ESPIONAGE: by Siobhan ReevesNews Weekly
Canada, the CIA and Hollywood: The unlikely success story from the 1979 Iran hostage crisis
, November 10, 2012
November 1979: The world watched as the Iran hostage crisis unfolded. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran, after it had been stormed by militant Islamist students.
Unbeknown to them and the rest of the world, six Americans — Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz — had escaped, and were given refuge at the homes of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown. They remained there in hiding for 79 days.
The story of their rescue from Tehran and safe return to America, known as the “Canadian Caper”, is one of the most fascinating stories in espionage, and was described by the key CIA agent involved as the “only true operational success of the hostage crisis”.
President Jimmy Carter (right) thanking CIA agent
Antonio Mendez, March 12, 1980.
Ambassador Taylor contacted the Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark about the situation, and permission was granted for Canadian passports to be drawn up for the six.
The CIA was contacted, and agent Antonio Mendez — who had already been proposing plans to free the embassy hostages — became a vital part of the operation. Mendez was the CIA’s expert on disguise, forgery and exfiltration (getting agents out of hostile territory).
A cover story had to be devised as to why the seven “Canadians” (including Mendez) were in Iran, as all journalists, humanitarian workers and oil employees were known to the authorities. English-speaking schools were closed. And, as Mendez pointed out in answer to the suggestion of their masquerading as agricultural researchers, the fields were covered in snow.
The most unlikely of options was proposed by Mendez: the seven would present themselves as a film crew, location-scouting in Iran for a science-fiction film, which would become known as Argo.
Mendez set up a fake production company called Studio Six, printed business cards, and rented an outfitted office in Los Angeles. The fake studio even received a script from the now legendary director Stephen Spielberg. They had storyboards drawn up, produced a movie poster, and took out full-page advertisements publicising the movie in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
Mendez was able to use authentic Canadian passports for the fake identities he devised for the six. To enable permission to be granted for this, Canada’s parliament held a secret emergency session, the first since World War II.
Mendez flew into Tehran in January, and a few days later, on January 27, 1980, all seven of them, under the guise of a film crew and amazingly without incident, left Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport for Zurich. The Canadian embassy closed that day.
Unfortunately, the Canadian media exposed the escape as soon as the diplomats had left Iran, which ruined the US’s plan to secretly house them in Florida until the hostage crisis had ended, so as not to provoke retaliation against the remaining hostages still held in the embassy.
However, the role of the CIA continued to be kept secret so as to give the illusion of no US involvement, again for the safety of the remaining hostages and to keep negotiations open. There were outpourings of gratitude shown across America towards Canada, and the role of the CIA was unknown until declassification of the operation in 1997.
After the successful operation, Taylor and Sheardown, along with their wives and three other embassy staff, were awarded the Order of Canada, Canada’s second highest civilian award. Taylor later received the Congressional Gold Medal for assistance to the United States. CIA agent Mendez received, secretly, the CIA’s highest award, the Intelligence Star, in 1980 for his role in the exfiltration of the six diplomats. In 2000 he was awarded the Order of the Sphinx, the Inter-Allied Distinguished Service Cross for service behind enemy lines.
In October, the film Argo opened in Australia. Directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars as Mendez, the film retells the dramatic events of 1979-1980. The film has been praised as among the finest of the year, and, although it takes some historical liberties, such as almost negating the role the Canadians played in the exfiltration, it is a fitting tribute to one of the most incredible exfiltration missions in the history of the CIA.
Mendez is now 72 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He had initial misgivings about the declassification of the mission’s details for the CIA’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1997, referring to the “code of the spy”: “never celebrate your successes or explain your failures”.
The Iran hostage crisis of course saw one very public debacle, President Jimmy Carter’s failed military rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw, which cost nine lives. In light of that, it is particularly fitting to celebrate an outstanding achievement — an extraordinary mission whose ultimate success was owing to ingenuity, audacity and international cooperation.
Siobhan Reeves is studying for a masters degree in international relations at the University of Melbourne. More detailed information about Argo may be found on the CIA website, in an article by Antonio J. Mendez, “A classic case of deception: CIA goes Hollywood”, Studies in Intelligence (Centre for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, Virginia), Winter 1999-2000.