In 1980, CIA operative Tony Mendez saved six American hostages during the Iranian Hostage Crisis with the use of an elaborate film crew hoax. The set-up, which depicted the group as the crew of a nonexistent sci-fi film called "Argo," fooled the Iranian government and brought the hostages home.
Thursday, Mendez was the guest speaker at the Mountain Education Foundation's fundraiser event at Signal Mountain Middle-High School. Mendez and his wife, Jonna, another former CIA agent, talked with a Times Free Press reporter before the sell-out event.
Q: How accurate was the "Argo" film to the true-to-life story?
Tony: About 90 percent. I engaged in helping the screenwriters. I kept track of it in that way. I would get calls from Ben [Affleck]. He asked "is this reasonable, is this okay?" But I didn't hold him to any letter of the law kind of thing. Movies are visual pictures. Life is not a visual activity. It's internal. If you want to scare somebody, you need to create something to scare them. I believe that's why gorilla movies are so popular.
Jonna: That's the explanation for the chase scene at the end. The screenwriter knew the end for weeks. He had to scare the audience. They weren't scared of being caught. They were really scared of F4s [fighter jets] that were going to come after them. It wasn't 10 minutes to the border, it was two hours. In the movie, they get in the plane, and -- ding -- they're out of Iranian airspace. There's a lot of little discrepancies the film left out.
Tony: We knew were were subject to a hostage search, and very soon after, a hostage pursuit. We wanted to stay in a particular place -- not in hostage pursuit, but ahead of it. As a CIA operative, we brought out about 150 families, so we knew what it was like to go through an airport disguised and documented as somebody else. We know what it's like to stay calm, not bolt and run.
Q: Did you ever keep in touch with the 6 hostages from the rescue mission?
Tony: Five out of the six. Number six has not emerged, for his own reasons, but the other five, we see them every year. We saw them a lot this year. It goes on.
Q: Was there a specific point in the mission where you didn't think you'd make it back?
Tony: There's always a point in a dangerous operation of that sort where you take a second look before you go forward. You do that in the beginning of the operation, but it's some point later where you've really got a list going. "This has to be here, that has to be there." We call that "the gut check." You're busy getting things ready to go, and you think -- "do I really want to do this again?" Everything checks out and you go forward.
Q: Is there a part of the mission you would have changed?
Tony: I wouldn't want to mess with the profession.
Jonna: He's humble. It's the only thing that worked in the Iranian Hostage Crisis. There was no other successful operation of any kind.
Tony: If it's a question of whether you're going to do it or not, whether it's life or death, you stop asking permission. When you get out of the van to be dropped at the airport, you don't have options anymore. You are "it."
Q: Does the CIA still use artists and masters of disguise like they used you in 1979?
Tony: Yes, but nobody's figured out how to do it better. They throw new, technical tricks at the materials you're working with, but it's a game of playing security against countersecurity. It's sometimes quite technical, and sometimes dead simple.
Jonna Mendez: A lot of what Tony brought to disguise was his connections in Hollywood. He had huge connections, which is something left out of the "Argo" story. He brought techniques out of L.A. that are still used today.
Q: Which techniques are they?
Tony: What you try to do is lay traps against the enemy. You have secret markings and other kinds of check-sums. Today, we have facial recognition. The fingerprint is as old as the hills, but it's still one of the most effective biometrics. Just the signature on a document is considered to be a biometric, so you have to be good at forging handwriting, which I considered myself to be.
Jonna: He was notorious for forging signatures. He came into the CIA as an artist with exquisite hand-eye coordination. He can still forge anything.
Q: You were the "master of disguise" for so long. Can you go out now without people recognizing you?
Tony: Actually, people don't recognize me anyway, because I'm so uninteresting. There's always little tricks you can use to go out, we still use them now. Some of them I can tell you, some of them I cannot.
Q: You didn't even come out about the "Argo" mission for more than a decade. You had to keep that secret for so long.
Jonna: And even so, he didn't want to say it. George Tenant twisted his arm so hard.
Q: Your first successful disguise was dressing up as a girl and going to the school dance. How on earth did you pull this off and why?
Tony: Well, I don't have much hair on my legs. [laughter] My high school buds and I decided we were going to sneak into the Valentine's Day dance. It was couples-only, so you couldn't just go and hang out. The idea was that we were going to disguise one of us and break in. I lost the coin toss. I ended up being "Denise," the girl from the other school.
Jonna: You had four sisters.
Tony: Yeah, they taught me how to dance backwards. My mom got some of her friends to ante some clothes and stuff up. The plan was to go into the dance and disrupt it. We had a pretty good wig we rented from a costume company, and clothes from my friends and relatives. I was not bad-looking. Clipped eyebrows, stuff like that.
Jonna: Didn't you end up throwing your wig?
Tony: One minute from midnight, we acted like we were having a fight. Doug, my friend, and I were dancing. I yelled "bitch" or something, took of my wig, and threw it at Doug. People screamed, and our friends in the band said "who's that big broad with Doug?" Then we ran out of the dance. Problem was, we left my mom's friend's cashmere coat.
Q: Uh-oh. Did you ever get it back?
Tony: I said to Doug, "you gotta go back and get my coat." He approached the cops, and they said "no, you don't get your coat back unless you bring your friend in here." So I went in and that was the end of it.
Q: What's your big take-home message?
Tony: If you're going to do something with importance, you ought to do it right. "Excellence" is the word.
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.