Read an Excerpt
Also by Antonio J. Mendez
The Master of Disguise
Also by Matt Baglio
The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist
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First published in 2012 by Viking Penguin,
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Copyright © Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio, 2012
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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the authors’ views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mendez, Antonio J.
Argo : how the CIA and Hollywood pulled off the most audacious rescue in history / Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio.
1. Iran Hostage Crisis, 1979–1981. 2. United States. Central Intelligence Agency. 3. Canada—Foreign relations—Iran. 4 Iran—Foreign relations—Canada. 5. Mendez, Antonio J. 6. Diplomats—United States—History—20th century. I. Baglio, Matt. II. Title.
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Set in ITC Galliard Std
Designed by Alissa Amell
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Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Late that Saturday afternoon I was painting in my studio. Outside, the sun was just beginning to fall behind the hills, casting a long dark shadow that covered the valley like a curtain. I liked the half-light in the room.
“Come Rain or Come Shine” poured from the radio. I often listened to music while I worked. It was almost as important to me as the light. I had installed a fine stereo system and if I painted late enough into Saturday night, I could catch Rob Bamberger’s Hot Jazz Saturday Night on NPR.
I had been painting since my early childhood, and was working as an artist when the CIA hired me in 1965. I still considered myself to be a painter first and a spy second. Painting had always been an outlet for the tensions that came with my job at the Agency. While there were occasional bureaucrats whose antics brought me to the point of wanting to throttle them, if I could get into my studio and pick up a brush then those pent–up hostilities would melt away.
My studio sat perched above the garage, up a steeply angled set of stairs. It was a large room with windows on three sides. The room had diagonal yellow pine floors covered with a variety of oriental carpets and was furnished with a huge white sofa and some antique pieces that my wife, Karen, had acquired for her interior design business. It was a comfortable space and, most important, it was mine. You needed permission, which I gave pretty freely, to enter. Friends and family knew, however, that when I was in the middle of a project, they should tread lightly.
I had built the studio as I had built the house. Upon returning from a posting overseas in 1974, Karen and I had decided it would be best to raise our three kids away from the grit and crime of Washington, D.C. We’d chosen a forty-acre plot of land in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and after clearing a section of woods, I’d spent the better part of three summers constructing the main house while the family and I lived in a log cabin I had also built. The land had a long history. Antietam Battlefield was just up the road and every now and then we would find Civil War relics—buttons, bullets, breastplates—discarded among the leaves and fallen trees bordering our property.
The painting I was working on that afternoon had been triggered by a phrase associated with my job: “Wolf Rain.” It had the haunted sound of blue, dreary, dank weather, and spoke to the depths of the wooded landscape, just outside my window, on a winter’s night. It conveyed a kind of sorrow that I couldn’t explain, but felt that I could paint.
Working on “Wolf Rain” was one of those things you hope happens in your career as an artist—the painting just emerges from nowhere. Perhaps like a character who shoulders his way into a book to take over the narrative. The figure of the wolf was recognizable only by the eyes—it was a floating image in a rain-soaked forest, and you could sense the anguish in its gaze.
If my painting was going well, my brain would instantly go into “alpha” mode, the subjective, creative right-brain state where the breakthroughs happen. Einstein said that the definition of genius is not that you are smarter than everyone else, it’s that you’re ready to receive the inspiration. That was the definition of “alpha” for me. I would start the painting session by ridding myself of all the assholes at work and then leap to moments of clarity where I would find solutions to problems that I had never considered before. I would be ready to receive.
It was December 19, 1979, and there was much on my mind. Earlier in the week I had been given a memorandum from the U.S. State Department that contained some startling news. Six American diplomats had escaped from the militant-overrun U.S. embassy in Tehran and were hiding out at the residences of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his senior immigration officer, John Sheardown. The six appeared to be safe for the moment, but there was no guarantee they would remain so; in the wake of the embassy takeover, militants were combing the city looking for any American they could find. The six Americans had been in hiding for almost two months. How much longer could they hold out?
The news of their escape had come as a bit of a surprise to me. I had spent the previous month down at the CIA engrossed in the wider problem. On November 4, a group of Iranian militants had stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taken more than sixty-six Americans hostage. The militants accused the Americans of “spying” and trying to undermine the country’s nascent Islamic Revolution, all of this while the Iranian government, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, lent its support.
At the time of the takeover, I was working as the chief of the CIA’s worldwide disguise operations in the Office of Technical Services (OTS). Over the course of my then fourteen-year career, I had conducted numerous clandestine operations in far-flung places, disguised agents and case officers, and helped to rescue defectors and refugees from behind the Iron Curtain.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, my team and I had been working on preparing the disguises, false documents, and cover stories for the various aliases that any advance team would need in order to infiltrate Iran. Then, in the midst of these preparations, the memo from the State Department arrived.
As I applied a dark glaze across the underpainting of the canvas, it immediately transformed the mood of the work. The piercing eyes of the wolf suddenly came alive like two golden orbs. I stared, transfixed. The image had triggered something. The State Department appeared to be taking a wait-and-see approach with the six Americans, which I found to be problematic. I had recently been to Iran on a covert operation and I knew the dangers firsthand. At any moment they could be discovered. The city was full of eyes, watching, searching. If the six Americans had to run, where would they go? The crowds of thousands of people chanting outside the American embassy in Tehran each day gave no doubt that, if captured, the six would almost certainly be thrown in jail and perhaps even lined up in front of a firing squad. I had always told my team that there are two kinds of exfiltrations: those with hostile pursuit and those without. We couldn’t afford to wait until the six Americans were on the run. It would be almost impossible to get them out then.
My son Ian walked into the studio. “What’s up?” he asked. He walked over to the painting and scrutinized it as only the seventeen-year-old son of the artist could. “Nice, Dad,” he pronounced, stepping back to get a better perspective. “But it needs more blue.” He’d barely noticed the eyes of the wolf.
“Get your butt out of here, Ian. I’ll be in for dinner in about thirty minutes. Tell your mom, will you?”
On the radio Ella broke into a rendition of “Just One of Those Things,” an early version, and I began to clean my brushes in the turpentine and put the caps back on the oil paints. My palette, which had built up over the years, resembled a bunch of brightly colored stalagmites sitting on an oval board with a thumbhole through it. At this point it was too heavy to pick up, but it contained fragments of every painting done in my studio.
As I put away my brushes, the initial stages of a plan began to emerge. Not only would we need to create new identities as well as disguises for the six Americans, but someone would have to infiltrate Iran, link up with them, and assess their ability to carry it off.
A million questions began running through my mind. How was I going to convince six innocent American diplomats who had no covert training that they could successfully escape from Iran? How was I going to create a cover story that would account for the presence of this group in a country caught up in the throes of a revolution? Despite having done dozens of “exfiltrations,” I could see that this was going to be one of my most challenging missions to date.
I turned off the radio and the lights and stood for a moment in the darkness, looking out the window and through the night to the glow of the chandelier in the greenhouse. Espionage is an instrument of statecraft, I mused. If conducted properly and professionally, there are international rules of engagement. In the case of the revolutionary government of Iran, however, the only rule was that there weren’t any.
WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION
The call went out over the radio network a little after ten o’clock in the morning: “Recall! Recall! All marines to Post One!” The voice was that of Al Golacinski, the chief security officer of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The date was November 4, 1979, and a large crowd of “militant students” had just broken through the front gates and was pouring into the compound.
The embassy was massive. It took up nearly twenty-seven acres and was surrounded by a high brick wall. Inside, there were dozens of buildings and warehouses, the ambassador’s residence, an athletic field, tennis courts, even a swimming pool. In addition, the compound was located right in the heart of downtown Tehran, and was bordered on all sides by some of the city’s most heavily trafficked streets. When you added it all up, it meant that the embassy was a security nightmare. Nearly a dozen U.S. Marines were stationed at the compound, but their job was mainly to provide internal protection.
For this reason, the security plan hatched by Golacinski called for all personnel to head toward the chancery, a large three-story building that had been fortified with window grills, blast shields, and time-coded locks. The second floor could be sealed off by a thick steel door, which would theoretically allow the Americans to hold out for several hours. Every embassy in the world is dependent on the host government to provide external security, and it was hoped that these precautions would give the Iranian government enough time to organize a response and send help.
The embassy had been attacked once before, nine months previously, on February 14, 1979, just one month after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, had fled the country. During that attack, a group of Marxist guerrillas had stormed the embassy in a hail of gunfire and held the staffers hostage for four hours.
At the time, Iran was a chaotic mess. The Ayatollah Khomeini had returned triumphantly from exile in Paris and the shah’s government had quickly collapsed. The army soon followed suit and in the vacuum the diverse factions who had banded together to oust the shah (leftists, nationalists, Soviet-sponsored communists, hard-line Islamicists) had splintered and were now fighting it out among each other. Armed men roamed the streets and revenge killings were rampant. Small gangs called komiteh (committees) sprang up across the country, carving out territories of control. Beholden to no one except whatever mullah they claimed allegiance to, these gangs amounted to little more than thugs, and began enforcing their own brand of revolutionary justice at the barrel of a gun. Amid this confusion, Khomeini and his inner circle had installed a provisional government to manage the country while the Assembly of Experts worked diligently behind the scenes to draft a new constitution.
It wasn’t long before the provisional government had sent a ragtag group of men to kick the occupiers out, but the Valentine’s Day takeover would have important repercussions for the events to follow. For one, the U.S. embassy staff was drastically reduced (at full strength the embassy employed nearly a thousand people). Second, and perhaps even more important, it gave the impression that the Iranian government would honor its commitment to protect the embassy and the diplomats working inside.
After the Marxist guerrillas were evicted, the protection of the embassy was assigned to a group of komiteh, who took over one of the small buildings near the front of the compound and patrolled the grounds. It wasn’t until the summer that a more permanent security force was assigned to guard the embassy, but even by the most optimistic of assessments it was only token.
In light of the danger exposed by this first attack, one might ask why the embassy wasn’t simply closed down. For starters, Iran was just too important to the strategic interests of the United States. Not only did the country hold vast oil reserves, but for more than twenty-five years it had served as a staunch ally and buffer against the Soviet Union, which shared a sixteen-hundred-mile border with Iran. It was no secret that the Soviets desired a warm-water port and wished to increase their influence in the Persian Gulf. So rather than sever ties, the Carter administration began cautiously working with the provisional government and the U.S. embassy in Iran remained open for business.
It may seem odd today to think that Iran and the United States were once allies, but everything must be understood in terms of the Great Game waged between the Soviet Union and America.
In earlier times, the United States seemed content to observe Iran from the sidelines. Then known as Persia (it wouldn’t be named Iran until 1935), the country was like the knot in the center of a tug–of–war match between Russia and Great Britain—a role that Iran managed with great skill, playing one nation off the other. Then World War II happened and the geopolitics of the region were upended. Suddenly Moscow and London were allies, and in their quest to protect oil and overland shipping routes into Russia, they decided to jointly occupy the country. Worried that the Iranian monarch, Reza Shah, was leaning toward an alliance with Nazi Germany, the two nations had him deposed and installed his twenty-one-year-old son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to the throne.
After the war, the United States invested heavily in Iran, both economically and militarily. Stalin had only reluctantly withdrawn his troops from northern Iran in 1946, and the thinking in Washington was that he would use the slightest pretext to invade again. Just as concerning was the potential for the Soviets to undermine the shah’s government through clandestine means. Iran’s communist Tudeh Party was growing in power and openly supported the aims of Moscow.
As a result, it was with trepidation that America watched in 1951 as the shah’s power was slowly stripped away by an Iranian lawyer named Mohammed Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq had risen to prominence on the back of a campaign to nationalize the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a popular move among Iranians who had long felt exploited by the British. Caught up in a wave of nationalism, Mosaddeq became a hero and was eventually nominated prime minister.
As one would expect, in response to the Iranians’ attempt to nationalize the AIOC, the British soon instigated what amounted to a boycott of Iranian oil, which sent the local economy into a tailspin. In the ensuing turmoil, the coalition that had supported Mosaddeq began to splinter.
Nobody in Washington believed that Mosaddeq was a communist, but concern began to mount when he aligned himself with the Tudeh Party. The final straw for the Eisenhower administration came when intelligence uncovered that the Soviets were about to give Mosaddeq twenty million dollars in aid.
In light of these threats, the White House ordered CIA director Allen Dulles to work with the British to overthrow Mosaddeq.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that the Eisenhower administration overreacted. However, in the heat of the Cold War, America’s leaders saw a very different world than the one that exists today. In it, the Soviets were on the march everywhere, installing puppet regimes in Eastern Europe and supporting uprisings in Italy, France, and Greece. It’s also important to remember that the United States was involved in a bloody war at the time in Korea, which Eisenhower had inherited from Truman. Iran could just as easily become another front.
In the spring of 1953, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, chief of the Near East Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans, was granted one million dollars and tasked with carrying out the operation to overthrow Mosaddeq, known as TPAJAX, or Operation AJAX.
The plan called for the use of propaganda and political action to undermine Mosaddeq’s support, but, as usual, things didn’t go according to plan. Mosaddeq had been warned of the countercoup and had some of the plotters arrested even before the operation could get under way. However, with the help of massive public demonstrations, many of them organized by Roosevelt, Mosaddeq was forced to resign and the shah was swept to power.
In terms of its Cold War strategy of containment, Washington considered the operation to be a massive foreign policy success, and Kermit Roosevelt was heralded as a hero. Upon meeting him, the shah famously said, “I owe my throne to God, my people, the army—and you!”
In the wake of the operation the shah quickly worked out an agreement with the oil giant AIOC, and Iran became a stable, pro-Western ally, providing the United States with a steady flow of oil as well as a series of listening posts along the Soviet-Iran border that allowed it to eavesdrop on Russian intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
Regardless of these strategic advantages, however, there is no denying that the 1953 countercoup had major consequences for the long-term relations between the United States and Iran.
Many opponents of Operation AJAX blamed the United States for acting selfishly to protect its own interests, to the detriment of Iran and its people. Ironically, as the historical record shows, the countercoup would not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the support of a sizable faction of Iranians who’d also had much to gain by securing the shah’s power. However, the popular myth in 1979 among Iranians, ever distrustful of foreign intervention, was that the CIA had single-handedly ousted a democratic leader while imposing a tyrant in his place. While not entirely accurate, it painted a picture that many Iranians were eager to believe.
After returning to power, the shah aligned himself with the West and immediately set about trying to legitimize his reign. He ushered in a series of Westernized reforms and spent lavishly to create a well-trained and modern military. Both efforts would put him at odds with his people, who would later claim he had destroyed their traditional way of life and at the same time squandered the nation’s wealth in an attempt to appease Washington.
Over time he grew more and more autocratic, tamping down any form of dissent with the help of his brutal secret police known by the acronym SAVAK.
As tended to happen during the Great Game, however, successive American administrations decided to take the good with the bad and outwardly supported the shah, even while privately encouraging him to cut the systemic corruption of his regime and curb the abuses of SAVAK.
The shah seemed neither willing nor capable to do either.
With most avenues for political dissent gone, the masses had turned to the mullahs for support, and the clergy used their newfound power to denounce the shah as a tool of the West. The most outspoken of these critics was a cleric by the name of Ruhollah Khomeini. Born in 1902, Khomeini had made a name for himself among the religious community of Iran by authoring numerous tracts against Iran’s secular leadership, including the shah’s father, Reza. Then in 1961, he would take on the shah directly, decrying the shah’s pro-Western policies—specifically those enfranchising women and non-Muslims—as being antithetical to the true spirit of Islam. However, unknown even to his own followers, who believed he would support a moderate Islamic democracy once the shah had abdicated, Khomeini’s real aim was to create a government that was strictly beholden to Islamic law and was ruled unquestionably by him.
Too powerful to arrest or kill, Khomeini was exiled by the shah to Turkey in 1964 and then eventually to Najaf, in southern Iraq. From there the cleric would prove to be a resourceful political operator. For the next fourteen years he would continue to give sermons lambasting the evils of the shah and America, which were smuggled back into Iran and sold in the bazaars as cassette tapes.
By the fall of 1978, the country was on the brink of collapse. A succession of riots and strikes had led to violent clashes between the shah’s security forces and Khomeini’s supporters. After a series of last-ditch measures—including a military government—had failed to stem the tide, the shah was finally forced to leave Iran on January 16, 1979. In his wake he left a country teetering on the edge, and it would take only ten days for the remnants of his government and the army to fall apart.
While there had been many signs that the shah’s regime was on the verge of crumbling, the suddenness with which it happened caught the White House, as well as the intelligence community, completely off guard. Even as late as August of 1978, a National Intelligence Estimate famously reported that Iran was not in a “revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” As to how we at the CIA and the White House could have been so wildly off the mark, there is no easy answer. The shah had maintained an iron grip on his country for nearly twenty-five years, and the common wisdom was that despite the unrest he would weather the storm. After the fact, it was revealed that many in Washington had assumed the shah would use any force necessary to save his regime, and they were baffled when he failed to do so. Even the U.S. ambassador to Iran at the time, Bill Sullivan, believed the shah’s government would survive; by the time he changed his tune, on November 9, 1978, there was little that could be done. Throughout the struggles of 1978, there was no clear strategy for meeting with the opposition groups, partly because of the fear that it might undermine the shah’s regime. In the end, though, perhaps the biggest reason for the intelligence failure was that the U.S. government had invested too much importance in the person of the shah and not enough in the people of Iran. So when the cracks in the regime began to appear, the policy makers in Washington refused to acknowledge them because they simply had no other alternative than to support the shah.
Ironically, the shah was said to be somewhat nervous about the election of Jimmy Carter. The shah’s main concern, it seems, had been Carter’s stated goal of making human rights a central tenet of his presidency. Sensitive to public opinion, the shah was apparently concerned that Carter might think he was a tyrant. He needn’t have worried. As late as New Year’s Eve 1978, just one week before a series of violent clashes would touch off the revolution, President Carter visited Tehran and reassured the shah of America’s firm commitment by calling Iran an “island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” While Carter may have had good reasons to support the shah, or he had no alternative given the strategic alliance created under the necessities of the Cold War, this perceived hypocrisy did not go unnoticed by the masses in Iran. The American president was now considered to be a close friend of the shah, and it wasn’t long before crowds of angry demonstrators began denouncing Carter’s name alongside that of the shah’s.
Despite the Iranians’ rhetoric, there seemed to be some common ground between the two countries. The shah, for one, had purchased vast amounts of American military equipment during the Nixon and Ford administrations, some of which still had to be delivered. In addition, Iran had several billion dollars deposited in U.S. banks, money the revolutionary government would desperately need to stay afloat. During the fall of 1979, Khomeini had yet to solidify his power, and the country was being loosely run by the relatively “moderate” government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. In June of 1979, the Iranians accepted the appointment of Bruce Laingen as the U.S. embassy’s chargé d’affaires, and it appeared the two countries were on track to normalize relations.
Fleeing Iran, the shah spent several months as an international “fugitive,” until President Carter was persuaded to admit the deposed ruler for humanitarian reasons, when it was discovered he was suffering from lymphoma and needed emergency medical treatment. Yet even as he admitted the shah, Carter knew he was taking a risk. Khomeini had been calling for the shah to return to face “crimes,” and Carter was worried about reprisals. In a breakfast meeting at the White House with his staff, he reiterated his concerns, asking them, “What course of action will you recommend to me if the Americans in Iran are seized or killed?” No one had an answer.
News of the shah’s arrival in America immediately touched off a wave of anger and paranoia among the Iranian population, which feared the United States was conspiring to reinstall him. For months, Iranian newspapers had been running fabricated stories claiming the United States was behind every setback that befell the country. Khomeini, searching for a way to strengthen his control, added fuel to the flames, calling on students to expand their attacks on America in the hopes that the United States would be pressured to return the deposed ruler. Predictably, Iranians set their sights on the most obvious target they could find: the American embassy in Tehran.
The morning of November 4, 1979, had started off just like any other, and for the Americans heading to work that day there was no reason to suspect that the embassy was in the crosshairs of a massive assault. Bruce Laingen had chaired a morning meeting of the department heads, after which he, along with Vic Tomseth and Mike Howland, had gone to Iran’s foreign ministry to discuss obtaining diplomatic immunity for American military personnel stationed in Iran.
One of the first people to see the militants enter the compound was John Graves, who was the public affairs officer. Graves had been in Iran for more than a year and had been through the Valentine’s Day attack.
The press office was located just off the motor pool near the front gate. Somebody had cut the chain looped through the gate, and a large crowd of demonstrators came surging in. Most of them were women carrying signs that read, DON’T BE AFRAID and WE ONLY WANT TO SET IN—mistakenly using the English “set” instead of “sit” in the latter. The preponderance of females in the first wave was actually by design, as the militants felt that the U.S. Marines would be hesitant to fire on the women. As Graves stood by the window he watched one of the militants approach an Iranian policeman who was supposed to be protecting the embassy, and the two men embraced. Graves wasn’t surprised.
As the militants dispersed throughout the compound, the rest of the embassy personnel were slow to react. Demonstrations and crowds shouting “Death to America” and “Down with the shah” had become an almost daily occurrence, so much so that the Americans working inside referred to them as background noise. To complicate matters, the militants had chosen to launch their attack on National Students Day, an event commemorating the death of a group of students killed by the shah’s forces during a demonstration at the University of Tehran the year before. The demonstration had drawn several million students, and the planners were able to use this larger crowd to camouflage their assault.
In a matter of minutes, the militants were able to completely cut off the chancery. Staffers and embassy personnel, now fully aware of what was going on, stood on chairs to peer out windows. Some crowded around closed-circuit monitors located down in the security room. What they saw startled them. The embassy grounds were swarming with militants who were waving signs and chanting, “We only want to set in!” Then, one by one, the closed-circuit monitors went blank as the cameras were yanked out of the walls.
Most of the embassy personnel were calm, some even annoyed. It seemed as if the students were just going to march around the embassy grounds chanting and cheering until it was time to go home. Over and over, voices rose above the din—some with the aid of megaphones—shouting, “We mean you no harm! We only want to set in!”
Unbeknownst to the Americans, this was not some overzealous protest march but a well-coordinated assault. Calling themselves Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, the students had cased the embassy for many days and had drawn up detailed maps. They’d cut strips of cloth to use as blindfolds for nearly one hundred hostages and had even stockpiled food to feed their captives.
The plan was to occupy the embassy for three days, at which point they would read a list of grievances against the shah and America. Their principal hope was that the attack would weaken the position of the moderate Bazargan government by forcing it into a tough situation. If Bazargan came to the rescue of the Americans, then Iranians would see him and other moderates in the government for what they were: puppets of the West.
Some of the militants carried makeshift weapons such as bike chains, boards, even hammers. At least a few carried pistols, contradicting later claims that the assault was completely nonviolent.
After locking down the chancery, the marines quickly donned their riot gear. They loaded pistols and shotguns and took up positions throughout the embassy. The adrenaline was pumping and some seemed eager for a fight. One lay down in one of the offices on his belly with ammunition easily within reach, sighting down the barrel of his shotgun sniper-style as he scanned the window.
Meanwhile Laingen, Tomseth, and Howland were in a car on their way back from their meeting at the foreign ministry. They had just pulled out into traffic when Al Golacinski called on the radio and told them to turn around. “There’s hundreds of people swarming all over the embassy grounds,” he said. The three realized that even if they reached the embassy, they probably wouldn’t be able to make it inside. They quickly decided that the best course of action would be to head back to the foreign ministry and try to organize help from there.
The last thing Laingen told Golacinski before signing off was to make sure that the marines didn’t open fire. If even one of the marines fired, then they would likely have a bloodbath on their hands.
“What about tear gas?” Golacinski asked him.
“Only as a last resort,” Laingen responded.
By this time, the staffers on the second floor of the chancery began to realize that the attack was more serious than they had at first thought. Some of the marines and other Americans, including John Graves, who’d been working in the outer buildings, had already been captured, and the Americans in the chancery watched from the second-floor windows as their colleagues were blindfolded, had their hands tied, and were marched toward the ambassador’s residence near the back of the compound.
Don Hohman, an army medic who was at the Bijon apartments across the street from the back gate, radioed Golacinski to tell him that a group of Iranians had broken in over there as well. Up on the fourth floor, he could hear them kicking down doors and searching the apartments below. Golacinski realized there was little he could do; he told Hohman he was on his own. (Hohman would later be captured as he tried to scale down the outside of the building.)
At the moment, Golacinski had bigger problems than Hohman; word had reached him on the radio that the chancery had just been breached. Despite the fact that several million dollars had recently been spent to fortify the building, the militants had found the structure’s one weak spot: a basement window that had been left unbarred as a fire escape. In fact, the intruders seemed to know beforehand exactly where it was.
With the militants inside the chancery’s basement, Golacinski ordered everyone, including the Iranian staffers waiting on the first floor, up to the second floor. (The second floor was normally considered off-limits to the local employees.) In a fit of bravery or stupidity, depending on how you look at it, Golacinski then asked Laingen over the radio if he could go outside to “reason” with the crowd, which now numbered well over a thousand. Laingen told him he could do so only if he could guarantee his own safety, which he could not. Golacinski went anyway, and he was soon captured and marched back to the chancery at gunpoint.
On the second floor of the chancery, marines and staffers began piling up furniture behind the steel door. The central hallway was crowded now and everyone shared worried glances. Some of the Iranian employees started crying. Marines walked among everyone handing out gas masks. Other marines cocked and recocked their shotguns. The mood was tense.
Elsewhere in the building, a small group of Americans was busy destroying documents and dismantling sensitive communications equipment so it couldn’t fall into the hands of the militants. The order to do so had been slow in coming from Laingen, since it was hoped that the demonstration would end without incident. A few of the more enterprising staff members had already begun destroying documents inside the embassy’s ultrasecure communications room, referred to as the “vault” because it could be sealed off by a large steel safelike door. Besides housing the communications equipment, the vault, which was about twelve feet by twelve feet, also contained a barrel-like device used to pulverize documents. However, the machine often jammed, so somebody had brought in a commercial shredder that cut papers into long strips. But the going was slow, and rather than destroying the documents completely, it left a pile of strips on the floor.
The situation was deteriorating fast. The militants led Al Golacinski into the basement of the chancery and then marched him up to the second floor, where the Americans had barricaded themselves behind the reinforced door. The stairwell was filling with tear gas and his eyes stung. Someone waved a burning magazine in front of his face and he recoiled in fear. “Don’t burn me!” he shouted. Then the barrel of a gun was shoved to the back of his head and he was given an ultimatum: tell them to open this door or you die.
Golacinski shouted through the metal door, telling his colleagues that there was no point resisting. He said the militants had already captured eight Americans (this was his own assessment) and that they only wanted to read a statement and then leave. “This is just like February 14,” he said.
John Limbert, a political officer who spoke fluent Farsi, volunteered to go outside and see if he could persuade them to free Golacinski. At first the militants were surprised when he admonished them like children in their own language, telling them that the Revolutionary Guard was on the way to kick them out. They knew he was bluffing, and in a matter of minutes he was captured and given the same option as Golacinski: get your friends to open this door or we shoot you.
Laingen had by now realized that resisting further was hopeless. Despite their best efforts at the Iranian foreign ministry, he and Tomseth had been unable get the Iranian government to help. Using the telephone in the foreign minister’s office, he called the U.S. embassy and told Ann Swift, the embassy’s senior political officer, to surrender. Swift and two other staffers were manning a bank of phones in Bruce Laingen’s outer office. As the most senior official present at the embassy, she was doing her best to keep the lines of communication open. Early in the assault, she had called the Operations Center at the U.S. State Department and had been put through to three senior officials, including Hal Saunders, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Saunders was still on the phone with Swift an hour later when Laingen told her it was time to give up. “We’re going to let them in,” she told Saunders over the phone.
Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Saunders then relayed this information to President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who then called the president at four in the morning. Carter was “deeply disturbed but reasonably confident” that the Iranian government would quickly remove the militants, much as it had on February 14.
After surrendering, the Americans in the chancery resigned themselves to their fate. When the steel door was finally opened, the breathless mob flooded in. The staffers inside the vault would continue to hold out for another hour or so destroying documents, but in the end they too would be forced to give up.
The original security plan had called for the embassy staff to hold on for two hours until the Iranian government could send help. As it turned out, the plan had worked to perfection. The only problem, of course, was that the help never came.
News of the embassy attack reached me on Sunday morning while I was standing at the kitchen counter sipping my first cup of coffee. This was my favorite part of the weekend—when my family was still asleep and the house was quiet. I had a small transistor radio tuned to NPR and I half listened to it as I flipped through the Sunday newspaper. Outside, a light dusting of snow covered the ground and the sky was cold and gray. I was wondering how much firewood I was going to have to cut before I could get into my studio to paint. We had a large greenhouse attached to the front of the house and I was just about to step into it to watch the snow when the NPR broadcast was interrupted by news of the attack.
Events were still unfolding, but the overall picture was clear. A mob had stormed the embassy and the lives of nearly seventy American diplomats were in danger.
My mind flashed back to April 1979, the last time I had set foot inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran. As a technical officer in the CIA’s Office of Technical Services with more than fourteen years of experience at the time, I had been asked to infiltrate Iran in the midst of the revolution to help rescue a “blue striper,” or top Iranian agent, code-named RAPTOR. As the chief of the disguise branch, I was charged with coming up with a convincing disguise that would allow the agent, a former colonel in the Iranian army, to walk past the security controls at Mehrabad Airport and onto a commercial flight.
The operation was similar to countless others I’d done in Southeast Asia and other distant parts of the world, but it was far from routine. Violence had exploded all across the country and revolutionaries were hunting down former members of the shah’s regime. Time was running out for the colonel. He’d spent the winter hiding in his grandmother’s tin-roofed attic, where snow dripped down on him while a group of Revolutionary Guards rifled through the apartment below. By the time I got to him he was badly shaken.
I had used the library in the embassy as part of my research for his disguise. Then I spent the better part of a week preparing him, training him, using all the tricks I’d learned over the course of my career to get him out of the country alive.
After listening to the news for a few minutes, I tiptoed into the bedroom and quietly picked up my car keys and my Agency badge. I stopped in the kitchen to scribble a note to Karen explaining where I had gone, then picked up the phone and called the duty officer for my section. On the weekends it would be his job to monitor all the cable traffic and let me know if I needed to come in. The details of the attack were still sketchy, but cables were flooding in by the minute. All of us at the CIA were aware of the dangers that the embassy personnel were up against in a place as unpredictable as revolutionary Iran. Among the Americans were three CIA colleagues of mine who no doubt would be singled out for special treatment if the Iranians were able to identify them. I only hoped that the staffers had had enough time to destroy all the sensitive documents inside the embassy. When I finally got the duty officer on the line, he only confirmed what I had already suspected. Things were rolling down at the office. It was time to go to work.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
In 1979, the headquarters for OTS was located in Foggy Bottom, on a small hill on the District side of the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, just north of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The small collection of neoclassical limestone and brick buildings was unremarkable by most accounts. Once a part of the original Naval Observatory in the late 1800s, the buildings were eventually taken over during World War II by America’s first intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Commanded by Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS had been staffed by some of the most colorful characters in the history of espionage, including con artists, second-story men, experts in counterfeiting, magicians, even actors and Ivy League blue bloods. World War II is full of the exploits of these daring operatives. The fledgling spy service sent operatives behind German and Japanese lines and created ingenious devices such as cigarette pistols, matchbox cameras, even exploding flour. It also paved the way for the CIA. In fact, much of the structure, operational methods, and procedures that the CIA would later come to use evolved directly from the OSS.
OTS, meanwhile, sprang from the research and development branch of the OSS. Originally headed by a chemist, Stanley Lovell, the R&D branch would play an integral role in developing and pushing the capabilities of OSS operatives, while paving the way for future techs such as myself.