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Former CIA Officers and Authors Tony and Jonna Mendez Speak at BC

Photo of Jonna and Tony Mendez

by Andrew Peters ’15

Former CIA officers and authors, Tony and Jonna Mendez, spoke to students of Bridgewater College on Tuesday, Sept. 10, in Cole Hall. The couple provided insight into the dangerous exfiltration of six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, which served as inspiration for the Academy Award-winning film, Argo.

Before discussing the story depicted in Argo, the Mendez duo gave some background on their lives. Both served in the CIA as masters of disguise, working as counterfeiters and forgers. Tony specialized in identity transformation. He could change anyone into someone entirely different by use of prosthetics and makeup. “We were essentially the Q office,” Jonna joked.

As the two delved deep into their story, inaccuracies within the movie Argo were referenced. Many of the real collaborators in the mission were disappointed at being left out of the film. The British were dissatisfied with their lack of representation, and the Canadians did not think that they received enough credit for their participation. To help clear up these inaccuracies, Jonna said, “the Canadians, in our eyes, were very heroic.” After being questioned about further parties angered by their depictions, Tony replied, “…well, the Iranians...”

The notion of making a fake movie as cover for the rescue of six Americans was not one that was impossible to fathom in Hollywood. For years, many movies had been sent into production to provide the mafia with ways to launder money. Hollywood had been a valuable resource for the CIA in the past and was one that Tony was keen to use again.

Tony traveled to Hollywood with $10,000 from the CIA to visit with John Chambers, well-known in Los Angeles for his work on Planet of the Apes. With the help of Chambers, Tony found a producer, placed full page advertisements in both the Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and sold Hollywood on the fake movie. Jonna was sure to note that Hollywood was so entranced with the idea of Argo that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg sent scripts to studio six for review.

Selling Argo to Hollywood was the easy part though. Getting support from the American government was more challenging. Jonna emphasized, “If [the mission] failed, the American flag would be draped all over [the failure].”

In addition to selling the CIA, the White House and Canada on the plan, Tony needed to sell it to the six Americans whose lives depended on his preparations. Since the Canadian embassy was closing, removing all six Americans was imperative. Joe Stafford, one of the Americans, resisted leaving initially, but after employing what Jonna describes as a “famous CIA tactic,” Stafford willingly left. Tony recalled, “We kept Joe up all night drinking Quattro.”

Although the director and producer of Argo needed to visually show the fear in the final scenes, the Iranians did not chase the plane down the runway as depicted in the film. Tony recalled that the real terror was that the plane would be attacked by Iranian F-4 fighter jets. Jonna added, “The book [Argo] is the true story of the operation.”

“Good ideas are like balloons; they always go up. All it takes is one person with a good idea to change history and make a difference for six people,” Jonna concluded. Both Tony and Jonna encouraged BC students to be facilitators of future good ideas.

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