Art Imitates Life for Former CIA Officer


S. Eugene Poteat knew the masters of disguise featured in the new Hollywood thriller "Argo."

In the movie, Ben Affleck's character leads a cadre of CIA operatives with connections in the movie industry in a brilliant and successful plot to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis.

The six Americans had gotten out of the embassy and fled to the Canadian Embassy nearby for asylum.

"That was Toni and Jonah Mendez," Poteat said of two of the characters in the movie he knew as fellow employees at the CIA. "I knew them well. He (Jonah) was a very talented painter and sculptor and that's what helped him with the disguises they made."

Poteat, president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, was the guest speaker at the October luncheon of the World Affairs Council of Greater Reading in the Inn at Reading, Wyomissing.

A record crowd of 165 turned out to hear Poteat rattle off a history of covert operations from the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Cuban missile crisis to the killing of Osama bin Laden by Seal Team Six.

Poteat was working as an electrical engineer and physicist at Bell Labs in Berkeley Heights, N.J., when he was recruited by the CIA and became a scientific intelligence officer in the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology. He also worked in the National Reconnaissance Office and as technical director of the Navy's Special Programs Office. He served in London, Scandinavia and locations in the Middle East, including Tehran.

Covert action, overt success

"The killing of bin Laden was the greatest covert action in CIA history," Poteat said.

The operation was planned by the CIA and executed by the Seals and other special operations forces in a combined effort.

Poteat compared the mission to Desert One, the failed effort by the Carter administration to rescue the American hostages being held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Poteat said President Jimmy Carter hated the CIA, and when he was elected president, he appointed Stansfield Turner ostensibly to head the espionage agency. Turner actually was under orders from Carter to dismantle the agency.

"Desert One was a White House operation," Poteat said. "The CIA was completely cut out of that. From the beginning it was doomed to fail."

For example, Poteat said, the leaders of Desert One did not make sure the helicopters they were using in the operation were in top condition.

"They just took helicopters off the line," he said. "And they didn't have a backup plan in case one of them crashed, which is what happened.

"Carter's people planned on everything going right and that never happens. When the CIA went to get bin Laden, they brought an extra helicopter and it turned out they needed it."

To Carter's credit, Poteat said, he and Turner saw the error of their ways and began rebuilding the CIA.

"But by then it was too late for Carter," he said.

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