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GEOINT critical during hostage crisis

By Jason Moll, Office of Corporate Communications
Pathfinder Magazine
December 1, 2014

Thirty-five years ago, Iranian militants took 62 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, starting an international crisis that lasted more than a year.

Fifty-two of the diplomats and Marines taken hostage in the Nov. 4, 1979, raid spent 444 days in captivity while Americans at home watched the high-stakes drama play out on the nightly news.

While some of the news was good, like early release for some and the escape of the “Argo” six, most of it was bad, and included propaganda efforts by the hostage takers and a failed rescue attempt that left eight U.S. servicemen dead.

Imagery analysts and other specialists at the CIA provided U.S. special operations forces with the information necessary to covertly enter Iran and launch the rescue attempt. The team members worked for two NGA forerunners: the Office of Imagery Analysis, or OIA, and the National Photographic Interpretation Center, or NPIC.

During a Pentagon planning meeting Nov. 8, national security decision-makers asked the military to consider a rescue, according to an internal NPIC history. OIA imagery analyst Brian Detrick returned from the meeting to Building 213 in Washington’s Navy Yard and furnished the team with imagery intelligence, he said.

Detrick collaborated with the team’s members as they planned the rescue, he said. The team worked nonstop for 48 hours to meet the deadlines.

“I was sort of dazed [from lack of sleep], but more or less coherent,” said Detrick. “[Other team members] were literally lying on two tables fast asleep.”

The completed materials and information were used by the Delta Force operators to plan and rehearse the rescue attempt, said Detrick.

Detrick and the team also worked with photogrammetrists with the technical knowledge and ability to use satellite imagery to gather additional information that would help the rescuers, said Detrick. That information was critical to ensure there were no surprises.

Since Delta Force’s existence was classified and had attained operational status only about a year earlier, the first time Detrick heard of the elite unit was when they arrived for a briefing, he said. Detrick briefed the soldiers several times during the months that followed.

“They had all kinds of questions, such as, ‘what is this going to be like, what is that going to be like,’” said Detrick. “‘Am I going to be able to get around? Are there any impediments to get around this building to that building?’ They asked me anything they could think of.”

Detrick and his colleagues obtained blueprints from the Department of State and talked to former security officers who had been inside the embassy’s buildings, he said.

“Having the security officers who had actually been inside those buildings was a real help,” said Detrick. “Because you can only go as far as you see when looking at satellite imagery.”

The Delta Force operators also asked for information about the buildings and streets around the embassy, since they planned to extract the hostages from a nearby soccer field, said Detrick.

As time went on and the embassy turned into a prison, two other imagery analysts joined Detrick to provide updates on the compound’s structural changes — including activity related to the newly built guard posts, he said.

“Changes in security measures can be so subtle that you could say, ‘yeah, they haven’t changed anything,’ and then you come to find out they had,” said Detrick. “That was probably the toughest thing.”

As the rescue operation took shape, OIA imagery analyst Douglas Doolittle was asked to find suitable locations in Iran where the C-130 turboprop airplanes and RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters could land, said Detrick. The rescue team would use the landing sites to fly into and out of the country.

Detrick and Doolittle were not allowed to talk to each other about their work, but Detrick was able to acquire a general understanding of the mission by talking to Delta Force planners and by viewing imagery tasking and collection, he said.

“The operational aspects included things like finding and locating a place for the airstrip, planning back at the embassy compound and setting up the airstrip where the hostage rescue attempt eventually fell apart,” said Detrick.

While the rescue team successfully flew into Iran April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter called off the mission on the recommendation of the Delta Force commander present at the Desert One staging area in the Great Salt Desert near Tabas. While flying to Desert One, two helicopters experienced mechanical problems — one turned around and flew back to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, while another landed safely before reaching the staging area. Mechanical problems grounded a third helicopter at Desert One, leaving only five helicopters flight worthy — one less than the plan required.

The aborted rescue attempt turned into a tragedy when one of the helicopters collided with a C-130 on the way out of the staging area. Three Marines and five Air Force aviators died in the collision and the explosion it caused.

Detrick learned of the tragedy after waking up to the news on his alarm clock radio, he said. None of the casualties were people with whom he had worked.

“At Building 213, we watched all of the coverage they had at the time,” said Detrick. “You literally could have heard a pin drop. Nobody had anything to say. It was like letting the air out of a balloon. When it was done, we all got up and left and nobody said a word.”

While Detrick said he recalls multiple after-action reviews of the rescue attempt, he does not remember hearing criticism of the role imagery intelligence played in the mission, he said. The Delta Force operators were reportedly pleased with the support they received.

“To the best of my knowledge, people were pretty satisfied with what we did,” said Detrick. “I don’t think there were any serious criticisms. [Our intelligence support] got rave reviews. I mean, the Delta guys loved it.”

Iran released the hostages as soon as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president Jan. 21, 1981.

The hostages arrived at Andrews Air Force Base Jan. 27, 1981, and were transported to Capitol Hill by a fleet of buses, according to the NPIC history. Army Brig. Gen. Rutledge Hazzard, NPIC director, called for an extended fire drill so employees could make the trek from Building 213 to South Capitol Street to welcome the hostages as the buses drove by.

While the rescue operation may look foolhardy in hindsight, remaining passive had its own risks, said Detrick.
“You could have said, ‘well, they were going to get out eventually.’ But they could have all been killed eventually, too,” said Detrick. “[There was] a bias toward action rather than inaction. The Delta guys are convinced that if they could have gotten to the compound, they could have pulled it off. Knowing these guys just in the brief time I did, if they think they could have done it, I have no doubt they could.”