In 1997, on its 50th anniversary, the beleaguered agency held a ceremony at its headquarters in Langley, Va., at which it sought to improve morale by honoring 50 of its top officers, whom the agency called “trailblazers.”
Mr. Mendez, who had retired in 1990, was one of those honored. But the award was vaguely worded, and the outside world was still unaware of the details of his role in the rescue.
George J. Tenet, who had recently become the agency’s director, reached out to Mr. Mendez and told him to tell his story to The New York Times, his wife, Jonna Mendez, herself a longtime C.I.A. officer, said.
“Tony was stunned,” she said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “This was coming from a C.I.A. that was phobic about talking to the press, and now he was being directed to talk.”
But things had changed.
“The Berlin Wall was down, it looked like the Cold War was over, and Moynihan was questioning whether we needed a C.I.A.,” she said. “And the only stories you heard about the C.I.A. were horrible, they were failures. So Tenet said, ‘Let’s tell a success story — something good that we did, something that’s been hidden.’”
Ms. Mendez said her husband was reluctant. “Tony said it was hard for his lips to form the words because we were so trained to not speak about these things,” she said. “You just didn’t do it.”
He had spent 25 years undercover. A technical operations officer, he specialized in creating counterfeit documents as well as counterfeit people, perfecting tricks used by Hollywood, con men and magicians. He was an expert in “exfiltration,” the art of spiriting people out of hostile situations. (The last C.I.A. cable he received before the rescue mission said, “See you later, exfiltrator.”) And he was a master of disguises.