Master Creator of Ghosts Is Honored by C.I.A. – The New York Times

Interview with Tony Mendez, master mask-maker and CIA’s chief of disguise who was been honored by agency in private ceremonies commemorating its 50th anniversary; he retired from agency in 1990 (M)
Reblogged from source with thanks via: @

Master Creator of Ghosts Is Honored by C.I.A.


When cold war spies wanted to disappear, they went to see Tony Mendez, the master mask-maker, the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief of disguise.

Mr. Mendez has now doffed his own mask of anonymity. Today, at a secret ceremony at the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Langley, Va., on the agency’s 50th anniversary, he was named one of 50 all-time stars of the spy trade.

A few days ago, over coffee and a litter of memento masks, he looked back fondly on the days when the C.I.A. was full of people like himself — fine artists and con artists, philosopher kings and pickpockets.

Mr. Mendez worked with Hollywood makeup men and hardened C.I.A. case officers to perfect the craft of creating counterfeit people.

He helped create the escape plan, the false identities and the disguises that got six Americans out of revolutionary Teheran while others were held hostage in 1980, say veterans of the intelligence agency.

He was the man who helped C.I.A. officers disappear into the world’s back alleys.

”It’s not just the makeup,” Mr. Mendez said. ”Disguise is not just the face you present. It’s the 6,000-year-old secrets, the capability to create illusions. The essence is illusion and deception.”

After 25 years of a secret life, he retired in 1990. This week, he relaxed at home, a handmade retreat at the end of Frog Eye Road, deep in a hollow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland.

Here he paints neo-Impressionist canvases and runs an art studio with his wife, Jonna, herself a former chief of disguise at the intelligence agency.

C.I.A. veterans like Mr. Mendez say the agency used to be a lot more fun when the cold war raged against the evil empire, no holds were barred and a covert operator was free to be a kind of legal criminal.

”I was a hood when I was growing up in Denver in the ’50’s, wearing a duck tail,” Mr. Mendez said.

“The culture is different now at C.I.A. Some of the wind was taken out of our sails by the Senate investigations in the ’70’s.

Some of it was taken out by Vietnam.

”When I talk to guys who are there now, they say it ain’t fun. There’s no enemy that you love to hate, like the Soviets or the Iranians.

Everybody could relate to the bad guys you love to hate. Now you’re looking for a mission.”

It is a bittersweet time for the C.I.A. On Tuesday, it basked in President Clinton’s praise. ”You served where others could not go, you did what others could not do,” Mr. Clinton told the employees at the C.I.A.’s headquarters.

The agency is telling itself, in the words of its new director, George J. Tenet, that ”our mission is clear.”

But any arm of the Government, even a secret one, is only as good as its people. And the agency says it is finding it hard to hire and keep people as talented as Mr. Mendez.

The odds today are against the agency’s hiring a street-wise hood with a high school diploma.

The professional career of Antonio J. Mendez, with all its highs and lows, is a capsule history of the C.I.A.’s second quarter-century. His retirement in 1990, at the age of 50, was a warning sign for the future.

Born in Eureka, Nev., which he called ”the loneliest spot in the desert,” Mr. Mendez was 3 when his father died. His mother, the granddaughter of a prospector, decreed that he would be an artist.

In 1965, he was an illustrator for an aircraft company in Denver when his eye fell on a newspaper advertisement offering a job with the Navy. He responded. The man who called back was the C.I.A.’s regional recruiter in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Mendez took a job with the agency’s technical services staff. These were the people who, in the 1950’s and ’60’s, under the direction of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the C.I.A.’s chief of technical services, tried to kill Fidel Castro with a poisoned wet suit, tested LSD on unsuspecting Americans, experimented with mind-control techniques, devised an electric pistol with poison pellets, and wired a cat with microphones and an antenna for use as a mobile eavesdropping unit. (The cat was run over by a taxi in a field test.)

In hindsight, Mr. Mendez concedes, this all looks odd.

”There’s a line that you don’t want to cross,” he said. ”But there was a war mentality during the cold war that influenced everyone’s behavior.

Sid Gottlieb was a fine man, a friend of mine, and an excellent head of technical services. It’s not clear to me that he did something immoral. It was not smart to be experimenting with drugs, but at the time it seemed like the thing to do.”

In the late 1950’s the C.I.A. had a great fear that the Russians would corner the market on LSD, telepathy, brainwashing and other techniques to control people’s minds.

Mr. Mendez’s talents lay elsewhere.

The trick in disguise, in his words, is ”breaking the perimeter of Soviet surveillance” — cloaking C.I.A officers or foreign agents so they could slip in or out of enemy territory.

Mr. Mendez developed a special talent for outfitting traveling C.I.A. case officers. In the early 1970’s, he had to help a black officer meet an Asian diplomat working for the C.I.A. in a Southeast Asian city under martial law and Soviet surveillance.

He said he asked a Hollywood contact to send him masks of the stunt doubles of Victor Mature and Rex Harrison. He transformed the two men into elegant Caucasians.

They sat and chatted in a purring State Department limousine in that Asian capital, oblivious to roadblocks and checkpoints.

Nowadays, he said, the C.I.A.’s mask-making is better than Hollywood’s — so good that sophisticated disguises can be made and applied in less than a minute.

He is particularly proud of the escape plan he created to help six Americans flee Teheran, while their countrymen were held hostage by Iranian fundamentalists.

He created the false documents and the disguises that a C.I.A. officer posing as a businessman smuggled into revolutionary Iran and delivered to the Canadian Embassy, where the six were hiding.

A medal from the C.I.A., the Intelligence Star, sits on his shelf underneath a photograph of himself and President Jimmy Carter taken after that covert action.

In the early 1980’s, he ran a graduate course for spies, which he devised with Jack Downing, once chief of the C.I.A. stations in Moscow and Beijing, now the agency’s chief of all covert operations. The idea was to help the agency’s officers move freely, undetected, in the capitals of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.

Unfortunately, Edward Lee Howard, a fledgling C.I.A. officer dismissed from the agency as an unsound man, had passed the course. Mr. Howard turned up in Moscow, telling all to his new friends in the Kremlin. The graduate course had to be rewritten. ”We had to look for another silver bullet,” Mr. Mendez said.

In 1990, once the Berlin Wall was down and the great game was over, Mr. Mendez took the escape route. The master of disguise now spends his days on his 40 acres in the Blue Ridge, painting from life, far from the world of illusion and deception.

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