‍CIA Reveals Ed Johnson Was Second ‘Argo’ Spy in Iran Exfiltration

The CIA podcast The Langley Files revealed that Agency linguist Ed Johnson was the mystery officer who helped Tony Mendez rescue six American diplomats trapped in Iran.

Listen to the True Spies podcast The Argonauts


The CIA sent two top intelligence officers to Iran on a mission to exfiltrate six stranded American diplomats in 1980 - an operation so daring it formed the basis of the Hollywood movie Argo (2012). CIA disguise expert Tony Mendez became a celebrity in his own right after Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning movie, but the second CIA spy remained in the shadows for more than 40 years.

On September 14, 2023, the CIA’s podcast named 80-year-old Ed Johnson as the Agency linguist who accompanied Mendez to Tehran. The mission was informally known as the ‘Canadian caper’ as the hostages hid in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence after the US Embassy was stormed by students and militants in late 1979. Two months later, the six US diplomats secretly fled Iran disguised as a movie crew traveling on Canadian passports. Johnson and Mendez were at their side.

Johnson, fluent in five languages, escorted the diplomats as they walked through Iranian customs at the airport in Tehran. The Americans were smuggled out using genuine Canadian passports with forged travel visas suggesting they’d only been in Iran for a few days scouting movie locations for an upcoming sci-fi film.

Unlike Mendez, Johnson shunned the limelight for decades. His name was revealed in an episode of the intelligence agency's podcast, The Langley Files, finally resolving the longstanding mystery.

“The second officer was Ed Johnson, a fellow CIA exfiltration specialist - someone with years of experience in quietly getting people out of dangerous places,” the CIA podcast hosts told listeners. 

Johnson (right) is presented with the CIA’s Intelligence Star

The CIA & the ‘Tehran Six’

In the Hollywood version of events, Affleck played Mendez as the only CIA officer organizing the rescue but two of the hostages told the True Spies podcast that the ‘Tehran Six’ were in hiding for more than two months when ‘two men in trench coats’ arrived. They introduce themselves as Kevin Harkins and Julio. 'Kevin' was in reality Tony Mendez, an expert in forgery, disguises, and exfiltration. Ed 'Julio' Johnson was their English-Farsi translator.

Johnson reportedly had medical issues that prevented him from joining the CIA podcast live. He earlier recorded an interview with the CIA however, in which he revealed that he and Mendez were initially lost on arrival in Tehran and ended up at the Swedish Embassy. It was across the street from the US Embassy where militants were still holding 52 American hostages. Iranian demonstrators were gathered outside. 

One language Johnson did not speak - at least, not aloud - was Persian, Iran’s main language, because the CIA did not want to reveal to Iran which of its officers was proficient in Persian. He did, however, speak French, German, Spanish, and Arabic, and Johnson was using all of his language skills hoping to get directions to the Canadian Embassy from a Swiss guard.

That's when one of the Iranian demonstrators - dressed as a revolutionary with a full beard - walked over to the Swiss Embassy to find out what's going on. Luckily, the Iranian militant spoke German so Johnson engaged him in a conversation. Before long, the militant happily directed the American spies to the Canadian Embassy, Johnson recalled: "'Oh, you want to go to the Embassy of Canada?' He writes an address out on a piece of paper and then calls a cab over. And he hands the papers to the cabbie."

Ed Johnson and Tony Mendez even tried to tip him for his help, but he refused.

"I have to thank the Iranians for being the beacon who got us to the right place…" Johnson added.

A scene from the movie Argo shows the Tehran Six at the Airport with their CIA minders


‍CIA Reveals Ed Johnson Was Second ‘Argo’ Spy in Iran Exfiltration

SPYSCAPE
Share
Share to Facebook
Share with email

The CIA podcast The Langley Files revealed that Agency linguist Ed Johnson was the mystery officer who helped Tony Mendez rescue six American diplomats trapped in Iran.

Listen to the True Spies podcast The Argonauts


The CIA sent two top intelligence officers to Iran on a mission to exfiltrate six stranded American diplomats in 1980 - an operation so daring it formed the basis of the Hollywood movie Argo (2012). CIA disguise expert Tony Mendez became a celebrity in his own right after Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning movie, but the second CIA spy remained in the shadows for more than 40 years.

On September 14, 2023, the CIA’s podcast named 80-year-old Ed Johnson as the Agency linguist who accompanied Mendez to Tehran. The mission was informally known as the ‘Canadian caper’ as the hostages hid in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence after the US Embassy was stormed by students and militants in late 1979. Two months later, the six US diplomats secretly fled Iran disguised as a movie crew traveling on Canadian passports. Johnson and Mendez were at their side.

Johnson, fluent in five languages, escorted the diplomats as they walked through Iranian customs at the airport in Tehran. The Americans were smuggled out using genuine Canadian passports with forged travel visas suggesting they’d only been in Iran for a few days scouting movie locations for an upcoming sci-fi film.

Unlike Mendez, Johnson shunned the limelight for decades. His name was revealed in an episode of the intelligence agency's podcast, The Langley Files, finally resolving the longstanding mystery.

“The second officer was Ed Johnson, a fellow CIA exfiltration specialist - someone with years of experience in quietly getting people out of dangerous places,” the CIA podcast hosts told listeners. 

Johnson (right) is presented with the CIA’s Intelligence Star

The CIA & the ‘Tehran Six’

In the Hollywood version of events, Affleck played Mendez as the only CIA officer organizing the rescue but two of the hostages told the True Spies podcast that the ‘Tehran Six’ were in hiding for more than two months when ‘two men in trench coats’ arrived. They introduce themselves as Kevin Harkins and Julio. 'Kevin' was in reality Tony Mendez, an expert in forgery, disguises, and exfiltration. Ed 'Julio' Johnson was their English-Farsi translator.

Johnson reportedly had medical issues that prevented him from joining the CIA podcast live. He earlier recorded an interview with the CIA however, in which he revealed that he and Mendez were initially lost on arrival in Tehran and ended up at the Swedish Embassy. It was across the street from the US Embassy where militants were still holding 52 American hostages. Iranian demonstrators were gathered outside. 

One language Johnson did not speak - at least, not aloud - was Persian, Iran’s main language, because the CIA did not want to reveal to Iran which of its officers was proficient in Persian. He did, however, speak French, German, Spanish, and Arabic, and Johnson was using all of his language skills hoping to get directions to the Canadian Embassy from a Swiss guard.

That's when one of the Iranian demonstrators - dressed as a revolutionary with a full beard - walked over to the Swiss Embassy to find out what's going on. Luckily, the Iranian militant spoke German so Johnson engaged him in a conversation. Before long, the militant happily directed the American spies to the Canadian Embassy, Johnson recalled: "'Oh, you want to go to the Embassy of Canada?' He writes an address out on a piece of paper and then calls a cab over. And he hands the papers to the cabbie."

Ed Johnson and Tony Mendez even tried to tip him for his help, but he refused.

"I have to thank the Iranians for being the beacon who got us to the right place…" Johnson added.

A scene from the movie Argo shows the Tehran Six at the Airport with their CIA minders


Article Ad
Article Ad
Article Ad

Escape from Tehran 

After meeting up with the stranded ‘Tehran Six’ diplomats, Johnson and Mendez provided them with disguises and passports. They filled them in on the sci-fi movie cover story and gave all six aliases and legends to memorize. Cora Lijek, one of the six diplomats, told True Spies that she was impressed with the creative cover story explaining the group’s visit to Tehran: “You could imagine a Hollywood crew doing that because they can go anywhere.”

The CIA spies also coached the diplomats on how to behave while going through Iranian customs, keeping their demeanor light and telling jokes. “These are rookies,” Johnson said n his earlier recording. “They were people who were not trained to lie to authorities. They weren't trained to be clandestine, elusive.” 

On January 27, 1980, the two CIA officers and six diplomats boarded a flight to Zurich. Johnson said he was shocked to see the plane was named Aargau, after a Swiss canton. It was a coincidence but one taken as a good sign.

The American hostages kept at the US Embassy in Tehran were not so fortunate. Some 52 Americans were held for 444 days until the crisis ended on January 20, 1981. Tony Mendez died in 2019 without ever revealing his mysterious CIA colleague's name.

Read mORE

RELATED aRTICLES

This story is part of our weekly briefing. Sign up to receive the FREE briefing to your inbox.

Gadgets & Gifts

Put your spy skills to work with these fabulous choices from secret notepads & invisible inks to Hacker hoodies & high-tech handbags. We also have an exceptional range of rare spy books, including many signed first editions.

Shop Now

Your Spy SKILLS

We all have valuable spy skills - your mission is to discover yours. See if you have what it takes to be a secret agent, with our authentic spy skills evaluation* developed by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence. It's FREE so share & compare with friends now!

dISCOVER Your Spy SKILLS

* Find more information about the scientific methods behind the evaluation here.