On March 27, students at Texas A&M’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service had a unique opportunity to hear from and question Tony Mendez, the American diplomat played by Ben Affleck in the Oscar-winning movie, “ARGO.” The film was adapted from Mendez’s books The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA and ARGO: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History as well as the article, “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Berman. It describes the rescue mission led by Mendez of six United States diplomats from Tehran, Iran, during the revolutionary Iran hostage crisis in 1979.
Mendez and his wife Jonna were on campus to give a public presentation on the story behind the movie and met with Bush School students prior to their evening appearance. Some 80 faculty, staff and students heard how the couple began their CIA careers while in their 20s, and how both eventually became “Chiefs of Disguise” for the agency.
Mendez is a former CIA technical operative, who worked as a plumber and illustrator before joining the CIA’s technical staff. He spent 25 years in the CIA, regularly falsifying documents, crafting disguises and conducting exfiltration operations. In 1979, Mendez conducted operation “Canadian caper” on which the events of ARGO are based.
The couple explained to the students the importance of disguise in intelligence work, and showed a video on just how effective disguises can be. Both agreed that it’s easier to disguise a woman as a man rather than vice versa. Tony Mendez noted that being able to create an identify that can be transformed for espionage work “…is the lifeblood of the CIA.” Jonna added that “working with gadgets and disguise will make you paranoid for the rest of your life!” The Mendezes also cited President George H. W. Bush as their favorite CIA director.
The gathering was a unique opportunity for the Bush School students to hear about daily life in and after the CIA, and a valuable introduction to the broader presentation given that evening on campus where some 2,000+ people, including President and Mrs. Barbara Bush, watched “Argo.”
Following the screening, Bush School Professor Jim Olson, also retired from the CIA, moderated a question and answer session the Mendezes who offered some insight into the film, the actors and crew, and its veracity. They were technical advisors on the movie, and Tony Mendez said the film was “about 90 percent accurate,” but noted that while it wasn’t a “direct parallel” to his life and the events, he felt that the “spirit” of the film was close to his actual experience. The CIA awarded the Intelligence Star to Mendez for his involvement in the Iranian mission. Now retired, Mendez and his wife reside in rural Maryland.