Tony Mendez was a former art student working as an illustrator for Martin Marietta when he answered a classified advertisement for a graphic artist to work overseas for the U.S. Navy. It sounded interesting, but he wondered what use the Navy had for graphic artists overseas.
As he would soon learn, it wasn't the Navy but the Central Intelligence Agency that wanted his skills as a graphic artist to forge documents for its operatives. During a 25-year career with the agency's Technical Services Division, he became chief of disguises and a master of exfiltration, the art of getting American agents and helpful foreign nationals out of dangerous countries.
Imagination was a big part of the job.
"If you couldn't imagine it, you couldn't do it," Mendez said during a meeting with reporters before he and his wife, Jonna Goeser, herself a retired veteran of 27 years with the CIA, held court at the latest installment of the Dillon Lecture Series on Tuesday. "If you could imagine it, and you could throw enough money at it, you could get it done. We did a lot of things. If it didn't exist, we invented it."
In all, Mendez helped spirit about 150 people across borders and out of danger, including, most famously, six American diplomats who hid out in the Canadian ambassador's residence in Tehran after Iranian radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy and took the entire staff hostage in 1979. The rescue was the subject of the Oscar-winning movie "Argo," staring Ben Affleck as Mendez.
For that rescue, Mendez concocted an elaborate cover about a Canadian movie crew that went to Tehran to scout locations for a science-fiction movie called "Argo." He used his connections with Oscar-winning Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, who did the makeup for "Planet of the Apes" and created Mr. Spock's pointy ears for "Star Trek." They got a real Hollywood producer to go along with the story, rented offices in Hollywood, created movie posters, placed ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter announcing that filming would begin in the spring of 1980, and fabricated new biographies as members of the crew for the six diplomats and the Canadian documents to support those identities.
He had to sell the scheme to the CIA, the State Department, the White House, the Canadian government and the Canadian ambassador to Iran. Once in Tehran, Mendez had to drill the six Americans on their new identities and pump them up for the attempt.
Then, amid enormous tension, they went to the Tehran airport and, improbably, passed through various checkpoints, boarded a SwissAir jet and flew out of Iran to Turkey.
The idea to pose as members of a film crew was born of "desperation," Mendez said.
"The elaborate nature of it was happenstance," he said. "I always wanted to have fun, and that was a fun one."
Goeser, who worked for Tony at the CIA and eventually also held the job as chief of disguises, said Tony and the Americans were worried that the Iranians would discover their escape and scramble F-4 fighter jets the U.S. government had sold to the Shah's regime to force their plane down. It wasn't until they crossed the Turkish frontier, two hours into the flight, and the bell rang signaling that the flight attendants could now serve drinks, that they felt safe.
Mendez had managed many exfiltrations before the Argo operation. Just nine months earlier he had gone to Tehran to disguise an agent of the secret police, the Savak, out of Iran after the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah. What was different about the Argo operation was that it was six people, and most importantly they were diplomats unskilled in spycraft, not CIA operatives.
At the CIA, Goeser said, "The thing they all remember is his creative energy, and that probably comes from him having been an artist. When they have a problem, they want Tony at the table because he will probably come up with something we hadn't thought of."
Goeser noted during the lecture that the movie "Argo" made a lot of people angry - New Zealand and Great Britain because it suggested falsely that they had refused to help and the Canadians because it underplayed the courageous role of their diplomats who hid the Americans for more than 80 days. The movie also angered the Iranians, who, Goeser noted, plan to make their own movie version of the events.
"I can't wait to see who plays me," Mendez joked.
The CIA, Goeser said, was a "great place to work. You could go to Paris on a Tuesday, pick up a paper on Thursday, read some little article and say, 'It worked.' "
The Technical Services Division, where the Mendezes worked, was like Q's department in the James Bond movies.
"If you needed a technical device, you came to us," Goeser said. "If you needed a bug in a room or a boulder on a beach, you came to see us. If you needed to conceal something, like in a dead rat at the base of a tree, you came to us."
Mendez retired from the CIA in 1990. Today, Mendez, 73, and Goeser, who also is retired, live on a farm in Maryland, where Tony has an artist's studio and continues to paint. They travel the United States telling their story and are members of the board of trustees of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Not long ago, Goeser said, her husband conducted a class on counterfeiting for the general public at the Spy Museum. "It was set up like a Julia Child cooking show," she said, with a mirror overhead so the audience could see what he was working on and a camera was focused on the document he was working on.
"He showed them how to forge Vladimir Putin's signature and then said, 'Go forth and make mischief,' " she said.