CIA hero Tony Mendez inspired me to write my spy thrillers

I met Antonio J. Mendez at an Association of Former Intelligence Officer’s luncheon in Cleveland. I’ll never forget him…a true American hero. That’s why I had to see the movie “ARGO” starring Ben Affleck who portrayed Mendez.

He gave us a lengthy account (declassified info only!) of his adventure in the 1979 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation where he exfiltrated six American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran after creating a fictional Hollywood movie project. Mendez was a CIA disguise master who used a sci-fi movie plot to free the American hostages in Tehran. The movie “ARGO” accurately depicts how he created a screenplay, printed business cards, and rented staff to occupy the nonexistent “Studio Six” in order to exfiltrate them successfully.

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I took copious amounts of notes as Tony gave details of the CIA operation at the small, semi-secret luncheon. Afterwards, he offered me advice on writing my spy thriller series and told me to make it fun and to “enjoy the shadow wars.”

He is a true American hero who risked his life to save the six American diplomatic personnel. The planning and execution of “Operation ARGO” involved the Canadian embassy hiding them until Mendez and his fake “Studio Six Hollywood” movie team arrived and exfiltrated them out. Mendez spent weeks of sleepless nights deciding what type of “cover” they would use and ultimately decided on a Hollywood movie project because most in the Middle East perceived Hollywood movie directors to be a bit nuts but are intrigued by them. That’s why Mendez decided to use the “Hollywood director/producer” role as his personal, deep cover.

Tony and his CIA team performed the secret operation perfectly while constantly working under the risk of instant death. To prepare and plan for the mission, he flew to Canada dozens of times and visited Hollywood studios with his Canadian CSIS entourage, as depicted in the movie. They set up a shop in Hollywood with secretaries, etc., in case the Iranians grew suspicious and sent their spies here in the US to check it out. Although the “ARGO” movie suggested he was the only CIA officer involved in the mission and that he single-handedly organized and executed the plan, Tony said there were two CIA officers with forgery and exfiltration skills involved. Also, the six diplomats never went to the market to “scout a location”- they spent the entire 79 days inside the homes of the Canadian embassy staff.

The dramatic moment with the airline ticket confusion at the counter and the guards calling “Studio Six” to verify the identities of the six never happened. The Canadian’s purchased the tickets and there were no problems at checkpoints or at the airline counter. CIA officers at Langley intentionally scheduled an early flight when they knew airline officials would be sleepy and the Revolutionary Guards would still be in bed.

Lastly, Tony told us that the Iranian’s did work to reconstruct shredded documents but did not identify one of the Americans at the last moment. Tony remained emotionless as he recounted all that happened; perhaps, the years numbed his feelings. One thing is for sure, if he was caught the Revolutionary Guards would have murdered him on the spot…and that’s not Hollywood fiction. I talked to Tony’s son several weeks ago and learned he was in the final stages of Parkinson’s Disease. He just passed away. RIP, my friend, and thanks for your bravery and service to our country.

Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community in his Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Read his newest spy thriller The Shadow War, episode by episode, as he writes it in the new Kindle Vella program.

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