Antonio Mendez is one of the 50 most important CIA operatives in history, according to former President Jimmy Carter.
In Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, Mendez details the gripping tale of how the CIA, Hollywood and the Canadian government worked together to rescue six U.S. State Department officials from Iran.
Since the storming of the American embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries and the 444-day hostage crisis that followed occurred prior to my birth, I got a basic history lesson on Iranian politics and U.S. foreign policy.
As someone who appreciates a good spy thriller (come on, I did watch all five seasons of Alias), I was fascinated by Mendez’s account of the disguise and documents branch of the CIA, and how much prep and planning goes in to an exfiltration. Backstories, travel documentation, memorizing an alias, and in the case of Argo, selling both the Iranians and Hollywood on a fictitious film.
Many people took great risks in this operation including Hollywood make-up expert John Chambers (Mendez refers to him as Jerome Calloway due to confidentiality agreements) and the Canadian government. Our friends to the north really stuck their neck out.
Argo was a great read, and Mendez’s first person account made the story all the more compelling. As for Ben Affleck’s film, the plot did not always line up with Mendez’s account, and overall I thought the book was better. But isn’t that usually the case?
Here’s a few excerpts…
I got out of the car and swung my bags out of the trunk. Karen got out too and walked around the car to where I was holding the driver’s door open. I handed her my wedding ring — officers always used cover legends of single people. I could have left the ring at the office. Or on my dresser. But the handing of my ring to Karen was part of our tradition. “Here,” it said, “keep this for me and I’ll be back to get it.” We never said those words. But they were the words. “I’ll be back.”
The six Americans stared at me for a long second, perhaps understanding for the first time the lengths to which we had gone to get them out, including setting up a fake movie production with offices staffed by real Hollywood insiders…Finally Mark spoke up. “It doesn’t sound totally crazy,” he said.
Julio and I, meanwhile, were left standing alone in the cold parking lot. Like any covert operative who values his or her anonymity, we hadn’t expected a ticker tape parade upon our return. Most CIA officers are quiet professionals who never get the recognition they deserve. For us it was just part of the job.