'James Bond' of county honored

April 03, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

ANNAPOLIS - There were no parades, celebrations or other displays of public appreciation for Antonio J. "Tony" Mendez after he led a covert mission to spirit six Americans from Tehran in the early days of the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.

Mendez, a Knoxville resident, didn't mind. Being a CIA agent, he knew the veil of secrecy, above all else, had to be guarded. So the spy remained silent, even as the nation gave credit to others for the escape.

"Humility is part of the game," said Mendez, 57, who retired from the agency seven years ago after 25 years of service.

That changed Thursday when the Maryland General Assembly publicly honored Mendez, whose story of disguises, forged passports and false identities seemed like something straight out of "Mission: Impossible."


"We're here to correct a part of American history," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, in a speech to the House of Delegates.

Mendez was welcomed to the House and Senate chambers with standing ovations, received proclamations, spoke with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and chatted with lawmakers who wanted to know about the silent servant the history books have missed.

"He's a true American patriot and a hero," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Glendening called Mendez "the James Bond of Washington County" who might not get the same attention as sports figures and movie stars.

"What we have here is a real hero who has gone unrecognized, for obvious reasons, for quite some time," Glendening said.

Mendez, a soft-spoken man who is also an award-winning painter, seemed overwhelmed by the attention.

"Today is special. It is the most special moment I've had since this started," Mendez said.

It all started last September, when the CIA honored Mendez with a "Trailblazer" award given to 50 agents for their ground-breaking efforts during the agency's first 50 years. At the time the agency permitted a fuller telling of the daring Iran rescue story.

"I would have taken my knowledge of this operation to my grave had it not been up to the CIA to talk about it," he said.

In November of 1979, followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seizing more than 60 Americans and demanding that President Jimmy Carter send back the deposed Shah of Iran.

But six Americans were able to flee the embassy and were hidden by Canadian officials.

Mendez, an artist and master of disguise, was called in by the CIA to save the six fugitives. The plan he developed: He would fly into Tehran, disguised as an Irish filmmaker, and leave the country with the others posing as a group of Canadians scouting movie locations for a sci-fi thriller.

The deception was so elaborate that the CIA created actual Hollywood offices, set up a telephone line, printed business cards and even had ads published in entertainment newspapers for the film called "Argo."

The Americans in Tehran also had work to do, with Mendez's assistance. One woman became a sketch artist. One man become a camera operator. Another man donned a flamboyant director's costume, complete with a scarf and dark sunglasses.

In addition, the Americans had to be schooled in Canadian culture, including learning about their Canadian "hometowns" and developing Canadian accents.

"You had an extraordinary situation where you had six people who were not trained in clandestine acts," Mendez said.

The ruse worked. The group made their way to the airport, boarded a Swissair flight - after a temporary but gut-wrenching delay - and flew to freedom.

Henry Lee Schatz, one of those freed in the mission, said Mendez's heroic effort should be a reminder to those quick to criticize the government.

"A lot of people don't appreciate there are a lot of different things public servants do," said Schatz, who lives in Severna Park, Md.

When the group and Mendez returned home, the official story was that the Canadian officials played the biggest role in the rescue. Poole said he had known Mendez for years and never heard of his CIA work or involvement in the rescue operation until last year's award.

"Up until now, the truth has not been known," Poole said.

Asked if he really would have taken such a stirring tale to his grave, Mendez smiled and said, "I've got even more."

The Herald-Mail Articles