“In True Face”: A Conversation with Jonna Mendez, former CIA Chief of Disguise

Jonna Mendez | The Moscow Rules | Jordan Harbinger

On this week’s episode of the Burn Bag, we talk to Jonna Mendez, former CIA Chief of Disguise, about her work in the CIA. Mendez discusses her reasons for joining the agency, her time as an intelligence officer, and the history behind the Office of Technical Service (OTS). She analyzes the successes and failures of the products that the OTS produced and delves into the measures she and others had to take to thwart intelligence services in Russia, Cuba, and other areas where CIA assets were active. Jonna highlights the importance of human intelligence, revealing to us what the relationship was like between officer and agent, and speculates on how this form of intelligence may have changed given technological advances. We also chat to Jonna about the intricacies of the disguises she made, and why the “Tom Cruise peel” from Mission Impossible should be the “Jonna Mendez peel” — as she details a famous meeting she had with President George H.W. Bush in which she demonstrated the efficacy of facial masks. We close the conversation with a discussion about the true story behind Academy Award winning movie Argo — as Jonna talks about her late husband Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck in Argo) and his role in the Canadian Caper operation during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980.

Jonna will be releasing a new book, “In True Face”, in the near future, and you can check out more of her work and her writing here.

On first joining the CIA:

  • “This Office of Technical Service, we were basically a lot like the queue in the James Bond movies. We supplied our case officers, our operational officers, with all of the technical mechanical wear with all they needed to conduct their operations. A lot of it then was photography with unique cameras, unique films you everything about it was unique.”
  • “If I count back, you said 25 years, it was actually 27 years. Because nobody at CIA leaves after five or four. If they do, you know, they really, really messed up. Everyone stays forever.”

On the reality of working in OTS

  • “That’s part of working at the CIA. You can save the world on Tuesday and you have to just go home Tuesday night at dinner and have a beer and go to bed…You know you can never acknowledge what’s done. We had the audio people, we had a huge section that did documents. And they did a lot of other things, not just documents. They could copy almost anything.”
  • “So yeah, I think you can say it’s a little bit like Q in the James Bond movies, but there was a difference. And that was, we didn’t just hand this step off to James. Because James was gonna, he was gonna go out, he was either gonna break it, he’s gonna lose it, forget how it works, or it might just malfunction, all of those things.”
  • “So the job was really fun. And that was part of the fun was the traveling went everywhere.”

On the successes and failures of the OTS products

  • “The failures we were always worried about was that our agents would be arrested, not us. We typically had some kind of documentation, we were more or less protected, we might be dismissed from a country. We very seldom with one of our people go to jail, almost never. But the foreign agents, depending on where they were, it was certainly going to jail. If they were in Moscow, they would go for some sort of show trial, and they would execute. And they did execute. The 1985. The year the spy over James CIA officer who was a traitor, turned over 12 names of Russian agents working for us, and they shut them off. They killed them all. So is life or death.”
  • “You wouldn’t even know that there was a dragon, even at the CIA?”

On approaching relationships

  • “It’s always a personal relationship. It’s the reason that people are willing to risk their lives, they’re not going to do it through a text, they’re going to do it through meeting with someone who they can kind of bond with and share these goals with.”
  • “But there are things that they bring to us that we can’t teach. And there’s this sort of charismatic character that we’re always looking for. And you guys, you would know them in your own life, you meet somebody in a bar, and you talk to him for 15 minutes. And you have this feeling that you just might end up being good friends for a long time. People who just bond with you, there are people who do that, just without even realizing it. We were looking for those guys.”
  • “These are people that could meet people easily, form bonds easily and, relate on a human level to the people they’re working with. They also had to be problem solvers. They should probably be world travelers, they more than likely had some languages under their belt. These are not people fresh out of college. These are people who had worked in some industry and had some piece of capabilities that could account for why they were there.”

On facial disguises

  • “Within the last four or so years, we’ve understood that we could actually talk about and show pictures of masks. And so we do the mask in question, the one I wore into the Oval Office briefing..”
  • “But they’ve airbrushed the mask out of them. on my wall, I have a picture of me in front of the President’s desk, and I have my left my finger up. And it’s looks like it looks like I’m lecturing him. I’m actually holding the mask. And people come in my house and it’s discreetly away in my office. And they say, ‘What are you telling him?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, it was a briefing. That’s my mask story.’

On creating uniqueness sand specificity OTS products

  • “When I started in disguise, we were using some masks that were stunt double masks from Hollywood. They literally came out of Hollywood…we made a contract with a man out there, a famous man.”
  • “The people we were working against were armed; they were going to shoot us at our agent, they were dangerous. The narcotics, the cartels, were just oh, you know, off the chart. So we started looking at disguise as almost a form of body armor that would protect you and would protect the agent. Sometimes we would make a mask for the foreign agent.”

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