About the Rescue of the “Canadian Six”
Few CIA counterterrorist successes have ever been made public. Described here is one of them, a classic case of deception in which CIA technical specialists created a dummy movie-production company in Hollywood and delivered disguises and documents that made possible the escape of six US diplomats from capture in Iran in 1980. The CIA closely held the story until revealing it to the public for the Agency’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1997.
On 4 November 1979, militant Islamic students took over the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took hostage the 66 US personnel inside. Avoiding capture that day were six US State Department employees who took refuge in the homes of Canadian Embassy officers. The US Government developed several major operations to address this national crisis. Among them was a scheme developed by a small team of CIA disguise and false-documentation specialists to exfiltrate the “Canadian Six” (as they became known) from the country.
The exfiltration task was daunting–the six Americans had no intelligence background; planning required extensive coordination within the US and Canadian governments; and failure not only threatened the safety of the hostages but also posed considerable risk of worldwide embarrassment to the US and Canada. Other significant problems included overcoming Iran’s strict immigration exit controls and creation of a credible cover story and supporting documentation for the six Americans.
After careful consideration of numerous options, the chosen plan began to take shape. Canadian Parliament agreed to grant Canadian passports to the six Americans. The CIA team together with an experienced motion-picture consultant devised a cover story so exotic that it would not likely draw suspicions–the production of a Hollywood movie.
The team set up a dummy company, “Studio Six Productions,” with offices on the old Columbia Studio lot formerly occupied by Michael Douglas, who had just completed producing The China Syndrome. This upstart company titled its new production “Argo” after the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed in rescuing the Golden Fleece from the many-headed dragon holding it captive in the sacred garden–much like the situation in Iran. The script had a Middle Eastern sci-fi theme that glorified Islam. The story line was intentionally complicated and difficult to decipher. Ads proclaimed Argo to be a “cosmic conflagration” written by Teresa Harris (the alias selected for one of the six awaiting exfiltration).
President Jimmy Carter approved the rescue operation. The CIA team prepared for the newly christened “movie-production crew” forged documentation and disguise packages to be shipped via diplomatic pouch to the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. CIA specialists–under the guise of a Studio Six Productions team scouting for a suitable filming location in Tehran–traveled to Iran to complete necessary travel documents and make final arrangements with the six Americans and their Canadian hosts.
The day before their departure, the six Americans rehearsed their cover stories and movie-production roles. Their new images included disguises and wardrobes with a “Hollywood” flare–tight trousers, silk shirt unbuttoned down the front with chest hair cradling a gold chain and medallion for one man. Policymakers back home were pleased with the plan, signing off their final cable, “See you later, exfiltrator!”
Traveling through Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport was typically chaotic, clogged with traveler traffic on top of overzealous customs and immigration officials and roving Revolutionary Guards. An early morning flight had been picked to increase the chances of a smooth departure–officials would be sleepy, Revolutionary Guards would be in bed, and travelers would be at a minimum. The six Americans and their CIA-escort “production manager” passed through customs and immigration without a hitch. After an hour delay due to a minor mechanical problem, the flight–with its fake movie crew aboard–was in the air and headed for Zurich. A collective sigh of relief came over the Americans when the plane cleared Iranian airspace.
News of the escape and Canada’s role quickly broke. Americans went wild in celebrating their appreciation to Canada and its Embassy staff. The maple leaf flew in a hundred cities and towns across the US. Billboards exclaimed “Thank you Canada!” Full-page newspaper ads expressed American’s thanks to its neighbors to the north. Thirty-thousand baseball fans cheered Canada’s Ambassador to Iran and the six rescued Americans, honored guests at a game in Yankee Stadium.
Studio Six Productions soon folded, the public unaware of CIA’s role in orchestrating this most successful rescue operation.