Ken Taylor, Canada's ambassador to Iran from 1977 to 1980, will answer a selection of reader questions on Monday in response to the revelations made in a new book, Our Man in Tehran , by Trent University historian Robert Wright.
The book reveals that Mr. Taylor worked as "de facto station chief for the CIA" following the taking of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, spying on the Iranians for the U.S.
Mr. Taylor became a household name in the United States in 1980 when he was credited for spiriting six American diplomats out of Iran. In an engaging interview with The Globe's Michael Valpy, Mr. Taylor redresses the record of that critical period in the fractious history of U.S.-Iranian relations, shedding new light on both on his role, and the role of the CIA, in that celebrated escape.
Due to time constraints, Mr. Taylor will answer a selection of reader questions, sent in advance, on Monday.
His responses appear below. Preference was given to questions submitted with real names, and locations. We apologize in advance for not being able to answer all questions.
Ken Taylor Q&A
Sasha Nagy: Good morning Mr. Taylor, thank you for taking some time to answer reader questions on what has been an interesting series of stories stemming from the release of Robert Wright's book Our Man in Tehran. First off, can you tell us how this came to be? Were there any difficult personal reservations about making the revelations in the book?
Ken Taylor: Robert Wright approached me after talking to Foreign Affairs. I gave him a call, and his proposal was that he was about to write a book marking the 30th anniversary of the taking of the embassy in Tehran. He was going to be contacting a number of people, and was wondering since I was one of the principal players if I would be prepared to exchange views with him and answers some of his questions. I had no reluctance, since I have done innumerable interviews particularly after it happened. Thirty years did mark a milestone in a sense.
Sasha Nagy: Great. Let's move into the reader questions.
Scott Thomas writes: Mr. Taylor, perhaps you could speak about the politicization of the civil service. I'm referring specifically to the fact that the lawyer for the whistle-blower in the Afghan detainee issue says Richard Colvin has a "reasonable belief" that the Conservative government is retaliating against him for his damaging torture testimony late last year.
Ken Taylor: I resigned from the foreign service almost 25 years ago, so I am really not in a position to comment today on the politicization of the public service or how it differs from the time that I was a member. A lot can change in 25 years. I can only comment on my own time during thee period as a foreign service office. As any public servant does, I respect the guidelines set out by the minister and the prime minister, I at no time, felt during my career that was about 25 years, that there was any undue interference or influence. Whether or not that is the case now, I am not in the position to definitely reply.
Michael Hum, from Toronto asks: Was the CIA involved in the release of the Americans?
Ken Taylor: There are two parts to that question. First, was the CIA involved in the release of the six that were hidden in our homes, or was the CIA involved in the remainder of the diplomats approximately 50, and three in the foreign ministry, eventually after 444 days? During the departure of the six, who were with us in our homes, yes we co-operated very closely with the CIA. It was a matter of the Canadians having the ultimate veto on what form or what scenario would be carried out. However, the diplomats were U.S. diplomats and we had to co-operate and we certainly did so very willingly with the U.S. government, particularly the CIA, to see that they departed safely.
It was a joint operation. Since the diplomats were in our hands, the final consensus was shared one. It was [U.S. President Jimmy]Carter who had to give approval for the execution to be under way and we, on the Canadian side, had to be comfortable with the scenario that would take place.
Eric Newson, from the United Arab Emirates writes: The "Canadian Caper" has always fascinated me and it is an honour to take part in trying to dissect this latest chapter. Was your decision to collect intelligence for the Americans based on;
- A) a general feeling of loyalty to our neighbours to the south/closest allies;
- B) a need to help hostages whom you knew personally; or
- C) a desire to respond to a blatant violation of the extraterritorial status usually enjoyed by diplomatic missions?
Ken Taylor: That's an intriguing question. The decision was essentially based on all three. A, B, and C. In particular, with respect to the violation of diplomatic status, a sense that small and medium countries benefit particularly with diplomatic protocol, that gives an embassy sovereign rights over their own grounds. I found that we had to one way or another seek a rebalance of that. In response to Mr. Newsom, that would be a positive response to all three, but clearly underlining Part C, violation of the extraterritorial status. That to me was acting to the disadvantage to counties the size of Canada and Iran and smaller countries.
Pejman Loghmani, from Toronto writes: Dear Mr. Ambassador, I'm an Iranian-Canadian living in Toronto now; I would be thankful if you can answer this question. What was the role of then Iran's president (Mr. Banisadr) and the Iranian army (Air force) during the American rescue effort operation on April, 1980 (Eagle's Claw Operation), during the hostage crisis in Tehran ? Were there any secret deals and co-ordination, for this operation?
Thank you again for clarification in advance.
Ken Taylor: As far as I know, Mr. Banisadr was not involved, nor was the Iranian Air Force involved in the American rescue operation. The initiative was a deeply held secret. And the U.S. was particularly careful not to involve in Iranians because of the jeopardy that it would have put them in.
D. Dayton, from Toronto writes: I am extremely distressed to discover that a man on our government's payroll, meant to be representing the interests of our country, was really working for a different nation all along. I would like to ask him if it is common that Canadian diplomats are really working for the USA? To which country did he, or do they, owe their primary allegiance?
Ken Taylor: In no sense of the word was I working for the United States. I was a Canadian diplomat working in conjunction with Ottawa to one way or another resolve, possibly in a modest way, the Iranian hostage crisis. Canadian diplomats abroad are paid for, evaluated by and instructed by their colleagues in Ottawa. Our primary allegiance is to Canada and that was the case during the entire period in Iran.
What the embassy did, in one way or another, assisted in seeing six U.S. diplomats leave Tehran safely. We tried to be helpful to the U.S. in framing their efforts to secure the release of those in the U.S. compound.
Doug Heighes, from Owen Sound, Ont. writes: What was your rationale in agreeing to be a spy for the CIA? Did you have a choice?
Ken Taylor: My role in Canada was not to spy directly for the CIA, my role was in co-ordinating for the U.S. government, intelligence with respect to what was going on in Tehran, and the implications that it would hold for the Eagle Claw raid. It was under the umbrella and the context of the Canadian government. All the information went directly to Ottawa. Authorities in Ottawa would pass on the information to the appropriate agency or body or state department or pentagon in Washington. As for did I have a choice. The work I and my colleagues did in Tehran was in general to help seek a resolution to the hostage crisis. The work we did in relation to Eagle Claw was part of that endeavour.
Alfie Lee asks: Was your wife Patricia aware of your spying activities for the Americans? If so, did she contribute any information obtained from her walks around the streets of Tehran going to and from work each day, or shopping, for inclusion in your reports to the CIA in Langley?
Ken Taylor: My wife Pat was not involved in the intelligence gathering for the U.S. Eagle Claw raid. However, she was very involved with the six diplomats that were hiding in our homes. She was, of course, working at the Iranian blood transfusion service as a consultant with the Pasteur Institute, and an occasional lecture to the University of Tehran medical post-graduate group. She was very busy. One way or another in many different was contributing to the smooth functioning of the embassy. However, given the little time that was available, any discretionary time that was available, which was very rare, didn't allow her, nor was that intended to be, that she would be involved.
Kevin Tuggey, from Rouyn-Noranda, Que. asks: Was your Canadian staff at the time put in danger by actions taken under direct order from the CIA?
Ken Taylor: It's fair to say that during the entire time that the U.S. diplomats were hidden, and when we became involved in our further extension of our support of the U.S. efforts, the Canadian staff was always in danger. As a closing note to that. At no time were any actions that the Canadian government was involved in Tehran were taken under direct order from the CIA.
Tom Keep asks: Did you receive any renumeration from the Americans for your efforts?
Ken Taylor: Anything I did in Tehran was totally separate from the American embassy, the American state department and CIA in terms of renumeration, performance evaluation and what have you. I solely an employee reporting to External Affairs, now Foreign Affairs exclusively.
Alireza Panahi, from Toronto, Ont. asks: I am very puzzled about the fact that Mr. Taylor reveals his secret at this time, considering the events in Iran after the June 12 election. Hardliners in Iran have repeatedly accused the foreign embassies in Tehran as being involved in movement of the Iranian people for democracy. This comes as good news for the fanatics in Iran. Is there any connection between the timing of the events in Iran and publishing this book now?
Ken Taylor: I had no intention of revealing our involvement with regard to Eagle Claw. It had been a secret for 30 years, and I had intended it to remain a secret for another 30 years. However, events through diligent reporting or research, become known. The story, had a documented framework to it, and I was responded to the contents of the book. Iran is probably one of the most complex countries that Western governments are involved with or confronted with at the moment. It may well be, as the questioner asks and identifies, the fanatics in Iran may take advantage of the story that Professor Robert Wright unfolds in his book, but it is purely a coincidence.
Unnamed Reader comment: I commend the harbouring of the American fugitives by our diplomats after the illegal take-over of their embassy. Allowing the CIA agent to operate from the Canadian embassy is debatable but understandable under the circumstances. But working directly with CIA and giving them information so that they can attack is deplorable. Mr. Taylor, you talk about the risks to you and your colleagues; did you ever consider the risk to the hundreds of innocent Iranians who would have been in the line of fire, had the Americans invaded Tehran and bungled up their so-called perfect rescue plans?
Ken Taylor: During the planning of the Eagle Claw initiative, I was certainly aware, as were my colleagues in Ottawa that were involved in it, of the risk to the Canadian embassy employees. We were also very aware to the possible risk to innocent Iranians. The responsibility of Iranian innocents, rested solely on the Iranian government's shoulders at that time. The U.S. embassy was taken over by students, who I think had in mind 2-3 days. The embassy situation was eventually manipulated by the Iranian government. If there would have been innocent people caught in the crossfire, it would be seen as something that was provoked by the stance of the Iranian government at that time.
Monique Lamoureux, from Ottawa asks: To what extent do you think the revelation of your work as "de facto station chief for the CIA" will affect our diplomats currently working abroad? Do you think that this revelation will cause Canadian diplomats to lose the trust and faith of their counterparts in other countries? And if so, how would you suggest we might be able to regain that trust?
Ken Taylor: I think that there is always the possibility that this may put into question some activities of some Canadian embassies abroad. However, I don't see this as a residual or ongoing concern. The Canadian embassy, and colleagues in Ottawa and obviously the prime minister and minister acted in response to people in desperate situation, their lives were at risk. After consideration, it was universal that Canada and the Canadian embassy respond in a way that might alleviate or resolve a situation that those diplomats found themselves in. If it did jeopardize the future operations of Canadian embassies, which I think it may momentarily but not universally, I think that it was a small price to pay in the sense that Canadians followed their own values and instincts in doing what they did.
Sasha Nagy: Thanks Mr. Taylor for time.