The agent behind the 'Argo' mask
Tony Mendez was a CIA surveillance specialist. So how did he prepare for his role as an Irish film-maker in the mission to free hostages in Tehran that is dramatised in Ben Affleck's Oscar-nominated 'Argo'? "I drank a lot of pints"
For almost two decades Antonio Mendez, a retired CIA agent, couldn't talk about his leading role in one of the US spy agency's most audacious covert rescues: the exfiltration of six US diplomats from Tehran in November 1979, during the Iranian hostage crisis.
Tony Mendez is clearly enjoying the attention the daring operation is now getting through its depiction in Ben Affleck's film Argo, a best-picture nominee at this weekend's Academy Awards ceremony, in Los Angeles.
A 25-year CIA veteran, Mendez, who is of Irish, Italian and Mexican ancestry, managed the "Canadian caper", in which he posed as an Irish film-maker, whom he named Kevin Costa Harkins, and the six US diplomats posed as a Canadian film crew scouting Tehran for locations for a fake Hollywood movie that they called Argo.
The six had escaped the US embassy in the Iranian capital after it was overrun by militant students. They hid in the Canadian embassy before Mendez led them out of the country with fake Canadian passports.
The CIA's role in the operation remained a secret until President Bill Clinton declassified the operation, in 1997. Mendez was decorated with an Intelligence Star, an agency medal, for his role.
Mendez worked as an artist before joining the CIA, in 1965. At the agency he was based in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, forging official records and creating disguises to protect field agents. The CIA's Office of Technical Service was the agency's most creative division, the part of the organisation that wired cats with microphones for eavesdropping and planted explosives in Fidel Castro's cigars. "If I were able to tell you how highly skilled we were, you wouldn't believe it," he says.
In one famous disguise that Mendez created during the Vietnam War, using the expertise of the Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, the CIA transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into two white businessmen in Laos, a neutral but politically key country that Mendez says was saturated with intelligence officers.
"There were all sorts of spies in the diplomatic capital of Laos, and they were all trying to meet their sources so they could get the minutes of these cabinet meetings, high-level policymaking intelligence - it got very crowded," he says.
"The intelligence officers would go into town and try to meet their foreign agents and pick them up with a car. We called it a pick-up, where someone jumps into a rolling car and away you go, hoping nobody saw you or who you were meeting. It was a like a fish bowl - all sorts of fish swimming around."
The CIA's African-American case officer would have stood out in Laos. The disguise was good enough to fool a group of armed soldiers at a roadblock who stopped the agent and his source, and its success prompted the start of a programme of transforming agents' identities so they could work in hostile areas.