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Hoe the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History
Tony Mendez and Matt Baglio

Viking Adult / Penguin Books
September 13, 2012 / ISBN 978-0-670-02622-7
History / World Politics

Reviewed by Elise Cooper

The number one box office hit, ARGO, is about the exfiltration plan of CIA officer Tony Mendez. He used a Hollywood backdrop to smuggle six American embassy diplomats, who had escaped and were hidden by the Canadian Ambassador, out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Having seen the movie and read the book, of the same name, it became obvious the movie took some Hollywood liberties; yet, kept to the spirit of the story. The intense plot will remind Americans about those violent days in 1979 as well as conjure up thoughts on what is happening in the Middle East today. Tony and his wife Jonna Mendez were the CIA’s Chief of Disguise. Tony headed the department from 1974 to 1979 and Jonna from 1989 to 1992.

ARGO is a fascinating book 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 that he wanted to be a secret warrior he was skeptical at first. However, after being convinced that the public should know some CIA success stories he agreed. He wrote three books, The Master of Disguise, Spy Dust with his wife Jonna, and ARGO. He explained the last book written was to make sure the correct historical narrative was put forth. Before anyone sees the movie they should definitely read the book to get the full details and his point of view.

He describes in the book that espionage operations use “… the principles of magic, misdirection, illusion, deception, and denial.” Jonna agreed and described being an operative in the field allows for “instant gratification because of the impact on the course of events. It was fun being the practioner inside a lot of international events.”

This was exemplified when he discussed an operation to rescue RAPTOR, an Iranian informant who gave powerful information to the CIA. After the takeover by Khomeini and the Revolutionary Guard it became imperative to rescue RAPTOR. Jonna explained 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 fill that promise over and over again.”

The book goes into great detail on how Tony was able to pull off the rescue, right under the Revolutionary Guard’s noses. He directly commented, “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 mind boggling 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 the book I talk about how an operative puts a stone in his shoe to make him limp.” He discusses in the book each of the details 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 in Farsi on the visas a date 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 where they were expected to know everything about it, 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 had at least two exfiltration Iranian 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 the movie they conveyed that and a lot more. Anyone who wants to understand the espionage world should read this riveting book.

Reviewed 2012