Within the midst of the 1979 Iran hostage disaster, the C.I.A. started what got here to be famous as one of many spy company’s most profitable publicly recognized operations: the rescue of six American diplomats who had escaped the overrun U.S. Embassy — utilizing a faux film as the quilt story.
“Argo,” the real-life 2012 film in regards to the C.I.A.’s faux film, portrayed a single C.I.A. officer, Tony Mendez, performed by Ben Affleck, sneaking into Tehran to rescue the American diplomats in a daring operation.
However in actuality, the company despatched two officers into Tehran. For the primary time on Thursday, the C.I.A. is releasing the identification of that second officer, Ed Johnson, within the season finale of its new podcast, “The Langley Files.”
Mr. Johnson, a linguist, accompanied Mr. Mendez, a grasp of disguise and forgery, on the flight to Tehran to persuade the diplomats into adopting the quilt story, that they have been Canadians who have been a part of a crew scouting places for a science fiction film known as “Argo.” The 2 then helped the diplomats with solid paperwork and escorted them by means of Iranian airport safety to fly them dwelling.
Though Mr. Johnson’s identify was categorised, the C.I.A. had acknowledged a second officer had been concerned. Mr. Mendez, who died in 2019, wrote about being accompanied by a second officer in his first ebook, however used a pseudonym, Julio. A portray that depicts a scene from the operation and hangs within the C.I.A.’s Langley, Va., headquarters, reveals a second officer sitting throughout from Mr. Mendez in Tehran as they forge stamps in Canadian passports. However the second officer’s identification is obscured, his again turned to the viewer.
The company began publicly talking about its position in rescuing the diplomats 26 years in the past. On the company’s fiftieth anniversary, in 1997, the C.I.A. declassified the operation, and allowed Mr. Mendez to inform his story, hoping to steadiness accounts of a few of the company’s ill-fated operations world wide with one which was a transparent success.
However till just lately, Mr. Johnson most popular that his identification stay secret.
“He was somebody who spent his entire life doing issues quietly and within the shadows, with none expectation of reward or public recognition,” stated Walter Trosin, a C.I.A. spokesman and co-host of the company’s podcast. “And he was very a lot comfortable to maintain it that approach. Nevertheless it was his household that inspired him, later in life, to inform his facet of the story as a result of they felt there can be worth to the world in listening to it.”
After Mr. Trosin heard Mr. Johnson and his household have been visiting C.I.A. headquarters early this summer season, he organized to fulfill them. On the assembly, Mr. Trosin and his podcast co-host noticed how a lot the C.I.A.’s recognition of Mr. Johnson’s work meant to his household and began on the lookout for a method to inform the story on the podcast.
Mr. Johnson, 80, was unavailable to debate his profession on the podcast or with The New York Occasions due to well being points. Undeterred, Mr. Trosin dived into the company’s categorised archives.
Quickly after harmful operations, the C.I.A. typically data secret interviews with the individuals, to seize so-called classes discovered for its personal, categorised histories. As well as, for a lot of storied officers, the C.I.A. data categorised oral histories on the finish of their careers. C.I.A. historians had accomplished one such oral historical past with Mr. Johnson.
“We came upon there was this prior interview,” Mr. Trosin stated. “And not less than parts of which could possibly be made public.”
Due to the “Argo” film, the C.I.A.’s position within the rescue of the diplomats, who have been being sheltered by the Canadians, has change into one of many company’s best-known operations.
The C.I.A. museum, which has a tendency to dwell on the agency’s failures, contains a show on the operation. Among the many artifacts is a replica of the script — or not less than remedy — of the faux film full with the Hollywood-esque tagline “A Cosmic Conflagration.” Additionally displayed are the enterprise playing cards of the faux manufacturing firm used as a part of the quilt story and the idea artwork for the film, which featured drawings from Jack Kirby, the celebrated comedian ebook artist who helped create the Marvel universe.
Just like the portray, the museum show didn’t establish Mr. Johnson.
However C.I.A. officers stated Mr. Johnson, an professional in languages and extracting individuals from tough locations, was invaluable to the operation.
On the time of the hostage disaster, Mr. Johnson was based mostly in Europe, focusing his Chilly Warfare work on studying tips on how to get out and in of nations that weren’t at all times hospitable to People.
When Iranian revolutionaries overran the American Embassy and took 52 diplomats hostage, six People working within the consular workplace escaped. They finally ended up underneath the safety of Kenneth D. Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran, and the C.I.A. started engaged on a plan to sneak them overseas.
Mr. Mendez, who had labored with Hollywood specialists to hone his tradecraft, got here up with the plan to make use of a faux film, which he named “Argo” after the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the traditional Greek heroes who had undertaken the arduous mission to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
Whereas some C.I.A. extraction operations on the time used single officers, the company determined that for the rescue of the six diplomats, two officers can be wanted, stated Brent Geary, a C.I.A. historian who has studied the company’s historical past in Iran.
Mr. Johnson was fluent in French, German, Spanish and Arabic. He didn’t, nevertheless, communicate Persian, the predominant language in Iran.
Dr. Geary stated the company had Persian audio system, however couldn’t danger sending in somebody who is perhaps recognized to present or former Iranian officers. The idea was additionally that somebody fluent within the native language may draw questions, and what was vital to the mission was having individuals with Mr. Mendez’s and Mr. Johnson’s talent units.
“They’d educated to get out and in of tight spots,” Dr. Geary stated.
Even with out Persian, Mr. Johnson’s languages got here into use. Quickly after arriving, Mr. Mendez and Mr. Johnson mistakenly ended up on the Swedish Embassy, throughout the road from the U.S. Embassy, which was occupied by the Iranian revolutionaries.
Exterior the embassy, Mr. Johnson found that each he and the Iranian guard spoke German, and the 2 started speaking. The guard then hailed a taxi and wrote the handle of the Canadian Embassy on a bit of paper and despatched the 2 faux film producers off.
“I’ve to thank the Iranians for being the beacon who obtained us to the fitting place,” Mr. Johnson stated in his oral historical past.
Within the “Argo” film, Mr. Affleck, portraying Mr. Mendez, is proven swiping Iranian types that have been wanted to enter and exit the nation. However in actuality, it was Mr. Johnson who carried out the sleight of hand to steal the paperwork. (Mr. Affleck didn’t reply to a request to remark.)
In his oral historical past, Mr. Johnson stated the “largest factor” was to steer the diplomats that they might pull off the film crew cowl story.
“These are rookies,” Mr. Johnson recalled within the recorded session. “They have been individuals who weren’t educated to misinform authorities. They weren’t educated to be clandestine, elusive.”
However Mr. Johnson recounted that the six diplomats pulled it off, placing apart their nervousness and adopting the persona of a happy-go-lucky movie crew.
The climax of the actual film — spoiler alert for a movie that has been out for greater than a decade — includes Iranian authorities officers reacting skeptically to the quilt story, then realizing the “movie crew” have been American diplomats and chasing the airplane down the runway. None of which occurred.
In actuality, there was merely one final safety verify because the group left the departure lounge.
“A few younger Iranians, they’re patting individuals down as they went by means of,” Mr. Johnson recalled, noting that the diplomats have been leaning into their components, cracking jokes as they approached the checkpoint.
With that, the diplomats, Mr. Mendez and Mr. Johnson have been by means of the final checks. Within the oral historical past, Mr. Johnson recalled boarding and seeing the airplane’s identify painted on the facet. It was named Aargau, and Mr. Johnson thought to himself, “What the hell?”
“After a bit, I neglect when, I picked up The Herald Tribune and did the crossword puzzle,” Mr. Johnson stated. “And one of many one of many clues was Jason’s companions … Jason and the Argonauts.”
Within the C.I.A. podcast, Mr. Trosin stated the identify of the airplane and the crossword have been merely coincidences.
“To be clear,” Mr. Trosin stated, “this isn’t C.I.A. officers with extra free time simply planting clues.”