Mendez smuggled six State Department employees out of Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, passing them off as a Canadian movie crew in a daring mission
A forgery artist and master of disguise for the CIA, Tony Mendez once transformed a black agent and an Asian diplomat into a pair of white business executives, using masks that gave them an uncanny resemblance to the movie stars Victor Mature and Rex Harrison. On another occasion, he devised an oversize “jack-in-the-box” – a spring-loaded mannequin – that enabled a CIA source to sneak out of his car while a dummy popped up in his place.
Mendez, a 25-year veteran of the spy agency, was effectively in the business of geopolitical theater. Pulling techniques from magicians, movie makeup artists and even the television show “Mission: Impossible,” he changed one person into another, transforming agents into characters with backstories, costumes and documents that helped them evade detection and avoid capture in foreign countries.
Appropriately for a man whose career seemed drawn from a Hollywood thriller, his greatest triumph hinged on a bogus sci-fi film, a sham production office in Los Angeles and a fake location-scouting expedition to Iran. Disguising himself as an Irish filmmaker, Mendez successfully smuggled six State Department employees out of Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, passing them off as a Canadian movie crew in a daring mission that formed the basis of the Oscar-winning movie “Argo” (2012).
Mendez, who was portrayed by actor-director Ben Affleck in the film, was 78 when he died Jan. 19 at an assisted-living center in Frederick, Maryland. He had Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, fellow CIA veteran Jonna Mendez.
A painter of impressionistic landscapes and outdoor scenes, Mendez was working as a draftsman when he was recruited by the CIA in 1965, and ran an art studio after he retired. “I’ve always considered myself to be an artist first,” he once said, looking back on his career, “and for 25 years I was a pretty good spy.”
After stints in Laos, India and the Soviet Union, he was serving as the CIA’s chief of disguise when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by a militant Iranian student group on Nov. 4, 1979. The attack came months after the Islamic revolution forced out the country’s leader, the Western-backed shah, and replaced him with the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Sixty-six Americans, including six CIA officers, were taken hostage, while six other U.S. diplomats managed to evade capture and took shelter in the homes of two Canadians, ambassador Ken Taylor and embassy official John Sheardown.
In the 444 days that followed, the hostage crisis drew unflagging news coverage, crippled Jimmy Carter’s presidency and resulted in the deaths of eight service members during a failed rescue mission in the Iranian desert. Mendez completed his rescue operation Jan. 28, 1980, but it took one more year before the last 52 hostages were released, on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981.
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The idea for the “Canadian caper,” as Mendez’s mission came to be known, was born out of desperation. A specialist in “exfiltration,” the art of whisking people out of harm’s way, Mendez initially worked on a plan to free the American hostages by exchanging them for a dead body double of the shah, who was being treated for cancer in the United States.
That plan was nixed by the White House, according to a Wired magazine account by Joshuah Bearman, and when Mendez was promoted to chief of the agency’s Authentication Branch in December 1979, his efforts shifted to rescuing the six Canadian “houseguests,” as the American diplomats were euphemistically called. Their very existence was kept hidden from the public in an effort to protect them from the Iranians.
While one Canadian minister suggested the diplomats head for the Turkish border, possibly on bicycles, only a departure through the air seemed viable. Mendez just needed to settle on a story that would enable the escapees to board a plane. Schemes centered on teachers, crop inspectors and oil technicians all seemed flawed. So Mendez decided to “reverse the rules and create a distraction.”
“A cover should be bland, as uninteresting as possible, so the casual observer, or the not-so-casual immigration official, doesn’t probe too deeply,” he wrote in a 1999 memoir, “Master of Disguise.” His solution, the film gambit, was the opposite of bland – an idea so bold, he believed, that Iran would never consider that it might be fake.We visited Jonna Mendez last October in "The CIA'a Former "Chief of Disguise" on How to Disappear Into the Crowd":
Mendez called his friend John Chambers, a makeup artist who had won an honorary Oscar for his work on “Planet of the Apes,” gave Spock his pointy ears and had assisted the CIA on old assignments. With another makeup artist, Bob Sidell, who later worked on “E.T.,” they opened a production office in Los Angeles; created business cards for their fictional company, Studio Six Productions; and developed backstories and career histories for the six escapees....MUCH MORE
From MetaFilter, October 25:
Making Spies Disappear
For years, Jonna Mendez was undercover as a part of the CIA's Office of Technical Service. She later became the Chief of Disguise for the CIA. Here's a YouTube video of her talking about how spies use disguise.
WIRED Masterminds S1 • E1Published on Oct 22, 2018
Former CIA Chief Explains How Spies Use Disguises | WIREDFormer Chief of Disguise for the CIA, Jonna Mendez, explains how disguises are used in the CIA, and what aspects to the deception make for an effective disguise.
Here's her mini-bio at the Spy Museum:Finally, if interested, here is Mr. Bearman's story at his (and Joshua Davis') Epic Magazine.
Jonna Mendez is a former Central Intelligence Agency Chief of Disguise.A former Chief of Disguise in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service, Ms. Mendez is also a specialist in clandestine photography using subminiature cameras. Her 27- year career, for which she earned CIA’s Intelligence commendation Medal, included operational disguise and photo responsibilities in the most hostile theaters of the Cold War, from Havana to Moscow to Beijing and ultimately into the Oval Office. She is currently a fine arts photographer, author, lecturer and consultant on intelligence matters. She worked with her husband in writing Spy Dust: A True Story of Espionage and Romance, and the book ARGO. They are currently writing Moscow Rules, to be published in autumn of 2018.....MORE