Former U.S. intelligence agent Tony Mendez, architect of 'Argo' rescue, dies at 78

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Former United States Central Intelligence Agency agent Tony Mendez died Saturday, aged 78, at a Frederick, Maryland assisted living facility. Mendez is known for organizing the safe return in 1980 of several U.S. nationals who had hidden in the Canadian embassy during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Tony Mendez, left, with then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Image: CIA.

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell praised Mendez on Twitter: "Tony was one of the best officers to ever serve at CIA. His work was unique, and it help to protect our nation in significant ways. He will be missed. May he Rest In Peace."

Mendez once told The Washington Post he considered himself "an artist first." He worked as a draftsman before applying for a graphic artist job in 1965 that turned out to be at the CIA. Mendez spent most of his 25-year career at posts outside the U.S., many in Asia. He specialized in removing people from areas that had become dangerous for them, a process called "exfiltration." He studied Hollywood makeup and special effects for use in his work, later titling his memoir The Master of Disguise.

Mendez's wife Jonna Mendez, also CIA, said, "He could be Pakistani, he could be Mexican, he could be from a lot of different countries[...] It was incredible to work with my husband."

In 1979, revolutionaries took control of Iran and captured the U.S. embassy, taking dozens of people there hostage. They would be held for 444 days. Six other U.S. diplomats fled to the Canadian embassy and hid until Mendez and another agent successfully smuggled them out of the country disguised as a Canadian film crew working on a supposed movie called Argo. The events were nicknamed "the Canadian Caper" and later made into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name — Argo — in 2012, with Ben Affleck directing and playing Mendez.

For his work, Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star by then-U.S.-president Jimmy Carter, though the CIA's involvement in the Argo rescue remained a secret until 1997.

Affleck tweeted, "Tony Mendez was a true American hero. He was a man of extraordinary grace, decency, humility and kindness. He never sought the spotlight for his actions, he merely sought to serve his country. I'm so proud to have worked for him and to have told one of his stories."

According to his publicist, Mendez died of Parkinson's disease. He is survived by his wife, Jonna, three children from two marriages, two grandchildren, and his sisters. Another son has predeceased him. He has authored three books, one with his wife. A fourth, also co-written with Jonna Mendez, is due out in May.