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."
Since the hostages received little mail and only censored magazines news trickled in to the captives through roundabout and nefarious means. Swift learned that the Shah had left the United States when she found a letter addressed to one of the hostages thrown carelessly in a wastepaper basket. Swift read the letter and quickly replaced it in case it was put there as a trap. Similarly, Swift learned that the Shah had died from the index page of Time magazine. As she told the Quarterly, "One of the student honchos came in and said, as part of the usual harangue, that as soon as the Shah was returned, we could go home. I said it would be pretty hard to return the Shah unless they were interested in a corpse. The student looked shocked that I knew."
Although the hostages' nearly total news blackout proved generally frustrating and unsettling, it ironically cushioned them against emotional trauma during the most dangerous or disheartening periods of their captivity. "When the rescue attempt failed, the students were smiling and charging around the embassy saying. "Come on." Swift recalls. "We thought we were being released." Actually, the hostages were only moved to another room--and did not learn of the rescue attempt until one of the students mentioned it some time later.
Swift says she expected some sort of rescue attempt to be made even earlier. "Our [the U.S.'s] ability to hold our temper was amazing," but remains sharply critical of the actual rescue plan Observing that the students had the embassy under "fairly good control," she adds, "Then there's the whole city of Tehran. You would have had crowds converging on the embassy compound, it would have been very bloody." Of her own fate, she says, "I don't think there's much of a chance] would have gotten out alive."
Since the hostages were generally unaware of what was going on in the world. Swift says their most frightening moments often came at times that seemed relatively uneventful to outside observers. One night riots broke out in a nearby stadium and the revolutionary guard marched in firing volleys into the air. "It sounded like there was a huge demonstration approaching the embassy and people were firing volleys into the air [in an unsuccessful attempt] to hold them off," Swift remembers. "We didn't think we'd make it through that one. It was a tiny news item in papers over here--what you didn't know was that it was one block away."
Gunfire--both rifle shots and, after the start of the Iran-Iraq war, anti-aircraft fire--echoed constantly throughout the embassy compound. Swift says the generally chaotic and uncontrolled atmosphere on the grounds made the months at the embassy particularly terrifying. Many of the students were fully armed, but most seemed inexperienced with handling guns and Swift was constantly afraid of being shot accidentally.
In addition, some of the guards used threats of violence to harrass or intimidate their captives. In one instance, a student played Russian roulette with some of the hostages in an attempt to force them to open an embassy safe: "The guy was standing there flipping the chamber of his gun. He said I had five minutes to live. I just started ranting at him."
Swift says she was very relieved when, in November 1980, she and Koob were moved from the embassy compound to a nearby prison "The embassy compound was just so uncontrolled you could never tell what was happening to you," she explains. The move meant we were really under government control. In the great big prison.
Probably the worst aspect of the experience, Swift says was the "feeling of complete power lessness" the sense of having "absolutely no control over anything" For a foreign service officer she adds, this was particularly difficult Unlike most of her fellow captives. Swift ha! been through a hostage situation before. As an officer on the Philippine desk when the U S ambassador was taken hostage. Swift sat on the outside and watched the U S response. "I knew it was U.S. government policy not to ransom hostages." Swift says, adding. "The students would sit there yelling "Give back the Shah" and I would sit there trying to explain why my country would never give the Shah back."
At the same time as a political officer. Swift says she belived the Ayatollah Khomeim meant what he said," and when she learned he had endorsed the demand to return the Shah, she lost much hope. "I didn't figure they would give us back at least until the Shah died."
Today, nearly a year and a half after she left Iran. Swift calls her whole interest in the country "a large mistake. Until you've been through an experience like that it looks very dramatic and exciting, but I'm not up for going into a dangerous situation like Iran again." She pauses, then adds. "That's one place I've probably changed. I used to be gung ho, charging I must admit the temptation is slowly coming back, but it ain't back yet."
Swift says she will remain in the foreign service and would still be willing to go abroad--though "not to Iran and probably not to the Middle East." But she does plan one major change in her career path after 12 years as a political officer, she intends to switch to consular work. "You come back with a different view," she explains. "I'm going to see if I can't help Americans more than work with foreigners I want to help people--and it's easier to help Americans than to help foreigners."
Colleagues at the CFIA, however, suggest another possible motive for her switch--a deep disillusionment which they say Swift has revealed in private conversations. In Iran, Swift spent at least part of her time working with human rights. John Limbert '64, a political officer who worker with Swift at the embassy, says she took this aspect of her work "very, very seriously." While she was a hostage, being held in the embassy. Swift reportedly was shown captured documents suggesting that other branches of the government--the CIA, Pentagon or military--were not acting in accordance with the human rights policies for which she worked.
"Basically, she was representing a government which claimed to support human rights, but she realized that others didn't do much to carry out these instructions," explains Jean-Christopher Oberg, a Swedish diplomat now at the CFIA. "If you are used to playing games then you can accept it. If you have a certain perception, conviction, and realize that colleagues are doing the very opposite, it's traumatic." Swift, he says is switching to the consular side of the foreign service because "She doesn't want to be fooled again--she doesn't want to be in a position on to get into any conflict of interest."
Oberg, who says he is a close friend of Swift, adds that he was not at all surprised by her decision. "She's an honest woman--and it at over-rides everything else."
'You reevaluate your priorities. 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.'
Elizabeth Ann Swift