The CIA: A Commitment to Illusion

lipstick, makeup

photo: Maria Morri, creative commons license

This week The Cipher Brief offered an inside look at one of the more arcane activities of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) through an interview with Jonna Mendez, who worked as the OTS Chief of Disguise, retiring in 1993.

Although she began as a secretary with the Agency, when she took some photography lessons from the OTS, a new career was born. At that time, she was the only woman on the technical side at the Agency, and her first role was as a clandestine photographer. “I had cameras in lipsticks. I had them in key fobs. I’d put a camera in just about anything,” she said. When she started in the OTS, it was creating much of its hardware, like hidden cameras, but today it can buy a lot of what it needs off-the-shelf and upgrade from there.

Mendez later worked in the disguise unit, with the goal of enabling officers “to instantly change the way they looked.” Initially, the staff learned the art and tricks of making masks from the experts in Hollywood and, again, adapted them to CIA requirements. They also worked with Hollywood magicians to deconstruct the sleight-of-hand and distraction methods they use “to consistently and successfully deceive you.” (Read several startlingly entertaining anecdotes about the power of these illusion and distraction tools here.)

The office created a mask for Mendez, in which she “became about 15 years younger, much prettier, with a fabulous hairdo.” Wearing the mask, she met President George H.W. Bush and a group of high administration officials in the Oval Office. The mask was so realistic, no one realized she was wearing one, and she said they were shocked when she took it off.

When agents were given a mask or a disguise, they might initially be reluctant to wear it—“You don’t meet many men who want to put on a wig”—but they’d send them out into the community where they’d learn no one noticed, and they’d seat them near their colleagues in the cafeteria where they’d see no one recognized them. That usually convinced them, Mendez said.

Of course, being in a foreign environment and blending involves more than appearance. She’d teach agents the characteristic behavior of people in the places where they would be operating and what behavior to watch for and mimic.

Jonna is married to Tony Mendez, the CIA’s exfiltration expert who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, portrayed by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo. Their 2003 books about espionage in the waning days of the Cold War is Spy Dust. Tony’s book about his experiences, The Master of Disguise, contains the episode turned into Argo. You can order them with the affiliate links below.

****The Shanghai Factor

Shanghai, woman

photo: Fabrizio Maestroni, creative commons license

By Charles McCarry – This Shanghai-U.S. East Coast-based spy thriller is reminiscent of the early works of John le Carré, where the question always is, Whom can you trust? And the answer: no one. At least that’s how the unnamed narrator, a new CIA recruit, chooses to operate. Paranoia 101. Throughout, it’s McCarry’s wry observations of characters and their situations that make the reading such a pleasure.

Undocumented CIA agents, like the narrator,

. . . never carry official ID. This absence of proof that they’re up to no good is their protection. Otherwise, they are warned, they’re on their own. If they get themselves into trouble, they’ll get no help. If they do well, they’ll get no thanks. That formula is, of course, catnip to romantics.

McCarry gives his protagonist a deceptive openness and surface sociability. A Chinese languages major in college, he’s been sent to Shanghai to improve his language skills and cultural acumen and to keep a lookout for potential Agency recruits.

Early in his stay, a beautiful young woman crashes her bike into his, he buys her an expensive replacement, and before long, they’re lovers. It’s a fun way to learn the language not generally endorsed by Berlitz. From the beginning, he assumes she’d been sent by the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Other than her name, Mei, he never asks her any questions about her background—what would be the point?—except to learn she was an exchange student in Massachusetts, which accounts for her American English. Nor does she ask such questions of him—ditto. Plus, he figures she already knows.

Through Mei, he meets wealthy, upwardly mobile young Chinese, disdainful of their stodgy Communist parents. Through one of them, he meets a prominent Chinese CEO and receives an employment offer he suspects is a feeler from Guoanbu. Such a placement could be invaluable to the CIA, if highly risky to him.

McCarry creates a number of entertaining secondary characters, especially lusty Mei, the hot-and-cold Chinese spy Lin Ming, and his mother’s former crack-addict cook, Magdalena. Are any of them what and who they seem? Then there’s his handler, the eccentric CIA director of counter-intelligence Luther Burbank (to the surprise of horticulturalists everywhere), who advises him take the job.

Burbank is the only man at the Agency who knows what he’s up to, and they talk only rarely. When they do, Burbank counsels that becoming a an effective espionage agent and undermining Guoanbu, will be a long game, vulnerable to exposure at every turn. They have to be content to wait for the payoff. He does take the job and, from there, life gets complicated.

McCarry’s writing is smooth and literary, and one of my favorite authors, Alan Furst, calls him “a master of intelligent, literate spy fiction.” If you like an old-fashioned spy story dependent more on agents’ wits than electronic wizardry and body count, you may enjoy this one too.

****Ghosts of Havana

havana, Cuba

photo: Les Haines, creative commons license

By Todd Moss – The long tail of the 1961 U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion  disaster swings around to sting a married couple in this fast-paced political thriller—third in a series by former U.S. State Department diplomat Todd Moss.

With his insider’s background, Moss believably portrays the interdepartmental rivalries inside the Washington Beltway, where high-stakes diplomacy faces off against the less, shall we say, conventional means of asserting American interests deployed by the rival Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Moss’s protagonist, in these novels, is former Amherst College professor Judd Ryker. He developed a political theory suggesting that, in times of a country’s destabilization—whether because of natural calamity or military coup or political upheaval—quick U.S. intervention can help mold the new status quo to fit American interests. He’s been brought into the State Department to create a one-man Crisis Reaction Unit. In other words, to put his theory to the test. Not surprisingly, the State Department’s career diplomats are not interested in this outsider’s theories, and do all they can, by foot-dragging and outright sabotage, to assure he fails.

Judd’s wife Jessica has what he has been led to believe is a job in international relief efforts. As this book opens, she has just revealed that she works for the CIA. In fact, she heads a super-secret unit that operates with total independence and is available for various tricky problem-solving tasks around the world.

Now that Jessica’s responsibilities are out in the open, the couple has agreed on three fundamentals going forward: they will assist each other whenever possible; they will avoid working on the same problem whenever they can; and they will admit to each other when a situation arises that they cannot follow through with assist or avoid. Relevant to all three of these is a commitment to always tell each other the truth, even though at times they may need to keep their employers’ secrets. Like so many principles, stating them turns out to be easier than living them.

Within three days, Jessica counts up at least eight lies she’s told Judd already. Yet, at the same time, he’s reassuring her that he’s in his State Department office, when he’s actually headed to Gauntánamo Bay Naval Base to meet with the shadowy director of Cuban intelligence.

Cuba’s top leaders are elderly. Sick too. There’s every reason to believe that a moment of disruption—of the kind Judd believes is ripe for positive intervention—is imminent. His trip to Cuba is the first step, though the stated reason for the meeting is to extricate four Americans caught on a fishing boat in Cuban waters.

Moss gives a sharp, up-to-the-minute feel in terms of crazy politics, self-serving politicos, and mainstream diplomatic strategists trying to keep the lid on. Throughout, he does a great job in showing the discrepancy between the way events are played for the public and the reality of the situation as Judd and Jessica perceive it. It’s enough to make you look at the nightly news with an even more skeptical eye!