” Any good surveillance detection run, or DSR, always begins with the assumption that the hostiles, whoever they may be, are everywhere, and watching. ” (Ch.6, p.111)
On November 4, 1979, backed by the government, Iranian student-militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held dozens of Americans in hostage. The situation was dire, unbearably tense. About three months after the takeover of the embassy, six American diplomats who had secretly escaped the compound were attempting to flee the country that seethed with hatred for Westerners, who they saw as liars, spies, and obstacles to the Islamic Revolution.
How could the president stand by and do nothing while sixty-six Americans were in danger? There was no shortage of critics, including political foes of Carter who used the moment to score points by decrying him as weak and ineffective. (Ch.3, p.47)
Argo recounts how CIA and Canada hid and then sneaked the six diplomats out of Iran before the militants realized they were unaccounted for in the hostage crisis. Much of the planning and execution of the escape fell to Antonio Mendez, a top-level CIA officer who specializes in forging, authenticating, and maintaining aliases and covers for clandestine operations. With the American diplomats holding out in two safe houses—specifically, the residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and diplomat John Sheardown—the rescue effort faced a ticking clock.
Hollywood film crews were typically made up of people from all over the world. And of all the groups heading to Iran, it wasn’t implausible to imagine a group of self-absorbed Hollywood eccentrics traveling there in the middle of a revolution to find the perfect locations for their movie. (Ch.9, p.172)
Much of Argo is about Mendez’s preparation to pull off this charade that would rescue the six American diplomats out of Iran. He came up with a seemingly preposterous but surprisingly plausible idea that went against the standard practice of crafting mundane, unassuming cover identities. Recruiting the help of a Hollywood Academy Award-winning makeup artist, Mendez would disguise the six diplomats as a film production crew scouting for a sci-fi film location, complete with backstopped stories for each diplomat and their alias documents. To make the cover story plausible, Mendez created a fake movie and production company, printed business cards, took out film ads and held a party at a Los Angeles nightclub.
What I didn’t know was that the Canadians had been working on the problem of the passports for quite some time. From the day that the houseguests had come under their care, I think the Canadians realized the logic of allowing them to use Canadian documentation. (Ch.8, p.152)
The book emphasizes on the Canadians’ crucial role in making this landmark operation a success. To even Mendez’s astonishment, Canadian government had quickly bypassed the necessary council hearing and granted fake Canadian passports to the American diplomats. Every page of Argo breathes tension and raises pulse rate, since the Iranian revolutionaries had suspended all conventions and rationality. The loosely-adapted film inevitably steals the limelight, but the book, less dramatic but more detailed in the step-by-step elements contributing to the rescue, is more insightful to the nature of the operation. The book shows how the success on this rescue hinges on the smallest of details and intricate thinking. It also gives you a historical and political background of Iran in the 20th century. Argo shows how truth is stranger than fiction.
310 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/
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