By: Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn
In the film "Argo," the plot involves a covert operation in Iran in 1979 to try sneaking six American diplomats, who had escaped being taken hostage, out of the country through the international airport. There is a heart-stopping moment when CIA operative Ben Affleck tries to escort the six, disguised as a U.S. film crew, through airport checkpoints operated by fanatical Iranian militia.
At the last checkpoint, just as they are about to make it onto the plane, it appears that their true identities may be discovered and they will be arrested and subjected to the most extreme punishment. Well, if you want to know what happens in the movie, you need to buy a ticket.
But that scene reminded me of a similar heart-stopping moment of my own in war-torn Lebanon in 1983. As a U.S. diplomat assigned to work on Middle Eastern refugee issues, I had entered the country with several European international organization staff people.
I was not prepared for what I encountered.
Lebanon was a devastated and deeply divided country. The southern part of the country had been ravaged by fighting between Israeli military units and Palestinian fighting forces. Both had subsequently withdrawn. The Lebanese army controlled only part of Beirut, with the Syrian Army deployed in the north as a buffer protecting local militias and the remnants of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Yassir Arafat) military units. Iranian-backed Hezbollah radicals were beginning to infiltrate into the country as well
The heart of Beirut had been largely destroyed in the fighting, with the Sabra and Shatila massacre by Phalangists taking the lives of over 800 people. The U.S. Embassy was in shambles, having been car-bombed with dozens of Americans and Lebanese killed and only a skeleton staff remaining that worked out of the ambassador’s residence high atop a hill. The U.S. Marines were only two months away from being subjected to a devastating truck bomb that would kill over 200 of our fighting men.
Lebanon was, thus, a country with significant American interests but little ability for any U.S. personnel to collect information. Americans dared not move around for fear of being kidnapped or assassinated (as the CIA station chief soon would be).
But since I was based outside the country, I was not known to anyone in Lebanon, and it was not evident from outward appearances that I was in fact an American diplomat.
The international organization workers with whom I was traveling were headed to the northern most part of the country where no official American had gone. As the only U.S. Foreign Service officer with a chance to ever travel to this part of the country, I thought it was important to go and be able to report back. So, I jumped in the car with the international staff, feeling confident that no one would discover who I was.
We headed north out of Beirut for the several-hour drive to the Palestinian refugee camps of Baddawi and Nahr el Bared. I was going where no U.S. official had been in recent memory. After passing through several Syrian army checkpoints, we approached the open city of Tripoli (not the same place as Tripoli in Libya) which was controlled by armed renegade militias. The sight of wild-looking, bandana-wearing militiamen riding in the back of jeeps and trucks with 50-caliber machine guns was disquieting.
I was beginning to wonder if I had made such a good decision.
My unease increased as we went north out of Tripoli and began to pass through the heavily armed PLO checkpoints which were the most tightly controlled with intense scrutiny of all cars and passengers. In fact, to even enter this area we had to have a PLO escort join and ride in the car. The escort knew the other individuals with whom I was traveling. As he entered the vehicle, he looked us over and seemed to linger longer on me than others. I just stared straight ahead. He said nothing.
We drove forward and went through another and then a third PLO checkpoint, each more intimidating than the last with guards armed with AK-47 rifles looking us over with considerable suspicion. With our escort, they seemed to accept that we were simply international relief organization representatives and waved us through.
Once we were inside the first of the refugee camps (actually a small city) we were stunned to see that it had become a newly established military encampment for Arafat's forces, as well as the headquarters of a separate group, the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Arafat’s military return was a significant new development, one that would soon lead to internecine fighting including with the Syrian army, plunging Lebanon into deeper crisis.
Now I was really wondering what I've gotten myself into and whether I was going to be able to extract myself. With Americans being targeted and killed by Jihadists and terrorists, there seemed little doubt what would happen to any American official who was acting like what would certainly be considered a spy or espionage agent. I kept pushing my diplomatic passport further down in my back pocket, lest anyone see it.
Finally, after being there for several hours, it was time to leave. We piled back in the car with our escort and drove out onto the road. We made it through the first two checkpoints without incident. As we approached the last one, just like in "Argo," I was beginning to feel better. I was going to make it.
And then, and then, just like in the film, something terrible happened.
In the casual conversation between one of the international staff and the PLO escort, I heard the staffer say something that revealed my identity and caused the PLO representative to realize I was an American official. Suddenly, the escort stared at me intently with an incredulous, menacing look. You could feel the tension in the car escalate. He seemed to be thinking about what he should do.
I was certain he would order the car stopped and have the guards arrest me.
Time seemed to stand still as we rolled up to the last checkpoint. The escort had to make a decision. Tell the AK-47-armed militia to take me into custody, or let us pass. I could feel my throat go dry. My heart was racing. After what seemed an eternity, the guards waved us through.
For whatever reason, the PLO escort had said nothing.
If I had to guess, the calculation in his mind was that if he did turn me in, then he would have to explain how he had been so careless as to have brought me into their most secure, military encampment in the first place. This could end up with him being in a great deal of trouble.
As he left our car later in Tripoli, the escort gave me one last menacing look. It made me worry that he still might do something. So, even as we were on the road heading back to the relative safety of Beirut, I kept looking back, expecting to see one of those militia-filled trucks roaring after us.
But nothing happened. We made it back safely. However, it wasn’t until I flew out the country the next day that I gave a final sigh of relief, just as our plane left Lebanese air space.
You'll have to go to see "Argo" to learn what happens to the American hostages in Tehran in their confrontation at the airport. But I assure you, the movie was worth the price of admission to me.