As It Happens

Canadian who sent secret messages during 1979 Iran hostage crisis dies

Roger Lucy rememebers Mary O'Flaherty's work doing communications during the secret 1980 operation to smuggle six U.S. citizens out of Iran.

Mary O'Flaherty worked as a communications officer at Canada's embassy in Tehran

From left to right: Mary O'Flaherty, Ken Taylor's secretary Laverna Dollimore and Roger Lucy. Lucy says that he and O'Flaherty were "wined and dined" in the months after they returned from Iran following the 'Canadian Caper'. O'Flaherty died May 13. (Submitted by Roger Lucy)

Mary O'Flaherty knew every detail about the Canadian Caper — the secret operation to smuggle six Americans out of Iran.

But when her old colleague from the Canadian embassy in Tehran, former diplomat Roger Lucy, read her obituary, he was disappointed to find no mention of the details of her job.

So he wrote to the Ottawa Citizen to bring her story to light.

"She would have known everything," Lucy told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Everything from when [Canadian ambassador] Ken Taylor first advised Ottawa that these people had landed on our doorsteps, down to the last message we sent out saying mission accomplished."

O'Flaherty died May 13, but her obituary was just recently published. She was 92 years old.

O'Flaherty, who was born in St. John's, N.L., was the communications officer for the embassy in Tehran in 1979 when 52 American diplomats and citizens at the U.S. embassy were taken hostage for 444 days. 

Ken Taylor, Canadian Ambassador to Iran, meets with journalists outside the Canadian Embassy in Paris on Jan. 31, 1980. Taylor sheltered six U.S. citizens during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (Associated Press )

Six people were able to evade capture and made contact with the Canadian embassy.

What happened next, which is partly portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Argo, was a months-long operation with the CIA to hide the Americans.

The Canadians' "house guests," as they were known, were then smuggled out of the country under the guise of a Canadian film crew.

Canada's 'house guests' 

During that time, O'Flaherty had access to every secret detail about the operation that was sent between Taylor and the Canadian government.

She was tasked with encrypting and sending the messages through a telex network.

"Her's was a job that required incredible discretion," Lucy said.

In this Nov. 9, 1979, file photo, one of the hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is displayed blindfolded and with his hands bound to the crowd outside the embassy. (Associated Press)

O'Flaherty also helped one of the Americans — Kathleen Stafford — look as "Canadian as possible" so she could get out of the country undetected.

"Mary dug through her wardrobe, she was much the same build as Kathleen Stafford, and provided her with suitable filling for her suitcase," Lucy said.

'Cool under fire' 

Lucy remembers O'Flaherty as someone who was "cool under fire", especially during a particularly tense road trip during the Iranian revolution.

"She had to go and get something from the British embassy for her cipher equipment ... so we ventured forth in an embassy car down to the British embassy, right through the middle of the excitement that was going on, and she didn't seem at all perturbed," Lucy said. 

"I can't say I shared her sentiment."

O'Flaherty and Lucy were among the five Canadians who received the Order of Canada for their actions.

As for why these incredible details of O'Flaherty's life were left out of her obituary, Lucy believes it is partly to do with how closely she protected these important secrets.   

"She was very much someone who kept her own counsel about this," he said.

"That's why I thought I should write to the Citizen just at least to amplify the record so she didn't pass unnoted into the good night."

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Katie Geleff