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Argo: With Apologies to Britain and Canada

If Ben Affleck wants to take the high ground he would run a series of adverts stating that his film is fiction and identifying the real life heroes he ignored.

by
Abraham H. Miller

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February 26, 2013 - 3:00 pm
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I guess it’s fair to say that Ben Affleck is not doing a documentary … or is he? In a recent interview by Terry Gross with Affleck that I caught on National Public Radio, he notes how he studied the Middle East in college and wanted to include the information on Mohammed Mossadeg and the US intervention in Iranian affairs to bring Shah Palavi to power. Affleck left me with the impression that accuracy was very important to the project.

To underscore the film’s commitment to reality, Affleck included information in the film’s front cards that was important to him as a student of the Middle East. This consisted of the historical context concerning the violent overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddegh and the successful CIA plot to consolidate the power of the shah, Mohammed Pahlava. This coup ultimately, according to many observers, led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Is Argo a story that is fundamentally true but appropriately tweaked to create the successful commercial venture, or is it a dramatization that while inspired by real events is largely a work of fiction with a political message? And, if the latter, as Hillary Clinton might say, “Who cares?”

Obviously, I care because too many people, especially young people, go to the movies and are incapable of discerning fact from fiction, especially when a popular and entertaining movie seems to be sufficiently grounded in reality to provide historical context.

Affleck’s Argo with its endnotes attempts to resuscitate the corpse of Jimmy Carter’s incompetent presidency. Carter has said that it was too bad he couldn’t tell the story of these events because if he had, he probably would have defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential contest. This is simply another disingenuous statement from a man given to making them.

Anyone who has studied the relationship between the Carter administration and the CIA knows that Carter was averse to the entire notion of covert operations. Carter’s DCI, Stansfield Turner, is ignominiously remembered among those who served in the intelligence community in those years for what has become known as the Halloween Massacre. This was the wholesale evisceration of much of the covert branch of the agency, with the summary pink-slipping of some 800 to 2800 — depending on whose numbers one accepts — seasoned and well-trained operatives. Carter and his DCI believed that human intelligence (humint) was a remnant of the past.

The first thing that is wrong with this historical revision is the idea that Jimmy Carter’s bashed and crippled CIA could pull off this rescue. Moreover, Carter’s destruction of the effectiveness of the covert branch of the agency meant that with the termination of covert officers, their foreign networks went with them.

The real workings of intelligence are — with obvious exceptions — nothing remotely like what you see in the movies. Espionage is based on a long, slow, and patient process of establishing trust and creating networks among foreigners who will work for you at tremendous risk. Why people spy is a matter far beyond this writing, but suffice it to say that it takes a good intelligence officer, in a foreign post, years to build a reliable espionage network. Fire the officer and the entire network collapses with him. Fire a large number of intelligence officers and foreigners engaged in the game on our behalf will justifiably worry about being exposed and quit.  

So, by 1979, it was safe to say that because of Carters’ policies, the CIA had limited covert capabilities and limited human assets in Iran or anywhere else.  The British, French, and Israelis were engaged in trying to recruit from our decapitated networks, but how successful they were is largely unknown. There is, however, hardly any chance that whatever intelligence their networks could have gathered would have been shared with the highly disdained Carter-era CIA or that they would have used their intelligence assets to come to our aid.

The real story of Argo is that six members of the State Department escaped initially to the summer residence of Sir John Graham, the British ambassador, before going to the residence of the Canadian ambassador and his first secretary. Contrary to Affleck, the Brits did not turn away our people.

Since people will think Affleck’s movie is more reality-based than it is, we should cut away from the glitz of the Oscars and acknowledge the role of the Brits, and the risks that they took in coming to the aid of our diplomats. America does not have enough friends in the world to squander the ones we do have. That’s something Barack Obama was too immature to understand when he pointedly returned the bust of Churchill that was a gift from Britain not to him but to the American people.

The people who got the real short end of the stick in Argo were the Canadians. It was First Secretary John Sheardown who took the call from the fleeing Americans and without hesitation granted them a place to hide. Some were hidden in his home. Sheardown died recently, and his wife found the movie disappointing for characterizing him as an observer to an historical event in which he played a fundamental role.

If Affleck wanted to take the high ground, he would run a series of adverts stating that Argo is fiction and the real heroes of the movie were the Canadians, who put their lives on the line for their American cousins and got scarce acknowledgement in return. It wasn’t Tony Mendez or the bashed CIA that got the Americans out, but the Canadians who arranged the vital Canadian passports and the airline tickets through Swiss Air and two other airlines. The Argo cover was unnecessary, and the cliff-hanger scene at the airport was pure invention. The Americans armed with their Canadian papers and with reservations made by Canadian diplomats walked out of Iran without challenge and on to the safety of airplanes.

Of course, that doesn’t make for an exciting movie. I’m not against license. I’m against leaving the impression you didn’t take it while creating a story, in the process, that millions will assume is factual and denies the heroism of real people.

As for Jimmy Carter, he had nearly nothing to do with this. Carter bungled Iran as he bungled nearly everything else. He failed to understand the threat of the ayatollahs, and, according to Robert Dreyfus’s version of events, he sent Air Force General Robert Huyser to further destabilize the shah’s regime. Carter believed that there was a democratic center that was coming to power. He made the same mistake with Iran that Obama made with the Arab Spring.

Neither Argo nor Jimmy Carter’s crude attempts to rewrite history nor Michelle Obama presenting an Oscar for a movie that makes us feel good about what other nations really did in Iran will change what happened. And to the British and especially the Canadians, many of us long for a day when America will apologize to you and appropriately reaffirm the risks and heroism of your people on behalf of ours.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.

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All Comments   (15)
All Comments   (15)
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The introductory background presented in the film about the US and Mossadegh is insidious. The narrative is presented without reference to the Soviet Union or the Communist Party of Iran, as if they had nothing at all to do with Mossadegh's government or the anti-US, pro-Soviet policies in progress at the time. If people want to make the argument that the USSR or its instrument in Iran were progressive forces, let them make it. But they refuse to make that argument. Instead, they erase them from history to suggest that the only two major players in Iran were the US and a democratic national movement.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hardly anybody in Hollywood takes the high road. It isn't "cool" to question the liberal indoctrination. Here's one exception:

http://1389blog.com/2013/02/18/tom-hanks-defends-serbs-kosovo-is-serbia/

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
'Affleck included information...concerning the violent overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddegh.' I'm sick of the way Iran and its Western friends always talk about the infamy of the US involvement in the death of Prime Minister Mosaddegh yet never, ever mention the Islamists' killing of Prime Minister Hasan-ali Mansur in 1965. Remember that name next time someone tries to use Mossaddegh to prove that it's the West that's fundamentally responsible for everything bad that's happened in Iran in our lifetimes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A few people have commented that Affleck did thank Canada. What annoyed Canadians and Ken Taylor was Affleck's complete re-writing of a history that was only a few decades ago without realizing that we would be offended. He never even thought to apologize until it was brought to his attention. We also realize that both Mr. Affleck and Mr. Damon have political ambitions in the Democratic Party. This movie was obviously a way to enhance Mr. Carter's presidency given Obama has been compared to him.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hollywood solipsism...everything revolves around THEM. It isn't just that nothing else matters; nothing else truly exists in their world.

Much like Washington DC solipsism - the Beltway disease.

Because of the latter, the US government has betrayed its existing allies (such as Canada and Israel) and disrespected its potential allies (such as Russia and India), that it soon will have no allies at all. The US has spent decades kissing up to Muslim nations and powers, when it is abundantly clear from Muslim doctrine that no Muslim government, ruler, or warlord - and in fact no Muslim at all - is allowed to befriend non-Muslims. The US will soon end up with the friends that it deserves, which is to say, none at all.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Affleck could have easily used the truth in that scene where the CIA guy said the Brits and Kiwis turned them away. The actual facts would have done nothing to diminish the sense of urgency and need for action. I think it is basically a contempt for American audiences that drive these sorts of decisions. They think we are too dumb to understand anything but simplistic situations.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I appreciated the blog too, but am very worried about our media-directed future. See http://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/. We have got to get real history and its turning points right.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I haven't yet seen Argo but I suspected its purpose was another attempt to rewrite Carter's appalling legacy. Thank you for the heads-up.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
First, let me suggest that you read the book, and then other works by Tony Mendez. It will certainly give you an excellent understanding of what tradecraft actually involves.

As to Turner, ADM Moorer who was CNO in my day said: "Turner is a man educated beyond his capabilities". To be fair he was put in the job specifically to destroy the covert part of the CIA.

That action was 'pay back' for CIA misbehavior and lying about the use of Cambodia for NVA material transhipment, but that is a story for another day.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't think people have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction in film in the larger sense. No one thought the artistically brilliant but depressing film "The Last Picture Show" was real in the same way they took Robert Frank's photos in "The Americans." Frank's book, in no less of a cynical but scripted artistic narrative, was taken as "documentary" and "truth." I have more subtle worries about media.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Affleck thanked Canada at the Oscars, which Ken Taylor said he appreciated. I'm sorry, sir, but in your zeal to bash Affleck, you're much too glib in saying, "It wasn’t Tony Mendez or the bashed CIA that got the Americans out, but the Canadians who arranged the vital Canadian passports and the airline tickets through Swiss Air and two other airlines. The Argo cover was unnecessary..."

Tony Mendez was crucial to the plan. Sure, in retrospect it's easy to say the cover was largely unnecessary. But they didn't know that at the time. They didn't know it would be unnecessary. Mendez risked his ass just as much as anyone.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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