Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Spy truth stranger than fiction

Six embassy staff running for their lives and a bogus Hollywood film — Ben Affleck's movie Argo has it all, and it's straight from the CIA's mouth
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 21 October 2012

As the recent murder of the American ambassador in Libya demonstrates, diplomacy can be a deadly business. According to the Vienna ­Convention, relations between nation states depend on an abstract concept — that embassies are an immune corner of a foreign capital that is forever theirs. “But really, what is an embassy but a ­fiction?” asks Chris Terrio, the screenwriter of Argo, a new film about deadly diplomacy. “As long as everyone pretends this imaginary thing is there, then it exists. The moment someone isn’t playing along, it all falls apart.”

The Iran hostage crisis is one of the most notorious examples of a nation’s wilful disregard for the rules. On November 4, 1979, surfing the wave of revolutionary zeal that had swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power, a “student” mob stormed the US embassy in Tehran, seizing its personnel. Accused of being stooges of the despised deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — fêted by Kissinger, serenaded by Sinatra, at the time undergoing treatment in a $900-a-day New York hospital suite — 52 Americans were to endure a living hell. Held captive for 444 days, they were abused, blindfolded and subjected to mock executions. Their forced denunciations of their homeland were to become a familiar charade on news shows.
Meanwhile, a sideshow was developing. Washington realised some staff had escaped. The consular building, across the compound from the embassy proper, had been spared the brunt of the frontal assault. During the madness, several staff had simply exited through a back door onto a deserted street. Five of them went on the run: the consular chief, Bob Anders; Mark and Cora Lijeck; and Joe and Kathy Stafford. They had been joined by a sixth refugee, the agricultural attaché, Henry Lee Schatz.
The byways of Tehran, where murderous Revolu­tionary Guards roamed, were clearly no place for fugitive Americans. Unable to make headway in the embassy crisis, the CIA seized the opportunity. It would bring the six out. The mission to “exfiltrate” them has gone down as one of the most bizarre covert operations in the agency’s history. Code-named Argo, it is now the subject of a film, directed by Ben Affleck, and a book by Antonio “Tony” Mendez, the agent responsible for the rescue.
Now 71, Mendez is enjoying retirement at his home in rural Maryland. In the film, Affleck not only directs, but stars as him. “I said, ‘I don’t know if he’s good-looking enough to play me,’  ” Mendez deadpans. Having lived a life in the shadows, he speaks quietly and slowly, as if every utterance has withstood rigorous self-censorship. His house is the same one he was living in 33 years ago. Mendez had already spent 90 straight hours working on a plan to fake the death of the shah, one that had come to nought. (The shah would oblige him in July 1980.) He was painting in his studio, venting his frustration, when news came through of the six fugitives. For this job, he was perfect. He had risen from entry level as an “artist-validator” — a forger — to become the CIA’s head of worldwide disguise. He had once ushered an African-American agent through Laos disguised as a Caucasian. He had exfiltrated a KGB luminary through Asia. More pertinent, seven months previously, Mendez had lifted a key Iranian agent, Raptor, out of Tehran.
'The first thing I did was read the books and double-check, because I had a hard time believing it was actually true'

Back in Iran, the six had gone to ground, crashing at the homes of friendly diplomats in the wealthy suburb of Shemiran. By the end of the month, they had split themselves between the residences of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his immigration officer, John Sheardown, who harboured them at great personal risk. Sure enough, the screws were turning. The homes were under suspicion. The Komiteh — the revolution’s tub-thumpers — had pieced together the six’s identities from frantically shredded documents. While the CIA kicked around harebrained schemes, such as having them cycle 500 miles to ­Turkey, Mendez insisted on a more prosaic exit. With bogus Canadian identities, fabricated with the collusion of the Canadian authorities, they would leave via ­Mehrabad International Airport, into the daily chaos of which scheduled European flights were still running.
Normally a stickler for the inconspicuous, Mendez chose a cover story that was to make the escapade deeply intriguing: the six would pose as members of a ­film-production company. “We did what they call in magic ‘misdirection’,” he says. “Instead of trying to hide, we put it right out in front of them.” In downtown ­Tehran, where lynched bodies swung from lampposts, a ­Canadian film company would purport to have dropped in to location-scout for a family-friendly motion picture.
The plan — “the best bad idea we’ve got”, as it is described in the film — was not as loopy as it sounds. Laughably, amid the unravelling terror, their assets ­frozen by America, local authorities in Iran were actually wooing western business. “They didn’t have any hard currency,” Mendez explains. “If somebody came in from Hollywood and laid a few coins on the table, I think you could have got whatever you wanted.” Crucially, in the wake of Star Wars, whose exteriors were shot in Tunisia, exotic desertscapes were all the rage as sci-fi settings.
Mendez enlisted a buddy in Hollywood, the renowned make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman), creator of Mr Spock’s ears and an Oscar-winner for Planet of the Apes. An army veteran, Chambers moonlighted for the CIA. Creating false identities alone would not make the story stand up to close scrutiny. To “backstop” it, they would have to put the fake film into fake production. Even for a Canadian project, all roads led to Hollywood. The film would be run out of LA.
Mendez flew there and, together with a special-effects colleague, Bob Sidell, took over offices vacated by Michael Douglas after The China Syndrome wrapped. Cheekily, they called their outfit Studio Six, and started trawling the slush pile of unproduced scripts. There they hit “the mother lode”: the screenplay for a space romp called Lord of Light, filled with eastern imagery. They changed the title to a snappier one, Argo — after the mythical vessel that transported Jason on his quest for the golden fleece, a name that also allowed them to be the punchline to a knock-knock joke: “Argo who?” “Argo f*** yourself.” Studio Six took out ads in Variety announcing Argo as its new movie. It fielded phone calls. It threw a launch party.
Days later, when Mendez and a CIA associate known only as Julio flew into Tehran, they were carrying six Canadian passports and documentation for a screenwriter, art director, associate producer, cameraman, transport co-­ordinator and locations manager. Except that Mendez was no longer Mendez. He was an Irish film producer, Kevin Costa Harkins. The devil was in the detail. Before leaving, he furnished himself with “a rich collection of pocket litter, right down to matchbooks for the Brown Derby, where Studio Six had hosted a bon voyage dinner for me”.
Affleck admits he was incredulous when Terrio’s script reached him, developed from a 2007 article in Wired magazine by the journalist Joshuah Bearman. “The first thing I did was grab the documentaries and read the books and double-check, because I had a hard time believing it was actually true,” he says. “But, lo and behold, it was.” He has not always been treated kindly by La-La Land, and one of the joys of his film is that it works as a Hollywood satire as well as a political thriller — not least thanks to a wily producer character played by the venerable Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel, a rewriting of Sidell), who nearly steals the picture. Yet, as befits a film that lists George Clooney and Grant Heslov as producers — men who brought you Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck — Argo also begins with a history lesson. “I felt it was important to give ­context to the story, so it didn’t just begin with bearded maniacs outside the embassy,” Affleck says. The shah, we are reminded, was an oppressive autocrat imposed on democratic Iran by America and Britain in 1953.
You know the six are going to get out. History tells us so. On January 28, 1980, after nearly three months in hiding, the group boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich. Save for the reluctant Joe Stafford, they played their parts to the max. “The Hollywood cover was something for everyone to focus on and enjoy,” Mendez recalls. “We really did have a party coming through the airport.” Bob Anders almost overdid it, shirt open, medallion flapping, “strutting around with the chutzpah of a Wilshire Boulevard stud”. For dramatic purposes, Affleck’s film prefers a tense, Midnight Express-like chase through departures, one of several differences between life and art. (A harrowing scouting expedition to the Tehran bazaar didn’t happen; and ­Mendez is shown acting alone, without Julio.) “But generally, I’m very happy,” stresses Mendez, who served as a consultant to the film. “Where it didn’t match exactly, it certainly has the spirit of the real story.”
What is surprising is that the Iranians didn’t find the Americans. As in the film, they remained indoors, indulging in western delicacies while the revolution raged outside. “They adopted a scorched-earth policy on alcohol — make sure they were not going to leave any behind,” Mendez says. Yet their whereabouts had become an open secret in the close-knit diplomatic community, some of whom would drop in for dinner. Domestic staff, too, were aware of the “house guests”.
Notably, although westerners are conspicuously absent in the film, Tehran was swamped by the world’s media at the time. (The ayatollah was interviewed by Mike Wallace for TV’s 60 Minutes.) “It was an odd thing, because the revolution, and particularly the hostage crisis, were meant as stagecraft,” Bearman says. “They didn’t want to throw a revolution and have nobody see it, so at the same time they’re chanting ‘Death to America!’, the ministry of information was inviting American journalists in.” Indeed, it didn’t take long for a Washington-based Canadian reporter, Jean Pelletier, to uncover the where­abouts of the six. He was persuaded to sit on the story. Even the local rag in Schatz’s home town, Post Falls, Idaho, ran a front-page piece disclosing that their native son was holed up in Tehran — a staggering revelation that, pre-internet, just slipped through the cracks.
Ultimately, the media were used by the CIA to provide one mother of a smokescreen. There were CIA agents operating out of the US embassy, three of them. Mindful of repercussions, the agency duly excised Argo — and America — from the official narrative of the rescue. It became known instead as the Canadian Caper, a smuggling exercise run by Ambassador Taylor (who left on the next plane out) that prompted a huge outpouring of popular gratitude from the USA towards its northern neighbour. “They took advantage of that, as we suggested,” Mendez muses. “The Canadian ambassador became an international hero. He lived that cover famously.”
Canada will not necessarily appreciate the rejig. (Pelletier’s 1981 book, toeing the official line, was, Mendez writes, “wildly off the mark”.) Indeed, the renewed interest in the hostage crisis has placed Mendez in an awkward position all round — a habitual disavower of his work, a man whose Intelligence Star was presented in secret, must now talk publicly. It wasn’t his idea: the CIA “twisted my arm”, he says. In 1997, on the agency’s 50th anniversary, when the Argo case was declassified, he was encouraged to write about it. “I said, ‘What? That’s our best secret — why would you give it away?’ The director at the time, George Tenet, was adamant. He said, ‘We have to give a fair audit of our performance.’ Never mind that the Canadians were left high and dry.”
Mendez duly devoted a chapter to Argo in his 2000 memoir, The Master of Disguise. By the time of Bearman’s Wired article, however, the CIA were no longer the villains of popular entertainment, but the good guys, stars of Emmy-winning TV series. For Mendez, old habits die hard. Even today, he refers to John Chambers as “Jerome Calloway”. “You have sources, and you treat them in a certain way, right?”
Argo wouldn’t have ended there, Mendez reveals. The ­production would have actually begun “filming” in Iran, a Trojan horse for a special-forces oper­ation to spring the hostages, with Delta commandos masquerading as technical crew. “We were still scheming that idea seriously in the Oval Office after I came back. It really would have worked.” Instead came Jimmy Carter’s disastrous military rescue attempt of April 1980. Argo was shut down.
The hostages were eventually freed, coming home in January 1981 after billions of dollars of Iranian financial assets were released by America. But the effects of the crisis were ­profound: it reshaped Middle Eastern politics, brought a new tactic to the negotiating table, hostage-taking, and cost the equivocating Carter his presidency. At the end of the film, the real Carter praises Mendez: “One of the 50 top operatives the CIA has ever had.” Mendez sighs: “Carter is a kind man and a good soul, but was probably not a good president.”
Mendez is endlessly fasci­nating. Three decades on, Iran is public enemy number one again, engaged in a standoff that, he fears, won’t be resolved without “a new system” of engagement. He adds that, given the tools, ex­filtrating Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London would be a piece of cake. He has a grumble about Tom Clancy, whose thrillers are spoilt by incorrect application of spy ­jargon. Yet there’s an air of mystery about him, a suggestion that “Tony Mendez” might be a persona, one perfected for circumstances such as our interview, another “misdirect”.
“We used to say, ‘This can’t be the real CIA, they couldn’t possibly be so inept,’  ” he says. (They did fail to spot a revo­lution.) “‘The real one must be over the horizon.’ Truth is always much more boring than you’d expect.” He laughs. “But I love the idea that the real Tony Mendez is still out there. You’ve seen magic... I might appear on your doorstep in 20 minutes.”
Argo is released on November 7. Times+ members can see it first and free at one of 18 preview screenings from Saturday, Oct 27, until Thursday, Nov 1. Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio Mendez is out on Thursday (Penguin £7.99)

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