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Mendez, 78, Dies; C.I.A. Officer Celebrated in the Film ‘Argo’

Mendez in a photograph taken around the time he orchestrated the rescue of six
American diplomats who were trapped in Iran in 1980.
CreditJonna Mendez

was a blind ad in a newspaper that caught Tony Mendez’s eye in 1965. The ad
(“Artists to Work Overseas — U.S. Navy Civilians”) did not identify the
employer, but it carried the whiff of adventure.

At the time, Mr.
Mendez was working for Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) in Denver, making
technical drawings of the wiring harnesses for missiles. It was not the most
exciting task.

The employer
behind the ad turned out to be the Central Intelligence Agency. And Mr.
Mendez’s artistic skills, which included hand-eye coordination that enabled him
to look at something and copy it precisely, suited the agency’s need for a
counterfeiter and forger.

And so began a
career that in time would lead Mr. Mendez, who died on Saturday at 78, to
orchestrate one of the most audacious covert operations in C.I.A. history: the rescue of six American diplomats from a tumultuous Iran
after Islamic militants had stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran on Nov.
4, 1979. The militants held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, a humiliating
foreign policy debacle that would severely undermine Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

operation, which took place in January 1980, was kept secret until 1997. It was
celebrated in a heart-pounding movie, “Argo,” released in
2012, with Ben Affleck (who also directed) portraying Mr. Mendez. The movie won
three Oscars, including for best picture, though some critics took it to task
for underplaying the vital role of the Canadians in the operation and for
inventing certain scenes, such as a chase on an airport tarmac at the end.

Before their
rescue, the six had managed to escape from a building near the American
Embassy. They were sheltered and protected for two months by Canadian
diplomats, including the country’s ambassador to Iran, Kenneth D. Taylor, who helped engineer their rescue.

Canadian and
American officials were trying to figure out how to get them out when Mr.
Mendez devised the elaborate plan that would carry the day. He had them pose as
a Canadian film crew scouting for a place in Tehran to shoot a movie. He
supplied them with fake Canadian identities and instructed them in the proper
mind-set to pass through armed Iranian security; and he led the way, pretending
to be the crew’s production manager.

Once they were
safe, all public adulation for the extraordinary rescue went to the Canadians,
who had risked their lives by harboring Americans and provided the C.I.A. with
valuable intelligence. Mr. Mendez and the C.I.A. were never mentioned.

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