How the CIA Used a Fake Science-Fiction Film to Pull Off the ‘Canadian Caper’

In November 1979, the 444 day Iran Hostage Crisis began as anti-American protestors swarmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took over the 27-acre compound, but a dozen people avoided detection and escaped into the city.

This group of escapees included a Mark and Cora Lijek, Joseph and Kathleen Stafford, Robert Anders and Stafford’s assistant. They originally intended to escape to the British embassy, and they almost made it before they encountered another demonstration in that part of the city. Left with little choice, the group escaped to Anders’ apartment which was nearby.

Anders’ apartment contained a simple standard-issue radio, considered an “escape and evade” device. This radio connected with the embassy’s radio network over which the group heard frantic messages going back and forth between marines and another person, Codename Palm Tree, who was giving a blow-by-blow account of the takeover. Codename Palm Tree was Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attaché who was watching from his office in a building across the street.

American’s alive at the time would remember the crisis well as it took over the television screens on a daily basis. They would remember the 52 Americans held hostage at the embassy and the attempted rescue a few months later, an attempt which ultimately ended in disaster as an Army helicopter crashed in the Iranian desert. Not many people know about the CIA’s involvement though, and how the CIA helped the small group who fled the compound escape.

Alone in the Middle of a Violent Revolution

As the day wore on, the group in Anders’ apartment began to realise how much trouble they were really in, but at least a few people knew about their existence.

Tony Mendez, a member of the CIA, was soon sent a memo from the State Department, a memo which stated that not everyone was captured and a few had escaped into the chaos of Tehran. Mendez created a strategy to rescue them, using his particular skills. He had spent 14 years in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service and his specialty was “identity transformation” – creating convincing false identities for people to help them escape complicated situations.

To help get the group of escapees out of Tehran, Mendez decided on a simple strategy: They would take on false identities and walk right onto a plane. Unfortunately, that would mean he would have to sneak into Iran to connect with the group and get them their false identities before helping them out of the country.

Meanwhile the escapees knew they couldn’t continue slipping between temporary hideouts. Eventually Anders called John Sheardown, a friend at the Canadian embassy, who quickly offered them a place to hold out, at his house and at the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.

The accommodations they ended up in were far from poorly. The five, along with Henry Lee Schatz who had made his way there as well, had plenty of access to real food and entertainment, but the threat of being captured hung over the head continuously. There was a concern that the Iranian militant would soon find out that not all the embassy staff was accounted for and revolutionaries were making their presence known in the up market suburb of Shemiran where they were hiding.

A Plan Begins to Form

Mendez’s plan started out simple and it would attract little attention. He would fit the Americans with Canadian identities, but he still had to come up with a reason as to why these six ‘Canadians’ would be in Iran to begin with.

Various suggestions were made as to the reason for them being there. The State Department wanted to make them unemployed teachers, but that wouldn’t work as all the English-language schools had been closed. For days, ideas flew around, each more useless than the last, until Mendez jumped on a seemingly preposterous idea which might just prove to be credible. He would go in as Kevin Costa Harkins, an Irish film producer who was leading his crew through Iran to do location scouting for a big-budget film.  It was the perfect plan as the Iranian government was looking to encourage business in the country and a film production would mean large amounts of money which they needed.

Mendez began to build his cover. He flew out to Los Angeles and began building a fake Hollywood production company, Studio Six Productions. Business cards were printed, identities for the six escapees were created and a script called Argo, based on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light, was secured. The script was perfect for Iran as the country had many of the ideal landscapes and locations required by the script.

The Rescue Begins

After Mendez laid all the necessary groundwork, along with help from some Hollywood friends, he made his way to Iran and arrived on January 25, 1980. He arrived with some of his supplies but the rest had been sent on to the Canadian embassy. Mendez collected them when he rendezvoused with Ambassador Ken Taylor.

That night, the six escapees sat down for dinner as they would have done any other night while staying at the Sheardown residence. The only difference was that this time, Mendez walked in and stated matter of factly, “We have prepared for your escape.”

Mendez explained the plan and went on to introduce the six to their identities. Cora Lijek would be Teresa Harris, the writer; Mark would be the transportation coordinator; Kathy Stafford, the set designer; Joe Stafford, an associate producer; Anders, the director; and Schatz, the cameraman. The six were nervous about the plan, and understandably so, but they had little choice should they wish to return home.

On the morning of January 28, 1980, the six were ready to ship out. They had packed, put on their costumes and rehearsed their stories over and over again. It was time to head for Mehrabad Airport and go on home.

The group were in luck, security at the airport was light and despite the nerves of the Americans, they made it through check-in and customs without a hitch. They waited patiently for their flight to be called, getting ever more nervous as the airport began to fill with people and Revolutionary Guards began questioning passengers all around them. Soon enough though, their flight was called and they safely boarded the plane.

Mendez knew as the plane took to the air he had just managed to pull off one of the most successful operations of his career and he raised a toast to the group and said, “We’re home free.”

The operation would become known as the Canadian Caper, and has most recently been turned into a film itself, one so fittingly titled Argo.

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