COVID 19

Living undercover for years, Jonna Mendez has served tours of duty around the world and became the CIA’s chief of disguise. She’s helped steal a top-secret encryption machine from a Soviet Embassy and helped America win the Cold War. Now, the coronavirus is threatening Americans and everyone worldwide. We’ve asked Mendez for her insights on this unseen enemy.

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What do intelligence professionals do when they stop being intelligence professionals? Some ride off into a well-deserved retirement, sipping fruity drinks while lounging on a tropical beach. Others move into the private sector and help corporate America negotiate the global marketplace.

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Jonna Mendez at The SPY Museum

Who needs a cloak of invisibility when you have a wizard of disguise by your side? When spies need to go undercover, evade enemy surveillance, or slip by without anyone noticing, they depend on the expertise of a Tech Ops officer who specializes in the art of disguise. Join Jonna Mendez former CIA Chief of Disguise, in conversation with the Museum’s educators as she reveals some of her techniques and spine-tingling missions.

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Spy Wars with Damian Lewis Show

In November 1979, 53 American employees of the U.S. Embassy in Iran were taken hostage by Islamic revolutionaries. Six diplomats managed to escape, but getting out of the country seemed impossible. Enter CIA officer Tony Mendez, who used inspiration from Hollywood to school six frightened diplomats in the art of assuming false identities and pulled off a bold rescue mission during one of the darkest moments in American foreign policy history.

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The novel coronavirus presents significant challenges to the mission and operations of every government agency and department—and the Central Intelligence Agency is no exception. In fact, the agency’s intelligence officers now face a more difficult challenge than ever when it comes to their efforts to recruit spies.

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Jonna Mendez presenting at TEDx Bermuda

As a retired CIA intelligence officer with 27 years of service, her career comprised of multiple under cover assignments. She joined the CIA’s Office of Technical Service (OTS) in early 1970, (often compared to “Q” Branch in the 007 movies), holding the position of Chief of Disguise. She also worked closely with her husband in writing Argo and Moscow Rules. Jonna is a founding board member at the International Spy Museum.

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The CIA was having a midlife crisis as it neared its 50th anniversary in 1997. A generation of spies had retired after the Cold War ended. Recruiting new blood was painfully hard; only 25 newly minted clandestine services officers had passed the test the previous year, a rock-bottom low. Times were tough at the world’s most conspicuous secret service.

So, the agency decided to cheer itself up with a ceremony celebrating 50 of its all-stars. I was covering the CIA for the New York Times and got a look at the honors list. Many had gone on to the great safe house in the sky. But one name among the living caught my eye. I picked up the phone, called the CIA’s public information office and put in a request to interview Antonio J. Mendez.

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One morning during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Jonna Mendez, then the CIA’s chief of disguise, entered the White House wearing a mask. She had originally disguised herself as an African-American man but decided that mask wouldn’t work, not least because her voice would give her away. Instead, she borrowed the face of a female colleague. “It was a little nerve-racking,” she recalls. “I hadn’t really worn it anywhere.”

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