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CIA's Former Chief of Disguise to Tell Her Story
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Monday, March 18, 2024
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

CIA officer Jonna Mendez had boarded a bus bound for a cafeteria when she heard an explosion. Black-masked men bounded on the bus, putting a hood over her head and the others. They took her to a cell so small she could only sit with her legs bent close to her chest and told her to stand silent and barefoot on the cold concrete floor without food or water.

A day later, they moved her to a box eight inches deep where she was immersed in darkness, cloaked in claustrophobia, unable to move a limb.

"I won't make it through this one. Someone's going to have to get me out," she told herself before remembering a POW's admonition to withstand captivity by visualizing the places she'd loved, such as the tall grass prairies of her Kansas youth.

Mendez went nearly three days without food and water in what turned out to be a training exercise in surviving incarceration and interrogation at what CIA officers called the Farm south of Washington, D.C.

And it's one of the stories she recounts in her new book, "In True Face--A Woman's Life in the CIA, Unmasked."

Mendez entertained a full house at The Community Library a year ago as she showed slides of the ways she and her late husband Tony Mendez created elaborate disguises for CIA spies. She also told of the daring Canadian caper that enabled six hostages to escape from revolutionary Iran in 1980. The escapade was recounted in George Clooney's movie "Argo," in which Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez.

On Thursday she will appear at The Community Library to discuss her new book. The talk, being held in partnership with Dent, will start at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21. Seats are full but a waiting list is available at https://thecommunitylibrary.libcal.com/event/11703195. It is also being livestreamed at https://vimeo.com/event/3953712 but will not be available to watch later.

Jonna Mendez never imagined herself a Jane Bond as a young woman growing up in Wichita, Kan., the daughter of a flight line mechanic father and a mother who worked in computers when they were large reel-to-reel monstrosities.

Attending a friend's wedding in Germany opened her to a life beyond the tall grass prairies of Kansas. She got a job at Chase Manhattan Bank in Frankfurt, took Berlitz German lessons, fell in love with an American she assumed was working for the U.S. military in Germany and soon learned she had married a CIA officer.

"(Our German friends) told us amazing stories of World War II, when they buried their wine in fields worried, that foreign soldiers would steal it," she said.

In order to move around the world as her husband accepted different assignments, she took a job as a contract wife, serving as secretary of the CIA's logistics base in Frankfurt, maintaining a flight schedule for agency operatives that compared with the worldwide flight patterns of Pan Am.

But she quickly became bored and so pressed for more interesting jobs despite the agency being very much a boys' club. She learned clandestine photography, doing so well she was quickly tasked with training foreign operatives in the art.

She learned how to boil alcohol to make secret messages come to light. And she learned that Germany laced its alcohol with camphor at the time to prevent its citizens from setting up illegal stills when the toxic fumes from the boiling necessitated her office building to be emptied out for most of a day.

Her work took her all over the world, including Pakistan where she constructed how to smuggle a Soviet defector into safe passage.

Crushed in a security line at the Kolkata airport, she found herself yelling at a tiny woman in a white sari to quit shoving her, only to realize it was Mother Teresa.

She got cold sweats when she came face to face with a rogue Jihadi who had brought down an American plane. And she stole a top secret encryption machine from the Soviets while working in Moscow during the Cold War.

Perhaps her scariest moment--one of many--took place during a grueling training course when a misogynistic officer who told a bunch of Navy SEALS that having a woman on a firing range was bad luck exacted revenge after a day of blowing up school buses and used cars.

"Hey Jonna!" he yelled.

"He was standing about 100 feet away, holding a grenade in his hand," she recounted. "When he pulled the fuse on the grenade and rolled it across the bare earth toward me, time slowed to a  sudden crawl...The grenade rolled to about 10 feet from me before stopping. Then it went off, the bang roared and my body began to vibrate like a jackhammer."

"Henry had just broken nearly every rule in the book," she added.

After learning to deal with invisible ink, Jonna began serving under Tony Mendez, the master of Disguise. She became proficient in the use of tiny cameras, fake passports, undetectable disguises, quick-change license plates, jacket buttons that were compasses and silk jacket lining maps.

She put bugs in books and cameras in cigarette packs. And she learned mask making under Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, who won an Oscar for his work in "Planet of the Apes." She became so proficient in assuming disguises herself, including that of a black woman in red stilettos, that she totally fooled President George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, into thinking she was a man during a visit to the Oval Office.

The disguises she and her cohorts made helped the CIA outsmart the KGB, she said. And it was thought that using women gave America's CIA one-up, as well, since Russians didn't use women and wouldn't expected the CIA to.

After retiring, having kept their life's work secret from even friends and family, the CIA began to pull back the curtains on the couple's clandestine life. They publicly recognized Tony as one of 50 officers who had shaped the agency's history during the agency's 50th anniversary.

"60 Minutes" then filmed a segment on him and then CIA Director George Tenet asked him to tell the story of Argo, which had previously been a classified secret. The two wrote the books "Argo," "The Moscow Rules" and "Spy Dust."  And now Jonna Mendez travels the country, telling her story.

"I was born into a generation of women that dared to break the mold... Nearly all of us were disrespected and mocked along the way," she said. "By telling my story, I hope I encourage other girls and young women to pursue the life they most desire."

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