Actor-director Ben Affleck’s Argo, which won the Best Picture statuette at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, is such an evocative spy thriller that from now on, it’ll be difficult to resist picturing Affleck as the CIA agent who ingeniously rescued six U.S. diplomats from Tehran in 1980 by staging a fake movie production.
But if you want to meet the actual hero of the Argo affair, tune in later this spring to the National Geographic Channel’s Locked Up Abroad for an episode featuring Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA officer who orchestrated one of the most amazing escapes in history.
As you can see in the photos from this BBC News article on Mendez, he isn’t quite as boyishly handsome as Affleck—who is?—but his life story, told in his 2009 memoir Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, is just as compelling. Mendez was born in Eureka, Nevada in 1940, the son of a copper miner named John G. Mendez, who died after being crushed between two ore cars underground, a few weeks before the future CIA agent’s third birthday. While attending the University of Colorado, he worked as an illustrator and tool designer for Martin Marietta, and designed electronic components on the Titan IIC ICBM. In 1965, he answered a seemingly innocuous newspaper ad for a design job, only to discover that the actual recruiter was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Mendez eventually went to work for the agency as an espionage artist, learning the arcane, mysterious art of concocting false documents and disguises for intelligence officers.
Before the Argo affair, Mendez had plenty of experience in covert deception, according to the bio on his website. He spent seven years in the late 1960s and early 1970s working on CIA covert operations in south and southeast Asia. He eventually rose to become the agency’s Chief of Disguise, and then Chief of the Graphics and Authentication Division. He headed a team that was responsible for changing the identity and appearance of literally thousands of clandestine intelligence operatives, and went head-to-head against the KGB, the intelligence agency of then U.S.-adversary the Soviet Union.
Among Mendez and his subordinates’ duties was perhaps the most delicate espionage task of all—staging rescue operations to spirit foreign agents and their families out of harm’s way. According to the CIA’s website, “exfiltration,” as such operations are called, involves extremely complex tradecraft, ranging from the concocting of intricate, detailed cover stories to creation of disguises, fake identification documents, and even phony “pocket litter” that will fool foreign border officials into thinking that a traveler is anything but a wanted spy.
But the Argo affair, as Mendez noted in a 2012 Reuters interview, was “wildly different from most other exfiltrations I have been involved with.” The operation, which involved the elaborate concocting of a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, was so wildly unorthodox that Mendez said it “probably won’t be replicated until another occasion when traditional solutions won’t work.”
A month after the successful mission, Mendez was ushered into the Oval Office, where he met with then-President Jimmy Carter and was awarded the Intelligence Star, a high CIA honor. But since the mission remained classified at the time, he was obliged to return it immediately. Though some reporters got wind of the deception, it officially remained a secret for years, deemed so sensitive that even the internal CIA magazine, Studies in Intelligence, wouldn’t publish an article about it. But after Mendez retired in 1990, CIA director George Tenet, who headed the agency from 1997 to 2004, encouraged him to go public with the story.
Interestingly, Mendez’s wife Jonna also was a CIA disguise and document-faking expert before retiring in 1993.
This spring on Locked Up Abroad, get the complete declassified story that inspired the best-picture winner, as told by Mendez himself.