The True Story Behind Operation ‘Argo’ to Rescue Americans From Iran
The true story behind the new movie Argo about how CIA operatives posing as a Hollywood production team rescued six Americans hiding in Iran during the 1979 embassy crisis. An excerpt from Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio’s new book, Argo.
On Nov. 4, 1979, thousands of Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage, including three CIA officers. The crisis lasted 444 days—a drawn-out drama dubbed “America Held Hostage” on television. But during the tumult, six American consular officials managed to slip by the Iranian mob.
As they hid out in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, the Secret Six dreamed up escape plans worthy of Robert Ludlum, and perhaps just as outlandish.
That is, until the CIA appeared with a plan even crazier than anything they had imagined: a scheme to have them pose as a crew of politically clueless filmmakers from Tinseltown scouting locations for a sci-fi film.
Revolutionary Iran was dangerously chaotic, but the bureaucracy of surveillance and repression hadn’t hardened yet. This was before Google, which meant cover stories were checked by phone, in person, or by fax. It seemed crazy, but it might just work.
So began one of the more outlandish stories in American espionage. And Hollywood, which was part of the intrigue in real life, has now adapted the story. The action thriller Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, chronicles the daring escape.
In the movie, which premiered recently to great acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival, Affleck plays Antonio Mendez, the CIA chief of technical services, master of disguise and fake IDs, whose job it was to get the Americans out of Tehran undiscovered. Here Mendez remembers what happened.
Of all the groups heading into Iran, it wasn’t implausible to imagine a group of self-absorbed Hollywood eccentrics traveling there in the middle of a revolution to find the perfect locations for their movie.
Beyond that, it had the one quality that I felt the other potential cover stories lacked. It was fun, which I knew would help the six “houseguests.” We were going to walk them out through Tehran airport and right onto a commercial plane. They might be stopped; they might be questioned about what they did. And they needed to be comfortable with their new identities. We figured anyone knows enough about Hollywood to fake a little movie-making patter.
Now I needed to convince everyone else at the CIA—and the Canadians—that this crazy idea was our best shot. And we had to work on the back story. We needed a Hollywood office, so if the Iranians’ people called our people, they’d hear something on the phone that confirmed we were legit. We would need to set up our own production company, which I had decided to call “Studio Six Productions,” after the six houseguests trapped in Iran. And we needed to plant ads and articles in the trade press about our new project.
Our first priority was to get office space [in L.A.]. Film companies often are created and disbanded overnight, so the film business caters to short-term leases. It only took us about an hour of calling around to find what we needed. Apparently, Michael Douglas had just finished producing The China Syndrome and we could have his offices on the Columbia Pictures lot.
I had brought a list of the houseguests in Tehran and their various ages and names. Any credible person in the film business would need a long string of previous credits. The trick was finding those kinds of jobs that give a person clout— art director, cinematographer, transportation coordinator—without the kind of marquis billing that a director or producer might get, which would be easier for the Iranians to check.
I had already decided that I would take on the role of the production manager, which would give me a logical reason to keep track of everyone on the trip. My partner, “Julio,” meanwhile, would play an associate producer, representing our production company’s ostensible South American backers. The six hidden consular officials would fill out the other roles.
Now that we had our production company, we needed a script. It was then that my Hollywood friend and collaborator on this project, a famous makeup artist, told me about a script pitched to him several months before. The project, based on Roger Zelazny’s science-fiction novel Lord of Light, had fallen through when a member of the production team was arrested for embezzlement, but not before initial preproduction had begun. Even better, the producers had hired Jack Kirby, a famous comic-book artist, to do concept drawings. “What’s it about?” I asked as I looked over the sketches. “Who knows!” said Calloway. “Some space opera set on a colonized planet.”
“This is perfect,” I said. “The Iranians won’t be able to understand this stuff.” I was thinking that, for operational purposes, the more confusing the better. If someone were to stop us, then it would be easy for us to overwhelm them with confusing conceptual jargon.
“What are we going to call it?” I asked.
“Let’s call it Argo,” Calloway said with a wry smile. It was the name of the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed in to liberate the Golden Fleece against impossible odds.
“That sounds just like our operation,” I said.
The houseguests had been told by one of the Canadian diplomats that they should expect some visitors. Of course he didn’t tell them we were CIA—just that we were coming to help.
As I entered the residence in Tehran, I found the whole spectacle weirdly, disconcertingly familiar. A fire burned merrily in the hearth, and the houseguests had laid out hors d’oeuvres. The group seemed rested and eager, even fit. One of them had a nice tan. Our Canadian host went into the kitchen to mix us drinks, and it wasn’t long before we were sipping our cocktails and getting acquainted. If not for the roaming bands of murderous Revolutionary Guards and komiteh patrolling the streets outside, it would have felt just like any other dinner party in Washington, D.C.
When I thought we’d broken the ice sufficiently, I started the briefing.
I opened the Studio Six portfolio and took out an issue of Variety that had the Argo ad we’d placed. I then handed one of the Studio Six business cards to houseguest Cora Lijec and pointed to the part of the ad that said the film was “from a story by Teresa Harris.”
“That’s you,” I said. I showed her the Canadian alias passport with her picture. Cora studied her photo and forged signature with obvious wonderment. Next I picked up the sketch pad and handed it to Kathy Stafford, another of the houseguests. “Here,” I said. “We saw that you have a little art in your background and decided to make you the art director.” I passed out the remaining business cards, which indicated the various roles the others would be playing: Joe Stafford was an associate producer; Mark Lijek was “Joseph Earl Harris,” the transportation coordinator; Lee Schatz was “Henry W. Collins,” the cameraman; and Bob Anders was “Robert Baker,” the locations manager.
Before leaving, I sat down with the houseguests once again to go over their cover stories. I handed each of them the personal résumé we had created for them and told them to memorize it backward and forward.
“If anyone stops you or hassles you in any way, just act confident and look them in the eye. Think about how someone from Hollywood would react. Remember, Julio and I will be right beside you, so if anything goes wrong let us do the talking.”
“Each of you is going to need to make yourself look a little flashier, a little more Hollywood,” I said. I handed Schatz his viewfinder and gave Cora the script.
“Julio and I will be back here on Sunday night to go through a little dress rehearsal,” I told them. “But in the meantime, learn your parts.
You will be tested!”
On Jan. 28, the six departed Iran, right under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Their escape remained unknown for months, and the CIA’s involvement was hidden for 17 years.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from ARGO by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio. Copyright © 2012 by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio