ARGO: Behind the Scenes
The current number two box-office hit, ARGO, deals with the exfiltration plan formulated by CIA officer Tony Mendez to rescue American diplomats who escaped from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after its seizure by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. He constructed a detailed fake Hollywood backdrop to smuggle out the six American diplomats, who were being hidden by the Canadian ambassador.
After seeing the movie and reading the book of the same name, it became obvious the movie took some Hollywood liberties while keeping to the spirit of the story. The intense plot will remind Americans about those violent days in 1979, along with conjuring up thoughts on what is happening in the Middle East today. American Thinker interviewed Tony and Jonna Mendez, who served as the CIA's Chief of Disguise, about the book, the movie, and their careers. Tony headed the department from 1974 to 1979 and Jonna from 1989 to 1992.
Hollywood, as usual, took some liberties with the story by exaggerating and embellishing events to create a fast-paced and powerful plot. Mendez told American Thinker he did not mind because he found himself "with the same anxiety and feelings as when I conducted the real operations. It was like reliving them over again." There was also the usual balancing act where the filmmakers showed the American hostages being mentally and physically tortured followed by, thankfully, only one scene where Americans are shown beating up an Iranian in the US. There is also a scene showing a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini's head being used as a dart board, and another powerful scene showing an Iranian being hung from a scaffold. The ending also has President Jimmy Carter speaking about the operation.
The book itself is a must-read before seeing the movie, since it details not only the ARGO operation but also other exfiltration missions during Tony's career. At a ceremony celebrating the CIA's fifty-year anniversary, then-director George Tenet asked Tony to lift the veil of secrecy to tell the story of ARGO. Since he still had the mentality of a secret warrior, Tony was hesitant at first. But after being convinced that the public should learn of some CIA success stories, he agreed. The result was three books: The Master of Disguise, Spy Dust with his wife Jonna, and ARGO. He explained that the last book was written to make sure the correct historical narrative was put on record.
In the book he describes how espionage operations use "...the principles of magic, misdirection, illusion, deception, and denial." Jonna agreed, describing how an operative in the field experiences "...instant gratification because of the impact on the course of events. It was fun being the practioner inside a lot of international events."
Tony discussed an operation to rescue RAPTOR, an Iranian informant who gave important information to the CIA. After the takeover by Khomeini and the Revolutionary Guard, it became imperative to rescue RAPTOR. Jonna explained to American Thinker that while she and Tony were at the CIA there was always the directive that "...anytime something went bad we would come and get assets and their families. During those times that was why people would work for American intelligence and betray their country, not for the money, but that we would bring them to the West. Part of what Tony and I did was to fulfill that promise over and over again."
The book goes into great detail on how Tony was able to pull the rescue off, right under the Revolutionary Guard's noses. "This was my most dangerous experience. They were looking for RAPTOR, which made it much more difficult. I really had to change his appearance as well as his style. If we got caught, both Raptor and I would have been shot on the spot. This was a dress rehearsal for the exfiltration of the six American houseguests. I really did not have to change their appearance, only their style, because there were not mug shots on them as was the case with Raptor."
It is mindboggling to think about the minute detail that must come with any exfiltration operation. Tony compared it to "peeling an onion with several and several layers. Mannerisms had to be disguised. It comes down to changing how someone could be recognized. For example, something like your gait needs to be changed. In ARGO I talk about how an operative puts a stone in his shoe to make him limp." He also discusses in the book each of the details involved in the operation including: making sure of the logistics, how someone spoke, that they had knowledge of the cover story, and that the color of the ink used for visas and passports were correct. He gave the example of how a slight mistake could make the operation go terribly wrong: During the houseguest rescue, Canada misinterpreted the Iranian calendar and put on the visas a date in Farsi sometime in the future. These visas would have been issued after the Americans would have supposedly entered the country. Thankfully, he had thought to get a second pair of visas from the Canadians where he made the corrections.
Tony emphasized that in the CIA people were assigned a certain region of the world about which they were expected to know everything, including the faces and names of the immigration officials. Jonna added that the department was compartmentalized to protect everything and everyone involved in the mission. The philosophy being, "if you don't need to know, you probably won't."
Since Tony ran at least two Iranian exfiltration operations, what can he say about the Iranian government? "During the houseguest rescue the Iranians were not organized, with different groups controlling different areas. The right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. For example those controlling the airport were a different group than those in the embassy. The most dangerous aspect was that the Iranians were capricious because they had no plan. When Ronald Reagan was elected President it influenced the Iranians to release all the hostages. Just as Reagan did, we also need to deal with them today from a level of strength. The extremists are absolutely wacky. Iran is very dangerous today." Jonna further noted, "Today it is harder since our enemies don't mind dying, which means you lose a whole lot of motivation you can press them with. Someone not afraid of death is a total game changer."
Tony and Jonna want Americans to understand that CIA officials do not do it "for the applause and a slap on the back. There are a number of really good people out in harm's way and do not get any recognition. The book was written to give a tip of the cap to everyone involved with the operations. There were a lot more people at the CIA that worked tirelessly to make sure everything went off successfully." With their books and now the movie Tony and Jonna Mendez conveyed that and a lot more. Anyone who wants to understand the world of espionage world should read these riveting books.