Seeing Is Deceiving
By Michael E. Ruane
KNOXVILLE, Md. The master of disguise steps back from his subject, and cocks his head to one side.
He's just applied spirit gum to the upper lip and cheeks of the man on the stool before him. Then he stuck on a false beard and grotesque nose, drew in wrinkles and veins and transformed the scrubbed face even further with a gross mole, gold tooth and eyeglasses.
It is warm and quiet in his whitewashed studio. Empty picture frames are propped in a corner. Books on van Gogh and Degas are piled on the floor. Some of the master's own paintings hang on the walls, overlooking more books, about magic and makeup.
In his home next door, encased in a box lined with velvet, near the haunting posthumous portrait of his first wife, is the Bronze Star the CIA gave him for "courageous action" in Tehran 20 years ago.
As he studies his work, he smiles his you-ain't-seen-nothing smile, and tells the man on the stool, a documentary filmmaker, that he has now become someone else: A seedy Russian sailor, perhaps. A schizo street person. The creepy neighbor you knew growing up.
The subject looks in a mirror. "You feel like you're in a cocoon," he says.
"You feel like you're inside another person."
Once upon a time, Antonio J. Mendez, 59, a lifelong student of the "accumulation of millimeters" that form the human identity, could alter your appearance so profoundly that not even your mother could tell who you were.
Though his disguises often had to work only for a day, or an hour, or a split second, his audience could be extremely judgmental. A sloppy job could mean death.
Nine years ago, Mendez, the son of a Nevada copper miner, retired from the CIA after a quarter-century. He had worked his way up from the lowly forgery unit--bogus signatures, altered documents, counterfeit currency and the like--to become head of the espionage agency's division of disguise, with a rank equal to that of a two-star general.
He created some of the CIA's most elaborate, if little-known, productions--the ploys, skits, scams, masquerades and sleights of hand designed to dupe foreign agents and enemy surveillance teams.
His specialty, he writes in a new memoir, "The Master of Disguise," was "exfiltration," wherein endangered persons are whisked away from bad guys and taken to safety.
But the techniques of disguise are rudimentary espionage tools. There is a whiff of vaudeville about them, a touch of the old-fashioned. Oldtime U.S. disguise spies were called "rag pickers" by colleagues for their collections of oddball clothing.
Though Mendez had dramatically elevated the standing of the art at the CIA, he retired in the face of a computer and satellite stampede that was broadening its hold on intelligence.
His brushes, makeup and skin tone samples began gathering dust in his rural studio west of Frederick. And there they stayed, along with his story, until a summer afternoon two years ago.
Drawing Out the Enemy
The Vietnamese peasant woman was in her early twenties and a former member of the Viet Cong. But she had switched sides and now, a translator was telling the 29-year-old CIA technician, she had decided to help the Americans.
It was October 1969. U.S. forces in Vietnam had peaked at 543,000 the previous January. The following month, 250,000 peace demonstrators would march on Washington, and President Nixon would announce the start of the war's "Vietnamization."
But in a CIA safe house near a French colonial villa in Dalat, South Vietnam, Tony Mendez was still waging a delicate part of a deadly war, armed with sketch pad and paper.
As a member of the Viet Cong, the woman had been a trusted cook at an enemy safe house that was used as a way station for agents from North Vietnam's Trinh Sat intelligence service who were being infiltrated south.
She had done this for years and had gotten to know many Communist agents who were now moles in the South Vietnamese government and military. She didn't know their names, but the CIA hoped she remembered what they looked like.
Mendez's job was to extract descriptions from her, like a police artist from a crime victim, and make sketches to help capture the infiltrators. It was an early lesson in the dynamic of identity and perception and the ways it might be manipulated.
He quickly discovered that the cook recalled more than the infiltrators' likenesses. She had built small romantic fantasies about many of the men she fed.
She used her fantasies to recall their moods, mannerisms and personalities--the "worried student," for example, or "the impatient doctor." As she looked at sample photo albums of Vietnamese men, she selected certain features and recounted her romantic stories, and Mendez sketched furiously.
He had vowed when he signed on with the CIA to be the best cold warrior he could, and this was his combat.
He had been in only four years--a hardscrabble kid from Eureka, Nev., whose father had been killed in a mine accident when he was 2, and who early on recognized the power of illusion.
When he went to the movies, he marveled not at the story, but at how the filmmakers made it look real.
But it was his artistic skill that first caught the eye of the CIA. In 1965, Mendez was married to his high school sweetheart, had three children and was working the night shift at an aerospace company in Denver, where he sketched parts for guided-missile systems.
That February a friend showed him an ad seeking artists to work overseas for the Navy. It beat drawing missile parts, and Mendez applied. He quickly learned, though, that the employer was not the Navy but the CIA. By October he had landed an $8,000-a-year job in the art department of the agency's technical services division in Washington.
Officially, his assignment was with the authentication and validation branch: the forgery department.
Forgery, Mendez learned, was the foundation upon which a spy's "legend," or bogus identity, was built. ID cards, birth certificates, military records, travel documents, all had to be expertly copied. They were crucial pieces of the stage set, the backdrop, on which the CIA placed its actors. And they had to be convincing for the show to be good.
Mendez found himself poring over things like the rubber stamps used by the East German railroad police, studying the minute flaws that may or may not have been placed to trip up CIA forgers.
Step by step he was learning his trade, studying the mechanisms of perception--how a bright hat or coat, for example, can serve as a deceptive visual key to an enemy surveillance team--and the assembly and disassembly of an identity.
Over time he would discover that all the trappings were useless if the subject didn't "live" the legend, that identity was deeper than the face, and that the audience wouldn't believe if the actor didn't.
The disguise is "an artifice . . . merely a gauze that we're going to drape over you," he would tell his subjects. "You have to do the work."
Mendez always lived his legend. He got his first bogus ID--Ross G. Belemonti--when he started working at the agency, where most new employees are immediately issued a pseudonym. The CIA keeps a registry of "pseudos" to avoid duplications.
Mendez went through scores in 25 years, sometimes using several per mission. "Sometimes, literally, you've got one set of documents in this pocket, and another set" in another pocket, he says. The problem was keeping it all straight.
"There are occasions when you're getting ready to put your name on the hotel ledger," he says. "You've got reservations made for you in [an] alias. You've just flown 10 hours. There's that moment when you put the pen down and you think, 'Oh, jeez, what's my name?' "
It takes a special agility to slip in and out of such lives.
"Once you go into the netherworld like that, by yourself, it's like going into another dimension," Mendez says. "It's like being a time traveler. How do you get back?"
Many such travelers have wound up alcoholics. Some have committed suicide. Others have just vanished.
Yet some legends have been successfully maintained for decades.
One famous Soviet agent, Anatoli Rudenko, lived the life of a New York piano tuner so effectively that he was hired to tune the pianos of Vladimir Horowitz and Nelson Rockefeller.
Another Soviet agent, the notorious Willie Fisher, a k a Rudolf Abel, worked his way into the New York art community, became a painter and, after his arrest, painted in his jail cell a portrait of President Kennedy that, according to British spy scholar Christopher Andrew, the Kennedy family later sought to acquire.
Such legends are laboriously constructed. Often the spy is first laundered through several foreign countries. Rudenko had been laundered through East Germany, West Germany and Britain. Sometimes the legend is "piggybacked" onto the real identity of someone who is deceased. Fisher used the name Emil Goldfus, a real person who had died in New York in 1902 at the age of 14 months.
Ultimately, the core identity goes deep underground. Mendez says the CIA teaches agents to bury their true selves under layers and layers of cover, and then, if captured, to give up only one at a time. "You learn to bury" yourself, he says.
Mendez learned his lessons well.
By 1969 he was one of the agency's top "artist/validators" in Southeast Asia.
Which is why he was summoned to the peasant woman's side in Dalat. Mendez listened to her stories for three days. He wondered if she was spinning tales, or really trying to help. In the end, convinced she was truthful, he drew 26 portraits.
He later learned they led to 13 arrests.
Mendez began trembling in the Zurich airport, waiting for the plane to Tehran.
He'd been thinking about his wedding ring. As usual, he had given it and his wallet to his wife, Karen, before departing. It was a strange ritual. You left yourself behind, became temporarily dead, and hoped to come back later. He had done it many times before. But this time it had been very sad.
Once again he was leaving on an operation he could tell his wife nothing about, though she sensed where he was going. It was January 1980. For more than 10 years, he had been answering the agency's relentless call: Vietnam, Laos, India, Moscow, and now Iran.
In 1974 he had been promoted to chief of disguise, and in 1979 he was elevated further. But his children were growing up. The trembling was not so much fear, he says, as the sadness at yet another absence from his family.
He had a right to be afraid, though. The previous November Iranian militants had overrun the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking scores of Americans hostage, and threatening to kill them if a rescue was attempted. It was nation-on-nation terrorism, and would claim the lives of eight Americans in an ill-fated rescue attempt before it ended.
Unbeknown to the world, though, six American diplomats had slipped through the Iranian net and had been given shelter in the Canadian Embassy. Mendez, by now the CIA's crack exfiltrator, had been asked to get them out.
It was too dangerous to sneak them out overland. The nearest border was that of the Soviet Union. They would have to go out via the airport. And they would need a cover story.
What kind of Westerners would be crazy enough to be in Iran in the midst of an international crisis? Teachers? Nutritionists? Missionaries? All sounded implausible.
Then Mendez had an idea. He telephoned his friend John Chambers, a Hollywood makeup artist famous for "Planet of the Apes"--who had helped the CIA in the past--and asked: How many people would be in a movie crew scouting an overseas location?
"I read you," Chambers replied. "About eight." A production manager, a cameraman, an art director, a transportation manager, a script consultant, perhaps a screenwriter, a business manager and a director.
It was perfect. For the next several weeks Mendez and his team of spies scrambled to put on a play about people who put on plays. First, they set up a bogus movie company called Studio Six Productions in Hollywood offices that had just been vacated by the producers of "The China Syndrome." They got business cards, phone lines and a receptionist.
Chambers provided a script, and he and Mendez cooked up the movie title, "Argo," from a coarse knock-knock joke. They placed ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter describing the film as a "cosmic conflagration."
Mendez then assigned one cover to each of the six diplomats, who would be posing as Canadian nationals. He assumed the role of director, taking on an Irish brogue and the alias Kevin Costa Harkins, and left for Iran to lead them out.
He was equipped with the requisite bogus documents and "pocket litter" to bolster the legends. Disguises would be minimal: changed hairstyles, the addition of a cigarette, dark-rimmed glasses, some mascara to darken a beard. The task would require mostly brass.
A big part of Mendez's job was convincing the six that it would work. If one person's nerve failed, they might all be caught and fresh gasoline dumped on a crisis that would now embroil Canada. Plus, as a member of the hated CIA, he would almost certainly be tortured and executed.
Time was also a factor. By late January, the six had been holed up with the Canadians for almost three months. Rumors about their presence were starting to spread, and one anonymous caller had telephoned the Canadians, saying he knew the Americans were there.
Mendez and a fellow CIA agent arrived in Tehran Jan. 25, and began preparing their charges. Three days later they were ready. Coached and accompanied by the master, they left for Tehran's Mehrabad Airport to catch a 5:30 a.m. Swissair flight to Zurich.
The airport was floodlit and quiet. Carefully the "filmmakers" made their way through immigration. Mendez brought up the rear, watching carefully.
Suddenly, an Iranian official stopped one of the diplomats. "Is this your picture?" he asked of the man's fake passport. Mendez's mouth went dry. Sure it is, the diplomat bluffed, he had just gotten his mustache trimmed.
The others stayed cool, patiently waiting for their papers to be stamped.
All cleared immigration, only to be chilled by an announcement over the airport public-address system: The departure of their flight was delayed due to a mechanical problem.
Fifteen minutes ticked by, then 30. Were the Iranians on to them? Security guards had begun questioning foreign passengers. How much of this tension could the diplomats bear? Mendez feared someone might crack.
A tortured hour passed before the announcement came that the Swissair flight was ready.
Finally the plane took off. When it departed Iranian air space, Mendez turned around and grinned at his movie "crew."
Then he ordered a Bloody Mary.
Six years after Iran, his wife, who had stood in for him at countless missed birthdays and school programs, died of lung cancer at the age of 43. Four years later, a juicy retirement package beckoned. The Cold War was winding down, or so it seemed. Mendez decided to leave espionage.
But quitting the CIA after 25 years was like jumping off a speeding train. Mendez "bounced" for several years. He suffered from anguished nightmares. After decades of adrenaline and drama, he was alone in his studio in rural Maryland, the full-time artist he had always wanted to be, in a solitude that was enormous.
Seven years passed. Mendez painted. He remarried, had another child, and heard nary a peep from his former employers. International crises came and went. His makeup box moldered in his studio. Gradually his nightmares went away.
Then one summer evening two years ago, Mendez found a white FedEx envelope inside the screen door of his studio. It contained a letter from CIA Director George J. Tenet.
The agency's 50th anniversary was coming up, the letter said. For the first time, the director wanted to pay tribute to 50 people selected as pioneers in their fields, people "who by their actions, example or initiative helped shape the history of the first half century of this agency." There was to be a gala ceremony at headquarters. The director would be on hand. So would the president.
It was an extraordinary thing: The CIA, steeped in secrecy, whose employees were not even supposed to say where they worked, was throwing a company party for some of its most legendary people.
Typical of the CIA, two of the honorees could not be publicly named. But the others could. One had been killed in a terrorist bombing in Beirut in 1983. Another had committed suicide in 1965.
Others had been photo experts, mapmakers, propaganda and reconnaissance specialists, biologists and nuclear weapons experts, people "whose achievements probably will never be known in their fullness by the American people," Tenet would say later.
Also on the list was a retired rag picker--Tony Mendez.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company