As the Academy Award-winning film Argo excites people with the story of its dramatic rescue of a handful of Americans trapped in Tehran after Iranian students and militants seized the U.S. embassy, it's well to recall a failed mission to rescue the other 52 hostages held there for 444 days. But for President Jimmy Carter's failure to explore a single question, it might have succeeded.
Evening had fallen in April 1980 as eight RH-53 "Sea Stallion" helicopters lifted off the aircraft carrier NIMITZ to begin a 600 mile journey at low altitude to Desert One, a staging area in the Iranian desert. There the choppers would meet up with C-130 aircraft carrying 174 men, a jeep, motorcycles and other gear. Radio silence was maintained to avoid detection. Over five months of planning and training under tight operational security preceded the operation. The rescue team was drawn from the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, led by the Delta Force founder Colonel Charlie Beckwith.
Ill fortune riddled the rescue effort. Rotor blade failure forced down one helicopter. Two hours later, a haboob, a dust storm whose intense air pressure shot fine sand thousands of feet into the air, cost the operation a second one.
Six choppers made it Desert One. Hydraulic failure caused by a fuel leak caused hydraulic failure in one of them. Now they were down to five. A later review for the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted that "a minimum of six operational helicopters would be required at the refueling site to continue the mission." Permission was given to proceed. Late intelligence had pinpointed where the hostages were held. But Beckwith insisted he needed six choppers to go forward. With Carter's concurrence, he opted to abort. Horribly, more tragedy ensued, as one helicopter and a refueling C-130 collided. Flames engulfed the crafts and killed eight crew members.
Great deference is due the ground commander, especially a tough, able one like Beckwith. Still, Beckwith and Carter may have made the wrong call. The abort arguably turned on the failure of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General David Jones and President Jimmy Carter to explore during the pre-op briefings whether five helicopters could have executed the operation.
The eminent journalist Mark Bowden wrote in The Atlantic that Beckwith insisted that using five helos would deprive the assault force of twenty essential troops. But there is more to the story. U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. (ret) Chuck Pitman, then a Colonel, did the final briefing for General Jones, who briefed Carter the evening before the operation. In interviews given for a book written by this author, Pitman points out that while mission planning had called for six helicopters, the mission required only five. He reports that it had been successfully rehearsed with five. One of the choppers carried equipment that was not needed. Jones did not query or explore the point in the briefing nor did he disclose the option, apparently, to Carter. Pitman faults no one for sticking with the plan, but says "we should have taken the increased risk."
Although a footnote to history, it underscores the need to examine every option thoroughly, ask the right questions, and get answers. President Obama merits credit for ensuring the Navy SEALs sent to get bin Laden had back-up to deal with a firefight in case the Pakistanis interfered. Unlike the hapless Carter, for whom the Eagle Claw operation became a metaphor for a failed Presidency, Obama thought ahead. He made certain, in the face of high risks that he was bravely willing to shoulder, that gutsy special operations personnel received maximum support.
The irony is palpable. Beckwith and his courageous team deserved better from their political leadership, which by all accounts was frustrated but risk averse (Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned over the decision to green-light Eagle Claw, an operation he considered unwise). Despite Carter's best intentions, he had failed to explore his options completely.
Going ahead might well have rescued the hostages. As it turned out, they were lightly guarded that night. The failure of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Jim Jones, or President Carter, to ask or explore a single question may been decisive as events unfolded.
Success might gave altered the outcome of the 1980 election. The hostage crisis paralyzed Jimmy Carter's White House. Watching the Iranians manipulate and embarrass him, many voters concluded that we needed a new President in Ronald Reagan.
It's been rightly said that history does not reveal its alternatives, but one lesson is that even slight failures to ask the right questions can have historic consequences.
Mr. Farwell is a defense consultant and the author of a new book, PERSUASION & POWER: THE ART OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012) that discusses the Iran rescue operation.