Tony Mendez, clandestine CIA hero of Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo,’ reveals the real story behind film smash

Stranger-than-fiction mission snuck six Americans out of Khomeini’s Iran

  • This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston, left, as Jack OíDonnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo,"  a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (AP Photo/Warner Bros., Claire Folger)This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston, left, as Jack OíDonnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (AP Photo/Warner Bros., Claire Folger)
  • Antonio Mendez poses in 'true face' at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 25, 2011. Antonio is a former chief of disguise for the CIA and a recipient of the Intelligence Star of Valor.
(T.J. Kirkpatrick/ The Washington Times)Antonio Mendez poses in 'true face' at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 25, 2011. Antonio is a former chief of disguise for the CIA and a recipient of the Intelligence Star of Valor. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/ The Washington Times)
  • Ben Affleck, director, producer and a cast member of "Argo," poses at the premiere of the film at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)Ben Affleck, director, producer and a cast member of "Argo," poses at the premiere of the film at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
  • Book cover for "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History" by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio.Book cover for "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History" by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio.
  • Author Tony Mendez arrives at the premiere of the film "Argo" at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)Author Tony Mendez arrives at the premiere of the film "Argo" at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
  • This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in "Argo,"  a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (AP Photo/Warner Bros., Claire Folger)This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (AP Photo/Warner Bros., Claire Folger)
  • United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Donald McHenry, right, shakes hands with Bob Anders, one of the Americans secreted out of Iran by former Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, center, in New York, May 30, 1980. The three attended a dinner before New York Yankees Canadian Night at Yankee Stadium.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Donald McHenry, right, shakes hands with Bob Anders, one of the Americans secreted out of Iran by former Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, center, in New York, May 30, 1980. The three attended a dinner before New York Yankees Canadian Night at Yankee Stadium. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
  • The Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, briefs reporters on the situation in the mist of the Iran's Revolution in Teheran, a week before leaving the country with six Americans on Jan. 27, 1980. The Globe and Mail reports Saturday Taylor told the newspaper that he was made "de facto CIA station chief" in a secret deal between president Jimmy Carter and prime minister Joe Clark during the troubles in Teheran. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter BreggThe Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, briefs reporters on the situation in the mist of the Iran's Revolution in Teheran, a week before leaving the country with six Americans on Jan. 27, 1980. The Globe and Mail reports Saturday Taylor told the newspaper that he was made "de facto CIA station chief" in a secret deal between president Jimmy Carter and prime minister Joe Clark during the troubles in Teheran. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Bregg
  • The crowd gathered at the State Department reaches out to embrace Robert G. Anders, in white raincoat at center, one of the six diplomats that the Canadians helped spirit out Teheran last weekend, shown Feb. 1, 1980 in Washington. At right is Henry L. Schatz, one of the six who spent three months in hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Iran.  (AP Photo)The crowd gathered at the State Department reaches out to embrace Robert G. Anders, in white raincoat at center, one of the six diplomats that the Canadians helped spirit out Teheran last weekend, shown Feb. 1, 1980 in Washington. At right is Henry L. Schatz, one of the six who spent three months in hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Iran. (AP Photo)
  • The burned out wreckage of a U.S. aircraft lies in the desert some 300 miles south of Tehran after the abortive commando-style raid into Iran, April 1980, aimed at freeing the American hostages being held in Tehran.  The rescue mission fell apart when several helicopters failed and a helicopter and C141 transport plane collided.  At least 8 U.S. servicemen died in the mission.  (AP Photo)The burned out wreckage of a U.S. aircraft lies in the desert some 300 miles south of Tehran after the abortive commando-style raid into Iran, April 1980, aimed at freeing the American hostages being held in Tehran. The rescue mission fell apart when several helicopters failed and a helicopter and C141 transport plane collided. At least 8 U.S. servicemen died in the mission. (AP Photo)
  • FILE - In this Nov. 9, 1979 file photo, one of the hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is displayed blindfolded and with his hands bound to the crowd outside the embassy. Fifty-two of the hostages endured 444 days of captivity. On the 30th anniversary of their release, at least 10 former hostages have said they will join each other for a reunion hosted by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Jan. 20, 2011. (AP Photo, File)FILE - In this Nov. 9, 1979 file photo, one of the hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is displayed blindfolded and with his hands bound to the crowd outside the embassy. Fifty-two of the hostages endured 444 days of captivity. On the 30th anniversary of their release, at least 10 former hostages have said they will join each other for a reunion hosted by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Jan. 20, 2011. (AP Photo, File)
  • The scorched wreckage of an American C-130 Cargo aircraft lies in the Iranian desert of Dasht-E-Kavir, approximately 500 kilometers from Tehran, Iran on April 27, 1980. The mission  to free 50 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was aborted due to equipment failure. The plane collided with a U.S. helicopter and eight servicemen were killed. (AP Photo)The scorched wreckage of an American C-130 Cargo aircraft lies in the Iranian desert of Dasht-E-Kavir, approximately 500 kilometers from Tehran, Iran on April 27, 1980. The mission to free 50 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was aborted due to equipment failure. The plane collided with a U.S. helicopter and eight servicemen were killed. (AP Photo)
  • One of 60 U.S. hostages, blindfolded and with his hands bound, is being displayed to the crowd outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian hostage takers. At least 2 former U.S. hostages say they believe the bearded man, far right, is Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while several former hostage takers all said they did not think it was Ahmadinejad. A close aide to Ahmadenijad refused to look at the photos or comment on the issue in Teheran Thursday, June 30, 2005.  (AP Photo)One of 60 U.S. hostages, blindfolded and with his hands bound, is being displayed to the crowd outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian hostage takers. At least 2 former U.S. hostages say they believe the bearded man, far right, is Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while several former hostage takers all said they did not think it was Ahmadinejad. A close aide to Ahmadenijad refused to look at the photos or comment on the issue in Teheran Thursday, June 30, 2005. (AP Photo)
  • Iranian student spokesmen hold up photos of blindfolded American hostages, during a press conference in Tehran Monday November 5, 1979.  The hostages are members of the staff of the United States Embassy in Tehran, which was stormed by students November 4.  (AP Photo)Iranian student spokesmen hold up photos of blindfolded American hostages, during a press conference in Tehran Monday November 5, 1979. The hostages are members of the staff of the United States Embassy in Tehran, which was stormed by students November 4. (AP Photo)
  • A man carries an assault weapon as others run, Feb. 14, 1979, in Teheran, during the siege on the U.S. Embassy.  Ambassador William Sullivan and 101 other Americans were taken hostage in the attack.  Photo was taken from video monitor showing CBS-TV.  (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)A man carries an assault weapon as others run, Feb. 14, 1979, in Teheran, during the siege on the U.S. Embassy. Ambassador William Sullivan and 101 other Americans were taken hostage in the attack. Photo was taken from video monitor showing CBS-TV. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)
  • An armed man brandishes his weapon, Feb. 14, 1979, in Teheran, as a couple crouches low during a dash to cross the street near the U.S. Embassy.  Photo was made from video monitor showing ABC-TV.  (AP Photo)An armed man brandishes his weapon, Feb. 14, 1979, in Teheran, as a couple crouches low during a dash to cross the street near the U.S. Embassy. Photo was made from video monitor showing ABC-TV. (AP Photo)
  • A man carries an assault rifle during the storming of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Teheran, Iran, Feb. 14, 1979.  Ambassador William Sullivan and 101 other Americans were taken hostage. Photo was made from a television monitor showing CBS-TV. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)A man carries an assault rifle during the storming of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Teheran, Iran, Feb. 14, 1979. Ambassador William Sullivan and 101 other Americans were taken hostage. Photo was made from a television monitor showing CBS-TV. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)
  • Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, center, is surrounded by followers, Feb. 1, 1979, after his arrival at Mehrabad Airport after 14 years of exile.  (AP Photo)Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, center, is surrounded by followers, Feb. 1, 1979, after his arrival at Mehrabad Airport after 14 years of exile. (AP Photo)
  • The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's exiled religious leader, speaks on Jan. 25, 1979, at a news conference following morning prayers.  Through an interpreter he told newsmen that he was postponing his return to Tehran because of  the Iranian Army's closure of the airports.  (AP Photo)The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's exiled religious leader, speaks on Jan. 25, 1979, at a news conference following morning prayers. Through an interpreter he told newsmen that he was postponing his return to Tehran because of the Iranian Army's closure of the airports. (AP Photo)
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The situation was dire. Unbearably tense. Three months after the late-1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries, six American diplomats who had secretly escaped the compound were attempting to flee the country.

Through the capital city’s airport.

Disguised as a flashy, oblivious Hollywood film crew.

Led by an undercover Central Intelligence Agency officer.

The building was crawling with Iranian security, both regular Mehrabad International Airport police and militants from the Revolutionary Guard. Foreigners were viewed with intense suspicion. Discovery and capture would have been an international fiasco — at best, the Americans would rejoin the rest of the embassy’s staff who were being held hostage; at worst, they would be killed.

Enlarge Photo

Tony Mendez, a retired disguise specialist in the CIA’s office of technical ... more >

As the group’s airplane idled on the windy tarmac, the CIA officer felt a familiar pit in his stomach: Did I miss something? Have I blown cover?

As he watched a dramatic re-creation of that moment during a recent screening of the new film “Argo,” he felt the uneasiness all over again.

“Oh, absolutely, it brought back the emotions,” said Tony Mendez, a retired disguise specialist in the CIA’s office of technical service. “I went to screenings in [Los Angeles] and Toronto, and it was just like being there again. Both times.

“There’s nothing so final as ‘Wheels up.’ [On missions], we always were waiting for that wheels-up feeling before we broke out the Bloody Marys.”

Unbelievable but true

Based on a top-secret, too-unbelievable-to-be-true story that went largely unrevealed until the CIA declassified some of its role in the caper in the late 1990s, “Argo” recounts how the United States and Canada hid and then sneaked the six diplomats out of Iran during the 444-day hostage crisis.

Much of the planning and execution of the escape fell to Mr. Mendez, who served in the agency for a quarter-century and traveled to Russia, Vietnam and places he can’t reveal while specializing in cover identities and “exfiltration” missions — in other words, getting friendly assets out of hostile environments.

Few environments were as hostile to Americans as revolutionary Iran, where real and perceived enemies of the uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were hanged from construction cranes in the streets of Tehran.

With the American diplomats hiding out in a pair of safe houses — specifically, the residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and diplomat John Sheardown — the rescue effort faced a ticking clock. The Iranians had been examining embassy records, using teams of carpet weavers to reassemble shredded documents, attempting to identify CIA officers.

They likely would realize eventually that six employees were unaccounted for.

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