Benjamin Civiletti, attorney general amid Iran hostage crisis, dies at 87
The Washington Post October 19, 2022
Benjamin Civiletti, who as attorney general advised President Jimmy Carter while the White House struggled over the hostage-taking of 52 Americans after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, died Oct. 16 at his home in Lutherville, Md. He was 87.
Civiletti had health problems related to Parkinson’s, said his wife, Gaile Civiletti.
On the world stage, Civiletti became the Carter administration’s envoy and confidant during the 444-day hostage crisis. He helped give Carter legal authority to seize more than $11 billion in Iranian assets and took the rare step of appearing in person before the International Court of Justice at The Hague to seek greater international pressure for release of the embassy captives.
At home, however, Civiletti was sometimes seen as at odds with the White House. The Justice Department opened politically sensitive investigations that included alleged banking improprieties by Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance; questions over payments by Libya to Carter’s brother, Billy; and reports of cocaine-and-sex parties at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub by Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan.
None of the probes led to convictions, but they further eroded Carter’s image and — in the case of Billy Carter — brought Civiletti into the political crosshairs after disclosures he privately discussed the investigation with the president. An investigation found no wrongdoing by Civiletti.
He moved into the top role at the Justice Department in August 1979 after the resignation of Griffin Bell. Three months later, on Nov. 4, 1979, Iranians students and others stormed the U.S. Embassy, eventually holding 52 hostages and parading some blindfolded before the public.
The Iranian mobs were angered that the deposed Western-backed ruler, or shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was in the United States for medical treatment after fleeing Iran during the Islamic revolution that year. Iran’s new Islamic regime demanded the shah’s return to stand trial. (The shah died in July 1980 in Cairo while the hostage crisis was ongoing.)
The global outrage to the hostage-taking was swift, but the United States and its allies had little leverage over the Iranian revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To underscore the U.S. desperation, Civiletti went in-person to the International Court of Justice — a task normally handled by lower-level Justice Department staff or others.
“If I come to you in anger, I also come to you with urgency,” Civiletti told the court in December 1979.
“What we are asking the court for is the quickest possible action to end the barbaric captivity and to save human lives,” he continued.
The court backed the U.S. appeal to free the captives, but Iran simply scoffed at the judgment. Across the United States, frustration sometimes turned to reprisals and protests against Iranian Americans even though many strongly opposed Iran’s new Islamist leadership. The ABC news show “Nightline” was launched to cover the hostage crisis.
A cartoon in the Chicago Tribune portrayed Civiletti addressing the International Court of Justice while an Iranian mullah rips away at his trousers.
Civiletti had the Justice Department race to get court orders and other legal frameworks in place to allow Carter to seize Iranian assets, including property and bank accounts. An executive order by Carter also halted Iranian oil imports.
The U.S. troubles mounted. On April 24, 1980, a military mission to free the hostages, Operation Eagle Claw, unraveled after problems grounded three of eight helicopters bound for a staging area in Iran. During the pullout, one chopper collided with a C-130 transport plane, killing eight service members.
The failure appeared to seal the political fate for Carter. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had opposed the military mission, resigned in protest. Carter was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Iran then used the moment. It freed the hostages on Jan. 20, 1981, during Reagan’s inauguration. Civiletti stepped down as attorney general the previous day.
As assistant attorney general, Civiletti was involved in investigations of budget director Lance, who was Carter’s friend from Georgia facing allegations of corruption while previously heading a Georgia-based bank. Lance resigned as director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1977 before his federal indictment for alleged violating U.S. banking rules. He was acquitted in 1980.
Civiletti also investigated reports of public drug-and-sex binges by Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, who liked to wink and nod at his party life reputation. “The president,” he told The Washington Post in 1978 with a smile, “has no idea how I spend my time.” A special prosecutor was appointed, but no criminal case was sought against Jordan.
The scandal that proved perhaps the most challenging for Civiletti involved the president’s brother, Billy, who had gained a measure of pop-culture fame as a bubba-style country boy who inspired a short-lived Billy Beer brand. The Justice Department took notice after disclosures that he visited Libya three times in 1978 and 1979 and received at least $220,000 from Libyan officials as part of talks over potential oil deals.
Both Billy Carter and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi called the payments a loan, but the president’s brother was not registered as a “foreign agent” to properly report such transactions.
Civiletti acknowledged that he met with Jimmy Carter to inform him that his brother was under investigation, but he told a Senate committee that he did not discuss details of the case and violate conflict of interest rules. A report by a special Justice Department investigator, Joel Lisker, found no ethical breaches by Civiletti and called it a “tempest in a teapot.”
Billy Carter registered as a foreign agent and was not prosecuted. “Billy is no Watergate plumber,” syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick wrote. “He is a bumptious good ole boy.”
Benjamin Richard Civiletti was born in Peekskill, N.Y., on July 17, 1935, and raised in nearby villages where his father worked as a grocery store manager. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1957 and received a law degree in 1961 from the University of Maryland law school.
Civiletti was an assistant federal prosecutor in Baltimore from 1962 to 1964 and then took a job with the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard (now Venable LLP), rising to become a partner leading civil and criminal litigation.
His work gained notice by Charles H. Kirbo, an adviser to Carter when he was governor of Georgia. When Carter won the 1976 presidential election, Kirbo recommended Civiletti for a Justice Department post. Civiletti began leading cases prosecutions ranging from white-collar crime to drug trafficking, and was later promoted to deputy attorney general.
In one of Civiletti’s first cases at Justice, he led investigations into illegal influence-peddling efforts by groups working for South Korea, including seeking to insert pro-Seoul statements in the Congressional Record.
“Those investigations are real man-eaters,” Russell T. Baker Jr., one of Civiletti’s assistants, said in 1977. “It’s rare that a guy comes in and inherits three cases like this.”
After the Carter administration, Civiletti returned to his former law firm in Baltimore, where he billed clients at premium rates of up to $1,000 an hour. “To some extent, it’s supply and demand,” Civiletti told the Baltimore Sun in 2006. “A good many people retire at 60 or 65. As you hang around, there are fewer of you available who have litigation experience, government experience, criminal investigation experience.”
He was part of a Maryland commission that recommended the state abolish capital punishment. A ban was signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2013.
In addition to his wife of 64 years, survivors include three children, Benjamin Civiletti, Andrew Civiletti and Lynne Civiletti Mallon; a sister; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.