Wednesday, January 30, 2013


There's more to this story than was in the movie!

I succumbed to demands that I review Argo, the movie about the rescue of American diplomats who escaped capture when the Iranians seized the US Embassy in Tehran during Jimmy Carter's reign in the Oval Office.

Short review: It was an excellent movie, well done, and quite accurate in depicting personalities in the White House, State Department, and the CIA -- and in particular, the extraordinary role that CIA operative Tony Mendez played in orchestrating the clandestine exfiltration.

Lee Holland: Post-Iran
The reason for this post extends far beyond the brief review above since I was engaged with the hostage crisis as a player at the Pentagon in an Intelligence analyst role -- and I worked later for Colonel Leland Holland, one of the hostages who recounted his experiences in considerable detail.

The general public is unaware of the full scope of this event, which reaches back into the Nixon years.

As some may recall, Henry Kissinger shut down all CIA and Military clandestine and covert operations worldwide as an over-reaction to the Church Committee findings.  Kissinger persuaded President Nixon to fire Richard Helms as Director of Central Intelligence and appoint him as Ambassador to Iran in 1973, where he remained until 1977. 

The positive of that move was that Helms was an old schoolmate of the Shah and thus had excellent relations with the Shah.

The negative of that move was that Helms was an old schoolmate of the Shah and thus had excellent relations with the Shah -- resulting in a close and friendly relationship between the CIA Station Chief and the head of Savak, the dreaded Iranian intelligence agency. 

Thus, all intelligence reporting on Iran had to be cleared through Ambassador Helms, who would not countenance negative reports.  Worse, no clandestine operations were authorized outside of Tehran, so there was no intelligence reporting on the discontent of the general population with the Shah.

The situation went from bad to worse when Jimmy Carter took control of the White House.  Helms was replaced by a professional diplomat with considerable experience in unstable Third World countries, William Sullivan who recognized that the Shah was vulnerable to popular unrest.  He pushed Carter, unsuccessfully, to distance himself from the Shah and to open a dialog with the Ayatollah Khomeni -- who had become the leader of the Iranian revolution while an exile in France.

Intelligence operations continued to be neutralized when Admiral Stansfield Turner took control of the CIA, dismissing both clandestine and covert operations as immoral -- and firing 820 operators.  Thus, the US intelligence program in Iran continued under the thumb of Savak, and was unable to report on the growing strength of revolutionary Shia elements.

By the end of 1978, the revolution had gained traction and the Shah went into exile in January; in February, the Ayatollah made his triumphant return to the adoration of millions of his Iranian followers; the Shah's government crumbled and was replaced in April 1979 with the Islamic Republic.  The following November, Iranian "students" stormed the US Embassy, taking 52 US diplomats and military personnel hostages for 444 days -- perhaps the most humiliating period in US history.

The movie shows the arrogance of the Carter Administration in managing the crisis, and their total indifference toward the fate of the hostages in anything other than political terms. 

The hostages were held in individual isolation, and periodically in groups in the Embassy. 

The hostages were expendable           [Britannica]
For much of the time, they were bound, blindfolded, and beaten, and reminded daily that their torture and executions would begin shortly.  Periodically, they would be told they were to be executed that day and marched into the courtyard where a firing squad was assembled; they would then be blindfolded, and the orders of Ready, Aim, were given, with a subsequent long delay, and when the order to FIRE was given, all that would be heard were the clicks of firing pins on the empty chambers.

These episodes were punctuated when the hostages would see some of their fellows marched to the courtyard, followed by actual gunfire; and the hostages led to the courtyard would not be seen for weeks afterwards -- instilling terror in the remaining hostages as they waited their turn to be executed.

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Community had difficulty assessing the situation in Iran since Carter and Turner had ordered all intelligence products be routed directly to the White House Sit Room for analysis by a small team of analysts.  The Pentagon was excluded from all reporting even though they were being tasked for a rescue mission.

Born Again Christian

At the White House, Mr Carter was scheming in his own unique, Born Again Christian way.  He had granted the Shah asylum in the US in October 1979 so the Shah could undergo surgery.  During this period, Hamilton Jordan, Carter's Chief of Staff, set up an operations center in a Las Vegas hotel penthouse, equipped with an auxiliary White House Communications Center to negotiate the sale of the Shah to the Iranians in exchange for the US hostages.

This information would never have been revealed except for a loophole in US Intelligence reporting on Iran.  As the Latin America analyst at the Pentagon, I monitored the Western Hemisphere, to include Panama, with emphasis on its dictator, Tony Noriega, due to his ties to international narcotics and arms trafficking -- and his linkage to the Soviet KGB.  As luck would have it, we were monitoring Noriega's telephone conversations with the KGB during which he provided verbatim transcripts of encrypted conversations between Hamilton Jordan in Las Vegas and the Iranian negotiator elsewhere in the world. 

Hamilton Jordan         [Charlie Rose]
Jordan had covertly taken the penthouse suite and naively presumed he was operating incognito.  Of course, the Mafia essentially controlled Las Vegas in that period, and they monitored Jordan's activities and had his suite wired before Jordan moved in.  Noriega was tied to the Mafia as a narcotics supplier and money launderer [Noriega managed no fewer than 350 front companies throughout the world].  The Mafia kept Noriega advised of Jordan's activities, and, for a "finder's fee", Noriega sold the information to the KGB.

This was a stroke of unbelievable fortune for the KGB since now they had the recorded conversations before encryption, and AFTER encryption, enabling them to break the encryption process for not only Jordan's communications, but for ALL White House encrypted communications with the State Department, CIA, and the Pentagon -- thus compromising an extraordinary amount of sensitive, compartmented information.  Although we alerted the Communications Security element of the breach, the damage had already been done and the White House communications system had to undergo a complete overhaul.


The net result of Noriega's monitoring of Hamilton Jordan was that he sent a personal emissary to visit the Shah to arrange his escape from the US to Panama, where Noriega established the Shah in considerable comfort on Contadora Island -- in exchange for the Shah's gratitude, and substantial payment in gold bullion.

Unsuccessful with his amoral venture to sell the Shah, Mr Carter proceeded with Plan B, a military invasion of Iran which would demonstrate his leadership and military brilliance.  Once again, I was drawn into the scenario.  First, the plan called for infiltrators by military intelligence officers capable of passing themselves off as foreigners in Tehran; the idea being that they would be covert operatives ready to respond when US troops landed.  The Pentagon searched desperately for such folk, but most had been eliminated by Stansfield Turner's October Massacre when he terminated the US espionage capability.

During the Iran rescue briefing, I ran into a Special Forces friend from Fort Bragg who advised he was leading a combat team into Iran, and invited me to visit his team in their holding area in the Command Center in the bowels of the Pentagon.  I was stunned to note that his entire team consisted of teenagers, the highest ranking among them being an E4 -- and none had any combat experience.  There was not a senior NonCom in the group.  My friend advised that their youth and inexperience was gut-wrenching since many would die for lack of experience; but he also noted that Carter had insisted that every race and creed be represented, so there was no single unit integrity -- another guarantee of disaster. 

Finally, he opened a safe drawer and pulled out a sheaf of post-combat citations which would be awarded to the participants in the operation; the citations were complete and lacked only the names of the recipients -- and whether they would be awarded posthumously.  Carter wanted to capitalize politically immediately following the rescue mission, complete with melancholy drama for the soldiers killed in the rescue mission.

Operation Eagle Claw ended here.          []
The humiliation of the Hostage crisis was highlighted by the subsequent disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, which Mr Carter micromanaged, insisting that each of the Services be equally involved in a generally uncoordinated operation.

The result included the crash of helicopters and C-130s, and the death of eight US Service members.

Mr Carter's legacy includes:
1) The destruction of the US Intelligence capability,
2) The Compromise of the White House Encrypted Communications,
3) The double cross of a former ally, and
4) The orchestration of one of the most disastrous military missions in US history.