Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

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9781470832445: Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History
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On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran and captured dozens of American hostages, sparking a 444-day ordeal and a quake in global politics still felt today. But there's a little-known footnote to the crisis: six Americans escaped. And a midlevel agent named Antonio Mendez devised an ingenious yet incredibly risky plan to rescue them. Armed with foreign film visas, Mendez and an unlikely team of CIA agents and Hollywood insiders -- directors, producers, and actors -- traveled to Tehran under the guise of scouting locations for a fake film called Argo. While pretending to find the perfect backdrops, the team succeeded in contacting the escapees and smuggling them out of Iran without a single shot being fired.

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About the Author:

Antonio J. Mendez served in the CIA for twenty-five years. He is the recipient of several honors, including the Intelligence Star for Valor. He is the author of Spy Dust and The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA. He is co-author with Matt Baglio of Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History. He lives with his family in rural Washington County, Maryland.

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Also by Antonio J. Mendez

The Master of Disguise

Spy Dust

Also by Matt Baglio

The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist



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First published in 2012 by Viking Penguin,

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Copyright © Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio, 2012

All rights reserved

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the authors’ views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Mendez, Antonio J.

Argo : how the CIA and Hollywood pulled off the most audacious rescue in history / Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio.

p. cm.

ISBN: 978-1-101-60120-4

1. Iran Hostage Crisis, 1979–1981.   2. United States. Central Intelligence Agency.   3. Canada—Foreign relations—Iran.   4 Iran—Foreign relations—Canada.   5. Mendez, Antonio J.   6. Diplomats—United States—History—20th century.   I. Baglio, Matt.   II. Title.

E183.8.I55M46 2012



Printed in the United States of America

Set in ITC Galliard Std

Designed by Alissa Amell

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

To Jonna

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.


Late that Saturday afternoon I was painting in my studio. Outside, the sun was just beginning to fall behind the hills, casting a long dark shadow that covered the valley like a curtain. I liked the half-light in the room.

“Come Rain or Come Shine” poured from the radio. I often listened to music while I worked. It was almost as important to me as the light. I had installed a fine stereo system and if I painted late enough into Saturday night, I could catch Rob Bamberger’s Hot Jazz Saturday Night on NPR.

I had been painting since my early childhood, and was working as an artist when the CIA hired me in 1965. I still considered myself to be a painter first and a spy second. Painting had always been an outlet for the tensions that came with my job at the Agency. While there were occasional bureaucrats whose antics brought me to the point of wanting to throttle them, if I could get into my studio and pick up a brush then those pent–up hostilities would melt away.

My studio sat perched above the garage, up a steeply angled set of stairs. It was a large room with windows on three sides. The room had diagonal yellow pine floors covered with a variety of oriental carpets and was furnished with a huge white sofa and some antique pieces that my wife, Karen, had acquired for her interior design business. It was a comfortable space and, most important, it was mine. You needed permission, which I gave pretty freely, to enter. Friends and family knew, however, that when I was in the middle of a project, they should tread lightly.

I had built the studio as I had built the house. Upon returning from a posting overseas in 1974, Karen and I had decided it would be best to raise our three kids away from the grit and crime of Washington, D.C. We’d chosen a forty-acre plot of land in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and after clearing a section of woods, I’d spent the better part of three summers constructing the main house while the family and I lived in a log cabin I had also built. The land had a long history. Antietam Battlefield was just up the road and every now and then we would find Civil War relics—buttons, bullets, breastplates—discarded among the leaves and fallen trees bordering our property.

The painting I was working on that afternoon had been triggered by a phrase associated with my job: “Wolf Rain.” It had the haunted sound of blue, dreary, dank weather, and spoke to the depths of the wooded landscape, just outside my window, on a winter’s night. It conveyed a kind of sorrow that I couldn’t explain, but felt that I could paint.

Working on “Wolf Rain” was one of those things you hope happens in your career as an artist—the painting just emerges from nowhere. Perhaps like a character who shoulders his way into a book to take over the narrative. The figure of the wolf was recognizable only by the eyes—it was a floating image in a rain-soaked forest, and you could sense the anguish in its gaze.

If my painting was going well, my brain would instantly go into “alpha” mode, the subjective, creative right-brain state where the breakthroughs happen. Einstein said that the definition of genius is not that you are smarter than everyone else, it’s that you’re ready to receive the inspiration. That was the definition of “alpha” for me. I would start the painting session by ridding myself of all the assholes at work and then leap to moments of clarity where I would find solutions to problems that I had never considered before. I would be ready to receive.

It was December 19, 1979, and there was much on my mind. Earlier in the week I had been given a memorandum from the U.S. State Department that contained some startling news. Six American diplomats had escaped from the militant-overrun U.S. embassy in Tehran and were hiding out at the residences of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his senior immigration officer, John Sheardown. The six appeared to be safe for the moment, but there was no guarantee they would remain so; in the wake of the embassy takeover, militants were combing the city looking for any American they could find. The six Americans had been in hiding for almost two months. How much longer could they hold out?

The news of their escape had come as a bit of a surprise to me. I had spent the previous month down at the CIA engrossed in the wider problem. On November 4, a group of Iranian militants had stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taken more than sixty-six Americans hostage. The militants accused the Americans of “spying” and trying to undermine the country’s nascent Islamic Revolution, all of this while the Iranian government, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, lent its support.

At the time of the takeover, I was working as the chief of the CIA’s worldwide disguise operations in the Office of Technical Services (OTS). Over the course of my then fourteen-year career, I had conducted numerous clandestine operations in far-flung places, disguised agents and case officers, and helped to rescue defectors and refugees from behind the Iron Curtain.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, my team and I had been working on preparing the disguises, false documents, and cover stories for the various aliases that any advance team would need in order to infiltrate Iran. Then, in the midst of these preparations, the memo from the State Department arrived.

As I applied a dark glaze across the underpainting of the canvas, it immediately transformed the mood of the work. The piercing eyes of the wolf suddenly came alive like two golden orbs. I stared, transfixed. The image had triggered something. The State Department appeared to be taking a wait-and-see approach with the six Americans, which I found to be problematic. I had recently been to Iran on a covert operation and I knew the dangers firsthand. At any moment they could be discovered. The city was full of eyes, watching, searching. If the six Americans had to run, where would they go? The crowds of thousands of people chanting outside the American embassy in Tehran each day gave no doubt that, if captured, the six would almost certainly be thrown in jail and perhaps even lined up in front of a firing squad. I had always told my team that there are two kinds of exfiltrations: those with hostile pursuit and those without. We couldn’t afford to wait until the six Americans were on the run. It would be almost impossible to get them out then.

My son Ian walked into the studio. “What’s up?” he asked. He walked over to the painting and scrutinized it as only the seventeen-year-old son of the artist could. “Nice, Dad,” he pronounced, stepping back to get a better perspective. “But it needs more blue.” He’d barely noticed the eyes of the wolf.

“Get your butt out of here, Ian. I’ll be in for dinner in about thirty minutes. Tell your mom, will you?”

On the radio Ella broke into a rendition of “Just One of Those Things,” an early version, and I began to clean my brushes in the turpentine and put the caps back on the oil paints. My palette, which had built up over the years, resembled a bunch of brightly colored stalagmites sitting on an oval board with a thumbhole through it. At this point it was too heavy to pick up, but it contained fragments of every painting done in my studio.

As I put away my brushes, the initial stages of a plan began to emerge. Not only would we need to create new identities as well as disguises for the six Americans, but someone would have to infiltrate Iran, link up with them, and assess their ability to carry it off.

A million questions began running through my mind. How was I going to convince six innocent American diplomats who had no covert training that they could successfully escape from Iran? How was I going to create a cover story that would account for the presence of this group in a country caught up in the throes of a revolution? Despite having done dozens of “exfiltrations,” I could see that this was going to be one of my most challenging missions to date.

I turned off the radio and the lights and stood for a moment in the darkness, looking out the window and through the night to the glow of the chandelier in the greenhouse. Espionage is an instrument of statecraft, I mused. If conducted properly and professionally, there are international rules of engagement. In the case of the revolutionary government of Iran, however, the only rule was that there weren’t any.



The call went out over the radio network a little after ten o’clock in the morning: “Recall! Recall! All marines to Post One!” The voice was that of Al Golacinski, the chief security officer of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The date was November 4, 1979, and a large crowd of “militant students” had just broken through the front gates and was pouring into the compound.

The embassy was massive. It took up nearly twenty-seven acres and was surrounded by a high brick wall. Inside, there were dozens of buildings and warehouses, the ambassador’s residence, an athletic field, tennis courts, even a swimming pool. In addition, the compound was located right in the heart of downtown Tehran, and was bordered on all sides by some of the city’s most heavily trafficked streets. When you added it all up, it meant that the embassy was a security nightmare. Nearly a dozen U.S. Marines were stationed at the compound, but their job was mainly to provide internal protection.

For this reason, the security plan hatched by Golacinski called for all personnel to head toward the chancery, a large three-story building that had been fortified with window grills, blast shields, and time-coded locks. The second floor could be sealed off by a thick steel door, which would theoretically allow the Americans to hold out for several hours. Every embassy in the world is dependent on the host government to provide external security, and it was hoped that these precautions would give the Iranian government enough time to organize a response and send help.

The embassy had been attacked once before, nine months previously, on February 14, 1979, just one month after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, had fled the country. During that attack, a group of Marxist guerrillas had stormed the embassy in a hail of gunfire and held the staffers hostage for four hours.

At the time, Iran was a chaotic mess. The Ayatollah Khomeini had returned triumphantly from exile in Paris and the shah’s government had quickly collapsed. The army soon followed suit and in the vacuum the diverse factions who had banded together to oust the shah (leftists, nationalists, Soviet-sponsored communists, hard-line Islamicists) had splintered and were now fighting it out among each other. Armed men roamed the streets and revenge killings were rampant. Small gangs called komiteh (committees) sprang up across the country, carving out territories of control. Beholden to no one except whatever mullah they claimed allegiance to, these gangs amounted to little more than thugs, and began enforcing their own brand of revolutionary justice at the barrel of a gun. Amid this confusion, Khomeini and his inner circle had installed a provisional government to manage the country while the Assembly of Experts worked diligently behind the scenes to draft a new constitution.

It wasn’t long before the provisional government had sent a ragtag group of men to kick the occupiers out, but the Valentine’s Day takeover would have important repercussions for the events to follow. For one, the U.S. embassy staff was drastically reduced (at full strength the embassy employed nearly a thousand people). Second, and perhaps even more important, it gave the impression that the Iranian government would honor its commitment to protect the embassy and the diplomats working inside.

After the Marxist guerrillas were evicted, the protection of the embassy was assigned to a group of komiteh, who took over one of the small buildings near the front of the compound and patrolled the grounds. It wasn’t until the summer that a more permanent security force was assigned to guard the embassy, but even by the most optimistic of assessments it was only tok...

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