Chapter 6 - True Spies: The Art of Disguise
NARRATOR: What is a spy’s most effective weapon? A sheathed dagger? Their gun? A poison-tipped umbrella? Perhaps some kind of drone? Or is it just their face and their ability to change it, to shapeshift and become someone else?
This is True Spies: The Art of Disguise.
JONNA MENDEZ: There are so many reasons to use disguise and we were able to provide them with whatever was necessary. It might be to access a clandestine location behind enemy lines. There were so many ways that it could work for you. But the first and most important is that it could make you one of them and not one of us.
NARRATOR: Or to elude a would-be assassin who is scanning the crowd for your face.
JONNA MENDEZ: Okay. He stared at me. It was like a laser. This electric current went through me and I kind of froze. I have never been that close to real evil before in my life and it was amazing the power that it carried. In those situations, disguise did become a form of body armor.
NARRATOR: Or how about getting close enough to your target that you can ascertain whether you are about to walk into a trap?
JONNA MENDEZ: But the goal was for him to go into this hotel, see the guy, and size it up. The terrorist said that he had information about the upcoming hijacking of an American plane. You can't ignore that kind of offer. You have to meet the person. But this was a really bad guy. This man had a track record. He had done some terrible things. All he needed was, like, 10-15 seconds to make a decision.
NARRATOR: To be able to pull off those kinds of maneuvers you have to be able to rely on an often under-appreciated aspect of spycraft: its artistry.
JONNA MENDEZ: We could change anything. We could change your ethnicity. We could change your gender. We could make you whatever you needed to be around the group that you were targeting and you could still be safe. And if we didn't have it, we would make it. We could do so many things with disguise. We could create an illusion or a misdirection like a magician.
NARRATOR: And there is one woman who has mastered the art.
JONNA MENDEZ: My name is Jonna Mendez. I'm the former chief of disguise at the CIA.
NARRATOR: This is the story of the woman who helped spies disappear. But to understand how she did that - and how it nearly cost her her life - we have to go back to a time when Jonna was more focused on capturing images than changing them.
JONNA MENDEZ: The beginning of my career was not in disguise. It was the photography that pulled me in.
NARRATOR: And Jonna did this from a department located in a bit of the CIA not many people know about. Forget any images you might have of drab gray office cubicles. This is a part of the CIA full of creativity and innovation.
JONNA MENDEZ: It was called OTS.
NARRATOR: That’s the Office of Technical Service, part of CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology.
JONNA MENDEZ: It was as close to Mission Impossible or Q as you could get and not be in Hollywood.
NARRATOR: And it’s where the CIA gets inventive.
JONNA MENDEZ: We were the gadget people of the CIA. We were the technical officers who provided anything technical you needed for your operation. You would come to see us if you wanted a camera that would fit in a writing pen; if you wanted a disguise; if you needed false documents. It was unbelievable the kinds of resources we had.
NARRATOR: Sounds like a pretty magical place, right? Well, it is.
JONNA MENDEZ: The magic kingdom was part of OTS. The magic kingdom was across the hall. The magical kingdom was when the digital environment started coming alive. And it was the ability to move documents digitally around the world. I mean, amazing documents - I don't want to say forgeries, the CIA does not like forgeries. Actually, they don't like counterfeits either. So, let's just say copies of documents. It was a new edge that emerged. You could sign something while you were in Europe and send it to us, and it would work for us. That was the magic kingdom. It really was magic.
NARRATOR: But Jonna was not in the magic kingdom of documents. Her department dealt with pictures. She’d started as a secretary and had been quickly promoted.
JONNA MENDEZ: I was bored so I told my boss, who was a friend - he knew I was bored - I said: "I think I want to go to work for the Smithsonian." I could see it out my window. You know, I started thinking: “I used to think I wanted to be an artist. I've always been drawn to art.”
NARRATOR: The Smithsonian is the largest museum in the country, across the road from Jonna’s CIA office in D.C.
JONNA MENDEZ: I said: “My sense is that there's a job over there that I can really get my teeth into, something of substance that I could feel more like I'm making a difference.”
NARRATOR: So Jonna’s boss offered her ‘something of substance’ on the operational side of things, taking and developing photos for the CIA.
JONNA MENDEZ: And I said: “Okay, you know what? I just might stay.” And I've always told my colleagues that was the first day of working at the CIA. In my mind, that's when I take it back to. At that point, I had been there for about five years. I ended up staying 27 years.
NARRATOR: Jonna’s work in clandestine photography took place at the height of the Cold War era, long before digital photos. Cameras were large, bulky, heavy pieces of metal capturing images onto photographic film. But if you were a CIA spy…
JONNA MENDEZ: It was using really small cameras - miniature cameras, we called them - our own unique cameras that only we had. It's called ‘a triple’. It was a subminiature camera. It was so small that you could put it in a fountain pen. You could put it in a key fob. You could take 100 pictures. Inside was a film cassette. And on that film cassette were 100 black dots, and each dot was a page of text. And loading the film, and developing that film, and printing that film, was an art. But as a tool during the Cold War, those cameras stood shoulder-to-shoulder with any satellite system.
NARRATOR: But it wasn’t just the artistry of spy technology that provided the substance to Jonna’s work. It was the cause too.
JONNA MENDEZ: The other thing that kept me there was the idea that, from my point of view, almost everything we were doing was protecting the foreign officers that were working with the American case officers - and, in many cases, keeping them from getting arrested, and in Moscow keeping them from being executed.
NARRATOR: Working on dangerous international assignments with other spies, you form a unique bond.
JONNA MENDEZ: There was always a great camaraderie in the offices that I worked in, and there was always this sort of unspoken understanding between some of the officers in that group. I mean, you would work with all of them, but there were some of them that you would be especially glad if they were going to accompany you - or you are going to accompany them - on an expedition because you knew that they would take every measure that you absolutely had to have. There were high stakes. It was life or death sometimes.
NARRATOR: Not only is there a real purpose to Jonna’s work but real pressure too.
JONNA MENDEZ: Everything that you do, you do very, very carefully. You're constantly double-checking yourself. You are reminding yourself when you're developing film that comes in from a foreign agent, for instance, you're reminding yourself in the darkroom that the man who took these photographs took an enormous risk to himself, maybe his family, to get that information to you. Because once he's photographed the secret documents, that's only the beginning. Now he has to communicate them to you, and that's where a lot of the danger lies - in passing that information from him to us. In this instance, he's giving us, say, a roll of film, but to get that roll of film, he can't just walk up to us and hand it to us. He has to somehow conceal the film. Maybe he puts it somewhere. Maybe he puts it behind the toilet tank and I'm in a pub, and then the American case officer knows where it's going to be. It goes in, picks it up, all of that. Every bit of that is fraught with danger. It was reducing that danger and keeping everybody safe. That was a constant challenge.
NARRATOR: And, of course, sometimes those high stakes meant things went seriously wrong with the direst of consequences.
JONNA MENDEZ: Oh yeah. I went wrong in Moscow. It went wrong a number of times. That means that our agents were somehow discovered and arrested. They were put in show trials, and every single one of them, they executed them. There are people today that go: “Oh, no, the Russians don't execute people. They just put them in Siberia or they tuck them away in jail forever.” But that's not true. They have, and they continue, to execute the people that are a thorn in the side of that administration. And for us, when we'd lose one of those agents, we wouldn't necessarily know right away why. We would only know that: “Oh my God, they arrested a famous agent named Tricon. He's gone. He's not responding. He's been arrested.” And then, there'd be an article to prompt us to say: ”No, the trader, so-and-so, has been arrested. He’s going to have a trial.” And then they'd announced the execution and you'd sit at CIA headquarters and you think: “Did I make a mistake somewhere? Is there something that I could have done that led to this?”
NARRATOR: Can you imagine what it would be for a young agent like Jonna, working with an artist’s passion for photography but with the realization that any mistake could get your colleagues killed? This is an important thing to bear in mind about spycraft. This is not just a game, some jaunt in a foreign country. This is life and death. As a CIA operative, this is a responsibility that lands on you. And - as Jonna would find out - it wasn’t just other people’s lives that were on the line. One day, soon, it would be hers too. How would that make you feel?
JONNA MENDEZ: You would carry that kind of thing around in the back of your head forever. Every time you'd lose one - every time it would really go badly - you'd have a lot of trouble getting to sleep for a while.
NARRATOR: Even so, Jonna was building a formidable reputation for her clandestine photography work.
JONNA MENDEZ: When I was working as a clandestine photo operations officer, I was traveling all around the world teaching all kinds of people how to use very small, unique cameras in unique concealment devices to collect intelligence for the United States government. I liked everything about it and I was very good at it.
NARRATOR: But she wasn’t done there. And one particular assignment would change the course of her career.
JONNA MENDEZ: I took a trip one summer to what I'm forced to call the ‘subcontinent’, and it was a new area to me.
NARRATOR: Much of what you’re about to hear hasn’t been fully declassified so ‘the subcontinent’ is as specific as Jonna can be here. But think India, Pakistan, that region of the world.
JONNA MENDEZ: I remember I was babysitting the chief of station's desk. A man came in and sat on the sofa, waited about - I don't know - five or six minutes. The chief of station then came out and took him into his office. The thing I noticed was, it was an African- American man, and I was thinking to myself: “We don't have an African American on staff here, and I know everybody in this building. I wonder who that man was?” It turns out, it was one of our OTS officers in disguise. He was a Caucasian officer. Now he was disguised as an African American, and it was just so well done. That was the first kind of ‘ding-ding-ding’ bell that went off. I thought: “That's interesting. That's really interesting.”
NARRATOR: It wasn’t just this revelation that had captured Jonna’s imagination. It was the subcontinent region too.
JONNA MENDEZ: I was so overwhelmed by the culture - everything, the food, the fabrics, the music, the art - that I came back to D.C. and went and talked to my career counselor. I said: “I would like an assignment out there. I would like to live there and that would be my home base.” And the counselor looked and said: “Unfortunately, there are no photo opportunities for you out there. There is a disguise job coming up. You could talk to them.”
NARRATOR: This was Joanna’s new path.
JONNA MENDEZ: So I did. I changed my career track. I had a reputation as a photo operations officer. I had a history. I was very comfortable and I thought there was something appealing about completely switching to a new category of work. I thought I could do that, to see if I could get to this place that I wanted to go to at the same time. You know, I'll do weekends and evenings if necessary. I want to go out there as a disguise officer with another complete skill aside from photography. So they would get two disciplines with one person which, when you're overseas, that's very useful. So we did that. I did the training, which was intense, and I ended up going out there as a disguise officer. That was my first disguise.
NARRATOR: And without any sense of the danger her future missions would entail, Jonna embraced that combination of artistry and technology.
JONNA MENDEZ: There are so many reasons to use disguise. Every time somebody would walk into my office and say: “I need a disguise.” The first thing is, you challenge them: “Do you really? What is your scenario? What is your situation? Why do you need a disguise?” They might be worried about casual observers in public. They might be worried about observation posts or fixed surveillance in a particular city. They might want to deceive a person they're meeting or the local cops, or the local politicians. They might want to blend into a group or a population different from ours. They might want to create a double of a known person. There were just 100 reasons why our job was to do what we called ‘the requirement definition’ and make sure that a disguise would accomplish their goal. Maybe they didn't need a disguise. Maybe they needed something else. But if it was a disguise, we were able to provide them with whatever was necessary. And if we didn't have it, we would make it. We could do so many things with disguise. We could create an illusion or a misdirection... like a magician. We could change their identity quickly and then change it back quickly. It could be temporary or it could be permanent. They could do it by themselves without mirrors, without help. It was just wide open.
NARRATOR: But back in the late ‘70s, not everyone in the CIA shared the same reverence for disguise.
JONNA MENDEZ: I have to say, early on, most of the men were inclined not to use disguise. Basically, men don't like a disguise. They don't want to put on a wig. They don't want to put on a mustache. If it's a military man, the resistance is even harder. And if a United States Marine walked into our office we would all just go to lunch because it wasn't going to happen.
NARRATOR: All that changed in the 1980s as the world of counterintelligence was forced to wake up to the importance of being able to transform their identity.
JONNA MENDEZ: That was early on. Then the CIA started taking on some new targets, and the first one was terrorists. That was an entirely different group of people with different methods. The level of danger increased exponentially with these terrorists who would love to shoot you if they could just find you. And then that was followed by the narcotics targets, which was another equally dangerous group of people - danger in different ways, in different geography. But, all of a sudden, we weren't looking for people at diplomatic cocktail parties anymore. We were out on some streets, in some cities, and some situations, where it was downright dangerous. And in those situations, disguise could become - and did become - a form of body armor. And there were so many ways that it could work for you. But first - and most important - it could make you one of them and not one of us. It could turn you into a fellow countryman. We could change anything. We could change your ethnicity. We could change your gender. We could make you whatever you needed to be around the group that you were targeting, and you could still be safe. And then our men were very happy to have disguise available to them wherever they went.
NARRATOR: And it wasn’t just disguising CIA agents. It was also helping them spot their targets in disguise.
JONNA MENDEZ: There was a terrorist named Carlos that everyone was looking for.
NARRATOR: Jonna is talking about Carlos ‘The Jackal’, otherwise known as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a ruthless and notorious terrorist who claimed responsibility for 80 deaths during his reign of terror. Before he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in France, Carlos was hunted by intelligence agencies around the globe.
JONNA MENDEZ: We would get pictures from all over the world: “Is this Carlos? How about this? Is this Carlos?” And we knew Carlos would be in disguise. We were able to spot a lot of things. We did a lot of photo identification-looking a long time ago. This is the beginning of facial recognition. We'd sit there with calipers and measure the distance from here to here, eye-to-eye, ear to outside of the mouth - all of those. There are measurements that you cannot change. Trying to find [people in disguise], it's like looking for Waldo. We were looking for Carlos. We did that kind of critical observation, but trying to see people in disguise is a thankless task. Once you do that, you just become paranoid because everything is possible.
NARRATOR: Imagine if your entire life was spent either making people look like other people, or trying to spot those trying to hide their identity. It might be hard to turn those suspicious instincts on and off.
JONNA MENDEZ: A woman with a bad hairdo becomes suspicious. Doesn't she know how to comb a wig? You almost can't go at it that way. I've always said: “Don't walk by me wearing a toupee. I don't care where we are or who you are. I will see your toupee a block away. I just will.” Some things leap out at you. But good disguise, you can't see it.
NARRATOR: As the 1980s went by, Jonna's work in disguise would take her throughout the subcontinent region, visiting different CIA stations, and working on operations that involved both clandestine photography and disguises. And then, one day in the late 1980s, she was called to a routine operation.
JONNA MENDEZ: They needed some kind of technical support. It could have been disguise. It could have been photography.
NARRATOR: Just a routine visit.
JONNA MENDEZ: And the chief came out. He had one of these flimsy cables in his hand. He said: “I've got a message.”
NARRATOR: That visibly shaken CIA station chief showed his assembled staff intelligence that had just come through. A notorious terrorist was in town.
JONNA MENDEZ: “He's made contact. He wants to meet me.”
NARRATOR: This mission and how it unfolded has still not been completely declassified so Jonna is unable to give certain details, like the name of this terrorist, but this individual is someone who was wanted for multiple terrorist attacks.
JONNA MENDEZ: This was a really bad guy. This man had a track record. He had done some terrible things. He had participated in the hijacking of a Pan Am flight. We knew that.
NARRATOR: So why did he want to speak to the CIA?
JONNA MENDEZ: The terrorist said that he had information about the upcoming hijacking of an American plane. This was back when they were bringing down flights right and left. It was fairly common that people would dangle information like that to get you to show yourself.
NARRATOR: What would you have said to the meeting if you were in the station chief’s shoes? It’s an impossible position. A terrorist known to want to kill, to have killed Americans, wants to meet you. As a representative of the counterintelligence community that has tried to hunt him down, it seems like a pretty likely trap. Is it worth the risk?
JONNA MENDEZ: You can't ignore that kind of offer. You have to meet the person. The terrorist knew that. He knew that if he threw that out, we had to step forward. We knew he was dangerous and the chief said: “If I go, I'm going in disguise, or I am not going.” The chief was scared of him.
NARRATOR: Luckily for the station chief, there was a visiting disguise expert on hand to help, someone who could enable him to disappear into the crowd at the proposed meeting so he could get close enough to the terrorist to ascertain whether this meeting was a trap or a priceless opportunity to save American lives. But Jonna had her work cut out for her on this particular assignment.
JONNA MENDEZ: The chief didn't fit into the ethnicity of the country we were in. Our chief was a very tall blonde. He had a really pockmarked face. And he was from America's South, with a pronounced Southern accent.
NARRATOR: How would you disguise someone like that?
JONNA MENDEZ: How can you disguise him? We went out and bought him an outfit, a local outfit that all the men in this country wore. And he looked okay in it. We put him in some sandals that look like they're made from recycled tires. They probably were. I colored his hair black. We didn't want to use a wig. He wasn't going to be comfortable in a wig. I did give him a mustache and a whole lot of glue because I knew he was going to be perspiring. I gave him horn-rimmed glasses and a little bit of makeup to smooth out that rough complexion that he had. I gave him a leather portfolio and a cigar. That was his disguise. It wasn't the most elaborate disguise.
NARRATOR: The plan was for the station chief to meet the terrorist in the crowded lobby of a local high-end hotel.
JONNA MENDEZ: This palace of a hotel… So it was kind of outrageous with the huge atriums and the glass elevators. The goal was for him to go into the lobby of this hotel, see the guy, size him up, look around, and make sure that there wasn't anything else going on that he should know about, and then make the decision to meet him or not. All he needed was like 10, 15 seconds to make a decision. And then he didn't care if the men knew he was in a disguise or not. So he was all set up.
NARRATOR: Before the meeting, Jonna used her experience in clandestine missions to brief the chief on how to pull something like this off.
JONNA MENDEZ: And I told him: “When you enter that hotel, what is as important as this disguise is your demeanor.”
NARRATOR: Experience from all those secret photographic assignments, watching and learning the behavior of rival operatives.
JONNA MENDEZ: Think about it and try and walk in there, kind of like you own this place. I mean, just stride in. Own it. First of all, light the cigar, carry it in. So he said: “Okay.” He can do that. And that was what we did.
NARRATOR: As the team got ready for the mission, tensions mounted at the CIA station. Then new intelligence started to come in about the terrorist.
JONNA MENDEZ: We were learning more about what was going on. This man was in trouble with his own terrorist organization and they were after him. So that's the beginning. Interpol was also after him, maybe because of that previous hijacking. The intelligence service of the country that we were in, they were after this guy. This guy was on every wanted list in the country, and the possibility of something going wrong was fairly significant, I think, and completely beyond our control and outside of our spirit of influence.
NARRATOR: Not only was the terrorist clearly dangerous, now they were learning he was volatile. The station chief was getting increasingly nervous. I mean, how would you feel in his situation? You were worried enough at the start of this mission and now it looks like it’s even more risky. If something didn’t look - or feel - right. If the terrorist acted aggressively, the consequences could be horrific. They couldn’t take any chances at the meeting.
JONNA MENDEZ: He didn't want to see any guns in that lobby. It didn't even matter who was holding him. He just didn't want to be in the line of fire.
NARRATOR: So the chief decided a problem shared is a problem halved.
JONNA MENDEZ: The chief said: “I'm not going there alone. I want all eyes on this. If [he acts aggressively] you guys feel free to step forward.” He just wanted to be surrounded by his officers.
NARRATOR: Now disguises were needed for the whole CIA station team, but that wasn’t a problem for Jonna.
JONNA MENDEZ: Every CIA officer that goes overseas gets a disguise kit if he's going to need it. And they had materials that were made for them that would fit them. And they all kind of put them on too. One of them had on a mask. It was like a half mask and it had a beard and mustache attached to it. It was a very good disguise. You could still smoke and talk and eat and drink and carry on. Those were what we call advanced disguises - some wigs, the mustaches, and glasses, maybe putting on a suit coat or just changing, not looking like an American, a diplomat from the embassy or one of its offices.
NARRATOR: Of course, with her experience in these situations, if the whole station team was going on the operation Jonna was going to have to come along as well. Which meant she was now in the line of fire too. But there wasn’t time to dwell on that as they made their way across the city to meet the terrorist.
JONNA MENDEZ: We all walked over to the hotel kind of as a group. We got there early.
NARRATOR: Picture how Jonna must have been feeling. Yes, she was used to dangerous operations but as a visitor to this particular station, she was in unfamiliar territory. And a terrorist, a notorious terrorist in this case, was still a relatively new adversary for a CIA operative at this point. You’ve been given responsibility for disguising the whole team. Now you’ve got to worry about your own safety. How would you feel? The team was now in front of the hotel.
JONNA MENDEZ: Outside of the hotel, there were donkeys pulling carts and there were bazaars in all of the side streets. There were people of every level of poverty.
NARRATOR: And then the grandeur of this hotel. Pulses start racing. Would they recognize the terrorist? Are you feeling nervous? No? Well, maybe you should be.
JONNA MENDEZ: Nervous was fine. Nervous was kind of good because being nervous would make sure you were charged up and ready. I didn't mind being nervous. I think everybody was nervous.
NARRATOR: The team fanned out. The station chief and some other agents went into the grand hotel lobby. Jonna’s role was to take up a position just outside the front entrance, somewhere she could observe the terrorist arrive. She looked around for a place to blend into the scenery. Her eyes widened. She saw a rug shop with customers milling around.
JONNA MENDEZ: This was a significant moment for me. I collect rugs from all over that part of the world. So I saw this fabulous rug store that was like a little glass cube - it was three walls of glass and inside on the floor there must've been a thousand rugs standing up on the walls, hanging on the walls, rolled up at, stacks of them. It was like: “Oh my God, I love this. This is beautiful.” I was so happy to go in there and it was the perfect observation place for me.
NARRATOR: Somewhere familiar to calm her nerves, and it was in the perfect situation to observe the hotel entrance.
JONNA MENDEZ: I could see right down the hallway and it just opened up into this huge space. I had a good sense of where this was going to be. I could see it perfectly.
NARRATOR: Jonna was in place. She started acting out the character of a customer, inhabiting that role.
JONNA MENDEZ: If you were in one of the rug shops, this is what would happen. They would greet you. They would show you a comfortable seat. Tea would show up. They would ask what you're interested in. They would start saying: “Well, there's one of these, I have an offshoot over here. It just came in illegally from Iran yesterday. And let me roll it out and show it to you.” And they have people who do nothing but roll out rugs. And you talk about the rug, you talk about the pattern. This is what happens when you walk into one of those stores.
NARRATOR: For most people, haggling over rugs with a shopkeeper would be stressful enough, let alone simultaneously remaining in character and keeping an eye out for a deadly terrorist.
JONNA MENDEZ: And so we were doing that, and I was keeping an eye on my watch, and as the time for the meeting was approaching I did what I always do. I got down on my knees in this store - there's like four layers of rugs under me, it was like being on a mattress - and they flip it over and I'm looking at the back. You're looking for any moth damage. You're looking to see how fine the knotting is. You're talking to them about wool. It goes on and on. So I'm doing that on one level in my brain, and I'm watching my watch on another, and I glanced up.
NARRATOR: Any sign of the terrorist?
JONNA MENDEZ: Down to the lobby... still good. It's the space that I'm interested in. There's nobody there yet. And my head turns to the right, and I'm looking through a glass wall, looking across a marble hallway, looking through another glass wall, and there is a newsstand that I really hadn't noticed and paid any attention to.
NARRATOR: Jonna had been distracted by the rug shop.
JONNA MENDEZ: And I look up. There he was, and there was absolutely instantaneous recognition. That was him. Even today, I'm not sure how I got there so fast. It never occurred to me that it wasn't him. That was him. That was the terrorist. He was standing inside the newsstand, inside their glass, and he had a guy on each side of him. These were tall men, like in India, like northwestern frontier men. These were warriors. I mean, that's how they presented it and that's how they wanted to be seen. These were his bodyguards.
NARRATOR: Jonna broke into a cold sweat. Her worst fears suddenly came into play. The terrorist was accompanied by other terrorists. And they came carrying weapons.
JONNA MENDEZ: And they were armed with long guns in this swanky hotel. It was the guns that had me on point.
NARRATOR: But before Jonna had time to worry about the safety of the station chief in the lobby, she realized she had a more immediate problem - the most disturbing…
JONNA MENDEZ: ... is that he was just staring straight at me - not at anybody or anything else. He was standing there, staring at me, and we made eye contact.
NARRATOR: Now, let me tell you, for a spy, this eye contact thing? It is extremely bad news.
JONNA MENDEZ: You're never supposed to make eye contact, or there are a few basic rules when you're dealing with these situations. You never make eye contact. Don't look in their eyes ever. It's understood. You just don't. You're not supposed to. But I did. And when I did, it was like this electric current went through me - and I kind of froze, and I couldn't stop looking. He stared at me. It was like a laser. He was perfectly still. He was just staring at me.
NARRATOR: What do you do? Do you run? But then your cover is blown for sure. Do you draw your weapon and engage? But surely he’ll shoot before you’ve even pulled your gun. What do you do?
JONNA MENDEZ: I thought: “Oh yeah, he knows. He sees me and he knows clearly. He knew, and he wants me to know that. He knows. That's why he's doing this.”
NARRATOR: Okay. Think. Breathe. There is no immediate cover. There is no time to draw your weapon. You’ve been left flatfooted and totally exposed. You’re out of options.
JONNA MENDEZ: And I thought: “They just might shoot me. They have no reason not to shoot me. I mean. This is a lawless place. They're in there with guns. Cops aren't coming.”
NARRATOR: An image suddenly appeared in Jonna’s head.
JONNA MENDEZ: And I was flashing back to the CIA lobby where we have this wall of stars. It's almost like going to church when you go into the CIA, and you walk by that wall. It's almost like if you stop, you have to go over, almost to nod to it. It's a star for every CIA officer who was killed in the line of duty over the years - and there's a good number of them that don't have any names attached to the stars. There's a book in a glass case underneath the wall, and you can see that star is for this person, and that stars for this person. But there are big gaps where there are no names for the stars and those are basically people that were undercover overseas - under deep cover - and their names will never be known. Sometimes even their families won't know. And I'm thinking of it. I'm just... this is in a snap of a finger. I'm flashing to that wall and I'm thinking: “That could be me.” I've never been so scared.
NARRATOR: What would you do in that situation? What can you do? Accept your fate and pray to your lucky stars?
JONNA MENDEZ: So, suddenly he dropped his gaze, turned on his heel, and he and those two guards went out the door and went down that hall toward that lobby where I'd been watching. And I sat there, on the floor of this rug shop. They talk about your blood running cold. I sat there with my blood running cold and my heart beating like a hammer in my chest. And I thought to myself: “I have never been that close to real evil in my life.” Okay. And it was amazing the power that it carried. This was really a transformative moment in my life. I also realized when it was over how lucky I was. This is what luck looks like because if they had decided to shoot me, it would have been absolutely impersonal. It wouldn't have had anything to do with me. They could have just shot me and that's it.
NARRATOR: Jonna’s disguise had been so watertight and her demeanor so convincing, that despite the terrorist looking right toward her - making eye contact even - in his mind she was simply not there. The spy had disappeared, inhabiting another form: a faceless customer in a crowded shop, one body among many in this busy ‘subcontinent’ street scene. Those long moments that had passed in Jonna’s mind might have seemed like hours but, in reality, all it took was a few seconds. And then, the terrorist had passed Jonna by and proceeded to walk into the hotel. His armed bodyguards were in tow as they headed to meet the CIA station chief.
JONNA MENDEZ: Our chief met him in the lobby. Our chief did not leave with him. I have to tell you that I don't know if that information about the hijacking of a plane was true or not, but I do know that he was arrested the next day by the local police. Of all the people that were looking for that man - Interpol, his terrorist organization, the intelligence service of his country -none of them did anything. It was just the police who came in and arrested him. So, he was taken off the street. It was a good ending. A lot of times I would not even know that much.
NARRATOR: The terrorist was taken out peacefully. In the world of espionage, satisfactory conclusions are by no means guaranteed. Not because they don’t happen, of course. But because you’re just one component in the intelligence machine. Once you’ve carried out your role, it’s off to the next assignment.
JONNA MENDEZ: A lot of the time I’d do my piece of - whatever I was doing - and I'd go on to the next thing. It wasn't necessarily my job to know the end of the story unless it really impacted what I was doing. There was so much coming at you that you were focused on what's ahead, what's next.
NARRATOR: That’s a key rule in the world of spies, one of the so-called ‘Moscow Rules’ developed in the Cold War.
JONNA MENDEZ: There's a Moscow Rule that tells you basically to assume that the bad guys are behind you and don't look over your shoulder. Just assume that they're there, but you keep moving forward, always working on what's coming, what's next, what's ahead.
NARRATOR: And what was ahead for Jonna was promotion all the way to the top of the CIA’s Department of Disguise.
JONNA MENDEZ: After I finished my tour of duty in that part of the world, I went back home to Washington, D.C., to Langley, where I worked as a disguise officer, traveling all over the world. From Washington we were working would be the hard places, the really hard places. It included Moscow, of course. It included Havana, Beijing, places where it was difficult for us to do our jobs because disguise could solve a lot of those problems, doing all kinds of work. Somewhere along the line [we briefed the president] showing him our latest and greatest. I ended up becoming the deputy chief of disguise - which was kind of odd because I wasn't really interested in management, and I was never really pursuing management. And that's like, it almost became like catnip to my promotion boards. And then I became chief of disguise.
NARRATOR: Now retired, Jonna is a lecturer and author who writes books based on her experiences in the CIA, including Moscow Rules, about the spying tactics that gave the US the edge in the Cold War. And, as ever, the artist Jonna still likes to take photographs. Join us next week for another mission with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Jonna Mendez was born in Kentucky and had decided on a career in banking in Frankfurt, Germany when she was recruited by the CIA. Mendez served several tours of duty in Europe, the Far East, and on the subcontinent. She also trained the CIA's foreign assets on how to use spy cameras before rising to her role as chief of disguise.