Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple serving in their first foreign service post, knew the slogans — “God is great! Death to America!” — and had learned to ignore the din as they went about their duties. But today, the protest sounded louder than usual. And when some of the local employees came in and said there was “a problem at the gate,” they knew this morning would be different. Militant students were soon scaling the walls of the embassy complex. Someone forced open the front gate, and the trickle of invaders became a flood. The mob quickly fanned across the 27-acre compound, waving posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. They took the ambassador’s residence then set upon the chancery, the citadel of the embassy where most of the staff was stationed.
They tried to keep calm, and even to continue working. But then the power went out and panic spread throughout the building. The Iranian employees, who knew the revolutionary forces’ predilection for firing squads, braced for the worst. “There’s someone on the roof,” one Iranian worker said, trembling. Another smelled smoke. People began to weep in the dark, convinced the militants would try to burn down the building. Outside, the roar of the victorious mob grew louder. There were occasional gunshots. It was time to flee.
The Americans destroyed the plates used to make visa stamps, organized an evacuation plan, and ushered everyone to the back door. “We’ll leave in groups of five or six,” the marine sergeant on duty said. “Locals first. Then the married couples. Then the rest.” The consulate building was the only structure in the compound with an exit on the street. The goal was to make it to the British embassy about six blocks away.
It was pouring rain when they opened the heavy roll-down steel doors. The street was mercifully empty. One group turned north, only to be captured moments later and marched back to the embassy at gunpoint.
They locked the door and switched on Anders’ lunch-box radio, a standard-issue “escape and evade” device that could connect with the embassy’s radio network. Marines were squawking frantically, trying to coordinate with one another. Someone calling himself Codename Palm Tree was relaying a bird’s-eye view of the takeover: “There are rifles and weapons being brought into the compound.” This was Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attach who was watching the scene from his sixth-floor office in a building across the street from the compound. “They’re being unloaded from trucks.”
The Iran hostage crisis, which would go on for 444 days, shaking America’s confidence and sinking President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, had begun. Americans would soon be haunted by Khomeini’s grim visage, and well-armed Islamic militants would parade blindfolded hostages across the nightly news and threaten trials for the “spies” that they’d captured. Everyone remembers the 52 Americans trapped at the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that ended with a disastrous Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. But not many know the long- classified details of the CIA’s involvement in the escape of the other group — thrust into a hostile city in the throes of revolution.
By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the five people huddled in Anders’ one-bedroom apartment realized they were in serious trouble. As the militants seized control, there were fewer English speakers on the radio net. Codename Palm Tree had fled. After the last holdouts in the chancery’s vault radioed their surrender, the only voices coming through the box were speaking in Farsi. The embassy was lost. The escapees were on their own.
At first, Mendez thought his job was to free the hostages. He started suiting up agents to penetrate Iran, and he spent a whirlwind 90 hours straight working on a plan called Operation Bodyguard in which a dead body double for the Shah would be used to arrange for the hostages’ release. It was a gorgeous plan, he thought. But the White House rejected it.
On the run in Tehran, the escapees were obvious targets. They couldn’t sneak out on their own; they’d be spotted on the roads and certainly questioned in the airport. If they presented diplomatic passports, they’d be hustled back to the embassy and interrogated at gunpoint with the rest of the “spies.”
For the first few days, they quietly slipped between temporary hideouts, including the empty houses of those trapped at the embassy. They sometimes slept in their clothes in case they had to run. Using a phone was dangerous; the imams had tapped into the vast listening network the Shah had used to suppress dissent. Each place they stayed seemed increasingly vulnerable. Eventually, Anders rang John Sheardown, a friend at the Canadian embassy. “Why didn’t you call sooner?” Sheardown said. “Of course we can take you in.”
To minimize the risk, the group was split between the Sheardowns’ house and the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. Both homes were in the fashionable Shemiran district in northern Tehran. The Qajar dynasty buried its kings here, in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, and the district was now home to merchants, diplomats, wealthy civil servants — and a half-dozen diplomatic refugees in hiding: the five from the consulate and Henry Lee Schatz, the Codename Palm Tree broadcaster. He had hidden in a Swedish diplomatic residence for weeks before making his way to the Sheardowns.
The accommodations were luxurious. There were books, English-language newspapers, and plenty of beer, wine, and scotch. But the guests could never leave their quarters. As the weeks went by, a quiet routine developed. They cooked elaborate dinners, read, played cards. Their biggest daily concern was how to assemble teams for bridge — and whether they’d be captured and potentially executed.
As time passed, the threat of discovery was mounting. The militants had been combing embassy records and figuring out who was CIA. They had even hired teams of carpet weavers to successfully reassemble shredded documents. (The recovered papers would later be published by the Iranian government in a series of books called Documents From the US Espionage Den.) They might eventually figure out the true number of embassy staff, count heads, and come up short. Outside, the Revolutionary Guards had recently been making a show of force in Shemiran, menacing the streets where foreigners lived and coming very close to both hideouts. Once, the Americans had to dive away from the windows when a military helicopter buzzed the Sheardowns’ house. And everyone was spooked when an anonymous caller to the Taylor residence asked to speak with Joe and Kathy Stafford and then hung up.
Back home, the US and Canadian governments were nervous, too. Hints about the escapees had leaked, and several journalists were on the verge of piecing together the story. Even as the CIA worked to free the six, a wild array of unofficial rescue plans surfaced, mostly involving overland routes and smugglers. The CIA held discussions with Ross Perot, who’d just snuck two of his Electronic Data Systems employees out of a jail in Tehran. At a NATO meeting in December, an antsy Flora MacDonald, Canada’s minister of external affairs, confronted US secretary of state Cyrus Vance and suggested having the six Americans make for the Turkish border — on bicycles if necessary.
The Americans sensed the stagnation and growing peril. On January 10, 1980 — nearly nine weeks after going into hiding — Mark Lijek and Anders drafted a cable for Ken Taylor to send to Washington on their behalf. Mark later paraphrased its contents: “We need to get out of here.”
CIA cover stories are generally designed to be mundane and unlikely to attract attention. That’s how Mendez’s plan started out. He would use Canadian documentation for the Americans, because of the common language and similar culture — and, well, everybody loves Canadians. But Mendez still had to figure out an excuse for a half-dozen Canucks to be wandering through Iran’s theocratic upheaval. There were plenty of North American journalists, humanitarians, and oil industry advisers in country. But they were either heavily monitored or well known to authorities. The State Department thought they could masquerade as unemployed teachers, until someone realized that the English-language schools were all closed. When the Canadian government suggested nutritionists inspecting crops, Mendez dismissed the idea as preposterous: “Have you been to Tehran in January? There’s snow on the ground. And certainly no agriculture.”
He was stuck. For about a week, no one in Washington or Ottawa could invent a reason for anyone to be in Tehran. Then Mendez hit upon an unusual but strangely credible plan: He’d become Kevin Costa Harkins, an Irish film producer leading his preproduction crew through Iran to do some location scouting for a big-budget Hollywood epic. Mendez had contacts in Hollywood from past collaborations. (After all, they were in the same business of creating false realities.) And it wouldn’t be surprising, Mendez thought, that a handful of eccentrics from Tinseltown might be oblivious to the political situation in revolutionary Iran. The Iranian government, incredibly, was trying to encourage international business in the country. They needed the hard currency, and a film production could mean millions of US dollars.
To build his cover, Mendez put $10,000 into his briefcase and flew to Los Angeles. He called his friend John Chambers, the veteran makeup artist who had won a 1969 Academy Award for Planet of the Apesand also happened to be one of Mendez’s longtime CIA collaborators. Chambers brought in a special effects colleague, Bob Sidell. They all met in mid-January and Mendez briefed the pair on the situation and his scheme. Chambers and Sidell thought about the hostages they were seeing each night on television and quickly declared they were in.
Mendez knew they had to plan the ruse down to the last detail. “If anyone checks,” he said, “we need that foundation to be there.” If they were exposed, it could embarrass the government, compromise the agency, and imperil their lives and the lives of the hostages in the embassy. The militants had said from the beginning that any attempted rescue would lead to executions.
All they needed now was a film — and Chambers had the perfect script. Months before, he had received a call from a would-be producer named Barry Geller. Geller had purchased the rights to Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light, written his own treatment, raised a few million dollars in starting capital from wealthy investors, and hired Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who cocreated X-Men, to do concept drawings. Along the way, Geller imagined a Colorado theme park based on Kirby’s set designs that would be called Science Fiction Land; it would include a 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a “planetary control room” staffed by robots, and a heated dome almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Geller had announced his grand plan in November at a press conference attended by Jack Kirby, former football star and prospective cast member Rosey Grier, and several people dressed like visitors from the future. Shortly thereafter, Geller’s second-in-command was arrested for embezzling production funds, and the Lord of Light film project evaporated.
Since Chambers had been hired by Geller to do makeup for the film, he still had the script and drawings at his house. The story, a tale of Hindu-inspired mystical science fiction, took place on a colonized planet. Iran’s landscape could provide many of the rugged settings required by the script. A famous underground bazaar in Tehran even matched one of the necessary locations. “This is perfect,” Mendez said. He removed the cover and gave the script a new name, Argo — like the vessel used by Jason on his daring voyage across the world to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
The new production company outfitted its office with phone lines, typewriters, film posters and canisters, and a sign on the door: studio six productions, named for the six Americans awaiting rescue. Sidell read the script and sketched out a schedule for a month’s worth of shooting. Mendez and Chambers designed a full-page ad for the film and bought space in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The night before Mendez returned to Washington, Studio Six threw a small party at the Brown Derby, where they toasted their “production” and Mendez grabbed some matchbooks as additional props to boost his Hollywood bona fides. Shortly thereafter, the Argo ads appeared, announcing that principal photography would commence in March. The film’s title was rendered in distressed lettering against a black background. Next to it was a bullet hole. Below it was the tagline “A Cosmic Conflagration.”
Mendez slipped into Iran
on January 25, 1980, after receiving a cable from the CIA director indicating President Carter’s personal approval that read, “You may proceed. Good luck.” He flew in from Europe, where he’d obtained a visa at the Iranian consulate in Bonn. “I have a business meeting with my company associates,” he explained to Iranian authorities in Germany. “They’re flying in from Hong Kong tomorrow and are expecting me.” Mendez had broken into a cold sweat in the airport — even professionals have their moments of doubt — but he knew there was no turning back. He put his faith in the strength of his cover story.
That night the Staffords, Lijeks, Schatz, and Anders dined with the ambassadors of Denmark and New Zealand, and some staff, at the Sheardown residence. The Americans had lit a fire, set out the hors d’oeuvres, and were drinking when Taylor arrived with a surprise guest.
“We have prepared for your escape,” Mendez announced during dinner. He then explained the cover story and presented Kirby’s drawings, the script, the ad in Variety, and the telephone number of the Studio Six office back on Sunset Boulevard. Mendez handed out the business cards and passports. Cora Lijek would become Teresa Harris, the writer. Mark was the transportation coordinator. Kathy Stafford was the set designer. Joe Stafford was an associate producer. Anders was the director. Schatz, the party’s cameraman, received the scoping lens and detailed specs on how to operate a Panaflex camera. Mark Lijek noticed that Mendez wore a distinctively British Harris tweed sport coat, in keeping with his alias as an Irish film producer.
Everyone was in costume before dawn on January 28, 1980. Cora Lijek had used sponge curlers to give herself a Shirley Temple look. She thumbed through the script as they waited. Kathy Stafford donned heavy, bohemian-looking glasses, pinned up her hair, and carried a sketch pad and folder with Kirby’s concept drawings. Mark Lijek’s dirty-blond beard had been darkened with mascara. Anders thought of their escape as an adventure and flung himself into his role as Argo‘s flamboyant director: He appeared in a shirt two sizes too small, buttoned only halfway up his hairy chest to reveal an improvised silver medallion. He wore sunglasses, combed his hair over his ears, and acted slightly effeminate. Schatz played with his lens. During the previous two days, they’d done several dress rehearsals, with a Farsi-speaking staffer from the Canadian embassy dressing up in fatigues for mock interrogations, probing for cracks in their cover. They’d learned the movie’s story line and their characters’ backgrounds and motivations and were now waiting, essentially, for call time. By 4 am, they’d packed, thanked their hosts, and were on their way to Mehrabad Airport.
In the van, Cora checked her pockets again to make sure they contained nothing showing her real name. She and the others started playacting their new roles. The only exception was Joe Stafford, who was ambivalent about leaving behind colleagues at the embassy. He was unenthusiastic about the plan and had refused to change his appearance. Worse, he looked nervous.
“They made it out.”