Ex-CIA disguise experts putting a human face on oft-maligned U.S. spies

All the characters in this photo illustration are just two people: Jonna and Tony Mendez, who were photographed at an International Spy Museum exhibit. After decades working as disguise specialists for the CIA, the Mendezes are masters at their craft. At the request of the agency, they are spending their retirement revealing some of their tricks. (Photo illustration by T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)All the characters in this photo illustration are just two people: Jonna and Tony Mendez, who were photographed at an International Spy Museum exhibit. After decades working as disguise specialists for the CIA, the Mendezes are masters at their craft. At the request of the agency, they are spending their retirement revealing some of their tricks. (Photo illustration by T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)
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Behind the closed double doors of a low-lit room just blocks from FBI headquarters, an interrogation is under way. Two intelligence agents sit at opposite ends of a long table while a team of inquisitors probes and presses.

How did you get to the CIA?

Are those kids in Iran hikers or spies?

What are America’s top intelligence priorities?

“There’s not a CIA analyst alive who would answer your question,” Jonna Mendez says.

Mrs. Mendez pauses, sharing a look with her husband, Tony.

“But we will!” she says.

A married pair of former CIA officers, Mr. and Mrs. Mendez are hosting a dozen or so guests at Zola restaurant as part of a “Dinner With a Spy” event, discussing everything from KGB lipstick pistols to border infiltration.

“So many people have these visions of the CIA as a bunch of guys in bars cooking up ridiculous plans or as a conspiracy of God knows what by God knows whom,” Mrs. Mendez said. “It’s all based on this idea that the agency is full of people with evil intentions.”

As the agency’s leading disguise specialists, the Mendezes spent decades creating false identities for American spies. Since retiring from the CIA in the early 1990s, however, the two have worked to unmask their longtime profession — putting a human face on America’s spies while providing a rare public look into the opaque world of intelligence.

Tony and I try to demonstrate that the [intelligence community] is full of people just like you,” Mrs. Mendez said. “People who make mistakes, sure, but also do a good job. People who go to work every morning and try to keep their country safe.”

After long careers carrying out America’s most secretive business, Tony and Joanna Mendez have embraced new roles in the public eye with relish: They have authored two books about their lives, participated in a number of documentaries, worked as technical advisers for a spy-themed television drama, hosted dozens of public talks and events, served as founding board members of the Spy Museum and even taught a community college course on espionage. Next year, Ben Affleck will direct and star as Mr. Mendez in “Argo,” a George Clooney-produced film based on the daring, top-secret 1980 CIA rescue of American diplomats in Iran.

For the Mendezes, this is the new normal, an unexpected second act.

The masters of disguise

The situation was grave. November, 1979: Following the Iranian revolution, Islamist militants seized control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American hostages.

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