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.”
“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.”