Tony Mendez

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Tony Mendez
Mendez (left) with Jimmy Carter
after the Canadian Caper
Birth nameAntonio Joseph Mendez
Born (1940-11-15) November 15, 1940 (age 77)
Eureka, Nevada, U.S.[1][2]
Allegiance United States
Service/branchInsigne incognitum.svg Central Intelligence Agency
Years of service1963–1990
UnitGraphics and Authentication Division
Battles/warsIran hostage crisis, Cold War
AwardsIntelligence Star (1980)
CIA Trailblazer Award (1997)
Order of the Sphinx (2000)

Antonio Joseph "Tony" Mendez (born November 15, 1940) is an American CIA technical operations officer, now retired, who specialized in support of clandestine and covert CIA operations. He has written three memoirs about his CIA experiences.

Mendez was decorated, and is now widely known, for his on-the-scene management of the "Canadian Caper" during the Iran hostage crisis, in which he exfiltrated six American diplomats from Iran in January 1980. He arranged to have them pose as a Canadian film crew. As part of their cover, the diplomats carried passports issued by the Canadian government to document them as Canadian citizens.

After declassification of records, the full details of the operation were reported in a 2007 article by Joshuah Bearman in Wired magazine.[3] This was loosely adapted for the screenplay and development of the 2012 Academy Award-winning film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, who also starred as Mendez. Mendez also attended the 70th Golden Globe Awards to give a speech about the film, where it was nominated (and later won) for Best Motion Picture – Drama.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Mendez was born in Eureka, Nevada, in 1940 to John George Mendez (1917–1943)[5][6] and Neva June Tognoni (1919–1995).[7][1][8] He attended local public schools. His father was of Mexican descent, and his mother had Italian, French, and Irish ancestry.[9][10][11][12][13] In an interview by Open Your Eyes magazine, Mendez said that his father died when he was quite young; he never learned to speak Spanish and was cut off from his father's Mexican-American culture.[14] As a teen, Mendez moved with his family to Colorado. After graduating from high school, he studied art at the University of Colorado.[15]


Mendez continued to work as an artist after college. He supported himself by working as an illustrator and tool designer for Martin Marietta, a large aerospace firm.[15]

In 1965 Mendez answered a blind advertisement for a graphic artist. He was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency, where he became an espionage artist for the Technical Services Division.[13][15] Mendez worked as a CIA officer in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. His work in the agency frequently required him to forge documents, create disguises, and handle other graphical work related to espionage. He served in the CIA for 25 years. Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star on 12 March 1980.[13][15]

That year Mendez had gone to Iran to rescue six American diplomats, who had taken refuge at the Canadian embassy after the United States embassy was overrun in the disruption related to the overthrow of the government. He managed on the scene in what became known as the Canadian Caper: Mendez created a strategy to exfiltrate the diplomats by passing them off as Canadians on a science-fiction film crew. He had gained Canadian passports from that government to identify them as citizens.

Marriage and family[edit]

Mendez and his first wife, Karen, had three children together. Karen Mendez died of cancer in 1986.[16] Their son Ian died in 2010. Their son Antonio Tobias Mendez became a sculptor.

In the mid-1980s, Mendez worked with Jonna Mendez, also a CIA officer, on rebuilding the US security organization in the Soviet Union and later Russia. Following Mendez's retirement in 1990, they married. They had a son together.[16]

Later years[edit]

Since retiring from the CIA in 1990, Mendez and his wife Jonna, herself a 27-year veteran of the CIA,[15] have served on the Board of Directors for the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. He works full-time as an artist.

Mendez has written three non-fiction books:

  • Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (1999), with Malcolm McConnell, a memoir of his CIA experiences[17]
  • Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War (2003), with Jonna Mendez and Bruce Henderson.
  • Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (2012), with Matt Baglio, a more lengthy account of the Canadian Caper.

His first book was lauded in 2002 by John Hollister Hedley, former Chairman of the CIA's Publications Review Board, as one of three "landmark memoirs" by former CIA officers.[17][18]

Mendez was interviewed by film director Errol Morris for the First Person TV series; he appeared in the season one episode "The Little Gray Man."

In 2009, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.[19]

Representation in other media[edit]

In the first decade of the 21st century, records related to the Canadian Caper were declassified. Journalist Joshuah Bearman wrote a full article about this in the April 2007 issue of Wired magazine.[3]

Mendez's account was loosely adapted for the screenplay and development of the feature film Argo (2012). It was directed by Ben Affleck, who also starred as Mendez, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. When interviewed in 2013 by, Mendez was asked his reaction to being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic. Mendez noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish or much of his father's culture, and stated "I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert."[9][10]


  • The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (1999)
  • Spy Dust (2002)
  • Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (2012)


  1. ^ a b Tony Mendez's Birth Certificate
  2. ^ "Antonio J. Mendez". The Best Reviews. 2002-09-17. Retrieved 2012-10-06.
  3. ^ a b Bearman, Joshuah (24 April 2007). "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran". Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  4. ^ Rosenwald, Michael S. (January 14, 2013). "Golden Globes: A big night for the real Tony Mendez". Washington Post. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  5. ^ "John George Mendez". Retrieved 2015-01-27.
  6. ^ John G. Mendez's Death Certificate
  7. ^ "Neva June Tognoni". Retrieved 2015-01-27.
  8. ^ Neva June Tognoni's Birth Certificate
  9. ^ a b Rico, Jack. "Exclusive! Argo's real Tony Mendez: "I'm not Hispanic"". Archived from the original on 2013-04-06. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  10. ^ a b Rico, Jack. "Argo's real Tony Mendez: "I'm not Hispanic"". NBC Latino. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  11. ^ Esparza, Moctesuma. "Ben Affleck's Argo and the whitewashing of the Mexican-American". Al Día (Philadelphia). Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  12. ^ Esparza, Moctezuma. "Ben Affleck's Argo and Whitewashing Mexican-Americans". Al Día (Philadelphia). News Taco. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  13. ^ a b c Carswell, Simon. "The agent behind the 'Argo' mask". The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  14. ^ Melendez, Victor. "Tony Mendez: The Real Life James Bond". Open Your Eyes. Archived from the original on 10 February 2013. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  15. ^ a b c d e "Antonio Mendez: Author of the Master of Disguise and Spy Dust". Archived from the original on 2012-09-25. Retrieved 2012-10-06.
  16. ^ a b Gardner, Karen (December 11, 2011). "Undercover no more". Frederick News-Post. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  17. ^ a b "Three Memoirs from Former CIA Officers". CIA. Retrieved 2012-10-06.
  18. ^ "John Hollister Hedley". Missouri Southern State University. Archived from the original on 2012-10-31. Retrieved 2012-10-06.
  19. ^ Owens, Donna M. ""Argo" subject now battling Parkinson's". Retrieved 2018-10-25.

External links[edit]