TORONTO — Sitting in a Toronto hotel room Ken Taylor is casual as he chats about the days when he used to funnel information to the CIA in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.
While the former Canadian ambassador to Iran is already well known for keeping six American diplomats in hiding after the U.S. embassy was overrun by radical Iranian students, a new book reveals he was also Washington’s “most valuable asset” at the time — a strange role for Canada’s most senior diplomat in the country.
“Diplomacy can take odd turns,” said 75-year-old Taylor in an interview Saturday. “I think this was a highly unusual situation.”
“Our Man in Tehran,” by Trent University historian Robert Wright, covers Taylor’s 30 months in Iran, with two chapters detailing a request the ambassador provide “aggressive intelligence” for the U.S. in a deal between American president Jimmy Carter and then prime minister Joe Clark.
In a hush-hush operation, an agent flown in by the CIA, code-named “Bob,” as well as Taylor’s chief accomplice Jim Edward, worked with the former ambassador as he smuggled his reports from Tehran to Ottawa. Much of this was in preparation for a commando raid to free American hostages held at the ransacked U.S. embassy.
While Taylor admits there were numerous elements of espionage involved in his work during that tumultuous period, calling him a CIA spy may be pushing it.
“It’s a convenient label,” said Taylor with a chuckle. “I was never employed by the CIA, nor was I in direct contact with the CIA.”
In fact, the information compiled by Taylor, “Bob” and Edward, was relayed to a contact in Ottawa, who passed it on to the U.S. ambassador, who in turn bumped it to select sources in Washington.
“I was the main source of intelligent information to the U.S. government in Iran,” said Taylor, who added that he never thought to define his role in a catch-all phrase.
However it is defined, Taylor’s role was a strange one, said Reg Whitaker, a political scientist with an expertise in security and intelligence matters.
“It would certainly be unusual, especially for an ambassador,” he said.
As a senior diplomat, Taylor’s involvement in the clandestine intelligence-gathering operation put him and Canada’s diplomatic relations in the country at considerable risk had they been discovered, said Whitaker.
In terms of foreign policy however, Whitaker said Taylor’s actions were not really ones that generate serious questions that could have been the case if a similar operation had gone on in Iraq for example, a country where U.S. and Canadian policy has differed substantially.
The parts of Wright’s 346-page work dealing with intelligence had no direct input from Taylor, who was bound to secrecy. It was Wright’s own research that led him to unearth the details of Taylor’s involvement with the CIA.
“I would never be talking about this unless it had come out during the progress of the book,” said Taylor. “It had been kept a secret for 30 years, this is something I had anticipated would have been under wraps for an indefinite period of time.”
For his part, Taylor is modest about the crucial role he played, shrugging off the incredible risk that he had taken.
“There was no reluctance on my behalf,” he said. “I’d certainly, even upon reflection, do exactly the same thing again.”