It was 1970. The Cold War was in full swing, and a junior Soviet Union intelligence officer stationed at the Soviet embassy in Bangkok had defected to the Americans. Soviet security agents were scouring the airports, bus and railroad terminals looking for the man.
It was up to CIA operative Tony Mendez (Art ex’59) and his colleagues to get him out alive. They put lifts in his shoes, covered his blond pompadour with a dark brown wig, gave him an expensive European suit and had him affect a German accent.
The most important prop, though, turned out to be a cigar they handed him at the last minute. When a Soviet security officer stopped the man at the airport and gave him the once-over, the young spy lifted the cigar to his lips and blew a cloud of smoke into his face.
“That’s what did it,” says Mendez who attended CU for several semesters in the late-1950s. “Your demeanor has to be just right to pull off these kinds of operations.”
He should know. During 25 years with the CIA, Mendez was involved in 150 successful “exfiltrations,” rescues of people from countries hostile to the United States.
His most famous exfiltration became the subject of his 2012 book Argo: How the CIA Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (Penguin) and of the Academy Award-nominated movie Argo. The book and movie are based on Mendez’s rescue of six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
The crisis began on Nov. 4, 1979, when a group of Islamist students and militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran. They took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in reaction to the United States allowing the former Shah of Iran into the country to receive medical treatment for terminal cancer. During the siege, six Americans slipped out a side door of the American embassy. They were taken in by Canadian embassy officials who hid them in their homes.
Mendez hatched a plan to get the six out of Iran by having them pose as Canadian filmmakers based in Hollywood who had supposedly traveled to Iran to scout out a movie location. He bought a script for a sci-fi movie called Argo and even took out an advertisement for it in Variety.
“It was a crazy idea, but I thought it just might work,” Mendez says. “Everyone knows people from Hollywood are eccentric and would go anywhere in the world no matter what time of year it is or what is going on there.”
Mendez never intended to be a spy. As a young child, he showed a penchant for drawing and later, at Englewood High School in suburban Denver, took up painting. He majored in fine arts at CU but quit when his wife became pregnant. He took a job as an illustrator of missile designs for Martin Marietta based in Littleton, Colo.
A few years later in 1965, he saw a Navy ad in The Denver Post looking for artists to work overseas. Mendez applied and found himself seated in a seedy hotel off Colfax Avenue, talking to a CIA recruiter. He was hired as an espionage artist for the agency’s technical services division where he did everything from sketching descriptions of North Korean infiltrators to forging passports and drawing fake currency. He later began to help with exfiltrations and eventually was made chief of the CIA’s graphics and authentication division.
In late 1979, he and his crew learned about the six Americans in Iran and were charged with finding a way to bring them out. The best way out of the country was through Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which was crawling with Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Just seven months earlier, Mendez had traveled to Iran to exfiltrate an Iranian who had been a member of the former Shah’s inner circle.
Some officials suggested the six pose as English-language teachers. Others thought they should pretend to be crop inspectors. But the English-language schools had closed down in Tehran, and since the rescue attempt would happen in the winter, the presence of agricultural inspectors would seem odd.
Mendez was friendly with a makeup artist in Hollywood who had helped him on previous spy missions. As he traveled to Canada to ask officials there to create fake passports for the six, it occurred to him that turning the Americans into moviemakers might work.
“We were having trouble getting people in the Canadian government and in the U.S. government to believe we could pull off any kind of rescue,” Mendez says. “It was a crazy idea, born of desperation. But in the end, they liked it.”
So did the Americans when Mendez arrived in Tehran weeks later.
“Tony presented all three cover stories to us,” recalls Mark Lijek, who like Mendez, has written his own book about the episode, The Houseguests: Memoirs of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery (CreateSpace). “And he let us choose. It was obvious, though, that the Hollywood scenario had been more developed than the others.
“He told us they had set up a fictitious production company, bought a script, rented office space and made business cards that included a live phone number in Hollywood that someone would answer and vouch for us if it came to that.”
Lijek says he and the others quickly decided they liked the Hollywood idea best. As Mendez suspected, it was easier to imagine themselves as Hollywood types than as schoolteachers or crop inspectors. Mendez also thought playing such roles would be fun for the group and thus allow them to be more relaxed, something he felt was key to them having the confidence to fully assume their fake identities.
“They had to believe they could do this,” Mendez says.
After that first afternoon in Tehran, Mendez left the six with packets of information to memorize their new identities. When he came back the next night to quiz them, a party was in full swing. The Americans had decided to drink all the leftover alcohol and make a lavish meal for their last night in Tehran.
Lijek recalled that Mendez joined in the festivities.
“He told war stories about how he helped exfiltrate people from the Soviet Union and how he had gotten someone out of Iran the previous spring,” Lijek says. “He was trying to build up our confidence, and we soon realized there was no comparison between Russian KGB border guards and the Iranians.”
Mendez also waited until the six were well into party mode before he told them about the one weakness in his plan — anyone flying into Iran had to fill out an immigration form with matching yellow and white sheets. Upon entry, immigration officials kept the white copy, and it was supposed to be compared to the yellow copy when the person left the country. Since the six had arrived in Iran using their real identities, immigration officials at the airport would not have the white forms with their Canadian names.
“Tony told us at just the right moment,” Lijek says, “nonchalantly mentioning to the group, when we were relaxed, the one hitch we might have at the airport.”
In the end, the six made it out of Iran. They faced several anxious moments, such as when an airport immigration officer questioned Lee Schatz about his Canadian passport photograph not resembling him. Schatz had a smaller, less bushy mustache than in the picture. Schatz made his fingers into scissors to mimic trimming his mustache, and the officer was satisfied.
The group’s plane also was delayed for mechanical problems. Unlike the movie, though, no officials called the Argo office in Hollywood, and there was no chase on the tarmac. Like the film, though, the six Americans and Mendez quietly toasted each other once the plane was out of Iranian airspace and alcohol could be served.
Mendez had informed the group not to talk about what happened. No one did until 1997 when George Tenet, head of the CIA, decided he wanted to celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary by honoring 50 “trailblazers,” people’s whose extraordinary intelligence work stood out. Mendez was shocked to learn the CIA wanted him to share his story with the world by going on television with CBS news anchor Dan Rather.
“I just kept looking at them like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ’’ he says.
Eventually, though, he agreed. It led to the writing of several books, one of which was made into the hit movie Argo. Ben Affleck directed and starred in the movie, and Mendez spent a lot of time talking to the actor on the phone and meeting with him in person.
He has nothing but good things to say about Affleck who, among other things, agreed to use the name Ian for the little boy featured in the film as Mendez’s son. In real life Mendez has four children, including one named Ian who died of colon cancer several years ago.
“Ben is a very classy guy,” Mendez says.
As for what it’s like to see yourself portrayed on the big screen by a man who once held the mantle of People magazine’s “sexiest man alive,” Mendez says, nonchalantly. “I guess he’s good-looking enough to play me.”