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Both these books are
worth reading. But if you
only have time for one,
The Houseguests.
They Were There
Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood
Pulled Of the Most Audacious Rescue
in History
Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, Viking,
2012, hardcover, $26.95, 310 pages.
Te Houseguests: AMemoir of
Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery
Mark Lijek, Amazon Digital Services, 2012;
paperback/$9.99, Kindle Edition/$8.99;
318 pages.
Reviewed by Steven Alan Honley
We all know that on Nov. 4, 1979, Ira-
nian militants stormed the U.S. embassy
in Tehran, for the second time in nine
months, subjecting 53 American hostages
to a 444-day ordeal. Te episode set of
geopolitical shock waves that still resonate
Happily, six American diplomats (four
men and two women) escaped in the
initial chaos and eventually found refuge
with their Canadian
colleagues for the next
two months. Tey were
then spirited out of
the country in January
1980 via an ingenious
covert operation that
was known as “Te
Canadian Caper” before
the CIA declassifed it in
Many of you have likely seen, or are
planning to see, the excellent newmovie
based on that incident, “Argo,” directed by
and starring Ben Afeck. And hopefully
you’ve all read the article about it in the
October 2012 issue of
Te Foreign Service
“‘Argo’: How Hollywood Does
History,” by Mark Lijek, one of the rescued
American diplomats. So the logical ques-
tion is whether reading either of these
books is worth your while.
In a word, yes. However, since few of
us have time to read two books about the
same subject, choosing between them is a
tougher call.
Te account by Antonio Mendez,
the CIA agent who masterminded and
executed the scheme, certainly lives up to
the promise of its title. Even (or perhaps
especially) if you saw the Afeck flm,
you’ll appreciate the additional details
about howMendez and his cohorts
passed of six Americans as members of a
Canadian flm crew in Iran to make a fake
science-fction movie. As a bonus, he also
shares details of other “exfltrations” he
carried out during his 25 years with the
Mendez is generous about sharing
credit with colleagues inside the agency
and elsewhere, and candid about some
mishaps that could have torpedoed the
mission. And unlike many
examples of the “as told
to” genre, the fast-paced
yet smooth prose indicates
that he and co-author Matt
Baglio, who has worked for
many news organizations and
magazines, developed a good rapport
during the project.
I was, however, taken aback by how
little Mendez seemed to know about the
Foreign Service ofcers he was helping.
When he frst learns of the existence of
the “Houseguests,” the codename for the
six Americans, for instance, he claims
that he had no reason to believe any of
them could speak a foreign language. In
fact, most of them spoke Farsi (at least
one fuently), among other languages.
Mendez also makes some rather disdain-
ful remarks about other State Department
personnel he encounters, which detract
from an otherwise enjoyable read.
Mark Lijek provides a valuable insider
corrective in his memoir, though its title
is a bit misleading. Although he appro-
priately extols “Canadian courage,” Lijek
devotes little space to describing the
“CIA sorcery” that got him and his fellow
houseguests out of Iran—perhaps because
he knew his version of events would be
competing with the Mendez book.
Fortunately, Lijek’s droll account of
how and why he came to join the Foreign
Service, via a somewhat circuitous route
that frst took him fromGeorgetown to
the Army, would be worth the price of the
book in its own right.
In the next section, “How to Visit a
Really Rotten Place and Drag Your Wife
Along Too,” he explains how he ended
up in Iran for his frst assignment—and
how his wife, Cora, joined him there just
two months before the November 1979
embassy takeover. (It must be said that
he seems to have had a real chip on his
shoulder about Iranian culture long before
he arrived.)
Tough the Afeck movie made a
good-faith efort to convey what the Lijeks
and their fellow “Houseguests” endured,
that was not really its focus. So reading this
book is the only way to truly appreciate the
emotional roller-coaster the six Americans
rode. Tough there were lighter moments
along the way, one can practically feel the
walls closing in on them as the days go by.
While the tension of the escape comes
through loud and clear, I must admit I
found the screen version of that episode
more gripping. (Of course, as some have
pointed out, Afeck skillfully embellishes
that part of the story to keep the audi-
ence’s adrenaline pumping.) However,