CIA agent who inspired "Argo" amazed by Oscar win

(CBS News) WASHINGTON -- Ben Affleck turned the dramatic story of a hostage rescue mission in Iran into the Oscar-winning movie "Argo."

But that story was first reported more than fifteen years ago by David Martin in 1997 (report at left).

On Tuesday, Martin caught up again with the man Affleck portrayed in the movie -- the CIA's real "Master of Disguise."

If ever a spy had his cover blown, it is Tony Mendez. He traveled with his wife to the Oscars, where success is exactly the opposite of what it once was when he was known as the CIA's "Master of Disguise."

"You sort of develop a mentality in our business where you consider success to be the fact that nobody knew. Nobody will ever know," Mendez said in 1997.

Mendez was speaking in public for the first time in that 1997 interview with CBS News. Now practically everybody has heard his story.

The First Lady herself announced it. "Argo" won best picture for director and star Ben Affleck. But Mendez was the real star of the real "Argo," the 1980 operation which spirited six Americans out of Iran while 52 others were held hostage at the U.S. embassy. The years have slowed Mendez, but in an another interview in 2012, he still told a riveting tale about how he smuggled the six diplomats -- exfiltrated, in spy talk -- from under the noses of crowds chanting "death to America."

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"If you're doing an exfiltration with a group of people, you need a cover story ... a lie. Maybe it's not credible, but it's so strange that it couldn't be false. It has to be true," Mendez said.

So Mendez came up with a bogus movie called "Argo," complete with ads in "Variety" and business cards.

"We have to invent some offices and we have to make them real offices so if you go there or you call them up, they answer the phone," Mendez said. "We decide to call it Studio Six Productions."

Both as played by Affleck and in real life, Mendez went into Tehran disguised as a producer scouting locations for his movie and turned the six Americans, who were hiding in the home of a Canadian diplomat, into members of his crew. Outfitted with false identities, they passed through customs at the Tehran airport and flew home to a joyous welcome. Mendez had pulled off the perfect caper.

"It's like robbing banks, except in our case, we had to make it look like the money was still there."

So how does a man who went into Iran at the height of an anti-American revolution feel about the Oscar? Well, he's just back from Los Angeles, and he told us he was trembling.

"Yeah, isn't that crazy?" Mendez asked.

The spy who stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.

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