Former CIA agents charm audience at Lecture Series
STEUBENVILLE – Former Central Intelligence Agency agents Tony and Jonna Mendez charmed their audience and received a standing ovation during Tuesday night’s appearance as part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series.
The event, held in the Steubenville High School auditorium, included a talk by the couple, clips from the film “Argo,” a question-and-answer session and book signing.
“We’re very pleased to be in Steubenville to speak to you,” said Jonna Mendez.
She explained the pair had worked for the CIA for many years – she had spent 27 years with the agency and Antonio Mendez 25 years – and likened the Technical Services Division to a real-life version of James Bond’s Q Branch.
“Short of satellites, if it was technical, it was ours,” she said. “We had the wherewithal to do whatever we needed to do, and, if we didn’t have it, we would invent it. We had people whose life work was developing inks, developing batteries. We had a pressing need for small, powerful, long-lasting batteries. Because, if we could get in a KGB boss’ office, if we could get a block of wood with a bug up under his desk, the chances of getting back in there to change the battery were almost zero.”
The technical division consisted of experts who conceptualized and created devices such as bugs and tiny cameras that fit in lipstick tubes and pens; those who created cover personas and disguises; and field agents. One of Tony Mendez’s specialties was a process called authentication, or creating a cover identity that would stand up to intense scrutiny.
“Authentication is a bureaucratic way of blessing a person to go forth and do espionage,” said Tony Mendez. “You’re creating a believable cover for people who are doing what looks to be nothing very important and who are actually stealing the enemy’s secrets.”
In addition to creating a believable background for their agents, the husband and wife were frequently called upon to disguise their agents. They both rose in the CIA ranks to become masters of disguise.
“We could change your gender – women became men and men became women,” said Jonna Mendez. “We could change your ethnicity – Caucasians became African-Americans and Asians became Caucasians. We could make two of you.”
She added agents had to be quick-change artists, often having approximately 15 seconds to effect their disguises.
“I had a homeless disguise that was pretty good, but the little old lady was spectacular,” said Tony Mendez.
Jonna Mendez once demonstrated the agency’s capability for disguise for President George H.W. Bush.
During his career, Mendez worked as part of the technical division, an undercover agent overseas, a master of disguise and a master forger and counterfeiter. He also was an exfiltration specialist – an expert in extracting people from dangerous situations.
“When the U.S. government recruits foreign agents, one of the things they promise is, if it goes bad, if they’re in danger, their family is in danger or their children were in danger, we could come and get you,” said Jonna Mendez. “Tony was the guy who would come get you.”
“I had a team, a hundred people, support in the field,” Tony Mendez added.
Tony Mendez was the leader of a team that extracted six U.S. diplomatic personnel from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis that began when the U.S. embassy there was overrun by militants on Nov. 4, 1979. He explained the operation in detail in his book, “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.” The story was dramatized in the Academy Award-winning movie “Argo,” in which Mendez was portrayed by Ben Affleck.
“(The diplomatic personnel captured at the embassy) were tied up, blindfolded, they were in terrible conditions for 444 days,” said Jonna Mendez.
However, six of those personnel were able to escape and became “houseguests” of the Canadians. Initially, Mendez’s focus was on rescuing the 52 hostages still remaining at the American embassy.
“We knew they were in good shape with the Canadians for the time being,” said Mendez of the houseguests. “We knew they couldn’t stay there forever, but we had other fish to fry.”
However, it soon became clear that a dossier on all the personnel at the American embassy had fallen into Iranian hands, and although the documents had been shredded, the Iranians were piecing it back together and would soon realize several diplomats were missing and in hiding. The State Department initially wanted to send the six across the Turkish border on bicycles, but it was 300 miles from Tehran to the border and in the middle of winter.
For a solution, the CIA turned to Hollywood.
“Most people would think that the intelligence community wouldn’t talk to L.A.,” said Jonna Mendez. “But Tony was talking to them every day. Tony had a very dear friend – we call him J.C. – and Tony said he was one of the real geniuses he had ever met in his life. I had always thought Tony was a genius, so that was high praise.”
Hollywood is the capital for illusion and deception, and the agency was interested in how “movie magic” was created and how it could be repurposed for intelligence use.
Mendez and his Hollywood contacts created a Canadian production company and film, ostensibly being filmed in Iran, so the six diplomatic personnel who escaped during the initial Nov. 9, 1979, attack on the American embassy could pose as production crew members and essentially walk out of the front door.
They called their company Studio Six for the six diplomats in hiding. In order to build a believable cover, the company needed a script, and they found one based on the 1968 Hugo Award-winning novel “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelanzy. With the success of “Star Wars,” science fiction movies had become hot commodities in Hollywood at the time.
“Lord of Light” had been in production under another company, but the producer had embezzled the funds and the company went bankrupt. “Lord of Light” was in “turn-around,” which Jonna Mendez described as “in limbo.”
“A good word for turn-around is languishing,” said Tony Mendez. “It was convoluted, but exotic. It had pizzazz. It had to do with stuff we didn’t understand, so it was perfect.”
Story boards and plans for a theme park based on the movie had already been completed, and Mendez’s team used those items as props for their cover.
“I had plans for a theme park that we were going to build in Tehran,” said Mendez.
They chose the name “Argo” based on a risque knock-knock joke. Mendez designed some promotional material featuring an explosion in space behind the word “Argo” and took out full-page ads in industry publications.
“You had to build a legend that answered every question,” said Mendez.
The company rented office space in Hollywood and “hired” a director and crew. The production company was so realistic, that, in its six weeks of operation, it received 26 scripts submitted for future consideration.
“It wasn’t real, but it was so real that Hollywood started believing it, and Hollywood doesn’t believe anything,” said Jonna Mendez. “Really, what he was building was for those six people he was going to ask to walk through the (Merhabad International) airport so they could rescue themselves.”
Meanwhile, Mendez was juggling briefings and coordinating with several different American and Canadian agencies which were having difficulties agreeing with the escape plan and one another. Additionally, the houseguests themselves weren’t sure of the plan’s viability.
“(The houseguests) had spent 86 days without going out of the house, and they wanted to go home,” said Jonna Mendez. “They were going to walk through (the airport) as a group, and if any one of them faltered, they would all be in trouble. I think they realized Tony was willing to risk his life – if one got wrapped up, they all did – and that’s what convinced them.”
The group was provided with Canadian passports and documents by that country’s officials, and had tickets on a Swissair flight to Zurich under the pretense they were leaving the country after scouting locations for the movie.
“It was a risk – I made sure they they knew that – so we all went together and hoped for the best,” said Antonio Mendez.
All members of the group had to do was bluff their way through immigration in front of more than 100 Revolutionary Guard soldiers at the airport.
“We held our breath,” said Mendez. “(The immigration officer) looked at the pile of documents and looked at us, then scooped up all our documents and went into a back room. What was he doing? He came back stirring a cup of tea – he had been on a tea break!”
The six and Mendez then settled in to wait for their plane – in a lounge full of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The group had no choice but to assume a low profile and hope the soldiers took no note of them. Mendez said Swissair was chosen because of its punctuality and good mechanical service record.
“They announced the plane had mechanical difficulties and Flight 363 to Zurich was delayed,” he said. “You don’t know how that feels. Scary. The Revolutionary Guard was paying no attention to us, and they announced the plane was ready to go. We were walking up the jet way, and (houseguest) Bob Anders nudges me and says, ‘You guys think of everything.’ Aargau (a Swiss district) was written across the nose of the DC-8. Close enough.”
Although they had successfully boarded the plane and departed, there was still another 200 miles of Iranian air space between them and the Turkish border, and the Iranian government had F-4 airplanes capable of shooting their commercial jet out of the sky – planes that had been sold to the former shah by the American government.
“When they announced we had entered Turkish air space, a cheer went up and we all ordered bloody marys,” said Mendez.
When they arrived in Zurich, State Department officials were waiting for them.
“They grabbed the six and walked off – no one said thank you or have a nice day, so Tony and his friend went to lunch, then back to work,” said Jonna Mendez. “And that is what it’s like to work for the CIA.”
Mendez received the Intelligence Star for Valor for his actions during what was known as the Canadian Caper.
By his retirement in 1990, he had received the Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction. He then pursued a career in nonfiction, writing “The Master of Disguise – My Secret Life in the CIA” in 1999 and “Spy Dust” with Jonna in 2002.
In 1997, the Argo operation, which had been classified, was revealed to the public as part of the CIA’s 50th anniversary celebration, during which Mendez was honored as one of 50 officers recognized as those who shaped the history of the agency.
“I said, ‘you’re going to use that story?'” said Mendez. “I said no, he (former CIA Director George Tenet) insisted – guess who won?”
The Iranian government has claimed “Argo” is propaganda and they will release a movie showing the “real” story.
“Tony says he can’t wait to see who they get to play him,” said Jonna Mendez.
“We were thrilled to have been able to present Tony and Jonna Mendez as part of the lecture series,” said Ross Gallabrese, executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. “They provided a unique look at the work of the CIA.”
The series will continue with a presentation in the fall, he noted.
Major sponsors for the event included Eastern Gateway Community College and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Additional support was provided by Bayberry House Bed and Breakfast, Apollo Pro Cleaning, Piergallini Catering, Newbrough Photo, Thrifty Car Rental, Dave D’Anniballe and Co. CPAs, Em-Media, McCauslen’s Florist and Steubenville City Schools.