True Spies Episode 25: The Argonauts
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would YOU do in their position? This is True Spies.
MARK LIJEK: We had this code. If he was smiling, that meant all was well. If he was scratching his cheek, that meant we should turn around and go back to the bus. So he was smiling. So we took our bags over to the Customs people and that was the beginning.
NARRATOR: Episode 25: The Argonauts
MARK LIJEK: I knew that Iran was dangerous. The department said: ‘If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go.’
NARRATOR: In the summer of 1979 Mark Lijek, a young consular official with the US State Department, was preparing for his first overseas assignment. He was going to Iran, a country in the midst of a revolution. He knew that the American embassy there had already come under attack. On February the 14th, Valentine’s Day, militiamen had stormed the embassy compound and taken all the staff hostage.
MARK LIJEK: Four of our employees were killed, four local employees, and apparently two of the attackers. Several Marines were in the hospital with gunshot wounds, so it was a fairly serious event.
NARRATOR: But it hadn’t taken long for order to be restored and the premises were returned to United States’ control. And so Mark set off for Tehran, followed a couple of months later by his wife, Cora Amburn Lijek.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: I'd been following the news but I don't think I really knew what was going on exactly on the ground. But we were young. We didn't have children and I felt like it was kind of an adventure.
NARRATOR: Well, it certainly turned into an adventure but not one that Cora could ever have imagined. This is a story about people who never signed up to be spies becoming players at the heart of one of the boldest espionage escapades in CIA history. Perhaps you’ve seen Argo, the movie in which Ben Affleck plays a secret agent posing as a Hollywood producer who flies into Tehran to help six Americans in distress. Well, this is that story. Mark and Cora Lijek were two of those Americans. And, if you haven’t seen Argo - spoiler alert - this is what really happened. It began only a few weeks after Cora had arrived in Tehran. The embassy compound was stormed for the second time in a year.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: On the day that the embassy was attacked, November 4th, 1979, Mark and I both worked in the consular building. He was on the second floor.
NARRATOR: Let’s just back up briefly. As we’ve heard, in 1979 Iran was in the throes of revolution. The country had been paralyzed by strikes and there had been millions of protesters on the streets. Then in January, the regime collapsed and the autocratic and authoritarian Shah fled abroad. Two weeks later, the spiritual leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile. The Shah went first to Egypt, then Morocco, and finally to Mexico, but he really wanted to go to the US. Eventually, in October, the American president, Jimmy Carter, gave in to pressure to allow him to enter the country for medical treatment. It was a decision that had catastrophic consequences.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: I was on the first floor with all the other non-immigrant visa applicants and we did not know about the attack until two local employees came back, who'd been out, saying they'd been chased by a crowd on the compound and that the police had told them to go into the building.
NARRATOR: November the 4th 1979 is a date etched into the modern history of the United States, the day that revolutionaries took over the US embassy in Tehran. This time they didn’t go home after a couple of days. They occupied the embassy and held 52 American citizens hostage for over a year. If you want to know more about how the CIA plotted a rescue using Special Forces to get the hostages out, listen to Episode 9 of True Spies: Shadow Games.
MARK LIJEK: I was in my office. I had an American citizen who was needing help getting out of Iran. Basically, he'd lost his passport. Then I heard a noise, a hubbub in the outer office and I came out and people were whispering: ‘Oh, you know, we think
there are attackers.’ We could not see because of the location of our building.
NARRATOR: The consular building, where Mark and Cora worked, was one of several on the large embassy compound, but the only one with a door that led directly onto the street. After several hours Mark’s boss, the consul-general, decided it was time to abandon the building. The plan was to try to get to the safety of the British embassy.
MARK LIJEK: There were two groups. There were, I think, 13 Americans, including two private citizens that were there. And our group was sent out first. It was Cora and me and the Staffords and the two private Americans.
NARRATOR: The Staffords play a central part in this story. Joe and Kathy, a couple, similar in age to Mark and Cora, who also worked in the consular section. Once they’d made it out onto the street, another man caught up with them, their boss, Bob Anders, a man in his early 50s.
MARK LIJEK: His apartment was in the neighborhood and he had just decided to go home on his own but I persuaded him to stick with us, which turned out to be very helpful because ultimately we went to his apartment when we found we could not reach the British embassy.
NARRATOR: Bob would play an even more crucial role in the days that followed. Now the priority was to find somewhere to lie low - not easy in a city in which few foreigners had remained after the revolution. The Americans were conspicuous. Where could they go? Who would give them shelter? Who were their friends? Who would you have turned to?
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: We did seek refuge in the British residence, which was far away from the embassy to the north, and we were able to stay there one night, but then they felt it was too dangerous having us there and we had to leave.
NARRATOR: By now there were just five of them: Mark and Cora, Joe and Kathy Stafford, and Bob Anders. Their colleagues who’d left in a separate group didn’t get very far. They were spotted and escorted at gunpoint back to join the other hostages at the embassy. The five who were still at large ended up in an empty house that had been rented for American diplomats. Okay for a night or two, but they knew it was only a matter of time before the Iranians came to look for them. They could only imagine what was going on at the embassy, but they knew they didn’t want to be taken back there. Their instincts were right. It has since emerged that the hostages were subjected to beatings, isolation, sleep deprivation, and even the threat of execution. So they moved house again.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: People were helping us but it was kind of scary being in a car. There weren't that many Westerners still in Iran at the time, in Tehran, and so just riding around from one location to the other in itself was frightening.
NARRATOR: And then Bob Anders - Mark and Cora’s boss, remember? - picked up the phone.
MARK LIJEK: Bob was Mr. Social. He knew everybody on the diplomatic circuit so he started calling friends. I don't know how many. I know he told us he called the Australian Meat Board man but there was only one of him, and he had a small apartment. But then he called John Sheardown, who was his counterpart at the Canadian embassy, and John already had a pretty strong inkling that Bob was out. And that's why he answered with the so very important words to us: ‘Why didn't you call sooner?’
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: But an important point is... Bob said: ‘I'm not alone. There's four more.’ And John said: ‘Bring them all. Bring them all. No problem.’
NARRATOR: John Sheardown was standing outside the house as the car pulled up. His wife Zena was waiting inside, together with a younger man with a distinctive mop of hair and large round glasses. Mark began to relax but he needed to know this wasn’t simply another temporary refuge.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: Mark wanted to make sure that John had approval. And he asked him if the ambassador knew that we were going to be at his home. And he said: ‘Oh, I forgot to introduce this young man to you.’
NARRATOR: The younger man with the big hair was Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador.
MARK LIJEK: As Cora said: ‘I didn't realize who Taylor was. I thought he was maybe an aide to Sheardown since he was clearly younger than John. But he told us early on in that meeting that they had approval from Joe Clark, the prime minister of Canada.’
NARRATOR: And so on November the 10th, almost a week after the embassy had been stormed, the five fugitives could finally breathe a little more easily.
MARK LIJEK: I felt that we were finally safe. I thought that was the first time since the attack that I thought we had better than even odds of getting out of there in one piece without ending up as hostages.
NARRATOR: At this point, the group split up. Joe and Kathy Stafford were taken to the ambassador’s home. Mark and Cora and Bob Anders settled in at the Sheardowns’. Before long they were joined by another American. His name was Lee Schatz. He was the embassy’s agriculture attaché, whose office was outside the compound, so he’d never been directly caught up in the violence of November the 4th.
MARK LIJEK: A woman at the Swedish embassy brought him to her apartment where he stayed for, I guess, close to two weeks. And eventually, the Swedish ambassador got nervous and he approached Taylor, thinking that Lee Schatz would fit in more obviously with Canadians than with Swedes. And Taylor said: ‘That's fine, I already have five, so I'll be happy to take another.’ And that's how Lee ended up with us.
NARRATOR: There were now six of them. Lee Schatz moved in with Mark, Cora, and Bob Anders at the Sheardowns. Joe and Kathy Stafford were at the ambassador’s house. The Canadians took to referring to them as the ‘houseguests’. They slowly settled into a routine.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: There was a den in the house that was isolated, you couldn't see into it from outside the house, and we spent most of our days there reading, playing games. There was a little courtyard outside. Bob liked to go outside and sun himself. I slept a lot - that's kind of what I do when I'm under stress - and we, I think, we all read quite a bit.
MARK LIJEK: I kept a list of all the books. It was a way to document the passing of time. So I know I read 57 books and we all became really good at Scrabble.
NARRATOR: Mark plowed his way through anything he could find, fiction or nonfiction: several books by John Masters; the whole of the Alexandria Quartet; a biography of Frederick the Great; and, appropriately enough, a spy novel - albeit a mildly unconventional one - called It Can’t Always Be Caviar, a novel that is simultaneously a thriller and recipe book. A dashing triple agent whips up exotic dishes while simultaneously deceiving three governments. Lady Curzon soup anyone?
MARK LIJEK: When John came home was the highlight of the day, it was like our daddy was returning from work and, after dinner, we would go back into that den and John would tell us the news.
NARRATOR: But it was hard to relax entirely. There was always the possibility that the Iranians had done their sums and worked out that there were six fewer hostages at the embassy than there should have been. Every now and then something would happen that would make the houseguests very nervous.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: One day Bob was out in the courtyard sunning himself and a helicopter flew over the house. Zena came running down because she heard the helicopter and we were really worried that maybe they had found us.
NARRATOR: What’s going through your head at this point. What do you do now? Where do you go? What options have you got left? Is this the end of the road?
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: And she called the Canadian embassy and it turned out there'd been an assassination of a, I think, a religious person in downtown Tehran, so it was not related to us at all.
NARRATOR: Phew. A false alarm. Imagine the sense of relief. But there was a further complication. The Sheardowns’ house was on the market.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: So a few times we had to leave when buyers came to see the house. So again, that was frightening, being in a vehicle. We would be taken to Roger Lucy's apartment and stay there until the buyer was gone.
NARRATOR: Roger Lucy was another Canadian diplomat who was in on the secret.
MARK LIJEK: Every day that passed was more dangerous for us and for the Canadians. What if somebody got sick, had to go to the hospital? One time, when Roger was transporting us to his apartment, it was snowing. We slid off the road and, fortunately, a bunch of big guys came and picked up his car and put it back on the road. But, you know, that could have turned into a disastrous situation.
NARRATOR: And you know that you can cheat fate for a while but the longer you try the better the odds that you will fail. And so…
MARK LIJEK: After Christmas, the turn of the new year, I began to think that it was time for us to leave.
NARRATOR: By now the six Americans had been enjoying the Canadian government’s hospitality for almost two months and there were still more than 50 Americans being held hostage at the embassy. This also presented a potential problem for the six houseguests.
MARK LIJEK: We had never been told or given any good explanation of what would happen in the event that there was a release of the hostages, that negotiations somehow succeeded. The plan that had been told to us very early on in mid-November was that we would be escorted to the airport by a group of Western ambassadors and, sort of, presented to the Iranians: ‘Here, here's these other six, why don't you let them on the airplane as well?’
NARRATOR: As though the Iranians were going to say: ‘Sure, have a great trip.’ Right. Something else happened that made the Canadians very uneasy.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: A man called the ambassador's house. Pat Taylor, Mrs Taylor, answered the phone and he asked to speak to Joe Stafford. And of course, no one should have known Joe Stafford was at the house and she said she didn't know who he was talking about, but it pretty [much] scared her and the Canadians because someone knew Joe was at that house and she didn't know who it was.
NARRATOR: Which must have been terrifying. Then came a bombshell. The Sheardowns announced that they were leaving Tehran, moving on to their next posting.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: They felt that they were abandoning us. And I think we felt a little bit like they were abandoning us, even though we knew it was not their fault. They couldn't do anything about it. The government said: ‘You go. You have to go.’ But they had been our support system. And, as Mark said, we kind of thought of John as daddy, and all of a sudden he's going to be gone.
NARRATOR: How would you have felt, hearing your guardian angel was about to depart?
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: If Bob had not been friends with John Sheardown. I don't know where we would have ended up, but we might have become hostages.
NARRATOR: But don’t worry. The houseguests were not abandoned entirely. Dad may have gone, but he left a trusted babysitter in his place: John Sheardown’s colleague, Roger Lucy. It soon became clear that the Sheardowns’ departure was part of a bigger plan.
MARK LIJEK: I think our first inkling that there was a plan to get us out occurred when Ambassador Taylor came over to the house. He brought the Staffords with him and we had a meeting of sorts and he asked us whether we would feel comfortable leaving through the airport with US passports. And I'm pretty sure we all said no.
NARRATOR: January 1980 was not a time to be admitting you were an American in Tehran - even if you were on your way out of the country. It was likely to get you locked up.
MARK LIJEK: But the fact that the question was asked said to me that there was actually some thought now being given to how we might depart Iran.
NARRATOR: So there was a sense that something was about to happen. But when it did happen, it happened almost without warning. It was a normal evening - well, what had become normal - although all six houseguests were present for dinner that night. Joe and Kathy Stafford had come over. Perhaps that in itself should have been a clue. And then two men arrived. The clothes were the giveaway. Only spies wear trench coats. The first one introduced himself as Kevin, Kevin Harkins. The second simply as Julio. Kevin Harkins was in reality a man called Tony Mendez. As his outerwear indicated, he worked for the CIA. His job title is a bit of a mouthful: Chief, Office of Technical Services, Authentication Branch - which doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. What Tony actually did is rather more interesting. He was an exfiltration expert. In other words, he knew how to get Americans in sticky situations overseas quietly back home. Oh, and he’d previously been head of the Disguise Section.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: The part that I remember the most when Tony Mendez and his traveling companion came, is when they took us into the den where we usually spent our free time and talked to all six of us about what Tony had done in the past - that he'd gotten people in and out of very difficult situations.
NARRATOR: Tony explained that he had come to take them home. He said that he was going to take them through the airport. But they would have to adopt new identities. He laid out three potential scenarios: a) they were a group of nutritionists from a Canadian university, b) they were in the oil business, or c) they were a Hollywood film team scouting a location. Which would you have chosen?
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: It was obvious he wanted us to pick the Hollywood story and that he had a lot of backstop for the Hollywood story.
NARRATOR: Why not go for the most glamorous escape route? The plan had been prepared in minute detail. In the weeks before his trip to Tehran, Tony had been out to visit a contact in Los Angeles and they’d created a film production company. They called it Studio Six in subtle reference to the six houseguests. They’d rented premises in Hollywood, installed a phone line, and printed business cards. And then they’d dug up a script, a convoluted science-fiction story. They decided to call their production Argo. The name stemmed from a joke the team used to tell, but they were pleased to find out that Argo was the name of the mythological ship in which Jason had sailed to rescue the Golden Fleece from a many-headed dragon. That seemed somehow appropriate. So they designed a poster and took out full-page advertisements in two Hollywood trade papers. The cover story was simple. They were a production team who’d be going to Tehran to scout locations for a forthcoming shoot. Tehran, sure why not?
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: Who would come to revolutionary Iran in the middle of winter is, you could imagine, a Hollywood crew doing that because they can go anywhere. In their minds, I think they think they're above everything, above politics, above a revolution going on. And so it kind of made sense. And then Tony talked about his experiences. He obviously had a lot of experiences getting people in and out.
NARRATOR: The houseguests were being offered a way out. It was enticing. But it was also a terrifying leap into the unknown. You’ve been in relatively comfortable hiding for more than two months, and who knows what lies beyond the shelter of the Sheardowns? How do you think you would have felt?
MARK LIJEK: We were tired of hiding. But, at the same time, hiding was safe and known - at least somewhat safe - and actually trying to leave was going to be a dangerous challenge.
NARRATOR: Mark was not wrong. Exfiltration is a process that’s complex and dangerous, both technically and psychologically. First, there’s the tradecraft: the false documents, the cover stories - the legends as they’re called - and the disguises. Then there’s the human element. Is the subject in the right frame of mind? Will they crack under pressure? This knowledge is just as important as the technical accuracy of false documents. In Tehran, Tony Mendez had not one, but six subjects.
MARK LIJEK: Tony bragged a little bit, which was deliberate. He talked about how the Iranians were amateurs and how he had frequently - or at least numerous times - exfiltrated people out of the Soviet Union and how hard that was. And some of his other exploits making somebody look like a person of a different race, and things like that. And it was all intended, I think, to give us an understanding that he knew what he was doing and we should be confident.
NARRATOR: Tony had a little trick. In his account, it involves sugar cubes. Cora remembers it slightly differently.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: He took two wine corks. He linked his fingers together and said: ‘One, two, three.’ And without - I don't know how he did it - he unlinked them, sort of like magic, like the magic ring trick.
NARRATOR: Tony wasn’t merely showing off. This was deliberate, a trick he’d used many times to help persuade reluctant subjects that they were involved with professionals in the art of deception. Don’t look here, look there. Blink and you’ll miss it. A key part of this deception was the individual cover story that had been drawn up for each of the houseguests. Cora was the screenwriter, Mark the transportation coordinator.
MARK LIJEK: We were given a date and place of birth, all that stuff, where we went to school. I don't recall all the details but I know it wasn't a lot. I think that Tony was concerned that if he gave us too much to memorize, then we would be nervous about how effectively we'd memorize it versus focussing on the big picture. I think he realized if they got us in a room and were interrogating us, we probably wouldn't last very long regardless.
NARRATOR: So Tony put them to the test.
MARK LIJEK: Roger Lucy came over wearing his German-leather SS trench coat. He liked to collect war memorabilia of various kinds. Obviously, we knew it was a mock interrogation, but they were able to ruffle the feathers a little bit - surprisingly much, frankly.
NARRATOR: Name? Date of birth? Where were you born? Could you handle this? Where did you study? Which university? Think, quickly, which university? What are you doing in Iran? Why did you come here? Take a breath, you work in Hollywood, remember? Just tell them that. Could you do that? Remember when you are supposed to have been born? Remember when you are supposed to have arrived in Tehran? Could you keep calm and carry on? Or would you crack? Well, the better you’re prepared, the more likely you are to get through the ordeal.
The Canadian government had agreed to allow the houseguests to travel on Canadian passports. That’s a good start, but the best exfiltrators need you to have more than simply official documents. You’re a Hollywood production team so you need a film script, complete with logo and title. You carry a set of sketches of what the set might look like. You have your production team’s resumés in your portfolio - Tony Mendez calls this ‘eyewash’ - and then there are the tiny details. The Canadian Maple Leaf pin in your lapel? That will help persuade the suspicious immigration official that you are the genuine article. The stuff you’ve got in your pocket? This is what pulls the wool over their eyes. They’ve got a name for this too. It’s called pocket litter.
MARK LIJEK: Well, I think the pocket litter specifically was stuff like the key fob. I had a keychain with… Molsons, a Molson beer chain? But yeah, we had other people's business cards of various kinds that you'd pick up around Hollywood. We had matchbooks, things. Tony went to Ottawa, at some point he went to souvenir stands and picked up stuff. We had driver's licenses, health cards, credit cards... I felt like it was real, you know? It was convincing. We looked normal. We looked like normal travelers.
NARRATOR: Tony was clearly in charge. The second man, the man they knew only as Julio, didn’t say much.
MARK LIJEK: Julio was, as I understand it, he was the linguist. That's why he was there. Tony was a professional exfiltration guy but he needed somebody that knew Farsi. I assume he must have spent some time in Iran if he spoke Farsi well. We never found out who Julio was. I don’t know his real name. He was the mystery man.
NARRATOR: The houseguests had barely two days to familiarise themselves with their new identities. Tony and Julio had arrived in Tehran on Friday, the 25th of January. The flight out was booked for early Monday morning, the 28th of January. They’d be going on Swissair to Zurich, an airline chosen deliberately for its efficiency and reliability. On Sunday evening, they all had dinner. It turned into a late night. Everyone was a little worse for wear in the morning.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: We had to get up about 4 am because the embassy was going to send a van to pick us up to take us to the airport. I think Lee Schatz had spent a good part of the night being up, trying to convince Joe Stafford our leaving was the right thing to do. And so Lee was very hungover and was screaming and running down the hallway. But anyway, we all eventually got organized and ready for when the van came, [and] Julio was in the van. We were supposed to meet Tony Mendez at the airport.
NARRATOR: On Tony’s recommendation most of them had done a little work on how they looked.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: Bob decided to look flamboyant and he had a shirt unbuttoned fairly low and I think chains around his neck. He was a producer. And I happened to have sponged curlers with me. So my hair was normally straight. So I made it all curly. I don't remember exactly what Kathy did, but he showed us how to use makeup to make your nose look a little bigger, but nothing sophisticated, pretty simple. Mark had a beard that didn't show very well, so Tony had him put mascara in it to make it darker.
NARRATOR: And so they set off. Cora did a quick last-minute check. You know how it is, make sure you’ve got everything: ticket, passport, keys. She went through her pockets and found, to her horror, a ticket from the dry cleaner’s around the corner from their home in Virginia. Just the kind of pocket litter you don’t want to be carrying. If security finds an American dry cleaner’s ticket, Cora’s in big trouble. She stuffed it into the crack between the seat cushions. Try to imagine this journey. It’s quiet, there isn’t much traffic on the road. Freedom is almost close enough to touch but you might not make it as far as the departure lounge. Your heart is racing. Your palms are sweaty. What’s going through your head?
MARK LIJEK: I don’t remember exactly this drive, maybe 20 minutes, and it was dark and I don’t think we talked much.
NARRATOR: And then you arrive at the airport.
MARK LIJEK: The contrast was the main thing. We'd been sitting in the dark, kind of [keeping our] thoughts to ourselves, and then we have to get out. And all of a sudden we're in a very bright, noisy building. So it was, that alone, was a shock. And the fluorescent lights after being in that nice dark bus, you kind of wished that we could have just driven out of Iran in the bus.
NARRATOR: Tony Mendez, meanwhile, had just proved that CIA agents are human. He’d slept through his alarm. It was only when the phone rang by his bed that he woke up. But he made it to the rendezvous on time and the houseguests were very relieved to see him.
MARK LIJEK: There was Tony. He had, we had this code. If he was smiling that meant all was well. If he was scratching his cheek that meant we should turn around and go back to the bus. So he was smiling. And so we took our bags over to the Customs people. And that was the beginning.
NARRATOR: So you’ve learned your lines, rehearsed your part, and put on your costume and make-up. Now it’s time to perform. This is not a moment for stage fright.
MARK LIJEK: First they look at your passport and look at your picture and match you.
NARRATOR: Cora, remember, had changed her hair. She was nervous.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: I was worried about one thing in particular for Kathy Stafford, Joe Stafford, and myself. And that was that somebody who we'd interviewed when the visa section was open, the tourist visa section, might actually recognize us. When the consulate was open apparently there were people outside selling sketches of us and saying: ‘Don't go to her, she's harder to get a visa from.’ Or: ‘Try to go to this lady, she's easier to get one from.’
NARRATOR: Tony Mendez had done his homework on airport procedure and there was one potential obstacle that was impossible to avoid.
MARK LIJEK: The procedure the Iranian immigration authorities were supposed to follow involved, on entry, giving each traveler a two-part form. You fill out who you are when you arrive, etc, and then they staple one copy in your passport and the other goes in a file. And when you leave, they pull that passport copy and match it up with the one that was filed in theory. But Tony was confident that that process was not being followed. They had been bringing people in and out, CIA people, as well as asking friendly governments to track what was happening. And so he told us that they were not checking - that we didn't have to worry about that. But nevertheless, it was a concern because clearly we would, if they had started looking in their files for our card, they wouldn't find one because there wasn't one.
NARRATOR: Mark and Cora got to the desk where they were supposed to hand this form in but there was no one there. So what should they do now? Wait until someone comes? Or just carry on and hope no one would notice? What would you have done?
MARK LIJEK: For a brief moment, my thought was: ‘Well, why don't we just bypass this? Then we don't have to worry if they're going to try to match up the forms or not because they won't have to. They will never see us. I mean, the guy's not here.’
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: Mark and I debated about moving forward or not. And Tony came up to us and we decided to try to find the person. So I actually went behind the counter, found he was making tea, and just called to him and he came out and processed us.
NARRATOR: And as Tony had predicted, the official never looked for the duplicate copy. They were through. Now they just had to wait, act normal, [and] keep it casual. There’s a limit to how many cups of coffee you can drink and how many jars of caviar you can buy in the airport shop. And while there was safety in numbers, being part of a group also had its drawbacks.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: Joe Stafford kept calling me Cora, which was unnerving since my passport didn't have that name on it. So Mark and I moved away from the Staffords and sat separately from them.
NARRATOR: The flight was finally announced and they moved from the main departure lounge and through one last security check, another nervous moment.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: The woman in front of me was having an argument with the security person who was female, and she stormed off and I thought: ‘Oh, my gosh. What are they doing? Are they doing internal checks of all females? Why would that woman yell? And then the security person sent some security guards running after that woman. Then she turned to me, just gently patted me down, and let me go through, but for a moment there I was kind of sweating.
NARRATOR: The sweating was about to get worse. An announcement came over the public address system. The Swissair flight would be delayed by three hours.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: When they made the announcement my heart just fell because I thought: ‘Well, something can happen in three hours. We're just… were so close to getting out.’ And then Tony gathered us and talked about how we just needed to stay calm and we'd get out of there as soon as possible.
NARRATOR: There was, in fact, a backup plan. Of course there was. Tony Mendez is the master of exfiltration, remember? Tony had booked a second set of seats on a British Airways flight that was due to leave a little later than Swissair. Was now the moment, as it were, to jump ship? Or would that look just too conspicuous? The last thing they wanted to do was draw attention to themselves.
MARK LIJEK: We all agreed that it would be really weird. Even Hollywood people don't generally have two sets of tickets. So we decided we couldn't use that option and we would just have to stick it out.
NARRATOR: It was their lucky day - three hours turned out to be only 30 minutes. They started to board and then there was an extraordinary coincidence. In those days Swissair named its aircraft after Swiss cantons. One of them, bordering Germany, is called ‘Aargau’.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: We got on a bus and went out to the airplane and as we were approaching the stairs to go up, Tony pointed at the name of the plane, which was ‘Aargau’, which was basically the same name as the movie we were working on. And it seemed to be a sign and a blessing that we were going to get out of there.
MARK LIJEK: I'm a nervous flyer. I do not like take-offs, but I do remember I was anxious for that one to start. I kept sitting in my chair. Well, when is he going to rev up the engines? You know, how long is… do we taxi? All that. It just seemed like every minute took an hour so I kept just counting, counting the minutes.
NARRATOR: And then finally, relief. They were airborne. Almost 80 days after taking refuge with the Canadians, 80 days living in fear of discovery, 80 days of uncertainty, they were on their way out.
MARK LIJEK: When the beverage service started, when they drew out the alcohol, then we knew we were out because they didn't start the beverage service until they could bring the booze out. And they're not allowed to do that in Iranian airspace, so we knew we were over Turkey as soon as the booze cart came down the aisle and that's when we chose to celebrate.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: We ordered Bloody Marys - I think almost all of us - and when Tony got his, he turned around and raised his glass to us and we raised our glasses to him.
MARK LIJEK: Yeah, we weren't seated together. We were kind of scattered around, but we made eye contact with each other and toasted each other.
NARRATOR: They touched down in Zurich where two officials from the State Department were waiting to meet them, and suddenly it was over.
MARK LIJEK: I remember we were in baggage claim. We gave everything back to Tony and Julio - the Canadian passports, and health cards, and drivers’ licenses - and then we watched them walk away.
NARRATOR: They stayed in touch with Tony Mendez. They’d even eventually spend the weekend with him. But the man they knew only as Julio they never saw again. The quiet man from the CIA had done his job and melted back into obscurity. The six Americans, houseguests no longer, were taken to the US ambassador’s residence in Bern, the capital. And there they were told that if this escapade became public knowledge, there might be repercussions for the 50 or more American hostages still being held in Tehran.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: They sat us down and said that they really wanted us to go into hiding, and the Staffords were fine with that, and Mark and I were fine. But Lee's mom apparently was having a lot of health issues, under a lot of stress. And then they were going to take us to Florida - and Bob's wife and his little boy lived in Florida - and he wasn't sure that he could deal with not reuniting with them, being so close.
NARRATOR: Within hours this all became academic. A Canadian journalist had worked out that a few people must have escaped from the embassy and he suspected the Canadians had given them shelter. The government in Ottawa had persuaded him to keep quiet but the same morning that the six Americans left Tehran the last few Canadian diplomats there did the same, closing the embassy. The journalist drew his conclusions and published his scoop. He later wrote, in a memorable phrase, that during this period the Canadians had been ‘as skittery as barnyard cattle before an earthquake’. So there was to be no more hiding. Mark and Cora, the Staffords, Bob Anders, and Lee Schatz were on their way home to the US.
CORA AMBURN-LIJEK: They took us to Dover Air Force Base. They wanted to give us a private meeting with our families, which was really wonderful, before facing the media.
NARRATOR: And they told their story, over and over, about how the Canadians had come to their rescue in their hour of need. Ken Taylor, the glamorous ambassador with the big hair, became an instant celebrity in the US but there was one part of the story they couldn’t tell.
MARK LIJEK: Any hint of the CIA would freak out the Iranians. And they were afraid maybe we would slip up because even at the beginning, there was some skepticism that the Canadians had done all this on their own. And that's what we kept saying: ‘Oh, yeah, they did it all.’ And we didn't say explicitly, to my recollection, that the CIA was not involved.
NARRATOR: And so, after a brief trip to the White House to meet President Carter, the six were allowed to slip away. The rest, as they say, is history. There was a bungled attempt three months later, Operation Eagle Claw, to rescue the hostages. Two American aircraft collided, killing eight air crew. President Carter would blame his election loss later in the year on that disaster in the Iranian desert. The hostages were finally released on the day the next president, Ronald Reagan, was inaugurated. Tony Mendez wound up Studio Six productions a few weeks after the exfiltration. He should, perhaps, have stayed in the business. At the time the company closed it had been sent 26 scripts for consideration. One of them came from Steven Spielberg. Mark and Cora Lijek embarked on the next stage of their diplomatic career, a posting in Hong Kong, and memories of Tehran began to fade until one day, 17 years later, the phone rang.
MARK LIJEK: I got a call from a reporter from Philadelphia. It was 1997 and the CIA was celebrating its 50th anniversary. And he asked me: ‘Do you have any reaction to the CIA claiming credit for your departure from Iran?’ I thought that he had somehow gotten the story surreptitiously. I wouldn't say anything, I said I don't know anything about that. I can't. I basically told him I had no knowledge of that. And then I called back to the State Department and, after a while, I was finally able to reach somebody in public affairs who said: ‘Oh, yes, the CIA declassified that yesterday.’
NARRATOR: The director of the agency at the time was George Tenet. Aware that the reputation of US intelligence capabilities wasn’t all it might be, he had persuaded Tony Mendez to blow his own cover and tell the world about Argo. That story has now reached a much wider audience thanks to Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film of 2013. Mark and Cora signed on as consultants. They spent a few days on the set in Hollywood, a real one this time. And they went back for the premiere. Have you seen Argo? Did you spot Tony Mendez, the real one? If not, go back and have another look. The master of disguise is in there, somewhere, but blink and you’ll miss him.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, for free now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Mark Lijek was a Detroit native of Polish descent who had an interest in international events when he joined the US Foreign Service. He served as a US Army officer and was later assigned to Washington, DC where he took a job with the State Department. Mark was then transferred to Iran as the political situation deteriorated in the 1970s. His wife Cora Lijek worked as a consular assistant, joining her husband in Tehran just as things turned violent. The couple were among six Americans who managed to escape during an embassy hostage-taking and went into hiding with Canadian diplomats.