By Jill Lawrence
June 12, 2013
Dozens of senators are receiving a gut-wrenching Father's Day letter this week from a group launching its first collective action as Capitol Hill advocates: the spouses and children of 52 Americans taken hostage in Iran in 1979 and held for 444 days.
Inspiring the new activism is a Senate bill that the hostages, their families, their advocates, and many members of Congress see as the best chance in 32 years to finally hold Iran accountable for the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the hostage crisis that followed, and to compensate the victims for their sacrifices.
The 1979 attack, depicted in frightening detail in the opening scenes of Argo, winner of the best-picture Oscar in February, is seen now as the first of many terrorist acts in the name of Islam since then. With the failure of the host government to protect foreign diplomats, the incident also foreshadowed last year's deadly attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Other terrorism victims have won lawsuits against nations that sponsored terrorism, and have been awarded damages from frozen assets. But that route has been unavailable to the 1979 hostages because of a ban on lawsuits against Iran in the Algiers Accords signed by then-President Jimmy Carter to secure their release.
Courts have knocked down congressional attempts to override or strike down the ban. Now, with the ex-hostages aging and 13 already dead, Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are sponsoring a bill to compensate them and their families through a temporary 30-percent surcharge on the fines paid by companies that violate U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran.
The former hostages and their families will likely never get one of the things they really want, which is an apology from Iran. But the Isakson bill would sting Tehran a bit by making it more expensive to conduct business with the country, while providing each former hostage up to $4.4 million (based on a maximum $10,000 for each day of captivity). For hostages who have died, the money would go to their families.
The State Department fought for years to uphold the Algiers Accords, concerned about the future credibility of agreements signed by U.S. presidents. But the Isakson bill does not undercut or reverse the agreement, and the department has signaled it is open to the new legislative approach. "They've been very cooperative and helpful so far," Isakson told National Journal.
The bill avoids other controversial issues -- using taxpayer money and increasing the federal deficit -- by financing the hostage reparations with a temporary surcharge. It would last until the hostages and families had received the money they were due, likely after two to three years.
Secretary of State John Kerry was receptive to the proposal last year when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and it has support from current Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., as well as ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., according to Isakson. In fact, when asked if anyone in the Senate had expressed opposition, Isakson replied, "Not to me."
He said it would be hard to overestimate the impact of Argo. "Seeing is believing," he said, adding it also helps that the hostage families are getting involved. "I never predict anything, but I feel very good about ... the odds of getting it done this year," he said.
‘NEVER CAME HOME’
Though the 50 men and two women seized at the U.S. Embassy were released the day Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, "many never truly came home," more than 80 hostage relatives from 27 states and the District of Columbia said in the Father's Day letter, which was shared with National Journal. “They were shells of the people that left for Iran to represent our nation.”
They said the trauma of the captivity has reverberated throughout their lives and those of the former hostages.
"Help us find some measure of closure," they wrote. "Grant us reparations so that, in what is for many of us our old age, sickness and infirmity, we can know the peace that will come from the support of our country."
Several wives and daughters who signed the letter told National Journal that this is the first time they have ever lobbied for action as a group. Unlike the 9/11 widows or Newtown families, they are not concentrated in a geographical location, but are scattered all over the country. Also, as foreign service and military families, they have not had the resources to make regular trips to Washington. That is even harder now "as we are all aging," said Anita Schaefer, adding that her husband -- retired Air Force Col. Tom Schaefer -- is 83 and "coming to the end of his life."
Furthermore, some people had worked at the U.S. Embassy for only a few days when it came under attack and they were taken hostage. There were "no big friendships" among the hostages or their families, said Schaefer, whose husband was the defense and air attaché.
"No tight bonds," added Barbara Rosen, wife of former hostage Barry Rosen, the press attaché. She said her husband has been on medication for 30 years and that she herself was shaking as she recounted the family's ordeal to National Journal this week. Her fingers are crossed that Congress will finally bring closure, she said, but her experience over the years is that she sits down with a lawmaker or aide, relives the pain and trauma as she tells her story, "and then nothing happens."
The promise of the Isakson-Blumenthal bill, the urgency of old age, and in some cases death have inspired some relatives to enter or return to the public arena. "Dick is dead, so obviously I can't say, 'Well, you take care of all this,'" said Dorothea Morefield, whose husband, Richard, the consul general at the embassy, died in 2010. "It's long overdue that Congress understands what was done to us. It's high time they came forward and said, 'We appreciate what you all went through and we are willing now to make some kind of restitution.' "
Barbara Feth, daughter of the late Army Col. Leland Holland, who was the military attaché at the embassy, said the symbolism would be significant. She called it a chance for Congress to "acknowledge that this horrible thing happened" and send a message to the ex-hostages and their families that "you represented us well."
The letter to senators is by necessity generic, but the specifics of haunted lives are very much present and not past for former hostages and their families. Morefield said that her husband, confused and pulling out his IVs on his deathbed, went into hysterics when his hands were restrained and shouted for her to escape. "He thought he was back in Iran," she said. "Those days and hours of being tied -- the minute he was restrained in his movements, it took him right back into that situation. It certainly did not contribute to a peaceful death."
Jennifer Knight, daughter of former hostage Donald Sharer, a naval air attaché at the embassy, recalled coming home alone at age 8 to field multiple calls from reporters asking about her father being taken hostage. She gave her mother all the messages and later asked, "Mom, what is a hostage?" She cried as she talked about her loss of innocence -- "8 years old, sitting in front of the TV wondering, is tonight the night they're going to execute my dad?" When he came home, "he was totally different," she said. "A functioning alcoholic. He drank himself to sleep every night. It was horrible."
Allyssa Keough Stevens, another hostage's daughter, also cried as she heard Knight's story for the first time on the conference call with National Journal. "I'm sorry you had to go through it," she said through tears. Her father, William Keough, headed an American school in Islamabad and happened to be visiting the embassy the day of the attack. A year after his release, he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. He died on his daughter's birthday -- Nov. 27 -- in 1985.
After years on a roller coaster along with the other families, Knight said she is "very optimistic" that this time will be different. How can members of Congress look at the situation, she said, and not ask themselves: "How can we let these man and women die without letting them know that their efforts were not in vain?"
Stevens said she hesitates to use the word optimism in any context involving the hostages, since nothing has led to success in the past. "I would like to feel like this is the best effort ever," she said. "I believe this is a very good effort, a very fair effort." So good and so fair, she added, that "anybody on the Hill who is not behind this needs to say why. I want to know why. Face some family members and say why."
By Jill Lawrence
June 12, 2013