Watching Argo helped me uncover my dad’s CIA past and failed rescue from Iran.

How Seeing Argo Helped Me Uncover a Top Secret Operation to Save My Dad

How Seeing Argo Helped Me Uncover a Top Secret Operation to Save My Dad

Then, again.
May 19 2015 3:45 AM

Stranded in Tehran

While spymaster Tony Mendez helped six American diplomats escape Iran, a seventh American and alleged CIA agent was still behind enemy lines—my father. 

A native of Oklahoma, Max Copeland was the first American to be arrested and tried as a CIA agent in the Islamic republic.
A native of Oklahoma, Max Copeland was the first American to be arrested and tried as a CIA agent in the Islamic republic.

Courtesy of Cyrus Copeland

Excerpted from Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, a Mother’s Heroism and a Son’s Quest by Cyrus Copeland. Out now from Penguin/Blue Rider.

In 1979, my father was arrested and tried as a CIA agent in Iran. It was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and Max Copeland was the only American to appear before the revolutionary tribunals—long considered a one-way ticket to the firing squad. The hostage crisis was in full swing, but the attentions of the White House, CIA, and State Department were secretly focused on six American diplomats that had escaped the American embassy. Later, these six diplomats would go on to cinematic fame. But my father was decidedly off the radar in revolutionary Iran, and on his own. Or so I’d been led to believe. Thirty-five years later, I set out on a quest to discover if the charges against my father were true: Had he been a CIA agent all these years, if so, why had the U.S. government left him behind?

In the winter of 2013, I saw Argo and was both riveted and slightly disgusted. The movie retells the audacious caper of the American diplomats from the CIA’s perspective—taking more than a few liberties with the truth at the expense of the Canadians, the Kiwis, the Brits, and most predictably the Iranians who are shown to be a nation of goons, zealots, and cretins.

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Argo was designed to embarrass the Iranians and make them look stupid,” David Smallman said. An old-fashioned, politically liberal lawyer, Smallman had agreed to take on my case pro bono and help me shake loose answers from the tight-lipped U.S. government. “Think about the message of that film. Both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were made with the CIA’s cooperation. Two Best Picture nominees in the same year? Lately, there’s been a lot of saber-rattling to go to war with Iran, and movies like Argo set the stage handily.”

In Iran, the movie offended just about everyone. But the Iranians were not the only ones upset by Argo. New Zealand and England were offended too. The culprit? A single line, tight and crystalline as a country music lyric.

“Brits turned them away, Kiwis turned them away, Canadians took them in.”

It was a status update on the escaped diplomats—a throwaway line meant to heighten the drama—but it was a lie. And it rankled the Brits, who’d assisted the American fugitives, and especially the Kiwis, who had not only not turned them away but sheltered them, rented them a safe house with CIA funds, wined and dined them, and then driven them to the airport the morning of their escape. Offended, the New Zealand Foreign Ministry made a fuss over the slight, and the fuss ricocheted in newsrooms all over the world.

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All of which mattered little to the movie-going public. But it mattered to me. But for that silly throwaway line and the flurry of press it provoked, I’d never have found out the truth of what happened to my father.

It had been a year since I filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and still I’d heard nothing back from the CIA, and nothing from the State Department. What had happened that was so secretive that it took an entire year to sift through the information and release it to me? According to guidelines, they’re supposed to reply in four weeks. So when President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, advised me to pay a visit to the Carter Library, I thought: Why not? When Zbig gives you a heads-up on locating sensitive information, it’s best to listen. My friend Erica lived 30 minutes from the Atlanta institution and volunteered to go.

She called back the following day. “Sorry, Cope-meister. I went through 25 boxes of memos, meeting minutes, notes, and telexes of pretty much everyone in Carter’s cabinet. Brzezinski. Vance. Jordan. A search of the White House papers turned up nothing. Most of the important papers have been ‘sanitized’—the librarian’s word, not mine—or are just missing. Although I found a couple of memos about the ongoing backchannel negotiations on the hostages. Pretty fascinating. Shall I send them?”

“Sure,” I said, dispiritedly. “So there was nothing on Max?”

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“Well—there was one thing—a memo from this guy Hal Saunders. Don’t get too excited, it’s just one sentence.”

Hal Saunders had been head of the Iran Working Group at the State Department and reported to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. His memo was a daily update for Vance on the group’s outstanding initiatives in Iran, everything from a bio on Ayatollah Khomeini’s American heart doctor to Sadegh Ghotbzadeh’s bid for the presidency. But it was the final line that got my attention.

We have asked the New Zealand embassy to assist an American, Max Copeland, who was prevented from leaving the country because of some unknown difficulty with the Ministry of Justice.

It was just one sentence—and the last one, which indicated he wasn’t high on their list of priorities. I reread it. “Some unknown difficulty” sounded very vague, in a way which made me think Saunders knew exactly what the difficulty was. The memo had been marked SECRET but was recently—and I suspect, mistakenly—declassified. A glance at the distribution list showed that everyone in the Iran Working Group had discussed Max that morning. But it was the date of the memo that lifted that one sentence, gave it context and clarity: Jan. 25, 1980.

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I flashed back to Argo and the New Zealand fuss and did a little arithmetic. On Jan. 25, CIA agent Tony Mendez flew into Tehran with fake passports, gave each diplomat a cover legend for a fake sci-fi movie shoot, and 72 hours later flew them out on a Swissair flight for Zurich. Exactly three days before the Kiwis had driven the American diplomats to safety, the State Department had asked them to “assist” my father. The wording on the memo was vague, but there was no mistaking what they’d asked for.

Another extraction.

The realizations cascaded. So the U.S. government had tried to get my father out. They had waited until we left Iran on Jan. 13, 1980, to greenlight the extraction—knowing it would be easier to communicate with Max solo and make the necessary arrangements without his wife and kids. No one wants to believe his father had been forgotten by the government entrusted to protect him, but for 35 long years, this is exactly what I’d assumed. The silence from State and the Agency had only solidified that. But now, here was proof that they’d tried to rescue Max, that he was a valued citizen right up there with their diplomats—the subject of a side-by-side operation!

Even better, armed with this bit of evidence, I could finally pressure them to release Max’s files. Surely Uncle Sam and the CIA couldn’t cooperate on the production of a Hollywood blockbuster, then claim events of the past were too sensitive?

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Except that they could. When I tracked down Saunders at the Kettering Foundation in Washington, he denied any knowledge of the operation. And when I professed incredulity—I had the smoking-gun memo!—he gave me a brief lecture on office protocol. “Do you know how a bureaucracy works, son? When you have a position like mine, other people are authorized to act on my behalf. The memo was likely written by my deputy Peter Constable. And he’s deceased.”

Before joining the State Department, Saunders had been with the CIA and the National Security Council. He had a boot in several camps—the White House, the State Department, and the intelligence community. Later, he would write that there was great stress on the State Department because of the attention on the number of hostages, forcing them to adapt a misinformation strategy. So was I now being misinformed?

Chuck Cogan was Saunders’ CIA counterpart on Argo and professed no knowledge of a follow-up rescue for Max. All across Washington, the same chorus rang out.

“I don’t recall.”

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“Sorry, son, it’s been more than 30 years.”

“I’m a bit embarrassed not to know a thing about this.”

“Can’t do much about a faulty memory, can I?”

And having let the Argo cat out of the bag, the New Zealand Foreign Ministry now worked furiously to stuff it back in. “Give me a couple weeks,” ex–Deputy Head Commissioner Brian Lynch offered. Then-Kiwi ambassador to Iran Chris Beeby had extensively debriefed Lynch in London in January 1980. “Let me see what I can dig up. I think we might be able to fill in some of the holes in your father’s situation,” Lynch said. Weeks later, I received a terse email from him:

 I regret to advise you that the relevant files are still under wraps for some time yet. My former foreign service colleagues have explained the sensitivities involved and I have to respect their judgment.

Standing in the eye of the storm was Tony Mendez—the CIA agent who’d pulled off the Argo operation. But he wouldn’t talk to me either. That was particularly frustrating; Mendez’s specialty was disguising and smuggling CIA assets who needed to be brought in from the cold. He had arrived in Tehran on the exact same day that Saunders circulated his memo. While in Tehran, Mendez had leaned heavily on New Zealand’s No. 2 diplomat, Richard Sewell. (“I am not sure how it came about that he was the driver and adviser to Tony Mendez regarding how best to navigate Tehran during those dangerous times,” one of the Argo houseguests wrote me, “but that was in fact his role. Prior to Tony’s arrival, Richard arranged to rent a safe house ... which I understand was paid for by the CIA, so he was already working with them.”) It was all starting to add up. But Mendez would not talk and denied any knowledge of the operation through the Argo houseguest. I took that with a grain of salt. He was a former intelligence officer with a half-century’s practice in obfuscation, and basking in the glow of his newly burnished Oscar reputation. Why tarnish it? Truth was, Tony Mendez had been in Tehran at the same time, strategizing with Sewell, doctoring passports, and hanging out in the Canadian embassy, which was seven kilometers—10 minutes—from our house.

Stonewalled by Washington and Wellington, I recalled something I’d learned from the Westinghouse executives I interviewed: Retired folks like to chat. And so I threw my final piece of bait overboard.

It was 10 a.m. in Wellington when Merwyn Norrish’s phone rang. Ambassador Norrish had been New Zealand’s man in Washington at the time, and I hoped that the Foreign Ministry hadn’t yet silenced him on the issue.

“I just saw Argo,” I said, “and it reminded me of your kind offer to help my dad escape Iran as a Kiwi. Max Copeland. He was stranded in Tehran at the same time. Do you recall?”

The overseas line crackled with silence.

“Yes,” Norrish finally said. “It was my responsibility to tell the prime minister what Chris Beeby and Richard Sewell wanted to do. We got the word: ‘Well, OK, but we didn’t tell you so ...’ It was one of those occasions where a couple of our people ran considerable risks. Those people who say diplomacy is just cocktail parties don’t really understand the things that can happen—and your father’s operation was one of them.”

We spoke for 15 minutes. He told me about the dynamic duo who’d worked undercover to pull my dad out. “Chris Beeby was one of the most intelligent folks we’ve ever had—a Renaissance man and an international lawyer of great repute,” he said, adding that he was also a first-rate fencer and an excellent cabinetmaker in his spare time. His sidekick, Richard Sewell, was considerably younger but was “thought of very highly by his colleagues, and was an excellent consular officer in terms of looking after people in distress.

“We basically left it to them to do what they reasonably could without running undue risks or without involving the New Zealand embassy,” Norrish continued. “Our relationship with Iran was an important one in trade terms. Chris kept us informed to the extent that he could, when he could.”

Would there be any files or records about Max, I asked.

“I don’t recall. Certainly they wouldn’t want to release them.”

It didn’t matter. I had finally found the leak that David Smallman had suggested so many months ago. For weeks I sat assembling the pieces. How had Max’s exfiltration been planned? Chris Beeby and Richard Sewell were both dead, but I spoke with some of the other gentlemen of Argo, including rescued diplomat Mark Lijek, who knew State Department protocols and talked freely about his own extraction. I also talked at length with Roger Lucy—first secretary at the Canadian embassy—who became my sounding board on exfiltration logistics. His knowledge was based on real experience of having helped orchestrate the Argo operation. I combed through the Canadian ambassador’s situation reports from Tehran, looking for any mention of Max. And I chatted with the friends and family of Beeby and Sewell—all of whom painted an honorable picture of the men who had tried to save my father.

In retrospect I can understand Washington and Wellington’s desire to forget all about the whole affair—and but for that single sentence, it would have been relegated to history’s dustbin. I still had a slew of questions. Why hadn’t they combined the operations and flown them out in one scoop? President Carter had greenlit Argo—so did he know about Max’s operation too? Didn’t anyone think the revolutionaries would figure out the relationship between Canada and New Zealand? But what mattered was this: They’d tried to save my dad. The operation was a carbon copy of one of the most audacious rescues in history—minus the idiotic Hollywood option. Too bad it all went down in flames.

Excerpted from Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, a Mother’s Heroism and a Son’s Quest by Cyrus Copeland. Out now from Penguin/Blue Rider.