To friends and acquaintances, Antonio (Tony) Mendez was a quiet federal employee who worked for the American military, periodically traveling and living overseas and never talking about his job.
But inside CIA headquarters in McLean, Va., Mendez was known as the man who helped change the identity and appearance of thousands of clandestine operatives during the Cold War by creating disguises and fabricated documents and by developing convincing cover stories.
While the vast majority of these high-stakes operations took place behind the Iron Curtain and remain secret today, the most daring caper orchestrated by Mendez during his 25 years of anonymous service—the tense rescue of six American diplomats trapped in Iran in 1980—was declassified in 1997 and has been immortalized in the Hollywood movie “Argo.”
In 1979, 52 American diplomats were taken hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran—an ordeal that would last 444 days until Inauguration Day of January 1981. Unknown to the Iranian militants, six Americans managed to escape from the embassy during the initial takeover and were hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats.
That’s where Mendez came into the picture. He created a fake film company, traveled to Iran posing as a Hollywood producer, supplied the six diplomats with false travel documents, gave them cover stories as members of a Canadian film crew, and coached them on how to behave and what to say. After many hair-raising moments, Mendez and a colleague escorted the Americans aboard a jetliner that took them to freedom in January 1980.
If the cloak and dagger operation had failed, it would have resulted in grave harm to Mendez, his colleague and the six American diplomats. In addition, it would have embarrassed President Carter and the CIA, made life more difficult for the American hostages held at the embassy and put the Canadian officials at risk. Instead, the six diplomats returned home to much applause and celebration, while Mendez and his colleague quietly slipped away unheralded and unknown.
“To do this work, you have to be a romantic. You can’t share it with anybody, but you get your satisfaction from within,” said Mendez. “The job was harrowing and it was rewarding.”
Michael Sulick, the former head of the CIA Clandestine Service, said Mendez possessed amazing technical and artistic skills to create fictitious documents and disguises, but also was “calm and unflappable and extremely methodical and detailed.”
“The first time you put on a disguise or a phony mustache and take on a new identity, you feel self-conscious,” said Sulick. “Tony was good at making you feel confident and that you could pull it off. He worked on the entire identity, not just a changed outward appearance.”
Mendez also helped foreign agents who were spying for the U.S. “If we had a high-level Cold War asset who needed to defect, Tony would travel abroad to engage in his craft of helping those individuals assume a new identify and a different appearance so they could escape,” said Sulick.
Mendez said he not only arranged for the escape of the foreign agents, but their families as well. “We brought families out from behind the Iron Curtain and had them disappear without a trace,” Mendez said.
William Webster, the former FBI and CIA director, said the Iranian mission was emblematic of the creativity and daring that marked Mendez’s distinguished career.
“He always seemed capable of finding a way to do his job with imagination and color,” said Webster. “When other people thought something was impractical, he was able to do it and in a courageous way.”
Mendez’s work is representative of and pays tribute to thousands of intelligence officers who have helped protect our national security interests, but whose exploits remain behind the cloak of secrecy.