444 Days in Tehran: The Story of CIA Officers Held Captive During the Iranian Hostage Crisis

It was a warm, sunny November morning when six CIA officers stationed at the US Embassy in Iran first heard the rumblings of a crowd amassing outside. A small group of mostly nonviolent protesters had been gathering near the Embassy for several weeks to demonstrate against US support for the exiled Iranian leader Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. This protest seemed no different. Then, slowly, the noise from the crowd changed, intensified, and grew closer. By mid-morning, a group of radical Islamist students breached the perimeter of the US Embassy on Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue in Tehran and took sixty-six Americans hostage. Fifty-two of the hostages, including the CIA officers, remained in captivity for 444 days.

The Iranian hostage crisis began on November 4, 1979 and was one of the greatest US foreign policy crises of the last century. While much has been written about the crisis, we wanted to share a story you may not know: the plight of two CIA officers who were held hostage during this critical point in American history.

A yellow ribbon tied around an old oak tree, as seen throughout the U.S. in honor of the Americans taken hostage during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

Storming of the Embassy: November 4, 1979

William Daugherty was on his first overseas job as a new operations officer with the Directorate of Operations. Recruited out of graduate school in 1978, Daugherty arrived in Iran on September 12, 1979. In his book, In the Shadow of the Ayatollah: A CIA Hostage in Iran, Daugherty describes his initial days in Tehran as challenging, but interesting and fun. “I was thirty-two years old and at the top of my form, physically and, especially, mentally.” He was in the country only fifty-three days before being taken hostage. As Daugherty states in his first-person account, “A First Tour Like No Other,” written for CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, “It is not often that a newly minted case officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations spends his first tour in jail.”

The chief of the CIA station in Tehran was Tom Ahern.  He had arrived earlier that summer and was the first Permanent Station Chief assigned in Iran after the fall of the Shah during the Iranian Revolution in February. According to Ahern, “the general atmosphere in Tehran was very, very tense.”

President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed the Shah to come to the US for medical treatment on October 22, a move many believed would outrage the Iranians. However, for a few weeks the usual riots and protests outside the Embassy died down and were replaced by an eerie calm. “I think it’s just classic psychological denial to live with that kind of uncertainty about your future,” says Ahern. “You don’t like it to be that uncertain and so you look for signs that things are really okay. We were rather rudely brought back to earth, of course.”

Ahern describes the morning of the Embassy takeover as a perfectly routine Sunday (the first day of the work-week in many Muslim countries). “I think I was dictating something to my assistant when I looked outside and saw a couple of scruffy-looking young people drifting around inside the grounds right below my window.” It was three or four hours from the time Ahern saw the first people in the courtyard until the Embassy was taken over. “There was no real storming of the compound,” recalls Ahern, “It was more like it was infiltrated.”

Ahern and Daugherty were in different parts of the Embassy when it was overrun. Most of the Embassy employees had already been captured by the Iranians, and soon Ahern and Daugherty were left with little option but to surrender. “Having checked around to make sure that it was secure, that everything classified had been destroyed, I opened the door and there they [the Iranian students] were,” recalls Ahern. “They were a little annoyed that they’d been made to wait. The first one in gave me an elbow in the chest so hard that it should have knocked the wind out of me, because it was really a nasty chop. Maybe an adrenalin rush kept me standing, but I was sort of helpless while the rest of them filed into the room. I was not, in any case, planning to resist their entry. And that was how we fell into the hands of the Iranians.”

Life in Captivity

Initially the hostages were held together in the Embassy’s Residence, although divided into separate rooms. However, after those first few weeks, Daugherty and Ahern were kept in solitary confinement for the rest of their captivity. They were subjected to beatings—a rubber hose the favored instrument—coercive interrogation, and threats of public trial and execution. Both officers were determined to maintain their cover as State Department Foreign Service Officers, but the Iranians soon discovered their true affiliation (not everyone in a staff of 50, nearly all of them aware of station identities, could be expected to resist their captors’ pressure to identify the resident spies).

Daugherty recalls the moment the Iranians told him they knew who he really worked for. “To my mind, I was outwitting the interrogators, and I was smugly satisfied. Returning to the subject of my general duties (yet again!) after an interlude for tea, Hossein [the interrogator] asked if I still denied I was CIA. When I responded yes, Hossein handed me a sheet of paper, and my heart seemed to stop dead in mid-beat. In that moment, I thought my life was over.”

The paper was a classified cable the Iranians had found during their search of the Embassy which gave Daugherty’s true name and details of his CIA affiliation and duties. Daugherty had no good options left. “With my stunned brain generating no other brilliant ideas, I looked up at the gloating Iranians and said, “‘OK, so what?'” The interrogators went silent, stunned. Unfortunately, the shock didn’t last long. Both Ahern and Daugherty went through numerous rounds of intense questioning over the next several months.

For Daugherty, the interrogation sessions offered him the opportunity to learn more about the students and why they took the Embassy. “I often found the hours and hours of non-hostile discussions and conversations with the Iranians to be interesting, occasionally useful, and not infrequently a source of true amazement.” Says Daugherty. “And it killed time.”

Ahern and Daugherty developed daily schedules of exercise to help pass the long hours of solitary confinement. “My routine,” says Daugherty, “was to wake sometime after daylight, and then await the usual breakfast of Iranian bread or Afghan barbari bread with butter and jam or feta cheese, and tea. I would then prop my pallet against the wall and take my morning walk, beginning at one corner of the room and striding the eight to 10 paces to the opposite corner, then turning around and heading back. This would continue until I became tired or my feet grew sore. I would then read until lunch, after which I would repeat the morning agenda until dinner. After dinner, I would again walk and read until I was sufficiently tired to sleep.”

Ahern describes a similar routine that he would do for nine out of ten days. “On the tenth day, you rested,” says Ahern. “Why not a week, I don’t know. It just seemed to work out that way.”

Ahern, Daugherty and the other hostages were also able to fill their time by reading. Luckily, just before the Embassy takeover, the entire Tehran-American School library had been delivered to the Embassy warehouse for safekeeping, providing the hostages access to a large selection of novels and nonfiction books. The Iranians supplied their captives with the books, probably to keep them busy so they wouldn’t cause trouble. Daugherty says he read over 500 books during the confinement. “I read most of Dickens’s works, and lots of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. I delighted in the adventures of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. I devoured histories of Russia, Britain, World War I, early 20th-century America, and all of Barbara Tuchman’s works up to that time. Some of the most enjoyable books I stumbled across were ones that I would never have even looked at in a normal life,” he recalls.

Ahern spoke decent (and some indecent) French, so he read all the French literature available and then came across a few basic German grammar books. “The first time I saw them, I just put them aside.” He says. “The second time I thought, ‘Man, you’ve got a German wife, and the family’s always been after you to learn German, you may never see any of these people again, but, if you do, you might as well have used this time to a halfway good effect.'”

Ahern says his secret to surviving as a hostage was to spend as little time as possible wondering how things would turn out. Thinking about it too much, he believed, could change you. “That was what I had to remind myself of. I didn’t want to come out of there having wasted my time and having allowed myself to deteriorate to the point where I wasn’t even me anymore.”

It would be over a year of intense negotiations, a failed US military rescue mission, and the election of a new President before the hostages would learn their fate.

The Release: January 20, 1981

After months of international political arguing and the election of a new US President, the Iranian students finally agreed to the release of the US hostages. The hostages had no idea if or when they would be released, but Daugherty suspected that if it were to happen, it would be on or near President Reagan’s inauguration day: a final insult from the Iranian students to President Carter.

“Nineteen January lasted forever,” recalls Daugherty. “I could not sleep, read, or close my mind. I spent most of that day pacing the room and waiting for another knock. Dinner came and went, while time dragged on and I grew more and more despondent. I had miscalculated, I thought. If I was not released now, then it would probably be a long time before I enjoyed any kind of freedom again.”

Finally Daugherty, Ahern and the other hostages were released after sundown on January 20, 1981. They were all blindfolded for the last time, put on a bus, and driven to the airport where an Air Algerie flight was waiting to take them home. “I was the last one on [the bus] standing at the rear,” says Daugherty. “I glimpsed my COS [Ahern] sitting in the seat in front of me. This was the first time I had seen him in nearly 15 months.”

Coming Home

Ahern and Daugherty had little access to news from the outside world during their months in isolation and had no idea about the great outpouring of public support that would greet them upon their return.

“The reception in America is still difficult for me to describe,” says Daugherty. “It could not have been any warmer or more memorable. I was–and remain so today–immensely grateful for the homecoming our fellow Americans showered on us. We landed at Stewart Airport near Newburgh, New York, and, after having cheerful and tearful reunions with our families, we boarded buses for the ride to West Point, where we were to have a sheltered two days with our families before going to Washington for our official welcome home. It took more than two hours to cover the 18 miles from the airport to West Point; the way was lined with well-wishers who carried all types of signs expressing their happiness to see us back and their feelings toward the Iranians who had held us captive.”

After the parades of red, white and blue ended, and the yellow ribbons that lined the main streets of America in support of the hostages faded, life for Ahern and Daugherty eventually transitioned into a new normal.

“We went from being hostages,” says Daugherty, “to former hostages, until, with the passage of years, we were not even that.”