Red Carpet Ag Economist
Ben Affleck’s Movie ‘Argo’ Recalls 1980 Joint Canada-CIA Rescue of Lee Schatz from Iran
Lee Schatz arrives at the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' 'Argo' at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on October 4, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Photos at top: Schatz is with his wife, Pat Johnson, a U-Idaho alumna from Kendrick, backpacking in northern Idaho, visiting ruins near New Delhi, India, and on the Red Carpet. Other photos were taken in northern Idaho, including a fishing trip with his dad in the Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area north of Orofino. Another hiking photo was taken and during a trek in the Himalayas. The passport photo was from the time of his travails in Iran.
He lists Iran, Iraq, India and more than two dozen other nations among the places he’s worked. H. Lee Schatz’ 31 years with the Foreign Agricultural Service shows the University of Idaho agricultural economics graduate is brave, resourceful and committed to making the world a better place.
He’s also the only agricultural economist to trod the red carpet in October's Beverly Hills premier of Ben Affleck’s new movie “Argo.” It portrays a 1980 U.S.-Canada covert operation to extract six Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis. Lee Schatz was one of the six.
That’s why he was on the CBS Sunday Morning
show Oct. 7. A 2007 Wired Magazine story talked about the rescue, focusing on the CIA’s role, which was kept secret at the time to protect Americans still held hostage.
Schatz grew up on the Rathdrum Prairie on a small family farm near Post Falls, Idaho. He earned a business degree with an emphasis on economics in 1971. He followed up with a master’s in agricultural economics in 1974.
He went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture traveling through Asia to help other nations buy American agricultural products.
That’s how he ended up in Iran in 1979. From his office, he watched Iranian militants storm the gates of the U.S. Embassy. That it would evolve into the 444-day hostage crisis that gripped the nation and helped topple Jimmy Carter’s presidency was not immediately apparent.
Schatz had been to Iran before so navigating its culture was not that alien, Schatz said. Iran then was in the United States’ top 10 foreign trading partners for agricultural products. He wasn’t immediately concerned about the rising tension. “It was a place I knew something about. I’d traveled a little bit there, and I’d met some wonderful people. The Iranian people are a phenomenal people.”
Even seeing militants overrun the embassy didn’t immediately force him into hiding. “They had done it before,” he recalled. “We thought the government would come and kick them out like they had before.
“I went to my office for a couple of more days and reported back to Washington on what I was seeing,” he added.
The Iranian government’s lack of response and the gravity of the hostage crisis soon became apparent.
Schatz stayed with a member of the Swedish consulate. It took him two weeks to join the other five Americans at the home of Canada’s Ambassador Ken Taylor. In all, more than 90 days would pass before the arrival of the CIA “Moses” – Tony Mendez – and an assistant, who would work with the Canadians to lead the six hidden Americans to safety.
Their ruse: a fake sci-fi movie, “Argo.” The cover story, Mendez and his crew – the six – were in Iran to scout filming locations for the film. Schatz’ role was to act like a cinematographer.
Affleck’s new movie, in which he stars and directs, provides a high-tension account of the plan to help the Americans escape. In real life, Schatz played a leading role in the moment of truth.
“The movie caught that very well,” Schatz said. “I walked up and got my ticket so I was actually the one who went forward and was asked about this being my picture. My moustache had been trimmed shorter that morning, and the guy walked into a side room with my passport. And I thought, ‘Can they check these?’ Then the guy walked back out stirring a cup of tea and waved us on through.”
The SwissAir flight they were booked on was delayed by mechanical problems, heightening the group’s fears it had been discovered. The plane was soon airworthy and carried them to Turkish airspace and safety.
Schatz said he’s heard from several people who have seen the movie that audiences cheer near the end of the film when the inflight announcement notes the passengers have left Iranian air space.
When the group reached the United States, all of the credit was given to the Canadians and their ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, to protect the hostages from reprisals.
Still, President Jimmy Carter welcomed the group to the White House when they returned home. Although Argo would have been a bright spot to counter the president’s failure to bring home the other hostages, the CIA involvement was not revealed until years later.
Within months of arriving home, Schatz faced a fearsome challenge: an interview with CBS 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace. The newsman tried to get Schatz to open up about the real story. “They ended up not using the footage. I said I’m not going to go any further than I agreed to go. He was a bulldog of an interviewer, oh my God.
“That was the whole thing. Nobody in the world needed to know there was any US involvement in getting us out. That would have been so bad for the people downtown. You had no idea what the reaction might be,” Schatz said.
Today, Schatz manages the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s international reporting system, which tracks food production worldwide. For the past year and a half, he’s worked on pre-deployment training for military and civilian workers headed for Afghanistan to help restore agricultural production.
An agribusiness development team from Idaho is scheduled to go to Afghanistan next year, Schatz said.
Iran was not his only tough assignment. In 2003, he went to Baghdad to restart the ministry of agriculture.
That trip is an example of why he stuck with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
“When I talked to people, they said what the hell is a guy from Agriculture doing here? I said don’t think of me as the ag guy, think of me as the guy who has to worry about food.
“I think the thing I’ve enjoyed most,” Schatz said, “is that while we come from agriculture, and that’s something that’s sort of special to a fairly small group of people, what we’re dealing with is food. And everybody understands food.
“If people aren’t secure in their food, how do you convince them to do things better in their agriculture? What can you do to help them?” Schatz said.
“On the marketing side, it’s trying to find win-wins for trade,” he added.
“The one thing I do know is when you get down to people working in agriculture in these countries, whether you’re at the farmer level or the government level, we’re all pretty much the same. I’ve sat in meetings in Iraq where, if I were in a meeting in Idaho, I’d know the guy in the front row who was doing the talking.
“They have the same concerns. If they are government people, they have the same desire to try to help their farmers.
“It’s that commonality that I’ve really enjoyed discovering, that we’re not much different in the agricultural area because we, no pun intended, are very solidly grounded,” Schatz said. “The things that we worry about are pretty basic: making a livelihood, raising food, and, if we’re good at it, raising enough to have a surplus to sell and maybe send our kids to school.
“It’s been a good career and a job that’s taken me to more than 30 countries so a small-town Idaho boy has had a chance to see the world.