Spy vs. Lie

Claude AdamsOur Man in Tehran, a new book by Robert Wright, suggests Canadian Ken Taylor was a CIA spy, and news outlets were quick to jump on the label. But reviewer Claude Adams wishes they’d get their facts right.

Peter C Newman was probably thinking of the likes of Norman Bethune, Pierre Trudeau and Terry Fox when he wrote, mischievously, that the one thing all Canadian heroes have in common, is that they are dead. Newman was wrong. Ken Taylor, a certifiable hero in most Canadians’ estimation, is still very much alive, and we are reminded of that in Robert Wright’s recent book, Our Man in Tehran. Our man in tehran

Wright is an historian, but his Taylor book is pure, straightforward journalism, describing in probably too much detail how the ambassador and his staff sheltered six American diplomats in Tehran during the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis, and eventually “exfiltrated” them to safety with forged documents, out of the grasp of radical ayatollah-loving revolutionaries.

The hostage crisis, which lasted for 444 days, was a low point in American foreign policy. It ruined the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and cast a pall over American prestige in the Middle East. Against that backdrop, the timing of Taylor’s achievement was propitious. He was exactly what the moment needed: a good-looking adventurer, courageous, dashing, even a touch insubordinate in the 007 mode.  The public mood needed a mythic hero, and Taylor fit the mold perfectly. Newspaper headlines dubbed him the “Scarlet Pimpernel”—a piece of extravagant silliness that drew a lot of chuckles among the mandarins of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa

Now, 30 years later, Wright recasts Taylor in a sensational new role: as a CIA operative.  In fact, the phrase he uses in Our Man in Tehran is “de facto CIA station chief.”  The Globe and Mail took out the Latin qualifier in its headline, calling Taylor simply “a CIA spy.” Naturally, other publications followed suit.  One website, Examiner.com, used the phrases “CIA spy chief,” “CIA station chief,” “spymaster,” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Some follow-up stories described the details of the story as “explosive.”

In fact, nothing about the story is “explosive” and Taylor was a spy only in the very broadest sense of the word–the sense meant to promote an otherwise dry book. I haven’t seen a single review or reference that challenges the cloak-and-dagger characterization of Taylor’s work. For the most part, in fact, Taylor was an ambassador sending detailed intelligence and “sit-reps” (situation reports) to his bosses Ottawa (and not to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.) True, Taylor did have contact with a CIA agent in Tehran, named “Bob,” and some of the intelligence he sent was meant to help the US government put together a military rescue operation. He was, as some people called him, “a valuable asset.” And he did assemble “aggressive intelligence.” But he was not a spymaster. He was, rather, a resourceful diplomat who went beyond his brief.

The Globe also reported, quoting Wright, that Taylor’s “intelligence-gathering activities were kept secret by agreement between the Canadian and the US government.” In fact, a simple bit of fact-checking would have shown that this is simply not true.

None of this is new. In 1980, I co-wrote with Jean Pelletier of Montreal La Presse a book entitled The Canadian Caper which detailed some of Taylor’s activities in Tehran. When Pelletier and I learned about the ambassador’s clandestine work way back then, we presented our information to Taylor and he acknowledged it, and we put it in our book. Ottawa never disputed our findings. Most of Taylor’s work involved him keeping his eyes open, driving around the city noting routes that a rescue force might use, and where crowds gathered, and passing this on in his daily communiqués to Ottawa. Spies have handlers, disguises, dead drops, cut-outs and the paraphernalia of tradecraft. Taylor had none of these. We never used the word “spy.”

A careful reading of Our Man in Tehran clearly shows that even if Taylor had wanted to act the spymaster, he wasn’t exactly suited for the job. To help him gather information, for example, Taylor enlisted Jim Edward, the embassy’s head of security, to snoop around the US embassy compound where the hostages were being held. Edward, fair-haired and six feet tall, later admitted that he “stood out like a sore thumb” among Iranians, and indeed, he was captured and briefly held by Iranian radicals.

Taylor also tells Wright that he and Edward kept track of trucks carrying food supplies into the embassy so they could determine the “daily caloric intake and assess the general health” of the hostages—a neat trick that sounds more like a fanciful guessing game than spycraft. As one of a number of possible exfiltration strategies, Taylor also favored passing his six American houseguests off as a team of agricultural experts from the University of Guelph. That idea was scrapped when someone asked why agricultural experts would be visiting Iran in the winter, when there were no crops in the fields.

Ken Taylor was not a spy, and the hyperventilative “revelations” today that he was one show poor judgment, and even poorer research, on the part of journalists re-telling his (30-year-old) story. He deserves to be celebrated, but for the right reasons—as a diplomat who did an admirable job under difficult conditions. And pace Peter C. Newman, he remains a living hero.

Claude Adams is a freelance writer, producer, blogger and videographer who lives in Surrey, BC. He notes that the best-selling The Canadian Caper is sadly out of print.