HEROIC RESCUES FROM PLACES OF PERIL
by Paul R. Hollrah, ©2013
(May 4, 2013) — On a recent Saturday evening, my wife and I were invited to a screening of the Academy Award-winning film, Argo, with a group of ten or fifteen neighbors. The movie was a stark reminder of the sort of men and women who risk their lives daily in the service of our country. “Duty, honor, country” is a motto that is easily mouthed by those who’ve never worn a military uniform or who’ve never served in our clandestine services, but it is far more than that to those who are the “tip” of our national spear, the “cutting edge” of our national sword.
For me, it was a profoundly moving experience because it served as a reminder of what a truly dangerous world we live in, and how often Americans, and America’s friends abroad, are robbed of their freedom by those who do not share our dedication to human rights and the rule of law.
Watching the movie, my thoughts went back to the day in May 1983 when I received a call from Perry Levine, an engineer I’d worked with in Tulsa during the ‘60s. Perry was calling to seek my assistance in winning the release of his cousin, Alvin, from a prison in Saudi Arabia. As he described his cousin’s predicament, Alvin was sitting with his family in the living room of their home in the American compound, in Riyadh, when the Saudi police burst through the door and placed him under arrest, charging him with having made a pornographic movie.
After recovering from the shock of learning that Alvin’s employer, the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) had assigned a Jewish engineer to work in Saudi Arabia, I finally learned the pertinent details. Levine had not made a pornographic movie. However, because he served as treasurer of the local VCR film club, he was subsequently charged with operating a profit-making business without a license. After a speedy trial he was sentenced to a year in prison.
Inside the prison walls, Levine saw the light of day for only twenty minutes each week and was regularly beaten on the bottoms of his badly infected feet with splintered boards. When Aramco demanded that he sign a pro forma letter of resignation, effectively turning their back on him so as not to anger their Saudi business partners, his family called on the U.S. State Department. And when State Department officials in Washington ignored their pleas and embassy personnel in Riyadh washed their hands of him, his family went looking for someone who, to use their words, could “go in the back door at the State Department to make things happen.”
My first call was to a friend, John Tiller, executive assistant to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who was then on loan to the White House. After agreeing that we should take care not to violate Saudi sovereignty, and that our primary goal should be to insure that he received humane treatment, the White House agreed to assign someone full time to work on Levine’s behalf.
Within days, the embassy staff in Riyadh began making weekly visits and a New York Times reporter was allowed inside the prison to interview him. And when the story appeared on the front page of the Times we thought we were well on our way to winning Levine’s freedom. Unfortunately, just weeks later, the Saudis took him back into court, retried him on the same charges, and quadrupled his sentence to four years. It was the Saudis’ way of warning the U.S. not to interfere in their internal affairs. Levine served fourteen months of a forty-eight month sentence, at which time his family paid a $40,000 “fine” and he was released from captivity.
In late September 1993, while working in Russia with my associate, Dr. Suzanne Stafford, representing the interests of the United Methodist Church in Russia and Siberia, we received a call from Methodist World Headquarters in New York, asking that we drop whatever we were doing to take on a very special assignment. One of their members, an oilman from Mustang, Oklahoma, had wandered across the unmarked Kuwait/Iraq frontier and was immediately taken into custody by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards. He was taken to Baghdad, tried for espionage, and sentenced to a long term in prison. Our job was to win his freedom.
The first conclusion we reached was how not to win Beaty’s freedom. We decided that it would be: a) prohibitively expensive, b) extremely dangerous, and c) ultimately fruitless to assemble a team of mercenaries to rescue him, as H. Ross Perot is said to have rescued two of his employees from a Tehran prison in early 1979. The Iraqis would be expecting such a rescue attempt and the effort was almost certain to end in disaster. Instead, we concluded that our only real option was to pay a ransom to Saddam Hussein.
So while I attended to other business, my associate, Dr. Stafford, assembled a ransom package of some $300,000 in pharmaceutical supplies and medical equipment… all of it donated by U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers… items that were in critically short supply in Iraq due to an embargo imposed by NATO member countries. However, extending the ransom offer to Saddam was not a simple matter. It was complicated by the fact that Democrats were still making political “hay” with the false accusation that the Reagan administration had traded missile parts to the Iranians in the 1980s, in exchange for the release of Americans held hostage by Islamic jihadists in the Middle East… the front part of the so-called Iran-Contra scandal.
Accordingly, while the Clinton state department privately sanctioned our plan to trade medical supplies to Hussein in exchange for Beaty’s freedom, they insisted that the ransom deal could not have their fingerprints on it. As a cover story, the Clinton administration arranged for Senator David Boren (D-OK) to fly to Baghdad on a high profile mission to plead with Saddam Hussein for the release of his Oklahoma constituent. The Boren mission was mere “window dressing,” intended only for consumption by low-information Democrat voters and the mainstream media.
Then, in the summer of 2003, I was asked for my assistance in winning the release of former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman from a solitary confinement cell in Managua. Aleman, a pro-American democrat, had been arrested on orders of a Sandinista Supreme Court justice and charged with money laundering and other offenses. His family and the leaders of his political party feared that the Sandinistas would do to Aleman what communists often do to their enemies behind bars. They would inject him with lethal drugs and he would never leave his cell alive.
After consulting with a friend who’d headed the Central American desk at the Senate Foreign Relations committee during the Contra-Sandinista civil war, it was decided that, strategically, our best chance for success would be to use a “rifle” approach, rather than a “shotgun” approach. As a first step, I would arrange for a member of the U.S. Senate to make a high profile floor speech, demanding that the Sandinistas release the former president. For that role we selected Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), currently the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the most dedicated anti-communists in the Congress.
As the senator and his staff worked through White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, I continued to work through friends in the State Department. However, our efforts were dealt a serious blow in early October when it was learned that the team of Nicaraguan dignitaries who’d been placed at my disposal to assist in our efforts in Washington… a group that included Nicaragua’s former first lady, Maria Fernanda Aleman; the Archbishop of Nicaragua, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo; the former leader of the Nicaraguan Contras, Adolfo Colero; the former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, Francisco Javier Aguirre, and others… had been informed by the U.S. Embassy in Managua that, should they attempt to travel to the U.S., their visas would not be honored. The U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua stood with President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas on the Nicaragua Supreme Court.
Finally, in mid-November 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell flew to Managua, unannounced, for a brief “heart-to-heart chat” with then-president Enrique Bolaños and the U.S. Ambassador. Aleman was released immediately and was sent to his coffee plantation under house arrest. No evidence and no testimony were ever presented against him, yet he was declared guilty of all charges. He would not be fully exonerated until January 16, 2009.
While the episodes cited were not “nail-biters” in the same sense that Hollywood is able to create spine-tingling drama, as in the Argo adventure, they are all examples of the sort of dangers that await us each time we leave the continental limits of the United States. They are indicative of the fact that other countries and other cultures simply do not play by our rules.
In the hours following CIA operative Tony Mendez’s escape from Iran with six rescued hostages, he is shown arriving at the home of his estranged wife and their young son in suburban Virginia. And after ringing the doorbell he is greeted by a beautiful young woman. Staring soulfully into his eyes, she takes his face tenderly in her hands and kisses him… the obligatory happy ending.
But imagine the heart-wrenching impact if, instead, the producers had gone for a bit of irony by dramatizing the ultimate dichotomy in Mendez’s life. Imagine the impact if his estranged wife had confronted him with, “OKAY, SO WHERE IN THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN… LYING ON A BEACH IN SOME FAR-OFF PLAYGROUND? YOU B*******, YOU’VE MISSED YOUR SON’S BIRTHDAY AND HIS FIRST LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL GAME!”
And just before slamming the door in his face, she could be heard to shout, “NOW GET THE HELL OFF MY PORCH!”
With an incompetent socialist usurper living in the White House, and with murderous Islamic jihadists bringing their indiscriminate horrors to our shores, Hollywood could not have devised a more fitting conclusion. It would have been a true-to-life ending not soon forgotten.
Editor’s Note: Reported first-hand accounts of conditions in Saudi Arabian prisons can be found here.