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Area offered look at story behind ‘Argo’

Antonio and Jonna Mendez to speak in Steubenville on April 9

March 24, 2013
By ROSS GALLABRESE - Executive editor , The Herald-Star

STEUBENVILLE - Tri-State Area residents will have an opportunity to get an inside look at the story behind the Academy Award-winning film "Argo" when Antonio and Jonna Mendez speak at the Steubenville High School auditorium.

The husband-and-wife team, who had combined service of more than 50 years with the Central Intelligence Agency before they retired, will bring their presentation to town at 7:30 p.m. April 9 as part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series.

Tony Mendez is the CIA officer who orchestrated the rescue, or exfiltration, of six American diplomats who had escaped when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun by Iranian militant students on Nov. 4, 1979. Canada provided refuge to the six until late January 1980 when Mendez and another CIA officer disguised them as members of a film crew working on a fake science-fiction film - "Argo" -and took them out of Iran aboard a commercial flight that departed from Tehran's Mehrabad Airport.

Article Photos

TO SPEAK — Antonio and Jonna Mendez will share their experiences of working for the CIA at 7:30 p.m. April 9 in the Steubenville High School auditorium. The presentation is part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series. - Contributed

Ben Affleck, who also directed the real "Argo," portrayed Tony Mendez in the film.

"We love the movie," Tony Mendez said during a telephone interview last week. "The film is great for getting the right tone, the right feel for what we had to deal with."

Long kept a classified operation, Mendez described the rescue of the six in his book "The Master of Disguise, My Secret Life in the CIA," which was written with Malcolm McConnell and first published in 1999. He tells an expanded version in the book "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History," which was written with Matt Baglio and published shortly before the movie was released in October.

The book offers a detailed look at the entire process involved in the rescue of the six, from the minutes right before the embassy fell through a clandestine barbecue and reunion in the summer of 1980. The movie, on the other hand, concentrates on the the actual operation.

"When you make a movie, it's a given that they are going to leave some things out," Jonna Mendez said of "Argo." "It's also a given that they are going to add things - the bells and whistles of Hollywood."

Affleck and George Clooney joined with Grant Heslov to produce "Argo." Their efforts, and Affleck's direction, helped the film win best picture when the Oscars were presented on Feb. 24. While most Hollywood observers were stunned when Affleck was not nominated for best director, "Argo" also received Oscars for editing and for best adapted screenplay, which went to Chris Terrio.

Terrio's honor came as no surprise to Jonna Mendez.

"We had the pleasure of hosting him for about a week," she said. "He knew the whole story."

Near the end of "Argo," the movie, for example, Iranian forces discover that the fake film crew has boarded a Swissair flight and chase the airplane down the runway while Affleck's Mendez watches from his window seat as the 747 takes off. In the book, they boarded a Swissair DC-8, just like the other passengers, and there was no chase. Those frightful final few moments on the ground in Iran were Terrio's way of showing just how harrowing an experience the exfiltration actually was.

"The chase scene, everyone knows instinctively that it's an addition," Jonna Mendez explained. "Tony tells how scared they were, how their knees were wobbly. Even once they were in the air, they were worried that the Iranians would scramble their F-4 jets that we had sold them. So, the writer throws in the chase scene at the airport to help show that terror."

While Mendez and the CIA helped lay the plans for the rescue of the six, the operation would not have been possible without the help of the Canadian government. The powers that be in Ottawa helped facilitate the production of the fake documentation that was needed for the plan to be a success. That included obtaining Canadian passports to help provide cover to the diplomats -no small feat, when you consider that the Canadians had to make an exception to their own law to make that possible,

An act of Parliament was required, and all of those workings were carefully orchestrated by Prime Minister Joe Clark. The process went much more smoothly than some at the time had anticipated.

"The kind of things that are difficult are the bureaucratic things they throw up in Washington," Tony Mendez explained. "Can you imagine the Canadians coming to Washington and asking us for an exception? How long do you think that would take? Sometimes, smaller is better."

Jonna and Tony Mendez know what they are talking about. Tony, who was recruited into the CIA's Technical Services Division (now the Office of Technical Service) in 1965, is the agency's former chief of disguise. He won the Intelligence Star for Valor for his role in the rescue of the six from Tehran. By the time he retired in 1990, he also earned the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction. On the 50th anniversary of the CIA, he was one of 50 officers chosen from all who worked at the CIA during its first 50 years to receive the Trailblazer Medallion.

Jonna, meanwhile, served 27 years as an officer in the technical services division and as chief of disguise.

They are founding board members of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

She explained that their typical presentation includes discussion as well as videos to help demonstrate the type of work that they have done. One of the videos features a look at disguises and things that can be done to modify appearances. Another will be a trailer for "Argo" and discussion about the movie, while a third part of the presentation typically is a look at technical services.

"It explains what the office of ours did," Jonna explained.

"We like to tell people we were the Q Branch, the gadget people," she added, referring to the section that produces the fictional gadgets in the James Bond movies. "If you needed to bug something, that was us. If you needed to hide a message in a dead rat, that's what we did."

The two say they have seen many changes in their former business over the years.

"In any kind of war, clandestine or otherwise, you have to have a response," Tony explained. "In Iran, the rules of engagement were not recognizable."

"The rules of diplomacy, the rules of diplomatic immunity, did not apply there," Jonna added. "If the Canadian diplomats who were hosting the houseguests would have been found out, they would have been captured and tortured. The game changed, and it remains changed today. With terrorists, there are no rules.

"The espionage community has taken on narcotics, which was never a part of our role," she added. "It's very different from traditional espionage rules. It wasn't all about going to cocktail parties, if was about protecting yourself, and you had to know how to shoot. As two chiefs of disguise, it really picked up. Disguise can be a form of protection."

In "Master of Disguise," Tony describes operations he conducted in Southeast Asia, Bangkok and other locales, work that paid dividends as his career progressed.

"I was able to see problems that we could solve. We were able to take those lessons right to Moscow and be in the belly of the beast at that time," he added.

Reserved tickets for the April 9 presentation cost $20. General admission tickets cost $15. Tickets are available at the Herald-Star office, 401 Herald Square, Steubenville; by calling (740) 283-4711; or by visiting the newspaper's website, Copies of the book "Argo" are available for purchase at the Herald-Star during regular business hours.

A very limited number of VIP tickets remain available at a cost of $150 each. The VIP package includes a private reception with Tony and Jonna Mendez at the Garrett House on Fourth Street; a choice of either an autographed copy of the book "Argo" or a DVD copy of the film; a photograph with the couple; shuttle service to and from the high school; and premiere seating for the presentation. Information can be obtained by contacting the chamber at (740) 282-6226.

Major sponsors for the evening include the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Eastern Gateway Community College.

Special support is being provided by Bayberry Bed and Breakfast, Apollo Pro Cleaning, Piergallini Catering, Steubenville City Schools, Newbrough Photography, Thrifty Car Rental and Dave D'Anniballe of D'Anniballe and Co. CPAs.

"We are inviting the public to be a part of another memorable evening. This lecture series gives everyone who attends an opportunity to hear firsthand the experiences, thoughts and accomplishments of our prestigious speakers," said Sue Hershey, president of the chamber of commerce. "We are so fortunate to have Antonio Mendez, a highly decorated, retired CIA agent, come to our region and share his story. As a bonus, Mrs. Mendez, also an experienced and now-retired CIA agent, will complement Mr. Mendez's presentation with some of her stories and experiences.

"With the support of our generous sponsors, the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Eastern Gateway Community College, and our media sponsor, the Herald-Star, we are able to bring speakers to our community who will enlighten, inspire and provide an entertaining evening."

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