ol-eslam seemed to have very specific information about him, things he had either just learned or been deliberately holding back during the first two sessions. He asked where Daugherty had been on certain nights, who he had been with, what they had been doing. Not long before the takeover, the CIA officer had accompanied a group from several other embassies on an overnight pleasure trip to Isfahan. These were the dates Sheikh-ol-eslam harped on. Isfahan was regarded as a center for American spying because it had been a helicopter air base for the shah’s army and air force and had employed a fairly large number of American military technicians. Sheikh-ol-eslam and the others scoffed at Daugherty’s story that this had been an informal sightseeing trip. He wanted to know everything Daugherty had done in Isfahan.

The American was happy to oblige. It had been a pleasure trip. He told them of his visit to the city’s beautiful mosque and its bazaar. He described each of his companions, their conversations in transit, where they dined, and what they ate. It grew tedious, so Daugherty decided to have some fun. He had spent much of his time with a woman from the Austrian embassy, just a friend, but as Sheikh-ol-eslam pressed for more and more detail, Daugherty began to spice up the story by fabricating a romantic relationship—to liven things up and to bruise his questioners’ delicate Islamic sensibilities. He had himself tearing off the woman’s clothes in a hotel room when his questioners shouted, “Shut up! Shut up!”

Daugherty got another bathroom break, and then the four men sat together around the table in the bubble sipping tea and chatting as though the previous unpleasantness hadn’t happened. Then Sheikh-ol-eslam stood.

“You are telling us that you are not CIA?” he asked.

“That’s what I’m telling you,” said Daugherty, feeling cocksure.

Sheikh-ol-eslam picked up a slip of paper, walked around the desk, and handed it to Daugherty.

“Read this,” he said.

Daugherty read with mounting shock and disappointment. It was a cable, something that had apparently come from Bruce Laingen’s safe, written some weeks before he and Kalp had arrived in Tehran. It began:

1. S.[secret]—Entire text.

2. I concur in assignments Malcolm Kalp and William Daugherty as described Reftels [in reference to prior telecoms].

3. With opportunity available to us in the sense that we are starting from a clean slate in SRF [Special Reporting Facilities, a euphemism for the CIA] coverage at this mission, but with regard also for the great sensitivity locally to any hint of CIA activity, it is of the highest importance that cover be the best we can come up with. Hence there is no question as to the need for second and third secretary titles for these two officers. We must have it.

4. I believe cover arrangements in terms of assignments within embassy are appropriate to present overall staffing pattern. We should however hold to the present total of four SRF officer assignments for the foreseeable future, keeping supporting staff as sparse as possible as well, until we see how things go here.

5. We are making effort to limit knowledge within embassy of all SRF assignments; that effort applies particularly to Daugherty, pursuant to new program of which he is a product and about which I have been informed.

6. I suppose I need not remind the Department that the old and apparently insoluble problem of R designation [“R” stood for “reserve” foreign service officer, the traditional way of designating CIA officers with a State Department cover] will inevitably complicate and to some degree weaken our cover efforts locally, no matter how much we work at it.

LAINGEN

Daugherty’s mouth went dry. There was no doubt the cable was authentic; he had seen a copy of it in Washington before he left. Laingen was giving his nod to bringing him and Kalp on as CIA officers in the embassy and worrying about their cover status. Daugherty had no idea why such a thing had been put to paper and was flabbergasted, since it had been, that no one had destroyed it months ago! There was no reason to keep it. For God’s sake, it concerned the extreme importance of protecting their spy status even within the embassy! He sat there in disbelief with the cable in his hands and read it again, and then looked up. Sheikh-ol-eslam was sporting a wide, gap-toothed grin. The others clearly shared his delight. They had him red-handed. The language in the cable was only slightly obscure—they wouldn’t know what “Reftels” were or “SRF,” but the thrust of it could not have been more clear.

“Well?” said Sheikh-ol-eslam.

“Okay, I’m CIA, so what?” Daugherty said, handing the cable back to him. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Now it was their turn to be shocked. The last thing they expected, even after showing Daugherty the document, was for him to admit it. At that time and place such an admission almost certainly meant death. Daugherty’s flat acknowledgment left them momentarily speechless. They looked at one another, and then back at Daugherty, who smiled at them.

Then they erupted. All three of them shouted at him at once, venting their anger about the United States, the shah, SAVAK, all the primary sources of evil in their world. Here sat the personification of all they feared and despised. He would be the first one of the hostages executed, promised Sheikh-ol-eslam. No need for a trial. He admitted it!

“You’ve lied to us all along,” said Sheikh-ol-eslam. “You’ve wasted our time. You really are CIA. You’re an enemy of our country.”

Then Daugherty lost his temper and began shouting back at them, cursing them, calling them lousy Muslims and idiots. The four men sat in the strange little plastic room bellowing at one another.

“You guys don’t know jack shit about the world,” said Daugherty. “This is going to be terrible for your country in the long run.”

He felt hopelessly trapped in the web of their vicious mythmaking. The idea that his job with the CIA, in reality fairly minor and posing no threat whatsoever to the emerging government of Iran, made him the devil incarnate in their breathless cockeyed worldview, and that their ignorance might well cost him his life, made him suddenly both furious and fearless. Out spilled weeks of outrage. He had watched and listened as this un-washed, arrogant young rabble had insulted and humiliated his country and his colleagues. He was madder than he had ever been in his life and with nothing to lose he unloaded on them, resurrecting an awful extravagance of obscenity collected in military school and eight years as a marine, insulting their intelligence, their cause, their leaders, their parents, their sisters…and their culture.

“You think you’re civilized because you had civilization here three thousand years ago! Well, there’s no fucking trace of it anymore. You guys are nothing but animals!”

They were too busy with their own insults and accusations to even hear. All this anger roiled and then, as abruptly as it had begun, it subsided. Daugherty leaned back in his chair, exhausted. They had more tea.

Sheikh-ol-eslam, weary but determined, resumed questioning.

“Okay, look, we’ve got to get into this now,” he said. “We know you’re CIA, so let’s just start at the beginning. We want to know where you were trained and who trained you and who you work with in Washington.”

“Wait a minute,” Daugherty said. “All along you’ve been telling me that you didn’t care what I had done in the United States, all you cared about was what I’ve done in Iran. And here you accuse me of hurting your country, of harming your people. I’m not going to tell you what I’ve done in the United States. You only care about what I’ve done in Iran and that’s all I’m going to talk about.”

Sheikh-ol-eslam sat back and thought this over for a moment.

“Okay,” he said finally.

And they never again asked him questions about his recruitment or training. Daugherty couldn’t believe it. It was too good to be true. It eliminated a large category of concern. Everyone he had worked and trained with in the States maintained a cover, and those who had prepared him for Iran had been in and out of the country themselves in undercover roles for years. Each had contacts and cover stories he felt obliged to protect. He knew at least twenty of them. If that all remained off-limits (and it did), what a relief!

“Look, I may be a CIA officer instead of state, but I still only got here on the twelfth of September,” he said. “I still was only here for seven or eight weeks, or whatever it was. I still don’t even know the city.”

Sheikh-ol-eslam wasn’t buying that.

“You must know all the spies,” he said summarily.

“I’m a new guy,” Daugherty explained. “I’ve never done this before. No boss, no espionage boss is going to immediately give spies to an officer so newly arrived in a country he has never visited, where he knows virtually nothing of the circumstances, customs, culture, or language. The first thing you have to do is learn the city. I could barely find my way from here to my apartment behind the building!”

Their own prized captured document confirmed that he had not been in the country for long.

And the part about finding his way around the city was true, too. Ahern had given him the first two weeks just to explore. After that he had concentrated on doing his State Department cover job during the day and had started feeling his way into agency work at night. For about five weeks he had met with some of the contacts the agency had wanted him to explore. The CIA had not been actively spying in Iran for years. That was part of the problem. It was why no one had adequately foreseen the collapse of the shah’s regime. The agency had more or less ceded all intelligence work inside the country to SAVAK, since the shah’s enemies tended also to be enemies of the United States. For years, little intelligence was collected from Iran that did not originate with the shah’s own regime, who of course downplayed civil unrest and political opposition. Now, with Iran suddenly under new masters and the situation in constant, confusing flux, the agency was starting from scratch—note the reference to a “clean slate” in Laingen’s cable—and it was desperate for anyone who could help explain what was going on, anyone close or potentially close to those in power. The agency was pathetically far from being able to influence events, despite the overblown fears of most Iranians, who saw the CIA as omnipresent and omnipotent. The members of the recently resigned provisional government were now being accused of working secretly for the CIA, and the satanic agency was accused of orchestrating everything from natural disasters to civil disturbances to running a troublesome insurgency in Kurdistan. The feverish effort under way to patch together and decipher all of the embassy’s files would in the coming months “confirm” such links and send many to prison or execution.

In fact, the agency had never been so lacking in power and influence. Ahern was running an operation that consisted of himself, his secretary, Daugherty, Kalp, and three communicators—Jerry Miele, Cort Barnes, and Phil Ward, who handled communications in the embassy vault. No one working for the agency in Tehran even spoke Farsi!

Still, in his roughly five weeks on the job, Daugherty had met with a number of Iranians the agency was eager to recruit, and had even had some luck with two of them. He hoped those contacts had had the good sense to leave the country.

“You were at Berkeley,” he told Sheikh-ol-eslam. “You were in San Francisco. Did you come to know American customs and the layout of the city of San Francisco in the first week you were there? No? Well, then how should I know the customs and the city of Tehran the first week I’m here?”

His interrogators were flabbergasted and disbelieving. Why would the CIA send an officer to their country who knew nothing of Iran and who didn’t even speak the language?

“There were many Iran specialists in our government who could have come here, but they all turned down the assignment,” Daugherty said.

“Why wouldn’t they come?” asked the younger man, who seemed to take it as an insult.

“Because they were afraid.”

“What could they be afraid of?”

“They are afraid of this,” said Daugherty, lifting his bound hands.

He told them they could learn more about the CIA by reading the various books that had been published about it than by interrogating him.

But Sheikh-ol-eslam seemed to have even more information about Daugherty. In the fifth interrogation they asked him about specific nights in the previous months. Where had he been on this night? With whom had he spoken? What Iranians did he know? This was homing in on one of the few areas of local information that Daugherty felt most obliged to conceal.

So far he had been a bust as a spymaster. He had been given two Iranian agents to contact when he arrived, and one, a woman who worked in the foreign affairs ministry, did not even regard herself as a spy and didn’t appear to have access to any interesting information. The other was a military officer with access to Khomeini’s inner circle and potentially a valuable source. The agency was depositing money in a Swiss bank account for this contact, a lieutenant colonel or colonel. Daugherty wasn’t even sure of the man’s rank. The military had not yet been completely purged, and there were still some very-high-ranking officers who were pro-American. Daugherty had arranged several message drops for him, parking his car in a business district in northern Tehran and leaving the window slightly open. When he returned there would be a letter on the seat, which, when opened, looked like a simple missive, a letter written to a sister or daughter. But written in invisible ink on the same sheet was a message to the embassy. He had met with the man twice at night. They had driven around Tehran talking, occasionally parking in isolated areas so he could take notes. Daugherty had never been able to arrange a real sit-down, where he could sit and interview him and takes notes at length, develop the kind of information he could use to really steer the spy, and though he had hopes for this contact so far he had learned little of consequence from the letters or meetings.

Other than those two, Daugherty had been expected to cultivate sources on his own, through people he met in his “official” job as a political officer, the same job held by Limbert and Metrinko. He had attended high-level meetings at the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Ministry, looking for people with whom he could develop a rapport, maybe invite to play tennis or for a meal. The idea was to nurture a personal relationship, one that might evolve into a more serious professional one. He had reached out to one Iranian official who had met in the past with one of his predecessors. When he finally got the man on the phone, the man swore at him in Farsi and hung up. At this point most people in Tehran assumed their phones were tapped, and any connection with Americans was considered dangerous—thousands had been executed by the revolutionary regime. Taking a call from the U.S. embassy could mean serious trouble. Another potential contact, an army colonel, agreed to meet Daugherty for dinner after he learned they had mutual friends. At the restaurant the colonel was arrogant and condescending. He had apparently expected someone a lot older, somebody more befitting his own rank, and he made it pretty clear to Daugherty that he didn’t want him wasting any more of his time.

His one other attempt to recruit a spy had not so much fallen flat as left him feeling confused. He had invited to dinner a man who was working in Prime Minister Bazargan’s office. The man seemed well disposed toward the United States, and after that first meal he invited Daugherty to dinner at his house.

This source seemed so promising, and Daugherty was so eager, that he had actually made a pitch for the man to work for him. He explained that it was very important for the American government to know what the Iranian government was doing in order to improve relations. So such information would benefit both countries. His effort to spin the job as a patriotic act was unnecessary.

“The Soviets made me the same offer last week,” the man said.

Daugherty didn’t know what to say. No one had ever mentioned this scenario in training. They had told him how to deal with a “yes,” a “no,” and even a “maybe.” They had talked about the possibility of the offer being met with a hug and a “What took you so long to ask me?” or even by a punch in the nose. But no one had coached him on what to do with a potential source trying to start a bidding war for his services.

“You didn’t take them up on it, did you?” was the best he could think of to say.

He laughed and they dropped the matter. They had agreed to meet for dinner again. That had been ten days before the embassy was taken.

Of all these contacts, the one Sheikh-ol-eslam seemed to have the most information about was the woman at the Foreign Ministry. Her name was Victoria Bassiri, and she had a job overseeing the progress of Iranian students who were receiving government money to study overseas. It was not an especially sensitive position, but there was a chance she would eventually be promoted and the agency was desperate, so she had been considered a source worth cultivating. Bassiri had recently returned to Iran from India, where she had been recruited by another CIA officer, the idea being that she might be able to provide useful information once she returned to her job in Tehran. Daugherty had followed up on the contact and met with Bassiri four times at her home. She was a pleasant, middle-aged married woman with children who, like many middle-and upper-class Iranians, had little affection for the emerging theocracy. He had the impression that she had been marginalized in the Foreign Ministry because of her gender, which had made her angry but which also had removed her from the ministry’s inner circle. Over dinner with Bassiri and her husband, a poet, Daugherty discussed the chaotic circumstances of Tehran and listened to talk about office politics in the ministry. It was clear after their second meeting that she had little information that was useful, but Daugherty offered to pay her $300 a month for her continued assistance. His impression was that she did not see herself as a spy; she preferred to see it as more of a consultancy, a high-level social and diplomatic connection. The money was always presented to her as a gift, not a fee. Inflation was a problem for most Iranians, and every little bit extra helped. Daugherty did not regard her as a committed clandestine asset, and he had the impression that if he ever asked her to do something that was unmistakably spying she would have refused. Still, she would have to have been foolishly naive not to know that she was playing a dangerous game, especially after the embassy was seized. Daugherty assumed she would have been smart enough to flee.

It was clear from the questions that Sheikh-ol-eslam was asking that he knew a lot about Bassiri. He knew the dates the two had met. He showed Daugherty patched-together documents, reports he had written about his meetings with Bassiri, and though she was not named in them, the description of her and her job was specific enough to readily identify her. Concluding that the woman’s cover was already blown, Daugherty decided to admit his relationship with her in hopes of bringing out how insignificant it had been.

“Your story must jibe with hers precisely or she is going to be in real trouble,” Sheikh-ol-eslam said.

“I want to help her because she’s a very nice lady,” Daugherty said. “And, I’ve got to tell you, she didn’t give me any secrets.”

“I don’t care what she told you,” Sheikh-ol-eslam said. “Tell me the nights and times you met.”

Daugherty explained that they had met at her home. The times varied, anywhere from seven to nine in the evenings, mid-week. Sheikh-ol-eslam wanted exact dates and times, and they tried to work that out. The Iranian scribbled notes furiously as Daugherty spoke. This went on for ten minutes, twenty minutes.

“Then, after the second meeting, we skipped a week,” said Daugherty. He stopped. “No, maybe it was after the first meeting that we skipped the week.”

Sheikh-ol-eslam erased and rewrote.

“No, wait a minute. What time did I say we had that second meeting?”

Sheikh-ol-eslam consulted his notes. “Seven-thirty,” he said.

“I think the third meeting was at seven-thirty and the second meeting was at nine.”

More erasing and rewriting.

“No, now you’ve got me confused,” Daugherty said. “The first meeting was at nine and the second meeting was at seven-thirty.”

By now the annoyed Sheikh-ol-eslam realized that Daugherty was playing with him. He balled up his notepaper, threw it across the room, and said, “Get him out of here!”

He was taken to the toilet and then brought back for more tea. When he returned he resumed “sorting out” all the dates and times, confirming some of the information they had pieced together in the shredded files but sowing more confusion in the process. That was his goal. He hoped that Bassiri was long gone, and figured if she wasn’t, then whatever happened to her was her own fault.

His interrogation continued off and on for two more days, but after the session concerning Bassiri it seemed Sheikh-ol-eslam was running out of questions. Daugherty was immensely relieved not to have been asked about his contacts with the military officer, the one serious agent he had. He assumed that his reports of those meetings and letters had been burned in the incinerator. As Sheikh-ol-eslam fished for a new direction, Daugherty seized every opportunity to ask questions, to engage him and the others in political debate, or to provoke them, and they were undisciplined enough to fall for it again and again. He made no headway in these discussions, of course. His younger captors had virtually no knowledge of history or experience in the larger world—Sheikh-ol-eslam was the exception—but they were completely and serenely convinced that they were right about everything. They believed, simply, that the United States government was controlled by a rich Jewish cabal that acted, in Iran, in Vietnam, in the Middle East, strictly out of corrupt self-interest and often for the sheer pleasure of torturing and killing Muslims and other “inferior” races. America was responsible for plagues, famine, war, and even natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, which were manipulated by its evil scientists. Whatever examples of American contributions to the world—the Salk vaccine, the Peace Corps, billions in disaster assistance, etc.—were dismissed as ploys or sinister plots to further subjugate the planet. America had been Iran’s enemy for four hundred years! one of his captors lectured and then waved a hand dismissively when Daugherty told him that the United States had been founded only two hundred years ago. It was so because Khomeini had said it was so.

Their pomposity encouraged Daugherty’s wit. He especially enjoyed baiting the big Kurd, whose pride was easily wounded. When he mentioned, in passing, that he had once ridden an ass from Qom to Isfahan, Daugherty quipped, “How did people know who was riding and who was being ridden?” The Kurd leapt at him and began swinging, but Sheikh-ol-eslam pulled him off. When Daugherty learned that the younger questioner, a pious Muslim, had spent some time in Pensacola, Florida, an area known for its wide beaches and college spring break, Daugherty teased him about how much he must have enjoyed getting drunk and ogling the coeds in their bikinis.

The young man flew into such a rage that Sheikh-ol-eslam told him to leave the room. At one point his interrogators grew so frustrated that they beat him. His wrists were bound so tightly that the skin of his hands turned white and became extremely sensitive. Sheikh-ol-eslam ordered Daugherty to place them palms up on the desk and produced a length of heavy rubber hose. Demanding an answer once more, and dissatisfied with the response, he had the Kurd rap Daugherty’s tender palms with the hose.

It was the worst pain Daugherty had ever felt, a blinding shot that kept hurting well after the initial blow. He would have told them anything they wanted to know, but he genuinely did not know the answer to the question he was being asked.

“Believe me, if I knew I’d tell you!” he pleaded.

* * *

The students realized soon enough, of course, that their prize catch was Tom Ahern, the CIA station chief, who watched from an upstairs room at the ambassador’s residence as one after another of his colleagues was taken away. He assumed that they were being taken off for interrogation, and that they were saving him for last. Given his role in Tehran, he was clearly the person in the most jeopardy, and he knew his wife and daughter at home in Virginia would be terrified for him. The pattern seemed to confirm that they knew who he was. And as the number of colleagues around him dwindled, he grew more resigned. From time to time his guards would bring him graphic photographs of freshly severed human body parts, claiming it had been the handiwork of SAVAK. How could he willingly associate himself with an organization like that? Their tone was one more of reproach than accusation. He denied that he worked for the CIA, and denied that the agency had anything to do with such things. The language barrier constrained any serious dialogue.

When his turn came for interrogation he was walked across the compound to the chancery and taken up to the bubble, where he was placed in a chair before a table. Across from him was an unkempt synod of inquisitors, five students who were apparently the ringleaders of this fiasco. In the relatively soft light inside the bubble they were arrayed like the apostles in Leonardo’s Last Supper, which is the image that popped into Ahern’s head. They began questioning him as though they didn’t know who he was. The lead questioner was Sheikh-ol-eslam, whose thick black beard and missing tooth made him look to Ahern like a mad prophet.

“What was your job?” Sheikh-ol-eslam asked.

Ahern stuck with his cover story. He was the embassy’s antinarcotics officer.

“What have you been doing?”

He went through the meetings he had held with Iranian police and government representatives in his “official” capacity. Ahern had always considered the cover story half-assed, but once he got into it he was moderately impressed at how flexible it could be. Sheikh-ol-eslam and the others asked a lot of questions, which he easily answered, and as he warmed to the exchange he grew more confident. Still, in the back of his mind he remained convinced that they knew perfectly well what his real job was, so the whole exercise had the feel of play-acting. It went on for about an hour.

He was then escorted back to his old office, where there was now a mattress on the floor, and brought back for a second round the next day. The same cast of characters was arrayed behind the desk.

Sheikh-ol-eslam began by telling him, “We know who you are. You are the CIA station chief.”

Ahern denied it. He was determined to tell them nothing, even if his denials angered them. It wasn’t only his own skin he was worried about, but that of his other officers, his agents and contacts. Like Daugherty, he figured any of his Iranian agents would have fled the country fast as soon as the embassy was seized, but he owed it to them to buy as much time as possible. Part of his stubbornness was simple pride. He was being tested, and he was determined to live up to his own high standards. He had no heroic illusions; he knew eventually they could force him to talk, but he was going to hold on as long as he could. They showed him documents they had found in Laingen’s safe that identified him as the CIA station chief, along with the one that mentioned the covert roles of Daugherty and Kalp. The exchanges grew more hostile. They had connected the name “Donald C. Paquin” to him. He denied it, clinging to his cover story, until his questioners were fed up with him. They produced the rubber hose, told him to place his hands palms up on the table, and smacked them hard.

It hurt, a blinding flash of pain every time they struck, but Ahern refused to alter his story. The pain was bad, especially after his hands became bruised and swollen, but it wasn’t, he decided, intolerable. He noticed that, once the beating began, one or two of his questioners disappeared and didn’t come back.

After two sessions using the rubber hose on his hands without effect, Sheikh-ol-eslam and the other interrogators ordered him to remove his shoes and socks and lie flat on the floor. He did so. Ahern knew that beating on the soles of the feet was particularly painful and wondered how much of it he could endure. He decided he had to accept at least one blow, to see if he could take it. Once he had felt the blow to the hands, for whatever reason he had quickly concluded that it was a pain he could endure. But as he lay prone waiting for the first blow to the soles of his feet, it never came. He heard his interrogators whispering urgently to one another, and then he was hauled back into the chair.

“Put your socks back on,” he was told.

PART TWO

Den of Spies

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and President Carter during a state visit. (© Owen Franken/CORBIS)

“Imam” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (Courtesy: AP)

Ibrahim Yazdi, foreign minister of Iran’s Provisional Goverment. (Courtesy: AP)

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, President of Iran (1980–81). (Courtesy: AP)

1. We Don’t Have The Shadow or Superman

Several weeks into the hostage crisis, American television networks broadcast film of hostage Jerry Miele (he was not identified by name) being led blindfolded to the front gate of the embassy, where the bloodthirsty crowd vented its rage from behind the tall iron gate. Miele was then paraded around to another location for more of the same. It was the first glimpse of a hostage since the day the embassy had been taken, and it galled millions of Miele’s countrymen who saw it. The film clip accompanied the first reports that some of the hostages were being mistreated—beaten and interrogated—and it fed a mounting national rage.

In a report from the State Department, CBS reporter Marvin Kalb described the mood at Foggy Bottom, but he might as well have been talking about the entire country: “There is a very deep, deep frustration,” he said, “a feeling that the United States is helpless to determine the outcome…that we have tried everything and most of our efforts have not borne fruit.” The United States of America was stymied. Kalb quoted an unnamed State Department official, who said, “We don’t have the Shadow or Superman in our employ.”

Walter Cronkite, the veteran, influential CBS anchor, delivered daily reports on the crisis with thinly disguised contempt, noting the “stark, depressing reality” of the standoff and itemizing each day’s new insult and outrage. More than any foreign policy episode in American history, the Iran hostage crisis would be shaped by television. In any age, the capture of several score Americans in an obscure world capital would have been a big story, but one that in time would have faded. Prior to the television era, those directly interested in the story would have followed it in newspapers and magazines, of course, but for the masses of Americans concern over the captives’ fate would have diminished and eventually dropped off the front pages.

But this was a story made for television, particularly at a time when satellites had enabled instant reporting of events from almost anywhere in the world. It was a suspenseful, unfolding story, a real-life cliff-hanger, and it tapped an insatiable appetite for political intrigue, scandal, military analysis, drama, and pathos. It was a huge story for newspapers and magazines, too, but the tube was in just about every living room in America. The story grabbed the nation by the neck and held on. The United States was being publicly humiliated, goaded, maligned, and insulted on an international stage. The students themselves were media savvy, and with regular press conferences and dramatic pronouncements made sure the story didn’t fade. Reporters from American newspapers and the big three TV networks were allowed to set up in Tehran and file daily reports—ABC’s were delivered nightly by future anchorman Peter Jennings. The constant torrent of demeaning images and disturbing rhetoric from this obscure and exotic land was both frightening and fascinating. Why did they call Americans devils? Why did they assume all the diplomats and marines they held were spies? Some of the questions they raised seemed plausible. By 1979 most Americans knew that their country was not above undermining the internal affairs of small foreign countries. Were these accusations true? Did the hostages deserve what was happening to them?

On a national level, the Carter administration appeared to have badly blundered by admitting the shah. Why had the embassy not been closed first? Weren’t the consequences entirely predictable? Every night a wide range of experts was invited to interpret each mystifying new twist of the drama. Why couldn’t the United States respond militarily? How could we let these Iranian hotheads get away with this? The story had another thing going for it. Each of the sixty-six Americans in captivity had hometowns, families, relatives, friends, and coworkers. Every local news outlet in the country had a local angle. Hundreds of city TV stations were used to just taking the network feed for breaking national and international stories, just as its newspapers tapped wire services, but with this one they could break their own stories and view the crisis through their own fresh and emotionally powerful lens. Over the first weeks, local reporters scrambled to learn the names of the hostages—with some diplomats still hiding in Tehran, the government refused to release a complete list of names—but gradually the identities of all of the Americans were revealed. Reporters and cameras descended on quiet neighborhoods in just about every state. The hostages’ families found themselves at the center of a media storm. Every word they uttered, every tear they shed, was suddenly news. Stations in local markets vied for access to them. Dorothea Morefield, the poised, articulate wife of consul general Dick Morefield, who had undergone the terrifying mock execution, became a regular on San Diego television. “My heart aches,” she told a reporter there, watching new film of the hostages on the day of capture. The mother of marine Billy Gallegos wept for cameras in Colorado, one of many hostage family members who broke down for local newsmen. State Department communicator Bill Belk’s wife told the camera, “There are no words to explain how I feel.”

The crisis was a ratings dream, a conundrum, a scandal, and a tear-jerker, with no clear resolution in sight. Every day brought new provocative twists. Some Iranian students on college campuses in the United States defended the embassy takeover and were confronted by crowds of angry American students. There were isolated acts of retaliation against Iranians living in the United States, fear of oil shortages, signs of military maneuvers, and countless gestures of citizen support for the captives. Cable television and the advent of the twenty-four-hour news cycle were still a few years away, but the decade-long ratings success of the CBS weekly news show 60 Minutes had awakened the networks to the commercial success of news programming, and here was a story that stretched the potential of the medium from an exotic foreign capital to their own neighborhoods. America was riveted.

The networks extended their newscasts and packaged hourlong specials in prime time to update and analyze the story, but despite all the hours of television time devoted to the crisis very little effort was made to understand why there were mobs of fist-waving Iranians massed outside the Tehran embassy, or why the students had been motivated to take Americans hostage. The students were referred to as “militants” or extremists, and their action was seen as a wild, inexplicable act of fanaticism. There was little or no explanation of the role played by the United States in overthrowing Iran’s government more than a quarter century earlier, or any of the other reasons for Iranian anger or suspicion. Iranian rage was presented as something incomprehensible, something mad. Americans were no longer surprised by Third World hostility; the sentiment “Yankee Go Home” seemed to require no explanation. By the end of the 1970s America had come down hard from its post–World War Two fantasy of invincibility; it had weathered the tragedy and humiliation of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and concurrent revelations of CIA and FBI excesses, the long lines at gas stations that resulted from the OPEC embargo. While still ostensibly the leader of the “free world,” the nation suddenly seemed powerless, corrupt, inept, and despised. Many of the bad things people said about us had turned out to be true. A seized embassy and scores of American officials held hostage was just further confirmation of a depressing new reality. The images on television reinforced a decade of American disappointment.

For the Carter administration, this confluence of story and medium was pure disaster. Already Jimmy Carter had demonstrated a gift for making Americans feel bad. His effort to introduce morality and concern for human rights in foreign policy was seen by more bellicose citizens as a strategy of compromise and retreat. In the most ill-considered idea in the history of public relations, Carter had devised the “misery index” to gauge the national mood, as inflation and rising oil prices battered household income. His decision to give back the Panama Canal, while entirely defensible, was seen as yet another retreat, as was his prudent call for Americans to conserve fuel, which he called “a real challenge to our country, a test.” He was right, even prescient, but it was stern medicine, delivered by a homely, preternaturally sad-looking man in a somber, earnest monotone. In his bad-news mode, the very folds of the president’s face and the hang of his heavy lips seemed a mask of disappointment. The leader of the free world looked whipped. And now this. The hostage crisis seemed designed to complete the unfair image of Carter as a weak, apologetic leader. A rabble of college students seizes an American embassy, holds his countrymen hostage, sends daily taunts, insults, and accusations across the ocean, and the president of the United States does…nothing. At least it seemed that way. On just a moment’s reflection, though, it was easy to see that anyone in his position would have been hamstrung, but no one else was in Carter’s position, and the longer it lasted the more he seemed somehow to deserve it.

Everyone wanted Carter to do something, but there were few good ideas about what it should be. Public sentiment ran in favor of striking back at Iran, but ran just as strongly in favor of taking no action that might harm the hostages.

In a speech before Congress, Representative George Hansen, a Republican from Idaho, called for Carter to be impeached “if he doesn’t do something,” and referred contemptuously to the administration’s “weak-kneed nonpolicy.” He offered no suggestions.

Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from the same state, whose committee hearings had famously exposed CIA excesses just a few years before and prompted severe restrictions on intelligence-gathering methods, now complained about the dearth of intelligence. “It’s extremely frustrating and difficult to find the [Iranian] government or determine who speaks with authority.”

“Carter should get off his duff,” said one man stopped on the street in Dallas for a TV interview, expressing a widespread feeling.

“What do you think he can do?” the reporter asked.

“I don’t know,” said the man.

A woman stopped on the same sidewalk said, “Force should be used.”

“But what if responding militarily would mean that the hostages would be harmed?” she was asked.

“No, then we shouldn’t use force,” she said. “I don’t want them to be harmed.”

Americans had long enjoyed the luxury of neither knowing nor caring about the grievances of small foreign nations. Suddenly, the Third World had found a way to compel their attention. Where was Iran? Who were these “militant” students? What was an ayatollah? Why did they hate us so much?

ABC aired a long interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, chain-smoking and looking gloriously bored, whose insights were close to the mark.

“I believe the crowd is in control of Khomeini,” she said. “When I saw that Ahmad was going to the embassy, I was very surprised…. He is a little more open than his father. I was surprised.” Americans who called for a punitive military strike against Iran were, she said, “as irresponsible as the Iranian crowd.”

“What should the United States do?” she was asked.

“Don’t send the marines,” she said.

2. Forgive me, Oh Imam

On a chilly Thanksgiving morning in Tehran, Marine Sergeant William Quarles was taken to breakfast, as usual, and when he was finished the guards didn’t rebind his hands. That was a first.

“Hey, aren’t you going to cuff me?” asked the big marine, holding up his hands.

His guard made a gesture as if to say, Don’t worry about it.

From the first day Quarles, an African-American, had been treated slightly differently by his captors. He had been kept bound and confined to a mattress in one of the cottages, like everyone else, but his captors always made a point of acknowledging his blackness and conveying a sense of solidarity with his presumed second-class status. If he wanted more food they would always bring him extra portions. If he asked for a cigarette, someone would run out and bring him a full pack. Once, when a glass of water was placed on the table between him and one of the white hostages and the white hostage took it and drank from it, the guards confiscated the glass and lectured the offending white hostage about American oppression of black people. Quarles was startled, because he had assumed, as undoubtedly the white hostage had, that another glass was on its way. Instead, Quarles was presented with a full glass of ice water and the white hostage was denied anything more to drink.

From the beginning, a few of the student leaders visited him to explain at great length the reasons for their actions. They talked to him about their kinship with what they wrongly supposed to be millions of black American Muslims, and the special place for black people in Islam. They showed him albums of charred and tortured bodies and explained the horrors of life under the shah. One of the older ones, a round, bearded man, told Quarles of the torture and execution of his father and other family members under the shah and broke down crying.

Again and again they stressed that they identified with him as a member of the “oppressed” races of the world. They brought him documents they had seized during the takeover and explained that the memoranda, which Quarles didn’t read and couldn’t follow, proved that America had been interfering with Iranian society and was working to undermine their revolution. Quarles had little interest in the fine points of Islam, history, or international politics. He wanted to avoid being shot and, if at all possible, to go home. He knew that his captors were trying to indoctrinate him and, for the most part, he let what they told him travel in one ear and out the other. But some of the more moving things, some of the photos and heartfelt testimony of a few guards, touched him. He was inclined to believe that his country was responsible for much of the suffering in Iran, and found it easy to believe that the United States was working to undermine their revolution in hopes of maintaining control over the country’s oil. But when the captors circulated a petition asking for the shah’s return, the young marine had refused to sign it.

After breakfast on Thanksgiving morning the uncuffed Quarles was led into a room in the motor pool building. In an adjacent room he saw fellow marine Sergeant Ladel Maples, who was also untied. Quarles considered trying to bolt. The men guarding him were much smaller than him. But he thought better of it. Even if he got free of the compound, where would he go? His skin color meant there was no chance he could blend into a Tehran crowd.

Then, one after another, a procession of his captors came in the room to lecture him again in English about the rightness of their action, the sins of America—beginning with slavery and genocide against the American Indian—and the glory of Islam and Khomeini. Quarles began to suspect that he was going home. The lectures struck him as preparation; they were prepping him for the press attention he would get on his release. Later that evening he and Maples, also an African-American, were put together in the same room.

“Goddamn, man, you think we’re getting out of here?” Quarles asked.

“I don’t know,” said Maples. “We just might get out of here. I don’t know what the hell is going on.”

“You think anybody else is getting out?”

“I hope so.”

The lectures continued. They were served hamburgers, potato chips, and pickles for supper. Clearly, their captors were trying to make a good impression. When they were led outside, Quarles felt blinded by the television lights. He had trouble walking. He had been sitting for so many days that it was hard for him to keep his balance. He and Maples and an embassy secretary, Kathy Gross, were led into a large room next to the commissary before hundreds of reporters, American and Iranian. Quarles felt frightened. He needed help putting on a slight green jacket, and he was shaking; he didn’t know if it was from the cold outside or from fear.

“Nobody is going to hurt you,” one of the guards told him. “These are just some people who want to see you.”

Quarles realized that he was part of a publicity stunt. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that the lectures he had been getting were to prepare him for this attention. He sat on a stage with the two others before a giant poster of Khomeini and some writing that he didn’t understand. The reporters had all been assigned numbers, and one of the Iranian students called off the numbers and allowed some of them to ask questions. In response to one, Quarles said:

“In the past, I had heard something about U.S. imperialism, but as an American marine I had always dismissed them out of hand. But after having heard the other side of the story I now believe these people might have some legitimate complaints…. I learned a lot from what I read and saw, and was very saddened by some of the things going on under the shah. I think the American people have to turn around and look at—and there are always two sides—and I saw the other side of the story. The other side of American imperialism.”

What he really wanted to say was, Hey, get me the hell out of here, I’m tired of this shit. But he felt obliged to get across the points that had been hammered into him for weeks. He knew if he played along he might get to go home.

Quarles told the reporters that he had been kept in the living room of one of the staff cottages for most of the time. As for the embassy being a “den of spies,” he said, “The Iranian people felt that it was not an embassy.” He said that he had no knowledge of any American spying, then added, obligingly, “Under their ideology, I’m sure they’re right.”

“Why didn’t you sign the petition?” a reporter asked.

“I didn’t want to put my signature on something that might be derogatory to my government,” he said.

The event seemed to last forever. Quarles felt like he was in a state of shock. He couldn’t wait to be taken out of the room. When he was, he was led into a small room to face an Iranian camera and a beautiful Iranian TV reporter.

“Do you have any regrets?” she asked.

Quarles said something about being glad to be going home, although he wasn’t sure yet that was happening.

As he was being led out of the room, still frightened and bewildered, one of the students whom he had come to know, a small man who had always treated him gently and as a friend, told him, “You know, you are going to be a very big man when you go back to America.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, you will be. Very, very famous.”

He and Maples and Gross were taken out to a Range Rover and driven to the airport. Quarles’s small Iranian friend hugged him.

“Come back to see me,” he said.

Behind Quarles in the van was a guard with an Uzi. Quarles didn’t trust the gun; he knew it had a hair trigger, and as their car darted erratically through traffic he and Maples worried that it would go off. He felt more frightened than at any point that day. His stomach felt fluttery and he was glad when they arrived at the airport that he was given a chance to sit alone for a few moments and collect himself.

As they were being led to the plane, an Iranian baggage handler went berserk. The man had to be restrained from coming after Quarles and the others.

“What’s the matter with him?” Quarles asked.

“The shah killed his family,” a guard said. “He’s very upset with Americans.”

It seemed to Quarles that every Iranian he met had lost someone to the shah. The image of the berserk baggage handler stayed with him a long time.

Quarles, Maples, and Gross were the first of thirteen black and female hostages Khomeini had ordered released as a gesture to oppressed African-Americans and as a demonstration of the “special status” accorded women under Islamic rule. The students had high hopes for this gesture. They had long believed that black Americans would identify with their struggle and take to the streets all over the United States in support; they felt sure this release would help spur such demonstrations. Ironically, among the blacks released was Air Force Captain Neil Robinson, one of the most important intelligence officers at the embassy. There was racism in the Iranian assumption that blacks and women would have held only menial jobs. Charles Jones, the only African-American hostage who was not released, had forfeited his status as an unimportant black man by having been caught inside the communications vault on the day of the takeover. There were only two women left behind: Ann Swift, who had announced her own importance, and Kathryn Koob, whose directorship of the Iran-America Society had marked her for certain as a spy.

Joan Walsh, the political section secretary, was among the ten released the next day. She was allowed to shower for the first time in two weeks and was given a clean pullover shirt and slacks. She and the others were seated in a row beneath a large, hand-lettered sign condemning the United States for sheltering the shah. It read, “America is supporting this nasty criminal under the pretext of sickness.” The hostages sat before a long, low row of tables set with microphones. Orchestrating was the wiry, bushy-haired Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam, who instructed the gathered members of the press that while they were not allowed to ask any questions of an individual hostage; they could ask general questions. The microphone would be passed down the line, he said, and each question would be answered by the hostages in turn.

“And I will tell you the name of the hostage as the microphone gets passed along,” he said.

“Can they also tell us their name and hometown?” one of the reporters shouted. Walsh flushed with pleasure to hear an American voice. She felt more comfortable.

Walsh was led back with the other women to one of the cottages after the press conference, and the Iranian women there were suddenly bubbling with excitement and friendly, as though they were supervising a sleepover. Walsh did her best to stare right through them. She wasn’t inclined to forgive and forget.

They were put in vans and driven through the hostile mob at the gates. Cameras recorded them smiling and waving as they drove away from the embassy and to freedom.

* * *

The release of the thirteen black and female hostages was accompanied by a kind of media blitz within Iran. The same day that Quarles, Maples, and Gross were flown out, the imam himself granted interviews to all three major American TV networks. Robert MacNeil, of the PBS news program The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, flew to Tehran but returned home when he was informed that the three commercial networks would get to interview Khomeini first.

Mike Wallace of the CBS show 60 Minutes got to go first and spent an hour questioning Iran’s supreme leader. Sixty-five million American viewers saw the grim, white-bearded ayatollah easily parry the reporter’s extremely respectful questions—“He [Anwar Sadat] called you, forgive me, imam—his words, not mine—a ‘lunatic.’” The imam didn’t flinch. The hostages would be released when the shah was returned. The hostages were spies. They had been caught red-handed.

“As long as Mr. Carter does not respect international laws, these spies cannot be returned,” he said. Khomeini said that releasing the hostages after the shah’s return would be a kind gesture on his part, not a quid pro quo. “In reality, these spies should be tried.”

“Is Iran at war with the United States?” Wallace asked.

“What do you mean by war?” Khomeini answered. “If you mean our armies going against the United States armies, no. There is no such war. If you mean, it is a battle of nerves, it is Carter’s doing. We are against war. We are Muslims. We desire peace for all.”

Taking a stab at unofficial diplomacy, Wallace tried to extend the interview with a question that had not been submitted in advance.

“As one human being to another,” he asked. “Is there no room for compromise?”

The interpreter balked, but the correspondent prevailed on him to put the question to the imam. Khomeini refused to answer it.

The interview was watched at the White House with great interest. No matter how fruitless, the TV network had gotten a lot further in establishing a dialogue with Iran than had the administration. Jody Powell found Wallace’s deference to the ayatollah appalling. The press had become openly contemptuous in Washington; reporters were beating up the Carter administration daily and pitilessly for its handling of the crisis, yet the chief kidnapper was questioned with what sounded like obeisance: “Forgive me, Oh Imam, his words not mine” became a frustrated laugh line in the White House.

The release of the thirteen was accompanied by a chilling threat. Khomeini announced that the remaining Americans were going to be placed on trial “soon” as spies. It was precisely the scenario Carter most feared. He publicly ordered the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk to sail from waters near the Philippines to the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Iran. At a press conference in the East Room of the White House, an especially dour president said Iran had created an “unprecedented” situation. “For a government to applaud mob violence and terrorism,…to participate in the taking of hostages, ridicules the common ethical and religious heritage of humanity,” he said, and added that the United States would employ “every means available” to deal with it.

ABC reporter Sam Donaldson asked the president whether the United States would be willing to let such an outrage continue “indefinitely.”

“It would not be advisable for me to set a deadline,” said Carter, who added, “any excessive threat…might cause the deaths of the hostages, which we are determined to avoid.”

3. Only Whores Go Without Underwear

As winter settled over Tehran, a season of short days, rain, and occasional snow, the trappings of imprisonment began to feel more permanent. The students who had planned the takeover of the embassy receded from daily view, replaced by a rougher breed of guards, many from the ranks of Revolutionary Guards, who hadn’t been students since attending the shah’s secondary schools. Most of the male hostages were moved to a large rectangular room in the basement of the warehouse. It had once been used to house electronic equipment that analyzed data from the Tacksman sites but had been emptied months before. There was a row of pillars in the middle of the space, and because it was windowless and damp, perfect conditions for growing fungi, it was christened the Mushroom Inn. Its white acoustical ceiling tile was high, almost fifteen feet up, and the space was starkly lit day and night by recessed fluorescent bulbs. Diesel engines were used to generate power for electricity and the sickly sweet fumes hung perpetually in the air. Hostages were assigned places on the floor, and each had a thin foam mattress. In time the guards used empty bookshelves to divide the space into separate cubicles so that, unless he stood, a prisoner could see only the man directly opposite him.

There was some comfort in being surrounded by the others. Golacinski had Vice Consul Don Cooke to one side and marine Greg Persinger to the other. Directly across from him was the assistant defense attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Roeder. In a side room the guards rolled in a TV set and played some tapes of American shows, escorting small groups of hostages in on an irregular schedule. Golacinski’s group watched an episode of The Carol Burnett Show, and then an old baseball game. When the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played before the game he felt a powerful pride welling up and noticed that the others in the room were smiling and winking at each other. Because Golacinski was familiar to so many of his captors due to his role on the first day, he was one of the few to whom they would speak. One, a medical student, told him that President Carter was sending Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general, as an emissary to Tehran to negotiate for their release. Golacinski asked if he could tell the others. He was taken to a corner of the room and told that he could say that Clark was coming, but nothing else.

Golacinski stood and got everyone’s attention. He announced in a loud voice that Clark was coming to start discussions, which created a stir. “Are there any questions?” he said, and when he was promptly pulled from the chair the big room echoed with laughter.

Light moments like this were rare. All of the Americans had been threatened repeatedly with execution, and they took it seriously. Golacinski and Roeder had been handcuffed together one night and, with blankets thrown over their heads, taken upstairs and outside, where they were told to stand against the wall.

“Nothing will happen to you,” the guard told him reassuringly, and then added, less so, “It will be quick.”

The guard didn’t speak English well, so he probably meant that they would not be left standing there long, but the expression had chilling implications. Golacinski doubted that they would be shot, and the longer he stood there he doubted it more. It turned out that they were just being moved to a new spot.

Richard Queen, the gangly vice consul, felt himself slipping into depression. He knew the symptoms. Long hours of sleep, a general listlessness, a chronic sense of despair and hopelessness. Tehran was his first assignment as a foreign service officer. He had grown up in suburban New York and distinguished himself as a middle-distance runner on his high school track team, fast enough to be among the better runners in the state, but not fast enough to compete beyond that level. Running suited Queen because it was a solitary pursuit, and he was in all things a solitary, precise man with extraordinary patience for detail work. He loved, for instance, a Civil War board game that came with a set of instructions that totaled more than three hundred pages, and which took months to play. His interest in war and history prompted him to apply to West Point, where he had been accepted, only to be turned away because of poor eyesight, a disappointment that had led to what he considered the happiest four years of his life at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he had majored in history. He had gone on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Michigan and had been proceeding halfheartedly toward a Ph.D. when he had taken the foreign service exam and done surprisingly well. Making history, traveling to exotic places on a government payroll, sounded a lot more interesting and secure than teaching it at a community college somewhere, so when the job was offered Queen grabbed it. He liked Tehran, despite the hardships. The work itself didn’t appeal to him, but he enjoyed the informal, fraternal atmosphere, which he imagined was like soldiering together in a besieged fort. He also liked going to work in blue jeans.

Even before he was taken hostage, Queen had come to dislike Iranians. He fought against it, because he knew such a feeling was unfair, but in his visa work he had spent long parts of every workday interviewing applicants, who one after another lied to him. It was a desperate time for many Iranians trying to escape the ongoing political tumult and violence. His job was to avoid giving visas to those who were looking only for an excuse to get to the United States, who had no intention of coming back. So-called students would bring school records with them that were obviously forged—Queen would hold the paper up to the light and see through the smudges and erasures. He had begun to believe that cheating the American consulate was a national pastime. It seemed every Iranian he met, on or off the job, wanted him to help them get a visa, if not for themselves then for a family member or friend.

Once, returning from a small party in north Tehran, he and fellow vice consul Mark Lijek had been stopped at a roadblock manned by a motley crew of Revolutionary Guards. The diplomatic license plates on their car prompted questions, and their American citizenship earned them a trip to the guards’ local headquarters. Queen had been drinking enough that it showed, and the session there began with a pious official berating them for violating the “Islamic purity” of the nation. One of the guards in the room had sat spinning an automatic pistol around his finger. They were lectured about America’s sins and asked what their jobs were at the embassy. When Lijek said that they worked at the consulate, the tone of the session abruptly and dramatically changed.

“Can you help us get a visa?” the official asked, and out came a familiar tale of woe.

They heard the same sob stories often, as if there were stories circulating on the black market that were guaranteed to unlock the stone heart of American officials. He got so tired of hearing them that he found himself rewarding the occasional applicant who appeared honest. One young woman told him that she needed a visa because she wanted to attend high school in the United States.

“We don’t give visas for high school,” he told her.

“Oh.”

She appeared ready to leave it at that, which was so refreshing that Queen had pressed on.

“Why do you want to go to high school in America?”

“I’d like to go because my parents are arranging a marriage for me and I don’t want to get married.”

Queen was startled by her candor. This sounded like an honest reason. It wasn’t up to the usual standards for granting a visa but Queen was impressed.

“What happens if you don’t get the visa?”

“Then, I don’t get the visa,” the woman said simply, shrugging. Here was someone looking for a way out of a difficult spot.

“Okay,” he had told her. “You’re honest. You get the visa.”

As a captive now, he passed most of his time in slumber so heavy he felt drugged. Even when he was awake he spaced out. He worked at remembering and imagining the pretty girls he had known in college, some of whom he had admired urgently from a distance but never approached, and he kicked himself for his lack of gumption. This stint in Tehran had enriched his appreciation for girls, particularly American girls, with their laughter and their gorgeous long legs in tight Levi’s and clean sneakers and beautiful white teeth. Why hadn’t he approached one of them when he had the chance? They surely wouldn’t find him appealing now. He was unshaven, his hair hung down over his ears, and he reeked. He had not been allowed to shower or change his clothes in weeks. His underclothes were filthy. When he was finally allowed to take a shower, he washed out his clothing and was given a clean pair of underpants, only they were in a boy’s size. His complaints were shrugged off. Feeling humiliated, he stretched the underpants and squeezed himself uncomfortably into them. Better discomfort than disease. He became obsessive about cleanliness, policing the space around his mattress for every mote of dust or crumb of food. It gave him something to do that had a marginal claim of importance.

The two remaining female hostages, Kathryn Koob and Ann Swift, were kept apart from the men and watched over for the most part by female guards.

Like Queen, Koob’s response to solitude and boredom was to turn inward, but for her the experience was spiritual, and exhilarating. On the second night of her captivity she experienced something that, the more she thought about it (and she had plenty of time to think), seemed to be a miracle. She had been sleeping on a bed in one of the staff cottages under a cape her grandmother had made for her years before when she was awakened by someone sitting down next to her on the bed. There was no sound, and no one touched her, which was the way her older sisters would sometimes gently awaken her at home when she was a child. One or the other would sit on the bed beside her and, instead of poking or shaking her or even speaking to her, would wait patiently for her to stir. As Koob surfaced from sleep, she realized that this “sister” was surely one of her Iranian guards. She opened her eyes—What does she want now?—and there was no one there.

In that moment she no longer felt alone. She believed she had been visited by an angel, her guardian angel, and was reminded of the constant presence of God, and after that she increasingly found solace in prayer. She had been raised on a farm with her five sisters in the Lutheran tradition her German great-grandparents had brought with them to Iowa. As a girl she had worked at a local Lutheran church to earn a scholarship to little Wartburg College, the Lutheran school. Her original ambition had been to become a high school drama teacher, and she taught speech and drama until she earned a master’s degree from the University of Denver in 1968, where she first learned about the foreign service. It had appealed to a part of her that had no obvious antecedent; the wanderlust seemed hers alone. Years of travel had pulled her away from her family, her religion, her roots. Now, ironically, alone in captivity, alone with her thoughts day and night, she felt herself more than ever before surrounded with love and family. Emotionally, she had rediscovered home.

It gave her a sense of calm and of purpose. She set about disarming her guards’ hostility with submission and kindness, as a novitiate in a nunnery might submit joyfully to religious discipline. When they insisted on binding her hands with a strip of cloth during the night, removing it in the morning, she took the cloth strip and neatly folded it like a bandage and tied it with a few unraveled threads. When the guard came looking for the cloth strip to tie her the following evening, she handed him the tidy bundle and he held it in his palm with wonder. He laughed and took it off to show the others, and didn’t come back. In the first few weeks she got to know the young women who guarded her in shifts. They loved to talk and to practice their English. They were all romantic and excited and completely transported by their cause, by the rightness and importance of it. One of the girls—they were all in their late teens—was happily expecting to be killed.

“Obviously, the United States will send its military people in and we shall all die, and I shall be a martyr,” she said.

“No, no,” Koob protested. She said the United States would not want any of them to die, hostages or students.

The Iranian girls were surprised that Koob had never married. They asked her question after question about things that she regarded as strictly personal, and Koob did her best to give them answers. She was moved in the second week to the living room of the ambassador’s residence, the same room where they had gathered for a Halloween party weeks ago. Jack-o’-lanterns leered down at her from the walls. She felt dumpy and ragged. She had been living in the same green wool dress for weeks. It was limp and shapeless. Her stockings had runs in them and, with a needle and various colors of thread given her by the guards, she stitched them back together. She had not been allowed to bathe, and when her captors agreed to take her underwear and launder it, they didn’t bring it back. She waited for a day or two and then complained.

“They are being washed,” said the imperious young woman who had taken charge of guarding them. Koob called her “Queenie.”

“Can you find me some in the commissary?”

Miad,” said Queenie, a word meaning “it is coming,” used much like the Spanish word “mañana.

“You said that two days ago. In my country, only whores go without underwear. I would like some panties and a bra. I am as embarrassed to go around without underclothing as you are to go out in public without your chador.”

She got clean underwear that day.

Eventually, Koob and Swift roomed together in the residence’s library, a small room painted yellow with pale blue drapes. It had been vandalized by the invaders, furniture had been heaped in the corners, much of it broken, and the walls were spray-painted with the usual revolutionary slogans. The room filled up at night with the female guards. They stretched out, twenty or thirty of them, and slept between their shifts. If a male guard came to the door before all the women had had a chance to throw chadors over their blue jeans and shirts the girls would scream in mock horror. They were clearly having fun.

One day, when Swift was taken off to the bathroom, Queenie questioned Koob about their professional relationship.

“What do you report to Miss Swift?” she asked.

“I don’t report to Miss Swift. I report to Mr. Graves, my supervisor,” she said.

“Miss Swift said you report to her. What kind of things do you tell her about?”

“I don’t report to her.”

“She says you do. Are you calling her a liar?”

Koob said she didn’t understand why Swift would have said such a thing, if in fact she had. Swift had held a higher-ranking position at the embassy, so in that sense she “reported” to her, but not literally. Their exchange ended when Swift returned.

On Thanksgiving night Swift was taken away.

4. World-Devouring Ghouls

Perhaps because he seemed so listless and beaten, Richard Queen was the first hostage asked to sign the petition the students had drafted demanding the return of the shah. The young vice consul actually thought Iran had a good case for demanding the former monarch’s return, but at first he refused to sign.

“I thought your country was a free country,” the student with the petition asked. “If you agree, why don’t you sign it?”

“I don’t want to,” said Queen.

When he was shown the same document the next day with thirty hostage signatures at the bottom, he relented.

“It doesn’t make any difference anyway,” he said.

He signed his name so illegibly that they demanded he print it alongside the signature, and he managed to do that so imprecisely that later reprints of the document would identify him as “Richard Owen.”

Thirty-three hostages signed the petition, more than half of those in captivity. Most saw it as meaningless, clearly a document signed under duress, and that under the circumstances no one would take it seriously at home. But the petition caused a sensation in the United States. Written in awkward English ostensibly in the voice of the hostages, it called for the shah to be returned immediately.

“In this way, we will be free,” it said.

It had been carried out of Iran by the Swiss ambassador. The White House dismissed it summarily. State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said that it could hardly be accepted as a freely expressed appeal under the circumstances.

“If such a document does exist and if it’s authentic, it’s understood that statements made under duress have absolutely no validity and their only impact is to reflect adversely on the captors,” said Jody Powell.

“Everyone ought to understand that such statements or petitions will have absolutely no bearing upon the actions of the United States. They simply do not exist.”

Public opinion in America was at a boil. Television coverage was unrelenting. The three networks focused on the crisis as though nothing else of importance was happening in the world. It wasn’t simply several score American citizens held hostage, it was “America” held hostage, as if every part of the government had been paralyzed. And journalists continued to receive more access to Iranian leaders and the captors than anyone in officialdom.

A reporter from the University of Dayton’s radio station, WHIO, scored a minor coup by phoning the occupied embassy and, through an Iranian student translator, spoke for nearly an hour with the Iranian occupier who picked up the phone. The voice on the phone in Tehran identified himself only as “Mr. X.”

“Will you release the hostages once you have made your point?” the reporter asked.

“We cannot at this time, but we will have a statement later,” stated Mr. X, who said the students would not negotiate with the United States government.

The reporter suggested that they release one hostage as a show of good faith.

“We’ll think it over,” said Mr. X.

Most Americans wanted to strike back, and there was no shortage of ideas, everything from severe economic sanctions to nuclear weapons. Senator Barry Goldwater, the former Republican presidential nominee well known for his hard-nosed approach to foreign crises, proposed that the U.S. Air Force destroy Iran’s oil industry, “and let them sit there and starve to death.” A message hung on the front of the Chronicle building in San Francisco read, “Expel all Iranian students.” Those Iranians who dared rally in the United States in support of the embassy takeover were challenged by large, unruly crowds. After a number of violent incidents around the country, shows of revolutionary solidarity by Iranian students in America came to a halt. One group in Washington obtained a permit for a march, but when the day came for the march no one showed up. An Iran Air flight to New York had to be diverted to Montreal when union workers at JFK International refused to service the plane. Long-shoremen were refusing to load or unload any ships flying the Iranian flag.

Protesters burned the Iranian flag before that country’s consulate in Houston. In Riverside, California, an Iranian student was found shot to death, “execution style,” according to the police. At St. Louis University, a man with a shotgun was disarmed after he walked into an administration building demanding to know the names of Iranian students attending the school.

A small portion of the anger was directed at the White House. Some blamed Carter for creating the circumstances that led to the takeover, others for failing to take immediate military action. Conservatives saw America’s restraint as a sign of weakness—“Keep the Shah and send them Carter” read a placard carried by a protester in Texas.

National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated a series of steps that would gradually tighten a noose around Iran, only to encounter resistance from within the administration at every turn. He proposed an immediate naval blockade on Iran, shutting down all of its imports and exports, a move that would have had the added benefit of pressuring European allies who relied on Iranian oil. It was opposed by the State Department, which felt it would do more to harm American alliances than to end the crisis. The president did act. Over the concerns of the Justice Department, Carter ordered most Iranian diplomats to leave, began deportation proceedings against all Iranians in the United States illegally, and banned oil purchases from Iran. He also froze the billions in Iranian assets in American banks.

Rescuing the hostages, furnishing the episode with a Hollywood ending, appeared to be nothing more than a fantasy. The isolation of Tehran, the location of the embassy compound in the heart of a city on fire with anti-Americanism, the easy opportunity for retaliation against the hundreds of American citizens living there—reporters, expatriates, spouses of Iranians, businessmen—all made it a very unattractive option. At the highest levels of government, Secretary of State Vance and his deputy Warren Christopher were dead set against any military effort to rescue their colleagues, and at that point in mid-November even the men secretly planning hard to create that option regarded it as foolhardy. Colonel Beckwith himself set the probability of success at “zero.”

The cover story of Time magazine on November 19 weighed the possibility of a rescue mission by interviewing “two dozen experts in and out of government,” and the consensus was that such an effort would be self-defeating and probably suicidal. Said Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the former chief of naval operations, “I think it’s pretty much out of the question…. Surprise is so difficult to achieve because U.S. planes would be detected as they neared Iran.” Zumwalt said approvingly that the Carter administration “has never seriously considered the military option.”

Inside the White House, there were two schools of thought about how to deal with the crisis. They were represented by Vance and Brzezinski, who were increasingly at odds. Vance was a patrician lawyer and a gentleman who placed a great deal more faith than the national security adviser in the rationality and decency of his fellow man. His formative experience in public life had been the Vietnam War, which he had originally endorsed as President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of the army, but which he turned against late in his tenure as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s deputy defense secretary. He had been a member of the American delegation to the Paris peace talks in 1968. Experience had made him a strong believer in negotiation, and that, along with his direct responsibility for the State Department employees held in Tehran, led him to place paramount importance on their safe return. Brzezinski thought more in terms of vital national interests and the importance of America’s world stature. If the United States and its diplomats could be attacked and hog-tied with impunity by a rabble of Iranian amateurs, then could American officials be considered safe anywhere in the world? For his part, the secretary of state cited the restraint with which President Harry Truman had handled a hostage-taking incident in 1949, when Chinese officials arrested Angus Ward, the U.S. consul general; Ward was eventually released and deported. Vance was meeting regularly with the families of the hostages and had taken Carter to one of the sessions five days after the takeover.

The first big session was held at the State Department in late November. The families, who traveled at government expense, were escorted into the building through the grand marble lobby beneath its colorful forest of flags. For those with little experience in official Washington—spouses of the marines and lower-level embassy staff personnel—it was exciting and intimidating, and they were grateful that the country’s most important officials were taking the time to brief and reassure them. But to the more experienced family members of foreign service officers, the hidden agenda of the meetings was clear. Barbara Rosen, a tough-minded Italian Catholic woman who taught school in the Bronx, had known from the first solicitous calls from Washington after the takeover that the unspoken message was not to break ranks and criticize the president or the administration.

That was not the sentiment for most in the room. All of the family members were under siege by local and national press; whatever they said was printed and broadcast across the country. Rita Ode and her captive husband Bob were retirees; he had taken the Tehran assignment as a temporary fill-in position, with the promise that he would be home for Christmas. They were building a retirement home in Arizona. When would he be home now? Dorothea Morefield, whose husband Richard was the embassy consul, believed strongly that the embassy should have been evacuated and closed before allowing the shah to enter the United States. Now she was at home in San Diego with four children, wondering if they would ever see their father again. Barbara Rosen considered Carter’s response to the takeover to be flabby and indecisive; she felt strongly that the United States should have immediately cut off all ties with Iran, and refused to deal with them until her husband Barry and the others had been returned. But these were not the sentiments the department wanted aired. Except for the parents of the young marines, the wives and families of the military and CIA hostages seemed to be more at peace with the predicament; an element of risk was assumed in their work. Many of them were ready to accept the need for the United States to act militarily, and some were disappointed that Carter had not done so already. But many of the spouses and families of the foreign service officers, and those of the two stray civilians trapped at the embassy, California businessman Jerry Plotkin and school headmaster Bill Keough, were indignant. They and their husbands had not signed on for something like this. Why had Carter not closed the embassy and evacuated American personnel before permitting the shah to come to the United States? This response should have been foreseen.

Penne Laingen, the chargé’s wife, was asked to write a letter welcoming everyone. It had been copied and placed on all the chairs in the auditorium. Mindful of the anger felt by many, she urged that such feelings be set aside. Dwelling on the administration’s mistakes was unhelpful, she explained. What was needed was to rally behind the president. As she took her seat, she noticed that the young women next to her, daughters of Bill Keough, had drawn dark lines through much of what she had written. One of them stood, held up the letter, and made a show of tearing it into small pieces. Laingen would later hear herself denounced by some family members as “a State Department stooge.”

Despite an official desire to keep the session private, some of the family members carried tape recorders and would deliver recordings of the session to reporters waiting outside. Journalist Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker was in the audience taking notes and would file a detailed report of it in the magazine.

Vance opened the session, promising the families that the government was doing everything in its power to bring their loved ones home safely. He urged them all to keep writing letters to the captives, although it was doubtful any would be delivered. More reassurance came from Under Secretary of State David Dunlop Newsom, who pledged to hold meetings of the families whenever they felt the need.

“I want to know if they’re being brainwashed. Are their feelings being deformed?” asked one wife.

More challenging questions followed. Even Vance’s request for them to write letters was challenged.

“I don’t want them to get hold of my handwriting,” said one woman. Captain Neil Robinson, one of the hostages just released, was present at the meeting, and he said he had been reluctant to write his wife from Tehran because he didn’t want the Iranians to know where she lived.

A heated discussion sprang up over the point Penne Laingen had wanted to avoid, namely, Why had the shah been allowed into the country when it was known that doing so would place the embassy at risk?

Newsom talked about the assurances they had received from the provisional government, and about America’s long “friendship” with the shah. “It was a difficult decision to make,” he said. Those in the crowd were not in a forgiving mood. Many had received reassurances about the assignment that had proved hollow, and their loved ones were paying the price. Why hadn’t they at least warned the embassy staffers beforehand, given them a chance to come home before the storm hit?

Penne Laingen spoke up.

“It was poor judgment, a monumental mistake, but we have done nothing wrong morally or legally,” she said.

“I felt betrayed by the United States government,” said Captain Robinson. “What happened should have been anticipated. Attacking Carter, though, will just make it more difficult now.”

Penne Laingen told the crowd that she had been fortunate enough to speak regularly with her husband on the phone at the Foreign Ministry in Tehran and that he had urged everyone to be patient and to support the efforts of the State Department. A recent cable from the chargé was read aloud.

We cannot and do not presume to know these men and women as well as you who are members of their families. But we do know them as able, dedicated, and loyal Americans, whose resilience and character, and, yes, their sense of humor will see them through this crisis…. To now describe these representatives of the United States as spies and agents of espionage is a travesty of the facts and an insult to human intelligence, both American and Iranian.

Many of the families weren’t buying it. Some were panicky.

“People are getting angrier,” said one.

“We’re heading for another Vietnam War,” said another, fearful of the use of military force.

One of the women asked if paying a ransom had been considered. Newsom said that was not under consideration. “The last thing to do is pass money around,” he said.

Shaplen wrote: “The meeting broke up shortly after a discussion of the press, which some of the wives condemned for overpublicizing the militant captors and further arousing passions in America. ‘We’re very conscious of the level of hysteria,’ Newsom said, in conclusion. ‘For that reason, we’re trying to step up visits to the hostages, to make them feel more secure and quiet things down here.’”

In the earlier session with just a few of the families that Carter had attended, the president had pledged not to “take any military action that would cause bloodshed or arouse the unstable captors of our hostages to attack them or punish them.” Those present had been heartened by the words “our hostages.”

At that meeting, Rosen had taken advantage of a brief moment with the president to hand him snapshots of her two daughters, and told him, “If you consider using guns, I hope you will think of the chance Barry will have.” Carter put the photos in his pocket.

For his part, Brzezinski avoided those meetings. He did not want the emotions to interfere with his judgment, or, perhaps more to the point, to interfere with his ability to advocate placing the national interest above the lives of the hostages. Vance urged the president to get the shah out of the country, something the dethroned monarch had graciously volunteered to do already. Brzezinski counseled that such a move amounted to pure capitulation.

At a foreign policy breakfast with the president on November 9, the national security adviser had warned against allowing the crisis to “settle into a state of normalcy.”

“If you do, it could paralyze your presidency,” he had said. “I hope we never have to choose between the hostages and our nation’s honor in the world but, Mr. President, you must be prepared for that. If they’re still in captivity at Thanksgiving, what will that say about your presidency and America’s image in the world?”

Vance continued to urge patience. He mentioned President Johnson’s calm handling of the Pueblo incident.

“But that went on for a year!” said Brzezinski.

“And Johnson wasn’t in the middle of a reelection campaign,” said Jordan.

Brzezinski’s position gained strength when the U.S. embassy in Islamabad was overrun by a mob and burned on November 21, killing two Americans and two Pakistani employees. A few weeks later, a mob in Tripoli attacked the U.S. embassy there and burned part of it, along with the cars parked outside. The fourteen Americans at that mission escaped unharmed. Vance told TV reporters that he did not see a pattern in these events, but he was probably the only one who didn’t.

Carter was determined not to let his hopes for reelection dictate his handling of the matter, and no matter how it played politically he trod a careful line between his two advisers. The fact that it was virtually impossible to rescue the hostages made the decision easier. He had little choice but to pursue a negotiated solution, and to find ways to put more pressure on Iran, but every move seemed simply to worsen matters. There was apparently no way to even initiate dialogue. The crisis was at a complete impasse.

Carter’s anger was kept under tight rein in public, but it showed in private. He ordered the military to draw up detailed plans for air strikes against Iran if and when the hostages were released.

“I want to punish them,” he said. “Really hit them. They must know that they can’t fool around with us.”

Such strikes in advance of getting the hostages home safely might mollify public opinion but would only worsen matters. Brzezinski played out the scenario in his head: Iran would certainly retaliate by giving the hostages show trials and executing some of them. Apart from the appalling personal tragedy that would entail, it would compel an even more aggressive American response, which might bring the Soviets in on the side of the Iranians and lead to an uncontrollable conflict. No matter how much America cared about the hostages, their fate was not worth the risk of an all-out nuclear exchange. Such thoughts sketched out the recklessness of Iran’s behavior.

The dilemma centered on one of the most basic and Gordian questions of democratic society: Which was more important, the individual or the state? Should Carter’s priority be the larger national interest, or should national interest take a backseat to the fate of several score American citizens? These were, most of them, volunteers who had sought out hazardous postings. Brzezinski and Vance ably represented both sides of this question, but Carter was, above all else, a pragmatist. When possible, pragmatists avoid confronting the hardest questions. For a nation like revolutionary Iran, which saw itself as divinely inspired, the question was easy. The will of the state was the will of Allah. Millions might be blithely sacrificed in His name. But for America there could never be a clear answer. The preeminence of the individual was a bedrock principle of the state, yet all but the most fanatical libertarians knew of instances, say, in times of war or natural catastrophe, when the government was compelled to disregard it. Carter did not yet face war or catastrophe. He told his staff that so far as he was concerned the interests of the state and the well-being of the American hostages in Iran were one and the same, so there was no dilemma. The only sensible option was to wait and see if somebody in Tehran was willing to talk.

Waiting might have big political costs for Carter. The image of a timid, hog-tied president was too tempting for his political enemies to resist. Kennedy flailed around rhetorically, probing for a way to capitalize on Carter’s predicament. He held a press conference to denounce the shah’s regime, exaggerating its sins, criticizing Carter for allowing him into the United States, and calling for an “open debate” over America’s role in propping up and sustaining his regime.

“The shah ran one of the most violent regimes in the history of mankind,” Kennedy said. “How do we justify the United States on one hand accepting that individual [the shah] because he would like to come here and stay here with his umpteen billions of dollars that he has stolen from Iran, and at the same time say to Hispanics who are here illegally that they have to wait nine years to bring their children into this country.” Kennedy said the administration should have known that admitting the shah would lead to a confrontation with the revolutionary leaders of Iran.

His comments were front-page news in Tehran and were warmly received, but they proved a bad miscalculation of the American mood. Iranian applause was political poison at home, where it smelled like capitulation, and Kennedy was criticized from every quarter. Stung, he promptly withdrew his proposals and said that a long conversation with Secretary of State Vance had convinced him that they were premature.

Henry Kissinger, whose advocacy on behalf of the shah had helped precipitate the crisis, surfaced on The Dick Cavett Show to urge that the shah be encouraged to stay in America as long as he wished. He advised his fellow Americans to “keep cool.”

“This is a situation where we are all obliged to support the people handling it,” he said, in a somewhat tepid endorsement of Carter, and then, dodging his own role in the affair, “There is no point in second-guessing it.” He finished with a subtle stab at the White House, hinting at presidential timidity. “When this is over we should find out what it is that makes foreign leaders think they can deal with the United States in this manner.”

Journalist Stephen S. Rosenfeld wrote in the Washington Post that the real error made by the Carter White House was not in admitting the shah but in pursuing “a constructive link with the new Iran” instead of cutting ties.

He wrote: “The administration’s real vulnerability, I think, lies in its expectation—hardheaded in pursuit of oil, softheaded in its pursuit of Third World favor—that things were settling down in Iran, that the moderates were prevailing; that the extremists could be trimmed to size; that the United States could gain more from betting on the future (by providing its presence, arms, grain, heating fuel, schooling, etc.) than from cutting itself out of the game…. I sense a new rage, a disgust, building in this country against the president. He will pay.”

Even though the polls did not yet bear out Rosenfeld’s prediction, Carter knew that unless something happened they would. In a staff meeting at Camp David near the end of November, he reviewed all of the military options at his disposal and settled upon a broad strategy of ratcheting up pressure on Iran. First he would condemn, then threaten, then break relations, then mine three harbors, then bomb Abadan, and, if all this failed, put up a total blockade.

The president, at Brzezinski’s urging, also authorized a private message to be conveyed through an intermediary to Iran’s foreign minister, making a point of saying that the contents would not be made public so that there would be less danger of it being perceived as an empty threat: If one hostage was killed or seriously harmed, the United States would respond as though all the hostages had been, and the response would be swift and harsh.

* * *

On the last day of November, a Friday, Bruce Laingen watched as the day unfolded outside the tall third-floor windows of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s formal reception suite. Thanksgiving had come and gone and there was no change in the crisis. Initially, he, Tomseth, and Howland had stayed on at the Foreign Ministry out of solidarity with their colleagues, but their voluntary stay had evolved into something that, for all practical purposes, was imprisonment. Partly out of a sense of duty, partly out of loyalty to their captive colleagues, and partly out of respect for the other foreign missions in Tehran, the three were stuck, suspended in a bubble of increasingly awkward protocol.

It was a holiday in Iran, Ashura, a celebration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. The ministry building was empty except for the “security guards,” who over the previous three weeks had begun to seem less like protectors and more like jailers. On this day Laingen noted that they seemed more nervous, with huge street demonstrations planned throughout the city. If a mob decided to storm the ministry and seize the despised American “spies,” there was no way it could have been held off by such a small force.

Laingen watched as clumps of demonstrators moved in the streets below toward Tehran University for the Friday prayer meeting, center for the day’s celebrations. Many carried homemade placards and posters. The whole nation was in the grip of Islamist fervor, a kind of mass hysteria. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr had lasted only a few weeks as foreign minister, ousted apparently by mullahs who felt he was insufficiently pious to represent the nation overseas, and when Laingen heard a helicopter approach and land in the ministry’s garden, he recognized the figure stepping out as Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the replacement, back from an overnight visit to Qom, the real seat of power now in Iran.

Ghotbzadeh seemed an unlikely choice, a suave, dapper, clean-shaven man who did not wear religion on his sleeve. He was a thickset, swarthy man with small, deep-set eyes and a great broad nose, whose face seemed bottom heavy, with a wide mouth and the chin and jaw of a cartoon boxer. Ghotbzadeh was a smart, ambitious nationalist who had earned a degree of flexibility in an increasingly rigid Iran by dint of the friendship and alliance he had formed with Khomeini in Paris. Still, today was a day that demanded a show of reverence. He stepped right into a waiting Mercedes, no doubt hurrying to the Friday prayers, a great public show of faith held weekly on the grounds of Tehran University. It was now mandatory for all high officials.

The prayer meeting was on the radio. Laingen had been to them often enough—most recently with Henry Precht—so he could picture the whole scene, which he recorded in his diary, something reminiscent of old Nazi newsreels or the images in George Orwell’s 1984, only with an Islamic cast:

The high-pitched voice of the Friday ( Jomeh) preacher, the Ayatollah [Husayn-ali] Montazari, lecturing, cajoling, beseeching the crowds that by now jam every square foot of the university grounds and spread out in adjoining streets in all directions. The radio speaks of a million, possibly two, citizens of Tehran listening, remarkably attentive and orderly. The women are carefully segregated, the children surely restless, yet there is little evidence of this to our ears. The preacher, bearded and turbaned, stands with a bayonet and rifle in one hand, gesticulating with the other, without notes. His rostrum is a stage erected at one end of the main plaza of the university grounds. White cloth banners, emblazoned with black revolutionary and religious slogans, completely cover the outline of this elevated stand. The backdrop is a vast drawing on cloth of the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, gazing unsmiling and stern at the crowds below. At the very mention of the name Khomeini, the vast throng erupts in sound with thundering repeats of his name and then subsides into respectful attention.

After Montazari’s performance, a representative of the now celebrated Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, heroic conquerors of the American fortress at the heart of the capital, urged the millions to march on the “den of spies.” Hateful rhetoric about the United States was developing a florid lexicon. Americans were “world-devouring ghouls,” who “skinned alive the meek ones” and “stripped nations of their resources.”

“Carter is vanquished!” came a shout from the crowd.

“Khomeini is victorious!” came another.

Symbols had replaced reality. It was as though taking hostage sixty-six unguarded Americans amounted to a great military victory.

Laingen wrote:

Through it all we are reminded of our colleagues inside the embassy compound…Daily they are beset by the rolling pressing sound of thousands of voices from the streets around them, calling for death to America, Carter, and imperialism. We are sick at heart, always fearful that mass hysteria of this kind could erupt into violence…We are saddened and depressed by this deliberate fostering of hate and venom and bitterness. We dread the thought of trying to sleep—sleep is almost impossible to achieve because of the pain and worry about where this tragedy will end.

To conclude the day’s festivities, Khomeini had called on everyone in Tehran to go to their rooftops and shout, “Allahuakbar!” for fifteen minutes. Outside the embassy walls the cries rose all over the teeming city, especially from the seemingly endless expanse of low gray and brown structures of the crowded slums to the south. Over and over and over again:

“Allahuakbar!”

“Allahuakbar!”

“Allahuakbar!”

5. Davy Crockett Didn’t Have to Fight His Way In

Immediately after wowing the brass at Fort Stewart in early November, and then staying up almost all night with Beckwith to celebrate, Major Logan Fitch had taken his newly certified Delta Force squadron for a week of skiing in Breckenridge, Colorado. He called it “winter warfare training” but the trip was primarily a reward, a chance to blow off steam. They all had been working for two years without a break. Fitch was an expert skier himself, and he hired some local instructors to assist him. They spent their days on the sunny slopes and their nights in the resort’s bars and restaurants. But before the week was up, Fitch was summoned back east. He was flown back alone to the CIA “Farm” in southern Virginia.

There he met with Beckwith and the rest of the unit’s commanders, and within two days, joined by his squadron and the one under Schoomaker’s command, he began training to rescue the American hostages in Iran. None of the men had been given a chance to go home on a quick stopover at Fort Bragg to gather up their gear, and none was allowed to contact family members to explain where they were and what they were doing. Fitch’s men had left for what they thought would be a week in the high Rockies and instead had disappeared into the sprawling acres of the Farm, a “secure, undisclosed location.” It would be Christmas before they would have permission to visit home.

Less than a month after it had gone to work inside the secret suite on the inner rim of the Pentagon, the small group of unorthodox military planners had made substantial progress. Delta had the luxury of not worrying about how they were going to get to Tehran and back, so they concentrated on what they called “action at the objective,” how to most effectively take down the embassy compound and free the hostages. The release of thirteen hostages had provided a bonanza of detailed information. Debriefing the released blacks and women, they learned a lot about who was guarding the Americans, what kind of weapons they had, where they were positioned inside and outside the embassy gates, and what kind of reaction they might expect when they stormed the compound. The fact that the guards appeared to all be untrained amateurs was good news. They learned roughly where the hostages were being held, in which buildings, and in what parts of those buildings, at least as of mid-November. The fact that the captors had created more or less permanent holding areas for large groups of hostages, such as the Mushroom Inn and the chancery basement, was more good news. Still, pinpointing and keeping track of where the captive Americans were being held would be a consistent problem.

At the Farm, an elaborate eight-by-eight-foot model of the compound was built, with the buildings reproduced in exact detail. There were two separate take-apart models of the chancery and warehouse. The roofs could be lifted off and upper floors removed so that the men could memorize the layout of each floor. The models, along with blueprints of the buildings and up-to-date satellite surveillance, allowed them to know the compound better than they knew their own homes. The drawings revealed the location of circuit breakers, where they could cut the electricity and black out the entire compound during their assault. From television they learned about how the compound and each building inside it was guarded on the outside. To practice storming the compound they used engineering tape to lay out a silhouette on the grass of the main buildings and outer walls, and then they timed themselves storming in from various directions, looking for the fastest way in and out. The tape would be taken up whenever Soviet surveillance satellites were known to be passing overhead. They spent hours and hours on scenario training, practicing moving into rooms and hallways and confronting guards, all the while fine-tuning their force structure. They did a lot of weapons training. Of great help was Captain Robinson, the intelligence officer unknowingly released by the Iranians simply because he was black. Robinson was able to answer a myriad of small practical questions. Do certain doors open out or in? What material is it made of? How thick? How thick were the walls in various places and how were they constructed? How thick was the brick wall around the compound? In the warehouse, the only access to the Mushroom Inn on the blueprints was a narrow staircase that led down to a long hallway. This meant the raiding force would have to move to the bottom of the stairs and then race down a perilous length before bursting into the rooms where hostages were being held, allowing the guards potentially disastrous seconds to grasp what was happening and react, possibly by shooting hostages. From one of the freed hostages, Delta’s planners learned that the wall at the bottom of the steps that separated the holding rooms from the hallway was flimsy and could easily be knocked down. So the raiding force could break directly into the rooms, saving precious seconds and adding the shock and confusion Delta needed to create in the attempt.

They planned to enter the compound stealthily, coming over the back walls and using weapons equipped with silencers to shoot guards who got in their way, but on the way out they planned to blow a hole in the wall big enough to walk all of the hostages out. So they built brick walls of identical thickness and practiced blowing holes in them.

It was an intricate maneuver that would require careful choreography; when Schoomaker likened the raid to a ballet one day he heard guffaws, but that’s what it was. One of the men promptly produced a cartoon showing a fully outfitted Delta operator wearing a tutu and dancing on tiptoe. The men were broken into three teams—Red, White, and Blue—one to deal with matters outside the embassy walls, and two to conduct the takedowns inside. The Blue element, the smallest, was led by Major Jerry Boykin, and its primary responsibility was to cover the gates to the compound once the raid had begun and to storm, take, and hold the soccer stadium across the street to the compound’s north. Inside the walls, the hostage takers had placed obstacles on rooftops, tennis courts, and any flat places where helicopters might land. Because of this the plan called for the hostages and rescue force to rally inside the soccer stadium, where the choppers would land, load, and leave. Boykin’s force employed sniper teams with machine guns to prevent any Iranian force from entering the compound or stadium. Fitch’s White team had the biggest job, assaulting the ninety-room chancery, which had been “hardened,” outfitted with barred windows, sandbags, and heavy doors prior to the takeover. If the hostage takers utilized the defensive measures, the main building was going to be a damn hard target. Schoomaker’s Red team was going to assault the warehouse that contained the Mushroom Inn. There were also two command elements, a primary one led by Beckwith himself and a backup led by Burruss.

They were constantly fine-tuning the ballet. They had chosen to go over the walls to begin the raid by ascending ladders from the outside and then jumping down six feet to the tennis courts. One day, Intelligence Sergeant Gary Moston made a surprising discovery poring over satellite photos. Examining the shadows around the tennis courts, he noticed that they were sunken; they were twelve feet from the top of the wall, not six! So the assault force would have jumped in the dark expecting to drop only six feet, and instead would have fallen twice that far. Burruss could picture his men in a helpless pile with broken ankles and legs, and with more men raining down on top of them. They chose a different spot for the ladders.

If things went wrong and the helicopters couldn’t make it in, they practiced alternate scenarios to evade capture and escape by driving trucks into either Turkey or Afghanistan, three hundred to four hundred miles distant. Delta built portable facades that could be placed inside a vehicle so that if its back doors were opened it would look like it was loaded with canned goods or boxes—the hostages and rescuers would be hidden behind. The unit practiced dealing with customs questions and learned some key phrases in Turkish and Afghan. The military combed its ranks to select volunteers who spoke fluent Farsi to join the force as truck drivers.

By the end of November, Delta was basically ready to storm the compound, but the problem of delivering them and getting them out remained. It was determined that the only helicopters large enough for the job, with enough range and with folding tail booms that would enable them to be stored secretly belowdecks on an aircraft carrier, were navy RH-53D Sea Stallions, which were used primarily for minesweeping operations. The choppers would have to be hidden below decks because the Soviets flew regular reconnaissance over the American fleet, and they would surely notice eight additional choppers. The model could also be outfitted with additional external fuel tanks. The Sea Stallions had good range, but nowhere near enough to fly from the Persian Gulf or neighboring countries to Tehran and back without refueling several times, and the military lacked the capability of refueling them in the air. So they needed to establish a remote refueling point somewhere in the desert south of Tehran. In the Pentagon suite, one group set about finding a suitable desert location, while another worked on plans for delivering the fuel.

An early scheme was to package the aviation fuel in rubber bladders big enough to hold five hundred gallons each and drop them from aircraft to the refueling spot. Parachutes would slow the multiton blivits’ descent, and the forces aboard the choppers would then roll them into position to transfer the fuel with manually operated pumps. This would avoid the necessity of landing large fixed-wing aircraft in the desert, a risky maneuver.

It proved easier said than done. At a complete dry run of the mission staged in the Arizona desert outside Yuma at the end of November, Burruss was standing with General Phillip C. Gast, Fitch, and Boykin when a practice blivit-drop was attempted. It was a clear desert night with a full moon and they could clearly see growing black blobs against the dark blue sky as they descended. Major Schoomaker was looking up with night-vision goggles, expecting to see a neat row of pallets come flying out of the plane at intervals, then blossom with parachutes, and instead saw what looked like an airplane vomiting something off its back ramp. It was immediately apparent that some of the blobs were falling much too fast, plummeting actually. Something about their squishy bulk had played havoc with the rigging and their parachutes had failed to open. They streamered in, great black hurtling, truck-sized watermelons that hit the desert floor with a gigantic cracking sploosh! The air was suddenly pungent with the odor of splattered aviation fuel. More followed.

“Jesus Christ, I hope none of them is coming my way,” said Fitch.

Cigarettes were hastily extinguished.

It was sploosh! after sploosh! as the blivits crashed in. Three of the ten blivits landed safely, but moving them across the uneven desert ground proved more difficult than imagined. Eventually the riggers would lick the problem of landing the blivits softly, but the time it took to move them and pump fuel from them, along with the unforgettable experience of hearing them crack into the desert floor, permanently soured the mission planners on the method. So it was back to the drawing boards.

The dry run had disclosed other serious problems. The navy chopper pilots were especially unimpressive. They were accustomed to flying relatively low-stress minesweeping runs over water. This mission would call for something much harder. The choppers were going to be loaded right up to their maximum carrying capacity—Delta had carefully calculated how much ammunition and water each man could carry in order to make sure they stayed just under the limit—which made them difficult to maneuver in the best of circumstances. The pilots would be flying in blacked-out conditions wearing night-vision goggles, which were a technological miracle but which sharply reduced range of vision and could be worn for only thirty minutes at a time before causing severe eye strain. The pilots had to take turns wearing them on a long flight. Entering Iran stealthily called for maneuvering in darkness through mountain ranges flying low enough to avoid radar, which was often hair-raising. Landing and taking off in the desert stirred up dust storms that often meant flying blind. After the first dry run, one of the pilots begged off the mission. Beckwith wanted him court-martialled, calling him a “quitter” and worse, and though the pilot was not punished, he was forced to remain in isolation, for fear of leaking information. Eventually the entire navy squadron was replaced by marine pilots who lacked experience with the Sea Stallions but who had more experience flying missions over land, and in combat. This did not completely placate Beckwith and his squadrons, who had worked with veteran air force special-ops pilots whom they trusted and greatly respected. But this was a “joint op,” and the air force already had its piece of the mission, flying the fixed-wing aircraft. Beckwith suspected, rightly, that the marines were given the choppers to fly to satisfy their need for a role. The marines believed their pilots were at least as good as the air force’s, if not better, but there was no convincing “Charging Charlie.” As far as he was concerned, he was getting second-string pilots because the brass was less interested in success than in keeping things collegial in the Pentagon dining halls. This suspicion, that Pentagon politics was being given a higher priority than excellence, would continue to influence morale. Delta believed the men recruited to deliver them and fly them out were not in their league.

The biggest problem remained intelligence, specifically what in tactical parlance was called EEI (Essential Elements of Information). There was no CIA presence in Iran—the three agency officers were being held hostage. In a message to General Vaught after the Yuma exercise, Beckwith produced an alphabetized list of concerns.

My most critical EEIs remain unanswered. These are the vital questions which must be answered to reduce the current risk and accomplish our rescue mission: A. Are all the hostages actually in the embassy compound during the hours of darkness? B. Where and in what strength are check points along major routes in Tehran which lead to the embassy compound? C. What assistance and support can be provided to Delta by in-place assets? D. Who will drive the trucks if and when [they are obtained]? E. Are there any safe houses in the vicinity of the compound Delta could use prior to the actual rescue? F. What is the night time MO [modus operandi] of roving patrols and sentry posts in and around the compound? G. What is the strength of the enemy inside the compound during the hours of darkness? Can the enemy reinforce the compound? If so, in what strength?

As problems were identified, the number of mission planners at the Pentagon kept growing. They were crammed into a relatively small space, along with tables, chairs, filing cabinets, maps, and displays. Room 2C840 was off the chairman’s corridor, a ceremonial stretch of hallway lined with portraits of the lengthening line of men who had served as chairman of the joint chiefs. There was a cipher lock on the door to enter the outer office, and a second steel door inside with another cipher lock that led to the inner sanctum. It was a classic boiler-room environment, windowless, crowded, and noisy with conversation and ringing phones. The space was so cramped that it resembled the inside of a submarine, with exposed wires and pipes in the ceiling and wall-to-wall desks, safes, files, maps, and people. The air-conditioning didn’t work well, and about half of those in the room smoked. Briefings were held every morning and every afternoon for the chairman of the joint chiefs and the secretary of defense, Harold Brown, and in the afternoons Brzezinski usually sat in. Sometimes Hamilton Jordan stopped by. Brzezinski dominated the meetings, going on often at sometimes infuriating length about theoretical things that the nuts-and-bolts men in the room found irrelevant. The chairman, General Jones, was so soft-spoken and deferential that even when he spoke the men in the room sometimes couldn’t make out what he was saying. Brown would fiddle with his glasses and sometimes look at Jones imploringly, as if to say, Tell me what to do here. The goal was always to reach a point where Jones and Brown felt comfortable that the mission had a reasonable chance of success, and day after day it was clear that they were still a long way from that goal.

The mission posed problems that seemed insoluble, but giving up was not an option. Early on, one of the officers involved tried to capture the improbability of the exercise with a list of “requirements” and “conditions,” all of them true.

Requirements

1. Fly 15,000 miles around the world—850 miles of it in Iran.

2. Enter into Tehran undetected.

3. Breach the embassy and rescue the hostages.

4. Return the hostages without harm.

5. Don’t hurt any civilians, Iranian or otherwise.

6. Rescue the three Americans at the Foreign Ministry simultaneously.

7. Do not permit the Iranian forces to be aware of or react to our presence.

Conditions

1. No country will help you.

2. You must invent the force to do the job. It does not now exist.

3. The operation could go in ten days and you must always be ready to execute in ten days.

4. The entire training program must be kept secret—not only from the public but from most of the services themselves.

5. There will be no money directly provided for the program.

6. Most service points of contact cannot be directly approached.

7. The entire operation must take place in darkness.

Beckwith did away with the fifth of the “requirements.” At one of the early briefing sessions, as he outlined the plan for assaulting one embassy gate, a high-ranking navy officer asked, “What about the guard?”

Beckwith was startled by the question and leaned his imposing mass across the table in the questioner’s direction, looking him squarely in the eyes.

“He will be taken out,” he said.

“You mean killed?” asked the officer, who seemed shocked.

Beckwith growled at him, “I’ll shoot him right between the eyes and then do it again just to make sure.”

The failure of the blivits meant that they would have to land large fixed-wing aircraft in the desert, which meant finding a location with hard enough soil and flat enough ground to serve as a makeshift runway. Some thought was given to simply seizing an airport outside Tehran, but that would have blown the surprise critical for Delta’s success.

By the end of the month a mission was taking shape. Sea Stallion helicopters would fly off the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea. They would cross over into Iranian airspace at locations known to be uncovered by that country’s radar intercept system—Americans had designed it and built it, so they knew its weaknesses. Six choppers would fly to Desert One, an as yet unidentified rallying point in the desert. At the same time, six MC-130 transports equipped with sophisticated navigation and electronic countermeasure devices would fly from Wadi Kena, an airstrip in a remote corner of Egypt that had been built by the Russians a decade before. They would use the same secure flight path and land on a rudimentary strip that would have to be prepared by a clandestine mission in advance. The transports would carry Delta Force and the fuel bladders that had failed the drop test.

At Desert One, the spent choppers would be refueled from the bladders and boarded by Delta. The transports would take off and fly back out of Iran to prepare for return flights the following night, and the choppers would fly to secure locations outside of Tehran where they and the Delta assault force would be parked and hidden throughout the next day. Securing these hide sites was only one part of a mission that would be completed by Delta Force and CIA agents who would sneak into the country days before the rescue attempt.

On the second night, Delta would be driven to the embassy compound on trucks and carry out their assault. At the same time, a ranger company would take a little-used airport outside the city. A separate army special-forces unit would raid Iran’s Foreign Ministry to free Laingen, Tomseth, and Howland. Overhead, two fixed-wing, four-engtine AC-130 Spectre gunships would provide heavy firepower over the embassy to suppress crowds or any military force that scrambled to counter the raid. Once the raiding force and freed hostages had crossed the street to the soccer stadium, the choppers hidden through the long day before would fly in and carry them out to the seized airport. Big C-141 transport jets, one configured to provide emergency medical care, would land at the occupied airport, load up Delta, the rangers, and the hostages, and fly out of Iran with a fighter escort. The choppers would be destroyed and left behind.

It was as inelegant as a Rube Goldberg contraption, with parts borrowed from everywhere. Everyone, including Delta, was going to be attempting something they had never done. Any operation this complex, with this many difficult and critical pieces, was a sitting duck for Murphy’s Law. Success was a long shot at best. None of the senior commanders at the Pentagon believed it would be successful. Those preparing for it did so with a sense of fatalism that waxed both grim and cheerful.

“The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in,” quipped Captain Wade Ishimoto, Delta’s assistant intelligence officer.

Not the least of the problems faced by the rescue force was maintaining secrecy. The planning effort at the Pentagon alone now numbered more than forty-five. Because the rescue force had no budget, it simply took what it needed. During the dress rehearsal in Yuma, local commanders complained about planes and helicopters gobbling up aviation fuel without accounting for it. They were silenced by a call from the Pentagon. It was a challenge to assemble all the night-vision goggles needed by the operators and mission pilots. The amazing goggles, which illuminated the darkest night in monochromatic shades of green, were new, expensive, and rare, and the units who had them were loathe to part with them. They had to be commandeered without explanation. To cover the absence of Delta Force, which was spending most of its time at its “undisclosed location” in Virginia, a skeletal undeployed staff at its Fort Bragg “Stockade” worked overtime to maintain the appearance of normalcy, answering phones, driving out to the firing range and shooting off enough rounds to make it sound like the unit was doing its usual practice sessions, moving vehicles around to maintain the appearance of normal workday comings and goings. The staff did its best to handle the volume of phone calls, but one persistent general insisted on speaking to Beckwith himself. The colonel ignored him until the general became abusive to the staff, at which point Beckwith asked General Vaught to get rid of the caller.

By the end of the month six Sea Stallion helicopters had been moved on one pretext or another to the Kitty Hawk, where they were now stashed safely belowdecks. Not even the carrier’s commander was fully aware of their purpose. An alert reporter for a local newspaper had noticed the choppers being loaded on a giant C-5 Galaxy transport to be ferried to the carrier and speculated in print—with pictures!—that they might be on their way to a staging area for a rescue mission in Tehran. Fortunately, no one else picked up on the story.

The assault force rehearsed its violent ballet over and over again. There was so much about the mission that Beckwith couldn’t control that he was determined to get his piece of it perfect. At Camp Smokey, life settled into a routine. The men studied in the daytime and rehearsed at night. When they weren’t working they had permission to shoot deer, so they practiced with their expensive sniper rifles and their cook prepared venison dinners. Late at night many of them drank. For men who liked this kind of life, it was pleasant and without stress. Despite the seriousness of the planning and training, few believed they would ever be deployed.

Fitch was convinced of it. He put his heart into the work—the tactics they were perfecting had lots of potential applications, so none of the effort was wasted—but he believed that the chance something this risky would be attempted by this president was about nil. He didn’t believe Carter had the balls.

6. The Corrupt of the Earth

In early December, John Limbert was placed in a van and driven off the embassy grounds. Initially, he was elated; he was wired that way; his first instinct was always hope. Maybe they were being released! He knew he would make quite a picture on the evening news. He had lost weight and was unshaven and haggard. On the morning of the takeover he had wanted to get a haircut, now his thick dark hair was so long he doubted his wife, Parveneh, and their two children would recognize him. But it was soon clear that he wasn’t going home.

Instead he was led into a large private home with marble floors and a grand foyer with a high ceiling from which hung an enormous, gaudy chandelier. At the center of the house was a wide, curved staircase, which led up to a carpeted landing with hallways leading off in several directions. It was luxury abandoned in haste. Limbert and his two new roommates, State Department communicator Rick Kupke and the ICA chief John Graves, found expensive clothes still hanging in the closet. It must have been the home of someone important in the royal regime. The windows in their upstairs room had been sealed shut and blackened. They soon perceived that other hostages were there too. Dave Roeder and Bob Ode were down the hall.

Limbert took this move as bad news. It suggested a higher level of coordination and resolve and felt like a long step away from freedom. They were watched over by a guard they dubbed “Two Shirts,” because his wardrobe alternated invariably between a pink one and a green one. Two Shirts had no sympathy for his captives’ physical discomfort. He accused them constantly of surreptitiously communicating and ordered all three of them to face different walls. This meant Kupke and Graves had to lie in bed for the guard’s entire eight-hour shift, in the same position, staring at the tan walls. Limbert, who conversed with most of the guards at length, had such contempt for Two Shirts’ inflexibility that he would turn his back to him every time he came in the room. The other guards sometimes took pity on them. Kupke and Graves were allowed to sit up and place their feet on the floor, and once or twice they were allowed to stand and walk around the room, but not often.

Limbert spoke to the guards in Farsi, while Graves, a tall man with a full graying beard and a mustache he waxed and drew out to points at each end, seemed calm and aloof, puffing away obsessively on his pipe. Kupke retreated into hours of reverie, imagining himself as the star in football games he had watched as a boy from the stands, or taking long walks down Main Street in his hometown of Rensselaer, Indiana, stopping to chat with people in every store. Passing the hours on his mattress on the floor, Limbert finally let go of his expectation of early release, reconciled himself to open-ended confinement and uncertainty, and began the routines that would see him through the ordeal.

The goal was to structure this ocean of time and use it productively. He had read that keeping fit and clean were two simple things that passed time and fostered health in confinement, so he commenced doing sit-ups and leg lifts. He avoided working up a heavy sweat, because he was allowed to shower only once every few weeks and he didn’t want to smell worse than he already did. Meals came regularly, and the food was edible, but he was still dropping weight. His pants swam on him.

Day and night he read. Because he knew Farsi he had more options than the other hostages, and he made a point of asking the guards for books about their revolution. They were eager to oblige. They brought him first the writings and speeches of Ali Shariati, the intellectual father of the revolution, and then other books by revolutionary leaders. Limbert’s erudition and fluency intrigued his guards, and he made an effort to engage them in conversation whenever they came to the room. Kupke and Graves listened silently to long conversations they couldn’t understand. Limbert knew that hostages who made a connection with their captors had a better chance of surviving, so while steering away from political topics he asked the guards an endless stream of questions about themselves. Most of them were young, naive, and far too polite to tell him simply to shut up. When he asked a question about their religion, such as, “Explain martyrdom to me,” they would typically oblige with a lengthy and spirited answer, seeing an opportunity to enlighten the infidel spy. Limbert would listen patiently and ask still more questions. He had nothing but time. Drawing his captors out relieved his boredom, helped satisfy his curiosity about them, and had an element of self-preservation. He was determined to see his guards as individuals, and for them to see him as one, too, as someone with feelings and ideas rather than just another Yankee imperialist. It was a survival tactic. If he fell ill and needed help, it would be a lot easier to ignore someone you didn’t know or like. After a month, all of the hostages were devising their own strategies to cope, and his was conversation. If there was a rescue attempt, then the guard in the room with him might have thirty seconds to decide whether to shoot him. If he hesitated, even for only a few seconds, it might spare his life. So Limbert chatted with them and drew them out as though his life depended on it.

It wasn’t always easy or pleasant. Most were shockingly ill-informed and uneducated, and if they were abusive or arrogant it was easy to dislike them. Others he felt sorry for. He believed they were being manipulated for reasons they couldn’t begin to understand. He recognized certain types of young Iranians from his years of teaching in Shiraz. They were confused kids living in a bizarre society that for reasons of religion or tradition closed off most of the usual avenues of growth and self-improvement. It produced young people who were restless and ignorant, ripe for a demagogue, and in Khomeini they had found their man.

There was one young guard, a teenager, who spoke with such a pronounced Turkish accent that Limbert could tell he was from a provincial town in the Azerbaijan region. Clearly the most thrilling, important thing this young man had ever been asked to do was guard these American devils, and his excitement and anxiety were both evident. Limbert asked him at one point, “What part of Azerbaijan are you from?” The young man was shocked that his captive knew this about him. Afraid that he would be chastised for giving information to a hostage, but too polite to refuse an answer, he wrote down the name of his village on a piece of paper and handed it over. Limbert counted such small interactions as victories.

The captive diplomat had first visited Iran in 1962 as a young man stirred by the rhetoric of President Kennedy. A recent Harvard graduate, he had wanted to help less fortunate people and he wanted to travel, explore, and learn. Some of the guards told him that the only other Americans they had met were Peace Corps volunteers like himself, teaching in secondary schools in small towns. Several even said how much they had respected these teachers. It made Limbert want to laugh. These were, in effect, his students. This wasn’t how things were supposed to have turned out. But, then, he had never seen things accurately through Iranian eyes. How unprepared he had been to teach children in a culture and language entirely foreign to him! But if it had been difficult for him, then what must it have been like for his students? How patient they had been with him! If Kennedy had expected the Peace Corps experience would build political and cultural bridges to the Third World, he had underestimated the complexity of such a task. A bridge requires firm foundations on both sides of a divide. The Iranians he met and worked with had no desire to build a bridge to the United States. They were perfectly capable of liking and admiring him and the other volunteers personally, but they were distrustful and increasingly angry with the American government, its values, and its policies. He remembered listening to the radio in the summer of 1965 as President Johnson announced his decision to send more troops to Vietnam and then to bomb Hanoi. Many of his Iranian friends had been angry about that then, but it had never interfered with their warm feelings toward him. He was an American, yes, but he was first and foremost himself, a caring, decent young man, someone in love with all things Persian, a human being trying to do the right thing with his life. The personal and the political ran on separate tracks. It took something like a revolution to push these two tracks together, to make Iranians take out their anger with the U.S. government on individual Americans—which is what had so dramatically happened here. Afire with their new political power and visions of remaking the world, all their stored antipathy and resentment had demonized him. It was shocking, and yet when he had reflected on it more he concluded that it was something he should have seen coming a long time ago.

Things had taken a turn for the worse when he was in Shiraz finishing work on his Ph.D. in the late sixties. At first he recognized the usual undercurrent of anti-Americanism in his students and colleagues, but still it rarely surfaced, and it didn’t color their appreciation of him. By that time Limbert was fluent in Farsi. He was, in effect, the ideal Peace Corps graduate, an American who had fully blended with his host country. He had met and married Parvaneh; they were at that point as much Iranian as American. He considered Shiraz as much his home as any place in America. The college where he taught had a contract with the University of Pennsylvania and was becoming an international English-language university, with faculty from all over the world. It was as cosmopolitan as the student body was provincial. Most of Limbert’s students came from small towns and cities that were religious and very conservative, and the values he confronted on campus and in the classroom clashed sharply with his own. Some of the students, a few, threw off their past and embraced the newer Western world, but other students—looking back now he realized it was most of them—rejected the secular, tolerant, gender-equal ways of their professors. One of his pupils, a good student, was killed when a bomb he was making with some of his friends in the dormitory had blown up prematurely.

There was another incident that came to mind, and which now assumed more meaning. An American teacher had founded a modern dance troupe at the university. Male and female dancers in tights performed together in shows that were commonplace in the West. The troupe had performed for the queen when she was in Shiraz for an arts festival—the shah and his wife vigorously encouraged things modern and Western. After the royal performance, arrangements were made for the dance show to be performed for the student body. The same routines that elicited enthusiastic applause in the earlier show provoked a riot. The troupe was unable to finish. To most of the students, undraped female forms cavorting on stage with undraped males was an outrage. It was alien and unwelcome and they didn’t like it one bit. Limbert remembered the distress, confusion, and disbelief of the American woman who had started the troupe. She could not fathom how something as benign and beautiful as a dance could provoke such violent rejection.

These were the kinds of things entirely missed by American policy makers, who dealt only with the shah and assumed that anyone who disagreed with him was backward and would remain powerless, not worth their attention or concern. America tallied up the number of machine guns in the shah’s arsenal and felt comfortable but failed to consider that a machine gun is useless if the man behind it refuses to shoot. The undercurrent wasn’t visible to those who visited Iran for a few days or weeks. You saw it only when you immersed yourself in the country, as Limbert had, and even he had misjudged it.

There had been things about the shah he disliked, but he accepted the monarchy because historically Iran (or Persia) had been ruled by kings. He disdained the royal security policies, and he knew there was corruption at the highest levels of the regime, but like most of his Iranian family and friends he considered these things simply a fact of life in the Third World, something that required the slow progress of modernization to change. As the revolution demonstrated, however, sometimes change can come fast, and in an unexpected direction.

He still didn’t understand how it happened. Historians say that revolutions come in a country not when things are at their worst but when they begin to improve, when an entire generation has been well fed, sheltered, and educated so that it feels its strength in a way previous generations, ignorant, ill fed, and unhealthy, did not. Some blamed the revolution on Carter’s liberal policies; his insistence on human rights reforms in Iran had weakened the shah enough to make him vulnerable. Others blamed the administration’s hard-line policies, epitomized by Brzezinski, who had encouraged the shah to crack down more violently against protesters once the upheaval began, which proved to be too little too late, and which had only fueled the flames. Some blamed the shah for being timid and vacillating. Limbert knew that none of these explanations was sufficient. Iran had been long spoiling for change. There had been two major currents of opposition, the nationalists, who owed their loyalty historically to Mossadeq and who were divided between those who wanted a Western-style democracy and those who wanted to establish a Marxist-style state; and the Islamists, a new totalitarian strain rooted firmly in centuries of tradition, who wanted to return Iran to some dimly remembered utopian past where clerics ruled like philosopher kings. The shah had played these two currents off each other skillfully for years. The nationalists viewed an Islamist state in the same way the Western powers did, as a hopeless anachronism, a giant step backward in time. The shah was able to say to them, Look, you may not like me but I am your bulwark against these primitives who would undo all of the technological and social progress that we have made. The Islamists viewed the nationalists as infidels, heretics, and sellouts. But for some reason that Limbert didn’t fully understand, the two currents had abruptly joined in 1978. The mullahs had their own sophisticated mosque-based organization, but suddenly they had the support of otherwise secular civil servants and white-collar workers, who could shut down overnight government offices, banks, and even the military; one of the turning points of the revolution had been the support of thousands of mid-level military officers and technicians, who had short-circuited the shah’s response to the threat.

The postrevolutionary struggle was between the victors: the nationalists and the Islamists. They had united to throw out the shah but were now locked in a struggle to shape the new Iran. Limbert saw that he and his colleagues had become pawns in this struggle; they were being used by the fundamentalist mullahs to finish off their former nationalist allies and even moderate clerics who opposed a totalitarian theocracy. The simple black-and-white logic of religious rhetoric spoke powerfully to the young who, like Limbert’s own students a decade earlier, came from small-town, traditional backgrounds. Anti-Americanism was the right tool in this fight, because nationalists like Bazargan, although personally religious, shared Western democratic values. The goal of this new phase of the revolution was to bury the passion for freedom and democracy under fears of an American-led countercoup. America was the Great Satan, and Iran-loving, former Peace Corps volunteer Limbert one of its lesser devils. He had come to Iran almost twenty years ago to change the world. Well, it had changed all right.

He did not know exactly what was happening in the larger world, or what efforts the United States might be making to win their freedom, but he understood that President Carter had few options. At first he had thought that Khomeini, as the ruler of a state, could not allow a diplomatic mission to be arrested and held hostage. Now it was clear he had either overestimated or underestimated him. The part Limbert did not know was how this embassy stunt was affecting the local political situation. His perception was, in a way, stuck back in the heady first few days and weeks. But as the weeks wore on the stated purpose of the takeover—demanding the return of the shah—had receded, and an underlying purpose was becoming more clear.

Taking the embassy had toppled the provisional government, and as the country voted to endorse the language of a new properly Islamic constitution, the students and their extremist political allies were using documents and testimony wrung from the embassy staff selectively as propaganda. Most of the papers seized at the embassy were historical and did show the close relationship between the U.S. embassy and the shah’s regime, but many of the most recent filings were biographical. In their effort to make sense of postrevolutionary Iran, the staff collected information about many newly prominent Iranians, most of it gleaned from newspapers or other innocuous sources. Many of the files included little more than a name, age, job description, and contact information. But for some time it had been the policy to routinely classify even the most cursory file as “Limited Official Use,” if for no other reason than to help keep the collection together by restricting its distribution. In the climate of runaway suspicion that caused the embassy seizure, that designation of secrecy was enough to label any Iranian in the file as a collaborator or spy. As the weeks went on, the students and their clerical advisers would begin to produce some of these documents to discredit politicians and even religious figures they opposed. Any hint of a “secret” association with the Great Satan was enough to destroy a career, at the very least. It could also lead to prison and execution.

Limbert hadn’t known either Kupke or Graves, and because they were not allowed to speak he didn’t get to know much about them in the three weeks they would spend together. Day after day he did his small exercise routines, read, ate his meals, slept, and talked with his guards. He and his roommates could hear birds outside and the voices of children playing in nearby yards. They were able to convince some of the guards to leave one window open a crack to get some fresh air. For some reason, Graves was kept supplied with tobacco, and the smoke from his pipe hung in the air day and night. Through the walls they sometimes heard other American voices, but usually only a few words. The only break in the routine came when they had to use the toilet. A guard would blindfold Limbert and lead him down a flight of steps—he counted thirteen, and remembered it, in case he would ever have to go down them himself in the dark and in a hurry. In the bathroom was a shower, an unbelievable luxury, which he was allowed to use twice during his stay there. He thought a lot about escaping, but even though his mastery of Farsi would have given him an edge over most of his colleagues, it was winter and he had no shoes, no warm clothes. If he managed to slip out of the house, where would he go? Who would help him? Like most of the hostages, Limbert had concluded that the United States was not going to make a rescue attempt. If they had the capability or will to do that, it would have already happened.

It was in this room that Limbert pieced together from bits of radio reports that drifted in from down the hall that thirteen of their colleagues had been released.

7. The Largest Thefts and Exploitations in History

It would be hard to tell which came first, the unrelenting press attention or the public obsession. The story of sixty-six Americans held hostage by a distant, forbidding theocracy provoked indignation but also piqued the country’s imagination. Scott Miller, the station manager of KOBL in Oberlin, Ohio, had himself locked in a recording studio with only a sleeping bag. He spent part of every day tied to a chair, telling listeners he wanted to share the experience of the hostages.

At the National Cathedral in Washington, bells tolled each day at noon, once for each day of the lengthening captivity. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, all of the churches around its city hall sounded their bells fifty times each day at noon to remember the American captives. In Columbus, Ohio, protesters marched to express their anger at Iran, chanting, “Nagasaki, Hiroshima, why not Iran!” A popular country tune of the radio, “Message to Khomeini,” predicted that Iran would be turned into “an oil slick.” A man from Flushing, New York, climbed to a dangerous perch atop a West Hollywood billboard to protest American inaction, and ten thousand cabdrivers in Manhattan drove for a day with their lights on to express their solidarity with their captive countrymen and -women.

It was not hard to see where all this anger was heading. Carter’s public support was still high but voices of criticism and blame were already being heard. A former CIA director, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, criticized the president for not immediately setting a deadline for the hostages’ release, although he was vague about what consequences there ought to be for failing to meet the deadline. Ronald Reagan, likely to be one of the leading Republican challengers in the 1980 election, had already blamed Carter’s “weakness and vacillation” for causing the crisis in the first place, and dropped larger and larger hints that if he were in power America would not be pushed around by a “demented dictator” and his “rabble.” In his own party, Carter was cruising high in the polls ever since Senator Kennedy had shot himself in the foot with his conciliatory remarks, and although the Massachusetts senator was in the race to stay he would never recover.

Carter was considering tough options. In an exchange of memos with Brzezinski on December 21, the president directed that the National Security Council “list everything that Khomeini would not want to see occur and which would not invite condemnation of the U.S. by other nations.”

By now the families of many hostage members were becoming regulars on nightly news programs around the country, and so far there was not a negative word to be heard from them about the administration’s actions. They knew nothing of a possible rescue mission, and most were reassured by the president’s promise to take no action that might jeopardize their loved ones. Penne Laingen, the chargé’s wife, was seen as an unofficial spokesman for the families, and her comments on TV were uniformly supportive and upbeat—she might as well have been working for State Department public relations. Dottie Morefield and her family were so conspicuous in San Diego that they were invited by the owners of the city’s pro football team to be special guests at a Monday Night Football game between the Chargers and the Miami Dolphins.

Mindful of the promise to those families, and his department’s responsibility to its employees, Vance continued to argue against applying any pressure on Iran. He consistently counseled patience, pointing out that Iran was a nation in turmoil, its future course still uncertain, and new opportunities arose nearly every day to reopen diplomatic channels.

“Cy, you always have another diplomatic channel,” said Brzezinski.

On the tenth of December, NBC-TV aired an eighteen-minute interview with marine hostage Billy Gallegos, the first with a hostage broadcast in the United States. Clean-shaven and wide-eyed, he looked like a frightened, big-eyed boy.

Before this, the only other hostage voice heard was that of Jerry Plotkin, the middle-aged Californian who had come to set up a personnel agency—matching American workers to jobs in Iran—and had made the mistake of stopping by the embassy on the morning of the takeover. He had been allowed to speak on the phone for seven minutes to a Los Angeles radio station in late November, delivering remarks that had obviously been written for him, right down to the standard Islamic preface, “In the name of God.” He had also called for the return of the shah, and went on to woodenly read, “Let the world know no tyrant or dictator can ever find safe harbor in the United States. I am well both mentally and physically. We have been treated humanely. The students treat us kindly and with respect. The quality of the food is adequate and we are given three meals a day. The hostages’ living area is clean and each of the hostages has a mattress, blanket, armchair, and table.”

So far, the students seemed to see the American press as an ally. It made for a strange situation. The United States was, in effect, in a stalemated state of war with Iran, but while fifty-three of their countrymen were being held prisoner, dozens of American journalists moved freely in Tehran, scrambling to get access to the compound and the captives. ABC’s Peter Jennings was among them, wandering the streets to solicit the opinions of random Iranians and doing feature stories about post-revolutionary life. The other networks had their own regular correspondents on the scene, as did most major American newspapers, and it was clear from some of the footage shown on TV that they had established a rapport with the dapper foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who made himself available daily. Yet the United States government, by all appearances, was unable even to start a dialogue with the country’s rulers. Many of the TV correspondents would set up for their nightly broadcasts immediately outside the embassy gates, surrounded by Iranians chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to Carter.” Rarely was this rhetorical hostility directed at the American journalists personally. Thomas Fenton, a CBS correspondent, was confronted once outside the embassy by an Iranian who shouted at him accusingly, “CIA!”

“No, CBS!” Fenton retorted, which got a laugh.

No one had succeeded in getting access to the hostages, so when the major TV networks were approached with an offer to participate in the Gallegos interview, their executives were eager. But the students demanded that all questions be submitted in advance, that the interview be aired in prime time in its entirety with no editing, and that the students be allowed to ask questions and make statements on the film. None of the networks accepted the initial terms, but the big three, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were eager to bargain. Eventually NBC came to terms. They would be allowed to question the hostage with their own correspondents, Fred Francis and George Lewis, and they did not have to clear their questions in advance. A student would be allowed to make an opening and closing statement. Nilufar Ebtekar was chosen by the council, because of her fluent English and because the council liked the idea of having their arguments presented by a woman. At first, Ebtekar was reluctant to appear on camera, but she agreed when it was decided to identify her only as “Mary.”

She and the other hostage takers had been mystified by the lack of American support for their action, particularly the lack of sympathy from American blacks and other “oppressed minorities,” and had concluded that their problem was media censorship in the United States. The American government was blocking and distorting their message. One effort to break through this supposed censorship was a half-page ad in the New York Times (the Washington Post refused to run it) calling on Americans to “Rise Up Against Oppression,” referring to the hostages as “spies” and placing Carter in “the vanguard of the world’s oppressors.” The Gallegos interview was part of this publicity campaign. The students demanded that Ebtekar’s remarks be presented unedited and in their entirety. In fact, the justifications and complaints of Iranian hostage takers had become tiresomely familiar to Americans, but when NBC proposed trimming her harangue by about two minutes the students held fast. Ebtekar interpreted the request to edit her speech as proof that there existed a secret U.S. government rule prohibiting, as she would put it, the broadcast of any “anti-government declaration lasting longer than five minutes.”

Her chubby frame draped in dark robes and her head wrapped in a powder blue scarf, Ebtekar lectured the American people in her perfect American English about the evils of their government and accused the shah of “the largest thefts and exploitations of history.”

Gallegos sat in the chancery library beneath a portrait of Khomeini. He had agreed in advance not to describe where he was being kept on the embassy grounds or to describe the security procedures. The young marine was one the students’ favorites. He was chosen for the interview by their governing council because of his “honesty and simplicity,” which suggested he was not likely to be unpredictable, because his behavior had been docile, and because his background was “Latin.” In the interview the young marine spoke of his impatience and argued for handing over the shah.

“I think he’d get a fair trial and if he is guilty he is guilty,” Gallegos said. “If he is innocent, he is innocent. Nothing has been done for our release and it’s been over a month now. I think the shah should be returned and that is not only my feeling, that’s the feeling of all of the hostages…. I am in good shape but my mental condition is as good as expected in a situation like this, kind of on my nerves…. Before this I knew nothing of any spies, but it seems like the students have uncovered quite a few documents indicating people as being spies in Iran.”

To Gallegos’s parents, who were watching before cameras in the studio of a network affiliate in Denver, he appeared thin and pale, with telling dark rings under his eyes, but otherwise healthy and unharmed. The cocky young man who had volunteered for the most dangerous postings, and whose eagerness for confrontation with America’s enemies was sometimes a concern to his fellow marines, had softened his outlook considerably in captivity. He said that he and the other hostages had not been mistreated by their captors, nor brainwashed, and were surprised by their country’s refusal to hand over the shah. He said they resented being held captive to protect a dictator who deserved to be put on trial and punished, and managed to imply that even his own role as an embassy guard might have had a clandestine side.

“I’d give my life for any American,” he said. “I can’t see it now. In some ways, I don’t see this as a good cause…. The students have been really good to us. It’s hard to believe, I know, but we haven’t been asked any questions about what really our job was.”

Yet the young marine was still loyal to his country.

“We’re relying on his [Carter’s] decision, no matter what,” he said. “I’m leaving it up to my country and my people. I have great faith in them.”

When Gallegos had answered the last question, one of the interviewers turned to Ebtekar and asked if he might direct a question to her.

“No you may not,” she said. Ebtekar regarded the question as a violation of the agreement.

The program aired in full, but the students still felt betrayed when NBC intercut images of Gallegos’s parents watching.

Carter was furious with the network for airing the interview. The flood of reporting from Iran during the crisis had been both aggravating and helpful; the nightly reports were being scrutinized carefully in the Pentagon for scraps of information about how the gates were guarded, what kinds of weapons the students carried, etc., but apart from this practical value, the constant network focus on the crisis played into the hands of the hostage takers. The more attention they got, the more convinced they were of their own importance, and the more pressure was put on the White House to react, either to give in to this infuriating extortion or to lash out at Iran in a way that would almost certainly make the situation worse for the hostages, if not kill them. There was no danger of “Mary’s” lecture finding sympathetic American ears. A small woman dressed like a nun hectoring the American people in their own living rooms about the sins of their government made for a unique national TV event that no doubt swelled the ranks of those who preferred to nuke Tehran and be done with it. What Carter needed most was for this story to fade off the front pages, so that the students could be isolated as a troublemaking fringe and sensible people in Iran would again dare to assert control.

House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill condemned the network for airing Iranian “propaganda.” Ford Rowan, NBC’s Pentagon correspondent, no doubt getting an earful from his military sources, resigned in protest.

Psychologists were enlisted by the networks to explore the concept of brainwashing, and military and intelligence analysts pored over Gallegos’s remarks for clues about where and how the hostages were being guarded. They were especially intrigued by one of the marine’s brief comments in passing. Near the end of the interview, Gallegos had been asked about which Americans he had been housed with.

“I was with a couple of political officers before we were up here in some of the houses,” he said. They understood that by “houses,” he meant the staff cottages on the embassy grounds. “I was with them and, after that, we were moved down to this other place, the mushroom…”

Mushroom? What had he meant by that?

Delta knew. They had learned of the nickname from the released hostages. It reminded the analysts of the old soldier’s lament, “I must be a mushroom because they keep me in the dark and feed me horseshit.”

Given the bewildering variety of news reports, it was impossible to sort out fact from fiction or, as intelligence analysts put it, information from noise. Every day there was a break in the saga from somewhere in the world, sometimes hopeful and sometimes alarming. The hostages were going to be released, or the hostages were going to be put on trial; the hostages were going to be tried by the students themselves and then executed, or the hostages were going to appear before a revolutionary tribunal and then be released. Some of the hostages were going to be released for Christmas, then none of the hostages would be. Iran’s terms for releasing them varied, depending on who was speaking. Iran was an enigma because no one appeared to be in charge. Everyone said Khomeini was, but the old prophet stayed aloof from the day-to-day workings of the state. He kept to his spiritual regimen in Qom and spoke only at intervals and rarely about specifics. Those known to be close to him, clerical figures and politicians who advised him and interpreted his words, were singing different songs, some of them confrontational and some of them conciliatory. The tune seemed to change daily. In a speech days before Christmas, Khomeini said the American captives convicted of spying “might not” be executed.

Feeding the confusion was the competitive scramble for scoops by every news agency in the world. There was no shortage of people to interview. One of the favorites was Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the most unlikely of Iranian public officials in the postrevolutionary period, a Chaplinesque little man with a peculiar pompadour, thick-rimmed glasses, and a carefully trimmed little mustache. He had been dumped as foreign minister by the Revolutionary Council but had not gone away. Khomeini had promptly named him economic minister, and as the weeks of the crisis wore on Bani-Sadr grew more and more openly critical of the embassy takeover. Originally he had spoken in favor of it, but by early December he had changed his mind. He told a French reporter that he opposed trying the hostages because such a step would violate international agreements that protected diplomats, as though taking them hostage itself wasn’t violation enough. Days later he told a Beirut correspondent that Iran ought to drop its demand for return of the shah, that the tactic had failed, and then a few days later he called for the hostages’ release. Ibrahim Yazdi, his predecessor as foreign minister, who had resigned the position after the embassy was overrun, now spoke out in favor of putting the Americans on trial, saying that such a step would provide a “strong motivating force” for the Iranian masses to rebuild their society. Ghotbzadeh, Bani-Sadr’s successor as foreign minister, set off a storm of confusion by suggesting that one step toward resolving the crisis would be to create an international grand jury to investigate U.S.–Iran relations. The proffer was promptly rejected by a spokesman for the students, who in typically colorful language suggested that Ghotbzadeh was a traitor—“On occasion he has spoken irresponsibly and led the enemy to his filthy and satanic whims.” This provoked the Ayatollah Mohammed Behesti, chairman of the Revolutionary Council, to defend Ghotbzadeh, pointing out that the foreign minister spoke not only for himself but for the council and thus for the imam himself. Dustups like these raised all sorts of questions in the White House. Who was really in charge? Who could be taken seriously? With whom should they be negotiating, the students? The Foreign Ministry? The Revolutionary Council? Khomeini?

Sadeq Khalkali, the revolution’s bloodiest ayatollah, most notorious as a “hanging judge,” told one interviewer that none of the American hostages would be executed, and then told another, weeks later, that only those convicted of spying would be sentenced to death. Then, later in December, he called for the hostages’ release.

“Every embassy has spies in it,” he said. “We cannot execute any spies according to Islamic laws. They will only be executed if they were directly responsible for ordering a murder. Even if we try the hostages, we do not want to condemn them. We want to condemn Carter and the American government.”

When the shah attempted to defuse the crisis in mid-December by leaving New York for Panama—an arrangement worked out by Washington with the obliging dictator Omar Torrijos—Khalkali announced that Iranian hit squads would assassinate the shah there, setting off weeks of anxiety throughout Central America, as nations scrambled to locate the assassins. Khomeini quickly pronounced the shah’s move to Panama meaningless, portraying it as nothing but a public relations maneuver and calling the small nation an “American puppet.” He wasn’t far from right. Hamilton Jordan had worked out the move, assuring the shah and the princess that their children could stay in the United States and continue their education, and even arranging for a mobile medical team to deliver to his new tropical home the same care the shah enjoyed in New York. Jordan also promised to help find Pahlavi a more permanent home, but soon learned how much of a pariah the former Iranian ruler had become. Only Panama and Egypt were willing.

As the stalemate dragged through its second month with no sign of solution, rumor became news. The Libyan dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, told Oriana Fallaci, “I have bad news. There is movement in the American military in Europe. The Americans are preparing parachutists and arming with armored vehicles, missiles, gas, neutron bombs, and other materiel.” He predicted the coming of World War Three. On December 11, both UPI and ABC-TV falsely reported that President Carter had set a ten-day deadline for the release of the hostages, which seemed to coincide with a statement from Tehran by Ghotbzadeh, who had called for an international tribunal to consider Iran’s grievances against the United States in ten days. It was implied that if the hostages were not released by that deadline America would launch some sort of punitive strike. An article in Pravda, the Soviet Union’s mouthpiece newspaper, reprinted under bold headlines in Tehran’s newspapers, suggested that the United States was preparing to use nuclear weapons against Iran. The article was signed “Alexei Petrov,” a well-known pseudonym for the highest-ranking officials in the communist state. A Kuwaiti newspaper had its own scoop from Tehran. The hostages were all going to be released before Christmas as a gesture of Islamist goodwill, and that in return Carter was going to make a televised address praising Islam and Iran and condemning the shah. Another Kuwaiti newspaper reported that the United States was planning to attack Iran on Christmas Eve.

The confusion mirrored events in Iran, where Khomeini’s efforts to consolidate power were being severely challenged. The nation voted in early December to approve a new Islamic constitution that handed Khomeini supreme power for life, but there were reports that large numbers of Iranians had refused to vote in protest. The persecuted secular leftists who had allied with the mullahs to overthrow the shah were now openly warring with the emerging religious regime. The hostages heard nightly gun battles in the streets. There were organized uprisings in the ethnic regions of Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan, where rebel forces briefly took control of the city of Tabriz until driven out by Revolutionary Guards. The rebelling Kurds rejected a proposal by the Revolutionary Council for “self-administration,” demanding full autonomy. Many of those battling Khomeini loyalists were followers of Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, one of the premier clerics in Iran, who had publicly condemned the hostage taking. Purges in the Foreign Ministry resulted in the sacking of forty-five of its diplomats, all but three of them ambassadors, from Iranian missions around the world.

Iran was not just confusing, it was confused. The only common article of faith in the country was hatred and suspicion of the United States, which was just as strong among the Shariatmadari enthusiasts as their Khomeiniite rivals. The imam blamed all the upheaval on Carter who, he said, was fomenting unrest in order to distract the world from his own crimes. On December 19, the English-language newspaper Kayhan printed as its “Thought for Today” the following: “U.S. is hatching a plot against the Islamic Revolution every day. Don’t forget that U.S. is your worst enemy. Don’t forget to chant, ‘Death to U.S.’ along with ‘Death to Saddam.’”

Hatred was a useful emotional rallying point, but the country had not yet figured out how to govern itself. No formal government was in place. There were sharp divisions on the Revolutionary Council about how to respond once the shah left the United States. They debated the question for four hours without reaching an agreement. One option considered was simply to release the hostages, since the departure of the shah from America would render moot the demand for Carter to return him. This was rejected as too humiliating. Another alternative was to immediately put the embassy “spies” on trial, to punish America for not complying with the students’ demand. But this was a step that would invite further international outrage and a likely military attack by America. Increasingly, the imam seemed to be taking his cue not from the circle of mature leaders who had come to power with him but from the young hostage takers, whose popularity with the masses gave their statements political weight.

At the White House Brzezinski and Vance continued to spar. The secretary of state was resolutely in favor of restraint and the pursuit of peaceful means, while Brzezinski leaned toward the old Cold War approach, exploring the feasibility of toppling the Islamist regime and urging the State Department in a December 4 memo to feel out foreign leaders to see which “alternative leaders and rival groups within and outside Iran” they might be willing to support as alternatives to Khomeini. President Carter stuck with a middle line. Public opinion polls so far showed strong support for his handling of the crisis, the typical surge of solidarity following a threat to the nation, but the president knew the boost would not last. Early in December he had held an interagency meeting to discuss ways that the United States might bring economic and/or military pressure on Iran, but there were few new ideas. Economic sanctions depended on worldwide cooperation, which was hard to make happen even after both the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice at The Hague officially called for the hostages’ immediate unconditional release. Both the resolution and the order were shrugged off by the student captors and Iran’s revolutionary leaders. Carter’s call for a review of every visa held by an Iranian in the United States—there were about 50,000 of them—was quickly challenged in court and halted, at least temporarily, by a federal judge. Every move the president made just seemed to underscore his impotence.

In a series of speeches in mid-December, Khomeini mocked the president.

“The Americans don’t simply want to free these spies, all this crisis is to help Carter get reelected…Carter doesn’t understand more than this. He doesn’t attach any importance to human beings…he has suffered a political defeat in the eyes of the world. This ‘humanitarian’ thinks he can mobilize the whole world into starving us. Unfortunately for Mr. Carter, his secretary of state went round but nobody took any notice of him. They all turned him down. This ‘humanitarian’ intends to expel fifty thousand of our young people for one reason or another…. Recently we heard that a judge had pronounced this to be against the law.”

Despite his promise to the hostages’ families, Carter was inching reluctantly toward military action.

The president was briefed daily on the progress of planning for the rescue mission. Despite the fact that at least a dozen of the hostages, maybe more, had been moved off the embassy compound, a fact well known enough in Iran for there to be crowds around some of the north Tehran residences where they were being held, the complex assault plan remained focused on the embassy. A ten-man squad was going to hit the Foreign Ministry to free Laingen, Tomseth, and Howland, but the other, scattered hostages were off the radar.

Delta Commander Beckwith kept adding men to his assault force; the original sixty men became seventy-five. As the number grew, so did the need for helicopters. Two more Sea Stallions were added to the mission plan and began making their way to the Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf. Intelligence analysts had located an airstrip, a thirty-minute helicopter flight from Tehran, that the rangers would seize for the final evacuation of the hostages and rescue force. It was an unoccupied asphalt strip at Manzariyeh that had been part of a bombing range and that was apparently manned now by just a small unit of Iranian army engineers. A company of rangers would seize the strip at the same time Delta was hitting the embassy. It was determined that the runway was long enough and flat enough to receive the C-141s that would carry everyone out.

Reliable intelligence remained the biggest challenge. In mid-December the CIA managed to place an agent in Tehran. It had called out of retirement an elderly World War Two–era spy of eastern European origin called “Bob,” a tall, thickset man in his sixties with leathery skin who had been living in South America. He spoke a variety of languages from that region, but not Farsi. He agreed to enter Iran as a businessman, along with two friendly Iranians, one who was sick with cancer and thus fatalistic about the risks and the other a young Iranian-American air force crewman code-named “Fred,” who had family there. They scouted out the possibilities for obtaining a warehouse and trucks—the warehouse to hide Delta Force through the long day preceding the assault, and the trucks to deliver the force from the hiding place to the embassy. Bob landed on a commercial flight at Mehrabad Airport and breezed through customs; Delta Force noted with surprise the ease of entry.

Beckwith’s concern for secrecy closed one potentially rich avenue of information. A West German special forces unit offered to let Delta place several of its men with a TV crew that was being sent to Tehran, ostensibly to report for one of that country’s television networks. The students often allowed TV crews other than American, particularly German ones, fuller access to the embassy. But Beckwith did not want the military of any foreign country involved, even a friendly one.

To solve the fuel blivit problem, it was decided that two C-130s carrying the rubber bladders inside would have to land at the first night-chopper refueling point, which meant they needed to find a patch of desert large enough, flat enough, and solid enough to support the large aircraft. The only way to make sure about the firmness of the ground—loose sand would bog down the big planes—would be to send someone into Iran to inspect the location, so plans were put in motion to send a small, daring reconnaissance group to the Iranian desert.

The president canceled his annual trip home to Georgia for the Christmas holidays in order to remain in the White House and deal with the crisis. He ordered that the lights on the White House Christmas tree be left dark.

8. The Cure Is an Airline Ticket Out of Here

On the embassy grounds, in the basement of the warehouse across a narrow hall from the Mushroom Inn, vice consul Richard Queen shared a room with warrant officer Joe Hall. The fluorescent overhead lights hummed day and night, casting enough light to be annoying when they wanted darkness but not enough to comfortably read. Nothing could be heard through the warehouse walls, and it was constantly cold and clammy.

As Christmas approached, they were let outdoors to walk in small circles in the walled courtyard of the ambassador’s residence. Hall was so moved by the fresh cold air, by the direct sunlight, the newly fallen snow, the crows circling in the blue sky overhead, that he wept, but when Queen was offered the same chance he declined. Hall was amazed that anyone would refuse an opportunity to go outside, but his roommate said that for some reason he had begun to feel woozy.

Queen experienced wide mood swings in captivity. He understood some Farsi, and he spent a lot of time eavesdropping on the guards, but he understood only about half of what was spoken and in his anxiety he tended to draw dramatic conclusions, good and bad. Once he thought he had heard two guards discussing plans to shoot all the hostages. He didn’t share the information with Hall, sparing his roommate the fright, but the prospect tormented him night and day. When the guards took away their shoes and replaced them with Iranian-made plastic sandals—with images of elephants embossed on the soles—Queen threw a fit. Hall didn’t understand why his roommate was so upset, but Queen had this image of being lined up in front of a firing squad wearing goofy plastic slippers. The day he had feared passed without incident.

When he thought he’d heard good news, Queen did share it. One day he was convinced that the guards had been discussing the purchase of plane tickets to fly the hostages home. He was sure he’d heard the airlines Alitalia and Lufthansa mentioned. He told Hall and their excitement grew.

As the day approached, Queen was counting down the hours. He woke up on the appointed morning filled with joy. As he returned from his morning wash, he whispered happily to a hostage passing him in the hall, “We’re going home!”

When he got back to the room he asked a guard, “When are they going to take us out?”

“Take you out?” said the guard. “What do you mean?”

“When are we going to be released?”

“You aren’t,” the guard said.

Queen was crushed. He spent the better part of that day motionless on his mattress, his face turned to the wall. He cursed himself for letting his hopes get so high and concluded that the guards were doing it to him on purpose. They knew he spoke some Farsi, but not a lot, and was convinced they were toying with him.

While some of the guards were petty and even cruel, others were kind, in particular a tall, slender guard with a long hook nose, mustache, and sideburns named Akbar. He dropped by and asked Queen and Hall if they would like anything from their apartments. They both made lists. Queen wrote down blue jeans, changes of underwear, his beloved, well-traveled “War Between the States” board game, a Lord of the Rings game, pipes, and tobacco. Hall made up his own list. Weeks later Akbar brought Queen two pairs of jeans, two shirts, a blue sweater, and much-appreciated clean well-fitting underpants—the long-suffering vice consul had been wearing the undersized drawers for weeks. There was nothing for Hall. As he had surmised weeks before, his apartment had been ransacked and all his possessions had vanished. Queen sorted his bounty and shrugged apologetically at his roommate.

The young vice consul wrote a letter to his parents and his brother Alex: “This past week I was hoping, praying, pleading to God so hard that I would be able to return home to you in time for Christmas, but I guess to no avail.”

Queen didn’t mention something troubling that had occurred shortly before Christmas. In the shower one day he noticed that his left arm and hand felt numb, a peculiar sensation he had never felt before. He thought it was probably because he had slept on that side and had curled his arm under his body in an awkward way. When it didn’t go away he mentioned it to Hall.

“You ever have numbness in your hand?” he asked.

“You mean like pins and needles? Like when your circulation is cut off?” said Hall.

“No, more like what you’d feel if you plunged your hand in snow and kept it there for a very long time.”

Hall thought he should ask to have it checked out.

Queen decided to wait. Maybe it would go away. He didn’t connect it with his occasional bouts of wooziness and took neither symptom very seriously. He had no reason to suspect his body would betray him in an important way. He didn’t look it, but Queen was an exceptional athlete. In high school his tall, lean frame had breezed through subminute quarter miles like clockwork. Ailments and injuries had always gone away quickly. But this felt truly odd, unlike anything he had experienced, and over time it didn’t diminish; it worsened. Finally he told a guard about it and they sent a young pharmacy student to look at him. The druggist-in-training diagnosed the numbness as a reaction to a draft coming from a vent over Queen’s space. He arranged to have his mattress moved to a warmer spot and for him to be left unbound—the guards were still using torn bedsheets to tie his hands day and night. When none of the changes helped, Queen was visited by a middle-aged Iranian doctor who claimed to have been trained in the United States. Queen found him unimpressive.

“It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” the doctor said after a cursory examination. He diagnosed a “twisted spine” and predicted that the symptoms would soon vanish. On his way out he asked Hall how he was doing.

“I’m sick, too,” Hall said. “Homesick. The cure is an airline ticket out of here.”

* * *

The Mushroom Inn had settled into a dull routine broken only by changes of guard shifts and trips to the bathroom. The shelves that divided each hostage’s cubicle were remnants of the library at the old Iranian-American high school, where in happier days the offspring of embassy workers attended classes, and the books to that library, hundreds of them, were also stored in the basement in boxes. When Queen asked, he was given permission to unpack them and operate a lending library. He brought to the task his delight for careful detail, sorting the hundreds of books by subject matter. There was even a catchall stack of books Queen believed no one would find interesting. Within each subject category he broke them down further into fiction and nonfiction. The fiction was sorted by author, the history chronologically. He arranged the books in vertical piles of fifteen on the floor, with a sign atop each indicating what subject it was.

Overseeing this effort was Hamid, a slight man in a green army jacket with a fair, angular face, reddish brown hair, and a sparse beard, who because of his propensity to cheerfully mislead his captives was dubbed “Hamid the Liar.” His hair and skin color were untypical for an Iranian, which he seemed to compensate for with an overabundance of zeal. Intensely suspicious, he had been the one on the second night of the takeover to warn Kathryn Koob against sending messages with her eyes. He was both ignorant and arrogant, traits which for the hostages seemed to sum up the revolution. When Hamid the Liar played checkers, he jumped over his own pieces on the board as if they weren’t there, a clear violation of universal rules, and when his opponent complained he would cheerfully explain, “In Iran we always play this way. These are my men and if I choose to jump over them it is up to me!”

Hamid had earned his nickname by routinely lying about the mail, telling the hostages that none came when everyone knew (from the other guards) that mail from the United States arrived daily in sacks. When he did hand out letters, he played favorites, rewarding some hostages and punishing others. He was, of course, ready to believe any theory of American malevolence, no matter how wild. When one letter arrived making the case that World War Two had resulted because Adolf Hitler was determined to prevent America from seizing the oil supplies of Peru, Hamid was so impressed that he photocopied it and passed it around. In his role as library supervisor, Hamid permitted books to be borrowed only after he had checked personally to make sure they weren’t “CIA”—even though his English was rudimentary at best. Returned books had to be given first to him, so he could check to make sure no secret messages had been written or inserted in them. In his fractured English, he wrote out rules:

ATTENTION: LIBRARY PROCEDURES

1. You may never to take more than 20-twenty-20 of books from the month.

2. You may never to write in the twenty books your messages.

3. To stack you found them return your books—20.

4. A student good in English will check for messages you should not write, if he finds this library will be destroyed.

Given the borrowing limit, fat books were especially prized. Don Sharer read War and Peace and Moby-Dick. Barry Rosen began a steady diet of prison literature, beginning with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville, Billy Hayes’s Midnight Express, the autobiography of French prison-escape artist Henri Charrière, Papillon, and James Clavell’s King Rat. He took comfort in the knowledge that he was not the first innocent man imprisoned, and that he and the other Americans were comparatively well treated. Marine Greg Persinger tackled one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, working his way through alphabetically.

Many of the bored, confined Americans began improvising exercise routines in their cramped spaces, though some had not worked out in years. Bill Royer, the assistant director of the now defunct Iran-America Society, was attempting a yoga move, lying flat on his back, raising his feet and reaching up to touch his toes, when he felt a sudden stab of pain in his chest. He thought he was having a heart attack at first, but the pain was in the wrong place, and very localized. After complaining to the guards a medical student gave him a cursory exam and reassured him that his heart was normal. It took weeks for the sharp pain to subside. He learned much later that he had broken his rib.

Enforced silence was defeated by a tap code, a system where letters of the alphabet were arrayed on a grid and words were spelled out painstakingly by tapping out numbers indicating each letter’s horizontal and vertical position. A diagram of the tap code was drawn on the inside of a chewing gum wrapper, which was balled up and then tossed from space to space. Sadly, there wasn’t much news to share. A hostage got one that, after much decoding effort, asked, “When do you think we’ll get out of here?”

Some of the hostages just ignored the petty procedures. When big Bill Keough needed to use the toilet, he would stand up, announce “Toilet,” and start in that direction. The guards would scurry behind him, more like his entourage than his captors. Traffic to the bathroom was constant, given that it was the only time the captives got to stand, walk, and leave their space. The guards must have been impressed by American dental hygiene; everyone brushed at least three times a day.

They were beginning to look ragged. Clean State Department and military faces sprouted stubble and then full beards; well-trimmed hair grew shaggy and then long. Beneath the oppressive boredom was constant tension, which sometimes boiled up. Colonel Chuck Scott, who had endured a difficult interrogation before his captors decided he was not the supposed CIA agent George Lambrakis, blew up after being served a supper of what had been billed as “chicken soup.” It consisted of a cup of lukewarm water with a partly dissolved bouillon cube floating in it. He threw his cup across the room and loudly complained and was immediately surrounded by guards with automatic weapons. Scott began venting a stream of angry Farsi—“You people treat us worse than dogs!”—when Golacinski looked across at the recently returned Dave Roeder and, without a word, they stepped between the angry colonel and the guards. Golacinski tried to calm Scott down. When guards demanded that Roeder and Golacinski go back to their places, they refused.

“As long as you’re pointing that weapon at me, I’m not going to move,” said Roeder. “I’m not going anywhere. Point your gun down and I’ll go, but I’m not moving until you do.”

The guards backed down. They lowered their weapons and Roeder and Golacinski returned to their cubicles. By that time Scott had calmed down, but he continued berating the guards.

One of them said, “Many people in Iran are eating less than you. This is not a hotel. You cannot order anything you want. You are a hostage, you have no rights. If you do not shut up and stop complaining, you will be in much trouble.”

The guard then vented his own anger at the Americans, claiming that all they did was eat, sleep, and make love. The standoff ended with Scott and the guard glaring at each other silently from across the room.

9. Escape

Bill Belk had been moved away from the medic Don Hohman only after the guards were convinced he wasn’t going to stop breathing again. He was shuffled around from week to week and wound up in a small upstairs room in the ambassador’s house with Malcolm Kalp, the CIA officer. So far the highlight of Belk’s captivity, apart from nearly dying of an allergic reaction to an insect bite, was the day he had inadvertently received two cans of beer with his lunch. The guards always put two cans of soda on the table in his cubicle in the Mushroom Inn, where he had stayed for several weeks. Apparently they didn’t realize the difference in the cans of soda and beer. He said not a word and calmly savored his first alcoholic beverages since the takeover.

Mostly Belk felt bored, and stiff. Some days the only time he stood up was to go to the bathroom or to go eat. For the first month, every time he heard a helicopter his heart leapt. Is this it? Are they coming for us? By mid-December he was convinced no one was coming.

He and Kalp had mattresses on opposite sides of the room and were not allowed to speak. A guard sat outside the door. Passing notes back and forth, they began to plan an escape. Kalp said he wanted to go, but he didn’t want to hurt anybody doing it. Belk argued with him in the notes.

“That’s no way to feel!” he wrote.

Belk said that if they tried to go, it would have to be all-out, “us or them.” If he had to hurt or even kill somebody, he was ready to do it. The more he thought about it, the more determined he became. He was going to try and, if necessary, he told Kalp, he was going to go alone. If Kalp was going to shrink at jumping a guard, he didn’t want to have him along.

One of the guards always fell asleep soon after his shift started. Two days before Christmas, Belk waited until he nodded off, bundled his blanket on the mattress to make it look somewhat like he was wrapped in it, and walked out the door. He tiptoed down a back stairway toward the kitchen but he heard voices, and peering through the crack of the door he saw that it was full of Iranians. So he walked back up the stairs. From a window in the hallway he could look out over the back of the residence. The first-floor roof extended from the wall out toward a patio and swimming pool. Weeks earlier he had pried off a small blade from a Gillette shaver and hidden it in his shoe. Now he took off the shoe and retrieved it, using it to cut a neat hole in the window screen. He crawled out onto the first-floor roof.

Immediately he was struck by two things he hadn’t considered. It was bitterly cold and the compound was brightly illuminated by spotlights from front to back. It wasn’t usually like that at night, but for some reason, on this night, every damn light was ablaze. He could see armed Iranians walking all over the compound. His heart sank and he considered crawling back inside. He sat there, on the roof over the crowded kitchen, watching his breath trail off in gusts of steam, pulling his sweater tighter around him, expecting alarms to sound and people to shoot at him, but nothing happened. None of the Iranians looked up. So far so good. He decided to push his luck. He scouted around the edge of the roof and found a place where he could lower himself into the back patio by stepping down on an air-conditioning unit that protruded from a window. There were some large gas bottles on the ground beneath that fed the kitchen stoves and he dropped among them and squatted out of sight. The bottles were warm, so it was comfortable. He stayed there for about an hour.

The patio was enclosed by high walls. If he tried to climb over he would immediately be spotted. The gate was padlocked and the only other one had a guard posted alongside. He figured that gate was his only way out. He waited until a group of about six students emerged from the kitchen and proceeded through the gate, laughing and talking, absorbed in their conversation, and with his heart pounding Belk stood up and fell in behind them, drawing his sweater up over his head like he was pulling it on and adjusting it as he passed the guard. He stepped out of the gate and turned immediately to his right and kept walking.

He followed a fence that ran from the back of the ambassador’s house over toward the warehouse. There was a break in the fence ahead that opened into the spacious pine woods in front of the residence, and he was making for them when he heard over his shoulder, “East!,” which meant, “Stop!”

It was a female voice, one of the guards. He turned and saw her standing right over him on a small platform, pointing a rifle. She repeated excitedly, “East! East!”

He grabbed her and her weapon, twisting the barrel up and reaching for the switch that released its ammo magazine. The guard got off one shot into the sky before Belk managed to eject it. He knew she still had one more round in the chamber. She fired that one into the air, too, and Belk ran.

He headed back toward the residence, then heard another shot. Someone else was now shooting! He sprinted across the compound toward the tennis courts and a point on the back wall where there were steps leading up, a place where he could climb up and look over the top. He heard another shot snap, the round passing close as he bounded up the steps. He planned to pull himself up and over the wall, but when he peered over it he saw two policemen in the alley who had obviously been alerted by the shots inside. He stopped himself so abruptly that he lost his balance and fell off the stairs and twisted his right knee when he hit the hard ground. When he stood the knee buckled. He couldn’t run. Right beside the stairs was a metal container, about the size of a big ice cooler. It didn’t look large enough for a man to hide inside but Belk had no choice. He raised the lid and wiggled his six-foot frame inside.

It was filled with ice-cold water. The lid to the container didn’t close tightly, so he could see out across the compound, where guards were now running toward him from all directions. When they got close, they split up and fanned out to search back across the compound without bothering to look inside the cooler. Belk sat there in the freezing water trying not to breathe. He tried to raise himself to climb out once the guards had left that spot, but now his knee hurt even worse and he was also frightened. He thought if he raised the lid and tried to climb out he would be shot. So he stayed.

Soon a group of twelve guards reconvened at the stairs carrying flashlights and began conferring in rapid-fire Farsi. Belk could have reached out and touched them, they were that close. If they would just move again, Belk thought, maybe he could summon the strength to climb out and over the wall. The icy water had numbed him so he no longer felt any pain in his knee. He would head for Bert Moore’s house at the end of the alley immediately outside the compound. Maybe he could hide there through the day, and then hijack a car and drive toward Turkey. Or maybe he would try for the British or Canadian embassies. He stayed still for several long minutes until one of the guards looked down and noticed something.

“Oh!” he said, and jumped backward. Immediately all the guards pointed their weapons at the cooler. Belk slowly opened the lid and tried to stand. He was grabbed under both arms and hauled out. One of the guards slapped him and then pulled the wet sweater up over his head, pinning his arms. Then he clapped his arm around Belk’s head in a wrestling hold. The others slapped and kicked at the captive and hit him with their guns. He couldn’t stand because of the knee, so he was dragged to a car, thrown in the backseat, and driven to the chancery, where he was hauled into a first-floor room, what had been Bert Moore’s office. They threw blankets over him, handcuffed him, and began to berate him and to question him.

“There is no escape!” one of them told him. “Allah is against you!”

“You are CIA and you were taking a message for Malcolm Kalp,” his questioner said. “Who were you going to see?”

“No way,” said Belk. “I was just going home for Christmas.”

“What is your code name?”

His questioner reached down and tightened his handcuffs and then leaned on them, digging the steel into his wrists.

“It hurts!” Belk protested.

“It doesn’t matter,” the interrogator said.

Belk was left alone for the remainder of that evening. The cuffs were so tight his hands swelled and ached. In the room next door he heard Joe Subic and Kevin Hermening talking. It sounded like they were planning some sort of Christmas party and talking about getting out their Christmas cards! One of them was working a typewriter. It seemed weirdly incongruous to Belk, who was wet, cold, frightened, and in pain.

The next day six students came in and questioned him again, asking him about Kalp and where he had planned to go. When Belk told them the truth, that he had left by himself and didn’t know where he was going to go, they kicked his injured leg and hit him several times over the head.

“People that try to escape get shot,” one of them said.

One put a .45 caliber pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Belk heard the hammer snap and at that point didn’t care. He begged them to remove the handcuffs. His hands had turned a faint blue and the pain was intense.

Finally, one of them loosed the cuffs. He was taken to another room in the basement and tied with nylon ropes hand and foot to a straight-backed wooden chair. He was untied only to eat and use the toilet. This is how he spent the Christmas holidays.

* * *

The approach of Christmas was a very emotional time for Kathryn Koob, who felt both joyful and sad. Like the rest of her colleagues, she stood accused of being a spy and had been told to expect a trial and what seemed like a strong chance of execution. Since she had been moved from the ambassador’s residence in early December to a small room on the top floor of the chancery, what had been the political section’s library, she was much closer to the chanting multitudes outside the compound’s front walls, and because she understood at least some Farsi it meant living with calls for American blood—her blood!—ringing in her ears day and night. In the crowd she could also hear vendors circulating drinks and snacks. It was bizarre, an ongoing festival of death and revenge. Her greatest fear, even greater than trial and the hanging judge, was that her captors would give her to this mob.

Ever since Ann Swift had disappeared after Thanksgiving, Koob had been held alone. She spent her days sitting in an armchair reading novels under the watchful eye of the punctilious female guard she had dubbed Queenie. Koob ate sparingly and savored what she was given at mealtimes, and she could feel the excess pounds she had accumulated over years falling off rapidly. She was still wearing the green wool dress she had on the day of her capture, although she also had a pair of slacks and a pullover shirt that the guards had brought from the embassy co-op. After weeks of such rigid confinement, she decided that she needed some sort of exercise regimen to supplement the ten minutes a day she was allowed to stand and do calisthenics. She worked out isometric routines she could do in the chair, stretching, lifting herself by pressing down with her hands, pushing her hands together, alternately flexing and relaxing sets of muscles. As she grew thinner she also grew stronger and despite the restrictions felt herself becoming more flexible. On the wall opposite her chair one of the students had spray-painted the words, “Down With the Carter,” and some weeks later another had brought in an idealized portrait of Khomeini and tacked it over part of the slogan, so she now faced the imam’s portrait under the words “Down With.” Since none of her guards spoke English very well, nobody noticed the ironic juxtaposition, and she was silently amused by it. It symbolized for her the intellectual clumsiness of this whole terrifying exercise.

She, too, contemplated escape. There was a good chance that an Iranian family she knew who lived only a few blocks from the embassy would hide her if she could get there. A woman in Iran had a better chance of staying hidden than a man, because she could drape herself from head to toe in a chador and move around with relative freedom. Her Farsi was limited but serviceable. She tried to remember exactly how far it was from the ambassador’s house to the wall. There were trees along the inside of it. With her newfound agility, she might be able to pull herself up to a low branch, which would give her the step up she would need to get over. All she had to do was wait for her guard to fall asleep, which happened often enough.

But she had never tried it. Partly because the attempt would have been risky and bold, Koob always found a reason, or was given one, to delay. Then one day a young woman named Sheroor, who was the kindest of her guards, allowed her to spend a few minutes on the front porch of the residence. It was the only time she had been allowed outside since the day of the takeover. Standing in the clean winter air, savoring blue skies and the sweet odor of the pine grove that filled that side of the compound, admiring the glimmer of moisture on the grass from a recent shower, Koob also scouted for an escape avenue. She was dismayed to see that the wall was much higher and farther from the house than she had remembered. None of the trees had branches low enough for her to reach, and the inside perimeter was busy with armed guards. There was no chance she could escape in the way she had imagined.

When the interrogation sessions ended after the first days, Koob concluded that the documents in her office at the Iran-America Society had confirmed her stories and quashed any remaining suspicions of her work in Tehran. But then she noticed Queenie surreptitiously taking notes after they spoke. Her chief guard would seize upon some comment or phrase and twist its meaning into something sinister. Chatting one day about the Iran-America Society, her efforts to revive the Cultural Center in Tehran, Koob mentioned that she had been interviewed from time to time by reporters about the organization’s events or plans. Queenie seemed particularly interested in this.

“How did you relate to them?” she asked. As Koob described how she had tried to be helpful with the reporters, how she had welcomed the publicity and tried to encourage their interest and coverage, she noticed that her chief guard was scribbling furiously behind a stack of books. It dawned on her that Queenie had a completely different take on what she was talking about.

So she asked, “Hahnum, when you were just talking about reporters, you were talking about Iranian reporters who came to me to find out about American things, right?”

“No,” said Queenie, and she explained that she had been talking about American reporters. Koob suddenly understood. Queenie had the idea that the “reporters” were actually spies, who reported the information they had gathered about Iran to her. Koob explained that this was not at all what was going on and Queenie dropped the subject. It consistently surprised Koob to glimpse such deep-rooted, unshakable suspicion.

She coped with her isolation and boredom by imagining her confinement as a religious retreat. The comforting miracle of her sister’s presence that she believed she had experienced on her first night in captivity fired her religious convictions. She had often wondered about and admired Catholic women who entered convents or contemplative communities to live in self-imposed isolation, silence, and prayer. She began to emulate what she knew of such lives, creating for herself prayer schedules and disciplines. Her captivity was a chance to direct the ambition and energy she had poured into her career into spiritual pursuit. It was hard work. She found it difficult to sustain prayer; anything more than a simple request for strength or deliverance or blessings on her family and friends challenged her patience and creativity. So she created categories, morning, afternoon, and evening devotions, and assigned different objectives for each. In her morning devotions, she set aside Mondays to pray for church institutions, Tuesdays for human crises around the world, Wednesdays for her family, and so on. To sustain prayer for her family she sought divine favors for each member individually, one by one, beginning with her parents in Iowa and then moving around the United States to each of her siblings and kin. She designed a worship ceremony for herself and began to see her religion not just as a backdrop to her life but as a practice, something that demanded mindfulness and effort at every moment. When she was allowed to keep an armed forces hymnal she’d found on a shelf in the residence library, she memorized the songs and sang them to herself. Later she was given a Bible.

In the weeks before Christmas, Koob had felt all of these currents coming together, her fear, her sadness, and her joy in the new religious life she had built for herself. Surrounded by hatred, she was determined to turn herself into a beacon of Christian love. She talked to her guards about the way her family celebrated Christmas at home, the cookies, candies, the oyster stew they always ate early before setting out for evening services. Given a branch from an artificial tree, she placed it upright in a flag holder and turned it into a Christmas tree. She tore pink routing slips she’d found in a desk drawer into strips and fastened them together with tape to create a chain she wrapped around it. She folded sheets of white and brown paper into snowflake designs, and shaped one sheet into a small cross and placed it on top. Then she got more ambitious, creating a whole manger scene complete with Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child and even an angel to hover over the scene. Her guards were so intrigued by her labors that they began imitating her, fashioning their own paper ornaments and hanging them on her “tree.”

10. Captivity Pageant

On Christmas morning, marine Kevin Hermening was given a clean turtleneck sweater and he, Joe Subic, embassy administration officer Steve Lauterbach, and Jerry Plotkin were taken to an office at the motor pool where TV cameras were waiting.

Their captors wanted them to make a statement on camera as part of the Christmas party they would hold later that day. Over in the Mushroom Inn, unbeknownst to Hermening, his fellow marines had refused. He had been separated from the others several days earlier after threatening a guard and tearing the startled Iranian’s schoolbook in half. Locked in a basement room for nine hours, blindfolded, cuffed, and tied to a chair, the nineteen-year-old marine, the youngest of the hostages, had broke down and sobbed until he fell asleep.

He had been awakened by a voice speaking to him in perfect English.

“So, Mr. Hermening, I understand you’re giving the guards a little bit of trouble?”

“No, sir,” he said. The situation felt like being chewed out in boot camp, only he was more frightened this time.

“Well, do you think you want to talk about it a little bit?” his questioner asked.

“I sure would.”

His blindfold was removed and before him, to his great surprise, had been Subic, the army sergeant, just a few years his senior. He didn’t recognize him at first, because Subic had grown his hair long and had a full beard. He was wearing a winter coat and had sweaters on underneath.

“Joe, what are you doing?” Hermening asked.

Subic explained that the students had come to him complaining that Hermening had been causing trouble and asked him to help.

“I told them I would talk to you and try to resolve things,” Subic said. He added that he might be able to help Hermening understand what was going on.

The young marine was shocked, not only by Subic’s approaching him on behalf of their tormentors but because he was so bundled up. Warm clothing was scarce. Most hostages were wearing the same now ratty clothes they had been wearing on the day of the takeover, with a single change of underwear or socks if they were lucky.

Subic and the guards walked Hermening across the compound—it was the first time the marine had seen an American walking outside without being bound and blindfolded—to the first floor of the chancery. In this room Subic had snack foods, Fritos, peanut butter, peanuts, ketchup, salt and pepper, potato chips! He told Hermening that he had raided the commissary and gone on a spree, without explaining why he had been allowed to do such a thing. Then he said he was planning an escape, which would probably take place early in the new year if they were still captive—they were all waiting to see if they would be sent home over the Christmas holidays. In the meantime, Subic said that he was putting together, at the guards’ behest, a Christmas party. He was their “consultant” for the party, he said, and had helped them decorate for it. Subic’s room also had a desk and a telephone that he said he had used on occasion to call out to other embassies in Tehran. All of this apparently with the guards’ permission!

Hermening helped with some of the Christmas decorations and wrote Christmas cards to his mother and other family members, coached by his student guards.

“Since we have been hostages, we have been shown many documents, pictures, and other information which has convinced us that the ex-shah did indeed commit many crimes in Tehran,” Hermening wrote. “We believe that the students’ demand for the ex-shah’s extradition is justified and we urge all Americans to write to their senators and congressmen and ask them to do all they can to bring about the return of the ex-shah to Iran and obtain our release. The Iranian students are positive that the ex-shah will be returned to Iran and are willing to wait as long as it takes to accomplish this. They have only one demand with no negotiation possible…They will never back down or give in.”

This letter was mailed to twenty American newspapers. When he was asked to make a statement on Christmas morning before the cameras with the others, Hermening said he would say something, but he didn’t want to have to do anything “controversial.”

He was excited about being on TV. Maybe his family would see him. This ordeal was making him famous, he was sure, and with that fame would come opportunity. At the motor pool he met Ebtekar and fell into easy conversation with her. Hermening told her that he was surprised a woman held a position of such importance. He said if she were so successful already, maybe someday she would be a big leader in Iran.

“If I ever get back to the United States, and get into politics, maybe I’ll become a leader there,” he said. He joked that the two of them, years from now, would be shaping world events. Ebtekar laughed gaily at the idea.

The four captives performed precisely as their captors wished. Each read a statement critical of the United States. Both Hermening and Lauterbach read the statements in a flat monotone; Lauterbach had not seen the statement beforehand. The foreign service officer, his hair long and his beard untrimmed, seemed particularly pained to be participating. Plotkin seemed more comfortable but Subic, who sat at the center and held the microphone, appeared to be relaxed and speaking in full earnest.

Some of the statements Hermening read had been prepared for him, and some of it was what he had written, about getting letters from home and receiving medical care when it was needed. The students had added lines about how the American government had sold fertilizer to Iran that killed all its crops. Hermening read on. The statement went on to summarize the American-led coup that unseated Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, before he was born, and how the United States had placed the shah on the throne and that he and the other hostages were suffering because America refused to own up to its crimes and return the shah.

“It hurts us to have to say that, but that is what we believe to be the situation,” he said. “We will always be Americans and still pray that they make the right decision as soon as possible.”

Clean shaven and neatly groomed, his hair trimmed and parted down the middle, Hermening looked hale and fit, towering over the guards in the room, and despite his wooden performance he did not seem like a man being forced to do something against his will. Although he felt awkward about reading the statement even as the words came out, he figured, Who is going to believe this? Clearly it was being made under duress. So he didn’t worry about it. Maybe his family would see him on TV!

Plotkin read with apparent feeling: “Why is the ex-shah given protection and sanctuary in the United States of America? He is an accused criminal and admitted his abuses of power on Iranian TV before he was dethroned. Why isn’t he extradited like any other alleged criminal would be? The Imam Khomeini and their new government have promised a fair and open international trial with all nations and churches invited to see that justice is done.”

Only glancing at the prepared statement, Subic offered the most dramatic personal testimony. He said that in his short time of traveling in Iran with Lauterbach before the embassy was taken, he had begun to see the evils of the American-supported shah. “We started to see more and more poor people, people without homes, food, education. I asked myself what had the shah done? My thinking started to turn around. My eyes and mind were starting to awake to the truth.”

Subic then stepped around to the front of the table, holding the microphone in one hand and in the other displaying a “special” Christmas card that “the hostages” had made for Khomeini. Smiling, he read from the card: “A Christmas wish especially for you, Imam Khomeini. Merry Christmas. May Christmas bring you lasting joy and lovely memories. Merry Christmas, the American Hostages, 25 December 1979. Tehran, Iran.” If he was aware of how he would appear to his fellow Americans, seething at this prolonged international extortion, Subic showed no sign of it. He seemed proud of himself, cheerful, sincere, and entirely at ease.

* * *

In what the students regarded as a “major concession,” they allowed three American clergymen to visit and celebrate Christmas with the captives. All three were chosen, according to a spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Council, because of “their militant history against imperialism.” Most famous was the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the celebrated senior minister of New York City’s Riverside Church. Coffin was a large man with sloped shoulders and long curly dark hair that was retreating fast toward the crown of his head but which still fell thickly over his ears. He did not seem ministerial, with his up-from-the-streets New York accent, earthy humor, and background as an officer in the army and then the CIA, but he had seen the light, left the agency, and entered the ministry, achieving prominence as the chaplain of Yale University and for his civil rights work long before he became nationally known for his often eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War. Accompanying Coffin were the Reverend William Howard, a tall, urbane, dignified African-American minister who headed the National Council of Churches and was a noted civil rights and anti-apartheid activist, and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an activist Catholic leader from Detroit famous for his advocacy of liberal issues inside and outside the church. Coffin had defended the hostage takers in public statements in the United States, saying, “We scream about the hostages, but few Americans heard the screams of tortured Iranians.”

Together with the Catholic cardinal of Algiers, they presided over a series of holiday services for hostages who were brought to them in small groups throughout Christmas Day. In session after session, wearing flowing maroon-colored robes, Coffin warned against the vice of “self-pity,” and encouraged the captive Americans to sing along with him as he played the piano and led them in carols. The ceremonies were held in a back room of the warehouse, which Subic had helped decorate, along with the usual wall decorations of anti-American, prorevolutionary slogans. Cameras and lights recorded the event for Iranian TV as armed guards lined the walls looking on happily, convinced they were making the saintliest of gestures, allowing these infidels a Christian celebration. Khomeini, in response to President Carter’s call for Americans to ring church bells in remembrance of the hostages, called for his countrymen to “ring the bells in support of God.”

Many of the hostages were appalled by the event, at being made part of what they saw as a propaganda stunt, but Rick Kupke set aside his resentment when he spotted the treats laid out on the table—brownies, nuts, apples, and oranges. There was even a roasted turkey on a plate! Marine Paul Lewis was impressed enough with the goodies to go through the motions during his ceremony, but ignored Coffin’s exhortation to hold hands with his fellow hostages and sing. Many of the marines refused to sing, and a good number of the hostages showed little emotion or enthusiasm. Coffin hugged each one at the end of the ceremonies, and when he came to Lewis the young marine whispered to him, “It’s all bullshit.” In a brief conversation with Bill Keough, Coffin remarked, jokingly, that he had often longed for an extended period of quiet where he could read and think and contemplate. Keough smiled grimly. It was the remark of a man who had never been taken hostage in a foreign country and threatened daily with trial and execution. At the ceremony he attended, Golacinski leaned over to Reverend Howard and whispered, “Don’t believe what you are seeing. We’re being treated like animals.”

“So I gathered,” said Howard.

The Baptist pastor managed to convey to each group that all of America was intensely concerned with their fate, not just their own families and friends. At each of the sessions, hostages were allowed to write a brief note on a card to their families, which for many would be the first communications since the takeover.

Forbidden to talk about politics or their own situation, Colonel Scott asked Howard, “What’s the price of gasoline in America today?” Scott had thought long and hard about what question to ask if he got the chance, and decided that the current price of oil would help him gauge how events in Iran were playing around the world. Howard looked at the gallery of armed guards and asked them, “I don’t suppose I should answer that question, do you?” Scott was annoyed. Why couldn’t he just have blurted out an answer? Why was he bending over so hard to be helpful to these bastards?

Seeing Scott’s anger, Howard tried to lighten the mood. He said he noticed in looking over the lists of hostages that Scott was from Georgia and began a story about the difficulties he had faced as a young African-American traveling in that state. This further angered Scott, who felt as though the preacher was blaming him for the racism he had encountered.

For some of the hostages, however, the ceremonies were rich with feeling. The songs, no matter how off-key, and the decorations, no matter how impoverished, brought back memories of family and of past Christmases and gave them a fleeting sense of connection with home.

Kathryn Koob fought to hold back tears during her ceremony. She was profoundly sad to be cut off from her world, and yet somehow as a prisoner, isolated from her family and any community of Christians, from familiar Christmas music, the swirl of shopping, cards, parties, and gift giving, the holiday if anything became more meaningful to her, so that as she stood, reunited for the first time in a month with Ann Swift before Bishop Gumbleton, she felt herself trembling so violently that it took all her strength not to break down before the cameras. She balled her hands into fists so tight that her nails cut into her skin.

* * *

Several days after the Christmas celebrations, a nearly hourlong film was released and portions played on the big three American TV networks and in Iran. The film had been offered the week before, but the networks balked at paying $21,250 and promising to air the film in full. After a few days, the students dropped the demands and handed over the film. Their propaganda show was meaningless if no one saw it.

On the third floor of the Foreign Ministry, where the three trapped Americans Laingen, Tomseth, and Howland were allowed to watch television, the chargé was shocked. He wrote angrily in his diary that evening, “I think tonight I have learned to hate.”

Far and away the bulk of the film was of these hostages [Subic, Hermening, Plotkin, and Lauterbach] reading a prepared statement, praising the revolutionary zeal of their captors, reciting the misdeeds of the embassy in supporting the Shah, citing documents discovered in the embassy to suggest “espionage,” and calling on the US government to return the Shah to Iran. All this was done in what appeared to be a rehearsal reading, seriatim, by the hostages of their statement, the desk in front of them displaying “evidence” of one kind or another. Only one (Steve Lauterbach) of the four seemed in any way hesitant in what he was reading. The hostage who seemed to preside, Joe Subic, clearly was, or seemed to be, relishing his role. A young marine, Kevin Hermening, too, seemed relaxed and at ease. The fourth, the businessman Jerry Plotkin, read a separate statement, and he, too, seemed in control of himself.

All of this culminated in young Subic displaying a Christmas card from which he read a special greeting to Imam Khomeini on behalf of the hostages. All of this is incredible. I have heard of brainwashing and mind control. I have read of such and recognize that in all hostage situations this is commonplace. But here is an example involving people I know and whom I respect…Eight weeks of confinement and harassment by sound from the crowds in the streets brought the hostages to the point of servitude to their captors’ purposes. And all this in a setting of Christmas with the two priests sitting docilely, watching and listening to the entire charade.

If the students felt such images were going to affect public opinion in the United States, they were right. Americans were horrified. There was an outpouring of sympathy for the hostages. Bishop Gumbleton explained in press conferences at home that the four men had clearly been forced to make the statements. He told reporters that while the men were reading the statements, one of them [Hermening] had whispered to him, “This is just a put-up job. Don’t pay any attention to what you hear.”

Gumbleton said he had asked, “Aren’t you afraid of what might happen if I report that when I return?”

“Just tell the truth, sir,” the hostage told him. “That’s all we care about.”

Laingen didn’t need the bishop of Detroit to tell him that. He knew what kind of stress his colleagues were under and felt guilty that his own circumstances were so much more comfortable. On Christmas Eve they had been delivered a gift basket from the Spanish ambassador, a wicker basket stuffed with various kinds of Iranian candy, and a visit by the British ambassador, who brought sturdier fare, a basket with a variety of meats and snacks and a bottle of “cough syrup,” which contained a lovely red wine—all the more delicious with dinner that evening after such long deprivation. Coffin, Howard, and Gumbleton paid them a visit, and they talked with the clergymen for hours. Tomseth was impressed with Howard and Gumbleton, whom he found to be sincere and there purely for humanitarian reasons. He was suspicious of Coffin, who had the air of a grandstander about him. It seemed to the veteran diplomat that the famous leftist preacher was playing to his home audience. In one glib aside he had remarked, “This situation is much too serious to be left in the hands of professionals!”

The minister seemed not to appreciate that he had just insulted three foreign service professionals.

“You are being absolutely silly,” Laingen told him.

When they left, Laingen hoped that their visitors, whatever their motives, had been appropriately shocked by the zealotry of the students and the new strange political contours of this land. Islamic fundamentalism posed a threat that transcended the traditional liberal-conservative polarity that had defined Western politics for generations. There was a natural tendency of liberals like Coffin, Howard, and Gumbleton to seek dramatic change and to see any revolutionary as ideological kin, but they needed to be careful in this case about who they were cozying up to. The world was a more complicated place than they imagined. A new form of totalitarianism was taking shape, a religious variation on an ugly twentieth-century theme.

In the end, Coffin, Howard, and Gumbleton would fly home with their own sketchy notions of what was going on in Iran, while Laingen and the others were left behind as its captives.

* * *

Vice consul Bob Ode stewed over the Christmas party for days afterward. In the brief chance he had to speak to Coffin—the minister knew he was the eldest of the hostages and had sought him out to ask how he was doing—Ode had said, “If you are under the impression that the students are being kind to us, then you are mistaken.”

Ode’s wedding ring had been returned, but he had not been given back a ring that his parents had given him when he’d turned twenty-one and that he had worn his entire adult life. The naked finger reminded him every day of the injustice. Several days after Christmas he asked for paper and a pen and wrote numerous appeals, each in neatly printed capital letters. He wrote to Coffin, politely thanking him for coming, and then spelled out his misgivings about the ceremony and the minister’s apparent misplaced sympathies. He wrote another to the Washington Post, and others to President Carter and several other likely candidates for president in the coming year.

In one of his letters, Ode expressed thanks for the various cards that had been sent to him and others by strangers from around the United States, all of them promising to pray for their release. “I don’t mean to be unappreciative,” he said, “but what we need most is action—not prayers.”

* * *

Despite its obvious propaganda value, John Limbert felt that the Christmas event had also been a genuinely kind gesture by at least some of the students. He found that comforting. It seemed unlikely that after such a public display of charity they would be marched out to be shot any time soon. Even more reassuring was the visit several days after the holiday by Ayatollah Montazari, a chubby, often jolly middle-aged cleric who was reputed to be the first in line to eventually succeed Khomeini. The students were very excited and nervous about the visit. Montazari arrived at the Mushroom Inn with a TV crew in tow and addressed all of the hostages in the basement prison in a calm, friendly way. He was known among the hostages as “Screaming Monty,” because of thundering, feverish orations that drove the devout to great exertions of public prayer and denunciation. In person he was a short man with a face full of blackheads and sprouts of hair projecting from both ears. He reiterated the students’ demand for the return of the shah, and spoke to the hostages of his own years of imprisonment under the old regime, assuring them that they, too, would survive and prosper. When America relented, he said, they all would be released.

Colonel Scott, though relieved to hear that they would eventually be released, found the speech depressing. The bottom line, as he saw it, was that the Iranian clergy were holding fast to the students’ original demand that the “criminal shah” be returned for trial, which meant, as far as he was concerned, a very long stay.

When he finished speaking, Montazari walked around the crowded basement room and shook hands with each of the hostages.

When the cleric approached Limbert, the hostage took his hand and reminded him in Farsi, “We have met before.”

“Yes, I remember,” Montazari said, surprised. “You came with Mr. Precht to see me.”

It was an important moment, Limbert thought, because he knew the students were accusing anyone who had met with Americans from the embassy of spying. Those in the ayatollah’s entourage were visibly shocked. The meeting had taken place weeks before the takeover, and Limbert had accompanied Henry Precht as an interpreter. He had liked the cleric, who seemed less rigid than others he had met. He was impressed by the fact that Montazari seemed to harbor no grudge against the shah, this in a country where grudges seemed the guiding spirit of the day.

Montazari stopped into the room where Hall and Queen were being kept. Hall noted with displeasure that the great man’s entourage was wearing muddy boots. The ayatollah spoke to Hall and Queen through a translator.

“How are you?” he asked.

Hall was never sure what to say or how to act in this situation. Should he curse at the cleric or behave politely? He wanted to conduct himself with dignity, as a professional and an adult, but under these circumstances how exactly was that to be done? He saw some of his colleagues take perverse pride in treating their captors with nothing but scorn and bile, while others had become sickeningly meek and submissive. Some, like Subic, were actually trying to be helpful. He saw himself as somewhere in the middle. So how should he respond? Both he and Queen told Montazari that they were fine, but in a way that made it clear that they were anything but.

“Oh well,” said Montazari, “I stayed in one of the shah’s prisons for two years and I came out alive, and so will you.”

It was meant to be encouraging, but all Hall could think about when he left was, two years?

To butter them up for the ayatollah’s visit, most of the hostages were given mail. Limbert got a letter from his sister and her family, but most of the others weren’t so lucky; they were handed mail addressed to them from perfect strangers who had responded to the plight of their countrymen by writing in a show of support. The embassy was inundated with them. “Dear hostage,” these letters typically began. It was a sweet gesture, and the TV networks at home enjoyed airing pictures of schoolchildren all over America leaning over their desks, pencils working away, sending love and good cheer to their captive countrymen. They arrived at the embassy in sacks piled on pallets, another picture the American TV cameras loved. The gesture created such a flood of mail, however, that real letters from the hostages’ loved ones got lost. Golacinski was somewhat luckier; he received a letter from a young woman he had helped in Morocco, thanking him, but it had been written and mailed before the takeover. It was nice, but in the present circumstances, when he longed desperately to hear some news from home, he was crushed.

* * *

Michael Metrinko spent the holiday as he had spent all of his days since the first week of the takeover, locked in a windowless basement storage room by himself. He had been invited to the Christmas party but he wanted no part of a propaganda show. His guards brought him a gift from the ceremony, a plate of turkey and stuffing, cookies, and decorated marshmallows. Metrinko was hungry, and the food was tempting, but he was galled by how self-congratulatory his captors seemed, how generous and noble and proudly Islamic. He accepted the plate, and when they left him alone to eat it he sat staring at it for a long moment.

Then he knocked on the door and said he needed to go to the bathroom. When the door opened, holding the gift plate before him, Metrinko marched down the hall and dumped the contents into the toilet. He made sure the guards saw him do it.

They were furious with him. The gesture prompted a fit of screaming. He had insulted their hospitality and kind intentions. He was crazy! When they shoved him back in his room and slammed the door behind him, Metrinko felt a momentary pang about losing the meal. What a glorious pleasure he had denied himself! But the remorse was nothing next to the pleasure he took in delivering the insult. It had hit home and wounded them and that was something he could take pleasure in for far longer than the food.

Metrinko fed off his anger. It kept him going. Ever since he refused a cigarette on the day of the takeover, the pattern of his captivity was set. He would not accept any rationale for the way he and the others were being treated. It was wrong by every measure, by the standards of international diplomacy, by the cultural standards of Iran, and by common decency. Going cold turkey on his two-pack-a-day cigarette addiction helped, in a perverse way. It fed his irritability and rage. He worked up a whole philosophy of anger. His sense of outrage was his last connection to dignity. A man had to hang on to his capacity to protest, to express his anger, to move up a few steps into the faces of his oppressors. It made him feel better about himself. In time, it was the only thing that did.

As Ebtekar, the hostages’ spokesman, would later put it, Metrinko “hated everyone and was hated in return.” And what he got in return was continued isolation. Metrinko spent hour after hour, day after day, month after month, locked in his tiny storage room with the fluorescent light buzzing overhead through day and night, with no fresh air and no companionship. Boredom was no longer an occasional state of mind; it defined him. He often had books, but one could read for only so long. He fought to find something to do to pass the time and frequently lost. He spent hours sitting and staring at the walls, brooding, lost in fantasy.

Now and then, one of his captors would come into his cell just to talk. They were convinced, of course, that Metrinko was evil. He was a foreigner, an infidel, an American, and they were certain he was “See-ah.” So the conversations were one-sided. They avoided listening to him in the way one would avoid listening to the devil himself. They were there to enlighten him about the evils of the United States and the shah, the terrors of SAVAK, and the virtues of their own revolution—to which Metrinko was in sympathy although they would never believe it. Since he had known many of the leaders of the revolution personally, and knew how many had used the tumult simply to enrich themselves and exact revenge on their enemies or rivals, his sympathy for the ideals of the revolution was laced with cynicism.

For a man who lived to collect information, analyze it, and report it to others, solitude was a particular torment. He began doing calisthenics to fill the time and to wear himself out enough to sleep. He lost all sense of day and night. He would sleep for an hour or so, wake up, prop the big air mattress against the wall, and run in place and do sit-ups for an hour or so—he was doing hundreds of sit-ups a day. His time was spent alternately sleeping, running in place, doing push-ups and sit-ups, reading, brooding, going to the toilet, and waiting for food. He seized on any opportunity to break the tedium. Given some colored pencils, he began drawing on the walls. Using his food bowl, a glass, or a dish, he would trace interlocking circles, forming elaborate patterns, and then carefully color them in. He began a mental project. At home in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, his family owned a huge building, a onetime inn, with more than fifty rooms. He loved the place, and decided to completely renovate and decorate it, room by room. He remembered every corner of it vividly from his childhood. He tore wings off the building, stripping it down in his imagination to its original structure, then rebuilt the wings from scratch. He picked out colors for the walls, furniture, and rugs, redesigned the kitchens…

Books were the only consistent diversion from his own thoughts, and he devoured them. He read Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, a massive nine-hundred-page volume, in two days, then opened the first page and began again. He read the Bible and reread the New Testament several times. He pored over the Psalms, committing certain favorites to memory. Poetry was a source of great pleasure, because he could read and reread it with increased enjoyment. In a pile of books he was shown, he found The Book of Living Verse and A Little Treasure of American Poetry and never returned them. He practically wore them out. He read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and found its myriad accounts of men coping with captivity very useful in dealing with his own. He was pleased to read, for instance, that in captivity Solzhenitsyn thought mostly about his stomach. A myth about imprisonment is that isolation and deprivation incline men to great spiritual and philosophical insights, that in solitude the mind settles into great thoughts. Metrinko obsessed about food. He would think about lunch for three hours before it came: What will they bring for lunch? How long until they do? Will it be hot or cold? Then he would savor the memory of the meal for two hours after it was eaten, at which point it was time to start thinking about dinner. He felt guilty about the smallness of his thoughts and was relieved to read that he was not alone. The food was not bad, lots of rice and bread, occasionally a stew, but Metrinko’s weight plummeted. He dropped thirty pounds in the first month of captivity. His jeans drooped badly and his captors had taken away his belt. He bunched up the waist in front and fastened it with a paper clip.

He welcomed the interrogation sessions and drew them out for as long as he could. Anything was a welcome break from his solitude and boredom. Even the prospect of being put on trial and executed didn’t disturb him. He found himself perversely looking forward to it. The trial would at least be interesting. Months of sitting alone had made him desperate for any kind of stimulation, even death.

When he lashed out at his interrogators or guards, he would be punished. Sometimes he was dragged out into the basement hall and beaten. Once, after a particularly vicious outburst in which he had insulted the Ayatollah Khomeini and refused to wear a blindfold, he was handcuffed for two weeks. It was misery. His wrists were clamped in metal at his front, and after a day or so they rubbed his skin raw. Any movement that disturbed the cuffs became painful. He couldn’t sleep comfortably. There was no place to put his hands that felt natural, and when he changed position he was shocked awake by the pain. When he moved his bowels he could not wipe himself clean, so he developed a painful rash. It was hard to eat. His food would come in a bowl, and he had a spoon, but it was difficult to put the spoon to his mouth without spilling it back into the bowl.

He endured this for two weeks.

11. Invasion and Opportunity

Charlie Beckwith decided to give his men a break for Christmas. Delta had been preparing for the rescue mission nonstop for more than a month, and the basic plan was in place, despite lingering problems with fuel delivery and hiding choppers and men outside Tehran on the second day of the mission. The Delta major from Texas, Logan Fitch, and his men had been completely out of touch with their families since they had been summoned home from their “training” on the ski slopes in Colorado.

Fitch’s wife, Sandi, was nine months pregnant. She knew that the nature of her husband’s work meant he would simply drop off the face of the earth from time to time, and accepted it, but under the circumstances he was enormously relieved to have permission to return to Fort Bragg. None of the men was allowed to discuss where they had been or what they were doing, but nearly everyone around them understood.

* * *

Two other things happened on Christmas Day that would have important consequences for the hostage crisis, one of them shockingly public and the other a well-kept secret.

The public event was the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the nation that shared Iran’s eastern border and that, with Iran, lived in the Russian shadow. Concerned about a growing Islamist fundamentalist movement in that country, about four thousand Russian troops had seized government buildings in Kabul and installed a new, Soviet-approved leadership. It was news enough to chase Iran off American front pages and posed an entirely new, threatening, and unexpected twist to the confusion in that part of the world. There had been fears of Iran’s clerics cozying up to the Soviets in the previous weeks, but they would certainly respond with alarm to this assault on Islam and the implied threat of an expanded Russian presence along their border. With ethnic unrest in provinces along the Soviet border to its north, and with mounting military probes by the Soviet-backed regime of Saddam Hussein to their west, Iran’s world of trouble had just grown darker.

As had America’s. The Soviet invasion altered the strategic map. Iran and the United States were no longer officially on speaking terms, but where the Soviet Union was concerned they had shared interests. Resistance to the Soviet putsch would come from the region’s Islamic fundamentalists, which meant that there was not only less danger of Iran falling into the Soviet sphere, but incentive to form a tactical alliance with the West. The stakes were high. Brzezinski had long feared that Moscow would take advantage of Iran’s confusion and lack of American backing to make a move on the Middle East, and Afghanistan looked as if it could be just a first step. In the White House, they war-gamed what the United States would do if the Soviet army pushed into Iran, bearing down on the valuable oil fields to the west. If it came to that, Iran’s relationship with the United States would be irrelevant. The Soviets would have to be stopped. There was even discussion of employing tactical nuclear weapons to close potential gaps in the Zagros Mountains and bottle up a Soviet thrust.

The other significant event was the arrival of two men, Hector Villalon, a wealthy Argentinian expatriate and Cuban cigar distributor living in France, and Christian Bourget, a French lawyer and human rights activist, at the international airport in Panama City. They had flown there to deliver a formal request from Iran to Omar Torrijos, asking his government to extradite the shah and send him back to Tehran to face revolutionary justice. It was at best a perfunctory gesture. Torrijos was not about to send the shah back to Tehran, but that was the visitors’ only announced purpose. What they told Marcel Saliman, a Torrijos assistant, was something else. They said they knew that there was no chance Panama would return the ailing shah, but the formalities might serve as a pretext to cover secret negotiations to free the American hostages. Iran was ready to talk.

Both men were friendly with Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh, who, they explained, was officially hamstrung by the radicals who had seized the embassy. He and other moderates were being driven out of power by these young militants, who with their weekly press conference and “disclosures” were plucking them off one by one, exposing them as “traitors” and spies because they had met at one time or another with an American official. Ghotbzadeh wanted the sideshow to end. Sending the hostages home would disband the students and effectively end their reign of political terror.

Villalon and Bourget wanted to know if Torrijos could arrange a secret meeting with Hamilton Jordan. Why Jordan? They said that Ghotbzadeh did not trust the U.S. State Department, which he believed was controlled by Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, and knew that through Jordan they would have the president’s ear.

* * *

In the second week of January, Hamilton Jordan, the president’s chief of staff, was contacted by an old friend in Panama, who urged him to meet privately and soon with an aide to Panama’s dictator Torrijos. He wouldn’t say what it was about, but Jordan was intrigued enough to fly down to Homestead Air Force Base, twenty-five miles south of Miami, on a mystery mission. Negotiations to hand over control of the Panama Canal in 1977 had built close ties between the Torrijos regime and the Carter administration, and the dictator had recently done the administration a favor by agreeing to accept the shah.

In a nondescript brick office building Jordan was introduced to Marcel Saliman and to Villalon and Bourget. Since his initial meeting with the men, Saliman had flown to Tehran and seen Ghotbzadeh, confirming for himself that the link promised by the two French-speaking visitors was real. Despite all the public rhetoric to the contrary, Saliman now told Jordan, Iran was eager to begin quiet talks about the hostages. What the two unofficial emissaries from Paris had suggested was that Iran be permitted to file legal papers in Panama seeking the extradition of the shah. The request would go nowhere, Saliman promised, but the process would provide cover for the secret negotiations.

It was a slender thread, but the Carter administration had few other prospects. The new year had begun with bewilderment and disappointment. The president had turned his efforts in December to the United Nations, where the administration had mounted a full-court diplomatic press on Iran. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had agreed to personally intervene, and with the prospect of draconian economic sanctions in the balance it was hoped that Iran would bow to the weight of world opinion. Hopes were also high because the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed to powerfully illustrate the threat posed by the great bear to the north, and now east. Soviet forces could easily push into Iran and grab the rich oil fields of the Persian Gulf; that had always been a big part of the logic in making the shah’s army and air force effectively a regional branch of the U.S. military. Now, without American help, Iran’s only ally was Allah.

These threats amounted to nothing in the febrile atmosphere of Tehran, however, where the alliance with Allah was considered very real and entirely sufficient. Instead of a breakthrough, the dignified Austrian diplomat, despite being wreathed in the prestige of the world body, had encountered nothing but suspicion and hostility. One Iranian observed the gaunt secretary-general “trembling like a leaf in the autumn wind” on an enforced tour of a graveyard to view the plots of those martyred in the revolution. He was escorted around Iran as a prop in the ongoing propaganda war. One morning on TV he was shown meeting “victims of SAVAK torture sessions,” a room filled with the disabled and deformed, many of them victims not of the secret police but of accidents and birth defects. Death threats, angry denunciations, and riots chased Waldheim from Iran a day before his mission was supposed to conclude. He had met with the Revolutionary Council, but Khomeini refused to see him. Waldheim returned to New York shaken and empty-handed—“I’m glad to be back,” he said, “especially alive”—even though from the White House’s perspective he had all but groveled before the mullahs. That impression would be reinforced weeks later when administration officials received a tape recording of Waldheim’s session with the council; in a memo to Carter, Hamilton Jordan would describe the secretary-general’s presentation as “apologetic, defensive, and at points obsequious.” The students, holding forth from their conference room at the so-called den of spies, called the secretary-general’s visit “a vague and suspicious trip,” and denounced him as “an American pawn.”

“We are not afraid of economic sanctions,” a student spokesman said. “They are not important for us or our people. We can stand it.” His comments apparently reflected the public mood accurately. On January 5, an estimated one million Iranians marched in Tehran to demonstrate steadfast support for the students. The hostages would go nowhere until the United States handed over the shah.

It was a sentiment shared by at least some Americans. A group of ministers from the United States had visited Iran seeking a “spiritual resolution” of the crisis and returned home in January with words of encouragement for the captors. The Reverend John Walsh of Princeton, New Jersey, called for the shah to be returned to Iran immediately for a show trial and what would be certain execution.

“Let justice roll,” he said.

Having thumbed their nose at the prospect of punitive sanctions, Iranian revolutionaries then had the pleasure of watching international willpower swoon. Waldheim himself argued to Carter that sanctions would only strengthen Iranian resolve. When Khomeini threatened to cut off oil exports to any nation that voted for sanctions, oil-dependent Japan quaked. The Soviet Union then twice vetoed the measure at the UN Security Council. Thus did the world organization dedicated to diplomacy acquiesce in the kidnapping of diplomats. When Carter proposed an economic boycott outside the auspices of the toothless UN, this, too, met with a cool reception. European nations found one reason after another to back away from holding Iran accountable. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the captive American foreign mission was expendable.

The only bright spot came at mid-month, when Iran’s Revolutionary Council decided to expel all American reporters from the country, accusing them of “biased reporting.” As far as the White House was concerned, any easing of the media’s fixation on the story was a relief.

So Jordan was more than ready to grasp at this straw from Panama. A burly Georgia lawyer with a round baby face and a youthful crop of dark hair, he had signed on years earlier as a driver in Carter’s first, failed campaign for governor of Georgia. With a combination of native shrewdness and mutual loyalty, his role had risen with the candidate’s political fortunes, becoming Carter’s chief political strategist and managing his successful campaign for the White House. Unpretentious, informal, and blunt, his impatience for the niceties of wielding power in a tripartite government had made him few friends in the capital, where he was regarded by some as an arrogant amateur. But Jordan was a skillful behind-the-scenes horse trader, a man willing, despite his relatively provincial background, to throw himself into the most complicated matters, always with the complete trust of his boss.

Jordan told Saliman that even beginning an extradition process might spook the shah.

“If he gets scared and asks to come back to the States, we’d have to accept him,” he complained. Jordan had worked hard to ease the ailing former monarch across the border.

“Don’t worry,” said Saliman, promising that the extradition process would be purely for show. “Besides, I don’t even think the Iranians want him back.”

He explained that the return of the shah to Iran, a year after his departure, would set off a big fight among Iranians over what to do with him. “They wouldn’t know whether to torture him, shoot him, or hang him,” he said.

Six days later, Jordan was in a London hotel room meeting again with Villalon, who explained how the embassy seizure had strengthened the hand of religious extremists in Iran against more moderate, democratic elements, who were eager to see it ended. Bourget arrived later that day from Tehran, and the two men—Villalon, a dandy with jet-black hair combed straight back on his head, and Bourget, who looked like a hippie lawyer, his head framed with bushy shoulder-length hair and a long thick beard—delivered their message for obtaining the release of the hostages: “Return the shah to Iran.”

Jordan’s hopes deflated.

“It is absolutely impossible!” he said, visibly irritated. Among those around Carter, Jordan had been the one most sanguine about this clandestine avenue. Now he felt duped.

The more they talked, however, Jordan realized that the demand had been offered only as a necessary opening gambit. Again, Villalon and Bourget explained that the remnants of Bazargan’s crowd and the more secular men who had worked for Khomeini in Paris prior to the revolution were still in the fight. Though Abolhassan Bani-Sadr had been removed from the Foreign Ministry, he still held an important post and was a serious candidate for president, as was Ghotbzadeh, who had once been his boss in Paris. Under the new constitution, the president of Iran held considerably less power than the equivalent position in the United States, because the entire new government would remain subordinate to Khomeini, but the office was still important. Both Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh, they said, privately deplored the taking of hostages but had to be careful about expressing that opinion publicly. The best they could do was applaud the takeover and suggest that the point had been made, as Bani-Sadr had already done. Ghotbzadeh was not prepared to go that far, but he was ambitious. An American concession of some kind might improve his standing prior to the vote, which could lead to a breakthrough. The moderates were, in any event, willing to talk. But before even considering a release of the hostages, they were demanding an international commission to study the crimes of the shah.

Here was where a strategic retreat by the White House might break the stalemate, they suggested. Carter had already said that he would not oppose such a commission, but only after the hostages were released. If he were to back off that position and allow the UN commission to visit Iran and meet with government officials, the student captors, and the hostages, there was a chance that the situation might improve.

The meeting ended with an agreement to continue talking. Bourget impressed Jordan with his access to Ghotbzadeh by picking up the phone in the hotel room and promptly getting the Iranian foreign minister on the line. The French lawyer tried to convince Ghotbzadeh to speak to Jordan, but the embattled Iranian declined. Talking directly to American officials had become a dangerous business in Iran.

PART THREE

Waiting

Nilufar Ebtekar with Kathryn Koob (left). (Courtesy: Russ Kick, thememoryhole.org)

Demonstrators outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran. (Courtesy: AP)

Christmas 1979. From left to right: Barry Rosen (back to camera), Hamid the Liar, Rick Kupke, Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam, Jerry Miele, Morehead Kennedy, Joe Subic, John Graves. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin is at the piano. (Courtesy: Russ Kick, thememoryhole.org)

1. They Started It, We Ended It

After his questioners had backed off from beating the soles of his feet with a rubber hose, CIA station chief Tom Ahern was never again threatened with torture. His interrogators regularly promised him trial and execution but, for whatever reason, beating him was a line they would no longer cross. It surprised Ahern, because their revolution was hardly squeamish about such things. But it pleasantly surprised him to discover that his captors had limits…at least so far. He still did not expect to leave Tehran alive.

His chief interrogator, Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam, seemed convinced that Ahern’s goal had been nothing short of assassinating Khomeini, derailing their holy revolution, and installing another American puppet. They did not just suspect this, they knew it, and what they wanted from Ahern was the whole plot, in detail, along with the names of every traitorous coconspirator and spy.

It was not so much the fear of death that undid him. What finally broke Ahern’s will was the fear of a public death, of a show trial and execution; this the singularly private man found particularly horrifying. It unnerved him. He had seen the grotesque images broadcast and printed in Tehran of the regime’s enemies being shot, hung, or beheaded, particularly the Bahai, a religious minority. He knew the fear stemmed partially from what such images would do to his mother, his wife, and the rest of his family. But there was a deeper personal revulsion that he couldn’t fully explain. It was the thing that worked at him most.

The fear and the pressure wore on Ahern until he schemed how to take his own life, which seemed the only way to escape a grim public spectacle. He played with the idea of electrocuting himself. He had found a paper clip and thought that if he put it into an electric outlet and dipped his other hand in a can of water on top of the radiator, that might do it. He never got to the point of trying it, but he rehearsed it and decided that if it appeared as though they were going to make good on their threats he would electrocute himself first. At one point he gave up eating and drinking for four days but was surprised to discover how hard it was to starve. He was a slender man, and naturally ascetic, so he ate very little anyway. After several days the hunger became uncomfortable, but he hadn’t lost much strength or mental acuity. He decided that well before he died he would become terribly disabled, still at the mercy of his captors but severely damaged. The problem was that he wasn’t suicidal, and couldn’t make himself so, no matter how frightened and depressed he felt. No matter how bad things got, he would rather live and hope.

For some reason, the questions he dreaded most in these interrogations never came. The draft of his cable to CIA director Stansfield Turner, the one he had left on his desk on the day of the takeover, was enough all by itself to condemn him. The paragraph about waiting for the military situation to settle down before finding new allies, and the mention of Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who had emerged as such a rival to Khomeini, was especially damaging. He expected to have the document placed on the desk before him at any moment. In between sessions he would pace his cell working out ways to deny and evade what he had written, ways of limiting the damage it might do. He set detailed priorities of those things he would admit, under duress, those things he would admit only under severe duress, and those things he would try never to admit. Among the latter were names of agents and the secret project under way to purchase land in the mountains and get the clandestine Soviet missile observation project up and running. But his interrogators never brought these things up. They weren’t interested in what he had actually been doing; they were interested only in what they thought he was doing.

At one point he was moved downstairs from his old chancery office to a small windowless closet either on the first floor or in the basement, he wasn’t sure. It rattled him more than he imagined it would. It was a little like being placed in his own coffin. It was then, early in the new year, that he began to buckle.

Early on, Ahern had admitted who he was. He knew that alone probably meant he would eventually be killed, but he saw it as a first step down a long road. He would give in little by little, buying himself time. His identity and role were the most obvious bits of information they already had. That much was clear from the documents they kept bringing him from the State Department files, week after week, and, eventually, some of the restored ones that he and Daugherty had shredded. It was pointless to keep denying the obvious.

The students held a press conference to announce their outing of the embassy’s CIA officers. They displayed Ahern’s false Belgian passport and showed off the copy of Laingen’s cable identifying Daugherty and Kalp by name. In the United States, these documents were displayed on TV along with the allegations without much comment. Network reporters noted that Ahern had been an Eagle Scout as a boy, and that he had attended Notre Dame University before joining the foreign service. Daugherty was shown in his marine uniform. The reports neither denied nor acknowledged that the men were spies and did not explain that it was standard practice for agency officers to work at American embassies under cover of the foreign service.

Despite a national obsession with the story, there was at this point little or no reporting in the United States, on TV or in print, about the revelations in the “spy den” documents. While they contained nothing like the conspiracy theories the students imagined, they were revealing. They confirmed the agency’s presence in Iran, which was hardly surprising, and in many cases unveiled what it had been doing, or trying to do. One of the most significant revelations was the agency’s relationship with Simon Farzami, a Jewish journalist known in the agency files as SDTRAMP. Farzami had been raised in Lebanon and Switzerland and first came to Iran after World War Two with his brother, David, to visit their stepfather’s brother, Ebrahim Hakimi, who later became prime minister of Iran. Both brothers had been hired by PARS, the Iranian news agency, and over the years Farzami had worked for a variety of foreign newspapers and agencies, including the Associated Press and London’s Daily Telegraph. David died young, but Simon had a long career in Tehran, becoming editor of the French-language newspaper Journal de Teheran. He was an avuncular, sophisticated, portly man who had excellent contacts in local power circles, having once served in the Ministry of Information, and played both sides during the Cold War. His connection with the CIA was long-standing, but at times he had been a kind of double agent, undertaking two trips to Israel at the behest of the Soviets to “gather information on Israeli policies,” and to “establish contacts” with Israeli journalists and academics. He was paid 120,000 rials (about $1,700) for those trips, money that, according to one of the reassembled documents, he had been “allowed to keep” by the CIA—suggesting that the agency owned a certain priority of allegiance. Ahern had met with Farzami several times in his four months, a new station chief on unfamiliar terrain reaching out to a long-standing source for general guidance. It seemed to Ahern that the older gentleman enjoyed their orientation sessions. Farzami was not happy with his country’s drift toward Islamic theocracy, and he appeared to be eager to offer whatever help he could. He deciphered for Ahern the byzantine Shiite subculture that had been thrust so unexpectedly into power, and he met with Barry Rosen, the embassy’s press attaché, to discuss setting up an international newspaper in Switzerland that would present, according to one of the documents, “a true image” of Iran’s revolution to the West.

Nevertheless, these relatively benign ties with the agency were enough to spell doom for Farzami unless he had fled. Ahern tried to buy him more time, telling Sheikh-ol-eslam that he couldn’t remember SDTRAMP’s last name, only his first. He said he couldn’t remember the name of the newspaper where he worked. He was helped in this sort of stalling by Sheikh-ol-eslam’s obsession with uncovering a plot to assassinate or unseat Khomeini. This is what the students were determined to find and were convinced existed. So the minor revelations in the documents were sometimes overlooked. In Farzami’s case, however, it was not. Here was a person who had collaborated with the devil. He was arrested, charged with deliberately “mistranslating” government documents and with spying for the CIA. He would be executed by firing squad on December 16, 1980.

There were others. Under further questioning Ahern confirmed the identity of SDROTTER/4, a tribal leader from southwest Iran named Khosrow Qashqai, who had been encouraged and funded by the agency in his efforts to rouse local resistance to the emerging mullah-led regime; Rear Admiral Ahmad Mandani, a former governor of Khuzestan and more recently a losing candidate for president in the January elections; and Amir Entezam, a diplomat who was involved with the effort to establish a Swiss-based Iranian newspaper. Qashqai would be captured in the summer of 1980 and publicly hanged in 1982. Mandani fled Iran and eventually settled in the United States. Entezam was arrested and jailed for life. The documents would reveal, and Ahern would confirm, earlier efforts made by the CIA to recruit Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the current finance minister, who had been helpful to the agency in the past. Ahern’s interrogation assumed a pattern. Instead of pushing him to tell them everything he knew, they would present him with documents and information that in most cases he would eventually confirm. He tried to confine himself to acknowledging only information they already had found on their own.

In time, Ahern rationalized his capitulation in another way. By helping them understand exactly what the “spy den” documents said, it might dispel some of their wilder fantasies about American spying in Iran. The contacts with Farzami and the others had been exploratory at best, and though there was no doubt that the United States was supporting Qashqai’s efforts to oppose the new regime, and had hopes of doing more in the future, they did not reveal the plot the students were looking for.

Ahern’s interrogations gradually ended. There would be days between sessions, then weeks. Finally, Ahern figured they were done with him, and his captivity became a struggle to fill time.

He was kept alone at all times. During the long months of interrogations he used every minute preparing for the next session, working out ways to delay, confuse, or avoid giving his captors information, but once the questioning stopped he was on his own with the four walls. He coped by finding activities that would bring him some lasting personal benefit, so that if he were ever released he could say that he had not wasted his time. He knew how to play the piano and was a lover of classical music, and when he asked his guards if he could have some of the sheet music he had kept in his apartment they shocked him by handing it over within days. He spent hours memorizing Schumann’s Carnaval and piano works by Chopin, playing the music in his mind. He was given access to the library Richard Queen had set up in the chancery, and he chose mostly classics, plays by William Shakespeare, novels by Charles Dickens. He read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre twice in French, and then, discovering two books of German grammar in the library, he set about teaching himself German, his wife’s first language. It would be something he could surprise her with if he was ever released.

He did calisthenics and high-stepped around the room to simulate jogging, which he found had psychological benefits even greater than physical ones. It raised his spirits. If only to help break the monotony, he skipped the exercises every tenth day. He had always been a light eater, but now found himself voraciously hungry. The guards let him eat as much as he wanted, so Ahern would request three or four hamburgers at a sitting, or multiple servings of chicken. He had always been slender, and it seemed now that no matter how much he ate he did not gain weight. His face had always been slightly concave, and now there were caverns under his cheekbones and his eyes seemed to recede into deep sockets. His thin, straight brown hair grew down to his shoulders. He looked old, worn, harmless. He became emotionally numb.

Mornings were the worst times. He would be awakened early for breakfast, usually flat bread, butter, jam, and tea, and taken to the bathroom; then he would go back to sleep until about noon. After awaking again he would begin his routines—exercising, reading, “playing” music, “watching” a play. Sometimes he would read until three or four in the morning. Late at night was the best time. There were few interruptions from the guards. Ahern could drift off in his books or into his imagination until his eyes fell shut.

* * *

Ahern’s colleague Bill Daugherty was making his own compromises, and dealing with the consequences. On the night of Valentine’s Day, Sheikh-ol-eslam brought the CIA officer a standard State Department cable and asked him about the long lists of code at the top.

“It’s just in-house stuff,” said Daugherty. “It tracks where the cable originated, where it was sent, and how it was routed. It’s all very simple.”

Ahern had said the same thing but Sheikh-ol-eslam wasn’t buying it. Daugherty grew impatient with him. He deliberately talked to him like a child. He said that if Sheikh-ol-eslam had ever had any experience with a large organization, he would know that such tracking policies were routine.

“You such a smart guy, why are you bothering me with things like this?” he said.

“You aren’t being very helpful,” the gap-toothed Iranian complained.

“No, I’m not,” Daugherty admitted.

“You don’t like doing this?”

“No, of course not.”

He felt bad about any help he had given them, and when he asked about the fate of Victoria Bassiri, the Iranian woman whom he had met with the previous summer, Sheikh-ol-eslam told him curtly, “She was shot.”

Shot? Daugherty was stunned. He pictured the woman laughing with him over dinner, doing her limited best to help him understand the shifting sands of local politics. She had been killed for that? Why hadn’t she fled the country immediately when the embassy was taken? Maybe she had stayed because of her husband and children. Perhaps she believed her connection to the embassy had been so insignificant that it would never be noticed, or that he would have been able to protect her identity. If so, she had paid for those misjudgments with her life. Daugherty was appalled. She had done so little, nothing of consequence. He had tried hard to convince Sheikh-ol-eslam and the others that Bassiri was not a serious spy, hardly even worth their effort. She had never even been asked to gather sensitive information, assuming she would have been in a position to do so. He felt terrible about it but finally concluded that spies accepted such risks. How could she have been so foolish to stay?

After he had spelled out his real job, Daugherty was left alone for months. While the zealots did their best to spin conspiracy theories out of the mostly pedestrian cables and memos, the documents utterly exploded the myth of CIA omnipresence and omnipotence. They revealed that the agency’s operation in Iran in November 1979 consisted of four Americans (one of the officers had been on home leave when the embassy was taken) who had been desperately knocking on doors and offering cash to anyone willing to help explain to them what was going on. Sheikh-ol-eslam found it incredible that the vaunted CIA had not one officer in his country that could speak Farsi. But the cables confirmed it. Their evil dragon had turned out to be a mouse. Daugherty sensed a palpable feeling of disappointment.

Always a solitary soul, he didn’t mind spending his days and nights alone. When he was a child and his mother disciplined him by sending him to his room, she would complain that it fell short of real punishment because he seemed actually to enjoy it. As an adult he had always valued the time he spent living by himself. When he had gone back to school after returning from Vietnam he was older than most of his classmates and didn’t have much in common with them, so he spent a lot of time alone, studying. In the chancery now there were plenty of books to choose from, and Daugherty was an avid reader. Books made all the difference. In his survival training he heard the story of Private Jacob DeShazer, who had survived the daring Doolittle raid over Tokyo early in World War Two and had been kept in solitary confinement by Japanese troops in China for forty months with absolutely nothing to do but stare at the walls. Daugherty felt that would have driven him crazy. But so long as he could escape into books he was okay.

He read voraciously. To his deep delight he found in the old high school library an edition of the two-volume classic Kelly and Harbison study The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development, which carried him off into his favorite field of study for as long as he cared to read. He used the back of these books to record a diary of his captivity, noting the passing days and, in a personal shorthand, any events that he wanted to remember. He also delved into novels and history books, including many that under normal circumstances he probably never would have read, such as the great novels of Charles Dickens and mysteries by Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. He plowed through thick volumes on British and American history and became particularly engrossed in a biography of Blanche of Castile, the wife of French King Louis VIII and the mother of Louis XI, Saint Louis. He resented being held captive, but he was grateful for the long stretches of time he was left alone. He believed that sharing a small space with one or two others would have been far more difficult.

Occasionally, Sheikh-ol-eslam would stop by to chat. Their conversations had become relaxed. He would ask if Daugherty was getting enough food, or sometimes simply ask how he was doing. He seemed to enjoy their exchanges.

One night between Christmas and New Year’s, Sheikh-ol-eslam confessed that he was disappointed in the response their action had provoked in the United States.

“How can we convince the American people that what we’ve done is justified?” he asked.

On previous occasions, Sheikh-ol-eslam had told Daugherty of riots in the streets at home, stories he apparently believed. He had been at Berkeley in the late Vietnam War period when the campus produced some of the most extreme leftist rhetoric, and had come home with the belief that overthrowing the shah would be an important blow in the world revolution. So why weren’t young Americans taking to the streets in solidarity?

“You’re crazy,” Daugherty said. “You want me to help you with your propaganda to convince my countrymen that what you’ve done is right?”

The CIA officer’s days fell into an almost comfortable routine, a breakfast of bread, butter, jam or cheese, and tea. He would then lean his sleeping pallet against a wall and spend several hours pacing back and forth. Ten paces took him from one corner of the room to the other, and he would walk until his feet were sore or he grew tired. The room was never cleaned, so in time his exercise rubbed a smooth path through the layer of dust on the floor. As he walked he developed elaborate fantasies to occupy his mind. He designed houses, imagined them being built, landscaped the yards, furnished the interiors, and chose colors for the walls and rugs. Then he would imagine parties in them, inviting beautiful women. He thought a lot about flying, dreaming up record-breaking challenges for himself, such as breaking the speed record in a turbo-prop plane from Honolulu to Dallas, deciding what kind of plane would be best and how to configure the gas tanks and electronic instrumentation, calculating the speed and fuel-consumption ratios, what altitudes to fly, how best to utilize the prevailing winds, and so on.

Applying the Kelly and Harbison volumes, he invented an imaginary class in constitutional studies with eight students. He was the professor. In his mind, lost completely in the fantasy, he would say, “Okay, today the course is judicial politics and strategies and we’re going to talk about building a consensus on the Supreme Court.” Then he would lecture on a case where initially the court had been divided, not only between conservatives and liberals but where there were opinions all over the map. Then he would explain how the justices hammered out compromises and arrived at an opinion. His imagination improved with exercise and soon he had the sessions fleshed out in extraordinary detail. He had just finished graduate school the year before, so the setting was familiar to him. He gave the students names and personalities, roughly based on students he had known at Claremont. He had a class clown and a student who was very serious, always taking notes, but who never spoke. Other students were frequent questioners, and held differing political philosophies, and there would be arguments and debates that he would moderate and steer. In those months he felt his mind was as sharp as it had ever been. Between the reading, thinking, and imaginary lecturing, he arrived at insights and ideas that had never before occurred to him.

This would occupy Daugherty until lunch, which tended to be American-style food that he assumed had been seized after thousands of American advisory troops had left Iran in the previous years. Some of it had been sitting around for too long. There was plenty of it, but much of it was unappetizing and he had begun to lose weight. He spent some time each afternoon picking the worms out of his powdered milk. He would repeat his morning routines after lunch, which kept him occupied until dinner. He considered how he might handle this crisis if he were president of the United States, drawing on his familiarity with military assets—what U.S. forces could and could not do. It galled him that he and the others were still in captivity as the weeks and months droned by. How could the American government let so many of its emissaries be abducted by these kids? How could Carter have allowed the shah in? And then he’d think of the anti-American graffiti he’d seen on the walls and the insults and he’d work up a slow boil over it. He thought the way to go would be to coerce Iran into backing down. As president, he would summon the Iranian military attaché, bring him into the Oval Office, and say, “General, in five hours I am going to launch all the B-52s and it’s going to take them fourteen hours to fly to Iranian airspace. So that’s nineteen hours. If within those nineteen hours our Americans, all of them, are not out of your country in good health, then the B-52s are going to destroy Qom, Isfahan, and Mashhad, or the oil refineries.”

Then as president he would turn to his chief of staff and the chairman of the joint chiefs and order them to take the Iranian attaché to the tank in the Pentagon and let him monitor the B-52s’ flight so that he could see them taking off and moving out over the ocean. Daugherty imagined the Iranian general watching the bombers reach Europe and then close in on Iranian airspace. He would know that it was not a bluff. Sometimes in Daugherty’s mind the general would rush to a phone and convey the importance of immediately releasing the hostages, and other times he would have him sit and watch as the B-52s dropped their devastating loads on the country’s cities. Daugherty would play through the scenarios in his mind. The one thing he considered too far-fetched for serious consideration was a rescue attempt. He had heard, of course, about the Israeli raid at Entebbe, and figured if commandos stormed the building he would sit with his hands in the air. But Iran was a landlocked country, and the distance from Tehran to any nonhostile border was probably four hundred to five hundred miles. He knew there were no helicopters for a mission like that. Even if they had such choppers, in-flight refueling over enemy territory was generally considered too risky. Rescue was, he thought, practically impossible.

Sometimes in the afternoons he would nap. On the days when they let him take a shower he would step into the water fully clothed, soap up his shirt and pants, peel them off, wring them out, do the same with his underwear, and then wash himself. He had the yellow Brooks Brothers shirt he had been wearing on the day of the takeover and a pair of brown polyester pants, and the guards had brought him jeans, a sweatshirt, and several changes of underwear from his apartment. When he was finished showering he would don the dry set of clothes and carry the wet ones back to his room, where he would stretch them out to dry. After dinner he walked again. It helped tire him out enough to sleep.

Daugherty got along reasonably well with his guards. They tended to be very young men, in their teens or early twenties, and were educated far better in math and the sciences than in history or politics and had absorbed from their religious leaders strong opinions about people, places, and events about which they knew next to nothing. They had wild fantasies about the United States and the CIA. Most spoke little or no English, so even if he had wanted to converse with them he could not. There was little point anyway, he thought. Anything out of the mouth of an American was automatically suspect, and none of the guards he met showed the slightest propensity for critical thinking. Their minds traveled on fixed rails. To think for themselves or critically examine their own paths was nothing less than sinful, a temptation to stray from the One True Path. How do you converse with people like that? For a time, a guard was posted in the room with him twenty-four hours a day. Daugherty would do his best to make the poor young man’s life miserable, offending his sense of modesty by wearing only boxer shorts, breaking wind, or coughing on him. Once, suffering a cold, he went out of his way to spread infection and was pleased to hear some days later that his guard had succumbed to the virus. Mostly, he minded his own business and tried to avoid trouble.

He wasn’t always successful. The room where he spent the most time that winter was on the ground floor of the chancery’s back side; its windows faced the embassy grounds. It had ceilings that were at least fifteen feet high and the windows were accordingly very tall. The bottom of his window was about four feet from the floor. On mild days he managed to open the window a few inches to let in some fresh air. At night he would sit beneath it enjoying the slight breeze and listening to the guards outside laughing, talking, and toying incessantly with the bolts on their rifles. Occasionally someone fired a shot, but given the way they handled their weapons Daugherty assumed that most often it was an accident.

One night, as he lay beneath the window reading, a breeze from the cracked window was bothering him so he shifted the curtain in an effort to block it. From outside, it looked as though he were sneaking a peek outside, which was strictly forbidden. As he resumed reading the door to his room flung open and five or six armed guards stomped in, expecting to catch him in the act.

“What’s the problem?” he asked.

“You are looking out,” said one of the guards in his tentative English.

Daugherty looked up at the window, three feet over his head.

“I am not. I’m reading.” He laughed.

The men pulled him to his feet and approached him with handcuffs and a blindfold. He knew the drill. When a rule was broken he would be cuffed, blindfolded, and left to sit that way for hours. This time, innocent, Daugherty fought back. He pulled the lead guard over to the window and showed him how the breeze moved the curtain.

“I didn’t do this,” he shouted, trying to batter his way through the language barrier. “You just saw the wind blow the curtain.”

He decided that if he was going to be punished this time, he would earn it. He squared off to resist them and just then a gust of wind moved the curtain. The lead guard, looking disgusted, waved the others away from Daugherty and they left the room. He was so pumped up with adrenaline from that encounter that he walked back and forth for hours trying to let off steam.

Once his imaginary games got him in trouble. He was given a pencil and paper by Sheikh-ol-eslam so that he could write a letter home, and after he finished the letter he played with the pencil, sketching out plans on large sheets of paper for an imaginary airport, the terminal, runways, the concourses, the tower, parking lots, garages, the firehouse, and maintenance hangars for three or four airlines. It was something to occupy his mind, and when he was finished he balled the papers up and later threw them in the trash can in the bathroom.

He didn’t think about them again until a suspicious and angry delegation of guards showed up in his room. They accused him of drawing some kind of coded diagram. It took a moment for him to figure out what they were talking about, and when it occurred to him Daugherty laughed.

“Let’s look at this logically,” he said. “First of all, if I’m going to leave messages for the other guys, I’m not going to do it on paper this size and sort of halfway wad it up and stick it in a trash can in a bathroom that you guys use. Do you think I’m an idiot?”

The looks on their faces told him yes, because in their eyes this is precisely what he had done. He realized that part of the problem was that these young Iranians had never traveled, so they were not familiar with airports. His drawings made no sense to their eyes. Daugherty explained and answered their questions until they were satisfied. They gathered up the drawings and left the room. He heard no more about it.

When he was staying in this first-floor chancery room, Daugherty was visited by a representative of the Red Cross, a slender, clean-cut young man about his age, either Swiss or French, who seemed angry when he entered the room. Daugherty was surprised. Having been trained to expect the conditions American POWs experienced in North Vietnam, he had no severe complaints about his own treatment, but this Red Cross man was appalled. He asked how long Daugherty had been isolated.

“Since the first days of the takeover.”

The man sat on the floor and took notes.

“Have you been abused physically?”

“Yes.”

The man’s disgust was evident, and the two or three guards listening to the interview frowned heavily. The students were keen to be seen as benevolent and this was clearly off message. But they didn’t interfere with the interview. The Red Cross man thanked Daugherty before he left and expressed his anger over what he had heard.

Daugherty worried how his comments might affect people in the United States. He was worried they might conclude conditions in the embassy were worse than they really were, which would be hard on them. He wondered if he had done the right thing.

In mid-February, he was moved to the chancery basement. The room looked like it had once been part of a larger space, now halved by a flimsy-looking wall of acoustic tiles fitted to a wooden frame. The wall ran straight into a large air vent, about two feet by two feet, and he discovered that by standing with his ear to that corner he could hear what was going on in the next room. To his delight, he heard the voice of Colonel Tom Schaefer, the defense attaché, and soon the two men were whispering to each other, the first contact either man had had with another American in months.

“When are we getting out of here?” Daugherty asked.

“Let’s make it interesting,” said Schaefer, who proposed a twenty-five-dollar prize for whoever picked a date that came closest to their release. They jotted their predictions on pieces of paper and then passed the notes to each other through the vents. Daugherty picked the seventeenth of April. Schaefer picked the fifteenth of November. Already the air force colonel believed there was no hope for their release until after the American presidential election.

They had to be careful. Daugherty was convinced the guards outside his room were listening, hoping to catch the two violating the rules.

Every time Daugherty moved into a new space, the moment he was left alone he conducted a thorough search. In his new room he found an inch-long stub of pencil and a small piece of broken glass, about twice the size of a fingernail, with one very sharp edge. He put the glass shard to work on a corner of the tile wall behind his sleeping pallet and soon pried a tile loose. He poked around inside the wall and cut loose the tile to Schaefer’s room.

“Check the loose tile in the corner,” he whispered to Schaefer the next time they had a chance to speak.

After that, they limited talking directly to each other to urgent questions and left messages inside the wall. Daugherty used blank pages he tore from the backs of his books. In this way they carried on a running dialogue. Daugherty tended to stay up late into the night and sleep long into the day. After his evening meal and his long “walk,” he got in the habit of sitting with his back against the wall with his legs drawn up to support a book. If anyone peeked in, it looked like he was reading. He would then write notes to Schaefer. When the lights went out, he pried loose the tile beside his pallet and slipped the note into the empty space between the walls. He would retrieve a return message from Schaefer when he woke up—the colonel was an early riser.

Neither man had much news to share, but the ability to communicate greatly buoyed their spirits. Daugherty wrote to Schaefer that when he was in Vietnam he noticed that military officers who became prisoners of war continued to receive promotions. “By the time we get out, maybe you’ll be a general,” he wrote. He made another wager, this one for twenty dollars, that they would be released before Easter, which the colonel accepted…and won. Daugherty asked where they would be taken when they were released, and Schaefer speculated that they would be flown to Wiesbaden, Germany. It was a nice thing to think about.

Sheikh-ol-eslam entered Daugherty’s room one night wearing the same open-collared shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers he had worn throughout the interrogations. He announced that a video crew was coming in to take pictures and interview him. When he left, Daugherty whispered into the vent, “Did you hear that?”

“No,” said Schaefer.

“They’re going to videotape me for something.”

“There’s only one answer you give,” said Schaefer.

“What.”

“No comment.”

When Sheikh-ol-eslam came back with the crew, lugging a big video camera, Daugherty noticed that they had placed and videotaped a hand-lettered sign on the outside of his door that read, “CIA Person.” There were ten other Iranians who had come to either assist or watch—ever since Daugherty’s admitted spy status, he had become an object of intense curiosity. Daugherty stayed on his sleeping pallet as they readied the equipment.

At last, Sheikh-ol-eslam asked, “How long have you been with the CIA?”

“No comment,” Daugherty said.

“Were you a spy here?”

“No comment.”

Sheikh-ol-eslam grew increasingly angry as each of his next ten questions met with the same response. He then turned to the camera and spoke at some length in agitated Farsi. Then he and the whole crew picked up the camera and left, slamming the door behind them.

He was in that same room, listening at the air vent, when Schaefer was questioned by Ebtekar. Schaefer had dubbed her “Miss Philadelphia.” He endured repeated lectures from her about America’s centuries of barbarity and exploitation, the genocide of native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the slaughter of Vietnamese. Daugherty was listening in one night while Ebtekar lectured Schaefer about the inhuman, racist decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The Japanese started the war, and we ended it,” Schaefer said.

“What do you mean, the Japanese started the war?” Ebtekar asked.

“The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, so we bombed Hiroshima.”

“Pearl Harbor? Where’s Pearl Harbor?”

“Hawaii.”

Daugherty heard a moment of silence. Then Ebtekar asked, “The Japanese bombed Hawaii?”

“Yep,” said Schaefer. “They started it, and we ended it.”

Thus ended the interview.

2. We Know What Route That Bus Takes

CIA officers Ahern, Daugherty, and Kalp were not the only ones still being questioned repeatedly months after the takeover. Most of the higher-ranking members of the mission were hauled back for repeated interrogation.

John Limbert was awakened in the middle of the night, blindfolded, and marched from the Mushroom Inn through the cold to the chancery. This time he was taken to a room in the basement, where he was placed in a chair. The blindfold was tied sloppily so out of the bottom he could see a man in a black ski mask and Sheikh-ol-eslam’s reflection clearly in the glass. There were other Iranians in the room whom Limbert could not see but could hear. Their pens scratched furiously across paper whenever he spoke. Again, it seemed to Limbert that his captors had read a book about interrogation and had set the stage for this session carefully, trying to intimidate him, but their technique fell short. It was inauthentic. He did not consider himself to be a brave person, and he could readily imagine atmospherics alone that might terrify him, but this didn’t. He, too, had some experience with the literature of captivity and interrogation, and he knew from his reading of Solzhenitsyn that the right way to survive was to play dumb.

Sheikh-ol-eslam started with the same questions Limbert had answered weeks before.

“Who have you met with?” and “What did you discuss?”

The embassy political officer gave the same answers. He wondered why they didn’t just go through his Rolodex and ask him about each person listed, which would have made more sense. This way, asking him to remember names, gave him a chance to protect certain people. By marriage, he had extended family in Iran, but he never mentioned their names, although they were all listed in the Rolodex. When they asked him for an address, including his own, he made one up, knowing full well that the correct addresses were available to them. It all seemed ridiculously inept and he couldn’t take it seriously.

“Tell me about your agents in Kurdistan,” Sheikh-ol-eslam demanded.

Limbert smiled involuntarily.

“I can see you smiling at that,” Sheikh-ol-eslam said.

Limbert couldn’t help himself. It was like living in Wonderland. Limbert understood the reasoning behind the question about his “agents” in Kurdistan. There had been steady fighting in the northwestern part of Iran with Kurdish rebels. So of course Limbert, a high-ranking devil in the den of spies, would have “agents” there. When he smiled at the question, that became further evidence of its truth. It was groupthink, and it was unassailable.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

“How do you communicate with your agents in Kurdistan?” Sheikh-ol-eslam asked.

“I don’t.”

“We know you communicate by radio.”

“I don’t know anything about radios.”

“Then how do you communicate?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

He asked Limbert when he had last seen one of the prominent Kurdish leaders, and the embassy political officer said he had never met the man.

“Look, I don’t know anything about Kurdistan,” Limbert told Sheikh-ol-eslam.

Sheikh-ol-eslam lectured Limbert in Farsi. They knew he had friends in Kurdistan and that he had visited there. These things were true and Limbert admitted them. But he had not been to Kurdistan in seven years, and certainly not since he had come to work at the embassy, and his friends had nothing to do with the disturbances there. But just the admission that he had friends there seemed the only part of what he said that Sheikh-ol-eslam heard. He had caught Limbert in a lie. If he had something to hide, he must be guilty.

“It’s just not true,” Limbert said.

“You know what we do with spies,” Sheikh-ol-eslam said. “We can shoot spies.”

“You can do anything you want to me.”

The fear of being executed that had gripped him during the first two days had receded. It was there, but it had become background noise, a constant. Sheikh-ol-eslam’s reminder was unnecessary and didn’t alarm Limbert at all. If he felt anything, it was curiosity. He was so bored during the day that a session like this was a welcome break. The whole situation grew more and more irritating. What ate at him was not simply being held captive, his lack of freedom, his inability to see or communicate with his family, or even the uncertainty. All these things were, of course, deeply troubling, but on another level Limbert felt professionally disappointed—in himself and in his colleagues.

How could they all have been so blind? Just weeks before this had all begun, Limbert had shepherded around Henry Precht, director of Iranian Affairs for the State Department, on his last visit. They had gone to see Ayatollah Montazari, the leader of Friday prayers, and the ayatollah had asked who else they were planning to see. Precht named some of the people on his itinerary, all of them old-line nationalists, and Montazari had suggested that he add to his calendar the weekly prayer meeting at the University of Tehran. Limbert later warned that they would be wading into an unfriendly ocean of Muslims, but Precht liked the idea. So they went, accompanied by a representative of the Foreign Ministry, parking several blocks away from the university and walking in with the crowds. Limbert was content with a spot well outside the large tentlike enclosure where the prayer meeting was held, where they could see and hear at a relatively safe distance, but the Foreign Ministry man insisted they go all the way in. “My job is to get you two into the Friday prayers,” he had said. They had some trouble getting past the armed guards at the front gate but were eventually let in after their minder somehow convinced the young guards that they were distinguished guests from the nation of Senegal! Never mind their white faces. Their escort warned them to avoid speaking English inside. When the meeting got revved up, the crowd began chanting slogans. Someone would step up to the microphone, scream something into it, and then everyone else would repeat it. Limbert and Precht felt compelled to shout along, so they found themselves chanting in Farsi the usual condemnations, including one that went, “Death to the Three Spreaders of Corruption, Sadat, Carter, and Begin!”

“Didn’t that last one say something about Carter?” Precht whispered.

“Henry, just chant and don’t ask questions,” Limbert told him.

Their ministry escort was throwing himself into the work, red-faced with effort, rhetorically raining down the wrath of Allah on America and Israel and all their works, and when they were done he turned to them, the two official representatives of the Great Satan, and asked sweetly, “Would you care to join me for lunch?”

Moments like that had lulled Limbert, had lulled them all, into thinking that the hatred and malevolence was just rhetoric, that polite officialdom was somehow going to continue to control this whirlwind.

When he learned that the provisional government had resigned, Limbert had a better sense of the power shift taking place. Here he was, at the center of an international storm, someone who had trained his whole life to study and report on circumstances like these, arguably one of the Americans best suited for doing so, and he was utterly powerless to do a thing. He could question no one and write no reports. So in an interrogation session like this he at least had a chance to converse and to get some insight into what these captors of his were thinking, and what they were trying to accomplish.

Already he discerned an important shift in emphasis from the first few days of the takeover. At first many of those who took part did so as a kind of lark, a demonstration of youthful idealism, naiveté, and defiance. Their goals had seemed primarily rhetorical, to protest U.S. policies and to demand the return of the shah—a demand no one really expected America to honor. Those orchestrating it were acting out an arrogant youthful fantasy, nothing more. Now, listening to Sheikh-ol-eslam’s detailed questions, he saw something new. The emphasis was now local, not global. They wanted information about Iranian officials that they could use against their political enemies. In the present atmosphere in Tehran, anyone could be smeared with suspicion of treason if it could be shown they had met with American “spies.” Careers could be derailed, enemies brought down. Whoever was running this thing now had a very practical agenda, one that was local and ruthless.

In this context, Limbert also saw the logic in putting him and at least some of the others on trial. If they were going to make the charges against local officials stick, it would help to spell out conclusively the plots emanating from the den of spies. He knew he was not a spy, but he also knew he had to be very careful about what he said. He saw how wording in the documents was being twisted to support all kinds of things. Anything he said could get him shot or hung.

Sheikh-ol-eslam pressed him again to name those he had met with. He was fishing. When Limbert mentioned a name, one of hundreds, Sheikh-ol-eslam quickly asked, “Why did you meet with this person?”

“It was my job,” said Limbert. He explained that his role at the embassy was to seek out Iranians, and listen and learn. “That’s what a diplomat does.”

Sheikh-ol-eslam mentioned that a train had been bombed recently in southern Iran.

“We think that the CIA did that, and you know who the people are who did it.”

“Think what you want.”

From time to time Sheikh-ol-eslam would leave the room and Limbert would sit blindfolded for ten or fifteen minutes. Then he would return with a new question. At the end, Sheikh-ol-eslam simply said, “That’s it.”

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Roeder, a pilot, was questioned—with Ebtekar translating—about the embassy’s C-12. In the embassy files, they had evidently come upon a memo describing the first meeting Roeder had attended in Iran, one with the revolution’s air force officials. During that encounter, Roeder had asked for permission to bring back the embassy’s C-12, a small, two-prop aircraft that was used to ferry embassy officials to meetings around the country. It had been flown to Athens at the time of the shah’s departure, and it had not been allowed back into Iran. Roeder had a personal interest in getting the plane back; it was his best chance of being able to fly regularly.

What he did not know was that there had been an international scandal recently in South Africa when the government there discovered that the U.S. embassy had been using its C-12 to take surveillance photographs around the country. To the Iranian students, Roeder’s efforts to get the plane back proved he was a spy. Ebtekar explained the South African incident triumphantly.

“Did you have that same camera system on the C-12 you were using here?” he was asked.

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said. He was lying. In fact, he knew well that C-12s were used for surveillance purposes at U.S. embassies around the world. He had used one himself when he was based in Panama.

“What kind of system is it?” he was asked.

Roeder just stared ahead, silent.

The interrogator stormed from the room and another entered, a small man in a silk jacket. He was well groomed and looked studious. He spoke calmly. He warned Roeder that the first interrogator was a violent man and that he was very angry.

“I’m really worried about what he might do to you,” he said. He told Roeder that they wanted him to sign a statement admitting that the United States had used the C-12 to spy on Iran. Roeder knocked the paper and pen to the floor.

Ski Mask came back and began raging at him. Roeder was taken from the room and led to the building’s cargo elevator shaft. It was freezing. Way up at