Conspiracy at Desert One
By Bernace Charles
Early December 1979
Fred Southgate sat in a home off Reston Lake in Reston, Virginia. David
Rice listened as Fred spoke. Fred Southgate was now a senior member of
the Middle East planning and strategy section of the Central Intelligence
Agency. David flew into Washington, D.C., from Istanbul that morning. Fred
Southgate said, "The pentagon is pressing hard for information. The
director has already contacted a couple of liaison officers to coordinate
the military's need for information. With the militants doing as expected,
the Upper Brass doesn't have the contacts we have. Nothing is traceable.
We have Nezar Hindawi in the city and we have Mashhad there. We have a
man north of Qazvin with a weapon to stop any rescue-effort."
David answered, "Damn it. I didn't expect Carter to chance a rescue-effort."
David Rice was an ex-pilot for Air America in Southeast Asia. Like Fred,
he currently worked an operation run out of Tehran. They did so at a time
when others thought there was none.
Fred looked at David and knew they were part of a unique ruse. He said,
"It'll be a blood bath if the services try. This isn't resolvable
by some cowboy operation taking off for Tehran. This nightmare is to get
a Republican back in the White House. If it's a past movie star . . . so
As he watched Rice for a reaction to his words, Fred knew there were
those within the agency who feared another four years of downsizing. Both
the military and the intelligence services' ability to operate in the world
of covert operations were drifting. Too many mistakes reached the press
and he knew the president was dancing to the strings of public outrage.
For Southgate and Rice the public perception of the embassy takeover was
a falsehood. Others working for the agency got out of Tehran only days
before the revolution swept over the embassy walls.
What was going on in Iran was an example of the problems facing the
agency in the coming years. Men swept Iran into revolutionary zeal after
years of supporting the Shah, his security service, and arming his military.
But Fred and David were men in the agency not caught off guard by the takeover
of the American Embassy. A false concern expressed contempt for the act
as though it kicked sand in the agency's face. The story was supposed to
play that way. Thus far, it ran like clockwork.
David knew Fred was in a better position to know about any hostage rescue-effort.
Fred also served as liaison with the Department of Defense. He once flew
for Air America and trained others for flights into Cambodia and Laos before
and during the Vietnam War. At the time, the company was supplying training
and weapons to the Montagard Tribes in the mountains running down the backbone
of Vietnam; it was the time that Fred first carried the code-name The Raven.
Now, the old guard saw a frightening world evolving. Rice noted, "I
just hope someone doesn't go off and get those people killed. They can't
have any hard intelligence coming in. Hell, they have to watch the nightly
news to see what's going on in the damn streets. We can't allow Mashhad
on the radio except in an extreme emergency telling him to get out of the
country. The satellite photos aren't going to give anyone a clue about
what's going on inside. They don't have the human element. Watching the
hostages paraded around on the nightly news isn't going to solve anything.
The NSA isn't going to be of any help to them."
"David, they're in the learning stage. With the planning staff
putting a rescue-effort together, it pushes us up a step. "
David looked hard at Fred, "To what?" Before allowing Fred
to answer David added, "I don't believe it. Someone thinks he can
infiltrate the country and get the hostages out alive. It'll never happen.
They'll get them killed and end with a horde of students willing to become
Fred didn't offer any expression but said, "What we've accomplished
is of little significance if others mount an effort to rescue these people.
We can't allow it to happen. I need you to return to Istanbul. I'll need
you there if it comes to the point that these people think they've found
a secure landing zone inside Iran. You stay at the safe house on the harbor.
There's a planning team being put together. A man I know has been sitting
in on strategy meetings. I won't say whom, but they're attempting to become
organized. The only thing we can do is watch, wait, learn what they decide,
and how and where they plan to enter Iran. They don't want us involved
because they need to avoid contact with anyone the Iranians might know.
Right now, the last thing we need is either of us showing up at the Pentagon.
There's one man with DOD who'll help by updating me on the readiness level.
We can't allow them to succeed."
David's face expressed dismay. He said, "The bastards aren't smart
enough to realize that pulling this off would mean another four years of
budget cuts coming out of the White House? If it succeeds, the president
will show the naysayers of this town he was right. Damn! They don't know
what the hell is taking place!"
"Unfortunately, no one is thinking that far ahead. Right now, the
only concern is the politics of it."
David stood to get a pack of cigarettes lying on the kitchen counter.
As he lighted one, he thought that any kind of rescue-effort was unlikely.
He also knew the Iranians wouldn't give in to international pressure and
release the Americans. He was certain of this by the fact Mashhad was part
of the embassy take-over. The other thing dominating his thoughts was that
they couldn't allow a rescue operation to succeed. If it did there wouldn't
be a new president to convince the public of needed military expenditures.
Men knew the projections for Soviet military expansion and the cold war
was normal military awareness. But Vietnam was still playing hell on the
Fred added, "We can't allow any operation to take place. We have
risked too much as it is. We need someone the Iranians won't suspect. We
need someone born and raised in Tehran. We need someone who knows how to
get around in the city. We need someone capable of traveling to Istanbul
and Ankara. He or she may have to go to Tehran if the rescue-effort becomes
a reality. Istanbul would be best for now. We need someone capable of multiple
language skills and knowledgeable . . . especially in Islamic culture."
David looked at Fred. He doubted that he kept a step ahead of him. He
asked, "What are we going to accomplish outside the circle being drawn
around this for security reasons?"
"We're going to keep on top of what's going on in Tehran. We're
going to prevent a damn tragedy from occurring. The take-over of the embassy
means nothing and we know it. Call it what you will, but if the president
allows the military to convince him there's a chance of getting the hostages
out . . . there'll be a bloodbath."
"And you think we can prevent it?"
"It's preventable; we'll see to it. We need to know what's going
on inside the Pentagon. We need kept up to date on any progress they make
toward developing some scenario to rescue those people. It'll be a tragedy
if a rescue-effort managed to get to the embassy compound . . . one shot
and the streets would flow with blood. We're damn fortunate to have that
David kept his eyes on Fred, and knew the two men had marched past the
point of treason. Fred was up to more than the students taking the embassy.
The most far-fetched thing they expected was for others to purpose an operation
to enter Iran, secure the hostages, and make their way out of the country.
It was simply too huge a problem.
Fred Southgate continued, "You know we can trust Mashhad. We might
use another. We're going to use him in a different way. He's young, only
eighteen, but the students released him and his father after they first
arrested him. We learned this from a woman who went to Tehran during December
of last year. She returned the body of her husband who died in Los Angeles.
The wife wanted the husband buried in Tehran. After arriving back in the
states, she contacted a federal office. She told them about the father
and son. The father is a carpet and prayer mat dealer buying out of Istanbul
rather than buying in Iran."
"This is someone you can trust?"
"We don't know at this point. We know the boy can travel to purchase
carpets." Fred paused before saying, "To test her ability to
survive in the field . . . I've sent Laleh to Istanbul."
David was incredulous. He said, "You're kidding. You sent Laleh
into the field. Laleh's a language specialist; she's not a field operative."
David Rice thought of Laleh Sanders and her daughter. They were living
with Fred. David hadn't given thought to neither Laleh nor Roya Sanders
not being at the home. He thought they were visiting Fred's parents in
Connecticut. Three years past, Laleh's grandparents in Tehran died in an
auto accident in Tehran's mad arena of driving any automobile. Driving
in the city was like driving in a coliseum of mad-hatters. Any American
first driving there sincerely believed they entered a death-defying act
from a fleeting loss of common sense.
Fred continued, "Laleh's had field training. With her language
skills, she can blend in there. I know the woman's strengths. You know
we can trust her. Because her father was once with the foreign office she
knows the people."
David said, "God help us."
"Listen, we don't have anyone who can take on the role of multiple
languages and cultures like Laleh." Fred paused before adding, "David,
we didn't create the hostage issue to ignore any rescue-effort. If we send
Laleh into Tehran, our man there can watch her back. The guy has been working
with us since the Second World War. The last years, after Laleh's grandparents
were killed, I arranged for him to be the caretaker of their home. With
Laleh having a small extended family on her grandparents' side, and with
them living along the Caspian Sea, there aren't relatives in Tehran. She
won't have to answer dozens of invitations for dinner. The man taking care
of the house has been with us since 1942 when he first worked for the OSS.
There's an apartment on the property. He's now living there. He can watch
Laleh in Tehran as well as having Mashhad watch out for her. We pay him
through his sister and her husband who have a restaurant in Athens. Laleh
can return to put the house up for sale while serving another purpose.
The kid she meets in Istanbul can give meaningless information on the security
posted around the embassy compound. The only purpose that he serves is
to find if anyone follows or suspects Laleh of being more than a photographer
on assignment. We need to know before sending her to Tehran. We won't have
any operation depending on the boy and his sister. They're kids and of
no critical use. Laleh is in Istanbul. I want you going there and without
her knowing it. We're going to wait and see what rescue scenario these
men put together. If they think they can pull something off, we need to
know it. Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent a bloodbath. Maybe Laleh can
prevent it. I need you to keep an eye on her and let me know how she does
in the field."
"We've already got an invitation to a federal penitentiary. If
we screw with the planning of this big of an operation there'll be pay
Fred answered, "The agency can't survive another four years like
these last few. The country has lost most of the production on the B1.
They have gutted the agency. We need someone in the White House to push
for technological superiority over the damn Russians. The world isn't going
to change. The Iranians see us as losers in NAM and unable to maintain
a strong international stand. They've simply changed the face of it by
taking the embassy. At least we know what is going on with them. Let the
Pentagon dream, but we can't allow any rescue-effort to reach the embassy.
If it were successful . . . it'll reelect Carter."
"Damn it, Fred, we can't prevent what's going to be a presidential
Fred answered in irritation at David's hesitation. It wasn't present
the day they conspired to have Mashhad influence the student revolutionaries
in Tehran into overrunning the American Embassy. He said, "If these
students suck the military into thinking they can rescue the hostages,
they're going to give this country a bloody nose that'll take years to
heal. The brass doesn't understand these people; you would think the state
department did . . . it doesn't. They sure as hell won't send anyone into
Tehran without doing a recon mission. There's no way they should know or
suspect Laleh. You and I both know they'll send operatives to Tehran and
we won't know who they are. They'll do it to check out the embassy. None
of them or anyone else outside the agency will know Laleh should someone
see her on the street. The world press has converged there and Laleh will
be nothing more but another photojournalist."
"How do you think we can make a difference? We've done enough."
"We can make a difference by not allowing this stupidity to happen
. . . we can't allow a rescue-effort to reach Tehran. We have to stop it
inside Iran where no one can trace it back to us. We can't allow it to
reach the embassy compound. It'll cause a bloodbath."
"What reason did you give for Laleh to take off for Istanbul?"
"The cover was established years back and pulled from the shelf.
A publisher in New York sent her to do a pictorial essay of the city. No
one knows she's there except me and now you. Officially, she's taking a
sabbatical for language studies at Georgetown. We have a student there
under her name. I've processed the paper work. Mashhad has done well, but
we can't run the risk of sending anyone into Tehran right now to contact
him. Since the embassy take-over, he has purposely stayed out of contact.
If we send Laleh to Tehran we'll send a shot message to him to watch her.
The last thing we want is for someone to expose him. We need Laleh to meet
with this kid through the carpet merchant we've worked with in Istanbul.
You know the man is a minor player. For now, and to get Laleh used to being
in the field, we need him."
David asked, "Do you think Laleh could bring herself to stop an
American effort to rescue the hostages?""
"I don't know. We'll have to wait and see what happens. We'll get
information that might be helpful in any rescue-effort and find how to
stop it. We can't do it all here. Right now, it's speculation about whether
the president will authorize a raid. If he does, it'll be exactly what
this country doesn't need."
David, who turned to stare out the window, turned back, raised a finger
to point at Fred and said, "Fred, I think we have crossed the bounds
of common sense. If you set this up to keep track of what's going on .
. . and attempt to squelch it . . . you'll be lucky to live. Especially,
if anyone finds we engineered the embassy take-over."
"Don't worry. Nothing is going to happen that will get anyone killed.
The complete opposite is our intent. The services will do about anything
to convince the president they can do the impossible. Our job is to make
certain they don't accomplish it."
After lighting a cigarette and surveying Fred's taut facial muscles,
David said, "I hope you know what you're doing. I hope someone doesn't
kick it out of our hands. Right now, it's a waiting game. We may be pushing
our luck to stop a rescue-effort."
Fred thought of the choice of David's words. "It's not a matter
of luck. It's a matter of stopping these idiots who think they know what
they're doing. We can't allow them to reach the embassy compound. I'm telling
you, David, if it happens, there'll be hell to pay. Damn straight up hell.
It's not an option we can stand by and watch."
David turned away and said, "Damn it . . . I need a drink."
Fred added, "Wayne Phillips is in on this. It'll make it easier
to keep up with whatever the services are putting together. I approached
Wayne about it last week. He gives the cover legitimacy to keep up with
what's going on in Tehran and how the Joint Task Force is structured. We
don't find anything . . . so we forward nothing. He's fully behind it and
can process the paper work and pull the right strings. It's covered as
a black operation to advise any rescue-effort. You're always good in a
pinch if something goes wrong. It'll also broaden a need to get service
personnel in line. We know tension has taken place between the flyboys
and the Navy rotor jocks. We have a couple of men in Air Force Special
Ops. They're both on board if this should go down. They're not keen on
"What's this country coming to that its military strength has to
fight a bunch of student revolutionaries who don't know what the world
is about. Not only that, but we're pulling one of their trump cards without
them knowing it?"
"It's all the same. The only thing that matters is being king of
the hill. It's been the same story since the beginning of time. I don't
know why anyone would hope it might be different."
David turned back to Fred but didn't answer >>>
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