Real-life Argo

A correspondent looks back on covering the escape

The film Argo, released this year, dramatizes five Americans’ unlikely escape during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 by posing as a Canadian film crew. Former NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani covered the real-life events that became Argo, which won Golden Globes for best picture and best director on Sunday night. Here, Valeriani reflects:

The release of the movie Argo has released in me a flood of memories and some regrets.

When Iranian militants seized the US Embassy in Teheran in November, 1979, I was the NBC News diplomatic correspondent. At the first regularly scheduled briefing at the State Department after the seizure of the Embassy, I asked how many Americans were taken hostage. The answer from the spokesman was, “We don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” I persisted. “Are you saying you don’t know how many people you had in your own Embassy?”

“Well,” the spokesman said, “there are people constantly coming and going, people on TDY (temporary duty)… so we can’t be quite sure.”

I had been a company clerk in the US Army, and I knew about people coming and going and TDY, and we (I) always knew exactly how many people were in the company at any given time. So I persisted—to no avail.

Over the next couple of days, the question became something of an obsession with me. I called just about everybody I knew at the Department and persisted with my question to the point of obnoxiousness.

A couple of days later, I invited a State Department official from the Department of Near East Affairs to lunch. Let’s call him George. We went to Tiberio, an upscale Italian restaurant on “K” Street. I knew George liked martinis—as did I—so we started with one and then two drinks apiece.

After the second martini, I asked George rather belligerently, “I don’t understand how you people at the State Department can be so f***ing stupid that you don’t know how many people you had in your own f***ing Embassy.”

George answered, just as obstreperously, “What you don’t understand is that you’re the one who’s f***ing stupid. Six of them got away, and we don’t want the Iranians to know.”

“How?” I asked.

“Through the Canadian Embassy,” he answered. A quiet “Oh” from me and then a good lunch with a pleasant glass of wine.

I now have a big scoop, but I obviously can’t use it. As soon as I got back to my booth at the State Department, I called my bureau chief and told him what I had learned. I explained that we couldn’t use the story; it would be like giving the Nazis Anne Frank’s address. He agreed, as did the news executives in New York, although the executive producer of the Nightly News at the time wanted to put the story on the air. He was overruled.

And so we sat on the story until the news broke that the six Americans had escaped from Iran with the help of the Canadian Embassy. At that point, the Nightly News reported that NBC News had learned of the six American diplomats’ escape but did not report the story on the air in deference to concerns about their safety. End of story? Not really.

When the six Americans’ escape became public, I assumed they had just gone through normal diplomatic procedures involving the Canadians. I never dreamed that they were snuck from Iran disguised as a film crew. Big mistake for a reporter—Never assume.

I didn’t really think more about it until Argo appeared on movie screens. And then it hit me: Why hadn’t I followed up? Why hadn’t I gone to the Canadians to find out exactly how the six got out? I might have had another big story—one I could have used on the air.

But I rested on my laurels, so to speak… and therefore, in retrospect, the regrets.

The movie, by the way, is very good.

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Richard Valeriani was an NBC News correspondent for 28 years