The Other Argo

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In 2007 Rumpus pal and contributor Joshuah Bearman wrote “The Great Escape,” a Wired article upon which the Academy Award-winning film Argo was based. During editing, Josh wrote an alternate lede, which started with Tony Mendez (the CIA agent Ben Affleck plays in the film) on another mission, years earlier. His editor called it the “Bond opening”: meeting the spy in the field, in media res, showing off his abilities. The story took place in Laos, during the Vietnam War, and involved Tony employing some Hollywood tricks then too. Here’s that scene, published for the first time as a Rumpus exclusive:

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Southeast Asia was a dangerous place for a CIA field officer when Tony Mendez arrived in the mid-1970s. Mendez was operating in the broken down capital of a mountainous, landlocked, jungle country that had hosted many coups. He’d been summoned because a case officer stationed there had a problem.

“I’ve been handling a minister-level asset,” the officer told him. “He’s feeding us information from the cabinet meetings.”

The information was vital. This country’s own civil war was a proxy war for Vietnam next door, itself a proxy for the Cold War. Technically “neutral,” the capital, Vientiane, was overflowing with spies: Russians, Chinese, North Vietnamese, and, of course, the Americans, cross-crossing through the twilight while seeking information, and trying to avoid each other. There were so many clandestine sources meeting their contacts at the city’s main roundabout that on occasion, nervous informants had gotten into espionage mix-ups and secreted into the wrong waiting car.

That’s why the CIA’s case officer and his minister were scared. The North Vietnamese were closing in and there was martial law. If the minister were caught, he’d face the firing squad. The officer put another fine point on the problem: he was black, the only black guy in town, and everyone knew he was CIA. They needed disguises.

Tony Mendez with President Jimmy Carter.

Tony Mendez with President Jimmy Carter.

This was Tony’s department. Tony worked for the CIA”s Office Technical Services—the part of the spy shop known for trying to plant explosives in Fidel’s cigars and wiring cats with microphones for eavesdropping. He’d worked extensively in “authentication”—forging documents—and was now honing his skills in “identity transformation.”

Mendez met the two men in secret, took detailed measurements and photographs of their faces, and sent them to his friend John Chambers, an Oscar-winning makeup artist who did prosthetic work for movies—and specialty work for the CIA. Tony got back two raw rubber masks and touched them up with painted details. He created costumes and ordered high quality wigs from Hong Kong. Late one night, he met the officer and the minister in a safe house, and outfitted them with the quick-change disguises. Because of how the masks were struck in Hollywood, they made the agent and asset look like ringers for Rex Harrison and Victor Mature.

As they were leaving that very meeting, their car hit a road block. As the car rolled to a stop, the soldiers asked for documents. But instead of a black CIA officer and an Asian minister, the guards looked through the car window and saw two well-dressed Caucasian men with diplomatic passports and waved them right through. They breathed easy, and then smiled: they could now meet undetected whenever they wanted.

It was groundbreaking bit of cloak and dagger, cementing Tony’s reputation as the agency’s new resourceful innovator. When his colleagues gave him the moniker “master of disguise” there was no irony intended. Tony went on to employ transformation techniques in hundreds of cases, becoming a specialist in using illusion to keep people out of sight. By 1979, Tony had returned to Washington to head the CIA’s Disguise and Authentication branches, supervising the operations behind the agency’s worldwide transformation activity. But another important mission would take Tony back out into the field, this time to save the lives of American civilians caught by the country’s biggest political crisis in years.

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You can read “The Great Escape” in its entirety here.


Joshuah Bearman has written about CIA missions, jewel thieves, deranged private investigators, aspiring Fabios, bitter rivalry among dueling Santa Clauses, and the metaphysical implications of being the world's greatest Pac Man player. His article for Wired became the movie Argo. More from this author →