Disguising himself as a Hollywood producer, and supported by a cast of expert forgers, deep-cover CIA operatives, foreign agents, and Hollywood special effects artists, Mendez traveled to Tehran under the guise of scouting locations for a fake science fiction film called Argo. While pretending to find the perfect film backdrops, Mendez and a colleague succeeded in contacting the escapees and smuggling them out of Iran right under the noses of their pursuers.
Such is the real-life setting for ARGO: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which released in stores earlier this week. Mendez will be present at a book launch party at the International Spy Museum tomorrow evening. The former agent-turned-author took a few minutes to talk about the experience, the new book, and the upcoming movie Argo (starring and directed by Ben Affleck) releasing October 12.
What was the atmosphere like in the CIA when the Embassy was overrun?
With the Embassy takeover we realized that the rules of engagement had changed. This time there was nobody to negotiate with. Nobody to compromise with, no chance of a dialogue at all. The government was supporting the embassy takeover. It would require action to solve this crisis. And so the atmosphere was one of highly charged confusion as we set out looking for a new game plan. The book details how we set about defining new rules.
How did the idea of Argo come about?
The genesis of the idea behind Argo was to do something counter-intuitive, something that went against our normal modus operandi. We were full of doubt and our old models were not working. Because the rules had changed we needed new ideas as well. I was thinking that the cover would require something totally new, perhaps turning the rules of cover on their head. Instead of a low profile cover story, perhaps we could use something over the top. I had worked closely with Hollywood and knew that their innovative thinking often led to unorthodox solutions. And once I began thinking about Hollywood the idea of a location scouting team seemed to be just the ticket.
What were two of the biggest challenges in executing the operation?
The biggest challenges were bureaucratic ones. There were many senior people involved in several governments and numerous agencies. We called it “The Committee Effect.” Getting consensus and approval were two or our biggest challenges.
Would you have liked to see the fake movie actually come about?
The answer is yes, and today we do have the movie, although not the one proposed in 1980. Today’s movie may be the better one because it documents a successful rescue of six innocent American diplomats out of Revolutionary Iran.
What percentage of the movie is factual? Did you find it difficult to work out the movie’s version of the story versus actual events?
There is really no difference in the way we did it and how it is portrayed by Hollywood. Yes, there are Hollywood storytelling elements in the story. But the facts remain intact and the spirit of the rescue and the heartbeat of the events are still there and they are very real. This is a true story that was declassified by Bill Clinton and George Tenet. We are proud to be part of it.
Telling the story was the scriptwriter’s job and he spent four days with us at the beginning of this process. He always knew that some parts of the story would remain classified and was always able to come up with a creative work-around while preserving the tale.
Was there anything left out?
A lot was left out, but that’s the nature of converting a book to a movie. For instance, I had 3 children at the time, but in the movie I had only one, a little boy named Ian. That was part of streamlining the story and I was ok with that, but my other two kids, Toby and Amanda, may be less forgiving!
If you could redo the entire operation, what would you have changed?
Nothing! I would change nothing. You don’t mess with success. The Argo Operation was the only successful undertaking run by the U.S. government during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. We rescued six innocent Americans without firing a gun, without bloodshed, using only classic espionage tools. It has become a model for others to emulate. We would change nothing.
The book launch party at the Spy Museum is sold out, though you can acquire a copy of the book signed and personalized by the author through the museum’s online store for a limited time. The book was co-written by Matt Baglio.