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.