Argo Artifacts in CIA Museum

StudioSix
While you can’t visit the CIA Museum in person, you can experience the collection online.

The rescue of the “Canadian Six” is the true story made into the movie Argo.

On 4 November 1979, militant Islamic students took over the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took hostage the 66 US personnel inside.  Avoiding capture that day were six US State Department employees who took refuge in the homes of Canadian Embassy officers.  The US Government developed several major operations to address this national crisis.  Among them was a scheme developed by a small team of CIA disguise and false-documentation specialists to exfiltrate the “Canadian Six” (as they became known) from the country….

After careful consideration of numerous options, the chosen plan began to take shape.  Canadian Parliament agreed to grant Canadian passports to the six Americans.  The CIA team together with an experienced motion-picture consultant devised a cover story so exotic that it would not likely draw suspicions—the production of a Hollywood movie.

The team set up a dummy company, “Studio Six Productions,” with offices on the old Columbia Studio lot formerly occupied by Michael Douglas, who had just completed producing The China Syndrome.  This upstart company titled its new production “Argo” after the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed in rescuing the Golden Fleece from the many-headed dragon holding it captive in the sacred garden—much like the situation in Iran.  The script had a Middle Eastern sci-fi theme that glorified Islam.  The story line was intentionally complicated and difficult to decipher. 

The CIA Museum also houses paraphernalia created for the mission:

“Studio Six Productions” accountrement:

“Studio Six Productions”, was the dummy studio set up by CIA to rescue the six Americans trapped in Iran at the Canadian Ambassador’s home…

“Studio Six Productions” logo items

…The CIA team set up “Studio Six Productions” and titled its new production “Argo.”

To lend credibility to the ruse, Studio Six Productions set up offices on the old Columbia Studio lot formerly occupied by Michael Douglas, who had just completed producing The China Syndrome.  A logo was created, and cards, stationery, and other logo items were produced.

Artists’ concerpts for “Argo”

The script had a Middle Eastern sci-fi theme that glorified Islam.  The story line was intentionally complicated and difficult to decipher.  Shown here are the artist’s concepts for the “film.”

Argo ads in Variety

Ads and articles were placed in Variety.  The ads proclaimed Argo to be a “cosmic conflagration” written by Teresa Harris (the alias selected for one of the six Americans awaiting rescue).


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6 thoughts on “Argo Artifacts in CIA Museum

  1. That bit about Canadian Parliament granting passports to the six Americans doesn’t sound right. The House of Commons firstly does not involve itself in administrative affairs such as issuing passports. Secondly, all transactions of the Commons are public, so no one would be using them to smuggle out refugees.

    What probably happened was that someone in the American diplomatic service phoned someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or had a back-door meeting to arrange the matter. The passports would then have been issued on the quiet by a Deputy Minister himself rather than a front-counter clerk.

  2. Antonio J. Mendez’ 1999 journal article about his mission discusses the passport issue in detail. The relevant passage says this is how they were authorized —

    In our discussions with Canadian officials, we learned that the Parliament in Ottawa had already approved the use of Canadian passports for non-citizens for humanitarian purposes. We immediately requested six spares for the six houseguests to give us a redundant capability for the operation.

  3. I clicked on the link to Mendez’ article and got a pop-up window warning reading “Unable to verify the identity of http://www.cia.gov as a trusted site.” Says it all, doesn’t it?

  4. Now that I’ve read the article, I find it doesn’t really address Dale Speirs’ doubts. What I recall reading elsewhere is that 1) Parliament had to approve the issuance of the passports because they were for fictional people, which the Foreign Affairs ministry was not authorized to issue on its own authority; 2) and the House went into an unusual secret session in order to do it.

  5. It wasn’t passports for fictional people but for real people who needed to use aliases for humanitarian purposes. Canadian law forbade this and so a special secret session of Parliament had to be convened to enable such passports to be issued. It had to be kept secret because announcing to the public that this law had been approved would have blown the operation and jeopardized the safety of the six plus the Canadian Ambassador and his staff and family. That same session determined that CIA operative Mendez and his colleague could not be given Canadian passports because the law did not permit issuing fake passports to secret agents for the purpose of espionage.

    That website says that the movie script was “intentionally complicated and difficult to follow” but that is not true. A movie script wasn’t written for this operation; instead, the agents appropriated the script for the Lord of Light movie, which was based on Roger Zelazny’s novel. Mendez has described the script as something he found too convoluted to follow and never finished, and that may be true. No one but the scriptwriter Barry Geller seems to have read it. All Mendez did to the script was replace the cover with the title Argo and added the fictional screenwriter name Theresa Harris.

    They also outrageously claim that the movie had “a middle Eastern theme that glorified Islam.” No, it featured Hindu and Buddhist religious themes and gods, and several pieces of the main artwork prominently named Brahma. The artwork was from Jack Kirby’s work on the Lord of Light project and had been appropriated by Mendez, along with the movie script, and not created new by the CIA team. The mission could have been endangered had any authority in Iran looked at the artwork or movie script. This is an aspect of how bold the caper was, that a script which prominently referred to Hindu gods and Buddha could be passed off as Islamic and requiring location shoots in Tehran.

    I researched and wrote a lengthy essay that debunks a lot of the mythology and misinformation surrounding Zelazny’s Lord of Light (the novel, the movie, the theme park, the FBI raid, the CIA’s use of the script, the Argo movie, and the forthcoming documentary Science Fiction Land). If you’re interested, that essay is in the May 2013 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction (nyrsf.com issue #297), and it’s titled “The reality and mythology enveloping Zelazny’s Lord of Light, the FBI, the CIA, and Ben Affleck’s Argo.” It’s not a free download but the entire issue costs $2.99 via weightlessbooks.com.

  6. The information is also in the 2007 Wired article

    The six passports were what Mendez called “real fakes”: genuine documents that the Canadian government prepared for the Holly wood aliases devised by the CIA. Acquiring those passports had been a coup for Mendez; Canadian law prohibits such falsification, but the country’s parliament held an emergency secret session, the first since World War II, to make an exception.

    And Lord of Light scriptwriter Barry Geller has his own bitter comments about how the script and art was used.

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