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Antonio Mendez
Former Chief of Disguise, CIA
Thursday, October 11, 2007; 12:00 PM

Former CIA disguises expert Antonio Mendez was online Thursday, Oct. 11 at noon ET to discuss a recent story about robotics and espionage, the roles technology has played for spies through the years, and the ways it can transform spying in the future.

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The transcript follows.

Mendez, who was a recipient of the CIA's Intelligence Star of Valor and the Trailblazer Awards, is the author of " Master of Disguise." He also was featured in an episode of the PBS show "Innovation," after which he participated in a washingtonpost.com discussion. Mendez also is a member of the International Spy Museum's advisory board.

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Antonio Mendez: Hi, Tony here.

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Boston: Are you really Antonio Mendez? Even if we were sitting with you, how would we know for sure given your talents?

Antonio Mendez: Nothing is as it seems!

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Rockville, Md.: I read a science fiction story in the early 1960s in a magazine called "Analog" that was about fake insects used for spying and tactical operations -- but on a personal/business level. Why do people think it is a new concept? Will anyone dig up that old story?

Antonio Mendez: All old ideas are one day new again. Many of our best techniques were inspired by fiction.

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Arlington, Va.: The father of a friend of mine worked for the CIA for more than twenty years. My friend told me that his father specialized in planting bugs in wooden furniture or fixtures. He said others specialized in planting bugs in other materials. Is this type of work really that specialized?

Antonio Mendez: The specialists in concealment are some of the most talented artists you ever will encounter.

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Cincinnati: My father was CID with the U.S. and retired in 1968. I saw a picture of a man standing on a bridge being viewed from a satellite and they showed he could be identified even then. When I asked my father, he told me that they could read the inscription on his wedding ring from space at that time. This is almost 30 years later, so I have no doubt what we are capable of now, but national security apparently is compromised inside of the White House, so the people are clueless.

Antonio Mendez: Anything you can imagine could be done if you throw enough time and money at it.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: It is always interesting to speculate on the technical tools used to gain an upper hand against the nation's adversaries, and especially terrorist organizations. The article the other day on robot insects and other devices likewise was fun and interesting. With such tools getting ever-smaller and the potential for misuse also becoming greater -- not just from government but from private security and intelligence firms -- What precautions and additional regulation, laws and oversight should be created? Thank you -- enjoyed your book on disguise -- what an adventure.

Antonio Mendez: Oversight is a good thing and should be well-understood and transparent. Politics sometimes clouds this process.

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Washington: How much is the government paying for these new technologies, and are they really used in the field?

Antonio Mendez: The cutting edge of technology is sometimes expensive at the outset. The good news is the public at large benefits from those technologies in many ways. The batteries we all use in our watches and hearing aids are an example; so is the cell phone.

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Matera, Italy: Can you tell me exactly how a laser/microwave listening device (to be used on windows) works? Does it work on bullet-resistant glass? Thanks.

Antonio Mendez: Very precise lasers can measure the deflection caused by sound waves.

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Washington: Have you ever heard of a case where someone was wearing a facial or body disguise and it came off or somehow was compromised?

Antonio Mendez: Technology always will let you down -- especially when you need it the most. That is one of the Moscow Rules...

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Fairfax Station, Va.: You said all things new again and that fiction can result in new ideas for technical innovation. Do you think we should have the same protections for technical gadgets invented by our intelligence and security organizations as we now have for agent identities and such? (As in the outing of Valerie Plame)?

Antonio Mendez: Yes.

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Washington: I was troubled about the experimentation combining the moth cells(?) with technology to create an insect that could be controlled remotely. Does the CIA ever do that sort of experimentation?

Antonio Mendez: The CIA has been known to experiment, as have other government agencies. There have been excesses in the past that seemed a good idea at the time. In retrospect they weren't always smart ideas. Bring on the oversight.

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Washington: What will the next generation of listening devices be like?

Antonio Mendez: Nanotechnology is the short answer

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Spy-ders: So, there will come a time when I step on a spider at home and hear a metallic crunch and then get arrested for destroying government equipment and obstruction of justice?

Antonio Mendez: It might turn out to be an enemy spider, and you would be decorated for finding it.

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New York: There is a commercial radio controlled dragonfly available for around $50, so I'd say it's very possible the government has a much higher tech version. It is sort of reassuring that this sort of thing might be flying on the side of the good guys.

Antonio Mendez: It is comforting.

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sjpark: Given the prevalence of security cameras, cell phone cameras and other small recording devices that are cheap and effective, why the heck would the government risk advanced technology (assuming it even exists) on a group of harmless protesters out in public?

Antonio Mendez: Trust no one...

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Brookings S.D.: Spy guy: I am standing outside my office wearing a red sweater and looking up. How many fingers am I holding up?

Antonio Mendez: You might want to get a manicure.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Hi Tony. What is your definition of an illusion, and can you share an example or two of how technology assisted the implementation of an illusion that got the job done? Thanks, and thank you for your service to our country.

Antonio Mendez: An illusion is the act of giving an audience an idea to follow. It requires a precise definition of who the audience is and where the stage is. The process can be low-tech and simple or high-tech and complicated. Both work well if the plan is sound and execution flawless. A good deception is over before it begins.

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Brookings, S.D.: Spy guy: One! (But not that one!)

Antonio Mendez: Thanks for that!

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Fairfax, Va.: What was the most interesting and valuable thing you can tell us about from having had a career in the CIA?

Antonio Mendez: More is known about the failures than the successes. It is a good thing to be known as the gang that can't shot straight. I would do it all over again.

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malonechris6: A bit of a leap from bugs to bats -- but in the '40s the U.S. developed a timed incendiary bomb that was fastened to bats. The bats were to be dropped at low altitude over Japanese cities and would then seek shelter in the eaves of wooden buildings, and then, ignition. The project was abandoned, but only after it accidentally (and successfully) was tested -- a few loaded bats escaped and burned down a building on the installation.

Antonio Mendez: I remember reading about that.

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Fresno, Calif.: In the beginning of the game, agents worked low-tech. Now there is a melding of the human factor and the technology factor. Do you foresee a time, possibly, when technology could oust humans from the job? Or is human analysis/reaction on the ground in real-time too valuable to ever give up?

Antonio Mendez: Both technical collection and human collection are valuable. Each of them creates more questions for the other to answer. Used in concert they are the divine skein.

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Anonymous: I currently am working for a federal agency doing document and identification counterfeiting and surveillance/concealment. I'm pretty good at this stuff. Would you recommend I apply to work at the CIA?

Antonio Mendez: Yes!

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Middlesex, N.J.: Former FBI Special Support Group, we met about 25 years ago, while on a training session. I always was impressed by your examples of how a simple addition of a hat or a jacket could change an appearance so much. I used this during a surveillance, and even threw my partner off. Thanks for the tips!

Antonio Mendez: Regards from the old days!

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Boston: How often are disguises used in the work of the CIA? I mostly think of spies as people who have a long relationship and a disguise seems unrealistic there. Also, does much of the covert work in the CIA involves "shoot 'em ups," like in the movies, or is it more often gray-haired bureaucrats passing papers to each other?

Antonio Mendez: Because disguises are used effectively there are no shoot 'em ups, and everything looks old and gray and boring. The definition of good tradecraft is to cause no ripples on the surface. You rob the enemies' secrets every week and no one knows they are gone.

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Anonymous: What do you think of the popular spy movies -- are they realistic? What are your favorite spy movies or books?

Antonio Mendez: Some are good and some are not. I enjoy watching the best and the worst for different reasons. We get good ideas from both of them. The original "Day of the Jackal" is right on the money. Facial recognition technology started with a Bond movie.

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Reston, Va.: Why doesn't the CIA use ultra-wideband (UWB) radio transmissions for its bugging devices?

Antonio Mendez: You are asking a leading question there.

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Antonio Mendez: If you all want a great resource to learn about the truth in espionage lore, check out the International Spy Museum in Washington.

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Boston: Who is the next best country at disguise/concealment: Russia, Israel, etc.? And if it's good to be known as the guys who can't shoot straight, is it better to be known as the baddest boys on the block (like the Mossad was/is?)?

Antonio Mendez: The Russians are very good, and small is beautiful when it comes to the Mossad. The Spy Museum has a very good selection of the clever spy gear from both sides. It is amazing how similar the solutions are. The Cubans and the East Germans have been excellent as well.

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Washington: I graduated three years ago from a liberal arts college and have been working in media ever since. I'm interested in working for the CIA -- how do I know if I have any skills they would find valuable?

Antonio Mendez: You can find out by making an application at cia.gov. Really good employees are hard to find. How would you rate yourself on that score?

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Cambridge, Mass.: Is it possible to impersonate a target in the manner shown in movies like "Mission: Impossible"? Also, what are your favorite spy movies or books?

Antonio Mendez: The Hollywood version requires five hours of makeup and plenty of retakes. The real thing is plenty good but the truth is classified.

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Toronto Canada: So, you and your colleagues spend so much energy mastering your craft ... how do you feel when the fruits of all your professionalism is flushed down the drain because political appointees dishonestly distorted the intelligence resulting from your work? Cheers!

Antonio Mendez: Not every elected official is going to be good at running the government. Many have no interest in learning how until they get in a bind. It goes with the territory.

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Anonymous: What's the best way to get a job with the CIA? I've applied, I'm talented, but (mysteriously) I've never heard back.

Antonio Mendez: Find someone inside who wants to hire you. They are not all hiding under cover. It is easier to have someone pulling than to push by yourself.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Do you plan to write another book? Would or could you do a novel that explored new technologies' applications and would CIA have a problem with your doing that?

Antonio Mendez: No, the CIA only will care if I endanger sources and methods. I have been very careful to protect them so far. I am always open to another book. Know a good publisher?

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Fresno, Calif.: I heard that years ago, the military would come up with an idea for new "toys," and give these ideas to writers from Star Trek to see how they would alter them. They'd pass back to the military and so forth, and eventually new and interesting functional devices would come out of it. Does stuff like that really happen? And if not, why not? I never really believed it, but it sounded like a good idea to me.)

Antonio Mendez: What you describe is an ongoing process that works very well. I for one had a very healthy relationship with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. They love being involved in the high-stakes game.

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Reston, Va.: Why is my reference to ultra-wideband (UWB) radio a leading question? This new type of radio transmission cannot be detected by conventional radios because UWB signal pulses are spread over a large part of the radio spectrum.

Antonio Mendez: The way you asked the question requires an answer that might be classified. Rumor his it that the Russians had the capability to work even larger waveforms.

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Fresno, Calif.: I know you cannot tell us about any of the ornithopters that work, but can you tell us about an experimental device that just failed miserably?

Antonio Mendez: I can tell you about the trained pigeons that molted when they suffered jet lag.

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Antonio Mendez: I have really enjoyed this conversation. Unfortunately I have to sign off now. Perhaps we can do it again at the International Spy Museum! Or on washingtonpost.com!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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