Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

December 14, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran and captured dozens of American hostages, sparking a 444-day ordeal and a quake in global politics still reverberating today. But there is a little-known drama connected to the crisis: six Americans escaped. And a top-level CIA officer named Antonio Mendez devised an ingenious yet incredibly risky plan to rescue them before they were detected.

Disguising himself as a Hollywood producer, and supported by a cast of expert forgers, deep cover CIA operatives, foreign agents, and Hollywood special effects artists, Mendez traveled to Tehran under the guise of scouting locations for a fake science fiction film called Argo. While pretending to find the perfect film backdrops, Mendez and a colleague succeeded in contacting the escapees, and smuggling them out of Iran.

Antonio Mendez finally details the extraordinarily complex and dangerous operation he led more than three decades ago. A riveting story of secret identities and international intrigue, Argo is the gripping account of the history-making collusion between Hollywood and high-stakes espionage.

Reaction:

The first I heard of Argo was from the Ben Affleck film (which, to date, I’ve not yet seen). But since I tend to like books more than movies, I decided to go with the original material first before experiencing it through a Hollywood filter.

Mendez, the CIA operative who came up with the exfiltration plan, begins the book by delving into the history of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. He then tells about the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, the detention of 53 American hostages, and some of the government/media/public response to the situation.

While I understand that those parts were necessary to provide some background, they were also boring.

The action really gets underway when Mendez tells about six American diplomats who were holed up at the house of a couple of Canadian diplomats in Tehran. The CIA thought they would be able to extract these “virtual hostages” — as long as they had the right cover story. That’s when Mendez came up with the idea of posing as a Hollywood studio scouting locations for a sci-fi film. The CIA would create travel documents and other background details showing that the six “house guests” (as they are referred to throughout the book) worked in various studio capacities. Back in the late ’70s, before IC chips in passports, this was entirely possible.

Mendez’ firsthand account was highly entertaining. It was fascinating to read a little bit about how the CIA operates and about the extreme attention to detail that goes into creating “backstopped IDs” (which simply means making sure the fake identity checks out several levels deep).

More than the actual rescue operation, which, amazingly, went off without a hitch, what stood out most for me in this book is the lengths the CIA (and, by extension, the government) would go to in order to rescue its own citizens. From what I could tell, none of the six house guests was a particularly “important” or high-ranking government official. Yet the CIA still devoted significant resources to the exfiltration. This reminder of the good that the government can do made me oddly proud.

Rating:

Although Argo lacks the tension to make it a truly thrilling or exciting book, it is nonetheless highly engrossing from about the midway point to the final page. It gives a rare look at how the CIA develops an operation from beginning to end, and even if a lot of it is propaganda, it’s at least interesting propaganda. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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