|The 6 American diplomats arriving in U.S. after CIA agent |
Tony Mendez exfiltrated them out of Iran (1980)
I first met Antonio J. Mendez in Beachwood, an eastern suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. That was twelve years ago and I'll never forget him...a true American hero. That's why I had to see the movie "ARGO" starring Ben Affleck who portrayed Mendez.
On May 20, 2006, a small group of the Cleveland branch of the Association Of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) met with "Tony" Mendez in Beachwood for a luncheon and lengthy account of his adventure in Iran. We listened to him discuss the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation where he ex-filtrated six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran.
Tony revealed a little known fact during the Iranian hostage situation. H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire we all got to know when he ran for president, had used a secret land route to ex-filtrate two of his employees imprisoned early on in the Iranian Revolution. While Tony Mendez was planning how to get the Americans out of Iran, Perot contacted the CIA and offered his services to help them rescue the hostages. "What's the holdup?", Ross Perot snapped in his usual manner. "If it's red tape, I'll put up the money and you can pay me back later!"
There were some Hollywood deviations from what really happened in the mission, but the CIA, in fact, did create a completely fictional Hollywood movie project that fooled Iranians and saved hostages. Mendez was a CIA disguise master who did use a sci-fi movie plot to free captives in Tehran in 1979. The movie "ARGO" accurately depicts how Tony and the CIA created a screenplay, printed business cards, and rented staff to occupy the nonexistent "Studio Six" in order to exfiltrate the American hostages successfully.
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I took copious amounts of notes as Tony gave us the details of his CIA operation at the small, semi-secret AFIO luncheon. Afterwards, he offered advice on writing my spy thriller series and told me to make it fun and to "enjoy the shadow wars." I brought a copy of his book with me and he then wrote a message to me inside it.
He is a true American hero who risked his life to save the six American diplomatic personnel. He told us about the planning and execution of operation ARGO and the CIA and CSIS (Canadian Secret Intelligence Service) cooperation and coordination involved in getting the six Americans out of Iran. The Canadian embassy hid them until Mendez and his fake "Studio Six Hollywood" movie team arrived and exfiltrated them out. Operatives of the CSIS risked their lives as well as they partook in the operation.
Mendez told me that they spent weeks on deciding what type of "cover" they would use, and ultimately decided on a Hollywood movie project because most in the Middle East perceive Hollywood movie directors to be a bit nuts, but are intrigued by them. That's why Mendez decided to use the "Hollywood director/producer" role as his deep cover.
Tony Mendez and his CIA team performed the secret operation almost perfectly while under the risk of instant death. To prepare and plan for the mission, he flew to Canada dozens of times and visited Hollywood studios with
his Canadian CSIS entourage, as depicted in the movie. They set up a shop in Hollywood with secretaries, etc., in case Iranians got suspicious and sent their spies here in the US to check it out.
Tony said the movie ARGO depicted what really occurred quite well, with several exceptions:
- The movie suggested Tony was the only CIA officer involved in the mission and he single-handedly organized and executed the plan. In reality, there were two CIA officers with forgery and exfiltration skills involved.
- The six diplomats never went to the market to "scout a location"- they spent the entire 79 days inside the homes of the Canadian embassy staff.
- The dramatic moment with the airline ticket confusion at the counter and guards calling “Studio Six” to verify the identities of the six never happened. The Canadian’s had purchased the tickets and there were no problems at checkpoints or at the airline counter. CIA officers had intentionally scheduled an early flight when they knew airline officials would be sleepy and the Revolutionary Guards would still be in bed.
- The Iranian’s did work to reconstruct shredded documents but did not identify one of the Americans at the last moment.
It was a thrilling movie and in reality, if Tony Mendez was caught the Revolutionary Guards would have murdered him on the spot...and that's not Hollywood fiction.