Friday, August 14, 2015


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 nine 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 portraying Antonio J. 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!" Ah...sometimes I wish H. Ross Perot had become America's President.     
     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. Indeed, CIA disguise master Antonio Mendez did create a sci-fi movie plot to free captives in Tehran in 1979 and 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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     Before I met Tony Mendez at the small, semi-secret AFIO luncheon, I purchased his book, "The Master Of Disguise- My Secret Life in the CIA". He autographed it for me and wrote on the inside cover: "5/20/06...Best To Bob Morton. Enjoy the memories of the Shadow Wars!"
Tony Mendez...a true American hero 
     He is a true American hero who risked his life for the six American diplomatic personnel. I interviewed him further after the luncheon ended. At that time he was unaware of the possibility of a movie being produced about the Iranian mission. 
     During the luncheon, he spoke in detail about the planning and execution of operation ARGO, and the CIA and CIS (Canadian 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 could arrive and exfiltrate them out. Operatives of the CIS risked their lives as well as they partook in the operation. 
     During the interview, 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 a 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

John Goodman, Alan Arkin & Ben Affleck in movie ARGO

his Canadian CIS 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. 
  •      The dramatic moment where the airline tickets are not waiting at the counter and guards then call “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. The 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.
     I say, who cares? 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.

Robert Morton, M.Ed., Ed.S. is a member of the Association Of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and writes the online spy series "Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster in the Caribbean".  Contact him on the Secure Contact Form

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