Native Nevadan Tony Mendez a National Hero and Inspiration for Argo
By Amanda Mendez
Tony Mendez is a retired CIA officer, an author and an award-winning painter with an international reputation. He lives and works in his studios and gallery on his forty-acre farm in rural Maryland. Tony has been a painter since his childhood growing up in Nevada. Whether living in Eureka, Denver, in Washington, D.C., where he spent a good part of his career, or assigned overseas in the Far East, he painted continuously. He has won numerous awards for his work and is represented in many major collections. In 1965 CIA’s Technical Services Division, the equivalent of James Bond’s “Q”, recruited him. Born in the loneliest town on the loneliest road in America, Eureka, Nevada, Tony led two lives. For 25 years he worked under cover, often overseas, participating in some of the most important operations of the Cold War. To his friends he was a quiet bureaucrat working for the U.S. military. To the CIA he was their disguise master. From Wild West adventures in East Asia to Cold War intrigue in Moscow he was there.
He moved into the CIA’s executive rank over the course of his career. Mendez and his subordinates were responsible for changing the identity and appearance of thousands of clandestine operatives, allowing them to move securely around the world. In January 1980 he was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor for engineering and conducting the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis. This rescue operation involved creating an ostensible Hollywood film production company, complete with personnel, scripts, publicity and real estate in LA.
When Mendez retired in November 1990 he had earned the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction. Seven years later, in September 1997 on the fiftieth anniversary of the CIA, he was one of fifty officers chosen from the tens of thousands who had worked at CIA over its first fifty years awarded the Trailblazer Medallion. This honor recognized him as an “officer who by his actions, example, or initiative…helped shape the history of the CIA.” He published his first book, The Master of Disguise, in November 1999. Since then Mendez has appeared in various national media to include twenty-two documentaries. In September 2002 he published his second book with his wife Jonna entitled Spy Dust. Warner Brothers has made a feature film based on the rescue of the hostages out of the Canadian embassy in Tehran. The film, called ARGO, which stars and was directed by Ben Affleck, was released in October 2012. Tony has just finished a complete retelling of the operation in ARGO: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which was published just prior to the film’s release (Sept 13th 2012.)
Mendez continues to paint, to lecture and consult to the U.S. Intelligence Community. He has published articles in their journals and he and his wife are founding board members of the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. At the 60th Anniversary of CIA’s Office of Technical Service, Tony Mendez’s parent organization, General David Petraeus, then Director of Central Intelligence, called out Tony as one of three OTS officers in sixty years who had made a difference in how the CIA did its work. That, combined with plaudits from four previous Directors of Central Intelligence in reviewing his new book, ARGO, lend credence to his innovative spirit and courage.
The movie ARGO, based on Tony’s story of the rescue of six Americans from Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, won an Oscar for Best Picture of 2012. Tony lives outside of Washington, D.C. He and his wife Jonna, a photographer and author, had four children between them; Amanda, Toby, Ian, now deceased, and Jesse. Tony’s first wife, Karen, is deceased.