Ex-Hostage Swift: Year of Reflection

On January 20, 1981, two sagas intersect. A few minutes before noon, as spectators on Capitol Hill cluster around portable radios to hear the latest news of the American hostages' release. Ronald Wilson Reagan takes the oath of office to become the 40th President of the United States. One half hour later, as President Reagan's motorcade proceeds up crowded Pennsylvania Avenue, the 52 American hostages who have been held in Iran for 444 days' lift off from Tehran on a flight bound for Algiers.

Two images freeze the day in the minds of the American public: Nancy Reagan, attired in brilliant red, gazing admiringly at her husband as he takes the oath of office upon a tattered family Bible: Elizabeth Ann Swift '62, the first hostage to come through the door of the plane, starting down the stairs, hanging back, then descending the ramp, talking and smiling broadly.

Six weeks after the American hostages touched down in Algiers, Elizabeth Ann Swift '62 accepted an offer to come to Harvard as a fellow at the Center for International Affairs (CFIA). There Swift has spent a quiet year, intentionally avoiding the flurry of publication and publicity that has surrounded some of her fellow hostages. Last fall, when Swift shopped for Kennedy School textbooks, her name-emblazoned clipboard turned a few heads in the Coop, but for the most part she has managed to escape attention.

Within the CFIA, however. Swift has won unusual friendship and esteem from her colleagues One of the best liked fellows at the center. Swifts described variously as "warm and outgoing," "energetic" and "extremely intelligent," and one administrator called her "a spark plug member of the group."

But no adjective is stressed more vigorously or repeated more frequently than "honesty." "She's a very courageous person with a lot of integrity," one CFIA fellow says, and another adds. "She's one of the most honest women I've ever taet."

This year has been a period of reflection for Swift a period of, as she puts it, "getting back to normal." Although Swift has been reluctant to discuss her experiences publicly--she has repeatedly turned down interviews and on-the-record speaking engagements--her colleagues at the CFIA say she is not hesitant to talk about her captivity in private settings. Says one CFIA fellow, "she takes her experience as part of her life--it is something she could occasionally even make jokes about."

But if Swift--who recently consented to an interview with the Crimson--is not bitter about her 14 months as a hostage, the experience has plainly had a profound effect on her approach to both private and professional life. "You reevaluate your priorities," she says. "Certain things become more important--friends, family, that sort of thing. Things that used to make me mad now just don't faze me. Things don't faze me, things don't scare me. Things get put in perspective."

Politically, too, the experience appears to have had a significant impact. Since she has chosen to remain in the foreign service. Swift refuses to discuss publicly her political perspectives, but CFIA colleagues say her experience as a hostage left her deeply disillusioned with some aspects of American foreign policy. Reportedly, Swift's guards showed her documents captured in the embassy which she never knew existed and which seemed to run counter to some of the policies she was working to uphold. "She was deceived, double-crossed," one colleague says. "She has lost a few of her illusions."

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The saga for Ann Swift began in February 1979, when the Islamic revolution erupted in Iran and the U.S. embassy was taken over for the first time. Most of the officers who had been staffing the embassy left soon after the takeover and the State Department recruited volunteers to fill the posts. Although all of Swift's training and experience had been in East Asia, she sympathized somewhat with the goals of the revolution and considered the dangerous situation dramatic and exciting.

Within the State Department, officials say, there were some doubts about whether a woman should be sent into such a volatile situation, but Victor Tomseth, the newly appointed chief political officer, had worked with Swift in the East Asian bureau 10 years before. "Because I had worked with her before. I thought otherwise," Tomseth says.

Despite the nearly complete turnover of the Embassy staff--with four exceptions. Swift says, we "were all new in varying degrees of newness"--she believes the embassy was better trained and informed than most. "Our problem was we weren't tied in to the revolutionary members." On November 4, 1979--less than three months after Swift had arrived--this "problem" proved critical: the embassy was overrun by students, and Swift became a hostage for the next 14 months.

For the first few days, the hostages were tied to chairs during the day and left bound on the floor at night. When, after two and a half weeks, most of the women in the embassy were released. Swift was put into isolation--which she calls "down right frightening." "I thought Kate had been released too and assumed that most of the others had been released and we were down to a core of six or seven." From 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. every day there were unceasing demonstrations outside the embassy I Loudspeakers blared continuously and occasionally sporadic gunfire broke out in various corners of the compound. After one such outburst. Swift says, the guards told her. "One of your hostage friends tried to escape and we shot him." It turned out he had indeed tried to escape, but luckily wasn't harmed.

Although Swift had several opportunities to escape during the first or second day, she told the Radcliffe Quarterly last fall that she didn't attempt it because" figured outsiders were doing their at most to get us out. I didn't want to cause major problems." Later she obtained a fake 1 D but never used it. "I figured the hands on the other side of the wall would be unfriendly. I just didn't know whom to go to. Most Iranians supported the embassy takeover."

By February 1980. Swift recalls, the students began to take better care of the hostages, improving their food and letting some outside visitors in Two weeks before Easter, she and Katherine Koob, the other woman detained in captivity, were put together again. Recalling their counter-terrorism training which instructs hostages to establish personal relationships with their captors--the two began talking to the students and trying to teach them English. But, Swift says, they found their guards wary and "well aware that we were trying to subvert them."