The incident faded now, a small episode overshadowed by the six-month-long spectacle in Tehran. But nearly 11 months before the Iranian mob stormed the American embassy and seized its occupants two other Americans found themselves in an Iranian jail. Unlike their successors, they got out.
There was, to be sure, some dispute as to whether William Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone, engineers for the Dallas-based computer company Electronic Data Systems (EDS), were technically hostages. Iranian authorities insisted that although no charges were brought against them when they were arrested on Dec. 28,1978, they were lawfully imprisoned. Eventually the authorities did charge them with bribing Iranian officials to secure a $20 million contract for EDS.
Ross Perot, the man in charge of EDS, saw things differently. Iran had not been coming through on its part of the existing contract. By the end of the 1978, the Iranian government owed EDS $5 million. In December 1978, therefore, Perot decided to stop operations and withdraw his employees from the country. Such precipitate action was deemed necessary because the general situation was deteriorating rapidly: The Shah was preparing to depart, Ayatollah Khomeini was packing his bags in Paris, and the government of Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar was impotent to stem the tide of violence.
"Within 12 hours [of when EDS began withdrawing its personnel]," Perot says, "the Iranians started trying to pick up our people as hostages. The objective was to assure that we would come back in and start up the computer systems." Indeed, the Iranian government prosecutor offered to free Gaylord and Chiapparone if EDS would renegotiate its contract with Iran. RESCUE, From Page D1>
Perot is a man of action. Back in 1970 he attempted an airlift of supplies to American POWs in North Vietnam to focus attention on their sorry treatment. Now he tried to interest Washington in the plight of his two employees. But the government was indifferent, and he decided to act on his own -- and quickly. Perot's initial step as to send a team to Tehran to try to negotiate the release of the hostage. But in case that failed -- as it did -- he had meanwhile contacted Arthur Simons, the colonel (now retired) who in 1970 had led a raid on North Vietnamese POW camp -- only to find that the prisoners had been evacuated a few days earlier. Simons agreed to help, but said he wanted no compensations for his services.
Simons and Perot first considered a military attack on Ghasr Prison, where the Americans were being held, but abandoned this idea as too risky. The prison was heavily guarded and surrounded by a 12-foot-high wall. They decided finally to proceed by provoking a mob attack on Ghasr; they hoped that in the confusion, as the prison's 70,000 inmates poured into the streets, Gaylord and Chiapparone, might be able to slip away. Iranian revolutionaries were eager to storm the prison, which had become a symbol of the deposed Shah's power, and were thus easy to mobilize.
The attack came on Feb. 11, 1979, Gaylord and Chiapparone did indeed escape with the rest, and they made their way to the Hyatt Hotel 10 miles away where they met up with Simons' commandos. After a harrowing two-day trek, they crossed over into Turkey.
In September 1979 Perot provided his own account of his role in the rescue of William Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone:
"The government wouldn't do anything for us. Ask me if I tried to get our government to do anything and I will defy you to name one person in a prominent position that we didn't make a personal appeal to. Just anybody you want to name. Some tried to help, but nobody was effective. A lot of them didn't care. The State Department wasn't really interested.
"Protecting American citizens is a role our government should perform. Private companies, private individuals shouldn't be involved in this sort of thing. But if your government is not willing to protect American citizens, and if you have people in your company imprisoned in a country, you have an obligation to get them out of there.
"Now the turning point was . . . My mother was dying of cancer. She knew the men were being held hostage. I laid the whole thing out to her and I said, What do you think we ought to do? And she said, I don't think there's any question but that you have to go rescue them. That's it.
"It was that simple. They had gone over there for EDS. They hadn't done anything. They had gotten trapped. And we had to get them out.
"When you run a military operation, the first thing you have to do is find the best officer you can and then give him everything he asks for. I knew I wanted Col. Simons, though I hadn't seen him in years. We would not have considered going into the operation without him. He wasn't a machine, he was a very complicated man. His aim was to pull the whole thing off surgically and to bring everybody back safely.
"The team was made up entirely of EDS employees. They were all people who had had background in this kind of thing: officers in Special Forces . . . Marines . . . Rangers, that sort of thing. All of them had lived in Tehran. I probably picked one out of five who volunteered. Every man I talked to volunteered. No arm-twisting was involved.
"One of the criteria was that these guys had to have been in live combat where they saw the man hit that they shot. Col. Simons said it's totally different if you're a pilot or something. He said on the ground it's different.
"These fellows were past the adventure point. You see, once you've done what they've done you realize it's a place you can get killed, there's no glory, it's a lousy way to make a living. They were out of the service. They had wives, children, mortgages, all the things that young people have. So that tells you a lot about them, their concern for their fellow men.
"In the middle of the planning i decided I had to go to Tehran and talk to the guys in jail. It was important for me to look them in the eye and tell them that I was going to get them out. I wouldn't have somebody else do it. I figured that if it had been me in jail, and I'd seen that the top guy can come in here, talk to me, and leave, then things might not be so far gone as they appear to be. It would settle me down. One of the things we had to do was get these guys in the frame of mind where, when we had the jailbreak, they would function and get out and know what to do.
"I did not know how to sneak into a country, much less a Middle Eastern country. would have been easier. After a lot of research -- and we did a lot of research, because I would have been a better person for the Iranians to have as a hostage than the two guys who were there (you see, I was the ultimate hostage for getting EDS to come back in) -- we found that NBC had a plane that flew tapes back and forth from Tehran to Jordan -- tapes and camera crews. I went to Amman, Jordan, and made a deal with them that the first day they were going to take camera crews. I would fly with them. I never said I was an NBC cameraman. I got off the plane, carried a tape, dropped it off where I was supposed to, got my passport stamped, and disappeared into the city.
"When i went to the jail -- you see, I had to go into the jail using my passport (I used my own passport because I didn't want to break any more laws than we had to) -- I had to sign in with my name and everything. But one part of the bureaucracy was holding the hostages and one part was running the jail and they hadn't correlated the two. So I just walked in.
"I was wearing a sportshirt and I had two big bags of groceries. I'm not that impressive looking. I don't look like a guy running an American company. I'm just a guy wandering in taking stuff to the two Americans who are in jail.
"Everything was going along fine when I looked across the room and there was Ramsey Clark. I couldn't believe it, I just couldn't believe it. He was over there representing Khomeini trying to get someone out of jail. My wife knows Ramsey's sister and I worried that he would recognize me. So I decided the best thing to do was to go over to him. Ramsey was sitting over there and his eyes got big. I walked over and said, Ramsey, what are you doing in jail? Well the general who ran the jail just broke up laughing. He could speak English. He was kind of a sharp guy and yet he was being real nice to Ramsey. The general figured I must be all right because I knew Ramsey.
"The only time we ever got to talk to the men privately was that day, because I was a friend of Ramsey's! And I needed a private place to talk to them. I had to sit down and talk to them and lay out the whole thing. I'm sure Ramsey never did or said anything that would heighten the general's concern. They probably went on to some other subject.
"After I explained to the guys what we were planning to do I came back to this country and we got everything in place Then I took the team to Turkey. You see, we had the hostages coming overland from Iran and we had a very elaborate plan. If the guys got hurt, if they got picked up in Iran, we had a team in Turkey that would go and get them. And that's when we could have gotten some people killed. We had planes, helicopters, we had very fine pilots. We had a 707 with all the electronics in the world to go up in the air, talk to people on the ground, and talk to the helicopters.
"It was kind of a combination of good luck and fortune as opposed to the Harvard Business School approach, showing charts and graphs and five-year plans and so forth. But it would be a disservice to Col. Simons and the men to have you feel that this was a bunch of guys swinging from limb to limb. This was as carefully planned as anything that you ever saw. It was planned, planned, planned. We drove that route over which the men would escape four times until it was just like we were driving home. And we saw the situation deteriorating each time we went and it got harder and harder to go.
"We wanted to use as little force as possible to get them out but we had the force if necessary. Fortunately, we didn't need to use it. We enlisted the help of a small number of Iranians who worked themselves into the leadership of the mob, and they were successful in inciting the mob to action. Our men just came right out.
"Even so, the State Department almost got them killed, because Washington leaked a report to the press about our operation. The only reason you ever heard about the escape was that in order to keep that story from being printed until we got to the border, I had to agree to have a press conference. My objective was to get out of there and never say a word. But I'm not mad at the press. I'm mad at that girl in theState Department who mindlessly leaked it to the press.
"You, see, I was in Turkey and I was trying to get something I needed there. We had good cooperation with the embassy in Turkey. But they sent a secret cable to Washington just as our guys were coming out of Iran. If those guys got killed I felt that I played a part in doing it because I touched the tar baby, I touched the State Department. Now I was sick, because the guy that was working with us in Turkey was the only good State Department guy I ever ran into. He was trying -- well, not only trying, he really helped us as much as he could. And he just did what a good State Department guy should have done in sending a secret cable. But that girl in Washington let the secret out.
"When it came to rescuing Gaylord and Chiapparone, we were risking everything, facing the possibility of prison. Now you start thinking that all the way through. Put your lawyer hat on and say, What if this hadn't worked? What if some of the men on the rescue team had gotten killed? You see what I mean? The legal implications were a horror. Forget the imagery. The imagery would have been as bad as you could possibly make it. But the legal implications would have been terrible. EDS would have been blamed. I would have been blamed. And I would probably be in prison or on my way there right now, because we had the status of mercenaries. So we were betting the company name, its assets, everything we'd accumulated, to get those two guys out. Thank God it worked.