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CIA Agent, Hero of 'Argo' Visits St. Louis Park Synagogue

Tony Mendez smuggled six American diplomats out of revolutionary Iran in 1980.

Monday night, St. Louis Park got visit from a national hero who spent much of his life in the shadows of the Cold War.

Former CIA agent Tony Mendez and his wife, former CIA agent Jonna Mendez, visited a standing room-only crowd at Beth El synagogue as part of a nationwide speaking tour promoting Mr. Mendez's latest memoir about the rescue of six American diplomats who had escaped the 1979 embassy siege in Tehran, Iran. That rescue mission is the basis for the award-winning thriller "Argo," staring Ben Affleck as Mendez.

That daring mission—for which he received the agency's highest medal—was but one small part of a 25-year career with the agency, where Mendez rose to become one of its most influential officers and executives. For all these achievements, Mendez's espionage career started out in much more humble surroundings.

It was 1965, and Mendez and his first wife were living with their young family in Denver, CO, when Mendez saw an ad in the Denver Post calling for "artists to work abroad for the U.S. Navy."

"I was a young father with small kids. My wife and I were sort of surviving," he told Patch in an interview on Monday. "I was working shifts (as an artist) in the Martin Marietta plant. We sold Christmas trees. We did whatever we could to get by." 

Intrigued by the possibilities of travel and the generous benefits, Mendez responded to the ad. Soon enough, he found himself in a down-market motel on the outskirts of the city, across the table from a Sam Spade type wielding a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and an ID card in the other bearing the words "Central Intelligence Agency."

"He said 'Son, this isn't the Navy,'" Mendez recalled. "I told him, 'I didn't think it was.'"

Mendez signed on as a forger, using his artistic talents to fabricate documents, disguises, and identities for agents as part of the agency's gadget labs. (A scene in Argo makes reference to Mendez's skills, showing Ben Affleck hand-painting a false visa stamp in the passports of the diplomats he'd arrived to rescue) Within 10 years of joining the CIA, he'd become so good at his job he was named the agency's Chief of Disguise and charged with overhauling how the agency concealed its agents' identities all over the world.

At Monday's talk, he ascribed his rise and his later success to a simple, if challenging, axiom: "You strive. The alternative is to fail. You have good ideas, and you have fun while you execute them," he said.

"I think you came out of (a hardscrabble childhood in) the deserts of Nevada with a little something extra in your spine," Jonna Mendez replied.

Before his Iranian escapade, Mendez spent seven years in South Asia. He specialized in the art of "exfiltrations"—operations to smuggle spies and secret turncoats out of delicate situations once their cover began to wear thin. Over his career, Mendez participated in, ran, or supervised more than 150 of these operations.

"You made a contract with these people (defectors)," Mendez explained. "Someone would turn traitor, steal enemy’s secrets for us, and when it came time to retire them, we’d promise to bring them out along with their families."

Exfiltration operations were just as integral to spying as recruiting agents and smuggling information, and every bit as dangerous. In one of Argo's final scenes, Affleck and the six fugitive diplomats arrive at the Tehran airport for their flight out. After a tense wait, their flight lifts off just as revolutionary thugs arrive to arrest them. While the chase scene never happened in real life, Mendez said, he appreciated the scene for conveying the fears gripping his chest as his group made their way out of the country. 

"It's my favorite scene," he said. "Never mind we weren't being chased at the moment. It felt like we were about to be chased."

Intense experiences can warp how we bond with each other. Soldiers often speak of how the experience of combat forged iron bonds between them and their fellow G.I.s. Peace Corps volunteers who go on to lead very different lives back home sometimes remain life-long friends. For Mendez, though, it was a work-a-day experience to watch other CIA agents pick his charges up from the airport and whisk them away from his life, forever, in the name of operational security. 

At Beth El, Jonna Mendez said she and Tony Mendez would never have remained in contact with the Tehran six if Mr. Mendez and rescued diplomat Bob Anders had not found themselves on the same Washington, D.C., subway platform some years after the events of Argo. Anders didn't even know Mendez's real name, and repeatedly shouted the false name Mendez had used when interacting with him ("Kevin") until Mendez recognized just who was causing the commotion. Thanks to that chance meeting the Mendezes and the six former diplomats now have regular reunions, Mrs. Mendez said.

"Some of (the agents he exfiltrated) were the dregs of the earth," Mr. Mendez said. "I didn’t have an emotional attachment at all to them, but I had a professional attachment of some kind."

Still, he added, "some of the longest-standing relationships I have with people were started as someone helping them in the middle of the night in an odd place in the world. You can’t avoid having some kind of attachment in a place like that."

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