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. You can see disguise in action here.
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.