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Old 02-29-2008, 05:46 PM
Amazing story: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran

I read this story about a year ago and haven't been able to forget it. This is just an incredible series of events that, of course, would make a great movie. The last line is just... wow. I have to break this up over two posts, but it is so worth the read.


wired magazine: issue 15.05
How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran
Joshuah Bearman Email 04.24.07 | 2:00 AM


How the CIA used a fake science fiction film to sneak six Americans out of revolutionary Iran.

November 4, 1979, began like any other day at the US embassy in Tehran. The staff filtered in under gray skies, the marines manned their posts, and the daily crush of anti-American protestors massed outside the gate chanting, "Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!"

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.

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.

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.

Heading west, the Staffords, the Lijeks, Anders, and several Iranians avoided detection. They had almost reached the British embassy when they encountered yet another demonstration. A local in their group gave some quick advice "Don't go that way" and then she melted into the crowd. The group zigzagged to Anders' nearby apartment, at one point sneaking single-file past an office used by the komiteh, one of the gun-wielding, self-appointed bands of revolutionaries that controlled much of Tehran.

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.

The CIA was in chaos when Tony Mendez arrived at his desk the next morning. People dashed through the halls, clutching files and papers. Desks were piling up with "flash" cables the highest-priority messages, reserved for wartime situations.

Mendez, 38, had been at the agency during the Vietnam War. But this seemed worse. At least then the US had another government to talk to. In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council refused to negotiate. With no diplomatic channels open, clandestine efforts were the last hope. But since the revolution had begun a year earlier, most of the CIA's intelligence infrastructure in Iran had been destroyed. As former head of the Disguise Section and current authentication chief of the CIA's Graphics and Authentication Division, Mendez oversaw logistical operations behind the tens of thousands of false identities the CIA was running. He knew there were only three field agents in Iran and that they had all been captured at the embassy.

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.

Then, a few weeks after the takeover of the embassy, Mendez received a memorandum from the State Department marked as secret. The news was startling: Not everyone in the embassy had been captured. A few had escaped and were hiding somewhere in Tehran. Only a handful of government officials knew the details because Carter's advisers and the State Department didn't want to tip off the Iranians.

Mendez had spent 14 years in the CIA's Office of Technical Service the part of the spy shop known for trying to plant explosives in Fidel's cigars and wiring cats with microphones for eavesdropping. His specialty was using "identity transformation" to get people out of sticky situations. He'd once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison so they could arrange a meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them with a "jack-in-the-box." An officer would wait for a moment of confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.

For the operation in Tehran, his strategy was straightforward: The Americans would take on false identities, walk right out through Mehrabad Airport, and board a plane. Of course, for this plan to work, someone would have to sneak into Iran, connect with the escapees, equip them with their false identities, and lead them to safety past the increasingly treacherous Iranian security apparatus. And that someone was him.

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.

Mendez gave his superiors an operations plan, with an analysis of the target, mission, and logistics. The task was so difficult that his bosses had signaled that they'd be reluctant to sign off on anything but an airtight exfiltration mission. But this proposal was detailed enough to be approved by them and the White House. Plausibility, as they say in the espionage business, was good.

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 Apes and 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.
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