Pinball wizardry and other adventures

Culture

01 Dec 2012

I grew up poor and somewhat isolated in the searing desert heat of Nevada. Perhaps because of this early childhood experience I have always felt that my imagination was almost on fire. My mother gave me a watercolours set when I was about eight and told me I was going to be an artist. And so it came to be. The CIA hired me because of my artistic skills, but what they asked me to do with them is where the story gets interesting. Pretty pictures were never on the schedule. Forgeries and counterfeits were more the order of the day.
Argo, the new film by Ben Affleck, deals with a CIA operation for which I invented a somewhat unorthodox solution, turning six Americans on the run in Tehran into a Hollywood location scouting party for a fake movie, the original movie called ‘Argo’, which was never intended to be made. Never, that is, until now, in 2012.

But this is not the only undertaking at the CIA where I used my overactive imagination. In the 1970s I had two groups of people working with me and they were at war with each other. One group were the blue-collar worker types who ran our pressroom. Most people wouldn’t imagine that the CIA has a pressroom, but we did and it was mammoth. The other group was comprised of the founding members of the CIA’s new cyber-capability, who tweaked gleaming new computers and spoke in a jargon that most people, especially the pressmen, couldn’t understand. And so the scene was set.

A large room in our building had recently become available and both groups wanted to expand into that space. A sporadic internal war flared in the corridors, with disparaging comments echoing down the halls. As a manager, it was my responsibility to solve the problem. I called in my executive officer, Mary, and ordered up a new management-training device for use in enhancing the performance of employees. It was installed in the empty room, the object of the dispute, and I insisted that the two sides met in that room for one hour each day to iron out their differences.

The ‘training device’ was an old-fashioned pinball machine. Probably the only pinball machine ever bought with US taxpayer funds. At least I hope so…

After several weeks the enemies had transferred their aggression to the pinball competition, had become friends, and the real-estate problem was quickly resolved. The pinball machine outsurvived me at CIA HQ and was pointed out when VIPs toured our office (an office that closely resembled the ‘Q’ laboratory in the James Bond movies). It was indicated as an imaginative approach to problem-solving. Presidents, secretaries of state and visiting foreign dignitaries were all given the chance to admire it.

I have always been something of an outlier. I used the tactics of the rough streets where I grew up in the boardrooms and the senior executive service of the CIA. Even when I was promoted to higher levels of responsibility, I insisted on keeping my hand in, and it was working in the field and dealing with the human elements that made CIA work so compelling. If I miss anything about the work, it is that.

Throughout my career I always referred to those negotiations required to move the mission along as ‘pinball’. It was all about getting the ball up on the table and seeing how high a score you could rack up. Whether scrapping for a budget for a new programme or trying to recruit new talent to run my projects, I was always playing pinball. And I often won.

Family life, lived in a world where part of you is often under cover, can be complicated, awkward and confusing. When you have constantly to lie to your neighbours and friends, you can end up feeling very isolated. It is one of the reasons why so many of my colleagues tended to marry within the CIA. It was an advantage to family life when your other half understood your business and why you couldn’t discuss the details. My first wife, Karen, did not work at the CIA, but she understood nevertheless that some things couldn’t be shared. Years later, after her death, I married Jonna, a woman I had worked with for 20 years. We had worked together on many operations, and on others I sent her into some of the most dangerous places on the planet (at least if you were a CIA officer). Even today we are almost joined at the hip; we have been through so much together that we can communicate without words. It does speed things along.

When I first saw Argo, with Ben Affleck’s face on a 30ft-high screen saying, ‘My name is Tony Mendez…’, I got the chills. Actual chills. It was an extraordinary experience. This story was so closely held that a year after it happened, when I wrote it up for an in-house CIA publication, classified ‘Confidential’, the CIA deemed it too sensitive even to be circulated internally. My true identity was also classified. So, at the risk of repeating myself, to see Ben on the screen saying my name was a bit overwhelming. I have since got over the shock, but I like to remind everyone I meet that actually Ben is not good-looking enough to play me!

Public identity: Mendez’s Tehran embassy badge
Public identity: Mendez’s Tehran embassy badge

At the CIA you never expect to receive credit for what you do. When we delivered the six American hostages to State Department Security on the tarmac at Zurich airport, they herded them away without so much as a hello or a thank you. That is how it is supposed to be. As my character says in the movie: ‘If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.’ I thought I would go to my grave with this story, and others. But the CIA had other ideas.

Secret handshake: Meeting President Carter at the White House
Secret handshake: Meeting President Carter at the White House

In 1997 the Agency was 50 years old. In the peaceful interlude before 9/11 it was decided that it would celebrate that anniversary by holding a competition for the top 50 CIA officers in its first 50 years. Amazingly, I was chosen as one. Some of the officers named had already died (Allen Dulles) and others had such narrow specialities that there was little public interest. But my job history was chock-a-block with tales of espionage operations involving real spies and real drama. When I was invited to tell the Argo story, I initially balked. Why would we give away one of our best stories? But George Tenet, then director of the CIA, was adamant. And so we did.

I have no souvenirs from my mission to Iran. I did have a very large caviar tin that was given to me by Joe and Kathy Stafford, two of the rescued embassy workers… but it seems that my wife has thrown it out. I don’t need any souvenirs, actually. I see the people we rescued occasionally and we laugh and compare stories. That is more than I would usually expect. It is nice to check in on their lives occasionally. That is a souvenir in itself.

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, is published by Penguin.


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