Mark Lijek Visits SPY: The Secret World of Espionage And Shares Untold Details Behind Argo Escape

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Tehran, 1979. Seattle native Mark Lijek needed to get off the street.

It had started as an ordinary morning in the consular section of the American Embassy in Iran, where Lijek notarized documents and reviewed visa requests.  Then, student militants stormed the Embassy, bashing down the door of the commissary and breaking into an upstairs bathroom window that for some reason didn't have bars or bulletproof glass. The demonstrators didn't look friendly. Lijek, his wife, Cora, who also worked in the Embassy, and four other American diplomats exited a side door along with local staff. They walked 10 minutes toward the British Embassy, but the entrance was blocked by a huge demonstration. They needed to find cover, fast.

Bob Anders, the chief of immigration, lived in the neighborhood. "I've got some chicken curry in the freezer we can have for lunch," he told the group. It was the best option at the time, Lijek says, so they took it. They thought the embassy takeover would be resolved in a few hours; a seemingly similar takeover back in February had been quickly quelled. But this was something else.

For 52 American diplomats and citizens not as lucky as Lijek and his group, it turned into the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.

Lijek and his colleagues were harbored for 79 days in the homes of John Sheardown, the Canadian chief of immigration, and Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. Their audacious escape (which hinged on a made-up sci-fi flick) was masterminded by CIA Agent Tony Mendez and featured in last year's Hollywood thriller, Argo.

Until his recent visit to SPY: The Secret World of Espionage, Lijek had never seen all the props that had been created to make the fake production company, Studio Six, seem believable: faux letterhead, concept art, posters, advertisements in Hollywood trade magazines.

"There was some concern that the Iranians had the ability, even then, through their significant ex-pat community in the L.A. area, to identify whether Studio Six was a real company," Lijek said. "The exhibit brought home to me the degree to which the Hollywood side of the plan, in and of itself, required a separate deception. I didn't realize the degree of effort that went into that aspect of the operation." Apparently, the company appeared so genuine that even Steven Spielberg sent in a concept script to see if Studio Six could produce it.

Back in Tehran, Lijek says the American hideaways lived in comfort thanks to the Canadians. "For us, at first, it was a big adventure with a happy ending. We were too young or too stupid to realize we could get in trouble. It was a one-day-at-a-time thing. The Canadians were so very hospitable, and knowing the prime minister had personally approved it, we had the odds on our side."

They had no idea the CIA would get involved. "In December, it became obvious this was going to be a long-term thing. I don't really remember thinking the CIA was going to come and rescue us." Lijek had always associated intelligence with collection of information, not covert operations. "That's one thing about the SPY exhibit, it makes you realize the traditional spy, counter-spy is not all there is to it."

There were stressful episodes. The Sheardown's house was for sale, so when potential buyers came to tour it, the Americans had to leave. Once, in a snowstorm, their car slid off the road. A group of Iranians approached... and graciously picked up the car and put it back on the road.

The Americans were skittish about being "outside." They didn't know whether militants were looking for them. "We didn't ask the Canadians, and they didn't offer to tell us. It didn't seem like a question any of us wanted to get into."

"The main problem, really, was just boredom," Lijek says. Four of the Americans lived with the Sheardowns. Two others lived with the ambassador and his wife. "One minor disadvantage: Only three bridge players at one place and one at the other." Instead of bridge, they played Scrabble. Lijek read 57 books.

"The Canadians made life easy. We had all the food we could eat, all the booze we could drink, didn't have to worry about running out of cigarettes." Friends from the New Zealand embassy and the Danish ambassador came by for small parties. "It was not a difficult existence, but I worried that every day that passed, something that could happen. Somebody could get sick. A car accident... "

Nothing happened. Except for the fake movie, the real escape, and, years later, a real movie that won a 2013 Oscar for best picture.

Lijek has written a book about his experience, Escaping Iran: A True Account of the Best Bad Idea, to highlight the heroic role of their Canadian hosts, especially John Sheardown. "If it hadn't been for the Canadians, " he says, "we wouldn't have survived long enough for the CIA to get us out." As for Lijek and his wife, Cora, they live in Anacortes after decades with the foreign service, including postings in Hong Kong, Kathmandu, Warsaw and Frankfurt. 

Listen to an interview with Mark Lijek on KOMO News Radio.