Tony Mendez was the former chief of disguise and chief of the Graphics and Authentication Division in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service. He spent 25 years with the agency, including undercover work in the most important theaters of the Cold War. He is best known for conducting the secret rescue of six U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. That operation was the basis of the film “Argo,” starring Ben Affleck as Mendez, which won best picture at the 2013 Academy Awards. In 2014, Mendez and his wife, Jonna Mendez, also a former CIA officer, discussed their time at the CIA during the Iran hostage crisis.
Are you surprised that Iran remains a foreign policy problem 35 years later?
TONY MENDEZ (TM): Yeah. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure — got to have villains you can love to hate when you go to work.
JONNA MENDEZ (JM): But the Iranians were not villains, initially. They were good friends of the United States. We have met so many Iranians in America who love America and Americans. I think no one could anticipate how this would play out. Just like no one could anticipate that the Ayatollah was going to step in and cause that firestorm.
What was your role in Operation Eagle Claw?
TM: I was responsible for the daily transformation of all the intelligence officers and their assets. You know what happened with the six who escaped from the embassy, but most people don’t know what the U.S. role was [regarding] the use of manpower, boots on the ground kind of stuff. [We scouted] potential landing sites — everything from square one. My piece of it [was] everything, soup to nuts.
JM: Tony [gave] cover legends and disguises to CIA operatives who were going in [to] set up an infrastructure so we could get information and establish communications. It was really involved. They were getting a lot of trucks together — and you don’t just disguise people, you disguise things. So, the trucks had to look like Iranian military trucks. You can’t have the Delta Force in these trucks going into Tehran looking like U.S. soldiers. So, there were uniforms and insignia so they would look like Iranian soldiers. There was all of the preparation for the people who went in who did the ground coverage. They went in a small plane to take soil samples to see if those big C-130s could land there. We had to put down landing lights in the desert that were pretty much invisible in the day time.
TM: Yeah, it was the first time they wanted to try to fly a C-130 using [infrared] goggles.
JM: You have absolutely no depth perception when you are wearing IR goggles. It’s like you are on another planet. I am glad I wasn’t on one of those planes. But they were involved in all of these, sort of, ‘housekeeping’ chores in Operation Eagle Claw — getting the scene set.
What are your thoughts about the mission then and now?
TM: We knew coming in we weren’t any damn good at [special operations]. We would always opt to go with a British plan because they were better at it.
JM: You had so many elements working together, elements that didn’t work together easily. You had the Marine Corps, the Air Force, the Army and the Navy. And they are supposed to be on the same communications links and supposed to be flying the same planes but using different rules. So, the fact that there wasn’t a joint communications center highlighted some of the difficulties of trying to fuse together this ‘Ace Team.’ That same team was inclined to ignore intelligence — this is maybe a cheap shot after the fact — they were told, for instance, that the first stop was on a smuggler’s route. That wasn’t a good place to make that stop. They were told — they knew — there was a weather window. And that window actually closed March 31, so the weather was going to be against them.
JM: Yeah … sandstorms. And things driving some of these decisions were not mission-related things. There was politics going on, from the president on down. So, [it] probably didn’t’ surprise [anyone] that this terrible, terrible thing happened.
TM: They undersold the helicopter for starters. They were afraid Iranian radar would catch them, and so they tried to keep their profile low, and it turns out that was exactly the wrong thing to do. They had to have at least six helicopters and they went with five.
JM: So there was a lot of wishful thinking going on. They were hoping, on so many levels, they were hoping for the best. It didn’t happen. Tony said JSOC was the one good thing that came out of this.
As we approach the 35th anniversary of this national crisis, is there anything you think the intelligence community should remember?
TM: ‘Small is beautiful.’ I was remarking about the Canadians and some others who were able to do things because they weren’t so top heavy. I think when I look back 35 years, one should consider that small is beautiful.”
JM: If you look at the Middle East today, you have to wonder 35 years from now what you are going to be looking at. It’s almost like Iran lit a match, that revolution, and it starts getting political but it always was political. The movie makes it clear. The book makes it clear. It was about oil, and it still is. I mean even today, right now, the Kurdish part of Iraq is a big oil producing area and ISIS groups want it. This thing has a long way to go before it plays itself out.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
TM: An individual can have a good idea, and that idea could be on the desk of the president with four easy steps, if it had the right kind of pizazz. That proved to be the case over and over again in my experience.
JM: And it was the case in Argo. There were four levels that it went through, which when you think about it is amazing. It is amazing how a good idea can move up like that in this government system that we have. Like floating a balloon, you have to put it out there and see if it rises.