CIA man who pulled a Hollywood stunt worthy of an Oscar

CIA man who pulled a Hollywood stunt worthy of an Oscar

Tony Mendez in his home studio. Photo by David Taylor

Tony Mendez in his home studio. Photo by David Taylor

Before he gets up from his leather chair, he will reveal the technique the CIA developed from a James Bond film, and the importance of carrying a copy of Playboy in your luggage. But at first, Tony Mendez is a study in measured reticence. Hard to imagine that the careful man with the neatly trimmed grey beard should have come up with the outlandish conceit that brought a moment of relief in one of America’s great national crises.

Tomorrow night, the audacity of Mr Mendez will be honoured for the final time in a frenetic awards season when Argo lines up as the runaway favourite to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Ben Affleck’s film about the operation to extract six Americans from revolutionary Iran has won all of the big prizes up to this weekend.

Affleck plays Mr Mendez, the CIA man who came up with the idea that the stranded Americans should walk out of Tehran airport on false documents, posing as a Hollywood scouting crew looking for a place to shoot a Star Wars-style sci-fi film.
After the plan worked, Mr Mendez, now 72, was decorated with the Intelligence Star for valour and for decades he adhered to the CIA code — “never celebrate your successes, never explain your silence”. But his former bosses told him that they wanted him to go public as part of the agency’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

He and his second wife, Jonna, have enjoyed a quiet retirement — he is an oil painter, she a photographer, and their works fill a gallery and studio alongside their red-painted wooden home. But for these past months, the man who lives a mile up a stony track at the bottom of the Blue Ridge Mountains has found himself walking along a succession of red carpets.
His Maryland neighbours have watched suspiciously as limousines have made their way up the track — the joke is that an Iranian hit squad is on the way to the house in the woods.

He is still growing used to breaking out of the comfort of anonymity, so it falls to his wife — who was also a CIA agent — to make him open up about his best stories. Like the moment he was called in by the CIA Director, Bill Casey, who had just seen the Bond film For Your Eyes Only, in which Q shows 007 his new 3-D identigraph facial recognition technology. Mr Casey said to him: “Can we do that?”

“No sir,” he replied.

“Well, let’s get a man on it,” Mr Casey said.

Mr Mendez’s story with The Company, as the CIA is known, began in the mid-1960s when he answered an inconspicuous advert in the Denver Post seeking an artist to work overseas with the US Navy. He was working as an illustrator for an aerospace company, drawing components for missiles, when he got the call for an interview and found himself in a motel room in Salt Lake City.

“As I entered the room I saw this rather mysterious chap sitting across the room. He had the shades drawn. Anyway, he put a bottle of Jim Beam up on the table and said: ‘Son, this is not the Navy.’ ” This was the Central Intelligence Agency and they were looking for a counterfeiter, and so a clandestine career began. He started making rubber stamps to copy passport visa marks, but in the Vietnam era was moved closer to the action, making disguises for Viet Cong informants.
Drinking from a CIA mug, Tony reflects on a fevered moment in espionage. “The Communists were coming out of their strongholds and making contacts in the third world, so we had targets that we didn’t have before, who we could try to compromise and use to steal the enemies’ secrets,” he said.

Security services from China, Russia, Cuba, Korea and East Germany were all in the neutral diplomatic capital of Vientiane in Laos, trying to turn targets into informants. There were four motivations which would make a target willing to hand over intelligence — captured in the handy acronym MICE — money, ideology, compromise and ego.
But even where agents were recruited, inconspicuous meetings were difficult in a town so over-run with spies. As night fell, cars would circle the main roundabout, agents trying to pick up contacts. “One night, the Chinese agent got in the Russian car by mistake. We called it Dodge City on the Mekong.”

He arrived with a kit of 26 disguises — wigs, glasses, false moustaches. But he encountered a problem when an African-American case officer who had turned an important government official, was struggling to meet him without attracting suspicion.

Tony had been introduced to someone in Hollywood, and after measuring the officer and the agent ‘every which way’, he remembers: “I got in the diplomatic mail two stunt double masks, one for Rex Harrison, who was the big head, and one for Victor Mature, who was medium sized. We had gloves with zippers in them, we embellished the car pick up by putting an ethnic change for both the case officer and the agent.”

Two white faces in a diplomatic car got waved through the roadblock and the CIA had a new tactic. “We started doing this all over the place. They would get in the car and pull the mask on.”
When the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun in 1979, and more than 50 Americans were taken hostage, six diplomats made it to the Canadian Embassy. They had been trapped for 86 days by the time Mr Mendez got to them. He had to find a way to get them out of the country without the Iranians realising who they were

What was the cover story to be? Out-of-work teachers seeking jobs at the international school, was one suggestion; nutritionists was another; oil technicians, or journalists. But all were ruled out. “Out of desperation,” Mr Mendez says, “I came up with the idea of using Hollywood.”

Michael Douglas had just finished The China Syndrome, so “Studio 6 Productions” moved into his office suite and printed business cards with a big red six, an inside joke, denoting the number of Americans they were trying to rescue. After 48 hours, looking through a pile of scripts, they decided to go for a sci-fi theme — and the name Argo came from the punchline of a knock-knock joke the CIA told each other when they were a little bit stressed (Who’s there? Argo. Argo who? Argo f*** yourself).

The explosion-in-space promotional picture was so alluringthat real scripts started coming in — 26 by the end, including one from George Lucas and one from Spielberg.

Mr Mendez travelled to Iran with Canadian documents and treatments for each of the six to learn their role. After two days of getting into character, the Americans made it through the airport and on to the Swissair flight. “When they came on with a ‘ding!’ and ‘Ladies and gentlemen we have just entered Turkish airspace, alcohol will be served’, we cheered . . . and we ordered Bloody Marys all round,” Mr Mendez says. The film took some liberties — there is a dramatic car chase that did not happen. But he is relaxed about it. “I expected that from Hollywood . . . there was not a car chase but it was close to it.”
Normally, the “wheels up” moment on the aircraft brings the relief, but the Iranians still had fighter jets provided by the Americansso until the Swissair flight made it out of Iranian airspace, they were at risk.

“When they came on with a ‘ding!’ and ‘Ladies and gentlemen we have just entered Turkish airspace, alcohol will be served’, we cheered … and we ordered Bloody Marys all round,” Mr Mendez says. The film took some liberties — there is a dramatic car chase that did not happen. But he is relaxed about it. “I expected that from Hollywood … there was not a car chase but it was close to it.”

Spies in popular culture are always a bit cartoonish, Mr and Mrs Mendez say. They love le Carré; he finds Homeland a bit grating, whereas she likes it, but says: “That girl wouldn’t last 20 minutes in the real CIA.”

Mr Mendez is a big fan of the Ian Fleming books and reckons to have read the Bond stories about ten times each. He has picked up tips from them, including his technique of working out the motivation of people working in airport security. Give them something they can take from you.

That is where his Playboy magazine comes in. On his Iran trip, “at the bottom of my case I had reproductions of all their travel [documents], $10,000 in cash, airline tickets and all lightly concealed. So when I open my case, I’m hoping he doesn’t start measuring the depth of it because there is going to be discrepancy. But in order to get away from the scrutiny altogether, you offer them something that could distract them.”

There is a straightforward difference between fiction and fact, though, and Mrs Mendez nails it.
“James Bond always blows the building up on his way out. Tony Mendez would never blow the building up. Tony Mendez would rob the bank and they’d never know the money was gone because he was going to come back next week and rob it again, and rob it again. That’s how real espionage works if you’re any good at it.”

• Argo is out on Blu-ray and DVD from March 4. Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History is now available in paperback, £7.99.