Dept Of Secrets

The True Spy Story Behind Argo

The internal CIA account of how the Iran rescue really went down. 

In the final scenes of the "nail-biting political thriller" Argo -- the true story of how the CIA safely whisked six U.S. Embassy staffers out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis -- a group of Americans disguised as a film crew safely survives three passport checks, the canceling and uncanceling of plane tickets, and a runway car chase by the Revolutionary Guard. But according to the insider account published in 1999 by the CIA's in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, the actual exit was much less dramatic. The Iranian customs official stamping passports at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport "could not have cared less" when he stamped the fake passports and exit visas of "six Canadians, a European, and a Latin American" as they snuck out of the country and onto Swissair Flight SR 363.

Notwithstanding this "easy exit," the account written by CIA agent Antonio J. Mendez -- who is played by Ben Affleck in the film -- still reads like le Carré. Mendez and his team began by looking for "black" smuggling routes out of Iran, even studying billionaire Ross Perot's successful exfiltration of two of his employees from Iran the year before. But Mendez concluded that "using paramilitary means" to rescue the hostages "seemed impossible." (A year later, the Operation Eagle Claw fiasco proved him correct.) As such, the CIA's Directorate of Operations decided to smuggle the employees "in plain sight."

But Langley was not immediately sold on the "film production" cover; initially it tossed around disguises such as "food economists" or "unemployed school teachers." No matter the cover, the Americans needed the help of Canadians. The Canadians agreed to provide six passports for the embassy staff for "humanitarian purposes" but refused to allow the two CIA escorts Canadian documentation. They did, however, smuggle the CIA's documents and disguises to Tehran in a diplomatic pouch "the size of a pillowcase."

According to the CIA's account, "The Mafia and many shady foreign investors were notorious for backing productions in Hollywood," so it was the perfect spot for the CIA to operate. The team opened Studio Six Productions and set up shop in offices previously used by Michael Douglas during production of The China Syndrome. Picking a script was a bit tricky. They decided, "We needed a script with 'sci-fi', Middle Eastern, and mythological elements. Something about the glory of Islam would be nice, too." The crew found one that would work at the bottom of the pile; it was based on "an award-winning sci-fi novel" (Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light). They drew up some logos and posters and bought full-page ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. The origin of the title Argo stemmed from "a profane 'knock-knock' joke": Argo who? Argo fuck yourself.

Despite the eventual successful rescue from Tehran, the operation did not go off without hitches. The Canadians discovered that one of the CIA's forged Iranian visas had been mistakenly issued in the future -- its forger had "misinterpreted the Farsi calendar." Relations with the Canadian government were also strained at times; Mendez recounts that some Canadian forgeries "terribly outclassed" those made by the Americans. The CIA's maps also showed the incorrect location of the Canadian Embassy, where the agents were supposed to meet their Canadian contacts. After arriving at what was actually the Swiss Embassy, the two CIA agents had to act like lost tourists, asking Iranians on the street for directions. (I wonder whether the same company made maps of Belgrade.) The final error occurred in the pre-dawn hours the day of the escape. Mendez awoke at 3 a.m. to a phone call; his alarm was set to wake him at 2:15 a.m. He had overslept.

The eight (the other CIA agent was omitted from the film) then traveled to Mehrabad International Airport in Canadian Embassy transportation (the embassy had even composed a fake cable explaining that it had advised the movie crew to film elsewhere). The refugees dressed with Hollywood flair and sauntered through the airport, each having been drilled on the dates and details of their "legend." One wore a "'mod' blow dry … tight trousers with no pockets and a blue silk shirt unbuttoned down the front with his chest hair cradling a gold chain and medallion … his topcoat resting across his shoulders like a cape." The disguises worked to a T. After their fake visas and passports were stamped by the Iranian customs agents, the eight boarded their plane, which took off after a brief mechanical delay. To be safe, they waited until they were out of Iranian airspace to order bloody marys.

One "ironic coda" from the CIA account: "By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received 26 scripts.… One was from Steven Spielberg."

National Security

Cuba Almost Became a Nuclear Power in 1962

The scariest moment in history was even scarier than we thought.

Cuba would have become the first nuclear power in Latin America 50 years ago, if not for the dynamics captured in this remarkable verbatim transcript -- published here for the first time -- of Fidel Castro's excruciating meeting with Soviet deputy prime minister Anastas Mikoyan, on November 22, 1962. The document comes from the personal archive of his son, the late Sergo Mikoyan, which was donated to the National Security Archive and which appears for the first time in English this month in the new book, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis.

Long after the world thought the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's withdrawal of his medium-range nuclear missiles announced on October 28 -- and two days after President John F. Kennedy announced the lifting of the quarantine around Cuba -- the secret crisis still simmered. Unknown to the Americans, the Soviets had brought some 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba -- 80 nuclear-armed front cruise missiles (FKRs), 12 nuclear warheads for dual-use Luna short-range rockets, and 6 nuclear bombs for IL-28 bombers. Even with the pullout of the strategic missiles, the tacticals would stay, and Soviet documentation reveals the intention of training the Cubans to use them.

But Fidel Castro was livid. Khrushchev had not consulted or even informed Castro about any deals with the Americans -- Fidel heard about the missile withdrawal from the radio. The Cuban leader refused to go along with any onsite inspections in Cuba, and raised further demands. The Soviets had their own Cuban crisis: They had to take back what the Americans called the "offensive weapons," get the U.S. to confirm its non-invasion pledge, and most importantly, keep Cuba as an ally. At the Soviet Presidium, everyone agreed only one man could achieve such a resolution: Anastas Mikoyan.

Mikoyan arrived in Cuba on November 2, 1962, and over 20 days of often-bitter conversations with Cuban leaders -- culminating in this tense meeting -- Mikoyan began to appreciate the danger tactical nuclear weapons posed if they were left on the island, especially in Cuban hands. On one day, Castro would refuse to see Mikoyan; on another, Fidel would order his anti-aircraft crews to shoot at the American surveillance planes.

The final straw apparently came on November 20, when Castro sent instructions to Cuba's representative at the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, to mention "we have tactical nuclear weapons, which we should keep" -- partly as leverage in negotiations over inspections, also to establish the fact that the weapons were in Cuban possession. Extremely worried, Mikoyan cabled the Soviet Presidium that he now planned to inform the Cuban leader that all tactical nuclear weapons would be withdrawn from Cuba. Mikoyan had to break this unpleasant news to his hosts, and he had to do it in such a way that they would remain Soviet allies.

This four-hour conversation on November 22 provided the final blow to the Cuban revolutionaries, now that the Soviet Union was removing all the weapons for which Cuba had to suffer so much. Castro opened the conversation saying that he was in a bad mood because Kennedy stated in his speech that all nuclear weapons were removed from Cuba, but surely the tacticals were still on the island. Mikoyan confirmed that "the Soviet government has not given any promises regarding the removal of the tactical nuclear weapons. The Americans do not even have any information that they are in Cuba." But the Soviet government itself, said Mikoyan, not under U.S. pressure, has now decided to take them back.

Castro's mood only got worse. Now the tacticals were coming out. Already the Soviets had given in to American pressure on the IL-28 bombers (technically the bombers could reach Florida so they qualified as "offensive" and they were nuclear capable). Mikoyan tried to persuade Castro that "as far as Il-28s are concerned, you know yourself that they are outdated. Presently, it is best to use them as a target plane." Castro retorts: "And why did you send them to us then?"

Castro was very emotional and at times rough with Mikoyan -- he criticized the Soviet military for failing to camouflage the missiles, for not using their anti-aircraft launchers to shoot down U.S. U-2 spy planes, essentially allowing them to photograph the sites. He went back to the initial offer of missiles and stated that the Cubans did not want the missiles, they only accepted the weapons as part of "fulfilling their duty to the socialist camp." The Cubans were ready to die in a nuclear war and were hoping that the Soviet Union would be also willing "to do the same for us." But the Soviets did not treat the Cubans as a partner, they caved in under U.S. pressure, and did not even consult the Cubans about the withdrawal. Castro expressed the humiliation the Cubans felt: "What do you think we are? A zero on the left, a dirty rag. We tried to help the Soviet Union to get out of a difficult situation."

In desperation, Castro almost begged Mikoyan to leave the tactical warheads in Cuba, especially because the Americans were not aware of them and they were not part of the agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Castro claimed that the situation now was even worse than it was before the crisis -- Cuba was defenseless, and the U.S. non-invasion assurances did not mean much for the Cubans. But Mikoyan rejected Castro's pleas and cited a (nonexistent) Soviet law proscribing the transfer of nuclear weapons to third countries. Castro had a suggestion: "So you have a law that prohibits transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to other countries? It's a pity. And when are you going to repeal that law?" Mikoyan was non-committal: "We will see. It is our right [to do so]."

This ended Cuba's hope to become a Latin American nuclear power.

Ironically, if the Cubans were a little more pliant, and a little less independent, if they were more willing to be Soviet pawns, they would have kept the tactical nuclear weapons on the island. But they showed themselves to be much more than just a parking lot for the Soviet missiles. Cuba was a major independent variable of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mikoyan treated his Cuban hosts with great empathy and respect, while being highly critical of his own political and military leadership. He admired the genuine character of the Cuban revolution, he saw its appeal for Latin America. But he also saw the danger of the situation spiraling out of control probably better than other leaders in this tense triangle, and thus brought about the final resolution of the crisis.

The following transcript was prepared by a Soviet note-taker, with the Soviet ambassador to Cuba, Alexandr Alexeyev, translating for Mikoyan.

Mikoyan Castro Memcon 11 22 62.PDF

Sergo Mikoyan Collection, National Security Archive.