- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Most people who meet Jonna Mendez don’t see her as a spy ” and that’s exactly the way she likes it.

A good spy, she says, would never be as ostentatious as James Bond in a casino surrounded by beautiful women or Jack Ryan slipping his CIA business card to a Colombian drug lord.

No, a good spy is someone hardly noticed at all, such as a housewife hanging on the arm of her diplomat husband. It’s one reason women make such good spies, Mrs. Mendez says.

“Non-working wives learn all kinds of things that the husbands would like to know,” she says.

In her spying career, Mrs. Mendez specialized in being anonymous. When she retired in 1993 after more than 25 years with the CIA, she was the agency’s chief of disguises, describing her role as a female version of “Q” from the James Bond movies.

Now she helps focus attention on the sometimes little-known contributions of women in the spy game and the stereotypes that even today affect their work.

Mrs. Mendez and another former espionage expert, Connie Huff Allen ” a retired U.S. Army counterintelligence officer who specialized in tracking down foreign spies ” will discuss the history of female spies next month in a two-part lecture series at the International Spy Museum in the District.

Mrs. Mendez and her husband, Antonio, also a retired CIA agent, are board members of the museum and helped design its exhibits. Among them is “Sisterhood of Spies,” a display about women who have played the spy game through history.

“Women have a lot of really unique strengths that work very well in espionage operations,” Mrs. Mendez says.

• • •

Many of the most successful U.S. spies have been women, starting with a British woman who spied for George Washington in the Revolutionary War. She kept her secrets so well that even now historians don’t know her name and refer to her by a number: 355.

Female spies played a key role in the Civil War on both sides. The most successful spy rings in Washington and the Confederate capital of Richmond were run by women.

In World War II, many women worked for the U.S. and British spy services, including an American-born British spy who used her sexual charms to sneak into the Washington embassy of Vichy France (the World War II Nazi-influenced French puppet state) and steal French naval codes.

The woman known as 355 was a member of the Culper Ring, a famous spy network from the American Revolution that kept tabs on British forces in New York for George Washington. She was captured in 1780. When she died aboard a British prison ship, her true identity died with her.

Historians suspect that she was a member of a prominent Tory family, and it is known she married fellow spy Robert Townsend and gave birth to his son shortly before she died.

• • •

In the American Civil War, women on both sides exploited society’s stereotypes to run some of the most successful spy operations in U.S. history.

“The stereotype is that we’re not as bright, not as educated, not as capable or as clever as men,” says Ms. Allen, a vice president at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Alexandria and, like Mrs. Mendez, an instructor there. The center is a private firm that does government and corporate consulting in counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

“Understanding someone’s take on you allows you to be very effective operating against them,” Ms. Allen says.

Take Elizabeth Van Lew. She was a wealthy heiress in Richmond who ran a spy ring that aided Union prisoners and passed information they provided back to Washington.

Van Lew diverted attention from herself by pretending to be crazy. It worked so well that even the Richmond newspapers called her “Crazy Bet.” After the war, when her spying activities were revealed, Van Lew was shunned by Richmond residents.

One of her most significant accomplishments was to place Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave, in the Confederate White House as a servant, where she spied on Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“Because Southern men assumed Bowser couldn’t read and write, they allegedly left critical documents about their war efforts where she had access to them. Even if she couldn’t read and write, which she could, Bowser was still in a position to listen to conversations and observe the goings on in the White House,” Ms. Allen says ” alluding, of course, to the Confederate White House in Richmond.

“Again, stereotyping her as not being bright, being inferior played to her advantage. She was looked through, an invisible employee who was an extremely effective spy.”

Bowser was such a successful spy that she was made a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in the mid-1990s.

Another ex-slave, Harriet Tubman, used the experience she gained as a conductor on the Underground Railroad to lead espionage and guerrilla missions for the Union Army.

• • •

On the Confederate side as well, women were among the most accomplished spies.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a well-known Washington socialite who easily was able to obtain details of the city’s defenses for the Confederacy. Even after she was arrested in 1861 and confined to her home on 16th Street NW, she continued to lead her spy ring. She was sent in 1862 to the Old Capitol Prison, a converted boardinghouse in which she had lived as a young girl.

Union officials later decided they had had enough and sent her South, where she became an emissary for the Confederate cause in England and France. Greenhow drowned in 1864 off the coast of North Carolina after Union naval forces sank the ship in which she was traveling on her return from Europe.

In an 1863 book, “My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule in Washington,” Greenhow described how she was able to avoid a trial for treason by concealing the incriminating evidence during the search of her home and smuggling it away in the care of a friend, Lily Mackall:

The chiefs of the detectives having gone out, several of the subordinates left in charge now possessed themselves of rum and brandy, which aided in developing their brutal instincts; and they even boasted, in my hearing, of the “nice times” they expected to have with the female prisoners.

As every evil is said to be checkmated by some corresponding good, I was enabled by this means to destroy every paper of consequence. I had placed them where they could be found by me at any hour of the day or night, and was not slow to avail myself of the state of inebriation in which the guards were plunged. Stealing noiselessly to the library in the dark, I mounted up to the topmost shelf, took from the leaves of a dusty folio papers of immense value to me at that moment, concealing them in the folds of my dress, and returned to my position on the bed without my gaolers having missed me. The papers were much more numerous than I imagined and the difficulty was how to dispose of them. The chance of my friends being searched on going out (as they were assured they should do) at three o’clock, made me hesitate as to that method. I remembered, however, that, in the search of my person in the morning, my boots and stockings had not been removed; so Miss Mackall concealed the papers in her stockings and boots. This proceeding of course occupied some time, but it was noiselessly accomplished in the presence of the guard.

• • •

The Old Capitol Prison, located where the U.S. Supreme Court building is now, also held other famous female Confederate spies.

Bettie Duvall worked with Greenhow. She carried plans for the Union attack on Manassas hidden in the coils of her hair. When Duvall died July 3, 1891, in Baltimore, she was buried in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Antonia Ford was a young woman with a home on Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax who caught the eye of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. After she was accused of helping Confederate raider John S. Mosby capture a Union general at a nearby home in 1863, Ford was imprisoned as a spy in the Old Capitol Prison. A year later, she married the prison commander, Army Maj. Joseph C. Willard, who had secured her release.

Another famous inmate of the prison was Belle Boyd, who began spying for the Confederacy when she was 16 in her hometown of Martinsburg, W.Va. She later moved to Front Royal, where she kept Stonewall Jackson informed on Federal troop movements in the Shenandoah Valley, once dressing as a boy to bring a message to him. Like Ford, Boyd used her feminine charms to gain her freedom on more than one occasion.

That technique also was favored by one of the most famous female spies of World War II, Amy Thorpe Pack.

Pack, known as “Cynthia,” was an American who spied for the British in Washington ” and while there lived at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Woodley Road NW. Posing as a journalist to gain entry into the Vichy French Embassy, Pack seduced the press attache, Charles Brousse, whom she later married. Her relationship with Brousse allowed her to steal the French naval codes from the embassy safe.

Pack has often been compared to Mata Hari, an exotic dancer in Paris in World War I who was executed as a German spy even though most of her exploits were imaginary. Pack also is said to have been an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the fictional superspy whose sex life is nearly as busy as his assignment calendar.

• • •

Mrs. Mendez says, however, that female spies who use sex to get information are a thing of the past. “I can’t think of a woman I know today who would do that,” she says.

She and Mr. Mendez often worked together on operations and jointly wrote a book, “Spy Dust,” containing accounts of their exploits that are safe to publish.

Modern spy work, Mrs. Mendez says, is not nearly as sexy as it was in the past or as it is portrayed in television shows such as “Alias” (whose star, Jennifer Garner, has filmed a recruiting video for the CIA’s Web site).

“It is not exciting. It is drudgery, it’s research, to put that stuff together and bet your life on it,” Mrs. Mendez says.

The job can be hard on a woman who wants to have a social life or a family, she says.

Also, in spite of their achievements in the past, women are not seen as capable field agents by the men who still dominate the CIA’s operations, she says.

“I don’t think they like to cede it to women that they can do that job as well or better than they can.”

WHAT: “Sisterhood of Spies: Shady Ladies in Espionage,” a two-part lecture series with retired CIA agent Jonna Mendez and former Army counterintelligence agent Connie Huff Allen

WHERE: The International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. March 1 and 15

TICKETS: Members $35, general public $40. Space is limited and advance registration is required.

INFORMATION: 202/393-7798, spymuseum.org

Spying brought couple together

GARRETTS MILL, Md. — Jonna and Antonio Mendez, masters of deception in the silent and deadly contest of Cold War espionage, are free now to be themselves.

Instead of secret documents, Mrs. Mendez photographs pastoral scenes in French fields and details of Italian architecture. Her husband transforms painter’s canvases instead of agents’ faces in his studio on their Washington County farm.

But the two retired CIA operatives haven’t completely left the spy game behind. Both teach at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, or CI Centre, in Alexandria, and are board members of the International Spy Museum in Washington. The two also have written books about their exploits and were technical advisers to “The Agency,” a short-lived CBS television series about the CIA.

In her spying career, Mrs. Mendez specialized in being anonymous. When she retired in 1993 after more than 25 years with the CIA, she was the agency’s chief of disguises, describing her role as a female version of Q from the James Bond movies.

Mr. Mendez was her boss and predecessor as the agency’s disguise master. In January 1980, he led a CIA mission to Tehran to rescue six American diplomats trapped in the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis ” a story he told in his 1999 book “The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA.”

Mr. Mendez spent weeks creating a phony film production company, going as far as renting a Hollywood studio, placing ads in trade publications and printing business cards for the “location scouting crew,” which would include the diplomats.

The ruse worked. The six, accompanied by Mr. Mendez, walked right past Iranian guards through Tehran’s international airport and onto a plane for home without a hitch.

“The idea is, you don’t have to disguise someone if you’re not looking for them,” he says.

Mr. Mendez was already working undercover at the CIA when Mrs. Mendez began work there as a secretary.

“I was a really good secretary. I think I broke their typing record when I interviewed,” she says.

Later, she became a photo operations officer, traveling around the world training agents and case officers in photography and working on ways to conceal cameras in everyday objects.

“Those small cameras played a huge role in intelligence collection over the years,” she says.

The two of them worked together on several operations, in Moscow and elsewhere, including countries they still prefer not to name.

“We had a piece of every interesting job that went on,” Mrs. Mendez says. “We provided whatever method was needed to either recruit the agent or to facilitate communications between the agent and the case officer.”

Among the riskiest operations were those in which they were called on to rescue spies recruited by the CIA before they were caught by their home governments. One such case ” in which they had to save an agent they had thought was no longer working with the CIA ” is detailed in their 2002 book “Spy Dust.”

Also dangerous was trying to figure out who among the many volunteer spies were trustworthy. Mrs. Mendez recalls a time in a foreign country when she was one of seven CIA agents at a meeting with a rogue terrorist offering to trade information for safety. Even in her disguise, he knew who she was, she says.

“I looked up, and there he was, looking straight at me, and I thought I was going to get shot,” she says.

With the end of the Cold War, the two retired from the CIA and focused on their art ” Mrs. Mendez as a photographer and her husband as a painter. Mr. Mendez’s son, Antonio Tobias Mendez, is a well-known sculptor. He created the Thurgood Marshall memorial in Courthouse Square in Annapolis.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Mendez helped design the Spy Museum’s exhibits, and both take part in lecture programs there.

One of the most interesting parts of their current jobs, the Mendezes say, is the opportunity to compare notes with former Soviet agents who were on the other side of operations they ran while in Moscow or elsewhere.

Both say they have developed an unlikely camaraderie with their former foes.

“It’s kind of hard to hate each other when you admire each other,” Mr. Mendez says.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide