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The Ken Taylor CIA "Scoop": It's Old News!

A new book called Our Man in Tehran purports to “break” the story, after 30 years, that Ken Taylor agreed to gather information for the CIA in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-80. In fact, the essentials of the story are 30 years old. They were published in the bestselling book The Canadian Caper, co-authored by Jean Pelletier and me, and published by Macmillan of Canada, and William Murrow Co. of New York in the US. That information was confirmed by Ambassador Taylor at the time, and was never denied by Ottawa.

What follows are excerpts from the book, beginning on page 162 of the hardback edition. The time is early December, 1979. Taylor, who is hiding six members of the US embassy staff, has been visited by an American agent posing as a European businessman. Taylor is impatient; he senses that the American government is planning an “extraordinary” military operation to free the hostages in the US embassy. He wants to make sure that his six American “houseguests” are included in any dramatic rescue attempt, both for their sakes, and his own.

“The talk then turned to a more specific subject: was Taylor disposed to do a little clandestine work for the Americans. The word “spying” was not used, but the two men understood one another. Taylor replied cautiously. Of course he was prepared to help the American government with any information that might ease their situation. It would be a strictly informal relationship, between Washington and a well-placed Western diplomat who had access in Tehran. As always, the information would be forwarded through normal channels: the Canadian diplomatic pouch and the embassy’s communications setup.

“ ‘How secure are your communications?’” the man asked.

“Taylor had anticipated the question. “There’s no problem. It’s as close to airtight as it can be. But I need some guidance about precisely what kind of information Washington is interested in. This would be useful, so we don’t duplicate your efforts’.”

“Subtly and obliquely, Taylor was trying to draw the man out, to lift the veil even slightly on what the American government had in mind should diplomatic efforts to free their people be frustrated. But the agent was not forthcoming. ‘Anything would be useful,” he said, “especially on the routine in the compound, security around the perimeter, that kind of thing. And anything on internal politics . . . ‘

“The two men parted with a handshake and a loose understanding that they would meet again if circumstances warranted. ‘Good luck,’ the man told the ambassador. ‘What you’re doing for the American government here is greatly appreciated. You know that. Whatever should happen, you won’t be left in the cold. That may sound vague, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.’

“Taylor thanked him with half-hearted gratitude. For the moment, the Americans continued to deal with Taylor at arm’s length, unwilling to take him fully into their confidence, in whatever capacity he might be useful.”

The next scene is on page 184. The time is late December. Taylor is driving his Volvo through the streets of Tehran.

“Taylor drove slowly, choosing streets that passed by open spaces: stadia, parking lots, wide-open city squares. A map of the city lay on the passenger seat beside him, and he referred to it occasionally. . Usually, he drove in late evening, and he would pay attention to where people gathered at night—and where they didn’t. Occasionally, he would make small notations on the map.

“The routes he followed were haphazard. Anyone following him would have been hard put to see any pattern. He would take side streets, then turn into wide boulevards. He periodically checked the odometer on the dashboard and marked the distances between points on the map. The markings he made with the felt-tip pen seemed innocent enough, but whenever Taylor spotted an official-looking vehicle or a patrol of Revolutionary Guards along the street, he would throw his coat over the map, or fold it up and stow it in his glove compartment.

“For the most part, Taylor restricted his evening drives to within a radius of a mile or two from the American embassy, He avoided the wide perimeter roads that bordered the compound. There was nothing to learn there. He stuck to the small tributary arteries . . . Occasionally, too, Taylor would leave the centre of the city and follow the main exit roads from Tehran, making mental notes of landmarks along the way, and where and when official patrols were likely to appear . . .

“Taylor’s primary interest, in these final days of December, was in compiling a list of what he called ‘bus stops’—areas in and around Tehran where large helicopters could land, and where they could be adequately protected while awaiting the passengers they had been sent in to collect. But there was more to it than that. The armed men that these helicopters disgorged would also have to find their way, in the least possible time, to their target area: the embassy compound. For this they would need detailed road maps, and they would have to be guided along their route by familiar buildings and other landmarks.

“Taylor also made it his business to learn everything he could about the organization of the militants within the compound, and where the hostages were kept. His exchanges of information with Western diplomats and newsmen provided scraps that he could amplify with his personal observations, his scrutiny of the local press, and his occasional contacts with middle-levfel Iranian bureaucrats . . .

“He watched, and he learned. The sandbag emplacements on the compound perimeter, for example, were absurd. ‘A ten-year-old could climb those bags and get over the top of the wall,’ he noted in one cable. Also significant was the non-military bearing of the Revolutionary Guards who patrolled outside the walls. They were sloppy and careless, even dragging their Belgian-made rifles in the dust. Taylor had heard stories about accidental shootings, guards cleaning their rifles and discharged the weapons into their feet or legs. He didn’t put too much stock in these stories, but he reported them anyway . . .

“ The more sensitive material—information that would normally be outside the purview of a diplomat in a foreign capital, and that would compromise him if detected—was transmitted to American agents within Tehran. These agents had come to see Taylor as a valuable source of data, and while much of the material he provided only reinforced what they already knew, he was a useful channel to other sympathetic diplomats in the Iranian capital . . . “

On page 188 we specify that his cables were circulated to Ottawa, as well as “small handful of upper-echelon people at the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency in suburban Langley, Virginia. His situation-reports had become too sensitive for wider distribution.”

By the end of January, 1980, Taylor succeeded in spiriting his six American houseguests out of Tehran, to safety. Three months later, the Americans launched Operation Eagle Claw, a commando raid into the heart of Iran that comprised eight helicopters, two transport planes and 90 men. The plan was a quick strike into the capital, a plan using (presumably) some of the intelligence that Taylor had passed on to the CIA.

But a sandstorm struck the landing party in Iran’s Great Salt Desert, and the mission was aborted. In the confusion, a chopper crashed into the side of a C-130 transport.

Eight commandos were killed in the explosion, and the remaining 82 soldiers fled the chaotic scene in a Hercules and returned home. It was the darkest moment in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Nearly another year would pass before the hostage crisis was finally resolved.


Old news


Weekend media reports say Ken Taylor, Canada's ambassador in Tehran in Jimmy Carter's time, was spying for the CIA.

Hey, this is a great story, but it ain't news. You read it first in The Canadian Caper published in 1980, co-authored by Jean Pelletier and me.

In the book, we detail some of the work that Taylor did, at great risk, for U.S. intelligence in Tehran. Taylor confirmed what we published at the time, and Ottawa pointedly did not deny it.

Claude Adams

Surrey, B.C.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette


Re:Envoy Taylor a 'valuable asset'
to CIA in Iran, Jan. 24

I guess old spies forget.

Ken Taylor acknowledged to reporters Jean Pelletier and myself 30 years ago that he gathered intelligence for the U.S. government while ambassador to Tehran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis. We told that story in considerable detail in our book The Canadian Caper, a book that spent 11 weeks on the Star's bestseller's list.

Imagine our surprise, then, to see this resurrected a generation later as a "scoop."

Claude Adams, Surrey, B.C.

Reporting from Purgatory: The Haiti Experience

Make plans. Watch them fall apart. Improvise. And embrace the unexpected. That’s my credo for reporting from Haiti. It’s never failed me, in nearly a dozen visits since 1987.

Port au Prince is the ultimate testing ground for foreign correspondents. It’s where you learn what to do when telephones fail, the lights go out, the air conditioner malfunctions at 36 degrees C, your rented car breaks down, your fixer doesn’t show up, your guts are in diarrheic agony, and the hotel loses your laundry so you have to do your live on-camera hit in a dirty T-shirt. All of these things can, and do, happen simultaneously. The wise response, the ONLY response, is to shrug, and hope the hotel barman has a fresh supply of ice on hand for the Barbancourt rum punch.

But what I suffered was mere purgatory compared to the hell that correspondents are undergoing now in covering the earthquake. It’s misery magnified a hundredfold. It tests any reporter’s resolve to do this kind of work. It’s also—truth be told and forgive me for saying this under the awful circumstances—the most exhilarating place to work that I can imagine.

In 1987, my first visit, a post-Duvalier election went bad. At 10 in the morning, we heard an army convoy race by the hotel on its way to a polling station, so we leaped into our cars in pursuit. We came upon a scene of carnage, 20 or 30 bullet-riddled bodies of men and women who had come to cast ballots, and who were instead ambushed by a gang on Tonton Macoutes. My cameraman went to work among the corpses, and I had to physically haul him away when the soldiers told us it was time to leave. We left with the soldiers. A handful of reporters stayed, and the Macoutes returned minutes later, guns blazing. One reporter was killed.

I was still young and prone to existential dread, so I called my news desk and demanded a charter plane to fly me and the crew out. “Stick around for another day, and see what happens,” the deskman told me. So I stayed, under protest, and we filmed more corpses, and demonstrations, and interviewed killers and disillusioned voters. And my fear turned to morbid fascination. I knew I would be coming back.

I made it a point to go back at least once every two years, and I watched a sorry succession of coup d’etats, failed elections, spurts of democratic optimism and economic despair. I met murderers and martyrs. I met Antoine Izmery, a wealthy merchant with a Middle Eastern background who noisily supported Aristide, hated the military and the bourgeoisie, and predicted that he would soon be murdered for his activities. A couple of months after our interview, Izmery was dragged out of a church service and shot to death. I learned an important lesson: Chaos is Haiti’s default position.

Once I hired a fixer , Michel, who claimed he had “great contacts” on the streets of Port au Prince. He was good, very good. But a week later, he was found, decapitated, in a slum alley. His “contacts,” I learned, included some notorious drug dealers whom he had double-crossed. Another time, doing a story about criminal deportees, I interviewed a tough-looking Haitian-American man, and after the interview was over, he demanded my video camera as payment. “I’m sorry but I need it,” I said. “I need it more,” he snarled. He reached for me and I barely escaped.

Once, trying to economize on a freelance trip, I stayed with a deranged Canadian man who claimed he was a white voodoo priest. Every night, he would climb onto his roof and, intoxicated on whiskey and other substances, blow into a conch shell. “It’s magic,” he said, “It frightens the gunmen. They’ll stay away. You’ll see.” But it only drew more gunfire, and the next morning, I quietly left and checked into a hotel.

Make plans. Watch them fall apart. Improvise. In February 2004 I was teaching at the University of British Columbia. I had a 10-day winter break so I decided to revisit Port au Prince with my video camera. My plans involved a quiet week filming some feature stories, and relaxing. My plans fell apart. I walked into a civil war. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s democratically-elected government was caught in the jaws of a pincer movement of mercenary soldiers and angry businessmen.

I told my fixer to drive me north to Gonaives so I could film the mercenaries. We were stopped at a roadblock manned by young Haitians with motorcycles. If we wanted to go any further, we’d have to hire the motorcylists and pay them $50 US to Meet the Mercenaries. It was a crazy idea, but I pulled out some money and jumped aboard. Ten minutes and a wild ride later, I came upon one of the mercenaries. He turned out to be a notorious killer, named Louis-Jodel Chamblain, whom I’d met before. His eyes seemed glazed. He was drunk or stoned. Outside his headquarters, I aimed my camera at his face and asked him “What are you doing?” Chamblain answered straight-faced: “Bringing democracy to the people of Haiti.” I turned the camera off, and decided to end the interview. This was too bizarre, even by Haitian standards of bizarreness.

Two days later, I talked my way into President Aristide’s office at the Palace and he gave me 15-minutes on camera. He begged Canada and the US for help. Within two weeks, he was deposed, pushed out by the very "friends" he had appealed to. Chamblain is still walking the streets of Haiti, a free man. Embrace the unexpected.

Those streets of Haiti are broken now. I hope to go back soon. This time, I’m not making plans.


Vancouver—Wine, said Dr. Samuel Johnson, makes a man mistake words for thoughts. He could have been talking about an entire country. An epidemic of oenophilia seems to have seized the nation, like the vapors of spring. Last week, Canada’s most popular radio show had a segment on the sound of grapes fermenting. (They sound like raindrops in an echo chamber.) British Columbia’s most important newspaper wasted three full pages on a local wine festival. A local university boasted about the work of its Wine Research Center. And Pinot Noir sales are going through the roof, thanks to the hit movie Sideways (which, by the way, is a euphemism for “intoxicated.”)

It’s a scandal. The producer of an award-winning documentary on the wine industry. Jonathan Nossiter, says we are all being ripped off. There are more wine labels than ever, Nossiter said, but “increasingly you’re getting the same product inside, whether it’s five bucks or 50 bucks.”

But it’s not the industry that riles me. It’s the wine geeks. I should state my bias up front. I drink beer, and the only thing I dislike more than wine is wine snobbery. When the leading character in Sideways complained about “too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation,” I left the theatre. When wine tasters rhapsodize about a burgundy’s “nose” or “legs,” I put down the cheese and head for the door.

How many evenings have been ruined by the dinner-party bore just back from the Napa Valley, with all the details of a new Shiraz he’s discovered?

All it takes is a little research to expose the many myths associated with wine. For example, I’m told there’s no difference between a screw-top and a cork. In fact, a screw-top keeps the wine fresher. Matching wine with food is mostly a marketing gimmick. Reds and whites are interchangeable with many foods. (Germans drink Riesling with sausages and sauerkraut, and love it.) Wine in boxes is just as good as wine in bottles. In fact, it stays fresher in a plastic-lined box. Opening a bottle to let it “breathe” is a waste of time: wine only breathes when it’s decanted. Smelling a cork in a restaurant may impress your date, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the wine. And old wines are usually undrinkable; 95% of all wines should be consumed within two years.

In an article for The New Yorker magazine, bon vivant Calvin Trillin set out to prove that most wine drinkers, if blindfolded, couldn’t tell the difference between red and white wines. After some marathon testing Trillin was able to show that even experienced drinkers are wrong 30 per cent of the time. (He also found that heavy wine consumption while blindfolded can be a lot of fun.)

My favorite research fact is that a bottle of champagne contains 49 million bubbles. Drinking champagne is like “inhaling” the essence of grape. Now that makes sense.

(This is one of a series of columns I wrote for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post in 2004/5)