TONY & JONNA MENDEZ
Tony and Jonna Mendez are former CIA Intelligence Officers with 52 years of combined service. Both served as the CIA’s Chief of Disguise. On the CIA’s 50th anniversary, Tony was chosen as one of the CIA’s top 50 officers for its first 50 years.
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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.
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.
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.”
On today’s episode, CIA agent Jonna Mendez is sent to a capital city in Asia to help steal a top-secret encryption machine from a Soviet Embassy. Mendez’s job in the operation is to fashion disguises for the team. She would go on to become the chief of disguise at the CIA’s Office of Technical Service.
SPY Historian Vince Houghton sat down with former CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez to talk about operating in VERY denied areas, and her newest book, The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War.
Tony Mendez, the C.I.A.’s top disguise artist for many years, who died in January, took magic out of the living rooms and into the streets of Moscow. And in this memoir of arcane C.I.A. skulduggery, Mendez and his wife, who would eventually run the unit, demonstrate what a serious business it was: Every time C.I.A. operatives left the Moscow embassy with a K.G.B. agent in tow, they risked the lives of their Russian informants. They had to shake their tails. But how?
Legendary spy power couple Jonna and Tony Mendez met while working for the CIA in the Soviet Union, building the tools of espionage: the disguise kit, the camera that could hide anywhere, the cyanide pen. There they followed guidelines they called the “Moscow Rules” — now the name of a new book they co-wrote before Tony’s death. Jonna Mendez talks with Nick Schifrin about their work and mission.
What makes a good disguise? According to Jonna Mendez, the CIA’s former chief of disguise, it’s about more than cosmetology.
Jonna Mendez was undercover in the lobby of a fancy American hotel when she locked eyes with a dangerous terrorist, guarded by two armed men. A potentially fatal mistake that could have cost her life, she later found out.
It may sound like something straight out of a spy fiction movie, but that’s the reality Mendez lived as the former CIA chief of disguise who worked alongside her husband for the intelligence agency.