Jonna Mendez: Veil of Spies
Risking it all to turn the odds to America’s favor.
If I told you the Soviet Union fell with the help of glued-on facial hair and commuter dummies would you believe me? Well, probably not. But if a former CIA master of disguise told you it was true, you would. Seemingly innocuous things like wigs and ink pens were essential parts of the CIA’s ingenious toolkit for protecting assets who gave us vital information, consequently protecting millions of American lives. Tools like this were invented out of necessity during the Cold War, and Jonna Mendez, former Master of Disguise at the CIA, was the Mother of Invention.
Mendez was born in Campbellsville, Kentucky to a family whose roots in the county were six generations deep. The plucky blonde no doubt learned the ways of the hills as all Kentucky children do; how to make something from nothing and fashion what you need with what’s on hand. Skills like these would come in very handy in her career. She graduated high school in Wichita, Kansas, attended nearby Wichita State, and finally moved to Germany for several years where she worked for Chase Manhattan Bank. It was here her life would take a dramatic turn from mild-mannered office worker to surveillance expert.
In 1966, Mendez was recruited by the CIA as an undercover officer. She spent the next several years as a female spy in a male dominated field working in Europe, South Asia, and the Far East before joining the CIA’s Office of Technical Service or OTS in 1970. Still a rarity in covert operations as a woman, Mendez proved her worth to superiors, time and time again, and was recommended for special training that not only advanced her skills but also escalated the danger of her assignments.
Colleagues, Lovers, Spies
Love happened on assignment for her when she met fellow CIA agent and then Chief of Disguise, Antonio “Tony” Mendez. Recruited by the agency as an artist, Tony soon learned his assignment was to flawlessly forge documents used by fellow agents and assets alike. The culmination of his skills gained him worldwide recognition when his book Argo about the daring mission to bring American diplomats and citizens home during the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis was made into a Hollywood film, winning an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Jonna and Tony joined forces in love and ingenuity and the result wasn’t good news for America’s enemies.
On assignment in some of the most dangerous places of the era like Havana, Beijing, and Moscow, Mendez was tasked with clandestine photography and training U.S. assets how to use the tiny cameras placed in ink pens, brooches, or suitcases. The OTS was responsible for developing new technology as needed. Spies or informants would request solutions to problems and Mendez would set off inventing on the fly to keep everyone safe. It was a well-known fact that if you were captured in Red Square, you wouldn’t survive. This added more elements of danger and urgency to the work Mendez did in Cold War Europe.
Cold War Hot Spot
During the 1980s the ante was raised even higher. Stationed in Moscow as thousands of missiles in the U.S. and Soviet Union threatened global destruction, Mendez lived by “Moscow rules” to survive and later co-authored a book with her husband about the experience. These rules were simple and pragmatic. Don’t antagonize the enemy. Assume nothing. Trust no one. But the number one rule was to keep assets alive and this was where the innovative work Mendez did became crucial.
The KGB were master stalkers. It became impossible for agents to meet intelligence assets face to face. Soviet agents followed them on foot, by car and listened to phone calls through bugs in the walls of their homes. Methods had to be devised for transferring information and evading capture. Mendez developed a “disguise kit” containing facial hair, wigs and hats that could be put on or taken off in under a minute, helping agents disappear even under the heaviest surveillance. A suitcase-release body double was developed to give the appearance of a trailed agent still in the car when in fact they had bailed out in an alleyway. Hollywood-style masks were used for initial contacts with new assets providing CIA officers with an extra layer of protection.
Spy Tools in Your Pocket
Mendez’ life work has not only contributed to national security, it’s also provided technological advancements we use every day. During her tenure as Chief of Disguise at OTS, field-ready gadgets were perfected that made a spy’s life easier. The same gadgets are now making your life cooler: that tiny camera, powerful battery, and microphone inside your Android were once something a Moscow spy longed for.
Spoils of War
Her important work earned her the highly respected Intelligence Commendation Medal and a GS-14 rank. Her expertise also earned her a meeting with President George H.W. Bush where she made her department presentation in full spy disguise, mask and all. When she removed the mask to reveal her real face, the President almost fell out of his chair with amazement. Needless to say, POTUS was impressed. “Suits” from the 7th floor of CIA headquarters occasionally asked Mendez to create disguises for parties or events, and she flatly refuses. As she recalls the deaths of assets that necessitated the disguises, she tells the suits this is not a joke; it’s serious business.
In from the Cold
With the cold war over and victory won, Mendez retired in 1993 to enjoy life with husband Tony. They collaborated on many books about their intriguing careers including Spy Dust and the newly released Moscow Rules. She works as a professor at the Counter-Intelligence Center and consults for the NSA. Mendez also helped design the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. and is featured in a permanent exhibit on the “Moscow Rules” — this is only fitting. After all, she wrote them.
Learn more about the master of disguise at themasterofdisguise.com.