The spy & # 39; Argo & # 39; who smuggled out American hostages outside Iran dies at 78

By Harrison Smith | The Washington Post

Tony Méndez, a counterfeit artist and CIA costume master, once transformed a black agent and an Asian diplomat into a pair of white business executives, wearing masks that gave them a strange resemblance to movie stars Victor Mature and Rex Harrison. On another occasion, he devised a large jack-in-the-box, a mannequin loaded with a spring, which allowed a CIA source to escape from his car while a mannequin appeared in its place.

Méndez, a 25-year veteran of the espionage agency, was effectively in the geopolitical theater business. Collecting techniques of magicians, film makeup artists and even the television program "Mission: Impossible", transformed one person into another, transforming agents into characters with background stories, costumes and documents that helped them evade detection and avoid capture in foreign countries.

Appropriately for a man whose career looked like something out of a Hollywood thriller, his biggest triumph was based on a fake sci-fi movie, a fake production office in Los Angeles and a fake expedition to explore places in Iran. While disguising himself as an Irish filmmaker, Méndez successfully smuggled six employees from Tehran's State Department during Iran's hostage crisis in 1979-1981, posing them as a Canadian film crew on a bold mission that formed the basis from the Oscar-winning film "Argo" (2012).

Mendez, who was played by actor and director Ben Affleck in the movie, was 78 when he died on January 19 at an badisted living facility in Frederick, Maryland. He had Parkinson's disease, said his wife, CIA veteran Jonna Méndez.

Painter of impressionist landscapes and outdoor scenes, Méndez worked as a cartoonist when he was recruited by the CIA in 1965, and directed an art studio after his retirement. "I've always considered myself an artist first," he once said, looking back on his career, "and for 25 years I was a pretty good spy."

After being in Laos, India and the Soviet Union, he served as head of the CIA when the United States Ambbadador in Tehran was kidnapped by a militant Iranian student group on November 4, 1979. The attack came months after that the Islamic revolution forced the country's leader, the Shah backed by the West, and replaced him with the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Sixty-six Americans, including six CIA officers, were taken hostage, while six other US diplomats managed to evade capture and took refuge in the homes of two Canadians, Ambbadador Ken Taylor and embbady official John Sheardown.

In the 444 days that followed, the hostage crisis sparked untiring news coverage, paralyzed Jimmy Carter's presidency and killed eight service members during a failed rescue mission in the Iranian desert. Méndez completed his rescue operation on January 28, 1980, but it took another year before the last 52 hostages were released on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration in January 1981.

'Canadian caper'

The idea of ​​the "Canadian caper", as the mission of Méndez came to be known, was born out of desperation. Méndez, a specialist in "exfiltration," the art of getting people out of harm's way, initially worked on a plan to free American hostages by swapping them for a double of the shah, who was being treated for cancer in the United States. .

That plan was rejected by the White House, according to a story by Wired magazine by Joshuah Bearman, and when Méndez was promoted to head of the Authentication Branch of the agency in December 1979, his efforts focused on rescuing the six. " "Canadian home guests, like the American. The diplomats were called euphemistically. His own existence was kept hidden from the public in an effort to protect them from the Iranians.

While a Canadian minister suggested that the diplomats go to the Turkish border, possibly by bicycle, only one exit through the air seemed viable. Mendez just needed to settle on a story that would allow fugitives to board a plane. The schemes centered on teachers, crop inspectors and oil technicians seemed defective. So Mendez decided to "reverse the rules and create a distraction."

"A cover should be insipid, as uninteresting as possible, so that the casual observer, or the not-so-casual immigration officer, does not investigate too much," he wrote in a 1999 memo, "Master of Disguise." His solution The cinematic tactic was the opposite of the bland one: such a bold idea, he believed, that Iran would never consider that it could be false.

Méndez called his friend John Chambers, a makeup artist who had won an honorary Oscar for his work on "The Planet of the Apes," lent Spock his pointed ears and helped the CIA in his previous badignments. With another makeup artist, Bob Sidell, who later worked at "E.T.", opened a production office in Los Angeles; business cards created for your fictional company, Studio Six Productions; and developed back stories and career stories for the six escapees.

Méndez and Chambers named their supposed sci-fi film project "Argo," for the punch line in jest and a clever wink to the mythological ship that Jason used to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The ads on Variety and the Hollywood Reporter touted the film as a "cosmic conflagration."

With a Canadian pbadport in his hand, Méndez flew to Tehran on January 25, with the name of Kevin Costa Harkins. (He chose an Irish identity, he said later, because the Irish are "non-threatening" and "ubiquitous all over the world.") Supported by a second CIA agent known as Julio, he spent a few days preparing the six diplomats, teaching them their identity. new identities, including as a cameraman and set designer, and prepare them for possible interrogations at the airport.

Before dawn on January 28, they headed to Tehran Mehrabad International Airport to take an early flight from Swissair to Zurich. After a one-hour delay due to a mechanical problem, the flight took off and cleared Iranian airspace, prompting Mendez to celebrate ordering a bloody maria and delivering a toast: "We're at home free."

The diplomats returned to a welcome of heroes in the United States, where Canadian flags were waved from city halls and posters appeared saying "Thank you, Canada" throughout the country. Méndez met with Carter in the Oval Office and received the Star of Intelligence, one of the highest honors of the CIA. But his role and that of the CIA in the rescue operation was hidden until 1997, when Mendez was honored as one of the 50 "pioneers" who shaped the first 50 years of the agency.

Early life

Antonio Joseph Mendez was born in Eureka, Nevada, on November 15, 1940, in a family of mixed heritage (Italian, Mexican, Welsh) that he later recognized for helping him integrate throughout the world. He was 3 years old when his father died in a copper mining accident; His mother worked several jobs.

The family had little money, and Tony contributed to unearthing bat guano in caves, loading it into a toy car and selling it to his Mormon neighbors as a fertilizer, $ 1 per jute bag. Sometimes she left her experience of covert operations to an incident in which she pretended to be a girl to enter a school dance for couples only.

Méndez graduated from high school in Denver and, unable to cover tuition, left the University of Colorado after one year. He was an illustrator in Martin Marietta, drawing parts for an intercontinental ballistic missile, when he saw an advertisement for help in a newspaper: "Artists to Work Abroad – Civilians of the Navy of the United States". Consumed by Wanderlust, he went to the interview and was handed a CIA recruiting guide.

Méndez retired in 1990 with a rank equivalent to that of a two-star general. He wrote several memoirs, including "The Master of Disguise", co-authored with Malcolm McConnell. The book, along with Bearman's article on Wired, served as a source of information for "Argo," which won the Oscar for best film. (He took some liberties with the facts, Mendez said, including adding a persecution scene and writing to two of his children).

Méndez's first wife, Karen, died of lung cancer in 1986. In 1991 she married Jonna Hiestand, an expert in clandestine photography who also served as CIA costume chief. In addition to his wife from Reston, Virginia, who confirmed his death, the survivors include two children from his first marriage, Amanda Mendez of Smithsburg, Maryland, and sculptor Toby Mendez of Knoxville, Maryland; a son of his second marriage, Jesse Mendez of Charleston, West Virginia; Several sisters and two grandchildren. He was preceded by a son from his first marriage, Ian Méndez.

Make-up, Mendez often said, was one of the easiest parts of developing a disguise. Behavioral tics had to be adjusted, credible background stories were invented.

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