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Oscars 2013: How CIA honed Argo spying skills in India

Antonio Mendez, the legendary CIA master of disguise who dreamed up the 1980 plot to rescue six Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy in Tehran, reveals success of exfiltrations in Delhi inspired Operation Argo. Dipankar De Sarkar reports.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2013 03:48 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

And the Oscars go to… India.

Life of Pi, with its Indian theme, earned Ang Lee the Best Director statuette on Sunday night. But, less known is the fact that the ingenious CIA plot that is the subject of Best Film - Argo - was hatched on the back of spying skills honed in India.

The success of two exfiltrations in New Delhi inspired Operation Argo, according to Antonio Mendez, the legendary CIA master of disguise who dreamed up the 1980 plot to rescue six Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy in Tehran.

The Indian operations, he reveals, were conducted right under the nose of authorities in New Delhi, and one of the "jobs" was done when the security was on full alert.

Ben Affleck, who also directed Argo, plays Mendez in the film.

Exfiltration operations are where spies or defectors are whisked out of a country, often in disguise and with false documents.

Needless to say, these were integral to the Cold War rivalries between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Little was known about them until Mendez came out with details of the Iranian and Indian operations in his book Argo.

It is a classic cloak-and-dagger tale. Mendez, for instance, mentions in details only one of the two Indian operations.

It involved Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana, who defected to the West while visiting India in 1967 after the death of her husband Brajesh Singh, uncle of the late Indian external affairs minister Dinesh Singh.

Svetlana famously walked out of the Soviet embassy in Chanakyapuri only to walk into the US mission one night.

What is, however, not known is that she owed her freedom largely to a quick-thinking CIA officer in Delhi.


When the "case officer" at the US embassy cabled Washington for advice, "the response from headquarters was something to the effect that if Stalin had had a daughter, she would never have married an Indian", writes Mendez in Argo.

But the officer decided he couldn't take the chance and put her on the next morning flight to Athens, Greece.

There are instances of CIA sleuths taking independent decisions during Operation Argo as well.

Mendez cloaks the target of the second operation in mystery - possibly an outcome of CIA vetting. But he leaves enough clues to point conclusively to one man - a high-level KGB spy who worked undercover as a correspondent of Novosti news agency in New Delhi.

The defector, whom Mendez mentions only by codename Nestor, contacted a CIA officer in India in 1970.

For the Americans, he was a huge catch who could not only provide "invaluable intelligence on the KGB's operations in Central and Southeast Asia, but as an added bonus he could also identify other 'juniors' who were being trained overseas".

Mendez, flown to New Delhi to help with the job, arrived posing as a tourist amid a massive security clampdown. Special branch had dramatically increased surveillance of Western embassies and border crossings.

Airports, bus and railway stations swarmed with security personnel looking out for Nestor.

Holed up in a CIA safe house in New Delhi, Nestor was getting a makeover - from a short stocky Russian to a "distinguished German businessman".

So good was the disguise that on the day of his flight in February or March 1970, Nestor even managed to fool a 'fellow traveller' - a KGB colleague - stationed at the Palam airport (now IGI airport).

The only specific details Mendez offers are that the "job" took place in a "densely populated capital of the Asian subcontinent" and that Nestor was finally waved through by a turbaned official at an airport surrounded by a thick haze of 'smit' - "smoke and burning shit".

Nestor was Yuri Alexandrovich Bezmenov, a Moscow-trained spy who later claimed that he "decided to stay in India to become a kind of a hippy and get to know the country".

But the Soviets were desperate for their man and Bezmenov got worried after his pictures were splashed all over Indian papers. After his successful exfiltration - again to Athens - he eventually settled in Canada.

"Every intelligence agency is ultimately judged on its ability to successfully rescue people and bring them out of harm's way, which is essentially what exfiltration is," says Mendez.

"The key to doing this is readiness, and in the wake of Nestor, the CIA began looking at ways we could improve our capabilities." And if an Oscar comes along, it is an added bonus.