CIA officer who inspired ‘Argo’ will speak

STEUBENVILLE – A retired CIA officer whose work inspired the critically acclaimed Hollywood thriller, “Argo” will be the second speaker in the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series.

Antonio Mendez, former CIA officer now pursuing a career as a painter and author, will be in Steubenville in April to talk about his life as an agent and his role in the daring real-life rescue of six Americans from the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 1980.

He’ll take the stage at 7:30 p.m. April 9 in the Steubenville High School Auditorium.

“We are excited to be able to bring to our community the second of our speakers in the lecture series,” said Chamber President Sue Hershey. “We know that Antonio Mendez will provide an insightful and extremely interesting presentation that will be enjoyed by all of our attendees.”

Presenting sponsors for the event include Eastern Gateway Community College and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Special support is being provided by Bayberry House Bed and Breakfast, Apollo Pro Cleaning, Piergallini Catering, Newbrough Photo and Steubenville City Schools.

The announcement of the speaker came this morning during a press conference at the community college.

More than 900 area residents were on hand for the inaugural lecture in November, which featured retired Secret Service Agent Clint Hill and his co-author, Lisa McCubbin, who discussed his assignment to protect first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Hill, the special agent captured on film as he jumped into the presidential limousine during the assassination of John F. Kennedy, described what it was like to work around the Kennedys and shared his memories of the shooting in Dallas.

Hershey and Herald-Star Executive Editor Ross Gallabrese anticipate another banner crowd.

“We’re happy to be able to join once again with the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Eastern Gateway Community College and the Franciscan University of Steubenville to present the second speaker in our series,” Gallabrese said. “Antonio Mendez will bring a unique perspective about our intelligence efforts and offer a look at the real story behind “Argo.’”

Mendez was recruited by the CIA’s Technical Services Division in 1965, and the Eureka, Nev., native would lead a double life: For 25 years he worked undercover, often overseas, participating in some of the most important operations of the Cold War. His non-agency friends, however, saw him as a quiet bureaucrat working for the U.S. military. The “disguise master” to the CIA, Mendez and his subordinates were responsible for changing the identity and appearance of thousands of clandestine operatives over the years, allowing them to move securely around the world. His own career ran the gamut from Wild West adventures in East Asia to Cold War intrigue in Moscow.

He moved into the CIA’s executive rank, earning the Intelligence Star for Valor in 1980 for engineering and conducting the rescue of the six U.S. diplomats who took refuge in the Canadian embassy in Iran. To effect their escape, Mendez concocted an ostensible Hollywood film production company, complete with personnel, scripts, publicity and real estate in Los Angeles.

By the time he retired in November 1990, Mendez had earned the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction.

As part of the CIA’s 50 th anniversary celebration in September 1997, Mendez was one of 50 CIA officers chosen to receive the Trailblazer’s Medallion, recognizing him as an “officer who by his actions, example or initiative … helped shape the history of the CIA.”

Mendez published his first book, “The Master of Disguise,” in November 1999, and since then has appeared in various national media as well as 22 documentaries.

In September 2002 he published his second book, “Spy Dust,” with his wife, Jonna, who is expected to take part in the Steubenville event.

The feature film “Argo.” based on the rescue of the hostages, with actor Ben Afleck starring in and producing the movie, drew seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Winners were announced last night.

Mendez, meanwhile, told the story of the operation in a book, “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History,” released just prior to the movie’s premier in October.

During the 60th anniversary celebration of CIA’s Office of Technical Service, where his career started, Gen. David Petraeus, then the director of the CIA, identified Mendez as one three OTS officers in 60 years who had made a difference in how the agency does it work which, when combined with plaudits from positive reviews from four former CIA directors who reviewed his book, lends credence to his innovative spirit and courage.

Mendez and his wife, founding board members of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., currently make their home on a 40-acre farm in Maryland.

Reserved seats are priced at $20, with general admission costing $15.

A very limited number of VIP ticket packages are available by contacting the chamber at 740-282-6226.

Harris is a reporter for the Steubenville-Herald Star, a sister Ogden newspaper of the Salem News. She can be contacted at