Tony Mendez

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Tony Mendez
Mendez (left) with Jimmy Carter
after the Canadian Caper
Birth name Antonio Joseph Mendez
Born (1940-11-15) November 15, 1940 (age 76)
Eureka, Nevada[1][2]
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Central Intelligence Agency
Years of service 1963–1990
Rank SIS-2
Unit Graphics and Authentication Division
Battles/wars Iran hostage crisis, Cold War
Awards Intelligence 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. They posed as a Canadian film crew, and 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 (June 12, 1917, Atlantic, Iowa – October 24, 1943, Kimberly, Nevada)[5][6] and Neva June Tognoni (October 23, 1919, Preston, Nevada - October 6, 1995, Chandler, Arizona),[7][1][8] where he attended local schools. His father was of Mexican descent, and his mother had Italian, French, and Irish ancestry.[9][10][11][12][13] Mendez was interviewed in Open Your Eyes magazine, and he explained that he never learned to speak Spanish, since his father died when he was quite young.[14] "I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert" he claimed, and saw no problem with Ben Affleck portraying him on screen.[9][10] He moved with his family to Colorado as a teen. After graduating from high school, he went on to study 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.[15]

In 1965 Mendez answered a blind advertisement for a graphic artist. He was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1965, becoming 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 dealt with forging documents, creating disguises, and handling other graphical work related to espionage. He served in the CIA for 25 years. He was awarded the Intelligence Star on 12 March 1980.[13][15]

Marriage and family[edit]

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

In the mid-1980s, Mendez worked with Jonna Goeser, also a CIA officer, on rebuilding the US security organization in the Soviet Union and later Russia. They married following Mendez's retirement in 1990, and 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. He works full-time as an artist.

Mendez has written three non-fiction books:

  • Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (1999), 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 work was lauded in 2002 as one of three "landmark memoirs"[17] by John Hollister Hedley, former Chairman of the CIA's Publications Review Board.[18]

Mendez was interviewed by Errol Morris in the First Person TV series in the season one episode "The Little Gray Man."

He is played by Ben Affleck in the film Argo.


  1. ^ a b Tony Mendez's Birth Certificate
  2. ^ "Antonio J. Mendez". The Best Reviews. 2002-09-17. Retrieved 2012-10-06. 
  3. ^ 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"". 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 (magazine). Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  15. ^ a b c d e "Antonio Mendez: Author of the Master of Disguise and Spy Dust". 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. Retrieved 2012-10-06. 

External links[edit]