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Former spy talks "Argo," and Iran rescue mission

By Ryan Vlastelica

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Antonio "Tony" Mendez is the rarest of creatures: A former spy who has come out of the woodwork.

His story is the subject of Ben Affleck's new film, "Argo," released in the United States Friday, and tipped to feature in Hollywood's awards season.

"Argo" is based on one of Mendez's most remarkable missions, rescuing six Americans from Iran during the height of the 1979 hostage crisis and helping them pose as a Canadian film crew making a fictitious film called "Argo." It follows Mendez's memoir of the same name, released in September.

Mendez, 72, who was named in 1997 one of the CIA's top 50 officers of its first 50 years, talked to Reuters about "Argo" the movie, the real CIA operation and current events in the Middle East.

Q: "Argo" the film depicts the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy and hostage crisis. How do you compare that to riots in the region in more recent times?

A: "Seeing those crowds surging in front of multiple U.S. embassies and consulates does indeed bring back memories. Security has been beefed up in many ways, but these events show that perhaps they should be beefed up even more."

Q: Why recall the story of the rescue operation now?

A: "I wanted to set the details down on paper for the record and call out my colleagues, who were involved in the planning, even if many were in alias. I wanted to pass on the lessons learned to the public and to my former work mates, something that the CIA does not often do."

Q: Decades later, what perspective do you bring?

A: "Before, Argo was an unorthodox operation, designed out of frustration, a form of risk taking that would probably not be approved in today's political environment. Today, the impact lingers on. A presidency was lost, America's relationship with Iran was severed, and radical Islam had struck its first blow."

Q: Some aspects remain classified, how did those kinds of restrictions impact your writing of the book?

A: "It caused us to mask the true identity of certain individuals and intelligence entities that worked with us. We had to be cautious in describing methods and techniques, but it didn't impede the telling of the story. Not much was lost."

Q: When the story first became public, the CIA asked you to be open to the media. How did it feel to vocalize your participation and who outside the CIA knew about it?

A: "It went against every instinct I had when the CIA first asked me to tell this story, but eventually I lost my inhibition. Only the Canadian government and some elements in Hollywood knew the story at the time. I believe that both are glad to see credit given."

Q: Was there anything that surprised you or complicated things as the Argo rescue unfolded?

A: "Trying to leave Iran, there were mechanical problems with Swiss Air, which was a surprise. A journalist discovered the ruse."

Q: How did this operation compare to the others?

A: "Argo was wildly different from most other exfiltrations I have been involved in. At the CIA we used to say innovation is born out of necessity, sometimes out of desperation. Argo had an operational necessity that demanded out-of-the-box thinking, and this kind of unorthodox planning probably won't be replicated until another occasion when traditional solutions won't work. Necessity drives imagination."

Q: You worked at the CIA through critical periods of transition. What changes did you see?

A: "Don't really want to go there. The agency continually improves its abilities, trains its officers in the state-of-the-art, and then advances that very state-of-the-art. I don't need to be there to know that their ability in documents and disguise is still unparalleled."

Q: What do you make of the situation in Iran now?

A: "Iran is still a pariah, caught up between the radical elements of Islam and the Arab spring. Hostage taking has become common, and as long as the West needs oil they will be able to threaten their neighbors and the rest of the world. A powerful argument for transitioning to renewable energy can be made here."

Q: There's a certain irony to Argo becoming a real movie. What are your thoughts on it?

A: ""Argo" is a magnificent movie. Ben Affleck did a great job. We worked closely with the screenwriter and it has been a very personal experience for me, one I will always treasure."

Q: Any favorite spy movies?

A: "Almost anything that John LeCarre does, and the Bond series. Those don't reflect real espionage, but they are certainly entertaining."

(Editing by Christine Kearney and Bernadette Baum)

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