In the midst of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979, the CIA began what came to be referred to as one of the spy agency’s most successful publicly known operations: the rescue of six American diplomats who had escaped from the overrun American embassy—using a fake film as the fake film. Story cover.
“Argo,” the 2012 live-action take on the fake CIA, depicts a single CIA officer, Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, infiltrating Tehran to rescue American diplomats in a daring operation.
But in fact, the agency sent two officers to Tehran. For the first time on Thursday, the CIA revealed the identity of its second officer, Ed Johnson, in… The final season of the new podcast “The Langley Files.”
Mr. Johnson, a linguist, accompanied Mr. Mendez, a master of disguise and forgery, on the plane to Tehran to persuade the diplomats to adopt the cover story, that they were Canadians who were part of a site-scouting crew in search of science fiction. A movie called “Argo”. The two then helped the diplomats obtain false documents and escorted them through Iranian airport security to return them to their home country.
Although Mr. Johnson’s name was classified, the CIA admitted the involvement of a second officer. Mr. Mendez, who died in 2019, wrote about being accompanied by a second officer in his first book, but he used the pseudonym Julio. A painting depicting a scene from the operation, which hangs at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, shows a second officer sitting across from Mr. Mendez in Tehran as they forge stamps on Canadian passports. But the identity of the second officer is mysterious, and his back is to the viewer.
The agency began speaking publicly about its role in rescuing diplomats 26 years ago. On the agency’s 50th anniversary, in 1997, the CIA declassified the operation and allowed Mr. Menendez to tell his story, hoping to balance the score on some of the agency’s ill-fated operations around the world with an operation that was an apparent success.
But until recently, Johnson preferred to keep his identity secret.
“He was someone who spent his whole life doing things quietly and in the shadows, with no expectation of public praise or recognition,” said Walter Trosin, a CIA spokesman and co-host of the agency’s radio show. “And he was quite happy to keep it that way. But it was his family who encouraged him, later in life, to tell his side of the story because they felt there would be value to the world in hearing it.”
After Mr. Trosin heard that Johnson and his family were visiting CIA headquarters early that summer, he arranged to meet them. At the meeting, Mr. Trosin and his podcast co-host saw how important the CIA’s recognition of Mr. Johnson’s work was to his family and began looking for a way to tell the story on the podcast.
Johnson, 80, was not available to discuss his podcasting career or with The New York Times due to health issues. Undeterred, Mr. Trosin dove into the agency’s secret archives.
Shortly after dangerous operations, the CIA often records secret interviews with participants, to capture so-called lessons learned from its secret history. Additionally, for many storied officers, CIA records compile oral histories at the end of their careers. CIA historians have done such an oral history with Mr. Johnson.
“We discovered the existence of this earlier interview,” Mr. Trosin said. “At least parts of it can be made public.”
Thanks to the film “Argo”, the CIA’s role in rescuing diplomats who were sheltering Canadians became one of the agency’s most famous operations.
CIA Museum, Which tends to touch on the agency’s failuresFeatures a display on the process. Among the artifacts is a copy of the script – or at least the treatment – for the fake film, complete with the Hollywood “A Cosmic Conflagration” tagline. Also on display are the fake production company business cards used as part of the film’s cover story and concept art, which included drawings from Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who helped create the Marvel universe.
As with the painting, the museum display does not identify Mr. Johnson.
But CIA officials said Mr. Johnson, an expert in languages and pulling people out of difficult places, was invaluable to the operation.
At the time of the hostage crisis, Johnson was based in Europe, focusing his Cold War work on learning how to get in and out of countries that were not always hospitable to Americans.
When Iranian revolutionaries overran the US embassy and took 52 diplomats hostage, six Americans working in the consular office escaped. They eventually ended up under the protection of Kenneth D. Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran, and the CIA began working on a plan to smuggle them out of the country.
Mr. Mendez, who worked with Hollywood experts to hone his business skill, came up with a plan to use a fake film, which he called “Argo” after the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the ancient Greek heroes who undertook the arduous task. Quest to recover the Golden Fleece.
While some of the CIA’s extraction operations at the time used lone officers, the agency decided that in order to rescue the six diplomats, two officers would be needed, said Brent Geary, a CIA historian who has studied the agency’s history in Iran.
Mr. Johnson was fluent in French, German, Spanish and Arabic. But he did not speak Persian, the dominant language in Iran.
Dr. Geary said the agency had Persian speakers, but it could not risk sending someone who might be known to current or former Iranian officials. The belief was also that someone fluent in the local language could ask the questions, and crucial to the mission was the presence of people with the skills of Mr. Mendez and Mr. Johnson.
“They are trained to get in and out of tight spaces,” Dr. Geary said.
Even without Persian, Mr. Johnson’s languages came into use. Shortly after their arrival, Mr. Mendez and Mr. Johnson accidentally ended up at the Swedish Embassy, across the street from the American Embassy, which had been occupied by Iranian revolutionaries.
Outside the embassy, Johnson discovered that he and the Iranian guard spoke German, and the two began talking. The guard then stopped a taxi, wrote the address of the Canadian Embassy on a piece of paper, and sent the fake film producers.
“I have to thank the Iranians for being the beacon that brought us to the right place,” Johnson said in his oral history.
In the movie “Argo,” Mr. Affleck, who plays Mr. Mendes, is shown passing the Iranian forms necessary to enter and exit the country. But in reality, it was Mr. Johnson who pulled off a sleight of hand to steal the documents. (Mr. Affleck did not respond to a request for comment.)
In his oral history, Mr. Johnson said that “the most important thing” was to convince the diplomats that they could pull off the film team’s cover story.
“These are newbies,” Mr. Johnson recalled in the recorded session. “They were people who were not trained to lie to the authorities. They were not trained to be secretive and devious.”
But Johnson said the six diplomats pulled it off, putting aside their nervousness and adopting the persona of a happy film crew.
The film’s actual climax — spoiler alert for a film released more than a decade ago — involves Iranian government officials reacting skeptically to the cover story, then realizing the “film crew” were American diplomats and chasing the plane down the runway. None of it happened.
In fact, there was only a final security check when the group left the departure lounge.
“There were two young Iranian men, frisking people as they passed,” Mr. Johnson recalled, noting that the diplomats would lean on their parts and make jokes as they approached the checkpoint.
The diplomats, Mr. Mendes and Mr. Johnson, have thus passed the final checks. In the oral history, Mr. Johnson recalled boarding the plane and seeing the plane’s name written on the side. Her name was Argaw, and Johnson thought to himself: “What the hell?”
“After a while, I forget when I picked up the Herald Tribune and did the crossword,” Mr Johnson said, adding: “One of the clues was Jason’s companions… Jason and the adventurers.”
In the CIA podcast, Mr. Trosin said the name of the plane and the crossword puzzle were mere coincidences.
“To be clear, these are not CIA officers with excess free time just planting evidence,” Mr. Trosin said.
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