Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Reading

Our Man in Tehran — The Toronto Globe and Mail has an exclusive story about Canada’s role in helping the United States deal with the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Ken Taylor, the Canadian diplomat celebrated 30 years ago for hiding U.S. embassy personnel during the Iranian revolution, actively spied for the Americans and helped them plan an armed incursion into the country.

Mr. Taylor, ambassador in Iran from 1977 to 1980, became “the de facto CIA station chief” in Tehran after the U.S. embassy was seized by students on Nov. 4, 1979, and 63 Americans, including the four-member Central Intelligence Agency contingent, were taken hostage.

Had his espionage been discovered, Mr. Taylor told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week, “the Iranians wouldn’t have tolerated it. And the consequences may have been severe.”

His intelligence-gathering activities were kept secret by agreement between the Canadian and the U.S. governments, although his role in sheltering six Americans and helping to spirit them out of Iran was later made public, winning him and the Canadian government widespread U.S. gratitude.

Trent University historian Robert Wright, author of Our Man in Tehran , a new account of the incident released today, strongly implies that then-prime-minister Joe Clark insisted Mr. Taylor’s spying be kept quiet, fearing a negative political fallout if the Canadian public learned that one of its envoys was a U.S. spook.

Mr. Taylor himself said he never expected the story to come out. “It had been under wraps for 30 years, and my assumption was that it would be for another 30 years. I didn’t expect to be here to talk about it.”

The phrase “de facto CIA station chief” appears in Prof. Wright’s book, the manuscript of which Mr. Taylor saw and approved in advance of publication.

The request that he provide “aggressive intelligence” for the Americans was made personally by U.S. president Jimmy Carter to Mr. Clark, likely in a telephone conversation on Nov. 30, 1979, according to Prof. Wright.

Mr. Clark gave his approval, and informed his foreign minister, Flora MacDonald, who passed the request on to Mr. Taylor. He instantly agreed.

“I saw this [the hostage-taking] as something that wasn’t right,” Mr. Taylor said. “Anything in a modest way that I could contribute … looking for some sort of solution to this, I was quite prepared to do. I felt strongly about it. And I felt we could get away with it. They weren’t going to catch us.”

More below the fold.

Frank Rich — Getting the mojo back after Massachusetts.

It’s too late to rewrite that history, but it may not be too late for White House decisiveness. Whatever happens now — good, bad or ugly — must happen fast. Each day Washington spends dickering over health care is another day lost while the election-year economy, stupid, remains intractable for Americans who are suffering.

[…]

Last year the president pointedly studied J.F.K.’s decision-making process on Vietnam while seeking the way forward in Afghanistan. In the end, he didn’t emulate his predecessor and escalated the war. We’ll see how that turns out. Meanwhile, Obama might look at another pivotal moment in the Kennedy presidency — and this time heed the example.

The incident unfolded in April 1962 — some 15 months into the new president’s term — when J.F.K. was infuriated by the U.S. Steel chairman’s decision to break a White House-brokered labor-management contract agreement and raise the price of steel (but not wages). Kennedy was no radical. He hailed from the American elite — like Obama, a product of Harvard, but, unlike Obama, the patrician scion of a wealthy family. And yet he, like that other Harvard patrician, F.D.R., had no hang-ups about battling his own class.

Kennedy didn’t settle for the generic populist rhetoric of Obama’s latest threats to “fight” unspecified bankers some indeterminate day. He instead took the strong action of dressing down U.S. Steel by name. As Richard Reeves writes in his book “President Kennedy,” reporters were left “literally gasping.” The young president called out big steel for threatening “economic recovery and stability” while Americans risked their lives in Southeast Asia. J.F.K. threatened to sic his brother’s Justice Department on corporate records and then held firm as his opponents likened his flex of muscle to the power grabs of Hitler and Mussolini. (Sound familiar?) U.S. Steel capitulated in two days. The Times soon reported on its front page that Kennedy was at “a high point in popular support.”

Can anyone picture Obama exerting such take-no-prisoners leadership to challenge those who threaten our own economic recovery and stability at a time of deep recession and war? That we can’t is a powerful indicator of why what happened in Massachusetts will not stay in Massachusetts if this White House fails to reboot.

The Real Frank Serpico — The man behind the movie is still telling his story.

Four decades later, Frank Serpico is still bearded, handsome and a flamboyant dresser. At 73, he seems spry enough to chase down and collar a perp; on that wintry walk through the woods, he interrogated a man carrying a sled, and followed a trail of blood drops in the snow until it disappeared. Not long before, he had sniffed out a dumper of garbage on his property and reported him to the police.

Mr. Serpico still carries the detective shield he was awarded as he left the department on a disability pension and, often, his licensed revolver, with which he takes target practice on his 50-acre property not far from this Columbia County hamlet. He also still carries bullet fragments lodged just below his brain from the drug shooting; he is deaf in his left ear, and has nerve damage in his left leg.

For many, “Serpico” conjures the face of Al Pacino, who won his first Golden Globe award for his star turn in the film. The movie — along with news reports and the best-selling biography of the same name — seared the public memory with painful images: of the honest cop bleeding in a squad car rushing to the hospital, where, over months of rehabilitation, he received cards telling him to rot in hell. Instead, Mr. Serpico took his fluffy sheepdog, Alfie, and boarded a ship to Europe; the film’s closing credits describe him as “now living somewhere in Switzerland.”

Which was true at the time. After years traveling abroad, Mr. Serpico returned to the United States around 1980 and lived as a nomad, out of a camper. He finally settled about two hours north of New York City, where he lives a monastic life in a one-room cabin he built in the woods near the Hudson River. In 1997, he spoke out after the brutal beatings of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house, but mostly he stays far from his old nemesis.

Now, all these years later, Mr. Serpico is working on his own version of the harrowing adventures chronicled by Peter Maas’s biography, which sold more than three million copies (royalties from the book and the movie have helped him live comfortably without working). The memoir begins with the same awful scene as the film: Serpico shot in the face during a heroin bust on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Feb. 3, 1971. Working title: “Before I Go.”

“It’s the rest of the story,” he said recently over lunch in the self-service cafe of a health-food store here in Harlemville. “It’s more personal. I used to think, ‘How can I write my life story? I’m still living it.’ ” Though he is healthy, he added, “I’m getting close to the line, so I figure I better get busy.”

Doonesbury — Hey, what’s your chemical signature?