Argo and The Canadian Caper

I‘ve just read two earlier versions of the story told by the recent movie Argo. CIA agent Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio’s 2012 book Argo is subtitled “How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.” Jean Pelletier and Claude Adam’s 1981 book The Canadian Caper is subtitled “the inside story of the Canadian Rescue of Six American Diplomats Trapped in Iran.” The stark difference in these two perspectives brings to mind JFK’s adage that “victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”

In Argo, Mendez, who ultimately received clearance from the CIA to tell his story, focused on his use of tradecraft to exfiltrate the six American diplomats from Teheran. Together with his CIA staff, Mendez forged documents and crafted disguises for the Canadian Embassy’s “houseguests.” The CIA came up with the story that the houseguests were part of the Canadian production team for a sci-fi thriller “Argo” that was checking out Iran as a location for filming, but then decided to leave. Finally, Mendez recounted his visit to Teheran to prepare the houseguests and shepherd them through Mehrebad Airport.

The movie Argo did not explain why the Canadian government wanted the houseguests out of Teheran ASAP, but in the book Mendez made clear that a Canadian journalist, Jean Pelletier, had the story. The Canadian Government was able to convince Pelletier not to go to press immediately, but was concerned that, if Pelletier had the story, it would come out while the houseguests were still in Iran.

The Jean Pelletier who had the story but did not publish it was the same Jean Pelletier who co-authored The Canadian Caper. Pelletier knew the consequences of going into detail about the CIA’s involvement in the Canadian caper back in 1981, so he was very opaque. He did reveal that CIA agents met with External Affairs staff in Ottawa and participated in the crafting of false documents, in particular the entry visas into Iran to be used by the departing diplomats. He also revealed that there were CIA agents in Iran and especially at Mehrebad Airport when the diplomats left. Finally, he obliquely referred to the Argo cover story by recounting that the diplomats called themselves a delegation of business men and women from Canada.

Pelletier focused on the Canadian aspects of the story, in particular Ken Taylor and John Sheardown’s initiatives in Teheran to protect the houseguests, External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald’s efforts to pressure the Americans to act quickly to exfiltrate the houseguests, and the attempts of the public servants in External Affairs who knew the story to suppress it.

Writing in the third person, Pelletier and Adams went on at considerable length about how Pelletier, acting on a hunch, pieced together the story; about how External Affairs, in particular Canadian Ambassador to the US Peter Towe, leaned on him to suppress it; about his discussions with his own editors when the diplomats were still in Iran about whether to publish; and finally about publishing his article as soon as the diplomats were safely out of Iran.

Put simply, these are two different perspectives on a story. They don’t necessarily contradict one another. If Pelletier and Adams had carte blanche to tell the complete story back in 1981, they might have revealed more about the CIA’s role, in particular that of Mendez. Given the nature of his work for the clandestine service, Mendez was not permitted to tell his story. It was only after his retirement and the passage of considerable time that he could. Even so, we are informed on the copyright page that the manuscript was vetted by the CIA to prevent disclosure of information that remained classified.

Ken Taylor got to tell his story immediately, and in a very public way, right after the events happened. He became a very rare creature, a celebrity diplomat. He traded on his celebrity in the US for quite some time, getting the plum post of Consul-General to New York, and, after leaving External Affairs, becoming a senior executive at RJR-Nabisco.

After retiring from the CIA in 1990, Mendez wrote two memoirs about his experiences, but it was Argo, published in 2012, that became the basis for the movie, and that brought Mendez a measure of fame.

I can understand why Taylor was incensed that the movie Argo understated his role. But I can also understand why Mendez wanted to tell his own story.

The essence of a partnership is that the partners work together to achieve an outcome no one of them could have achieved separately. The exfiltration of the six guests was a prototype of such an outcome. Still, each partner has his own perspective on the events and his own story to tell. The book and subsequent movie Argo came from Mendez’s perspective and told his story.

A narrative involves a set of real or fictive events. But a narrative also involves a narrator who relates those events. The Argo-Canadian Caper controversy is a classic illustration of how different narrators from different perspectives use the same events to tell different stories. As a student of narrative, I’m glad to hear Mendez’s new story, even if it leads to a repositioning and a rethinking of Pelletier’s and Taylor’s earlier stories.



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