MOUNT DESERT — Moorhead “Mike” Kennedy, a longtime Mount Desert resident, is one of the former diplomats held hostage by Iranian militants more than three decades ago who will be getting up to $4.44 million in compensation from the U.S. government.
But more important than the money, he told the Islander, is that after 36 years, justice finally has been done.
The $1.1 trillion budget bill that Congress passed and President Obama signed just before Christmas authorizes payment of up to $10,000 a day for each of the 444 days that Kennedy and 51 other members of the U.S. embassy staff in Tehran were held captive between November 1979 and January 1981. A 53rd hostage was released earlier after becoming ill.
The first payments are to be made within a year to the 37 former hostages who are still alive and to the estates of the others. Some of them might not receive the entire $4.44 million, depending in part on the number of claims that are filed and the results of pending court cases.
Kennedy said that he and other former hostages lobbied for a compensation bill for years. But the State Department always has opposed it.
In negotiating for the hostages’ release, the U.S. agreed to bar them from filing lawsuits against Iran.
“That was OK, as far as we were concerned, because we assumed the U.S. government would make up for that,” Kennedy said. “In fact, we were assured when we were released that there would be compensation. But there were elements in the State Department, principally the legal advisor’s office, that blocked that, using the promise not to allow lawsuits as a way of saying there isn’t going to be any compensation.
“Even with the legislation that was just passed, there were elements in the State Department fighting this. And as a retired Foreign Service officer, I’m kind of embittered by that,” Kennedy said.
“I think they were worried about something like this happening again, and didn’t want to have to be shelling out a lot of money in future years. But the answer should be that if people are going to risk their lives going to dangerous posts, compensation of this kind is only fair.”
The money to pay former hostages and their estates is coming from a $9 billion fine levied against a foreign bank for violating sanctions against doing business with Iran, Sudan and Cuba.
Kennedy was acting economic counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was taken over by militants at the start of the revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. He had been there only two months.
Kennedy, 85, said he plans to invest the money he will get.
“I hope I will live a little bit longer so I can enjoy it,” he said. “And I think my kids will now be able to retire when the time comes.”
The compensation legislation also authorizes a one-time payment of up to $600,000 for the spouses and children of former hostages.
Kennedy has four sons and eight grandchildren. His wife, Louisa, who died in 2007, was the principal spokesperson for all the families of hostages during their captivity.
Kennedy’s parents had a summer home in Bar Harbor when he was young, and later in Northeast Harbor. Except for his years in the Foreign Service, he spent almost every summer on MDI. He has lived year-round in Mount Desert since 1996.
Kennedy said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reed (D-Nevada) were particularly instrumental in getting the compensation provision included in the recently passed budget bill. He said Maine First District Rep. Chellie Pingree was very supportive as well.
Kennedy said he thinks a big reason that compensation for the former hostages was finally approved is that the bill also authorizes the government to pay compensation to victims of other terrorist acts, such as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the 1983 terrorist bombing that killed 241 U.S. military personnel at a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
“I think that helped carry it,” Kennedy said. “We’re very happy that we all got in together.”