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Eagle Claw - Iran Embassy Rescue - 1979-1980

On 4 November 1979, a group of Iranian "students" overran the US embassy in Tehran and captured 66 American hostages. Unbeknown to the Iranians at the time, six Americans working at the embassy had managed to avoid capture and took refuge in the residences of the Canadian ambassador and deputy chief of mission.

The Pentagon immediately began planning an operation to rescue the 66 hostages; President Carter gave DCI Turner the mission of rescuing the six being sheltered by the Canadians. CIA was, in fact, heavily involved in both operations. To extricate the six being sheltered by the Canadians, the Agency sent a team to Tehran, disguised as a Hollywood film crew. The team brought disguises and passports for the embassy employees in hiding. On 28 January 1980, after satisfying Iranian immigration authorities, the six flew out of Tehran for Zurich. The operation to rescue the rest of the hostages took place in April 1980. It was to use helicopters to ferry a commando force into Tehran to storm the embassy and rescue the hostages. Because of the distances involved, the helicopters would have to be refueled before they made the flight to Tehran. The plan was to have refueling aircraft land in a remote part of the Iranian desert and wait for the helicopters to arrive.

CIA sent operatives into Iran several months before the rescue to scout the embassy and purchase trucks to transport the rescue force during the operation. The Agency also secretly landed a light plane on the desert refueling site to take soil samples to ensure the landing area would support the refueling aircraft.

Unfortunately, the operation had to be aborted when three of the helicopters had mechanical problems, leaving insufficient capability to transport the rescue force. As the aircraft involved were preparing to leave the landing area, one of the helicopters collided with one of the refueling aircraft, resulting in the deaths of seven Americans.

At the time these operations occurred, Hughes-Ryan was still the law, and the DCI was required to provide "timely notice" of all covert actions; both operations qualified as such - neither was undertaken for intelligence-gathering purposes. Because of the risks involved if either operation were disclosed, the Carter administration decided not to brief any congressional committee until after they were over. "In both instances," DCI Turner later wrote, "Iinformed the intelligence committees as soon as I could afterward. They were not happy, but were understanding."

In fact, most committee members indicated afterwards that they understood why they had not been told, but not SSCI Chairman Bayh. He saw it as a sign that the administration did not trust the committee and suggested that in the future, a smaller group might be told, "so at least somebody in the oversight mechanism" would know. Bayh went on to note, "If oversight is to function better, you first need it to function [at all]."

Later the same year, when the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980 passed the Senate, it gave the president the option of providing "timely notice" to a "gang of eight" - the majority and minority leaders in each chamber and the leaders of the two intelligence committees - rather than the full committees, when it was "essential . . . to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States." Although the "gang of eight" provision could not be justified publicly by pointing to the Iranian rescue operations - the CIA role was still secret - those operations clearly formed the backdrop for its consideration and adoption.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:16 ZULU