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.
Meanwhile, six American diplomats secretly had escaped and were hiding in the Canadian Embassy. Rumors were spreading. Time was running out. As a disguise expert in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service, Mr. Mendez was tasked with getting the group out of the country — via the city’s Mehrabad Airport, no less — through the use of fake identities and a cover story.
Typically, cover stories are boring and mundane, the better to attract as little attention as possible. Think schoolteachers. Nutritionists. Geological engineers.
The Iranian situation, however, presented a quandary: What sort of Westerners would be oblivious — or nutty — enough to plausibly have been in Tehran during the revolution, and not already known to Iranian security?
Mr. Mendez settled on a novel guise: a film preproduction crew, scouting locations for a phony Hollywood epic.
“We had an audience that included the Iranians, the Canadian government, the State Department and the White House,” he said. “I decided we should devise a cover so exotic, no one would imagine it would be used for operational purposes.”
To pull off the ruse, Mr. Mendez oversaw the creation of a fake production company, complete with business cards, Los Angeles offices, ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and a sci-fi script titled “Argo.” Working with the Canadian government, the CIA made phony identities for the six diplomats — including writer, camera operator and director — while Mr. Mendez disguised himself as an Irish film producer to enter Iran and personally led the group past airport security and out of the country on a commercial flight.
“Say your cover was that you were from Uruguay and lived on a certain street,” Mr. Mendez said. “We wanted to make it so good that if you were operating in Iran and they sent investigators to Uruguay and went to your mailbox and knocked on the door, they would see a photograph of you on the mantel of that house.”
Though Mr. Mendez once was summoned to the White House to disguise presidential adviser Hamilton Jordan — who needed to visit Europe without being detected — his assignments more typically began with a CIA operations officer visiting the agency’s disguise laboratory.
I’m going to Southeast Asia. I need a cover.
The trick, Mr. and Mrs. Mendez said, was to imagine a memo being written about the officer following an in-person meeting — and then create a disguise that would render every detail in that memo incorrect.
The subject has curly hair. Wrong.
He smokes European cigarettes. Wrong.
He has a dent in his index finger from wearing a wedding ring. Wrong.
“The definition of invisibility is to take away every hook that people can use to identify you easily,” Mr. Mendez said.
Often, the biggest challenge facing the Mendezes wasn’t coming up with fake mustaches and plausible covers — it was teaching agents to act less, well, American.
To wit: Europeans stand up straight in elevators, with their weight on both feet. Americans slouch, leaning against walls and railings. In movie theaters, Americans walk though crowded rows facing the screen; by contrast, Europeans face the audience, because they consider sticking their backsides in their fellow patrons’ faces to be rude.
Mrs. Mendez said contemporary American agents have to be taught to smoke. Mr. Mendez added that even the American habit of daily showering can be a giveaway.
“In Moscow, we made sure agents had the right amount of garlic, vodka and plain old B.O.,” he said.
A new mission
He thought he was done. No more missions. Mr. Mendez served in the CIA for 25 years, traveling to Russia, Vietnam and places he still can’t reveal, specializing in “exfiltration” missions — that is, getting friendly assets out of hostile environments.
In 1990, he retired. The Cold War ended. Mr. Mendez spent his days painting in the art studio of his Knoxville, Md., home. He assumed he would take his espionage secrets to the grave. And that was OK. Spying was a job for romantics, for people who could derive satisfaction without recognition or being able to tell anyone else about their work.
“You spend half your time lying to the enemy,” Mr. Mendez said. “And the other half lying to your friends, because they don’t need to know.”
In 1997, everything changed. As part of the CIA’s 50th-anniversary celebration, agency Director George J. Tenet honored 50 “Trailblazers,” people whose extraordinary intelligence work stood out.
Mr. Mendez was on the list. To his surprise, the agency didn’t just want to honor him at a ceremony held at CIA headquarters — it wanted him to go public and tell the world about the rescue in Iran.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Mr. Mendez said. “That’s our best secret. But Tenet prevailed. Twisted my arm. Next thing you know, I was on Dan Rather.”
More surprising still, Mr. Mendez enjoyed his new role. He wrote a book about his covert career, “Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA.” It went through seven agency publication reviews — coming back with entire sections blacked out — and almost was canceled twice.
True to his exfiltration background, Mr. Mendez ultimately secured publication by changing small details of his story and creating composite characters.
Spies like them
Mr. Mendez never planned on becoming a spy. The son of a Nevada copper miner, he was working as an artist in Denver in 1965 when he saw a newspaper ad for a Navy illustrator.
Curious, he applied for the position. His first interview took place not in Denver’s downtown federal building, but in a nondescript hotel room on the city’s edge.
Mr. Mendez gave his sample sketches to the recruiter, who wore suspenders. He looked, Mr. Mendez said, “like Sam Spade.” He drew the shades. He placed a bottle of Jim Beam on the table.
“Son,” the recruiter said, “this ain’t the Navy.”
Mrs. Mendez’s entree into the espionage world was equally unexpected. In the late 1960s, she attended a friend’s wedding in Germany, where she met her first husband, a U.S. Army officer.
Two days before their wedding in Switzerland, Mrs. Mendez’s first husband told her that he didn’t actually work for the Army.
“I said, ‘What’s the CIA?’ ” Mrs. Mendez recalled.
The couple moved to Bangkok, where Mrs. Mendez began working for the CIA as an executive secretary for the Office of Technical Services. She grew bored with the job and was about to quit to take a job at the Smithsonian when her boss asked her to take an agency photography class.
Mrs. Mendez found herself in a twin-engine plane with the side doors removed and the tail number painted over, strapped into a body harness, holding a 1000 mm lens camera, flying over the Washington area and taking pictures of license plates attached to the cars below.
“My first question was, ‘How far off the water can we fly in this thing?’ ” she said. “I loved it. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.”
Because the Office of Technical Services serves a similar function to “Q” in the James Bond films, the Mendezes spent much of their CIA careers helping develop and deploy espionage gadgets — including a low-light camera that was used during the first moon landing and miniature lithium batteries that were the predecessors of the batteries used in modern portable electronics.
Mr. Mendez’s greatest technical achievement may have been the creation of an effective quick-disguise system — the Mendezes call it “Dagger” — the details of which remain classified.
“The difference between what Hollywood does in ‘Mission: Impossible’ is that it takes them five hours of makeup,” Mr. Mendez said. “We can do it in five minutes without fail and with no makeup guy standing there.”
In 1989, Mrs. Mendez demonstrated the system to President George H.W. Bush, joining her husband as one of three Office of Technical Services employees ever to visit the Oval Office.
That morning, Mrs. Mendez met CIA Director William H. Webster at his home. She knocked on his door, not yet in disguise, holding a small bag that contained the Dagger system. Mr. Webster had a small dog, which barked at her nonstop.
Mrs. Mendez slipped into another room and put on her disguise. She emerged for a cup of coffee.
“Now, the dog loved me,” she said.
At the White House, Mrs. Mendez nearly was unable to enter — she didn’t have any identification that matched her disguise. She gave the president a short Oval Office briefing as Vice President Dan Quayle looked on and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu took notes.
Mrs. Mendez removed her disguise. No one had been warned she was wearing it.
“Sununu was truly startled,” she said. “The president loved it. And I loved it, too.” Mrs. Mendez said with a laugh.
“It made me look 10 years younger,” she said.
Eventually, it became a regular assignment: On the nights that the spy-themed television show “Mission: Impossible” aired during the late 1960s and early 1970s, CIA agents from Mr. Mendez’s department would watch, taking notes on fantastical on-screen gadgets such as brooch cameras and chess-playing computers.
“The next morning, we would get calls from the operations office in the CIA, asking, ‘Can we do that?’ ” Mr. Mendez said. “I’d say, ‘Well, maybe. What do you need it for?’ A lot of good ideas came to us that way. And vice versa for [Hollywood]. They would hear about things we were doing and come up with story lines.”
For Mr. Mendez, the Hollywood-CIA connection was more direct. Following the release of the 1963 film “The List of Adrian Messenger” — in which stars including Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra were disguised until a surprising, climactic reveal — the agency contacted its makeup artist, John Chambers.
Chambers, best known for his Oscar-winning work in 1968’s “The Planet of the Apes,” agreed to help. In the early 1970s, Mr. Mendez was tasked with facilitating a secret meeting between a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat in the capital city of Laos, a country under martial law and Soviet surveillance.
Mr. Mendez reached out to Chambers, whom he referred to as “Jerome” and who later received the agency’s highest civilian award. Could Hollywood help?
Chambers had a studio full of silicone masks used to make stunt doubles resemble stars. He provided two to Mr. Mendez: one for Victor Mature, the other for Rex Harrison. Both actors were Caucasian.
With some on-site modifications and a bit of creative makeup work, Mr. Mendez was able to make the officer look like Mr. Harrison and the diplomat resemble Mr. Mature. The two met in a car in a public square and later flashed phony diplomatic ID cards to pass through an armed checkpoint without incident.
“We never saw another intelligence agency that had the same [disguise] capability,” Mrs. Mendez said. “Of course, no other intelligence agency had Hollywood helping them.”
More recently, the Mendezes attempted to return the favor by acting as technical advisers on scripts for the CIA-themed television drama “The Agency,” which aired from 2001-03.
At first, the Mendezes and their friends in the intelligence community appreciated the series’ attention to detail and realistic story lines — the planned premiere episode, written in March 2001, had the CIA repositioning itself for a “war on terror” after an Osama bin Laden-masterminded terrorist attack on American soil; other episodes featured anthrax attacks and Predator drone strikes before they became real-word news events.
As the program entered its second season, however, Mr. and Mrs. Mendez were disappointed by what they saw as unrealistic scenarios.
“The suits from the studio wanted an action show,” Mrs. Mendez said. “A cop show. Guns and blood. Agents arresting people on the subway. And it was set in the United States, because they didn’t have the budget to take it overseas. That’s not what the CIA does.”
“Every time we see a new spy movie, there’s a deranged ex-CIA assassin,” Mrs. Mendez said. “I won’t say Matt Damon. But there’s always one. And when you see enough of that, you think it’s real.”