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Source: Washington Post

Dec 17, 2023

He was taken hostage in Iran. Now, Thomas Ahern, ex-CIA spy, tells his story.
In a memoir, an ex-station chief recalls decades at the CIA, including his 1979 captivity in Iran

By Ian Shapira

The 91-year-old former CIA station chief in Tehran, seated in his living room in McLean, Va., glanced at his upturned palms. The bruises from his time as a hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran faded long ago. But memories of his captor pelting his hands with a rubber hose still flickered. For half an hour, his principal interrogator and others insisted that he confess that he was a CIA spy.

“The most interesting part of that whole episode,” recalled ex-CIA officer Thomas Ahern, “is that he got a little impatient and forced me onto the floor on my back — no, on my stomach — because what they were preparing to do was work on my feet.”

The former spy, dressed in khakis and black Crocs, grinned ruefully. Ahern (pronounced “Uh-HERN”) was one of dozens of Americans taken hostage at the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, by Islamic radicals who were irate at U.S. support for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the self-exiled shah, and suspicious of the U.S. presence in their country.

Ahern and 51 others would stay captive for 444 days before their release on Jan. 20, 1981, the last day of President Jimmy Carter’s administration and the first day of President Ronald Reagan’s.

Now, Ahern has joined the ranks of so many agency alums: He just published a memoir, “Nothing If Not Eventful,” which recounts the bulk of his nearly 70-year CIA career, including its most wrenching chapter. Unlike other CIA memoirists, Ahern chose not to pitch the manuscript to publishing houses and is instead making the book available free on the agency’s website.

“You recognize that you are reaching the end,” said Ahern, who retired from the agency in 1989 but continued working as a contract historian until a few months ago. “It’s a more difficult question than you may realize, because on the one hand, it seems like a reasonable thing to do, and on the other hand, I’ve always thought of these things as exercises in vanity.”

It took some urging by colleagues, Ahern said, for him finally to write the book. Andy Vaart, a former CIA analyst who served as his editor, said Ahern always was an especially humble figure at the office. Although Ahern did reveal the details of his captivity years ago for a book by the journalist Mark Bowden, he rarely discussed it with colleagues.

“He rejects the idea of him being a hero,” said Vaart, a longtime editor of internal intelligence publications at the agency. “He sees himself as a victim of circumstance. But I told him, ‘It’s really how you endure that experience — and what you come away with — to know if you’re heroic or not.’”

Sitting in his McLean home — on the same street where a parade celebrated his return from captivity in 1981 — the widowed Ahern naturally exhibited signs of his age. His right hand occasionally twitched. He leaned in to hear better. And he padded room to room with a walker. But signs of his sharpness abounded. A sitting room was stacked with — what else? — John le Carré novels. Shelves were filled with CDs of classical music, the kind of music his Iranian captors allowed him.

“My reaction was mixed when I was offered a tape of Schubert’s 5th symphony,” he wrote about his captivity in his book. “I almost turned it down because the piece was a favorite of my mother, and I feared that listening to it would cost me the equanimity that was still shaky after the abuses of the first months.”

Recruited to the CIA

One day during his senior year at Notre Dame, a college dean called Ahern into his office. It was either late 1953 or early 1954. The academic told the young man from Wisconsin that visitors from Washington were coming to the campus. They wanted to meet with students qualified for classified employment of an unspecified nature.

Ahern, the son of a plumbing and heating contractor, was curious about careers beyond his father’s profession.

“Weeks later, a middle-aged interviewer with a scholarly manner revealed that [the] CIA was my prospective employer,” Ahern wrote.

Ahern knew little about the spy agency, mostly that it was at the tip of the spear in the United States’ fight against world communism. At the time, the country was fresh off the Korean War, whose combat ended in 1953 as the result of an armistice.

When the CIA offered him a spot in its Junior Officer Training Program, he accepted. He told his parents back home in Fond du Lac, an hour north of Milwaukee, and they offered their support and confidence.

One of the agency’s requirements was that he enlist in the Army and then advance to officer candidate school. He learned to drive an M-47 tank and crawl across a field of cold mud while machine gun fire ripped over his head. He became such an expert with a Browning automatic rifle that he could empty a magazine and hit only bull's-eyes.

In the summer of 1956, he began the CIA’s operations course. He practiced sneaking into a simulated enemy prison camp to rescue allies. Other lessons involved interrogations and the recruitment of agents. But not everything was so serious. On graduation night, he and other students got drunk and took a bunch of World War II light trucks on joyrides, playing chicken and daring one another to be the first to swerve out of harm’s way.

‘Nothing Headquarters could do for us’

His career took off fast. First, at the age of 25, he was deployed in 1957 to the CIA’s station in Tokyo. Then, by late 1960, he arrived in Laos, where the United States was battling the country’s communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces. During his two-year tour of duty, he and his CIA colleagues executed airdrops of weapons and supplies to Hmong militia fighters and civilian volunteers.

Soon, headquarters sent him to Vietnam, where he was assigned to develop “rural pacification” programs. There, he met his future wife, Gisela Daschkey, a German Embassy employee. (Her first name is pronounced “GEE-zuh-luh.”) She was initially indifferent to his attention, but they eventually began dating. “I had never before been attracted to a girl as direct or matter of fact as Gisela or to anyone as adventurous,” he wrote. In 1965, they got married. Soon, they had their only child, a daughter, Christine.

Ahern lived with his wife, Gisela, and their daughter, Christine, in a small house in Quezon City during his tour of duty as a CIA officer in the Philippines in the late 1960s. (Courtesy of Thomas Ahern)

By the late 1970s, Ahern had accumulated extensive experience around the world. After tours in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, Cambodia and an African country that he is still not permitted to name, he was offered the job of deputy chief of station in Iran, the No. 2 agency officer in that country.

But he was a “neophyte” in the region, with limited Farsi, he concedes in his book. He knew of the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup against Iran’s elected government but had not been keeping tabs on the shah’s rule and his relationship with the United States. Nor was he aware of the surging Islamic fundamentalist movement clamoring for greater religious influence in Iranian society.

In early 1979, before Ahern left to become deputy in Tehran, everything changed. The shah exiled himself in January, personally piloting a Boeing 707 out of the country. The next month, armed Iranian guerrillas occupied the U.S. Embassy for a day.

Then, that spring, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the country’s popular religious leader, declared after a national referendum that Iran was no longer a monarchy and instead was an Islamic republic.

The state of play persuaded the CIA to reconstitute its station with new faces that would be unfamiliar to locals.

Langley’s executives needed a new station chief, and Ahern was their man. No was not an option. He’d once turned down an offer to be a station chief in Africa and figured that a second rejection of a station chief position would be likely to foreclose future offers.

“I was thinking, ‘What are they thinking?’” Ahern recalled, smiling.

So he said yes. His wife and daughter would stay behind at their new home in McLean, just a few minutes from CIA headquarters.

Once he arrived, in mid-1979, Ahern and his fellow officers’ mission was to ascertain the motives of the country’s conservative clergy and suss out potential dissidents. The agency also needed to revive its surveillance systems in northern Iran to monitor Soviet missile tests.

On a Sunday morning in early November, Ahern was pacing his second-story office in the embassy when he looked out the window. A group of young Iranians was congregating on the grounds. They looked “harmless,” he wrote.

Even as their numbers grew, and even as they seemed “capable of laying siege” to the compound, “nothing threatening” struck him about their behavior.

Iranian students display raised fists as a U.S. flag is set on fire in Tehran on Nov. 5, 1979. (AP)

But when a security officer reported that a few Iranians had demanded entry, Ahern’s mind-set changed. Instantly, he swung into shred-and-disintegrate mode. As he and others destroyed sensitive papers, the embassy interlopers grew more agitated. To keep the crowd at bay, a security official or Marine guard fired tear gas. Ahern, meanwhile, called Langley with real-time updates.

“There was, of course,” he wrote, “nothing Headquarters could do for us.”

He knew. Time was up. The crowd was swarming the embassy.

A total of 66 Americans were taken hostage, including three who had been at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, according to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum. Thirteen were released later that month.

A fourteenth, Richard Queen, was let go in the summer of 1980 after Iranian doctors gave him a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

The crisis might be best remembered, though, for the six State Department employees who were never taken hostage. They escaped, hid in the homes of Canadian Embassy staffers and were exfiltrated in an operation depicted in the 2012 film “Argo.”

‘Neighborhood hero comes home’

During his captivity, Ahern said life was boring at first. Then his captors demanded that he come clean about his employer, “which I declined to do,” he wrote. His chief interrogator then grabbed a rubber hose and whipped his hands.

“The pain was intense, and each blow forced a kind of scream out of me,” Ahern wrote.

In his 2006, book on the hostage crisis, “Guests of the Ayatollah,” Bowden — best known for his 1999 book “Black Hawk Down” — interviewed Ahern and identified his interrogator by his full name: Hussein Sheikholeslam. According to news accounts, Sheikholeslam later became Iran’s deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Syria. He died of covid-19 in 2020.

Ahern wrote in his memoir that his captors threatened to publicly execute him — an outcome he was so determined to avoid that he considered killing himself with an electrical cord and water.

“If they came for me — I assumed, I guess, that I would perceive their intention — I would seize the cable, already plugged into a wall circuit, and plunge the end into a container of water,” he wrote.

His detention was brutal. He was placed in solitary confinement. He went on a hunger strike — twice — to try to force his liberation.

“The beatings, death threats, and isolation are now only abstractions, and it is hard to imagine just what kind of psychological preparations might have made the experience more tolerable,” he wrote. “I know that there are now training programs designed for this purpose, but no such help was being offered at the time of the adventure shared by my colleagues and me.”

Americans who had been held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran leave an Air Force plane at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, West Germany, on Jan. 21, 1981. (Wolfgang Rettay/AP)

One subject that Ahern explores briefly in “Nothing If Not Eventful” — but that he discussed in greater detail with Bowden — was the information he confirmed to his captors under duress.

According to “Guests of the Ayatollah,” Ahern verified to the Iranians the identity of people including an Iranian tribal leader funded by the CIA to whip up resistance to the religious regime. The man was arrested in summer 1980 and publicly hanged in 1982, Bowden wrote.

“This is a subject I still find painful,” Ahern wrote in his memoir. “With some of the material I was shown, Hussein got me to confirm a few identities. I know that on one occasion, I gave them more than I wanted to, though I never simply opened the book on them.

But for me, in retrospect years after, mine was a rather pathetic effort to defend both my agents and myself, resting as it did on the unfortunately flawed calculation that by late 1979 and early 1980, the agents would already have fled.”

Eventually, Ahern and the other hostages were released. When he made it home in early 1981, he reunited with Gisela, who had joined the CIA herself, and young Christine.

He saw a photo of his wife, taken about halfway through his absence, and was startled. Her face, he wrote, was “almost gaunt ... one that I hardly recognized.”

Shortly after he settled back in McLean, nearly 250 people showed up in front of his split-level home for a parade that included a fife-and-drum corps.

On Feb. 5, 1981, The Washington Post published photos of a recent parade outside of the McLean, Va., home of Thomas Ahern, a CIA officer who had just been released as a hostage from Iran.

Now, just weeks away from turning 92, Ahern, whose wife died in 2017, struggles to remember much from the parade. His memoir, though, contains a photo of a page from The Washington Post, dated Feb. 5, 1981, documenting the event.

“Neighborhood Hero Comes Home,” the headline declares.

Ahern, wearing his gold wedding band, squinted at the newspaper page — and its photo essay about his parade — from nearly 43 years ago.

One image shows Ahern speaking into a microphone, encircled by children clutching American flags. In another photo, all three Aherns stand by side, posing. Gisela is clasping Christine’s arm, and her spy husband, dressed in a dark trench coat, is smiling, ever so slightly.

By Ian Shapira

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team.Twitter

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