© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Our Man In Tehran' Was A Canadian Hero


Sixty-six Americans were taken hostage by Iranian students who captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November of 1979. Some were released within weeks, but 52 of the hostages, from U.S. Marine guards and secretaries to the charge d'affaires of the embassy, were held for 444 days. But six Americans who were outside the embassy compound escaped capture and got back to the United States because they called friends for help.

For three months, Canada's ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and other Canadian embassy employees, hid those six Americans in their own quarters and at great personal risk. They also collected intelligence and helped the CIA concoct a plan to bring their American guests out safely, even as it meant closing the Canadian embassy.

Thirty years after what's been called the Canadian Caper, Robert Wright tells the tale in his book called "Our Man in Tehran."

We're joined by that man now - former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, who joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Ambassador.

Mr. KEN TAYLOR (Former Canadian Ambassador to Iran): Well, thank you for the welcome.

SIMON: We want to bring you back 30 years almost to the day, and this is this is how Knowlton Nash, hosting the national newscast on CBC, brought the news to Canadians.

Mr. TAYLOR: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of CBC broadcast)

Mr. KNOWLTON NASH (CBC): Good evening. Canada has secretly helped six American diplomats escape from Iran. The Americans had been hidden in Canada's embassy in Tehran for three months, ever since the seizure of the American embassy and 50 people by Muslim militants. They were smuggled out of Iran this weekend using false Canadian passports. The daring escape explains why Canada's embassy was suddenly closed yesterday.

SIMON: If I can put you on the spot, I want to talk about - because it must have gone through your mind - the potential hazards to you and other Canadian embassy employees as you undertook all this. Because if what you were trying to do had been discovered, it - I assume - would've exposed you to the same kind of imprisonment the U.S. hostages had.

Mr. TAYLOR: There were really two dimensions to it. One, the harboring the six diplomats would have had consequences ranging from, say, being declared persona non grata and asked to leave the country the next day, to most of the staff having to leave and some of us apprehended and sent into the compound along with our U.S. colleagues.

The other element - that is, preparing and working with a CIA agent and one of my own staff on preparing the groundwork for the Eagle Claw raid - would have had far different consequences. This, of course, was operating an espionage center within the Canadian embassy, which we felt quite rightly placed to do. But both situations placed the embassy in certain degrees of jeopardy. But my staff and myself, we were quite prepared to take that risk, as I'm sure my colleagues at the American embassy would've done in different situations.

SIMON: To draw you out about this, because I think if there's one aspect that hasn't been reported over the years, it's the degree to which you and I guess an employee in the embassy named Jim Edward...

Mr. TAYLOR: Yes.

SIMON: ...actually provided what we would call intelligence information to the CIA.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yes. It was intelligence information provided on(ph) our channel, was directly to Ottawa, who then would turn it to the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, then to the parties in Washington. I think a fair amount of the information went to the Delta Force, a fair amount to the Pentagon, and certainly the CIA as well.

But the situation, Scott, in Tehran at that time was that there were no U.S. agents, there was no presence that was well undercover. There were no so-called(ph) sleeper agents. And the U.S. was left with a bare cupboard.

And the pressure was growing that some sort of response, some sort of retaliation, or some sort of visible effort to get the diplomats back, if in fact diplomacy seemed to be failing, was a pressure that Washington felt quite acutely.

And accordingly, President Carter turned to Prime Minister Clark and asked if we would be prepared in concert with one agent from the CIA to do that under the cover of the Canadian embassy.

SIMON: The Canadian cabinet in an extraordinary session - maybe, as I gather, perhaps not - without quite realizing what they were doing, authorized the issuance of these six passports. The passports were Canadian. The visa stamps were the CIA.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yes. The passports were Canadian. And all the personal identification papers we put together in Canada.

SIMON: Yeah. And that's - in spycraft - they call that pocket litter, because you have to have things like gas receipts and...

Mr. TAYLOR: So for instance, we had a Canadian driver's license. We had credit cards. We had - you name it. And all that work was done in Canada.

SIMON: Well, I have to ask, Mr. Ambassador, from the people at the passport office to the people who phonied up these receipts, did they have any idea what they were participating in?

Mr. TAYLOR: I think in their minds they certainly did. But I think they said, well, this is what I've been instructed to do and I've been asked not to be curious. I think in that extent the number of people who had to be taken into confidence was quite wide. And in that sense it was quite remarkable that there were no leaks and that this managed to work its way through very stealthily without disclosure.

SIMON: And how did the CIA manage to put together these visa stamps?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, the CIA have quite a repertoire of visa stamps, I think. They have quite a sample room. Depending on where you want to travel, it's like Liberty or American Express.

SIMON: As you go over this story 30 years after fact, I think one of the things that strikes you immediately is that the offer to help was instinctive. It was a reflex. You didn't check with anybody to do that.

Mr. TAYLOR: No. I think it was a natural thing to do, particularly given the nature of the relationship between Canada and the U.S. Diplomacy was in peril. These people were in jeopardy. And instinctively - I think you used the right word, Scott - instinctively we said we'll do what we can, join us.

SIMON: I've read that probably not a month goes by that some American doesn't come up to you and shake your hand.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yes. It's - I enjoy that, of course, because it is a sense saying to Canada: this is what you did. And Americans - U.S. citizens have long memories, particularly when they feel themselves in a dilemma where they're looking for an ally and that ally is there and is prepared to act on their behalf whatever the consequences.

SIMON: Former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor.

Well, Ambassador Taylor, a real honor to talk to you. Thank you so much, sir.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I've enjoyed it. And looking back, it sounds trite, but it seems almost like yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.