June 29, 2019

GOING THE OTHER WAY:

The Great Escape: How the CIA used a fake science fiction film to sneak six Americans out of revolutionary Iran. The declassified story that became Ben Affleck's Argo. (JOSHUAH BEARMAN, April 2007, Wired)

Heading west, the Staffords, the Lijeks, Anders, and several Iranians avoided detection. They had almost reached the British embassy when they encountered yet another demonstration. A local in their group gave some quick advice -- "Don't go that way" -- and then she melted into the crowd. The group zigzagged to Anders' nearby apartment, at one point sneaking single-file past an office used by the komiteh, one of the gun-wielding, self-appointed bands of revolutionaries that controlled much of Tehran.

They locked the door and switched on Anders' lunch-box radio, a standard-issue "escape and evade" device that could connect with the embassy's radio network. Marines were squawking frantically, trying to coordinate with one another. Someone calling himself Codename Palm Tree was relaying a bird's-eye view of the takeover: "There are rifles and weapons being brought into the compound." This was Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attach who was watching the scene from his sixth-floor office in a building across the street from the compound. "They're being unloaded from trucks."

The Iran hostage crisis, which would go on for 444 days, shaking America's confidence and sinking President Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign, had begun. Americans would soon be haunted by Khomeini's grim visage, and well-armed Islamic militants would parade blindfolded hostages across the nightly news and threaten trials for the "spies" that they'd captured. Everyone remembers the 52 Americans trapped at the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that ended with a disastrous Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. But not many know the long- classified details of the CIA's involvement in the escape of the other group -- thrust into a hostile city in the throes of revolution.

By 3 o'clock that afternoon, the five people huddled in Anders' one-bedroom apartment realized they were in serious trouble. As the militants seized control, there were fewer English speakers on the radio net. Codename Palm Tree had fled. After the last holdouts in the chancery's vault radioed their surrender, the only voices coming through the box were speaking in Farsi. The embassy was lost. The escapees were on their own.

The CIA was in chaos when Tony Mendez arrived at his desk the next morning. People dashed through the halls, clutching files and papers. Desks were piling up with "flash" cables -- the highest-priority messages, reserved for wartime situations.

Mendez, 38, had been at the agency during the Vietnam War. But this seemed worse. At least then the US had another government to talk to. In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council refused to negotiate. With no diplomatic channels open, clandestine efforts were the last hope. But since the revolution had begun a year earlier, most of the CIA's intelligence infrastructure in Iran had been destroyed. As former head of the Disguise Section and current authentication chief of the CIA's Graphics and Authentication Division, Mendez oversaw logistical operations behind the tens of thousands of false identities the CIA was running. He knew there were only three field agents in Iran and that they had all been captured at the embassy.

At first, Mendez thought his job was to free the hostages. He started suiting up agents to penetrate Iran, and he spent a whirlwind 90 hours straight working on a plan called Operation Bodyguard in which a dead body double for the Shah would be used to arrange for the hostages' release. It was a gorgeous plan, he thought. But the White House rejected it.

Then, a few weeks after the takeover of the embassy, Mendez received a memorandum from the State Department marked as secret. The news was startling: Not everyone in the embassy had been captured. A few had escaped and were hiding somewhere in Tehran. Only a handful of government officials knew the details because Carter's advisers and the State Department didn't want to tip off the Iranians.

Mendez had spent 14 years in the CIA's Office of Technical Service -- the part of the spy shop known for trying to plant explosives in Fidel's cigars and wiring cats with microphones for eavesdropping. His specialty was using "identity transformation" to get people out of sticky situations. He'd once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen -- using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison -- so they could arrange a meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them with a "jack-in-the-box." An officer would wait for a moment of confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.

For the operation in Tehran, his strategy was straightforward: The Americans would take on false identities, walk right out through Mehrabad Airport, and board a plane. Of course, for this plan to work, someone would have to sneak into Iran, connect with the escapees, equip them with their false identities, and lead them to safety past the increasingly treacherous Iranian security apparatus. And that someone was him.

Posted by at June 29, 2019 7:19 AM

  

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