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How the CIA Used a Fake Science-Fiction Film to Save Americans in Tehran

In 1979, to get six Americans out of Iran without being caught, you would need a bold plan, fake names, and an epic Hollywood cover story.

At the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, the day started out like any other. Under gray skies, the staff came in, the marines stood at their posts, and the daily crowd of anti-American protesters gathered outside the gate and chanted, "We are the people!" "Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!"

Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple who were working abroad for the first time, knew the slogans— "God is awesome! America should die! "—and had learned to work around the noise as they did their jobs. But the protest was louder today than it usually is. When some of the local workers came in and said there was "a problem at the gate," they knew this morning would be different. Soon, students who wanted to cause trouble were climbing up the walls of the embassy complex. Someone broke through the front gate, and the few intruders turned into a flood. The crowd quickly spread out across the 27-acre compound, waving Ayatollah Khomeini posters. They took the home of the ambassador and then moved on to the chancery, which was the center of the embassy and where most of the staff worked.

At first, the Lijeks hoped that no one would notice the consulate building where they worked. The ground floor was mostly empty because it had just been fixed up. Maybe no one would guess that 12 Americans, a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants, and a few dozen Iranian visa applicants were upstairs. The group was made up of a consular officer named Joseph Stafford, his wife and assistant, Kathleen, and a senior officer in the visa department named Robert Anders.

They did their best to stay calm and even keep working. But then the power went out, and everyone in the building started to get scared. The Iranian workers were ready for the worst because they knew that the revolutionary forces liked to use firing squads. "There's someone on the roof," a worker from Iran said with a shaky voice. One person could smell smoke. People started crying in the dark because they thought the militants would try to burn the building down. Outside, the roar of the crowd of people who had won got louder. There were some gunshots here and there. Time to run away.

The Americans broke the plates that were used to make visa stamps, made a plan for everyone to leave, and led everyone out the back door. The marine sergeant on duty said, "We'll leave in groups of five or six." "First, the people who live there. Then came the married people. Then what's left." The only building in the compound with a door that led to the street was the consulate building. The goal was to get about six blocks away to the British embassy.

When they opened the heavy roll-down steel doors, it was pouring rain. The street was, thank goodness, empty. One group went north, but they were caught a short time later and forced to walk back to the embassy.

As they went west, the Staffords, the Lijeks, the Anders, and a few Iranians managed to stay hidden. They were almost to the British embassy when they ran into another protest. A local member of their group quickly told them, "Don't go that way," and then she disappeared into the crowd. The group went in a zigzag pattern to reach Anders' apartment nearby. At one point, they crept single-file past an office used by the komiteh, one of the gun-toting, self-appointed groups of revolutionaries who ran most of Tehran.

They locked the door and turned on Anders' lunchbox radio, which was a standard "escape and evade" device that could connect to the embassy's radio network. Marines were shouting at each other in an attempt to work together. "Rifles and other weapons are being brought into the compound," said a person who said his code name was "Codename Palm Tree." Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attaché, was watching the scene from his office on the sixth floor of a building across the street from the compound. "They are getting off of trucks."

It was the start of the Iran hostage crisis, which would last for 444 days, shake America's confidence, and make it impossible for President Jimmy Carter to run for re-election. Soon, Americans would have nightmares about Khomeini's scary face, and well-armed Islamic militants would show blindfolded hostages on the evening news and threaten to put "spies" on trial. Everyone remembers the 52 Americans who were trapped at the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that ended in a terrible Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. But not many people know how the CIA helped the other group get away from a hostile city in the middle of a revolution. This information has been kept secret for a long time.

By 3 p.m. that day, the five people who were huddled together in Anders' one-bedroom apartment knew they were in big trouble. As the militants took over, fewer people who spoke English on the radio net. Codename Palm Tree was on the run. After the last holdouts in the vault of the chancery radioed their surrender, the only voices that could be heard through the box were those of people speaking Farsi. The embassy disappeared. The people who got out were on their own.

When Tony Mendez got to his desk the next morning, the CIA was in a mess. People ran through the halls with files and papers in their hands. Flash cables, which are the most important messages and are only sent during wartime, were piling up on desks.
The CIA was in chaos when Tony Mendez arrived at his desk.
The CIA was in chaos when Tony Mendez arrived at his desk.
During the Vietnam War, Mendez, who was 38 at the time, worked at the agency. This seemed worse, though. At least then, the US could talk to another government. The Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council in Iran did not want to talk. Since there were no diplomatic channels open, secret efforts were the only way forward. But since the revolution started a year before, most of the CIA's spying equipment in Iran was destroyed. As the former head of the Disguise Section and current authentication chief of the CIA's Graphics and Authentication Division, Mendez oversaw the logistics of the CIA's tens of thousands of fake identities. He knew that there were only three field agents in Iran and that they had all been caught at the embassy.

Mendez thought at first that his job was to free the hostages. He started getting agents ready to go into Iran, and he worked for 90 hours straight on a plan called "Operation Bodyguard." This plan involved using a dead body double for the Shah to get the hostages released. He thought it was a great idea. But it was turned down by the White House.

Then, a few weeks after the embassy was taken over, Mendez got a note from the State Department that was marked "secret." It was shocking to hear that not everyone in the embassy had been taken. A few had gotten away and were hiding in Tehran. Because Carter's advisers and the State Department didn't want to tell the Iranians, only a few government officials knew the details.
storyboard with an image of a secret envelope on the left and a person in an office on the right
 Mendez received a memorandum from the State Department marked as secret.
Mendez had worked for the CIA's Office of Technical Service for 14 years. This was the part of the spy agency that tried to put bombs in Fidel's cigars and wired cats with microphones to listen in on conversations. "Identity transformation" was his specialty. He used it to help people get out of tough situations. He once made a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat look like Victor Mature and Rex Harrison by giving them masks. This was so they could set up a meeting in the capital of Laos, which had strict martial law at the time. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with very sensitive information about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers get rid of their KGB tails by giving them a "jack-in-the-box." A police officer would wait until there was a moment of chaos before sneaking out of a car. Once he did that, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to make it look like he was still in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.

His plan for the operation in Tehran was simple: the Americans would pretend to be someone else, walk right out of Mehrabad Airport, and get on a plane. For this plan to work, someone would have to sneak into Iran, meet up with the people trying to escape, give them their fake identities, and lead them to safety while avoiding the increasingly dangerous Iranian security system. He was that someone.
When they were on the run in Tehran, it was easy to find them. They couldn't sneak out on their own, because they would be caught on the roads and questioned at the airport. If they showed diplomatic passports, they would be rushed back to the embassy and questioned with the other "spies" under gunpoint.

During the first few days, they moved quietly between temporary hiding places, such as the empty homes of people who were stuck at the embassy. In case they had to run, they sometimes slept in their clothes. Using a phone was risky because the imams had tapped into the Shah's huge listening network, which he had set up to stop people from speaking out against him. Every place they stayed seemed more dangerous than the last. Anders called John Sheardown, a friend who worked at the Canadian embassy, in the end. "Why didn't you call right away?" Sheardown commented. "We can, of course, take you in."

The group was split between the Sheardowns' home and the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. This was done to keep the risk as low as possible. Both homes were in the trendy neighborhood of Shemiran, which is in the northern part of Tehran. In the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, where the Qajar kings were buried, the district was now home to merchants, diplomats, and wealthy civil servants. It was also hiding a group of six diplomatic refugees, including the five from the consulate and Henry Lee Schatz, the broadcaster for Codename Palm Tree. Before he went to the Sheardowns, he hid for weeks in a Swedish diplomatic residence.

The places to stay were very nice. There were books, newspapers written in English, and a lot of beer, wine, and scotch. But the guests were never allowed to leave their rooms. As the weeks went by, they fell into a quiet routine. They made fancy dinners, read books, and played cards. Their biggest daily worry was how to make bridge teams and whether or not they would be caught and possibly killed.

As time went on, the chance of being found grew. The militants were going through embassy records to find out who worked for the CIA. They had even hired teams of carpet weavers to put back together documents that had been shredded. (Later, the Iranian government would publish a series of books called Documents From the US Espionage Den, which were based on the papers that were found.) They might eventually find out how many people work at the embassy, count heads, and find that they are short. Outside, the Revolutionary Guards had recently been making a show of force in Shemiran by threatening the streets where foreigners lived and getting very close to both hideouts. When a military helicopter flew by the Sheardowns' house, the Americans had to jump away from the windows. Everyone was scared when an unknown person called the Taylor home and asked to talk to Joe and Kathy Stafford before hanging up.

The US and Canadian governments were also worried back home. There were rumors about the people who escaped, and a few journalists were almost done putting the story together. Even as the CIA worked to free the six, there were a lot of unofficial plans to save them, most of which involved smugglers and overland routes. Ross Perot, who had just gotten two of his Electronic Data Systems employees out of jail in Tehran, met with the CIA. At a NATO meeting in December, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, Flora MacDonald, was nervous. She went up to US secretary of state Cyrus Vance and suggested that the six Americans head for the Turkish border, even if they had to ride bicycles.

The Americans could feel the lack of progress and the growing danger. Mark Lijek and Anders wrote a message for Ken Taylor to send to Washington on their behalf on January 10, 1980. This was almost nine weeks after they went into hiding. Mark later put it in his own words: "We need to leave this place."

Most CIA cover stories are boring and not likely to catch anyone's attention. That was the first step in Mendez's plan. He would give the Americans Canadian paperwork because they spoke the same language and had a similar culture, and, well, everyone loves Canadians. Mendez still had to come up with a reason why six Canadians were wandering around Iran during the theocratic upheaval. There were a lot of journalists, aid workers, and people who worked in the oil business from North America in the country. But the authorities either kept a close eye on them or knew a lot about them. The State Department thought they could pretend to be unemployed teachers until someone noticed that all the English-language schools were closed. When the Canadian government said that nutritionists should check on crops, Mendez laughed at the idea: "Has January found you in Tehran? Snow is on the ground. And there would be no farming."

He was in a jam. No one in Washington or Ottawa could come up with a reason for anyone to be in Tehran for about a week. Then Mendez came up with a strange but oddly plausible plan: he would pretend to be an Irish film producer named Kevin Costa Harkins and lead his preproduction crew through Iran to look for locations for a big-budget Hollywood epic. Mendez had worked with people in Hollywood before. (After all, both of them were in the business of making things up.) Mendez thought it wouldn't be strange if a few strange people from Tinseltown didn't know what was going on in revolutionary Iran politically. Incredibly, the Iranian government tried to get international business to come to the country. They needed US dollars, and making a movie could cost millions of dollars.

Mendez gave his bosses an operations plan that included an analysis of the mission, the target, and the logistics. Because the job was so hard, his bosses made it clear that they wouldn't approve anything but a mission that was sure to work. But this plan was clear enough for them and the White House to agree with it. As they say in the spy business, the story made sense.

Mendez put $10,000 in his briefcase and flew to Los Angeles to cover his tracks. He called his friend John Chambers, a veteran makeup artist who had won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes in 1969 and who had also worked with Mendez and the CIA for a long time. Chambers brought in Bob Sidell, who worked with him on special effects. They all got together in the middle of January, and Mendez told them about the situation and his plan. Chambers and Sidell thought about the hostages they saw on TV every night and quickly said that they were in.

Mendez knew that they had to plan every detail of the trick. He said, "If anyone checks, that foundation needs to be there." If they were found out, it could embarrass the government, hurt the agency, put their lives and the lives of the hostages in the embassy in danger, and make the agency look bad. The militants had said from the start that anyone who tried to save them would be killed.

Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell made a fake Hollywood film company in just four days. They made business cards and fake identities for the six people on the location-scouting party, including all of their past credits. The production company's offices would be set up in a suite at Sunset Gower Studios on what used to be the Columbia lot. This is where Michael Douglas's office used to be, but he moved out after finishing The China Syndrome.

All they needed now was a script for a movie, which Chambers had. A producer named Barry Geller had called him a few months earlier. Geller had bought the rights to Roger Zelazny's science fiction novel Lord of Light, written his own treatment, gotten a few million dollars from wealthy investors, and hired Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who helped create the X-Men, to do concept drawings. Along the way, Geller imagined a theme park in Colorado called Science Fiction Land that would be based on Kirby's set designs. It would have a 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a "planetary control room" with robots working there, and a heated dome that would be almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Geller had told the press about his big plan at a press conference in November. Jack Kirby, Rosey Grier, a former football star who might join the cast, and a few other people dressed as people from the future were there. Shortly after that, Geller's second-in-command was arrested for stealing production money, and the Lord of Light film project went away.
Chambers was hired by Geller to do the makeup for the movie, so the script and sketches were still at his house. The story, which was mystical science fiction with Hindu ideas, took place on a planet that had been settled. Many of the rough settings that the script calls for could be found in Iran. One of the places needed was even a well-known underground market in Tehran. Mendez said, "This is great." He took off the cover and changed the name of the script to Argo, which was the name of the ship Jason bravely sailed around the world in to get the Golden Fleece.

The new production company set up its office with phones, typewriters, movie posters, and canisters. There was also a sign on the door that said "studio six productions," which was named after the six Americans who were waiting to be rescued. Sidell read the script and made a rough plan for the next month of filming. Mendez and Chambers made a full-page ad for the movie and bought space in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The night before Mendez went back to Washington, Studio Six had a small party at the Brown Derby. They toasted their "production," and Mendez picked up some matchbooks to add to his Hollywood credentials. Soon after, ads for Argo started showing up, saying that the main filming would start in March. The movie's name was written in broken letters on a black background. There was a bullet hole next to it. A Cosmic Conflagration" was written below it.

Mendez sneaked into Iran on January 25, 1980, after getting a cable from the head of the CIA that said, "President Carter personally approves." "You can move on. Best of luck." He got a visa at the Iranian consulate in Bonn, Germany, and flew in from Europe. "I'm going to a business meeting with people from my company," he told Iranian officials in Germany. "They are coming from Hong Kong and will be waiting for me tomorrow." Mendez broke out in a cold sweat at the airport. Even experts have doubts sometimes, but he knew he couldn't go back. He believed that his cover story was true.

Mendez came with his watercolor set and tools because he was an expert at making fakes and fake money. But the rest of the supplies for getting out of the country had already been sent through diplomatic pouch and were waiting for him at the Canadian embassy. Mendez put in everything he could think of, like health cards and driver's licenses, maple leaf pins, receipts from restaurants in Toronto and Montreal, Studio Six business cards, a lens for the cinematographer, and Argo production materials. Mendez called the six passports "real fakes." They were real documents that the Canadian government made for the CIA's Hollywood aliases. Mendez's big win was getting those passports. Canadian law says that fake passports are illegal, but the country's parliament held a secret emergency meeting, the first since World War II, to make an exception. Mendez met Ambassador Ken Taylor in his office, got the Canadian passports, and wrote Iranian visas on them. His ink pad was dry from the trip, so he put some of the ambassador's scotch on it and carefully wrote dates that showed the six people on the film crew had arrived in Iran the day before.
storyboard with an image of person walking through Tehran on the left and fake passports and business cards on the right
Mendez included everything he could think of: health cards and driver's licenses, the Studio Six business cards, and the Argo production materials.
At the Sheardown residence that night, the Staffords, the Lijeks, Schatz, Anders, and the ambassadors from Denmark and New Zealand ate dinner with some staff. When Taylor showed up with a surprise guest, the Americans had already lit a fire, set out appetizers, and started drinking.

Mendez told everyone at dinner, "We have made plans for your escape." He then talked about the cover story and showed Kirby's drawings, the script, the ad in Variety, and the phone number of the Studio Six office back on Sunset Boulevard. The business cards and passports were given out by Mendez. The writer's name would change from Cora Lijek to Teresa Harris. Mark was in charge of the transportation. The set was made by Kathy Stafford. Joe Stafford was a producer who helped make movies. Anders was in charge. Schatz, who was in charge of taking pictures for the group, got the scoping lens and detailed instructions on how to use a Panaflex camera. Mark Lijek noticed that Mendez was wearing a Harris tweed sport coat that was very British. This was in line with his alias, which was that he was an Irish film producer.

"But what about the controls at the airport?" Joe Stafford asked.

The question was good. Mendez knew that no operation was foolproof, and that this one could hit a big snag. Iranian immigration used a form with two copies for boarding and getting off ships. There were sheets that were both yellow and white. When someone came in, immigration was supposed to keep the white copy and compare it with the yellow copy when the person left. The forms were given to Mendez by a CIA contact at Mehrabad Airport. It was easy for Mendez to fake the yellow copy. Recent information showed that immigration agents didn't always bother to make sure the forms were the same.
At first, the Americans were worried about the plan. Mendez picked up two corks from the many open wine bottles and said, "Let me just show you how this kind of operation works." He made two D shapes with his thumbs and forefingers to hold the corks. "Here are the bad guys," he said, making it clear that they were the same as us. He pulled them apart with a quick trick of the hand.

It was simple magic, but it made me feel very good. The six thought their leader was good. Mendez said, "It's going to be that easy," and he could feel the group's confidence growing. "We will be able to trick everyone."

Studio Six was also busy at home. The production office was being run by Bob Sidell and his wife, Andi. They had three lines for the phone. One was a secret number that only the CIA knew. If it ever went off, Mendez and the rest of the Argo crew were either in a lot of trouble or free and clear. Andi picked up the other two phones, which were constantly ringing.

When the ads came out, reporters from Hollywood Reporter and Variety called, which led to short news stories in both magazines. "Two famous Hollywood make-up artists, one of whom won an Oscar, have become producers," said a story in the Hollywood Reporter on January 25, 1980. "Their first movie will be Argo, a science fiction/fantasy based on a story by Teresa Harris. Filming will start in the south of France and then move to the Middle East, depending on how the political situation is." Bob Sidell had this to say about the cast: "We will use names that mean something. Right now, we have to keep quiet." The news coverage, in turn, made more people curious about this new Hollywood actor who was about to start shooting in the Middle East.

Sidell had worked in Hollywood for almost 25 years, and he always said that the whole town was full of BS. But even he was surprised by how quickly the fictional world of Studio Six seemed to become real. It didn't take long for this small CIA base to get into the movie business.
Story board with Studio 6 office on left and man talking on the phone in an office with the Hollywood sign visible from...
The fictional universe of Studio Six took on the force of apparent reality. 
They were always worried that their secret third line would ring, but every time it did, it was about a movie. When Sidell's name was in the ads, his friends started looking for jobs. "Do you already have a crew?" they asked. When does preproduction start? Within a few weeks, there were too many head shots, scripts, and pitches from producers to fit in Studio Six.

He would say, "We're not going to shoot for a couple of months yet." "Let's get together in a few weeks." Several people approached Studio Six with projects that sounded good, so Sidell agreed to meet with them. One writer wanted to turn a little-known Arthur Conan Doyle horror story about a mummy that came back to life into a movie. Sidell even tried to get permission from Doyle's estate, even though he knew that Studio Six would soon vanish without a trace.

Before dawn on January 28, 1980, everyone was dressed up. Cora Lijek curled her hair with sponge curlers to look like Shirley Temple. While they were waiting, she read through the script. Kathy Stafford wore glasses that made her look bohemian and pinned up her hair. She also carried a sketch pad and a folder with concept drawings by Jack Kirby. Mark Lijek had mascara put on his dirty-blonde beard to make it darker. Anders saw their escape as an adventure and jumped into his role as the flamboyant director of Argo: He showed up in a shirt that was two sizes too small and only buttoned halfway up his hairy chest, revealing a silver medallion that he had made himself. He wore sunglasses, had his hair combed over his ears, and acted a little bit girly. Schatz messed around with his camera. During the two days before, they had done several dress rehearsals. A Farsi-speaking employee from the Canadian embassy dressed up in fatigues and did mock interrogations with them to look for holes in their story. They knew the plot of the movie and what made their characters act the way they did. Now, they were basically waiting for call time. By 4 a.m., they had packed, thanked their hosts, and were on their way to Mehrabad Airport.

Cora checked her pockets again in the van to make sure nothing there showed her real name. She and the others began to act out their new parts. Joe Stafford was the only one who wasn't happy about leaving his friends at the embassy. He didn't like the plan and didn't want to change the way he looked. Worse, he looked nervous.
storyboard with people in van headed to airport and a deserted SwissAir checkin window
The Americans entered the airport with trepidation. 
Mendez had gone ahead. His office had been checking out Mehrabad by sending people in and out of the country to see how safe it was. But he liked to find out for himself. Mendez could tell right away if something felt right, like a bank robber planning a heist. He would look at the customs and immigration desks. For example, how hard did the staff work? The komiteh and Revolutionary Guards standing behind them were more scary than the professionals. Because they were armed and hard to predict, they made the airport very dangerous.

But that morning appeared to be quiet. At customs, there were komitehs, but they only paid attention to people who were trying to sneak out rugs or gold. Mendez chose the early morning because by 10 a.m., Mehrabad would be a typical chaotic transit hub in a developing country, with people in lines, noise, yelling, and pushing. The Revolutionary Guard would show up at that time and take over.

When Mendez saw that there weren't many soldiers around, he told his film crew that everything was okay. The Americans were scared as they went into the airport. They hadn't been seen in public in almost 80 days. Most of the people who got away had worked at the consulate, so they all knew what it was like to look over official documents for mistakes. Even worse, three of them had worked in the line for visas. They had been seen by thousands of Iranians, and some of them might be angry that they weren't chosen.
men standing on a lawn
Twenty-seven years on, we asked key players to recall the operation. This is what they said.
When check-in at the Swissair counter and customs went smoothly, everyone could take a deep breath. As Schatz went up to immigration, showed his passport, and got his stamp, the rest of the group talked about nothing important. When the officer disappeared with the passports of the rest of the crew, the Americans were scared for a moment. But then he went back to the counter to get some tea and waved the group to the departure lounge without bothering to match the yellow and white forms.

It hurt so much to wait. No one raised their heads. At one point, Joe Stafford picked up a local newspaper. Then he remembered that Canadian film crews don't know how to read Farsi. He also kept calling people by their real names, which made everyone very nervous. It was getting darker and brighter. There were more and more people at the airport. They knew there was nothing else they could do. Mendez wasn't even carrying a gun, and the Revolutionary Guards were coming, wandering around in fatigues and bothering people. Mendez had told the six to look them in the eye in case anyone was questioned. Be sure of yourself, but don't act like you know anything. But he knew from the agency's research that the guards could be tough and even search people's body cavities without warning. There was a delay because of a mechanical problem, and the Revolutionary Guards were beginning to watch the foreign passengers.

Mendez disappeared. He knew someone at the airport, so he went there to find out about the flight. As soon as he heard that the delay would be short, the announcement came over the loudspeaker: "Swissair flight 363, ready to leave immediately." As they got on the plane on the windy tarmac, Anders saw the word "AARGAU" written across the fuselage. The name of the Swiss region where the plane came from was strangely similar to the name of their cover story. He hit Mendez in the arm and asked, "Do you guys plan everything?"

Mendez smiled. Mendez knew he had just pulled off one of the most successful lies of his career when the plane's wheels went up. Once they were out of Iranian airspace, the bar opened, and everyone got Bloody Marys. Mendez leaned into the aisle, turned around to look at the group, and said, "We're home free."

A few hours later, the secret third line called Studio Six Productions for the first and last time. Andi picked up the phone with a start. "It's over," a voice that no one knew said. "They got away."

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