domingo, 8 de julio de 2012




Antonio J. Mendez

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Antonio J. Mendez served in the Directorate of Operation and the Directorate of Science and Technology.

Background: Exfiltration and the CIA.

When briefing the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO) or other components of the Intelligence Community (IC) about the Office of Technical Services (OTS) exfiltration capability, I always made a point to remind them that "readines" is the key.
This is one of the full-time concerns of my former OTS office, the Graphics and Authentication Division (GAD).

In arranging for the escape of refugees and other people of potential intelligence value who are subject to political persecution and hostile pursuit, prior planning is not always possible because they show up at odd hours in out-of-the-way places. Current surveys and collection of up-to-date intelligence regarding travel controls and procedures are vital. OTS engages in this activity worldwide.

The readiness to move clandestine agents out of harm's way using quasi-legal methods is equally important. CIA's policy and practice are to bring is valuable human assets in from the cold when they can no longer remain in place. Sometimes this includes their families. Public law 110 gives the IC the authority to resettle these people in the United States as US persons when the time comes and the quota allows.

OTS/GAD and its successor components have serviced these kinds of operations since OSS days. The "authentication" of operations officers and their agents by providing them with personal documentation and disguise, cover legends and supporting data, "pocket litter," and so forth is fundamental deception tradecraft in clandestine operations.
Personal documentation and disguise specialists, graphic artists, and other graphics specialists spend hundreds of hours preparing the materials, tailoring the cover legends, and coordinating the plan. 

Infiltrating and exfiltrating people into and out of hostile areas are the most perilous applications of this tradecraft. The mental attitude and demeanor of the subject is as important as the technical accuracy of the tradecraft items. Sometimes, technical operations officers actually lead the escapees through the checkpoints to ensure that their confidence does not falter at the crucial moment.

Operation in Iran: Going Public

The operational involvement of GAD officers in the exfiltration from Iran of six US State Department personnel on 28 January 1980 was a closely held secret until de CIA decided to reveal it as part of the Agency's 50th anniversary celebrations in 1997.

David Martin, the CBS News corresponding covering national security issues in Washington, DC, had the story early on, as did Mike Ruane of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Canadian Broadcasting Company and Reader's Digest both have done serious pieces since the CIA opened the files on this important successs story.

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Jean Pelletier's book, Canadian Caper, published in 1980, mentions that Canada - whose diplomats in Tehran had hidden and cared for the six American "houseguests" after Iranian militants seized the US Embassy - had received CIA help in the form of forged entries in Canadian passports to enable Canadian Ambassador to Iran Kenneth Taylor to engineer the escape of the six from Iran. A brief passage in Hamilton Jordan's book, Crisis, alludes to CIA officers on the scene in Tehran. After he left office, former President Carter, in statements to the media, gave hints of even more credit due his administration for the only true operational success of the hostage crisis.

My recollections of the long national emergency - which began on 4 November 1979 with the US Embassy takeover and ended with the release of the 52 hostages on Inauguration Day in January 1981 - encompass several major plans and operational actions focused on Iran that were supported by OTS. These included intelligence-gathering, deception options, the hostage rescue effort, secret negotiations with the Iranian Government; and exfiltration of agents and the "Canadian six."

In those days, the atmosphere in CIA was one of full alert. OTS, like many Agency components, was buzzing with intense activity. There are numerous stories about technical and operational innovations resulting from the emergency - like environment; the rescue of the six is one of many such stories.

New Job, New Challenge

On 11 December 1979, about a month after the takeover of our Embassy in Tehran, I moved from my job as Chief, OTS, Disguise Section, to Chief, OTS, Authentication Branch. I had operational responsibility worldwide for disguise, false documentation, and forensic monitoring of questioned documents for counterterrorism or counterintelligence purposes.

I had already spent the first days of the crisis creating a deception operation designed to defuse the crisis. President Carter decided not to use this plan, however. He has since lamented that decision.

The requirements for dealing with the six State Department employees hiding under the care of the Canadian Embassy in Iran was one of the many challenges I had to address on my first day on the new job. I immediately formed a small team to work on this problem.

The complexities were evident. We needed to find a way to rescue six americans with no intelligence background, and we would have to coordinate a sensitive plan of action with another US Government department and with senior policymakers in the US and Canadian administrations. The stakes were high. A failed exfiltration operation would receive immediate worlwide attention and would seriously embarrass the US, its President, and the CIA. It would probably make life even more difficult for all American hostages in Iran. The Canadians also had a lot to lose; the safety of their people in Iran and security of their Embassy there would be at risk.

But we had maintained a very impressive record of success with operations of this type over many years.

Collecting Basic Data

We had recently moved one agent out of Iran through Tehran's Mehrabad Airport. As a result of this operation, we had a body of technical data on the airport controls and the competence and efficiency of the people operating them. The task of collecting and analyzing current document intelligence thus would be a matter of verifying fairly recent information and ensuring that it was up to date, rather than having to scratch.

We also were continuing to support the infiltration and exfiltration of a few intelligence officers and agents who were traveling in and out of Iran on intelligence-gathering and hostage-rescue planning operations. We could use these people as collection sources.

Major Potential Obstacles

We were most concerned about the exit controls at the airport. Long

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before the revolution, Iranian authorities had adopted a two-sheer embarkation/disembarkation form. This form was printed on carbonless paper and filled out by the traveler upon entry. The authorities retained a white sheer, and the traveler retained a yellow copy to present at the exit control point when departing. The clerk was supposed to match the two forms to verify that the traveler left before his visa expired. Many countries in the world have similar systems; few complete the verification process on the spot, if ever.

We hoped to determine whether the militants operating at Mehrabad were completing this kind of positive check before travelers cleared the airport. Earlier in 1979, the control personnel were unprofessional and did not collect the forms unless the departing traveler volunteered them. We had to determine whether this was still the case.

Another significant challenge we faced was to come up with the cover story and supporting documentation for a group of North American men and women. We debated three interconnected issues related to this aspect of our planning: the type and nationality of passports we should use, the kind of cover, and whether we should move the six out in a group or individually.

CIA management had strong opinions on these points, as did the State Department. And the Canadian Government would have to be drawn into the discussions at some point. Once it was, it too would also tend to take strong positions.

The Passport Question

The debate over passports began with the question of whether to use ordinary US passports, Canadian passports, or other foreign passports at our disposal. CIA managers were not comfortable with the idea of using foreign passports. They were concerned that persons who were not intelligence professionals could well prove unable to sustain foreign cover story.

The iranians, moreover, had embarrassed the US by finding a pair of OTS - produced foreign passports in the US Embassy that had been issued to two CIA officers posted in Tehran. One of these officers was among the hostages being held in the Embassy. The discovery of the passports was the topic of extensive media coverage in Iran and other countries.

Regarding Canadian passports, initially doubted that Canda would be prepared to overlook its own passport laws. We also did not think Ottawa would be willing to put Canadian citizens and facilities in Iran in the increased danger they would face if the true purpose and American use of the passports were exposed.

Given the drawbacks and obstacles to the Canadian and other foreign passport options, it seemed that OTS would have to take on the task of building a cover for the use of US passports. But we feared that such an exercise would call unwanted attention to the six subjects and put them at greater risk. On balance, our experience and judgement ultimately favored using Canadian passports, despite the risks. We decided to push this option, but to concentrate first on devising cover for the six before making final recommendations on the type of passport to be used.

Quest for Information

We began an all - source quest for information on the types of groups traveling in and out of Mehrabad Airport. In the meantime, the DO´s Near East (NE) Division was developing information on overland "black" exfiltration options, hoping to identify a smuggler's route or a "rat line" into Turkey. Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot had used such a plan to exfiltrate two of his employees early in the Iranian revolution. He had already offered support to the Agency for hostage rescue efforts.

We soon developed information which indicated that groups traveling legally to Iran included oilfield technicians from European - based companies, news teams of all nationalities covering the hostage situation, and all sorts of curiosity seekers and do-gooders from around the world. Many of these people were US citizens. None fit our purposes, given the profiles and patterns of these groups and the careful scrutiny and control applied to them by the Iranian security and immigration services. We believed it was important that professional intelligence officers make the final probe into Iran and meet personally with the six in order to assess their state of mind and their ability to carry out the operation.

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Talks with the Canadians

We requested a meeting with senior NE managers to present our position and to review the options. We were also aware that the senior NE officer in charge of rescuing the six and conducting liaison with the Canadians on the crisis had  already visited Ottawa, where his talks with officials in a Canadian government ministry had included the topic of Canadian passports. Our meeting with NE Division officers went fairly well, and they agreed in principle with our position.

Because the Canadians were understandably concerned with the mechanics of the exfiltration and how their passports would be used, we suggested that OTS get approval to go to Ottawa to explain these details. An OTS documents specialist, "“Joe Missouri,”" and I arranged to depart for Ottawa immediately. We prepared passport photos and appropriate alias bio data for the six, which we would take with us to Ottawa in the hope that we could win the Canadians over. We had already directed many questions to Canadian Ambassador Taylor, and his replies had given us a good feeling about his penchant for clandestine planning.

In our discussions with Canadian officials, we learned that the Parliament in Ottawa had already approved the use of Canadian passports for non-citizens for humanitarian purposes. We immediately requested six spares for the six houseguests to give us a redundant capability for the operation. We also asked for two additional passports for use by CIA “"escorts."” The Canadians agreed to the spares, but they declined to give us two additional passports because Parliament had not approved the exception to their passport law to cover professional intelligence officers. 

We had an opportunity while meeting with our Canadian ministry contact, “"Lon DeGaldo",” to display a bit of magic. He thought one of the proposed aliases had a slightly Semitic sound— not a good idea in a Muslim country. We quickly picked another name, and I forged a signature in the appropriate handwriting on the margin of a fresh set of passport photos. This trick was mostly showmanship, but it helped to establish our credentials as experts.

Next, we discussed cover legends. We explained the different points of view on group cover versus individual cover, the need to gather more information on travelers, and our intention to send an officer or officers into Tehran to do a final probe of the controls and to meet with the six houseguests. 

This gave me an opportunity to try out an idea for a cover legend that had occurred to me the night before at home in Maryland while I was packing. Cover legends hold up best when their details closely follow the actual experience or background of the user. If possible, the cover should be sufficiently dull so that it does not pique undue interest. In this case, however, I believed we should try to devise a cover so exotic that no onewould imagine it was being used for operational purposes.

Hollywood Consultation

In my former job as chief of the OTS Disguise Section, I had engaged the services of many consultants in the entertainment industry. Our makeup consultant, “"Jerome Calloway,”" was a technical makeup expert who had received many awards. (He recently was awarded CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit, one of the few nonstaffers to be so honored.) His motivation for helping us was purely patriotic. 

We had already involved Jerome in the hostage crisis. One week after the takeover, I had invited him to Washington to help prepare a deception option related to the crisis. He, the disguise team, and I had worked around the   clock to complete this option in five days. 

When we received orders to stand down on that undertaking, Jerome returned to California. Before leaving, he reaffirmed his desire to help in any way possible in the rescue of our diplomats. As soon as I checked into my hotel in Ottawa, I called Jerome at his home. He had no idea what I was working on. I simply said that I was in Ottawa and that I needed to know how many people would be in an advance party scouting a site for a film production.

Jerome replied that this would require about eight people, including a production manager, a cameraman, an art director, a transportation manager, a script consultant, an associate producer, a business manager, and a director. Their purpose would be to look at a shooting site from artistic, logistic, and financial points of view.

The associate producer represented the financial backers. The business manager concerned himself mainly

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with banking arrangements; even a 10-day shoot could require millions of dollars spent on the local economy. The transportation manager rented a variety of vehicles, ranging from limousines to transport the stars to heavy equipment required for constructing a set. The production manager made it all come together. The other team members were technicians who created the film footage from the words in the script.

Because movie-making is widely known as an unusual business, most people would not be surprised that a Hollywood production company would travel around the world looking for the right street or hillside to shoot a particular scene.

Cover Options

Recommending this kind of cover for most clandestine activities would be out of the question, but I sensed that it might be just right for this operation. I tried the idea on Lon, our ministry contact, and he was intrigued with it. Certainly it was not incompatible with the Canadian passport option. Film companies are typically made up of an international cast of characters. The Canadian motion picture industry was well established.

We discussed the motion-picture cover option as well as another idea or two. Lon too had thought about the problem of cover; he had an idea for a group of food economists who might be seen traveling to various places in the Third World. The State Department had already given us a suggestion about a group of unemployed school teachers looking for jobs in international schools around the world. We felt obliged to mention this idea, even though we were not too excited about it.

We adjourned our meeting and made arragements for follow-up talks. We then sent a cable to CIA Headquaters outlining our accomplishments, including our discussions on cover options. This was the first time that we reported the movie idea.

Over the next week (it was now late December), I commuted between Ottawa and Washington. An OTS  team began forming in Ottawa to prepare the documentation and disguise items for a Canadian pouch to Tehran. The GAD team at OTS continued to collect information on Iranian border controls. All worldwide messages on the subject were being sent and answered with the Flash indicator, CIA's highest precedence.

Senior CIA managers did not summarily reject the Hollywood option, recognizing that it could have advantages even beyond the problem of rescuing the six. The thinking was as follows:

The idea of using paramilitary means to rescue the hostages held at the US Embassy had seemed impossible, given Tehran's geographical location. The movie cover might enable us to approach the Iranian Ministry of National Guidance with a proposal to shoot a movie sequence in or near Tehran. The Ministry had been charged with countering negative publicity on Iran by promoting tourism. Tehran was also looking for ways to alleviate some of the cash-flow problems caused when the United States froze Iran's assets in the US. A motion picture production on Iranian soil could be an economic shot in the arm and would provide an ideal public relations tool to help counteract the adverse publicity stemming from the hostage situation.

A relative "moderate" - Abulhassan Bani-Sadr - was about to be elected President of Iran, and we judged it possible that he could be sold on these economic points and then might be able to gain agreement from the radical factions of the regime. If so, the cover of infiltrating the Delta Force (in preparation for a hostage rescue attempt at the Embassy) as a team of movie set construction workers and camera crews to prepare the set was a natural. We imagined that it might be possible to conceal weapons and other material in the motion picture equipment.

Forming a Film Company

One weekend in early January, between trips to Ottawa and planning sessions with NE Division, I made a quick visit to California. I made a quick visit to California. I brought along $10,000 in cash, the first of several black-bag deliverios of funds to set up our motion picture company. I arrived on Friday night and met with Jerome and one of his associates in a suite of production offices they had reserved for our purposes on the old Columbia Studio lot in Hollywood. I had invited a CIA contracts officer to the meeting to act as witness to the cash deliver and to follow-up as bagman and auditor for the run of the operation. It would take two years to clear all accounts on these matters.

Our production company, "Studio Six Productions," was created in four days, including a weekend, in mid-January. Our offices had previously

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been occupied by Michael Douglas, who had just completed producing The China Syndrome.

Jerome and his associate were masters at working the Hollywood system. They had begun applying "grease" and calling in favors even before I arrived. Simple things such as the installation of telephones were supposed to take weeks, but we had everything we needed down to the paper clips by the fourth day.

We arranged for full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the two trade papers most important to any business publicity campaign. We tried to keep Jerome's well-knowm name hidden, but the "trades" had their reporters hot on our trail, and the word was out that something big was brewing in the industry.

When the press discovered that Jerome was connected with this independent production company, interest mounted and more press play followed. Our efforts to keep Jerome´s involvement secret actually added credibility to our putative filmaking company. Hollywood, moreover, was an ideal place to create and dismantle a major cover entity overnight. The Mafia and many shady foreign investors were notorious for backing productions in Hollywood, where fortunes are frecuently made and lost. It is also and ideal place to launder money.

Picking a Script

Once Studio Six Productions was set up, we tackled the proble of identifying an appropiate script. Jerome and I sat around his kitchen table discussing what the theme should be. Because Star Wars had made it big only recently, many science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero films were being produced. We decided we needed a script with "sci-fi," Middle Eastern, and mythological elements. Something about the glory of Islam would be nice, too. Jerome recalled a recent script that might serve our purpose, and he hauled it out of a pile of manuscripts submitted for his consideration.

This script fit our purpose beautifully, particularly because no uninitiated person could decipher its complicated story line. The script was based on an award-winning sci-fi novel. The producers had also envisioned building a huge set that would later become a major theme park. They had hired a famous comic-strip artist to prepare concepts for the sets. This gave us some good "eyewash" to add to a production portfolio.

We decided to repackage our borrowed script by decorating it with the appropriate logo and title markings. The only copy of the script we needed would be carried by me as a prop to be shown to the Iranians in my role as production manager - and only in the event we were questioned at the airport in Tehran.


Jerome and I then set about picking a name for our movie. We needed something catchy from Eastern culture or mythology. After several tries, we hit on it! During our 10-year association, he had proven to be a great story and joke teller. He once told a group of us a profane "knock-knock" joke, with the word "Argo" in the punch line.

This word became an in-house disguise-team recognition signal and battle cry. We used it to break the tension that often built up when we were working long hours under difficult circunstances preparing for an important operation. Jerome remembered this. He also recalled that the name stemmed from mythology. He looked up the definition of Argo and confirmed it as the name of the ship on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed to rescue the Golden Fleece from the many-headed dragon holding it captive in the sacred garden. Perfect! This precisely described the situation in Iran.

I quickly designed an "Argo" logo, which we used for full-page ads in the trades. The ads proclaimed that "Studio Six Productions Presents 'Argo'... A cosmic conflagration ... story by Teresa Harris." (Teresa Harris was the alias we selected for our story consultant; it would be used by one of the six awaiting our arrival in Tehran.)

Calling the Iranian Consulate

On my last day in California, I made our first business call from our studio offices to the Iranian Consulate in San Francisco, using my alias. I said I required a visa and instructions on procedures for obtaining permission to scout a shooting location in Tehran. My party of eight would be

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made up of six Canadians, a European, and a Latin American.

The Latin American would be an OTS authentication officer, "Julio," who was posted in Europe. His languages were Spanish, French and Arabic, and he had considerable exfiltration experience. We had selected OTS-produced documentation for his cover legend as an associate producer representing our production company's ostensible South American backers. I would travel on an OTS-produced European passport.

The call to the Iranian Consulate was a washout. Officials there suggested that we apply at the nearest Iranian Consulate in our area. This was not surprising because many Iranian diplomats were carried over from the Shah's regime, and most were unsure of their current status and their visa-granting authorities.

I departed on the "red-eye special" that night with all the trappings of a Hollywood type, including matchbooks from the Brown Derby Restaurant, where Studio Six Productions held a farewell dinner for me.

Final Technical Preparations

Back in Washington, the various efforts being mounted against Iran were still going full tilt. Our operations plan for the rescue of the six was being implemented at the working levels of OTS and NE Division, but it had not yet been coordinated with or approved by policymakers.

My immediate task was to participate in the final technical preparations for our three cover options. I had collected several exemplars of supporting documentation for our production party that were to be reproduced by the OTS graphics specialists to pad the wallets of our party. The script had to be altered and presentation portfolio prepared for our production manager.

Joe Missouri, the document specialist who had accompanied me on the initial trip to Ottawa, had remained behind at the time to negotiate for ancillary documentation to support the Canadian part of the legend. This had required special authorization from senior levels of the Canadian Government, which Missouri managed to obtain. This was

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quite an accomplishment for a young officer.

By this time, Joe had returned to Washington and taken charge of the Argo portfolio. Joe had always been an artist at the typewriter. He took the roles of various members of the production party and fleshed them out in the form of resumes. This clever ploy provided briefing papers for each subject that could be carried in the open in the production manager's portfolio. When completed, this portfolio had everything needed to sell even the most sophisticated investment banker on our movie.

A week after my return from California, the US and Canadian document and disguise packages were ready for the Canadian pouch. The OTS team in Ottawa had also been working on the Canadian documents, applying the finishing touches to the passports. We had 12 Canadian passports, a redundant capability for both nationalities. The redundant documents were designed for final issuance by the Canadians in Tehran in case Julio or I failed to get in or did not show up at the Canadian Embassy after we arrived. Julio and I would complete the second set of passports in Tehran, giving us last-minute on-site flexibility.



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