100. Paper Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


  • Status of Hostages

[1 paragraph (2 lines) not declassified]

1. The following conclusions about the condition of the hostages held in the American Embassy in Tehran are based on psychiatric debriefings of released hostages as well as general knowledge about how individuals react to similar captive situations.

2. Although bound, occasionally blindfolded, and kept in semi-isolation, the hostages on the whole are likely to feel they have been fairly well treated. They have been fed regularly, kept clean and warm, and most importantly have not been killed. Since this treatment compares favorably to their probable expectations and/or fears, their perception is therefore one of good treatment.

3. The actual mental or physical condition of any one hostage will vary depending on his prior mental and physical state, his character, and his individual idiosyncrasies. The captive experience is extremely traumatic, and each individual will respond to this trauma according to his own resources. After over a month of captivity, these hostages have probably developed rather stable adaptive mechanisms, so that as time goes by one would expect relatively little change from their current behavior.

4. During any hostage-taking incident one can expect the adaptive mechanisms of both the hostage and hostage taker to lead to what may initially appear to be a paradoxical alliance between them. When people are together, especially under stress, relationships develop among them; similarly, hostages and hostage takers begin to form relationships that tend to unify them into a group. The interests of both the hostage takers and the hostages are served by giving in to the hostage takers’ demands; therefore, the hostage takers and hostages are natural allies. Also, as a means of coping with his helplessness, the hostage often unconsciously identifies with the more powerful hostage taker.

5. In this particular incident, there is inferential evidence that the captors are attempting to systematically influence their captives. [Page 270] Following a period of sensory deprivation, the released hostages were subjected to intense propaganda just prior to their release. All of these factors result in the captors’ ability to heavily influence the thinking of the hostages. (Although “brainwashing” has been used to describe this process, this term is subject to misuse and probably best not be used. There is not at this time enough hard data to conclude that the hostages are being subjected to the treatment suffered by a number of former prisoners of war. At any rate, many of the effects herein described would occur without any systematic treatment.)

6. The effects of being held hostage vary from individual to individual and will vary in one individual over time. In a large group one might witness everything from complete rejection of the hostage taker to total sympathy with him. In general, however, one should expect to hear favorable statements made about the captors, particularly with respect to treatment. In most cases the hostage and/or the released hostage will say that he was well treated. Upon release, each of the 50 hostages must be treated as an individual case and evaluated with respect to his psychological condition. A reasonable period of time (possibly several days) should be provided to a released hostage prior to any media exposure.

7. In considering official responses to statements that may be made by some of the individuals currently in captivity, two conditions must be considered. The first involves statements made during captivity, including those that may be made during a “trial”. These should be discounted with words to the effect that statements made under coercion need to be analyzed for distortion. The second condition is that of the released hostage. Responses to statements made by released hostages should be to the effect that anyone held in captivity is bound to be heavily influenced by his captors, and any statements should be interpreted in that context.

8. It should be emphasized that despite comments that may be made by released hostages, one should not jump to conclusions and question their loyalty. In spite of the heavy influence brought to bear on them as well as their natural inclination to sympathize with their captors, there are few, if any, cases in which a hostage becomes a defector or traitor. In general, one should avoid extreme comments on how the hostages have been treated. Although psychiatric effects can be expected to occur following captivity, the effects of such trauma will vary in duration, and some released hostages may do quite well; thus, general statements predicting psychological damage should be avoided.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Box 31, Subject File, Iran 12/8/79–12/18/79. Secret. Sent under a December 16 covering memorandum from Turner to Vance, Brown, Jones, and Brzezinski, on which Turner wrote: “I commend it as one basis for planning for the return of the hostages.”