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The CIA was having a midlife crisis as it neared its 50th anniversary in 1997. A generation of spies had retired after the Cold War ended. Recruiting new blood was painfully hard; only 25 newly minted clandestine services officers had passed the test the previous year, a rock-bottom low. Times were tough at the world’s most conspicuous secret service.
So, the agency decided to cheer itself up with a ceremony celebrating 50 of its all-stars. I was covering the CIA for the New York Times and got a look at the honors list. Many had gone on to the great safe house in the sky. But one name among the living caught my eye. I picked up the phone, called the CIA’s public information office and put in a request to interview Antonio J. Mendez.
Almost no one outside the spy service had ever heard of Tony Mendez, but I’d been told that he had run one of the greatest capers in the history of the CIA.
Tony and his wife, Jonna Hiestand Mendez, both had held the title of chief of disguise at the CIA, she succeeding him. Retired, still in their 50s, they lived in rustic bliss deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, north of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Their home was a big artist’s studio, filled with neo-Impressionist canvases and a motley collection of masks. He had never talked to a reporter, or any outsider, about his CIA work. “Tony said it was hard for his lips to form the words,” Jonna Mendez said years later, “because we were so trained to not speak about these things.”
He was a pure product of Cold War America—born on November 15, 1940, in Eureka, a town of a few hundred hardy souls high up in the Diamond Mountains of Nevada. National Geographic once called it “the loneliest town on the loneliest road in America.” His father died in the silver mines when Tony was 3, and he grew up poor as dirt. His mother, the granddaughter of a prospector, decreed that he would not go down in the darkness. He would be an artist.
“I was a hood,” he told me, recounting how he had walked the streets of Denver with a ducktail haircut, a leather jacket and a rockabilly strut after dropping out of the University of Colorado at Boulder at the end of his freshman year because he was broke. But his mother’s vision held true. He eschewed the life of a hoodlum, working days on mechanical drawings for the Martin Marietta aircraft company and nights making art on commission. In 1965, his eye fell on an intriguing newspaper ad.
“Artists to Work Overseas—U.S. Navy Civilians,” it said. He answered it. The man who called back was the CIA’s regional recruiter in Salt Lake City. The job, as it developed, involved counterfeiting documents.
He had a fine hand for forgery, and spent the next 25 years at the agency’s Technical Services division, which made the tools of the spy trade: forged passports, phony IDs, bugs, wiretaps, tiny walkie-talkies, microdot film. The division also had its share of mad scientists. Infamously, it had developed poisons for the attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and at least two other foreign leaders, and it had drugged unsuspecting Americans with LSD, searching for a magic mind-control bullet.
But dosing human guinea pigs was not Mendez’s stock-in-trade. He was the man who helped to put the cloak in cloak-and-dagger. He made masks and disguises to allow CIA officers to slip past the watchful eyes of the KGB abroad, to meet foreign agents on the sly and to collect secrets cached in dead drops without being detected by counterspies. Late in the Vietnam War, as he told me, he had to help a black CIA officer meet an Asian diplomat in a city under martial law and Soviet surveillance. He asked a Hollywood makeup artist he knew to send him the masks of the stunt doubles for the actors Victor Mature and Rex Harrison. Mendez transformed the case officer and the envoy into Caucasian gentlemen. They met undeterred by roadblocks and checkpoints.
Mendez spent 14 years perfecting the art of deception before his masks made their mark on history. He helped to create the escape plan, the false identities and the brilliant disguises that let six Americans escape revolutionary Tehran, where they had been held hostage, in 1980. That story was a deep secret until we spoke in 1997. (You probably know it now: It became Argo, the movie starring Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013.)
The six Americans were State Department officers who escaped the hostage-takers holding 52 Americans and took refuge in the Canadian Embassy after Iran fell from the grip of the CIA-installed Shah into the hands of the zealous ayatollahs. The crafty Mendez put a team of spooks together with a Hollywood consultant and came up with a plan so crazy that it had to work. President Jimmy Carter approved all of it, and afterward he shook the hand of its mastermind.
Mendez set up a dummy company on a Columbia Studios backlot and cooked up a phony film production—“Argo,” after the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed to save the Golden Fleece from the Hydra-headed dragon—with a Mideast/sci-fi theme that exalted Islam. His team sold the pitch to the Iranian government. They sent their production crew to Tehran—the crew being CIA officers who would extricate the six Americans—and shipped phony documents and disguises via diplomatic pouch to facilitate the escape from the Canadian Embassy to the international airport through the chaotic streets of the city.
The six donned their masks, and they made it to a Swissair flight. Their aircraft was named Aargau, after a Swiss canton. Everything but the plane was the brainchild of Tony Mendez.
“It’s not just the makeup,” he told me that afternoon at his home on Frog Eye Road. “Disguise is not just the face you present. It’s the 6,000-year-old secrets, the capability to create illusions. The essence is illusion and deception.”
Espionage is a dirty and dangerous business. When it fails, people die. But when it succeeds, it can save lives. Tony Mendez made it work with a magician’s flair. He was a con man for his country.