A Deadly Secret
By Mary Lord
“America's Vigil” was one of our early cover stories on the Iranian hostage crisis under President Jimmy Carter. On November 4, 1979, militant supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, imprisoning the ambassador and dozens of diplomats for 444 anguishing days. Our “Vigil” cover, timed around Christmas, was to feature hearts-and-flowers profiles of individual hostages.
Many of the embassy staff and foreign service officers lived in the DC area. So the Washington bureau had a lot of bios to pull together. Working down the Associated Press list of embassy
personnel, I dialed the foreign agricultural service seeking information about Lee Schatz, the agricultural attaché. I was in the middle of a lovely discussion with a mid-level manager-type about the attaché’s love of fishing and rural Idaho upbringing when he said something like "I hope you aren't writing about him as a hostage."
I assured him these profiles were little snippets, nothing that would give the captors any extra power. No, that's not what he meant. I finally understood that Lee Schatz was in Iran but somehow NOT a hostage.
Inside Scoop: By the end of the day, the bureau had learned the names and whereabouts of the six who had escaped their captors. They ended up in the Canadian Embassy--and were later safely smuggled out of Iran by the CIA, as detailed in the current (fall 2012) movie, Argo.
The state department got wind of our reporting. We were summoned to Foggy Bottom for a scolding about reckless endangerment of American lives. Deputy bureau chief and congressional correspondent Henry Hubbard led our delegation. The officials were given a copy of the cover story, which had gone to the printer, with our assurances that we'd change anything necessary. They must have been relieved to see none of the non-captives among the 'who's who.' Ultimately, they requested changes to a handful of phrases.
We had the scoop of the year, and not a word did we print or speak.
We missed the bureau holiday party, as I recall.
Mary Lord joined the Washington bureau as a summer intern in June 1976, was hired as a reporter that fall, and left in December 1983.
Note: See Christoper Harper's article, My Canadian Hostage Call, for the Iran end of the same story.