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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
White House call sparks concerns
By Clive Small
BBC News, Washington

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 30 April, 1980.

Clive Small was the BBC's Washington correspondent when an American military mission to rescue the 53 hostages being held by the Iranians in the US Embassy in Tehran ended in disaster. Eight Americans died when their helicopter collided with a tanker aircraft in the Iranian desert and the mission was aborted.

Wreckage of the crashed Hercules C130

I had been up late at night putting over a dispatch to London about the growing concern in Washington that President Carter might be moving too quickly towards some form of military action against Iran.

Ironically, the action everyone was talking about was a non-violent naval blockade some time in the future.

At midnight I went to bed. Not much more than an hour later the phone rang next to my bed. A voice on the other end said: "The White House here, Rex Grenham speaking. Is that Clive?"

I sat upright quickly.

Several times my wife and I have been woken by the phone ringing and an official-sounding voice trying to put over a hoax of some kind
Rex Grenham is deputy to Jodie Powell, the president's spokesman.

"I've got a statement," said Mr Grenham. "I'll read it and at the end I won't take any questions. Are you ready?"

I scrabbled for my pen and notebook. "Go ahead," I said, shaking the sleep out of my head.

"The president has ordered the cancellation of an operation in Iran." And so on.

'Tragically genuine'

As that astonishing story unfolded I felt a fleeting second or two of doubt.

One of the strange features of Washington in the early hours is a number of what are officially described as "nuisance calls".

Several times my wife and I have been woken by the phone ringing and an official-sounding voice trying to put over a hoax of some kind.

Was this another? But no.

By the time I had taken down the first few sentences of the statement I knew this was only too tragically genuine.

Rex Grenham was giving me the first few details of an historic disaster. He spoke calmly at little more than dictation speed.

"'Rex," I said, "have you given this to the news agencies?"

"Jodie's doing that at the moment," he said.

"Thanks," I said, and he hung up.

Breaking news

I rattled the phone cradle frantically to clear the line and got my call through to the foreign news traffic manager on the late shift in London.

I hurried through a quick sentence telling of the mission that had failed in the desert in Iran.

Within minutes I was reporting the White House statement live into the Today programme.

After putting over a news dispatch and being interviewed by the 24 Hours programme on the BBC external services, I dressed hurriedly, swung my car out of the garage and headed to the BBC office in the centre of Washington.

Speculation

A US hostage and his Iranian captors
The remaining hostages were freed after being held for 444 days
I drove fast through the scattered banks of mist in the empty streets.

It was just after three in the morning. Suddenly my mind flashed back to a hotel room in Nairobi.

It was about three in the morning then and it was Sunday, 4 July, 1976.

The phone next to my bed rang and it was a voice telling me of the raid on Entebbe.

The traffic light changed and I put my foot down and the car shot off again.

Now I was thinking about something else.

Why had the White House phoned the BBC so quickly with the first news of the raid on Iran?

Perhaps all that it proves is the way a journalist's imagination can speculate privately at three in the morning
Ever since the hostage crisis began President Carter's officials have become more aware of the BBC's ability to get news in and out of Iran through its Persian language service.

In this case, was the White House trying to get a message through to people in Tehran by way of the BBC?

If so, what people? Was it the militants in the embassy, letting them know through news broadcasts that the Americans had failed in case they heard rumours of an assault under way and panicked and shot hostages?

Or could it be something else?

A raid like that would have to have had supporting groups inside Iran. Perhaps the White House was hoping that BBC broadcasts would tell those groups that the raid was off and they should keep their heads down.

Well, perhaps all that it proves is the way a journalist's imagination can speculate privately at three in the morning.

Still, the BBC was given the news surprisingly quickly.

Presidential address

As I drove past those darkened houses it looked as if no one in Washington was aware of what had happened a few hours before on that stretch of Iranian desert.

The British Embassy, like the other foreign representatives here, had not been told.

But now, as I listened to the car radio, the talk shows and the phone-in programmes were well aware of the failure of the rescue mission.

And nearly all of the listeners who were calling in were worried.

What would happen to the hostages now? And would the disaster in the desert mean that the crisis would spread and threaten peace?

The announcer interrupted. "The president will speak to the nation at seven this morning" he said.

I parked the car and crossed the deserted street to the office.

It was still dark. And it felt darker.

SEE ALSO:
Remembering the Iran hostage crisis
04 Nov 04 |  Middle East


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