My Canadian Hostage Call
by Christopher Harper
Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor was always a good source during the hostage crisis in Iran. He also was a good source for a bottle of Canadian whiskey in a city where booze was expensive and hard to come by.
“Chris,” he told me. “Call me any time you need to ask a question.” I took him up on the offer late one night when there appeared to be a discrepancy in the number of hostages and the number of personnel assigned to the embassy. Our New York editors were aware of the discrepancy, but they decided not to tell Elaine Sciolino, the other Newsweek correspondent in Iran, or me about it.
If ever there was a pregnant pause on the other end of a telephone line, the one from Taylor was the size of quintuplets. He’d like to help me, but he said he knew nothing about the discrepancy.
Six American diplomats had been hiding out in his home and that of another Canadian diplomat. The Americans had been outside of the embassy when it was overrun on Nov. 4, 1979. The CIA was working on a plan to get the Americans out of Iran. Unknowingly, I was the one who apparently forced the change in the timetable the six “non-hostages” had to be smuggled out of Iran—the scene portrayed in the recent movie, Argo.
I later learned from a British diplomat, a longtime friend, that he had been the one who rounded up those Americans who had been outside of the embassy when it was taken. He transferred them
to the British housing complex and then to the Canadians.
My error is a teachable moment I used for my students. Make sure you ask an important question in person when you know someone else might be listening.
Christopher Harper worked for Newsweek from 1975 to 1980 in Chicago, Washington and served as Beirut bureau chief. He then worked for ABC News for 15 years at ABC News in Cairo, Rome, and as an investigative producer for 20/20. He is now a journalism professor at Temple University,.
Note: See Mary Lord's story, A Deadly Secret, for the Washington side of the same story.