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Audacious with Chion Wolf: Transcript for 'Retired CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez on magic, technology and the art of deception'

Audacious with Chion Wolf
Back to episode >>

Chion Wolf  00:00

When I tell people that I'm going to talk with somebody who worked with the CIA, that's pretty cool. That's pretty intriguing. And then when we talk about disguise in the --, A Chief of disguise, then everybody's eyes get really, really big and they go, "What, the Chief of Disguise?" First, I need to know, what a chief of disguise is, and how in the world you became that?

Jonna Mendez  00:29

Well, that's about 30 minutes of your interview, hahah

Chion Wolf  00:37

From Connecticut Public Radio in Hartford, this is Audacious. I'm Chion Wolf and that was Jonna Mendez. She's the author of the new book, "In True Face: A Woman's Life in the CIA Unmasked." And today, she further unmasks herself with me. Now, Jonna started her career in the CIA in 1966. And eventually, she ended up in the office of technical service working in the niche role of disguise. She designed masks, outfits, accessories and contraptions to conceal CIA officers, as well as billion dollar secrets. The technology she helped pioneer was so convincing, it fooled the likes of the KGB, Latin American drug cartels and even the President of the United States. You'll hear that story in a little bit. But first, Jonna's work and accomplishments stand very much on their own, but she is in many ways linked to her late husband, Tony Mendez. He was her predecessor, as the CIA's chief of disguise, Tony's brilliance and bravery were depicted in the Academy Award winning film, Argo. Ben Affleck played Tony, who was at the time a Technical Operations Officer for the CIA. It was during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 and he was part of a successful plan to sneak six American diplomats out of Iran by having them pose as members of the entertainment industry.

Clip from the Film  02:02

I got an idea. They're a Canadian film crew for a science fiction movie. I fly in to Tehran, we all fly out together as a film crew. I need you to help me make a fake movie. So you want to come to Hollywood to act like a big shot without actually doing anything? Yeah. You'll fit right in.

Chion Wolf  02:18

Jonna met Tony while they were both working in the CIA. They retired shortly after getting married in 1991. And they began helping plan and design the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Tony died in 2019. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Early in her CIA career before she got into the disguise game, Jonna was a Technical Operations Officer with a specialty in clandestine photography. Which is...

Jonna Mendez  02:47

Putting cameras in, I don't know, in your bra, in your briefcase, in your fake pregnant belly. And then I spent a few months, they make me be vague, it's one of the rules, in the subcontinent replacing someone. Fell in love with it, just fell in love with it. So I went back to DC and I said, "Um, I would like an assignment out there." And they said, "Well, there's no photo work coming up, there's nothing. It's all, it's all written alread, that script. But, there's a disguise job in two years and I said to somebody, "You know, I can learn. Make me a disguise officer." And they did.

Chion Wolf  03:24

Now when they say disguice, is it what I'm thinking about? Like masks and more masks, and what else is there beyond masks? Haha

Jonna Mendez  03:32


Chion Wolf  03:33


Jonna Mendez  03:35

It took me two years to learn what I needed to learn, which were the mechanical pieces of...How to take a person's glasses prescription. How to, you know, do hair match. How to match skin tones, how to make earflaps to conceal receivers in your ear, how to make Hollywood stunt double masks for people. It just, it just kind of kept growing. But what had happened, before I became chief of disguise 10 years before me, my future husband, who I didn't know at all, he had been chief of disguise. And Tony was a really interesting problem solver. But he saw the disguise labs as a place where they're sticking on mustaches and kind of cheap wigs and he wasn't impressed at all. And so he said about reinventing disguise. And Tony was one of the first that went out to Hollywood. And he was working with some makeup people. He was working with some people that make wigs. Professional, amazing wigs, $10,000 wigs, and he just learned, "well, how do you do that?" you know, and "How do you do this?" And he was working with a man named John Chambers. He was to make up what, what Tony Mendez became the CIA. It's this guy over here in the corner. They could just do incredible things1

Chion Wolf  04:53

Planet of the Apes, yeah!

Jonna Mendez  04:54

And Spock's ears.

Chion Wolf  04:56


Jonna Mendez  04:57

He was multitalented. But Tony was looking at LA and he was working with Chambers and finding all kinds of interesting ways to incorporate what they did into what we did. But Tony had his eye on the Magic community out there. And he was the first one to really kind of go exploring that, he had always been fascinated with the deception and illusion that is inherent in magic. That's what it is. Well, guess what, in CIA, that's what it is too. A little deception, a little illusion. You think you're looking at what you see, but you are not. So Tony was exploring that. And he was, he was going behind that, behind the scenes looking at the machinery. How do you build an illusion? How do you build a deception? And they taught us, how to do that. And then we started doing that. Most of this was for Moscow. Moscow was such a difficult, difficult place. And so when I got there, Tony had done his thing, he had moved on, I didn't really know him. When I got there, the mask technology was just leaping forward. Stunt double masks are fun, if nobody gets to look at you for too long. So it's two people in a car, like in South Africa, back then. A Caucasian and an African American in the same car back then, the cops would stop the car. So we could change someone's ethnicity. We could change someone's gender with those masks, but they didn't talk. They didn't move. So we were chasing an animated mask, a mask that you and I could sit and have a conversation. And you wouldn't know I was wearing a mask. That was the goal.

Chion Wolf  06:38

We are so designed to notice every single detail in a face. And so that sounds to me, like a nearly insurmountable challenge.

Jonna Mendez  06:48

It sounded like that to us too. But it was not.

Chion Wolf  06:51


Jonna Mendez  06:52

Tony's goal was, he met the magicians, he learned a lot about how they do their work. And in magic, there really is an industry of twins. Not just the two blonde busty gals in the secret outfits, in the heels that, you know, take a bow at the end. But the idea of trading one person in for another. So I remember Copperfield had a thing he did where he walked through the Great Wall of China. But he kind of, he did it on a stage. And you know, he couldn't do that. But you can't figure out how did he do it, but there is an ability to switch people in and out. So what we were aiming for, was two of you. If you had two of you, and if you're—a huge problem in Moscow was surveillance people following you. Well, if there are two of you, and they don't know it. You know, you step into a newsstand and then step out and go on down the street and they go down with you. But it's not you, it's—you're still in the newsstand, your twin stepped out and went on. And, because we were wonderful at choreography, you could arrange to switch back at the end of whatever. And that meant that the KGB never knew you did it. And that meant that you could do it over and over and over. And we did. Now the CIA, lets me talk about masks, which makes me think they either don't use them anymore. Or they don't use them in the same way anymore, or they don't make them in the same way anymore. I'll never know.

Chion Wolf  08:33

So you're talking about facial technology, makeup technology, magic technology of that era, to even begin to fathom what they're doing now is probably quite useless

Jonna Mendez  08:46

Or what they're working against. I mean, what is the threat now? I suspect it's not teams of people following you down the street, I suspect it's a camera on every lightpost.

Chion Wolf  08:56

If there are cameras everywhere, that means they're monitoring digitally, which means that maybe there are ways of disguising yourself now that scrambles the cameras, maybe?

Jonna Mendez  09:07

That would be a major goal.

Chion Wolf  09:10

So you're saying that if this public radio thing doesn't work out for me, I can go apply for the CIA? And they'll say, "Yeah, yeah, we thought of it already lady. Thank you. We're gonna pass."

Jonna Mendez  09:17

I don't know though. You're gonna look at the salary rates, and you're gonna say, "Uhhhm maybe radio was okay."

Chion Wolf  09:22

For real?

Jonna Mendez  09:23

We're GSA government employees. We make the same thing as someone that IRS or someone state or someone, I mean—Plus you never get to claim any of your victories or any of your successes.

Chion Wolf  09:35

Oof. Oof!

Jonna Mendez  09:36

No matter how good you are, no one will ever know.

Chion Wolf  09:41

Do you know, it's funny, you saying that reminds me of the idea that one should resist at all costs, taking things personally. Like in the way that you don't want to take any criticism personally, but you don't want to take any praise personally either. Because your self confidence should be self generated. But, so that means that when you're in the CIA, you can't really bask in any praise whatsoever. And it has to come from within.

Jonna Mendez  10:08

you know, you're spouting our, our lines. I'm supposed to be saying that, I do say, in this new book, "You're always part of a team." When Tony and Argo, he would say, "I put together a team, a really great team of people." And that's just inborn at CIA. As a matter of fact, I used to find that in interviewing applicants, the kind of people that we often wanted to hire for operational jobs, are these kind of larger than life personalities, they were these charismatic. They were these guys, you met them and you wanted to be their friends. And then we had to kind of deflate the balloon and say, "You know, first of all, there's no price, almost no awards. And it's all done in secret. And you can be the hero that you want to be. But it'll be in your own mind, because no one will know."

Chion Wolf  10:58

I know you've told the story about a million times, but I'm hoping to be your million and first of the story of you meeting with George H. W. Bush in disguise. Will you tell that story?

Jonna Mendez  11:11

I'll tell you the story. We had, we had wanted this animated mask, and we had some people working on it. I was running disguise. And I was there when they, they got it right. And so because I was the chief, they made one of the first ones for me. And it turned me into an African American man, and gloves to go with it. An, we liked it, a lot. So we went to show it to our office director. And he liked it a lot. And he showed it to our big director and he said what we're going to Judge Webster, he's the head of the CIA. Judge Webster liked it so much, he said, "We're going to take it to the White House." And I said, "Well, it's not gonna work. Because it looks good. But the Secret Service is going to figure it out rather quickly. When they talk to me, interview me going through security. No, I can't wear this to the White House." "Well, maybe we can make another one?" And we decided just to do an easy thing and make me another woman, a different woman. So, I got to pick who I was. And there was a young lady working with us who was leaving. Her name was Becky. And she gave me her face or we took her face and her hair. And I, instead of—instead of that, I had a mask. Instead of being a nice looking African American man, I was a younger, prettier, younger woman. So of course, I loved wearing this. We went to Judge Webster's house in the morning. He was doing the Presidential he was doing the daily brief. So, knocked on his door and he answered and he had these little dogs there. Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark. And I said, I need a place to put this on. So I went into powder room and I came out. Dogs loved me. This was a test, cause we weren't sure we thought maybe dogs wouldn't like masks like they don't like hats. Dogs liked me very much. And, went to the White House. In the Oval Office when we went in was John Sununu, Brent Scowcroft, Bob Gates, Judge Webster, Vice President wasn't there. He was late. He missed it. So I went first, because I was going to just do that little skit and then leave. So I took some pictures of the president, President George HW Bush, of him in disguise, when he had been head of the CIA. And people always like that. They're like, "Oh, god, look, I don't look like myself at all!" He's doing that. I said, "So I'm here to show you where we're at now with the technology." And he's looking around my chair like, "Well, where's your bag of tricks?" I said, "I'm wearing it. So here, let me take it off and show you." And I reached and he said, "No. Stop. No wait." And he got up and he came and he walked around my chair. And he's looking for something but he doesn't know what. He's thinking. I don't know what he's thinking. I never asked him what he's thinking. I have a fake nose. I mean, what were you looking for? He's looking, couldn't find anything sat down. He said, "Okay, please." And I took it off. And I'm holding it up in the air. And John Sununu had been sitting at his desk and he'd been, you know, because he was going next he was changing his notes. He did want to say that he's gonna remember to say this. He wasn't paying any attention. So he looked up and I'm sitting there holding my head in my hand and he kind of slipped, made a little noise. I heard the photographer click, click, click. Bush loved it. Everybody loved it. And then I, I left first. Tony had told me because Tony had been there. He said, "Be very careful. When you go in, know the door that you're going through, because you want to go out that door. The other door, one's a broom closet, one goes through dining room. There's other doors so. Tony knew someone who had gone like in the broom closet. One of our people. So I went out with a secretary and I was playing with Millie, the dog, on the floor. And the photographer came out and said, "What do you do?" And I said, "I can't tell you. It's classified." And I think I pissed her off. So it took 10 years to get the picture. And when I got it, they had airbrushed the mask out of the picture. So I have the picture here that I wish I could show you. Heheh. The Oval Office, in front of the President's desk with my hand in the air. They left me a finger, one finger. And the finger, it looks like, I'm lecturing the president. So I always loved having it there. And people would come in and they'd say, "Oh, what would you say to him?" And I would say, "I can't tell you. It's classified."

Chion Wolf  15:50

That was retired CIA chief of disguise, Jonna Mendez. When we get back, let's say this public radio thing doesn't work out and I'm fine with not making a ton of money, then maybe I can work in disguise in the CIA?

Jonna Mendez  16:06

You're off limits to us, if you've been a journalist. We will not hire you.

Chion Wolf  16:10

Well, damn, I'm Chion Wolf, sticking with Audacious. You stay with me too. It's safe here. Be right back. This is Audacious. I'm Chion Wolf. If you're a spy, for the CIA, you may sometimes get to wear a disguise. But we're not talking about fake nose and glasses with bushy eyebrows on top. We are talking about the CI frickin A. And the person who was in charge, of helping you do your job without getting killed, was retired Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez. She writes about it in her new book, "In True Face, A Woman's Life in the CIA Unmasked," back to our conversation. As you have been putting together stories for your memoir, "In True Face," there are some things you're saving for the book, which is all well and good, but there are plenty of stories that you couldn't fit into it. What are some stories that come to mind?

Jonna Mendez  17:36

I was in the subcontinent with a terrible boss. And, we went into a foreign compound, I call it in the book, you have to always be dancing around these words. And we removed a piece of machinery from that compound. That was priceless. And, brought it back to the United States. And the story of how we did it, the story of how we got into the compound, how we got by the gate guard, how we made impressions of the keys on the various buildings, how we made sure that those buildings were empty, the day we had to go in, by having the government issue invitations to the people there. There was a team, we were in a van. The guys went up the stairs, they had, they had moleskin on the bottom of their shoes, so they didn't like clip prints. They knew what was up there. They had a machine that was going to blow open the lock, very compactly and it did. They had tripods and ropes, they look like Sherpas getting ready to go up Everest. They just needed a way to, on these ropes, to lower this—it was a circular staircase, they had to lower it down to the the foyer where I was. There was a truck that backed up to the building. There was a wooden crate in there, all ready to go. They just had to get the machine into the crate, close the crate. And we had built this plan for afterwards, you always when you when you do an operation, you have to have a written plan, it has to be approved with headquarters. Part of the plan is always, "Well what if they come through the door? What are you gonna do?" So our, "What are you going to do," is three of them were gonna go over the wall. I was gonna go out of the van. And they were gonna blend in on the street, where they—they stood out like crazy because of the masks that they had. Anyway, the end of that operation though, that was a communications device that we stole. And at the end of the day, I was back here in the States with Tony and the office. And he came over to my picnic table with a pitcher of beer in two glasses and he said, "Tell me about that operation." And I said—this my boss, he's my boss now. I said, "Well, I can't tell you about it because you aren't on the list." He said, "How about I tell you about the operation." So what he told me was what we thought we were doing was not what we were doing. We were not stealing that machine because we needed it. We were stealing that machine because somewhere on the other side of the world, there was a man from that country who was suspected of spying for America. And he used one of those machines in the foreign country. And by stealing the machine, we were showing that country that we needed that machine so badly, that we would go to those great lengths, and that would take all the pressure off the guy on the other side of the world. Well, if he's working for them, they wouldn't do what they did so, so he's good. That's the smoke and mirrors. And so Tony told me, I said, "Damn, I thought we were gonna get an award or something." He said, "Well, you guys might get an award. Or not. He said, you know, if you get an award, you know you can't keep it right? They keep it until you retire. And then maybe, maybe, then you'll get it. I said, "That's, no, that's okay." Hahaha!

Chion Wolf  21:09

How would the Chief of Disguise and your team decide to use a disguise? Like when is it appropriate to invest in making a disguise and what kind of disguise, like what what kind of boxes would need to be checked for a mission, in order to activate your your work?

Jonna Mendez  21:27

Most people who went overseas, most men, because they were mostly men. They would stop by and see us and get something just in case. Maybe, maybe a wig, I want to say a mustache, maybe. Our mustaches are really pretty good. Maybe some glasses, some this and that, they would leave with a simple disguise. If that would be useful to them, it will usually fit in into a dopp kit. And they put it in the back of their safe. So if they had a walk in, to an American embassy they said, "I need to speak to a security officer, I have information." We had to go down and debrief people like that. Sometimes they didn't have anything, they just wanted to see who showed up. Because the CIA guy would be the guy that showed up. And so, maybe they're gonna set up outside of the embassy and follow that CIA guy home, find out where's he live? Does he have kids, does he have a dog? How does he drive to work? So I mean, then it's a matter of personal safety. So that's one level of disguise. Everybody would have that. And then different people would have different scenarios, people in Moscow had much more elaborate disguises. When they left, we took every measurement, every picture. We could basically build a new one of them. From shoes, to clothes to glasses to everything about them.

Chion Wolf  22:50

Would you ever be able to or want to, turn a man into what looked like a woman?

Jonna Mendez  23:00

Well, not just any man. Varying degrees of men would take to disguise. Most of them had a real aversion to it. But it's interesting because what changed, is not the men but what they were confronting. It was, in my career, it went from the diplomatic cocktail party kind of thing, where you're talking and making connections, trying to get a whisper of something that you need to know to terrorists, and narcotics and guns. So disguise went from being something maybe nice to have, to maybe some kind of body armor. In Latin America, it might be very, very useful not to be taken for a gringo from North America. If you just look vaguely Latino. Dark hair, dark mustache, maybe slightly darker skin, their clothes, their smokes. If you could walk down the street and pass for one of them, that was not hard to do. That was certainly worth doing. Because just, if they saw pale face from McLean, Virginia, walking down their street, what's the first thing they're gonna think? This is, this is old DEA, this is—this is the American government. They're in my town. And there was so much money with drugs. So much money, they'd shoot you in a heartbeat, they did.

Chion Wolf  24:35

When you would be wearing a disguise. How was it for you? I imagine that eventually you kind of got good at it. You know, you formed a character you knew who you had to be or what you were doing. Was it as exhilarating for you as I'm projecting that it was or what?

Jonna Mendez  24:53

You know, you keep touching on these interesting points. We, when we issued a disguise, we always said, "We're going to build this character." And when you're in the disguise, this is who you, who you will be. So you have a reference. You have a reference, a three-dimensional reference around you. Does this guy smoke? Does he wear cologne? The one I'm thinking of now, he was bald when I met him. Bald, bald, bald, he didn't have any hair on his head. So I said, "Okay, so there's gonna be a wig in your life here." And he said, "What if it's a really good wig? And what if I wear it every day? And for the disguise, I leave it at home?" And that's what we did. That made him so happy. And he was inhabiting his disguise. It was really cool.

Chion Wolf  25:44

Is it true that you would often test out disguises on the streets of DC? With crowds?

Jonna Mendez  25:49

It was something called disguise on the run. And it was a way to change your look on the street, in a crowd. The crowd was part of your disguise. But it was all—it had to be it was quick change. And you see it sometimes performed on a stage, as an entertainment. But the way we did it, we filmed it once for Wired.com. And it was my son, Jesse, and just prove that anybody could do it. That in fact, a camera crew set up by World Trade Center One, and it was lunch. So lots of people on the street. The camera crew set up with a really long lens and Jesse comes out of a building at lunchtime, and he's in a suit and tie. Got nothing with him, he was just walking down the street. The trick was to keep your elbows in. He just reached up and he just pulled on his tie. And it popped because it was velcroed in the back. And so was his shirt top. There were no sleeves attached. It was just a shirt, like a dickey. And he just, he's walking down the street and he just did that. And he just reached his pocket and pulled out one of those flimsy grocery plastic bags, stuck it in the bag. So now he's got a black tank on. And then he keeps walking. And He shrugs off his jacket, which was one of those unstructured jackets. And he rolled it up kind of into a ball, put it in the flimsy bag. Reached his pocket, pulled out another bag, put the first bag in the second bag. So now he's walking down the street, black pants, black shoes, black tank top, and a little bag. But now you see that he's got full sleeve tattoos, and a great big chunky watch. He reaches in another pocket, pulls out his uh, his ear pods. Reaches in the back pocket, pulls out his Walkman or whatever it was at the time. He had another pocket somewhere because he put on his Ray Bans. And then he pulled on a beanie. And if surveillance was following him, or looking for him, waiting for him, to come out of that meeting, to come out of that building; he just disappeared. And they would think that they lost him. Because one of the rules, one of the Moscow rules, now famous Moscow rules is, "Don't piss them off. Don't get them mad, because if you were in a car, it doesn't matter where you are, when you do it, they will make you sorry." You know, in 2016, there was a presidential election going on. At the same time, there was an event in front of the American Embassy in Moscow, three in the morning, it was on a security video and it played back here on various stations. But this taxi pulls up to this dark building, that's American Embassy. There's a little shed, that's KGB guard, guy in the car gets out, walks toward the American Embassy. So you're assuming he's an embassy employee. And somebody comes from out of the frame and attacks him, throws into the ground, gets on top of him, beats him to a bloody pulp. So, now he's our guy. He's on his back, Russians on top of him. And he's working his way to the electronic doors, and he touches it or kicks it or something and the doors slide open. And our guy start sliding on his back through the doors into the American Embassy lobby, which is American soil, and the Russians still beating him. Anyway, they med- evaced that person out the next day. CIA never said that's one of our guys. But diplomats don't usually come home at three in the morning in taxi and get attacked. Anyway, when I showed that to Tony, Tony just looked at it, he said, "You're not supposed to piss them off."

Chion Wolf  29:36

Is it true that the CIA never disguises its officers as priests, members of the media or members of the Peace Corps?

Jonna Mendez  29:47

I think it's bigger than that. We never hire them. Those things are disqualifying. If you've worked with any of those groups, you're off limits to us. It's not that we're discriminating against you. We are protecting people in those professions. It's so easy for the opposition to accuse, say, a journalist of being a spy. How do you prove that you're not a spy, you can't. So what the CIA has done, is made it our policy and they, to my knowledge, they've always abided by it. Those people, they are, they're too vulnerable, we will not—if you work for the Peace Corps, we will not hire you. If you've been a journalist, we will not hire you. Which kind of removes the onus.

Chion Wolf  30:35

I'd like to hear about what it was like for you to be, to play such a large role in these important missions where lives were at stake and lives were lost.

Jonna Mendez  30:49

You know, a lot of the time you only saw the piece of the operation that was your piece. In mine, it would be a disguise, because I lived overseas, and we did a lot of this meetings overseas. Meeting with foreign assets, who are in different countries taking different risks. Some countries are risking their life. So it's really important that everything you do, support them as strongly as you can. And when somebody gets rolled up, when something goes wrong, when someone's arrested, whenever anything goes wrong, anyone who worked on that case would go, "Is there something I did that led to that?" And of course with disguice, that was, that was part of the question too. One of the Moscow rules, it's like rule number 42, never fall in love with your agent. And we didn't mean romantic love. We meant, that it's a professional relationship. And it's based on trust. And it's really great. If you really like your asset. It's not important. But don't get too close to them. Because when you lose them and you do, it's built in, it's—it's just really painful. So it's just what went wrong, it was just awful. And it went wrong, I mean, it would go wrong. In the heart of the place that more likely that it could go wrong. Aldrich Ames in the summer of 1985, devotes the name of about a dozen of our Russian assets in Moscow who were working for us, providing us with incredible information. And one by one, they arrested them, one by one and they executed. We lost almost all of our Russian agents because of him. One guy, one bad guy. The Russians are just too radical.

Chion Wolf  32:44

That was retired CIA chief of disguise Jonna Mendez. After the break...

Jonna Mendez  32:51

it's like going 100 miles an hour and then coming into a sudden, jolting stop

Chion Wolf  32:56

Just a snippet of life after the CIA and into the spotlight. I'm Chion Wolf. This is Audacious, stay tuned. This is Audacious, I'm Chion Wolf. Jonna Mendez spent 27 years in the CIA, many of which were as the agency's Chief of Disguise. So, she has more than a few stories for you. You can read a lot of them in her brand new memoir, "In True Face: A Woman's Life in the CIA, Unmasked," but she's got a few reflections in store just for you. I asked her to talk more about how the entertainment industry contributed to the technological advancements of disguise in the CIA.

Jonna Mendez  33:49

Hollywood, talking about the movie industry, we got really good sources for materials. For wigs, for mustaches, for those kinds of basics that can be very useful to you. But where the payoff really was, was in the Magic community. How to do what we needed to do without anyone else realizing it. So for instance, we had something called a JIB, it was a device. It was that, JIB stood for Jack In the Box. Jack in the Box was a pop up dummy that you could put in your car. We had it, now where did it start? It started in a big suitcase. You could have that by your feet and you can get out of the car and put the suitcase in the seat, hit a button dummy popped up. It's made for trailing surveillance in a car because they come around the corner they still see two people in the car. We started out with a very, very clumsy thing. It was inflated by gas, we have compressed tanks of gas in that—

Chion Wolf  34:51

Wait, Jonna, you have me thinking about the inflatable copilot in the airplane movies with Leslie Nielsen.

Jonna Mendez  34:56

Yeah, it's like that. Initially, we were test driving one of our JIBs somewhere in Eastern Europe. A wife had volunteered she said, "I'll try it, you know, they don't follow me." So she's got this thing in her car, she hits the button, it exploded. Because the gas coming, the compressed gas is so cold. And the dummy is made out of what was a sex doll that someone had purchased in Bangkok. So, we tried three or four ways. And then, even when they didn't blow up. You pull the plug, and they wouldn't just drop into this suitcase or whatever they were in. There were like those things outside the car dealerships

Chion Wolf  35:37


Jonna Mendez  35:37

That wave in the wind and go down. Hehe, so we took our JIB out to the magic builders, and we said, "What can we do with this?" And they said, "Well, first of all, it weighs like 105 pounds. That's problem. And the mechanism is ridiculous. And you don't need the gas." And so, we gave it to him, we got it back, I don't know, six months later, this elegant piece of engineering, it's like a scissor mechanism. He goes up, it goes down. And then what it could fit into changed, a birthday cake, you put it in almost anything. Anyone could carry it, because didn't weigh anything. And then you can make it look exactly like the person who just left, because we could make a mask, add a wig and the same clothes, and you couldn't tell them apart. So we had this new tool, that was fabulous. There was one, one case, was a man named Tolkachev. A hero in the United States or villain in Russia. He gave the Pentagon 37 rolls of film, it was all the the new the new plans for the Soviet radar for the future, 10 years out. So they were gonna build radar in airplanes, radar on the ground. Radar. Radar. The Pentagon is doing all this research and development, this RD, trying to figure out, "What if they go this way, then we can do that. But if they if their research takes it this way, then we'll do that." And now we knew what they were building. And so the story goes, that before they built the equipment, we had already built the countermeasures. We were sitting here like, "Come on. They named Tolkachev, the $2 billion spy."

Chion Wolf  37:17

And so in a way, you're saying that the Magic community played a part in saving the world?

Jonna Mendez  37:22

I think they still are. We had, we had one of the magicians come in trying to explain this to our case officers who didn't have the greatest idea of magicians. So one of our stellar guys came in, and we have a big amphitheater and stage and, and he did a little demonstration. Je did this thing that everybody's seen a million times, there's a board over here, and it's got all these balloons on it. And he's got a table with all these knives. And he's throwing knives at the board, the knives hit the balloon, the balloons pop. And then he went up to the microphone. And he said, "Now, I'll tell you, I never threw a knife the whole time. There was not a knife, knife in my hand, I had the same knife in my hand the whole time. We've got a rigged board, that my assistant can pop those balloons and make the noise. But you, you are the glue in the middle, you're expecting to see a knife fly through the air. And guess what? You thought you did. But there wasn't a knife ever thrown." It was just him on one side of the stage and her on the other. And they're doing they're doing this thing. It's an illusion. It's just a really interesting field.

Chion Wolf  38:40

So in 1993, you retired from this work, and all of a sudden you're on the outside. What was it like for you to leave this work? It's basically what I'd like to know, was it that's bittersweet as I imagined it is?

Jonna Mendez  38:56

You know this funny thing happens when you work a career, in CIA and operations. You gradually let go of a lot your outside friends and your colleagues inside become your social group. It's difficult to keep up the facade over long periods of time with friends and that just happens. And then once you step out of the building, and the gate clangs behind you. Now you're going to have this distance forming because all the things that you would banter about and talk about with people you have in common. The projects that are recedes in the distance, and even your friends inside, you start having a distance with them. But we had this this one thing and that was the art studio. A lot of our young people would come out and see us. We had big, big art shows twice a year. So while we couldn't go in to see them, they could come out to see us and we stayed in touch with with a lot of people. But Tony really thought that he was going to have a second career as an artist, he started as a, as a fine artist. He was hired as a counterfeiter forger cause of his art skills. That's the door he came in. And I just thought I was gonna be a mom and I wasn't sure how that went. So, it was going to be interesting. I knew that. And then over time, we started teaching. Various, there's 17 agencies, intelligence community agencies, started teaching. We both liked that a lot. And we did that up and almost until we lost Tony. The Spy Museum came around. it was about 23 years ago, we worked on the Spy Museum for three years before it opened. So that was great fun, and then started speaking to corporate groups that would come in to the Spy Museum. Traveling, I went up to West Point and did a piece. I was in Paris at the Sorbonne, addressing a class. We did a couple of cruise ships. It's not even a plan. You just kind of, not really wondering either, but writing writing books has probably been the backbone of the whole thing. Starting with Argo, a story that Tony didn't even want to tell. George Tenet directed him to tell it

Chion Wolf  41:21

By the way that movie is the reason why I know to say To-ruhn-no and not Tuh-RUN-To.

Jonna Mendez  41:27


Clip from the Film  41:28

Where's your passport issued? Vancouver. Where were you born? Tuh-RUN-To. To-ruhn-no. Canadians don't pronounce the T. Some Komiteh guard is actually going to know that. If you're detained for questioning, they will bring in someone who knows that. Yes.

Jonna Mendez  41:40

I've seen that movie so many times. Too many times. But it changed everything. That movie, for us. All of a sudden, there was a spotlight where we've always always been in the shadows.

Chion Wolf  41:52

Right exactly. Which it must have been bizarre. Yeah, to go, like sort of like your friend and colleague Valerie Plame, who went from total anonymity, pretty much to being thrust against her will onto the world stage. Two very different experiences of that, of course between the two of you, but I imagined that that was staggering. That feeling was so different.

Jonna Mendez  42:13

Absolutely. Yeah. It's like going 100 miles an hour and then coming into a sudden jolting stop Can't plan for it.

Chion Wolf  42:25

is disguise any part of your life now, like the act of it? Do you ever put yourself in disguise and even the smallest little ways that maybe only you know,

Jonna Mendez  42:36

Every morning.

Chion Wolf  42:39

Hahah Me and my mirror? Little makeup? Little? Hey, you know? No, I don't use it at all. You know, the theory of disguise, the the nitty gritty of disguise still interests me what, what they're doing. But of course, I can't know what they're doing. This is part of that CIA thing. You have to believe that they're doing probably something more advanced and better than what you did, you hope. I wonder too, because, you know, you know how good these designs were back in the day. And so you know, it doesn't take a big imagination to know that your imagination probably can't even handle what they've got going on now. Does that, even just talking with you, I can easily imagine a sort of overwhelmend of, "Man, the government really is good at this stuff. And if I think I stand a chance, at not being spotted, at not being followed, at, you know, not noticing it. Like there's no way I stand a chance." Do you know what I'm saying? Like, it's just we like to think that we know that we're being surveilled. And we can spot a mask. But the truth is, we can't, we certainly can't. And there's sort of a helplessness with that.

Jonna Mendez  43:56

you know, a lot of people that are looking at those capabilities, from a bit of a distance. They want to put a nefarious kind of slant on it. I mean, there's this, I think it's an American habit almost to kind of suspect your government sometimes of spying on you or whatever.

Chion Wolf  44:16

Well, I mean, they have.

Jonna Mendez  44:18

Everybody kind of thinks that they're listening to our phones, but no, they're not. They're buried under an avalanche of serious phone calls that they need to listen to. Most of them aren't in this country. They can't keep up. They're not listening to our phone calls.

Chion Wolf  44:36

You mean they're not interested in my savory oatmeal recipe that I'm talking about over zoom?

Jonna Mendez  44:40

I would point out that some people from CIA go on and do, and do interesting things. One of the, one of the men that work in disguise, one of the backbones of our disguise program, who helped develop the mask program who was probably the best at what we did. Today, has a business where he mends people. If you have cancer, if you've lost, people lose an eye or a nose, in 9/11 people's, their fingers burned off, their noses burned off, their ears burned off. And he will build you new pieces. When he started doing it, there was no one really doing that work with an eye to the aesthetics, people were closing holes. And what my old colleague is doing, is these beautiful, beautiful things that people can appear on public today. He even, he made, he made an ear for one of the women that was in 9/11. She lost, she lost her ear. He made a new ear and of course it matches this one. And he had, he made two of them. One was her dress up ear, with a pierced earring with a little diamond in it. The other one didn't have any. He does, he can do fingers. And he can't fix all of you. But he can fix pieces of you that might like to go out to dinner, or that might like to be in a social engagement. And we're just so proud of him.

Chion Wolf  46:13

Well, I've asked everything I've planned on. Is there anything else that you want to make sure you mentioned before we wrap up?

Jonna Mendez  46:19

People are interested in this subject of espionage, and the subject of disguise. But the group I, I talked to, that gives me the greatest pleasure is a group that comes to DC in the summer. It's, they're called Envision. They bring high school kids, not just any high school kids, these are these are kind of high achieving high school kids from all kinds of scenarios and situations. But these are kids who are interested in, in a country and interested in their careers. They bring them to Washington for a week. The last time I did it, I think there were 1200 of them, they bring them 200 at a time. So I go up to University of Maryland, on the Monday I'm the first person they, that talks to them when they arrive. And what I try and tell them is just a little bit about working, you know, working in Washington about working for the government, about not getting rich, but maybe finding a niche where you can do something that matters. Something that makes a difference. It's just one person, but it's a whole bunch of ones that run this government and you can do something that you go home at night and you feel, you feel good about what you are part of. That's what I like doing.

Chion Wolf  47:37

Well, Jonna Mendez, thank you so much for talking with me and thank you for all you've done for our country.

Jonna Mendez  47:43

Thank you, you do a great interview.

Chion Wolf  47:47

Audacious is always lovingly produced by Khaleel Rahman, Jessica Severin de Martinez, Meg Fitzgerald, Meg Dalton and Catie Talarski at Connecticut Public Radio in Hartford. Check out the episode we did with Jonna's friend and colleague Valerie Plame. She was a covert CIA agent working in nuclear weapons. Back in 2003, members of the Bush administration leaked her identity to the public for reasons and she went from being totally undercover to famous all around the world. A covert agent's worst nightmare, 20 years later, hear how she's grappled with the anger from that experience, and she tells us a few wild stories of a better time in the CIA. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts and at ctpublic.org/audacious. Stay in touch with me on Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok at Chion Wolf and you can always send me an email audacious@ctpublic.org. Thanks for listening.