A Mission Impossible? No, Say Terrorist Experts as They Critique What Went Wrong

updated 05/12/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The failure of the U.S. rescue mission after an unbelievable sequence of mechanical breakdowns and miscalculations sent gasps through the worldwide intelligence community. In its wake, hardly any phase of the operation went unchallenged. Here two experts argue that the venture need not be a total washout.

The 90 guys going in were 'just the tip of the iceberg'

Miles Copeland, 63, served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and afterward became the first head of the CIA's political action staff. He knows Iran well. In 1953 he was involved in the successful CIA operation to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restore the Shah to the Peacock Throne. Retired in 1957, Copeland lives in London and acts as a political consultant to a number of African and Middle East countries. He spoke to Garry Clifford of PEOPLE:

What went wrong?

I think quite literally what President Carter and Secretary Brown said. What frightens me is that the Iranians will think God is against us and on their side.

There is a new rumor in Washington about why the mission was canceled. It says the Soviets detected the U.S. troops and told Washington to remove them immediately or Moscow would annihilate them. What's your reaction?

The Soviets do not have that kind of detection capability. And if it had happened, there are a variety of responses we could have made that would have stopped the Soviet bluff.

What would you have done differently?

We took economic measures with the original plans and didn't use an absolutely superior force. If the capability said six helicopters, I would have gone in with 10. If it needed 100 operators, I would have taken 200.

So you think a force of 90 was too small?

We needed 500 going in. Everyone is wrong in assuming there were just 90. They were a support operation. The main operation depended on a substantial Iranian force. There is no way we could have done it without Iranians, of whom there were plenty available.

Please explain.

The rescue operation depended on having agents among the students, the cooperation of an element of the police and of army and air force units. The military was key—those in a position to shut off the electricity and grab the radio stations so they could either jam them or issue false orders.

How can we appeal to the military?

Military people like order. They are the kinds of people Khomeini can never get a grip on.

Are there foreign agents among the militants inside the U.S. embassy?

Unquestionably. I don't know if they are ours, but we know the Israelis have agents among the dissidents. There must be some of the 120 "students" who would like to be millionaires. We should be able to recruit them and offer them a long and secure life somewhere else.

What about recruiting among Iran's various tribes?

We don't have to infiltrate them. The whole technique is not to get traitors. We clandestinely help people do what they already want to do. All they need is our aid and encouragement. They need to know we are standing behind them and ready to go to World War III if they get in a tough spot.

What about the people of Iran?

The vast majority are highly individualistic and capitalistic. Most are small business people. It's only the students and dissidents who are appealed to by socialism. The mobs shouting in front of the American embassy do not represent the population at large.

Do you think the U.S. will try again?

I don't know. But I believe we should start right now to teach those people a lesson. The hostages presently being held in Iran are of secondary importance. Our concern should be with the unknown quantities of hostages in the future who will surely be taken if the "students" are allowed to succeed.

The U.S. is too conventional in its thinking

Retired Gen. Rehavam Ze'evi, 54, was in charge of two successful anti-terrorist operations at Ben-Gurion Airport in May 1972, and served as Prime Minister Rabin's adviser during the July 1976 Entebbe raid which freed 103 hostages. In Tel Aviv, Ze'evi talked with Mira Avrech for PEOPLE:

How do you explain the technical problems that caused the failure of the operation?

Let me say out of fairness that in such operations the distance between success and failure is very small. Even in our most successful operations, we were often close to failures, mishaps and accidents.

What unanswered questions bother you?

The U.S. operation was prepared and rehearsed for almost half a year. Why then was a place so close to a road chosen as the landing area? And why, in a retreat which was not under enemy pressure or fire, was military equipment left behind intact and not destroyed, including a classified military map?

After the loss of the helicopters, would you not expect the Americans to have an alternative plan at hand?

Yes, but it seems that Americans have a complex, a psychological block in planning operations of this sort. We Israelis were brought up in the underground and taught to fight unconventionally, to use tricks because we were always outnumbered. The Americans, on the contrary, have a conventional way of thinking, which is to base solutions on power and strength. In a general war, that may be the proper answer, but not against terrorists.

Do you believe the Iranians' claim that they disrupted the U.S. team's approach?

That's absolute nonsense. At the outset the Americans had the benefit of a totally secret surprise move. That's what makes the failure even more annoying. It proves elements were overlooked in planning, including flexibility as well as reserves in forces and aircraft. And all this in a great and powerful nation!

Would you have advised this operation?

Not really. A military operation in Tehran is full of obstacles. The city is filled with five million people, most of them armed and hysterical. It did not make much sense to face them with 90 men. A better solution might have been to get into the U.S. embassy using agents or members of opposition groups.

What other alternatives are there?

There are many, but I feel that I can mention only one: Kidnap top Iranian VIPs as counter-hostages. If you had 10 top VIPs in your hands, they would talk differently, I am sure.

But how can the U.S., which is against terrorism, engage in such acts?

You cannot fight terrorism in conventional ways. Anyone wanting to fight against terror must put on his working clothes, knowing he will have to dirty his hands. Otherwise he will have to surrender. There is no third way. Give me one good reason why the U.S. should not act like the Iranians and play hostage against hostage. Top-level hostages, of course. The highest level.

Is there a positive side to the attempt to rescue the hostages?

Yes, the decision to take military steps and return force with force, although it took six months till the U.S. realized there was no chance of negotiating with the Iranians.

Would you compliment the Americans on anything in this operation?

Oh, yes, a number of things. First, they managed to keep it totally secret. And it is wonderful there were so many volunteers ready to sacrifice themselves in this materialistic world. And then President Carter had the strength and courage to get up and take the blame. Normally success has a thousand fathers while failure leaves you an orphan. I know many leaders who would not have assumed the responsibility.

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