The Accidental Spy

Kenneth Taylor, MBA 59, plays a major role in the Iran hostage crisis and the Oscar-winning movie Argo


By Sean Elder

It was not the most provocative speech in Berkeley’s history, but Kenneth Taylor’s 1980 Charter Day address is remembered for its reception. The former Canadian ambassador to Iran had just left that post, after helping six U.S. diplomats escape the fate of 52 other Americans being held hostage by student revolutionaries.

The taking of the U.S. embassy had been both a culmination of anti-American feeling in Iran and the beginning of anti-Iran feelings in the U.S.

So while Taylor, MBA 59, was being hailed as a hero in the rest of the United States, Berkeley police were expecting protests from Iranian students and their supporters, as well as counterprotests, at Charter Day. Rather than cancel Taylor’s address, the authorities decided to give the Berkeley alum a bulletproof vest to wear under his gown, as well as a phalanx of undercover bodyguards similarly attired. Putting on the body armor beneath his garb, one of the cops announced, “I only graduated from high school and now I’m a full university professor!”

No shots were fired during the ceremonies, Taylor says today, although “halfway through the thing people started burning flags--U.S. flags, Iranian flags. I figured the best thing to do was to keep on talking. Nobody cared what I was saying anyway.”

Such self-deprecation is the norm for the foreign-service veteran who during the early months of the crisis found himself in what he has described as a “Walter Mitty world.” As both a Canadian diplomat and a spy for the United States, he believes his role in the escape of the six is underplayed in Argo, Ben Affleck’s slightly fictionalized film version of the CIA’s contribution, which won best picture in this year’s Academy Awards. But after a highly publicized meeting with the director-star (and a rewrite of the movie’s final postscript), Taylor is, well, diplomatic.

“Ben Affleck is a very affable guy. We got along just fine, despite the fact that the CIA was a very minor player [in the rescue] and, according to the movie, we were incidental,” he says.

From Debates to Discos

Kenneth Taylor didn’t set out to be a diplomat. After getting a general arts degree at the University of Toronto, the Calgary native went to Berkeley to get an MBA and had what he describes as “a marvelous two years ... It was an open campus; what best illustrated that is that there were two booths near Sather Gate, one pro-Batista, one pro-Castro. Take your choice!”

At Berkeley he met Pat, a fourth-generation Chinese-Australian microbiologist who was completing her doctorate while working as an associate in the School of Public Health, dancing with the Oakland Light Opera Ballet Company, and playing violin with the University Symphony Orchestra. They married at the Anglican Church near their old home at the International House (which will award them I-House Alumni Couple of the Year at its spring 2013 gala), shortly after Taylor got his first Canadian government post to Guatemala.

“Today you’d get a list of posts, put your preferences, they’d talk to the ambassador,” says Taylor. “In 1959 you went where you were told.”

Even his choice of career was rather accidental. “I wanted to work internationally and there weren’t many jobs available,” Taylor recalls.

Those were tumultuous times in Guatemala--a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 set the stage for the civil war that began in 1960--and the small office there covered all of Central America, so Taylor did get to travel a lot. After Guatemala Taylor was sent to Detroit, Karachi, London, and then Iran, considered a plum assignment at the time.

Business between Canada and Iran was booming, thanks to what Taylor calls “the mutuality of oil interests”; the discos were open all night; the Shah was still in power. “Iranians love to entertain,” says Taylor, and he and his wife were no slouches, either. “There were any number of attractions, and I didn’t meet anybody who saw it coming. People who had been there for years--journalists, bankers, diplomats, Iranians--I couldn’t find anybody who said, ‘Be careful: Two years from now the Shah is going to be deposed.’”

Explosive Protests

The speed with which things changed in Iran seems stunning, even now in the wake of the Arab Spring. By the beginning of 1979, the Shah had left the country; in February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. In between the two events, Taylor arranged for the evacuation of 850 Canadians from Iran--"a tremendous feat of organization," as Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs later put it.

By the time America allowed the ailing, exiled Shah into the country to be treated for cancer in October 1979, anti-U.S. sentiment was uncontainable. When the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini overran the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, it was after months of angry protest.

The six Americans who slipped away from the embassy as others were being captured and blindfolded were lucky: The consulate building they were working in was surrounded but not taken over, and by the time they escaped, it was pouring rain and the street was deserted. They spent the next few days moving between temporary hideouts before calling a friend, John Sheardown, head of immigration at the Canadian embassy.

For the following three months, the six divided their time between Sheardown’s and Taylor’s houses. They played board games, watched the news, and drank what booze remained, while the Canadians made plans for getting them out of the country undetected.

The Hollywood Option

On Jan. 2, 1980, the CIA sent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck in Argo) to Ottawa to help plan the houseguests’ “exfiltration” from Tehran. It was Mendez who came up with the idea of passing the six off as Canadians in Iran scouting locations for a sci-fi flick. Mendez specialized in creating “cover legends” for CIA operatives and sneaking them out of tight situations. Argo is based on Mendez’s 1999 book, The Master of Disguise, and a 2007 Wired article. The film Argo’s focus on the Hollywood Option (as Mendez called his plot) diminished the role of the Canadians.

“We were not innkeepers!” says Taylor. “We did everything: We provided the passports, the documents, the birth certificates, the credit cards--their identities. Tony had spent time in Hollywood schmoozing with people.

“While we were [with the escapees] three months in Tehran, he comes out for a day and a half and in that time was totally within our cocoon,” Taylor adds.

Despite Argo’s inaccurate portrayal of the Canadians, all agree the film is true to the tenor of the times. “The early scenes were vivid,” Pat says of the takeover reenactment; she worked just blocks from the U.S. embassy. “It brought me right back to that day.”

In addition to risking his life to help the six U.S. diplomats during his time in Iran, Taylor also helped the CIA plan Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted U.S. Delta Force attempt to rescue the 52 Iran hostages.

“With Eagle Claw, we were actually actively involved 10 hours a day setting out tactical moves for the commando raid, under guise of the embassy,” says Taylor. “That’s pretty serious stuff, or would have been seen as serious stuff to the Iranians.”

Although some Canadians did not like one of their diplomats working with the American CIA, Taylor says he didn’t need a lot of persuading. “They asked me and I said yes. To me--how do I say this without being trite?--it seemed the right and responsible thing to do. The U.S. didn’t have anybody there.”

Second Act

Upon his return to North America, Taylor was hailed a hero. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and given the keys to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. His own country made him and Sheardown (and later their wives) Officers of the Order of Canada, and later appointed Taylor Consul General in New York.

In 1984, Taylor left the Canadian Foreign Service after almost 25 years and began a second career with Nabisco Brands, which became RJR Nabisco. “Seven years later some of us tried to take the company private, and we lost to [Henry] Kravis,” Taylor says.

That battle, recounted in Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate, was a different sort of hostile takeover. “I’ve been through two revolutions, one political and one corporate,” Taylor says. “And there’s a big similarity because nobody can predict the outcome.”

A longer version of this article appeared in the fall issue of California magazine.


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