New York Times: When the hostages came home from Iran 32 years ago, after 444 days in captivity, they were heroes, and their release was unalloyed good news, a national triumph, observed with ticker-tape parades, speeches, awards and miles of yellow ribbons.
The New York Times
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON — When the hostages came home from Iran 32 years ago, after 444 days in captivity, they were heroes, and their release was unalloyed good news, a national triumph, observed with ticker-tape parades, speeches, awards and miles of yellow ribbons.
Now they are older, grayer, and, some of them say, approaching the status of historical footnote, and their mood is darker and angrier than they let on when they returned, in January 1981. Part of the bitterness is their fruitless 17-year struggle for substantial compensation.
They were blocked by the State Department from winning damages in court, because the agreement that freed them, the Algiers Accords, barred such suits. But last year they gained 69 co-sponsors on a House bill to let them be compensated, as much as $4.4 million each, through fines on companies caught violating trade sanctions with Iran. Now there is a substantial bipartisan effort in the Senate to do the same.
Their supporters say that an odd combination of circumstances has rescued the hostages from fading national memory: the spillover publicity from a hit movie, “Argo,” about co-workers who escaped captivity, and the killings of the American ambassador to Libya last year and of a young diplomat in Afghanistan in April. Those have created sympathy for the perils faced by the Foreign Service. And the new strategy avoids the opposition of the State Department, which for more than 10 years has found itself as a surrogate defender of Iran, because of its defense of the Algiers Accords.
Predicting what Congress will do is always hard, but the hostages appear to have some prospect of success in what is probably a last-ditch bid for reparations. The confluence of circumstances, said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia and sponsor of the Senate bill, has “brought back the memories for everybody who lived through that time.”
But the effort is baring some ugly tales of captivity, in interviews and in a series of videos made to amplify the hostages’ case. Of the 52 hostages, 39 are still living, and 5 have made videos. They did so with the help of the son of the lawyer who has represented them since soon after Congress passed a law, in 1996, that seemed intended to help them sue. The widows, wives or children of six other hostages also made videos, aimed at Congress.
One of the hostages, Frederick L. Kupke, who was a young communications officer, said in an interview that when they returned home, they did not want “to dwell on all the bad things.” Now he talks about the beatings, the mock firing squads, and being tied up in a bed, day and night, forced for eight hours at a time to press his nose against the wall.
He said he was surprised to have survived; as the embassy was being seized, he went to a roof in the compound with a collection of guns, and then realized that if he were caught, the Iranians would think he was a sniper. When he was caught, he was bound, pummeled, and pushed back and forth between hostile captors; he thought a crowd would tear him apart.
Mr. Kupke, now 66 and retired, said that although the episode fixated America for months, it was slipping out of the national consciousness. “People don’t really go back and think about the Iran hostage crisis,” he said. “They usually go back to 9/11 if they want to talk about terrorists.”
In one video, Moorhead C. Kennedy Jr., the third-ranking American in the Tehran embassy, said he still had nightmares about the State Department sending him back to captivity. Hustled out of one of the places he was held, he asked his captors if he should bring his toothbrush; they told him not to bother, he said in a video. He was driven around with a blanket over his head. “I said my prayers, said my prayers again, said my prayers again, and we were driving and driving, and finally I said to myself, ‘Damn it, how long can I keep this up?’ ” he said.
But then they arrived and heard volleys of gunshots. He began counting and “trying to remember how many hostages there were, and how many had already been shot,” he said. None had, but at the time, none of the hostages knew they would live to return home; for long months, some believed the opposite.
David M. Roeder, who was an Air Force colonel, talked about his captors threatening to kidnap and dismember his 14-year-old disabled son back in the United States, and to mail body parts to his wife.
Barry Rosen, who was the press attaché at the embassy when it was seized, said that all these years later he constantly challenges “the inner demons of my captivity.”
“I get into some state where I can’t really concentrate on what I am, who I am,” said Mr. Rosen, who has had a long, successful career in public relations.
Mr. Rosen and others chafe at the opposition by successive Republican and Democratic administrations, which argued that the courts and Congress should not interfere, because it would limit the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.
The hostages were seeking money deposited by the shah and impounded by the United States when he was overthrown. The new Senate bill, introduced by Mr. Isakson, would instead get the money from fines paid by companies doing business with Iran. It would provide $10,000 for each day of captivity, or $4.4 million each, to the hostages, or their heirs.
The State Department is no longer openly opposed. In a statement, it said that the government remained “deeply grateful to the former hostages” and said it was aware of the Isakson bill, co-sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, and “will continue to work with Congress on this issue.”
Mr. Blumenthal, in an interview, said, “My first choice would be for Iran to be the ones to pay it directly.”
“This alternative is clearly a second choice, but it’s a just one,” he said. Getting money from companies caught trading with Iran had “at least some connection,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
While the hostages talk about making Iran pay for its deeds, Mr. Blumenthal said he thought the change of strategy, compensating them out of fines, made the legislation feasible. “For a whole bunch of reasons, it’s now or never,” he said. “The hostages are aging, and there’s a moment of recognition among the American public that we never did right by these people.”