Interrogation of An Iran Hostage (1979)
INTERROGATION OF AN IRAN HOSTAGE (1979)
On November 4, 1979, a crowd of almost five hundred Iranian militants, enraged by the United States's decision to admit exiled Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi for cancer treatment, seized the American embassy in Tehran, taking hostage the nearly ninety people inside. The next 444 days, a glimpse into which is presented here, would represent the greatest foreign policy challenge of the Carter administration. In fact, the conflict had begun early in the 1960s with the Shah under-taking a program of "Westernization." These broad social and economic reforms were marred by riots and mass persecution of the ruling regime's political and philosophical opponents, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini among them. Carter's first reaction to the embassy seizure was to freeze Iranian assets in the United States and order the immediate cessation of oil imports from Iran. Not until April of 1980 was a military rescue attempt mounted, called Operation Eagle Claw. However, helicopter engine trouble at a staging area and a fatal mid-air collision during withdrawal left eight Americans dead, and the failed operation resulted in a major embarrassment for the Carter administration. Preoccupied with the crisis and blamed by many frustrated voters for the lack of resolution, Carter was defeated by former California governor and movie star Ronald Reagan in the landslide presidential election of 1980. Finally, with the help of Algerian intermediaries, on January 20, 1981 the United States agreed to release some $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets, bringing the hostage crisis to an end at last.
Their routine for the interrogations was to take me down to this room that was as cold as the weather outside, and this was December—the dead of winter. I mean, it was colder than a bear in there. The militants took me down to this room and left me sitting there in my bare feet and a T-shirt for two or three hours. That was the routine. Then at about the time I was good and blue, they came in all dressed up warmly and started asking questions. By this time, I was one nervous guy. I was jumping and moving just to keep warm. This went on for several days, and I was really afraid that I was going to get pneumonia or something like that. I figured they would purposely let me die rather than give me any kind of medical treatment.
They'd leave me sitting in that room and go away. I knew damn well they'd gone off to bed. Every now and then one guy would come into the room and look at me. They didn't want me sleeping. He'd look at me and then back out. Once I started dozing, and he hit me with a rifle butt. It was obvious that they were trying to wear me down both emotionally and physically.
It became very obvious to me that somebody they had previously questioned had done some talking, because they were telling me things that were not in the files. They had information they should not have had. But how were they getting this information? Was it being extracted, or was it being freely volunteered? That was something I didn't know. But it was a godamn startling fact when they came in and started telling me what it was that I knew. They were hitting poop that was accurate, and they knew it. I thought, "Goddamn, they're coming in with something, and there's no way I can mislead them. They have got the file plus supplementary information." That was a nerve-racking session. All I could do was sit there and wonder, "What's going to happen next?" They would ask the same questions over and over and over and over again. It was like: "You're going to stay here until you get it right." I guess they were looking for me to make a mistake and trip over my own words.
Specifically, they were interested in a number of things. One of the big things they wanted was to know about any Iranians we had been working with or had been in contact with. The key to their thinking seemed to be that if an American had been in Iran for a reasonable length of time, then that American was automatically a CIA spy. Second, any Iranians that any Americans dealt with were automatically as guilty as the "CIA spies." The militants who took over the embassy believed that an Iranian who gave us any kind of help or information had done a horrible thing. It was obvious that they were going to go after these people. If you named names or gave them identities, then you could really get some of the Iranians in trouble, because the hard-core militants considered them collaborators, and they wanted to get them. Of course, I had been in contact with a lot of Iranians. Since I was a representative of the army, there were a lot of things about the Iranian army that we were interested in—officially, legally, and legitimately so. One thing of interest was that the Iranians did purchase some Russian equipment, so we were interested in any sort of Iranian army equipment, particularly if it was a Russian brand of mousetrap. But the militants didn't understand this sort of thing. They were convinced that everything we did was done to undermine the revolution. So I felt it was important not to give them the identities of any Iranians I had dealt with, because they considered those people to be collaborators and traitors.
SOURCE: Wells, Tim. 444 Days: The Hostages Remember. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1985.