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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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