Benghazi-Tehran -- Warnings Unheeded

10/03/2012 12:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2012

A U.S. administration is accused of not increasing security at a sensitive diplomatic outpost in the Middle East, despite warnings from its own intelligence agencies. The results are catastrophic.

We're talking not just about Libya today -- but Iran 30 years ago -- when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

According to several top-secret U.S. government documents, which we revealed on 60 Minutes on March 2,1980, the administration of Jimmy Carter failed to heed warnings from top Iranian officials and its own diplomats about the dangers if the U.S. were to admit the deposed Shah of Iran to the United States.

On November 4, 1979, several hundred radical Iranians, outraged at the U.S. decision to admit the Shah they detested to New York for medical treatment, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, overwhelmed the security guards, and took the American diplomats hostage.

It looked as if the Carter administration was innocent, overwhelmed by events: they had simply extended a humanitarian hand to a former ally who suddenly and desperately needed medical treatment.

It later turned out that the taking of the embassy was far from spontaneous. On the other hand, as we discovered, U.S. government planning for the Shah to come to the U.S. had begun months before, and had continued despite ample warning of looming disaster.

Ironically, chapter and verse of those warnings were provided by files seized during the embassy takeover. As the mobs surged through the gates, officials inside frantically shredded thousands of documents. The hostage-takers, however, turned over that supposedly illegible mountain of debris to an army of local Iranians -- many of them supposedly skilled weavers. After months of effort, they painstakingly pieced hundreds of documents back together. They were then published and put on sale -- outside the American Embassy itself, for instance, where we picked up a copy.

Among that trove was a State Department document classified "secret sensitive," written in August 1979 and titled "Planning for the Shah to come to the U.S." That was three months before the Shah's arrival in New York. It said that once Khomeini is firmly established "it seems appropriate to admit the Shah to the United States."

The discussion between officials in Washington and Tehran continued. In September, 1979, the embassy's charge d'affaires, warned that the Shah's coming to the U.S. could spell trouble to the embassy. "I doubt that the Shah being ill, would have much ameliorating effect on the degree of reaction here."

About that reaction, a State Department report specifically warned of "the danger of hostages being taken" and advised "When the decision is made to admit the Shah, we should quietly assign additional American security guards to the embassy, to provide protection to key personnel until the danger period is considered over."

Despite that warning, Henry Precht, then-head of the Iranian Desk at the State Department, admitted to us that, "those guards were never provided."

The Carter administration attempted to defend itself by claiming that Iranian officials had assured them that, if the Shah were to come to the United States, the Iranians would still protect the embassy.

But Ibrahim Yazdi, Iran's former Foreign Minister, gave us a different story. He told us that he was officially informed by the U.S. only 24 hours before the arrival of the Shah in New York.
Yazdi said that he then warned the State Department, "You are playing with fire. There will be a very drastic reaction."

When President Carter asked then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance if the embassy could be protected, Vance later told Mike Wallace, "We said that we could. But we didn't."