Edward Snowden

Ken Taylor, Canadian former ambassador, faults whistle-blowing

Ken Taylor, Canada's man in Tehran who helped US colleagues escape – as told in hit film 'Argo' – says the diplomatic game needs veil of secrecy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 11:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 3:17pm

Thirty-four years ago he was a central figure in the audacious plot to smuggle six US diplomats out of Iran at the height of the hostage crisis.

But such an adventure in today's world of smartphones and diplomatic leaks would be mission impossible, says Kenneth Taylor, who in 1979 was the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

Speaking on the 34th anniversary of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamic students, Taylor said poor communication with the outside world was a key reason that the rescue operation, also known as the "Canadian Caper", was successful.

"Back then there was no interference," says Taylor. And the only communication with Ottawa was through a cipher machine the size of a conference table.

Hollywood's Oscar-winning version of the escape, Argo, was criticised for having exaggerated the role of the Central Intelligence Agency. Taylor in fact played a central role in gathering and exchanging intelligence with Canada and the US. From planning the escape options to forging the US diplomats' identities, he said, it was "essentially a Canadian operation".

By the time Tony Mendez, the CIA agent played by Ben Affleck, arrived in Tehran, "it was all set", And unlike what was depicted in the movie, Mendez had no authority in the operation.

Three days after the US diplomats' escape through Tehran airport - a scene that Taylor says was far less dramatic in reality than in the movie - the saga was revealed by a Montreal newspaper, which had agreed not to report the event until it was over.

After the report came out, Taylor and his colleagues had to shut down the Canadian embassy and leave the country. Ottawa reopened the embassy in Tehran eight years later, but Taylor is still not allowed back in Iran.

Having dealt with intricate diplomatic activities for years, Taylor is a firm believer that diplomacy is at its best with a veil of secrecy.

While leaks by whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning (the US soldier who was born Bradley Manning ) and Edward Snowden have prompted public debates about the transparency of US foreign service and surveillance operations, Taylor says these exposés have made doing diplomacy extremely difficult.

"There is still a degree of distrust among allies [of the US], which makes it very difficult for people to conduct diplomacy in a rather private way," he says.

Diplomacy had for a long time been a dubious game, "and it's meant to be".

The veteran diplomat left the foreign service in 1984 and served for seven years as senior vice-president at RJR Nabisco, an American conglomerate selling tobacco and food. Since leaving Nabisco, Taylor has remained in the corporate world and has no desire to return to government.

"Politicians or civil servants, although they have different views, they all work for the same governments," he says. "Why would I go back if I have to take part in a popularity contest every four years?"

But Taylor's knowledge of the inner workings of government is still valuable. This week he was invited by private Swiss investment bank Lombard Odier to share his geopolitical insight with a select group of private investors.