“Argo” mastermind speaks about CIA, operation at Beth-El

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Giulia Imholte

Former CIA operatives Jonna and Tony Mendez spoke to a full audience at Beth El Synagogue about their experiences with the agency and the “Argo” operation.

Giulia Imholte, Online Editor-in-Chief

The Academy Award nominated film “Argo” takes audiences on an edge-of-their-seats adventure for two hours, and a full audience at BSM’s neighboring Beth-El Synagogue learned more of that adventure first hand during a Speaker Series featuring Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who constructed and executed the evacuation of six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.

Tony Mendez was accompanied by his wife Jonna, also a former CIA operative, who started off the presentation on Monday, Feb. 11 talking about the couple’s role in the Office of Technical Service, the CIA’s answer to James Bond’s Q. “We made all the bits and pieces necessary to perform espionage around the world,” said Jonna Mendez during the presentation.

“The director of the CIA came to me after seeing a James Bond movie and said, ‘Can you do this?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, you better learn how,’” Tony Mendez said, joking about his early days at the CIA. Tony was recruited into the organization from his job as an illustrator for the aerospace business during the Cold War. Eventually, in his work in biometrics for the Office of Technical Service, Mendez discovered how the beat facial recognition, the secrets of which he could not discuss.

The Mendezes experiences drew enough interest as a Speaker Series, attracting people outside of the immediate Beth-El community. “Really probably about 80 to 90 percent of the people in attendance are actually not members of the congregation…It’s just word of mouth. It was on the radio, it was in print and in the paper and once you cross the tipping point of chatter the good news spreads,” Assistant Rabbi Avi Olitzky said.

He sold this outrageous idea, and it was an outrageous idea, to the CIA, the White House, the State Department, and the Canadian government. this was the best bad idea, and once he got permission to move forward, and this was a counter culture thing because usually you want to have the lowest profile.”

— Jonna Mendez

As retired members of the CIA, Tony and Jonna Mendez have been given special privileges to talk about the Argo operation because of Tony Mendez’s special appointment as a Trailblazer, an award given to 50 officers who shaped the first 50 years of the CIA. “Tony had been one of those chosen out of all of those out of all of those in the CIA’s history who distinguished themselves as leaders…and who served as a standard of excellence,” Jonna Mendez said.

“The announcement was delivered to our house in a letter that was appropriately slipped under our door while we were out and it was after that award was delivered that Tony was asked by the director of the CIA to go to the New York Times and to Dan Rather on CBS and tell the story of Argo,” Jonna Mendez said.

Before being allowed to speak about the Argo operation, both the Mendezes served as Chief of Disguise for the CIA, holding the position only two years apart from each other. And while both are highly accomplished former operatives and still consult the agency, Tony Mendez is highly decorated. In addition to being named one of 50 Trailblazers, he has also received the Intelligence Star for Valor (following the successful exfiltration of the six diplomats), the Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction.

While the awards are impressive, Tony Mendez’s story of forming and executing the rescue in 1979 under the cover of the fake film “Argo” is what truly enticed the full audience at Beth-El. During the Speaker Series, Tony Mendez walked the audience through the steps necessary to planning a rescue mission––primarily, figuring out the identities of those being rescued and the escorts. In the case of Argo, through a few calls to Hollywood, Mendez discovered that a location scouting crew was six to eight people, the size of the party that would be attempting to leave Iran. Making the story believable came next.

It is my favorite scene, the chase scene, because it feels like when I did it before”

— Tony Mendez

“He sold this outrageous idea, and it was an outrageous idea, to the CIA, the White House, the State Department, and the Canadian government. this was the best bad idea, and once he got permission to move forward, and this was a counter culture thing because usually you want to have the lowest profile. Then, he had to go to Hollywood to make it real, to give it substance,” Jonna Mendez said.

Mendez and his colleagues found studio space, named the studio (Studio 6, a sly reference to the mission), created advertisements and found a script. “We found a script that had been an award winning novel. We tore the cover off that script and put our cover on, which was ‘Argo,’ so anywhere on the script where it said ‘Lord of the Flies’ we changed to ‘Argo’…the lawyers had a bit of trouble cleaning up after us,” Tony Mendez said.

However, every operation has it hiccups. The six diplomats had no former training in clandestine affairs and were starting to get anxious to leave. One nervous moment happened in immigration at the Tehran airport. “The immigration guy looked at the papers, scarfed them all up and went in the back room. So, there we are waiting, ‘what are they doing in there? Are they combining the forms? Finding six of them missing? Finally, the immigration guy came out with a cup of tea, he was taking a tea break,” Tony Mendez said.

Throughout Mendez’s recounting of his “Argo” experience, a few differences between the real events and Ben Affleck’s movie became clear. Primarily, the ending sequence or the escape scene. In real life, Mendez and the six diplomats didn’t suffer through as many checkpoints and halts in the Tehran airport as the movie version of “Argo” portrayed.

Warner Brothers Pictures

“It is my favorite scene, the chase scene, because it feels like when I did it before,” Tony Mendez said.

The Mendezes played a large role in the making of the film though, maintaining contact with Affleck, the director and star, throughout and sometimes even sat in on filming or visit the set. They developed a close relationship with Affleck––who, according to the couple, ‘wrestled’ the film away from George Clooney––often sitting in on interviews together.

“I read a published story about Ben Affleck and Tony have a very, very interesting relationship because Tony is a relatively quiet, laid-back guy and Ben Affleck is not. So, in many of these interviews and the one I’m thinking of was, I think, with Entertainment Weekly and the guy asked Ben, ‘A lot of people think that you underplayed this role, that you just kinda laid back and didn’t do much?’ And Ben kinda leans forward and goes, ‘Have you met him? One word, tax attorney,’” Jonna Mendez said.

One change to the story the Mendezes did point out was the name of Tony’s son in the film because it was not the name of any of their real life children. They requested the son’s name be changed to Ian, the name of their son who died two years prior, providing photos of Ian as a child for the set. The Mendezes were then surprised when, as the credits rolled at the premiere of the film, they discovered Affleck had added a dedication to Ian.