Please join me in considering the recent award-winning film, 'Argo', as I continue to address the involvement of the intelligence community in movies. In this three-part series of posts we will contemplate a fascinating saga of a CIA deception operation in which script and reality literally intertwined.
Interesting as the operation was, however, it is not my primary point to address. My point is to cite the saga as an example of the intelligence community, or IC, tampering in science fiction, and invite readers to consider the extents some may suffer from short-sightedness when attempting to analyze such tampering. I suggest that interested parties would be well served to consider there are many potential reasons the IC might have a presence not only in the sci fi genre, but in ufology and similar such other media, far beyond the reasons typically discussed. The 'Argo' saga provides us with just such a circumstance for review.
In order to proceed with such considerations, we must first take a look at what, for those unaware, was the apparent remarkable execution of a brilliant deception operation. The artist, both literally and figuratively, was Antonio J. 'Tony' Mendez, who described himself as “a painter first and a spy second.” When not committing his visions to canvas, Mr. Mendez served in the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Science and Technology of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Tony Mendez was an expert at physically moving people in and out of otherwise hostile regions and conditions, work known within the IC as infiltration and exfiltration. He was called upon in December of 1979 to help with an operation eventually declassified in 1997 by the Clinton administration.
The challenge in 1979 was related to the infamous November takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran. Hostages would be held for some 444 days before their release in January of 1981 but, at the time Mendez was contacted in December, 1979, there was yet another problem at hand. In addition to the dozens of Americans being held at the embassy by Iranians, Mendez was informed there were an additional six Americans, five of which had worked at the embassy, who evaded capture and were hiding with the help of Canadian diplomats. The CIA wanted Mendez to assist in somehow safely bringing the six from Tehran back to the West.
Mendez described the 1979-80 operation in his work, 'A Classic Case of Deception, CIA Goes Hollywood'. The piece was posted in 2007 on the CIA website and is labeled a historical document. Mendez reported developing an elaborate scheme in which he posed as a filmmaker in order to create cover stories for the endangered six and successfully exfiltrate them from Iran.
Mendez proceeded to set up a CIA-funded Hollywood production company, aptly naming it Studio Six. He also enrolled the assistance of a seasoned Hollywood makeup artist to help him navigate the film industry.
A science fiction script was obtained, based on a 1967 Roger Zelazny award-winning novel, 'Lord of Light'. Scenes included settings of rough terrain and markets as found in and around Tehran. Mendez found such scenes advantageous to his plan to visit Iran under the guise of searching for locations to shoot the film.
The 'Lord of Light' fantasy storyline involved aliens, futuristic humans and gods. Advanced technology was also involved. The story delved into philosophy and metaphysics, contained overtones of Buddhism, Hinduism and reincarnation, and built up to a cosmic war waged for all the marbles. Would we expect anything less?
The script was subsequently titled 'Argo' and included the accompanying tag line, “A Cosmic Conflagration.” Mendez explained how money was flashed around Hollywood, events were conducted and press releases were published in trade magazines. Posters were made, business cards were printed and resumes were created, all for the production of a movie that he never had any intention whatsoever of actually making.
Mendez and an accomplice flew separately to Tehran in January, 1980, claiming to be leading a Canadian production team searching for a place to film 'Argo'. With the continued help of the Canadian government, Mendez met with the six Americans in hiding, supplied them with alternative identities and provided them with Canadian passports. The resumes supported their cover stories.
Posing as a Canadian film crew while the American embassy was under siege, the entourage successfully navigated the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, boarded Swissair and flew from Iran to Switzerland. The entire operation, from start to finish, amazingly took only about a month and a half to complete.