Correcting History: The Cia's Rescue In Iran In A Bold 1980 Masquerade To Flee Iran, Diplomats Posed As A Canadian Film Crew.

Posted: September 28, 1997

WASHINGTON — The movie was to be a sci-fi thriller called Argo. Its producers set up a Hollywood studio, had phone lines run in, printed business cards, got a manuscript, and even placed promotional ads in entertainment newspapers.

But this show was not for the general public. It was aimed at a specific audience in revolutionary Iran. Its real stars would be a group of trapped U.S. diplomats. And its creators were not moguls from the West Coast, but spies from the CIA.

Last week, for the first time since the incident unfolded 17 years ago, the CIA permitted a fully detailed description of the sensational 1980 rescue of six Americans who had fled to the Canadian Embassy during the hostage crisis in Iran.

The story, as told by participants and the retired CIA agent who ran the rescue, is classic James Bond:

The agency set up a bold and elaborate ``cover'' in which the six - led by a CIA agent portraying an Irish location director - masqueraded as an advance movie crew and slipped out of Iran in the midst of the seething international standoff.

It had moments of humor, as when Robert G. Anders, the senior American diplomat in the group, pulled on a tight-fitting, light blue shirt, unbuttoned to the chest, and, for extra Hollywood effect, wore his trench coat like a cape.

And it had moments of excruciating tension, as when the group passed all the Tehran airport checkpoints and reached the departure lounge, only to find its flight delayed by mechanical problems.

The story also sharpens the historical record. Canadian officials were initially granted most of the credit for the deed, and hailed by a jubilant American public. But that, participants now say, was partly a ploy to conceal the CIA's role.

``Everybody just assumed that [the Canadians] had done it all,'' Mark J. Lijek, one of the rescued six, said last week. ``We were just happy to let that perception stay out there.''

In 1983, former President Jimmy Carter revealed that the CIA had played a larger role. But the details were not widely known until now.

In the end, the escapees got past Iranian airport officials without incident. No one, apparently, tested the elaborate backup cover the CIA had set up in Hollywood. And the Iranian militants focused their attention on the Canadians.

The CIA decided to permit a fuller telling of the story after the retired agent who led the rescue was connected to the incident during the agency's 50th anniversary celebration earlier this month.

In addition, there was the ``passage of time,'' CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said. ``Reviewing the situation and the information which is out there, [there] doesn't seem to be a reason'' to keep the details secret.

The passage of 17 years has not erased the thrill of the rescue from the minds of those involved.

The agent who led the mission, Antonio J. Mendez, still has the Jan. 16, 1980, edition of Variety, the entertainment-industry newspaper, in which there is a full-page ad describing the fictitious movie as a ``cosmic conflagration.''

Anders, now retired from the State Department and living in London, still has the bogus business card the agency printed for him, complete with his alias - Robert Lee Baker - and the phone number of the fake production company, Studio Six.

Lijek still has the Molson beer key chain the CIA gave him as one of the props bolstering his cover as a Canadian citizen working as the film crew's transportation director.

Kathleen Stafford, another of those rescued, still has the clunky, dark-rimmed glasses she used as part of her disguise as the crew's slightly bohemian art director. ``You don't want to forget an episode like that,'' she said. ``You look at something concrete and it brings it all back.''

THE FIRST HOURS The events leading to the rescue began when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy complex in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. The Iranians captured the embassy and went on to hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Unknown to the world, six diplomats based at the U.S. consulate elsewhere on the 27-acre embassy compound had escaped onto the streets of Tehran during the first hours of the takeover and made their way to the Canadian Embassy.

In addition to Anders, Lijek and Stafford, they were Lijek's wife, Cora; Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attache; and Stafford's husband, Joseph.

Most thought the hostage ordeal would conclude quickly. But when weeks and then months dragged by, they realized the difficulty of their position. Even if there was a settlement of the crisis, their sudden appearance out of the woodwork could blow it to bits. ``It became evident we'd have to get out,'' Stafford said.

Back in Washington as the White House, State Department, CIA and Pentagon focused on the 52 hostages at the embassy, the CIA was also trying to figure out how to rescue the six hidden by the Canadians.

Most of the work fell to Mendez, who was then a 39-year-old agency supervisor and expert in disguise, document forgery, and the delicate art of ``exfiltrating'' people from difficult situations.

CONFIDENCE WAS KEY In an interview last week at his home in rural Maryland, Mendez said the challenge was to come up with a good reason why a group of six Westerners would suddenly show up at the Tehran airport wanting to leave the country.

It had to be something that would be plausible to the Iranians, as well as to the escapees. Their confidence in the plan would be crucial to its success, Mendez said.

There were an array of suggestions: The six might be unemployed teachers looking for work, or nutritionists on a humanitarian mission. But those scenarios seemed unbelievable. What Westerners would be crazy enough to be in Iran in the midst of the revolutionary frenzy?

Mendez said the answer came in a flash at the end of a long workday: a movie crew. As a disguise expert, Mendez had developed an association with John Chamber, makeup czar for Planet of the Apes films.

He said he telephoned Chambers and asked him how many people might be on an advance team scouting locations for a movie. Half a dozen or so, Chambers replied: a location manager, a set designer, a manuscript consultant, a finance manager, a transportation director, and maybe a few more.

It was perfect. The idea was cleared by higher-ups. And the CIA quickly set about establishing the facade of a moviemaking project that would provide a cover detailed enough to withstand the scrutiny of suspicious Iranians.

Thus was born Studio Six. It was set up in a suite of offices just vacated by the producers of the Jane Fonda-Michael Douglas movie China Syndrome. It had everything from paper clips to typewriters, and a movie title, Argo, cooked up from a coarse knock-knock joke.

On Jan. 25, 1980, Mendez and another agent flew to Tehran to begin the rescue. Mendez traveled as an Irish filmmaker named Kevin, using a brogue to help get cleared by Iranian immigration officials during a stopover in Europe.

The spies arrived in Tehran, checked into a Sheraton hotel, and then went to the Canadian safe house where the diplomats had been hiding for two months. Mendez had come to get them out, he told them. He actually had several covers to offer the escapees, but there was general agreement that the movie scam was the best.

``We all thought it had just enough of, what's the word, just enough zing to it that it was believable,'' Mark Lijek said in a telephone interview from his home near Seattle. ``It wasn't too pedestrian, but it wasn't totally crazy.''

``I had absolute confidence in it,'' said Robert Anders, the senior diplomat in the group. ``. . . It was fun doing it, even though our lives were sort of threatened in a way.''

Each diplomat was assigned a carefully selected role to play, and a modestly altered appearance.

The CIA knew, for example, that Kathleen Stafford, then 28, was an artist. So she was issued glasses and a big sketch pad and given the role of the art director. ``That made it easy for me to act confident,'' she said in a telephone interview from her home in Virginia. ``Because I knew what I was talking about.''

Anders, then 54, was made the crew's director - a role he played to the hilt. ``The shirt they gave me was two sizes too small,'' he said, and it couldn't be buttoned all the way. ``But I have a rather hairy chest and it gave you a tight, Hollywood look.''

Mark Lijek became the transportation coordinator. His wife, Cora, portrayed the manuscript's author. The agents dyed Mark's beard brown, and had his wife wear her hair differently.

Schatz was designated a camera director and was taught the basic workings of a Panaflex movie camera. But he didn't like the alias he was assigned, and, to lighten things up, asked to be called ``Woody.''

``If someone had caught onto us . . . and they had sat me down with a professional movie producer, I would have run out of things to say pretty quickly,'' Lijek said.

SPEAKING CANADIAN The diplomats would also be masquerading as Canadian citizens, so they all had to be schooled about things Canadian, about their Canadian ``hometowns.'' In addition, Lijek was given his Molson key chain. Others got small Canadian flag lapel pins. And, several recalled, they were taught how to say they were ``Canadian, ay?''

In recalling the planning, Lijek stressed that the group still owed a great debt to its Canadian hosts. ``The Canadian role was fundamental throughout,'' he said.

Finally, everything was ready. Mendez had purposely selected a Swissair flight that left Tehran's Mehrabad Airport at 5:30 a.m., Monday, Jan. 28, when the airport would be quiet. He went early to scope things out. The others followed in Canadian Embassy vans.

The diplomats were tense as they arrived. They had been in hiding for two months and it was scary being around people again. Cora Lijek and Kathleen Stafford were worried about being recognized because they had met thousands of Iranians through their visa-processing jobs.

``The hardest part was just getting out of the vans and walking into the airport,'' Mark Lijek said. ``. . . When you first walked in you thought you were neon. After a minute, you realized nobody's paying attention.''

And nobody was. But after passing through the government checkpoints, the group's relief was shattered by the announcement that the flight was delayed.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? The anguish grew as the minutes ticked by and other flights departed. The delay, though, turned out to be modest. The plane was fixed, the passengers boarded and, at last, the aircraft departed, taking the six, along with Mendez and the other spy, to safety.

At one point the group found out the plane had just left Iranian air space. ``Tony was sitting further up in the plane,'' Mark Lijek said. ``I remember him leaning into the aisle and smiling at us. I remember ordering a Bloody Mary.''

Today, almost two decades later, much has changed for the six.

Mark Lijek retired from the State Department last year and is keeping house while his wife teaches at a small West Coast college.

Kathleen Stafford still paints watercolors and teaches art at an elementary school. Her husband still works for the State Department.

Robert Anders retired in 1990 and moved to Britain.

And Henry Lee Schatz still works for the Agriculture Department.

``For us, it was basically a big adventure,'' said Mark Lijek. ``We were extremely lucky. We have, frankly, positive memories, thanks to the Canadians and Tony. Nothing bad happened to us. We survived.''

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