WORDS Victor Melendez
It’s 1979 and all hell has broken loose in Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Revolution, has managed to take power of Iran, transforming the country from a monarchy into an Islamic Republic. Amidst the turmoil followers of Khomeini storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 hostages. Six lucky Americans manage to evade capture and find asylum in the homes of Canadian diplomats. As lucky as they were to avoid capture, they have one little problem: they have no way out of Iran.
Rewind to several years earlier. Antonio Joseph Mendez, a young graduate of the University of Colorado, is working as a plumber and illustrator when he answers a “help wanted” ad. The blind ad leads him down a mysterious path that turns out to be part of the CIA’s recruitment efforts. In general, the CIA recruits members for their language skills, but it was Mendez’s creative ability that would help launch his career as a spy. In fact, as Mendez admits, he doesn’t even speak Spanish, “I barely speak English well. The Spanish side of my family, my father was a copper miner and he was killed when I was three years old. So I was raised by my mother’s family, which was the non-Spanish speaking side.”
There are other things that distinguish Mendez from your typical CIA recruit. For one, he’s Latino. He also happens to hail from a tiny town in Nevada called Eureka, which has the dubious distinction of being classified as the loneliest spot on the loneliest road in America.
From that small town, Mendez would venture out to see the four corners of the Earth as a man of the shadows. The simple act of answering that help wanted ad became a life-changing moment. In the span of a few months he went from your average working class guy to a member of the CIA. But he wasn’t ready for his shoe phone just yet. Before he could embark on his soon-to-be illustrious spying career he had training at Camp Swampy, a.k.a. “The Farm,” alleged to be Camp Peary in Virginia. From there he headed off to Asia and the Eastern Block of Europe, were he learned to develop his skills a spy.
Before long he had seen more parts of the globe and engaged in more covert operations than James Bond and Austin Powers combined. “I would say the whole thing was like James Bond but even better. I was involved in Moscow creating tradecraft, knocking the socks off the KGB…If you are surrounded by an army of that kind of counterintelligence and you can still do your business, Bond doesn’t even get close to that.” In what seemed like no time at all, his life had become one of intrigue, lies, secrets, danger, espionage, and paramilitary operations. He was a long way from the loneliest spot on the loneliest road in America.
As the hostage crisis continued to unfold, Americans sat glued to their television screens viewing over and over images of American diplomats blindfolded, bound, and being prodded at gunpoint by their bearded captors. In Tehran, mobs of Iranians filled the streets chanting, “Death to America!” Meanwhile the six escaped Americans remained holed up in the homes of Canadian officials, praying they wouldn’t be discovered. The possibility of unexpected sweeps of the neighborhoods by militants and Revolutionary Guards made their situation desperate. If the six were found, they and their Canadian saviors could be executed.
Back in the U.S. now CIA Officer Tony Mendez is in a secret compound with several high-level officers. Mendez has been placed in charge of a rescue operation. His mission: to extract the six escapees from Iran. Failure is not an option. A failed mission could lead to a catastrophic global event between all of the nations involved. His biggest challenge is getting the refugees past Iranian customs. As most of the six would be easily recognizable in person due to their high profile roles within the embassy, they would need a false identity and credible back-up story. The use of American identities would not be possible as Iran was keeping a close watch on all Americans residing in the nation. Tensions were boiling over as hostages were being tortured inside the U.S. embassy. The CIA had to act. Luckily, Mendez had a plan.
Developing Canadian identities seemed the most viable option, though one major problem surfaced: Canada would not allow foreigners to use Canadian passports. But Canadian Parliament did the unexpected: they approved the issue of Canadian passports to the six stranded Americans.
Mendez called a friend in California to inquire about the number of people that would be needed to scout locations for an overseas movie shoot. The contact’s answer was eight and Mendez had his cover story. A smoke and mirrors film company, Studio Six Productions, was set up to give depth to the story, “Complete offices, filled with telephones and furniture, were established to round out the cover story. The last detail was the film’s script and title, they found a script and used the title Argo, after the punch line in a knock-knock joke, “ah, go fuck yourself.”
Finally inside Iran, Mendez reaches the hideout and briefs the six refugees on every detail of the plan. They are given disguises and props to authenticate their stories. Each member of the team is grilled over and over in the hopes that they won’t get rattled if questioned. The six are then shuttled to the airport. With the Revolutionary Guard watching their every move they make their way through the check in process. They make it past customs and breathe a sigh of relief. The only thing between them and safe passage home is a short bus ride from the gate to their Swissair plane.
Then the unexpected happens. Their flight is delayed due to mechanical problems. The airport is teeming with Kometeh counterintelligence agents who are bound to discover them if they sit around the airport waiting for their flight.
During his career, Mendez has learned to operate with ice water running through his veins. “You kind of get used to [the stress]. Some of it comes from talking to people like you and being careful about telling the stories in a balanced way. You get used to living the lie. The truth is not necessarily everybody’s business even though some people think so. Sometimes the truth is something that has to be protected. There is a famous quote by [Winston] Churchill that says, ‘The truth deserves a bodyguard of lies.’”
Of course the knowledge that your life is at risk on a daily basis only adds to the stress level. Then there’s the fact that depending on your mission, the government may not even officially acknowledge your death. As Mendez asserts, “If you are going in another name and another nationality, you have no recourse. You know your family may have no insurance to prove that you died or anything.”
At Tehran’s airport Mendez and his crew are faced with a dilemma. Swissair has confirmed that the mechanical problem will be fixed in an hour. Do they try to find a different flight or risk sitting around waiting? Changing flights for such a short delay would draw unnecessary attention. For one intensely stressful hour, they watch the Guard pester and badger numerous foreign travelers. Would they be next?
Finally, their flight is called over the PA system. The Americans board the plane. Ironically the nosecone or their plane was emblazoned with the words “Argau,” a city and region of Switzerland.
Upon arriving in Zurich, the U.S. State Department whisks the six off the plane. Mendez and his partner are left on the tarmac.
While news of the harrowing escape made global headlines, the CIA received no public credit for their efforts until 1999 when Mendez was allowed to write his book, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA.
Mendez spied for the United States for twenty-seven years. To say that working for the CIA is a lifestyle would be an understatement. His family was, for better or worse, a part of his job. “Well, my wife, like most spouses, gets involved. Most of what you do is in the home and social settings. So, you very quickly co-op your wife, particularly in hostile areas. If you are assigned to a place like Moscow with your wife, you both go through training because she may be the one who throws the thing out the car window when you get into a blind spot. A lot of times your wife is better at it. When your kids grow up, all of a sudden you have to sit down and tell them what is going on…Kids can handle it pretty well. They understand the need for secrecy. I was proud to have that conversation with, first, my daughter when she was 12. I was working in Katmandu and she was with me when I was walking with this fellow officer in the woods. He started talking about this operation and she heard more than she ever heard before. So I came back and told my wife that I was going to have to explain what was going on. I never had any problems.”
Mendez retired from the CIA in 1990 as Senior Intelligence Service (SIS), the equivalent of a two-star general. In addition to his spying accomplishments he is an award-winning internationally known painter and the author of two books. He has taken part in 22 documentaries on the Travel Channel, Discovery and others. He was also named one of the 50 most important people in the history of the CIA.
Anyone who’s ever watched a James Bond film probably wonders what spying is really like. As to Hollywood’s portrayal of his craft Mendez says, “[Tom] Clancy gets a little carried away…James Bond books are pretty good because Ian Fleming was an intelligence officer…Some of my colleagues thought [The Good Shepherd] was pretty terrible. Sometimes they get carried away but sometimes they are pretty good.”
If hearing Mendez’s incredible story has you all ready to join the CIA, Tony has some tips for you. Above all you’ll need guts, courage, smarts, and a love of country. Think you’re ready to be the next Jaime Bond-eras? Go to www.cia.gov. And don’t forget that shoe phone.