By Garry Clifford
March 05, 1979 12:00 PM

When the urgent jangling of the telephone roused him from sleep a half-hour after midnight, Anthony C.E. Quainton was almost certain that it signaled an emergency somewhere in the world. He was right. In Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Ambassador Adolph (“Spike”) Dubs had been kidnapped by Muslim dissidents. As director of the State Department’s Office for Combatting Terrorism, Quainton was at work within 30 minutes. There he also learned that an armed street gang had invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran, capturing Ambassador William Sullivan and 70 employees. The situation in Iran was being handled by a special task force that had been operating round-the-clock for weeks, so Quainton addressed himself to the abduction of Dubs.

As he does in all emergencies involving hostages, Quainton quickly assembled a crisis team, including legal counsel, a psychologist and experts on Afghan affairs. “We were receiving regular flash messages from our embassy in Kabul,” he says. “We always try to open a telephone line and, within an hour, we were in direct communication.” Dubs, Quainton learned, had been taken to the Kabul Hotel, where his kidnappers were demanding the release of three imprisoned religious leaders. “Our basic advice was to take no precipitate action,” says Quainton. “We don’t give in to blackmail and we make no concessions. We try to talk them into giving up their hostages and a very significant proportion of the time we succeed.”

While the situation in Kabul remained desperate, Quainton learned that two Marine guards had been injured in Tehran and that Sullivan’s life was being threatened. “There was a moment when I thought we might lose two ambassadors that night,” Quainton recalls. Tragically, his apprehension was partly prophetic. Soon afterward he was told that Afghan police, ignoring American advice, had stormed the kidnappers’ hotel room and that Dubs had been killed. “There was just stunned disbelief that the Afghans would have made this assault against our wishes,” says Quainton. “There was a terrible shock among all the people who knew Spike Dubs.” The news that the embassy in Tehran had been liberated brought sighs of relief but little consolation.

Since taking charge of the Office for Combatting Terrorism last June, Quainton has been involved in two other terrorist incidents: the seizing of the West German consulate in Chicago by Croatian nationalists last August, and the attempted hijacking of a TWA airliner in Geneva, which turned out to be a bad practical joke. In both instances, all hostages were released unharmed. Mercifully, Quainton’s usual duties are more prosaic. A 20-year veteran of the Foreign Service and, at 44, one of the youngest career ambassadors, he is responsible for coordinating security in all U.S. embassies. Currently he is lobbying in Congress for a bill that would impose sanctions on countries that aid terrorists.

A native of Seattle, Quainton prepped for a State Department career at Andover, Princeton and Oxford and achieved top diplomatic status in 1976, when he was named Ambassador to the Central African Empire. Married and the father of three children, he may reasonably look forward to another ambassadorial assignment, possibly in a trouble spot like Central America or the Middle East. He remains philosophical in the face of the dangers. “There is no crystal ball for terrorism,” he says. “Five ambassadors have been killed in recent years, and every ambassador overseas knows that he could be too. The risk is there, and the reality is that you can’t have everybody going about in bulletproof cars with personal bodyguards. Embassies aren’t armed camps, and they shouldn’t be.”