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Fame ‘scary as hell,’ former CIA spy says


This article was published October 26, 2012 at 3:52 a.m.

— Over the end credits of his highly entertaining true life spy thriller Argo, about the “exfiltration” of six American diplomats hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran after the 1979 Iranian revolution, director Ben Affleck makes a point of emphasizing his film’s verisimilitude by comparing production photos of Argo actors with those of the real people they play.

Missing from this slideshow is a comparison of Affleck’s leading man — himself — and the man he plays, a legendary Central Intelligence Agency operative named Antonio “Tony” Mendez. The reason isn’t hard to guess: Movie stars aren’t supposed to blend in. Real world spies have to.

For 25 years, Mendez took part in a series of dangerous life-saving missions and was perfectly happy not to get public credit for his work. By the time he retired in 1990, he had earned the Intelligence Star and two certificates of distinction, in part for his service as head of the disguise and documents division of the Office of Technical Service.

Unless you’ve served in the agency, you probably didn’t know how rare and significant these awards are.

Mendez’s anonymity faded when some of his missions were declassified in 1997 and in 2000 when his memoir, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, was published.

Mendez recounts the improbable but successful rescue at the center of Affleck’s movie in the new book he’s written with journalist Matt Baglio, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.

In 1980, Mendez posed as a film producer to enter Iran, provide the stranded Americans with fake documents and lead them out of the country. They posed as crew members on a Canadian science fiction film scouting locations in Iran.

It’s not a spoiler to say Mendez succeeded in part because of the long and deep ties between Hollywood and the intelligence community. In the film Argo, John Goodman plays an Academy Award-winning makeup artist who helped Mendez and others develop the trade. (Mendez’s grandfather is reportedly one of the masons who worked on Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.)

“One of the differences between us and Hollywood is we had no retakes,” Mendez, speaking from his home in Maryland, says.

In the film and the book, Mendez has to blend in with his surroundings, so his clothes came from the racks of the European version of Dillard’s, not London’s Savile Row, the home of James Bond’s tailored suits. In fact, Mendez says the 6-foot-2-inch Sean Connery would have a difficult time as a spy.

“He’s too good looking,” Mendez says. “Now, me, that’s another thing.”

Mendez says Affleck, who’s roughly the same age Mendez was in 1980, was “a very quick study. It’s astounding how precise he is, and how much he works at it.”

And while Affleck has received criticism from Slate’s Amanda Hess and others for casting himself instead of a Latino actor in the role, Mendez’s wife, Jonna — herself a 27-year CIA veteran and Mendez’s successor as head of the disguise and documents division — says her husband’s ethnicity is complicated.

“His father was Mexican, but his father died when he was 3,” she says. “He was crushed in a mine accident. Tony never spoke Spanish. We get all these Spanish phone calls selling this and that. We don’t understand a word they say. [Our son] speaks wonderful Spanish, but he didn’t learn it at home.”

Mendez actually completed two missions in Tehran. He rescued an official from the previous regime six months before the events depicted in Argo. In both cases, he had to change the nationality of the participants.

While creating phony paperwork (or “pocket litter”) and disguises can be challenging, he says the greatest difficulty in these missions can be dealing with the people he’s trying to save. They often lack his experience in espionage.

“The hardest part is calming down the demeanor of the subject and not make them so obvious. It’s called hiding in plain sight. We just restyled them more than anything, and it was very effective,” says Mendez.

Not that Mendez couldn’t affect a wholesale transformation if it were necessary. He once rescued a black man and a white man from Laos by passing them off as Laotians.

“That’s kind of a nice yarn to tell. It didn’t take a lot of time,” he says. “What we were striving for was the ultimate. If you were to ask me if it was like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, I’d have to say it was better.”

The book and the movie begin with information explaining why the unrest in Iran occurred in 1979.

“I think the fact that Ben Affleck studied Middle Eastern affairs in school might have partially accounted for the opening sequence for that movie,” Jonna Mendez says. “I think that Ben Affleck and Tony Mendez both approached it from that same point of view independent of each other. We didn’t know they were putting that in front of the movie. And I don’t think Ben Affleck ever saw the material in Tony’s book that was edited out.”

Mendez says the explanation is essential because many Americans were oblivious to the Shah of Iran’s abysmal human rights record and were surprised by his fall.

“Not only people in the States, but people in the [Carter] administration. That’s why we did it.”

He adds: “If [the Iranians] get that bomb, it’s going to be really terrible.”

Viewers wanting to test their skills at espionage can spot both Mendezes in the movie.

“Tony said, ‘Like Alfred Hitchcock, I want a cameo,’” Jonna Mendez says. “There were 12 of us, and Ben said, ‘We need a bus.’ And they all went to the premiere in LA, and Ben said, ‘Get the bus again.’ Tony travels in a crowd. Tony likes to share.”

Asked about his newfound recognition, Mendez allows that “it’s scary as hell.”

“I’m being a little facetious,” he says. “It is quite a departure from the way I usually comport myself. There’s some joy out of getting off the elevator knowing nobody even looked at you. When you have to be public and interesting and attractive, it takes some doing.”

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/26/2012

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