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Magazine / FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Former Iran Hostages Are Still Seeking Justice

'Argo' won the Oscar. But the 52 Americans held captive for another 14 months didn't get their feel-good ending.

Legacy: Deborah Firestone wrote letters to Khomeini on behalf of her father. (Richard A. Bloom)

photo of Jill Lawrence
February 28, 2013

Army Col. Leland Holland would sometimes talk about his 444-day hostage ordeal in Iran “like it was a good old fish story,” says his son, John. But other times, recalling how he was beaten with rubber hoses and telephone books, he’d get angry. The memory of picking a lock with a paper clip, making his way to the roof, and breathing fresh air could bring him to tears. Three times after Holland retired from active duty, his family found him kneeling in the corner of the basement, face to the wall, hands clasped together over his head as if handcuffed, reliving brutal interrogations in his nightmares.

Ben Affleck’s celebrated film Argo has spotlighted a wacky CIA scheme that enabled six U.S. Embassy employees to escape postrevolutionary Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew. Holland was part of a far less fortunate group, the 52 Americans who didn’t make it out when militants stormed the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held hostage for more than 14 months—until Jan. 20, 1981.

Argo has been showered with honors, most recently the Oscar for best picture of the year that it picked up Sunday evening at the Academy Awards. It is historically inaccurate, and it ignores a larger tragedy to focus on a sliver of success associated with a humiliating chapter in the nation’s history. But give Argo its due. The film is serving to remind Americans of a time, a place—and a debacle—during a pivotal moment in the saga of the Iranian hostages.

 
“I’d still like to see somebody do some physical time themselves for what they did.”—John Holland, son of ex-hostage Leland Holland

The former hostages and their advocates are mobilizing for a new Capitol Hill push that they hope will be the final chapter in a 33-year quest for relief and justice. In a few weeks, members of Congress will receive a packet of information that includes powerful statements and videos from the ex-hostages and their survivors. Some will be telling their stories publicly for the first time. One of them is Steven Lauterbach, whose written account opens with this sentence: “I slashed my wrists while in captivity in Iran.”

These Americans were among the first victims of Islamic terrorism, yet, unlike subsequent victims, they have never received the satisfaction of a court judgment against a state sponsor of terrorism or financial compensation drawn from its assets. For decades, they have tried and failed to navigate a web of conflicting legal opinions, court reversals, and changing U.S. policies toward terrorism. And for decades, they have been thwarted by the 1981 Algiers Accords, in which Tehran agreed to release the hostages and President Carter agreed to bar lawsuits against Iran by them and their families. One Congress after another has been unable or unwilling to surmount executive-branch intransigence and court rulings that have kept the accords in force. The Supreme Court last year killed the possibility of suing under current law, leaving Congress to deal with the issue.

With its suspected march toward nuclear weaponry and its broad sponsorship of global terrorism, Iran presents the United States and the world at large with problems much more urgent than tying up the loose ends of a 1980s crisis. Yet the dark details and long-term effects of the hostages’ captivity—illness, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, divorces—are bound to add immediacy to their cause, as is their advancing age (a dozen of the 52 have since died).

Nor does it hurt that the cinematic spotlight on Iran has coincided with two related tragedies. Argo opened a few weeks after murderous militants attacked another U.S. mission, this one in Benghazi, Libya, igniting intense concern on Capitol Hill about diplomatic security. The movie hit theaters the same month that one of the 52 former hostages, ex-CIA agent Phillip Ward, killed himself. He had returned from the ordeal covered with scars from torture, a reclusive, alcoholic ruin who couldn’t hold a regular job—couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee because his hands shook so badly. “He took his life; but, in reality, his life was taken from him 33 years ago in Tehran, Iran,” lawyer Tom Lankford, who has been trying since 2000 to win justice for the former hostages, wrote in a Roll Call tribute to Ward last fall.

“RAPED OF OUR FREEDOM”

Lankford has lived intimately for years with the disquieting tales of former hostages and their families. He punctuates his conversations with graphic images and details: the cells fouled with excrement, the diplomat’s wife who still has anxiety attacks, the retired Air Force colonel who in his nightmares hears the hoses being forced down the throats of Iranian political prisoners as they were suffocated outside his cell.

Most of the former hostages functioned well in productive careers after they returned, including Holland, who died in 1990, and Tom Schaefer, who remains haunted by the suffocations. They and many others became public figures, giving speeches and media interviews about their experience. Yet few, if any, of them escaped life-altering changes wrought by 444 days of terror, boredom, hope, and hopelessness.

Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann, a 22-year-old Marine charged with guarding the embassy door, was one of the youngest in the group. For the first month in captivity, he says, he was forced to sleep with his wrists tied to his ankles; his hands and feet were tied to a chair during the day, a shotgun pointed at his head. He was blindfolded whenever he was moved. “You think of your past. That’s all you had,” he recalls. He heard cars beeping, birds chirping, “life going on without you,” and wondered if anyone besides his parents cared. “It was so lonely,” he says.

And often so terrifying. Sickmann says he and other hostages were shown videos of people being dropped in boiling tar, of people shot in the head after being ordered to strip and face a courtyard wall. And then he was blindfolded and told to undress and turn his back, and he heard three rifles bolted behind his head. “It was a mock execution, but I didn’t know that,” he says. “You dreamt, you cried, you prayed for the opportunity of a second chance.”

“It’s never completely in the past. You’re always in the shadow of it, psychologically.”—Steven Lauterbach, former embassy officer

Sickmann did get that chance. When he came home, he found that his parents had kept their 1979 Christmas tree up and decorated for the whole 444 days. He married his girlfriend and went to work at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. He had three children and rose through the company, where he now has what he calls a “wonderful job” as director of military sales. Through a chance meeting at a family wedding, Sickmann even ended up on the set of Argo, and his son had a bit part.

Despite flashbacks, dreams, and problems with noises and being alone, Sickmann was convinced he was fine. But his wife thought otherwise, and after many years she persuaded him to get help. “You never forget it,” he now says of his captivity. He repeatedly says Iran “raped us of our freedom” and has never paid for it in any way. Sickmann often wonders, even now, if he should have disobeyed orders and shot at the militants and the women who were their human shields.

Lauterbach, a slight man who was the assistant general-services officer at the embassy, had no experience or training as a soldier or spy when he was taken hostage. “It was my first time as a Foreign Service officer. I didn’t volunteer for it,” he says. Tehran was a menacing environment, with crowds on the streets and bodies hanging from construction cranes, just like in Argo, he says. Looking back at the time he slashed his wrists, he says, “It’s hard for me to really know what my motive was.” His plan was to “hurt myself bad enough that they would panic” and take him out of solitary confinement. He was covered with blood and prepared to die, he says, but his captors rushed him to the hospital for stitches. And they did take him out of solitary.

Now 61, Lauterbach was 28 when he was captured; he says the experience left him “more mentally and emotionally damaged than I wanted to admit.” He met his wife at his next posting in France, had two children, pursued a successful Foreign Service career, and now consults for the State Department. Yet he has a recurring nightmare that “somehow the agreement to release us has been rescinded and we have to go back.” He believes he is a more pessimistic, fatalistic person as a result of the ordeal. “It’s never completely in the past,” he says. “You’re always in the shadow of it, psychologically.”

Bill Daugherty’s captors quickly identified him as a CIA operative and treated him accordingly. He spent 425 of his 444 days in solitary confinement, and he endured interrogation sessions 12 hours long. Unlike some of the others, he was used to risk and adversity. At 31, his résumé included military school, Marine boot camp, flight school, a stint as an air-traffic controller, and a tour flying off an aircraft carrier in Vietnam. “My whole life up to that time was dealing with stress,” he says. He also had received military training in how to survive in captivity and how to defeat interrogators.

Like Sickmann and Lauterbach, Daugherty believed he was in good shape after his release. He says he never had nightmares or other symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Yet he was troubled. His cover was blown—he was known worldwide to be CIA—and he stumbled about trying to find a new career path. In his personal life, he says, he felt lost and “addled” at times. In 1986, Daugherty entered what he calls an “unwise marriage” that ended in divorce. He also made some bad career choices before landing in the CIA’s counterterrorism unit. In 1996, he became a college professor, and a few years later met the nurse practitioner who is now his wife.

“I didn’t start understanding what I wanted and what my life should be until 12 to 15 years” after returning from Iran, says Daugherty, who worked as a consultant on Argo. “If I came back in better mental shape than a lot of [the other hostages], I can’t imagine how they dealt with it.”

ROUGH JUSTICE

Terry Reed, another attorney for the former hostages, calls his clients “the only victims of Iran’s hostage-taking and terrorism that have been left behind.” Others, who are not bound by the Algiers Accords, have gone to court and won judgments against Iran. They include former journalist Terry Anderson, held for seven years by the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, who collected some $26 million taken from frozen Iranian assets; victims of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, whose attorneys are trying to seize Iranian assets frozen in U.S. institutions to collect tens of millions of dollars in court awards; and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, who last year won what will likely turn out to be a largely symbolic $6 billion award against Iran, al-Qaida, and the Taliban.

The disturbing details of the hostages’ lives during and after captivity have not won the day against successive presidential administrations determined to uphold an international deal even though it was necessitated by a host government that failed to protect a U.S. Embassy and allowed militants to hold American hostages for month after month—and even though it was signed almost literally at the point of a gun, with Tehran threatening “serious consequences” for the hostages if Washington did not release billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets.

“You dreamt, you cried, you prayed for the opportunity of a second chance.”—Rocky Sickmann, former hostage and Marine

Brokered by the government of Algeria, the Algiers Accords were hailed as the catalyst that ended the protracted crisis. The executive agreement allowed for commercial claims against Iran to be paid out of Iranian assets frozen when the Americans were taken, but it barred any attempt by the freed hostages to bring suit against Iran in a U.S. court. Since Iran already enjoyed sovereign immunity against such claims, the State Department did not see that as a concession at the time. In addition, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded in a Nov. 13, 1980, memo that Congress would have the power to “constitutionally override” the Algiers Accords and reinstate the former hostages’ right to sue Iran for damages.

In January 1984, three years after the hostages were released, the State Department added Iran to its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Twelve years later, Congress passed the Antiterrorism Act, removing the sovereign immunity of countries on the list and intending to make the law retroactive so the former hostages could sue Iran. They and their families did just that in 2000 and won a default liability ruling the next year in federal court after Iran failed to mount a defense.

The State Department, worried about the implications of violating an international deal signed by a president, argued that the hostages’ case should be dismissed. Congress tried again to help in 2002, writing into a conference report that the former hostages had a valid claim against Iran under the 1996 act. But U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, in a decision later upheld by an Appeals Court, dismissed the claim. Congress did not specifically invalidate the Algiers Accords, he said, so he had no choice.

“Were this Court empowered to judge by its sense of justice, the heart-breaking accounts of the emotional and physical toll of those 444 days on plaintiffs would be more than sufficient justification for granting all the relief that they request,” Sullivan wrote. “However, this Court is bound to apply the law that Congress has created, according to the rules of interpretation that the Supreme Court has determined. There are two branches of government that are empowered to abrogate and rescind the Algiers Accords, and the judiciary is not one of them.”

Congress tried yet again in 2008, inserting a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act allowing Americans to sue countries that sponsor terrorism. It specifically mentioned the former Iran hostages, so they filed a lawsuit citing that section of the 2008 law. But the Obama administration’s Justice Department urged dismissal of the case. In September 2010, Sullivan again acknowledged the former hostages’ “tremendous suffering” but again ruled against them. Congress had failed to “expressly” nullify the Algiers Accords or create an unambiguous cause of action against Iran for the 1979 hostage-taking, he said. Last year, the Supreme Court declined to review the case.

Rather than hold out for Congress to repeal the Algiers Accords outright, which would trigger years of legal activity with no guaranteed outcome, the former hostages, their advocates, and their Hill allies have settled on a different course: to seek a surcharge on fines and penalties paid by companies that do business with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. The money would be put into a compensation fund for the ex-hostages. Mike Smith, their lobbyist, says Congress will pass such a plan overwhelmingly if it comes to a vote, as he expects it will this year. If the State Department has an alternate plan, he adds, “we’re flexible, as long as it brings relatively speedy relief to the former hostages.”

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, whose constituents include former hostage Kathryn Koob, was the lead sponsor last year of a sanctions-surcharge bill that attracted 69 House cosponsors. He disagrees with the State Department’s view that the Algiers Accords are binding. Agreements negotiated under duress are revocable, he says, and, further, making deals that don’t allow people to seek compensation from their captors violates the Geneva Conventions. Even so, Braley was planning to reintroduce his sanctions bill this week with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., “to try to provide some measure of justice to people who’ve been denied justice all these years.” More than $400 million could be available, he says, and the hostages who were held the full 444 days would receive a “significant settlement.”

Daugherty estimates that he and the rest of the former hostages are due quite a lot. Based on compensatory and punitive damages to other victims of terrorism, he puts the total at nearly $18 million per hostage. “I don’t expect to get anywhere near that,” he says, but he suggests it would be rough justice for a country that has paid very little for the hundreds of U.S. dead and wounded in attacks linked to Iran over the years.

As time runs out for many of the former Tehran hostages, and even some of their children, they have become less intent on holding Iran accountable and more interested in compensation and some measure of closure. “At this point in time, that’s about 89 percent of justice right there,” Holland says. “The other 11, I’d still like to see somebody do some physical time themselves for what they did.”

UNDER SIEGE

“America in 1981 needed heroes, and these folks as a group were presented as heroes.... Heroes, you give medals to. You don’t compensate them.”—Tom Lankford, attorney for the ex-hostages and their families

Militants supportive of the new revolutionary government first overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Feb. 14, 1979, and personnel there, led by Holland, were told to give the militants some ground and then talk them into leaving. Miraculously, it worked. But then came a cascade of missteps and misjudgments that still evoke anger and frustration among those Americans seized in the Nov. 4 attack.

After the Valentine’s Day breach, some officials in Washington believed the militants would move on to other targets or activities, says Daugherty, who was stationed in D.C. at the time. He and others, including embassy personnel in Tehran, assumed the opposite: The militants would be back with more force. The message from the embassy to Foggy Bottom for months after that first breach, says John Holland, Leland’s son, was, “Get us out of here.” They knew Iran was in such disarray that the government could not ensure the Americans’ physical security.

But the embassy continued to operate. Nine months later, Carter allowed the deposed shah of Iran to travel to the United States for medical treatment, ratcheting up the unrest in Tehran that culminated in the hostage crisis. In a 2003 article in the journal American Diplomacy, Daugherty wrote the State Department knew at the time that the shah was not at death’s door and could have been treated where he was, in Mexico, rather than in the U.S. “I don’t know how that story changed,” he says now about the factors that led to Carter’s decision.

The shah was about to arrive in the United States when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Bruce Laingen went to the Iranian foreign ministry to notify his counterpart and to ask for protection for the embassy. Although Carter and others later asserted that assurances had been given, Daugherty wrote in his 2003 article that Laingen did not report any response at all to his request. Daugherty still is incredulous that the president did not evacuate the embassy the minute he decided to let the shah into the U.S., about two weeks before the militants attacked. The way it played out, he says, “we never had a chance.”

The grim history that began to unfold at the moment of capture was nothing like Argo, with its focus on can-do American (and Canadian) nerve and creativity. The hostages were taken just a few years after the hasty, ignominious U.S. exit from Vietnam, and, overnight, it seemed as if Iran had brought America to its knees.

That perception was fueled, perhaps even created, by a nightly ABC News program that later became Nightline. Initially called America Held Hostage, it launched four days after the embassy takeover and included a countdown that underscored the country’s helplessness: Day 11, Day 49, Day 266, Day 365, and on, and on, and on. The national feeling of impotence intensified after a tragic April 1980 rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of eight American troops and the loss of U.S. helicopters and classified material to Iran.

That sense of American powerlessness pervaded the household of every hostage. Weeks after the failed rescue, just before Father’s Day, Bruce German’s teenage daughter wrote a seven-page letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pleading for German’s release. “Dear Ayatollah,” it began, in round, girlish script. “I wish you could convince your people to let my dad come home to his family.… It is very difficult for me not having my dad around.”

German, a State Department budget officer, had arrived in Tehran just five weeks before the embassy takeover. His family learned of his abduction from a church member who saw news of it on TV.

In censored letters every couple of weeks, he urged his daughter and two sons to keep sending him mail, keep praying, and keep doing their schoolwork. Once he wrote he was “staying at the lovely resort of Lorton,” obliquely referring to a detention facility near Washington, recalls the daughter, Deborah Firestone. “So we knew he was in a prison.” When he did come home, he didn’t talk to his children about what he’d been through, but “I heard things,” Firestone says, including that his Iranian captors had played Russian roulette with her dad.

German, now 76, describes “constant threat” from the day he was taken captive. “We didn’t know from day to day if it was our last day, because they kept threatening us with guns,” he says. He recalls the hostages being forced awake at 3 a.m., blindfolded, and “paraded in our underwear into a cold hallway,” where they would hear the “unmistakable” sound of guns being cocked and wonder if they were about to be executed. Outside his cell at the notorious Evin Prison, German heard “moaning and screaming and carrying on” as Iranians were tortured. Prayer and mental toughness got him through, he says.

Firestone says German had flashbacks and nightmares after his release, but he says he chose not to the see “the shrinks” the government offered. “I didn’t need that,” German says. He did make what he calls changes “for the better” after conversations with friends. “I just took their advice and decided to get on with my life, move ahead, and ... try not to look back. So I don’t dwell on that at all anymore,” he says. “I just put the hostage crisis behind me.”

German’s life is divided into distinct pre-Iran and post-Iran chapters. Within a year of his return, he moved away from his family. Within a few years, he had divorced his wife and left the State Department. He moved to rural northeastern Pennsylvania and reconnected with a woman he knew from high school. He has little contact with his children and grandchildren, a subject he declines to discuss.

Before the Iran crisis, says Firestone, an elementary-school teacher, her parents’ marriage was “rock solid” and she was a “daddy’s girl.” But following a few months of family closeness when he returned, she says, her contact with her father increasingly ebbed. He missed her college graduation, her 1993 wedding, and her brother’s wedding last summer. She hasn’t seen him for eight years. He last saw her youngest child, almost 12, when she was 3.

While it’s impossible to gauge the role of German’s captivity on his choices, Firestone has no doubts. “He’s pretty much fallen off the face of the earth as far as his family is concerned,” she says. “Our lives have been irreparably damaged because of what happened.”

HERO AND VICTIM

Fresh off 444 days as victims, the freed hostages returned to a nation that was more than ready to move on from nightly doses of America Held Hostage. They were celebrated as heroes with a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the kind usually reserved for astronauts, military veterans, and sports champions. President Reagan had just taken the oath of office. People desperately wanted it to be morning in America, as Reagan’s campaign would put it in a TV ad four years later.

“We had been so embarrassed by the Iranians holding power over us,” Lankford says. “We didn’t want to hear about how the hostages were kept in freezers with no clothes on, kept in cells with their own excrement. America in 1981 needed heroes, and these folks as a group were presented as heroes. It was really in many respects [meant] to wash away the bad feeling of Vietnam. Heroes, you give medals to. You don’t compensate them.”

In truth, each hostage was both a hero and a victim, a dual identity epitomized by Holland. He was an Army intelligence officer in Berlin during the Cold War, served two tours in Vietnam, and became a parachutist at the ripe age of 46 before going to Tehran as the Army attaché for the embassy. He returned to active duty and a top Pentagon job when he was released, gave talks about his ordeal at military bases, and made Army training films based on his experience; his son says the films are still in use. In a measure of his reputation, shortly after Holland died, the Army bestowed his name on an 11-building complex at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. And yet in retirement, when he was no longer too busy to keep memories at bay, he relived his interrogations in nightmares.

The ordeal that left an indelible mark on so many lives has not only receded in time; it has also been overwhelmed and overshadowed by the many terrible terrorist acts that followed, most notably the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Still, Firestone says she was shocked to find the Iran hostage crisis distilled to one paragraph in her son’s history book. In Lankford’s conference room one recent day, she gazed at hostage photos in a 2001 trial exhibit headlined “52 Faces We Won’t Forget,” and remarked, “It seems like everybody has forgotten.”

In the view of many former hostages, that forgetfulness extends to the U.S. government’s failure to learn from their experience amid the anarchic tumult of a country that had just been through a revolution. They shook their heads last Sept. 11 when terrorist attacks killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. It was happening again—a host government unable to protect diplomatic personnel, and pleas for help that went unheeded. “Nothing’s changed over all these years,” German says.

But change may be coming at last. In the wake of the Benghazi tragedy, the Obama administration and Congress appear determined to improve protection of U.S. personnel overseas. And the former hostages, who have long been able to count on bipartisan goodwill in Congress, now have a new strategy and new prominence. Thanks to an Oscar-winning film, Americans have been given a fresh reminder that Islamic terrorism plagued this country years before this generation, and 52 of its earliest victims may finally get their due. It’s no Hollywood ending, but it could be a last act. 

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