Target USA -- Episode 172: Jonna Mendez, former CIA chief of disguise talks about her book, 'The Moscow Rules'


From podcast. One coming up in this episode of target USA, John Mendez, the former CIA chief of disguise has written a book. It's called the Moscow rules how to comport yourself on the streets of Moscow because you are going to have surveillance duck to you like glue. And you know, how do you how do you manage your day to day with that kind of a team on you, whether you walking down the street or driving in your car? Whether you're in your apartment talking to your wife or your at work in the hallways. They're surveillance everywhere. The Moscow rules were giving you some courage that you could persevered even with that, at all this program, you'll also hear about Jonah's role in Argo. That's right. You remember the movie while she was a part of the real story. Her husband, Tony orchestrated the escape of six American diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Tehran. Iran in nineteen. Eighty coming up on this edition of target USA national security podcast from WTO in Washington DC. This is target. USA. Russia, could render huge arm to this country, North Korea's secret missile capable of reaching the whole of the United States dangerous terrorist. DC is repeatedly mentioned someplace they would like to seek an attack criminal successful. America as a target on its back and on this program, we investigate the threats the people behind them, the agencies fighting them and the impact on you. This is target USA, be national security podcast. I'm Jay Jay green. If you've ever seen any JAMES BOND movie, you know, there is a character called Q in the movie and Q, essentially stands for quartermaster. He's the person that supplies all of the cool gadgets that bond uses to make his daring escapes, and to support his activities. Well, the CIA has its own and on this program, we talked to the former chief of disguise, her name is Gina Mendez. I was representing the CIA. At one point, I was chief of disguise, you say that so matter of factly. But there's nothing matter of fact about what you did would you tell us just briefly characterize, what it was that, that title in that job included. Mean chief of disguise men that you were responsible for a staff that was scattered around the world. It was composed of two pieces. One was operational. That means people that were in the field, working with our materials in the case officers, and the other piece smaller, but just as important was the RND part of our program, the research and development piece that brought our materials in our technologies forward always trying to create a better product. What were some of the products that you created, what is it skies product? Well, the hair goods that we worked with would be a product we could use. We could use genuine hair which looked beautiful, but it was the same issue of keeping it up of taking care of it be walked in the rain in a real hair wig. It would look like you've been in the shower. So there was that. And then there were all kinds of artificial replicas of real hairs, some of them more more realistic than others. Connec Alon was one that you could walk in the rain and shake your head and just like your dog. You'd look you look just like you look before it rained, but connected on, if you looked at it under various light sources might look alarming. It might look like you had glowing. Head. So you had to be very careful where that was going to be used. We always looking for, for hair goods that would. That would act just like normal hair in many circumstances. As far as we made overhead masks, those were. What are commonly referred to as stunt double masks out now lay those were made from latex? They didn't Atta mate. They didn't move. They weren't meant to move. They were just meant to change a person's ethnicity or gender. From a distance. They were very effective. They were very uncomfortable. You couldn't wear them in a hot climate in a in a really humid environment. You would just think you were going to melt, maybe you were. So we were always looking at materials for masks to see where we could take it could we find something that, that animated could we find something that breathed could we find something that we could finish in a way that it would have that translucent look that that skin has reflect right? Reflect light the same way, so based on the circumstances, under which we met, assuming you chief that quite spectacularly with that particular mask that you were hoping to achieve is that correct? Tell us tell us tore audience about that story. The, the mass that does move. You know, we weren't talking about masks at all for many, many years was actually about a year ago that we were able to discuss mask, technology. It's kind of funny because everyone always assumed we had masks, but we could just never address it. Getting a mass to animate is critical because if it if it doesn't animate they're very few uses for it. But if you can get a mask that you can interact with other people wearing it the doors just wide open. So our technology came from Hollywood, it came from some special effects people, some makeup, people who had done a lot of work on materials. There was a little bit of cyber involved in, in that you, would you could scan a person, three hundred sixty degrees, so you didn't need the actual person sitting in your in your lab for hours and hours. You could you could work on a replica of that person. So when we started producing when we started having a production run. That's that's disarming term a production. Run mitt. Maybe one. We. Week. But when we started producing them I got the first one I was chief disguised at the time. So they made for me an African American male vase, look good. It looks very good. It looks so good that I briefed the head of CIA. And he said, this was Bill Webster. He said, let's go to the White House. Let's show the president. I said, I can't wear this to the White House. I can't walk it. I can't talk it. I can't maintain it. It's just pretty look at. So he said, we'll make another one. So we did mask number two. Did go to the White House. We went down early. I went in with no identification with no paperwork whatsoever. My, my bona feet as were that I was with judge Webster, and he was hit ac-. I we went in, we got stuck outside of the Oval Office because there was a meeting inside was going long. And so we were standing around they were all telling jokes and laughing, I was chewing on a pencil laughing. I was in agony. Because you get a little paranoid when you're wearing this stuff. I mean you kind of a I this was the first serious taking this thing out in public, and, and so who was the president at the time, George H W Bush, and he was a former director of the CIA. So I'm assuming that part of the reason for going and showing was one to since obviously, he was the person that the CIA answer to he would see what you up to, but also, he's would be very sympathetic audience to what it was that you had to achieve in your in your in your daily work role. Exactly right. All of those things lead into the decision to go down there. There was also the fact that we had given him some disguises while he was chief CIA. I don't even know what he used them for. But they were very simple. It was the kind of disguise that was a wig, and maybe mustache and glasses. So I went armed with pictures of him in disguise reminding him of what we used to do. And by the way, we still do those things. And then I said, I'm here to show you the most recent innovation in disguise, and he said something like, well, let's, let's see it, and I said you're looking at it, but I'm gonna I'm gonna take it off and let you see how it how it works and he said, no, no, no. Don't take it off. He got up from behind that huge desk and walked around walked all the way around me the resolute desk. I think that's what it was called. I didn't know it. Then the resolute desk, he went back and he sat down. And he said, okay. Take it off. And so I'm. Peeled off my face. There's a photographer in the room, the whole time coaching coaching. I think she probably is always there, taking pictures of meetings throughout the day. There was a circle of men that I was sitting with that was Briscoe Croft was Bob gates. Johnson new judge Webster me, I'm leaving out. Someone doesn't matter. When I took my face off, John SU who hadn't been paying any attention because he was furiously writing, whatever it was. He was going to say when it was his turn while he was shocked. He was he was startled. I thought he was going to lose his balance. He was not a small man. So we talked for a few minutes, I explained to the president. You know, this was the most recent product that we'd come up with he, he said behind his desk, and he'd twinkled. I didn't I didn't know that this president president was so personable. I was the first one to leave the room. I went out to the secretary's office, where there was that little dog Millie and her puppies. The Bush dog so I'm playing with. The puppies and the door opens and here comes the photographer. She came over. And she said, what did you do? And I said, I can't tell it's classified you missed it. Ten years later. I got a I got a copy of the photo. Oh, okay. It's hanging in my library today, but they've airbrushed the mask out. I was holding it up. So the president could see it and someone is removed it, so it just looks like I'm lecturing the president about something really important. Sure. I'm sure that was a great moment, you're here because you've written a book, and this book is called the Moscow rules, the secret CIA tactics that helped America win the Cold War. Why did you write this book? I wrote it with my husband this is his fourth book. His last book. We've talked about this for years about putting this book together. The thing that Tony had done. Is he wrote down these rules? They, they'd never he didn't. Invent them. He didn't make them up. These were always the rules. But they were just kind of floating around. We all knew them anybody going on an assignment to Moscow new these rules before they got they're part of the training things like don't look back. You're never alone things like trust. No-one gets more specific trust your gut how to comport yourself on the streets of Moscow because you are going to have surveillance stuck to you like glue and you know, how do you how do you manage day to day with that kind of a team on you? Whether you're walking down the street or driving in your car. Whether you're in your apartment talking to your wife or your at work in the hallways. They're surveillance everywhere. The Moscow rules were giving you some courage that you. You could persevered even with that element of surveillance. Now. We, we should point out who Tony Mendez is for those who aren't familiar. And this is in no way to trivialize the tremendous contribution that he made to this nation and to the world in many respects, but most folks would probably be familiar with him from the movie Argo. That's, that's right. Had it not been for George Tenet. The head of CIA at the time the world would never even heard of Argo. It would have been one of those operational stories that's in the vault never see the light of day. No, summarize, what the Argos story is the Argo story was. A tale of how Tony when into Tehran really in the early days of the Iranian revolution. When our American embassy had been overrun by I don't know how you do air quotes on a Mike. But. My students. They took all of the members of our embassy hostage. They kept him in the at the end of the day they kept him for four hundred forty four days but six got away six got away and nobody knew they were gone. And they ended up with the Canadian ambassador and his deputy John Snowden and they kept them for eighty four days, but it was starting to close in on those six they were receiving phone calls. The word was getting out that there were six and that they might be in this Canadian situation. So Tony was in charge of going to get them of coming up with a story that would allow him to go into a country in the middle of a revolution. And exit through the commercial airport with a team of people. It made no sense whatsoever. But he concocted a tale that made it make sense. He he disguised undocumented them as a Canadian film crew on location looking for bizarre. Make the movie in farfetched. Not as far fetched as the movie made it seem, but it was far fetched and it worked, and he, he got them out. Basically, the story got so remarkable story and I've seen the movie, I've read the story, and I knew about the story before the movie, and it's still remarkable to me. But what's more remarkable as that you are sitting here today with us telling the story because you played a key role in that? I don't know. I, I was I was back at headquarters, I didn't I didn't take a step out of the door. There was a small group of us that knew what was going on. We held our breath, this thing could have come undone at any moment, but it was the best approach, they could come up with it was such an odd cover to use. Hollywood is a cover. I don't think any intelligence officer had done that before as no one was looking for it. It was a cover that these six hostages who were scared to death, and they were not intelligence officers could could wrap their arms around in the couple of days training. He gave them so that they could if they were challenged in the airport, they could, they could meet that challenge. They descript Rier could talk about the script the location transportation manager could talk. About, you know what they were bringing in to make this movie. Everyone had their story. They were good to go with it performed brilliantly. And we still see them today. My husband passed in January, so sorry about that. Thank you. True. Treasure for this nation. Thank you. Well out of six of them, we had to the celebration too. I believe are still in Africa, the other two are in, in Washington state. We heard from everyone, but over the years we, we've seen them, again, and again, and again, and we get these lovely notes thanking him for saving their lives all the time. Does amaze enemies ING story, and I'm so grateful that you're here, sharing it with us and back to this book? Why do you think this book is so important now because I believe it is. And when you look at it when you just thumb through the book and actually sitting down to read it, I'm sure it's one, one of those books that you cannot put down just came out on the twenty first of may is that correct twenty-first? Yes. And what what's, what's the what's the part of this book that you most liked or enjoyed writing about? For me. What I liked being able to do is pull some of these stories forward that involved, our office, the officer technical service, which was always compared to the Q JAMES BOND. We were the gadget people we would if we didn't have it. We'd make it we'd invented. We'd but we give you a tool to let you get your job done part of the book is about some of the incredible people that we worked with, who did amazing things. One of the one of the chapters is called genius is where you find it. We found genius more times than than than you would expect. We had people working with us who went on to do remarkable things, we had a man who, who worked with us in terms of batteries, he spent a life time working batteries. But he ended up being one of the main people who help save the hub. Able telescope when it was on. It's deathbed then it was an issue of batteries among other things. And George meth Lee was was part of that team that kept it going, there was a, there was another man named Paul how who designed a tiny tiny film camera. That was my account for many, many years, a camera. So small, you could put it in writing pin, you could put it in a lipstick, you can put it in anything you could also sit at your desk, and very quietly with one hand photograph secret documents at the end of the Cold War. The general consensus was that tiny camera had collected more significant intelligence than any of our satellite systems, satellite system show, you what's in place. What's their what's going on right now, which was interesting what we really wanted to know was what? What are their plans and intentions? What are they going to do? We wanted the people in the meeting or we wanted minutes of the meeting, or even we'd take the agenda for the meeting just to see how they were thinking. So if you think today, you know what I think all the time is I hope we have the modern equivalent of my tiny camera. I hope we have it in somebody's pocket. I hope that they are inside of the North Korean planning meetings. I hope we have somebody in the pull up euro with one of my tiny cameras, so that we can see what's, what's being developed, what's coming next. So. They are in these places. I know that's a really difficult question for you of former chief of disguise to answer. First of all, I can't know because I'm not there, but I have an interesting historical perspective, and I would believe that in one form or another, we are able to, to. To obtain this information. You know, if you look at the Muller report, if you just look at his team's ability to go inside of the GRU, that's the Soviet military intelligence component go. He he basically Muller called out the names of all of the GRU officers that were working on the hacking. He called out their names. He called out their codenames other codenames. He could basically tell you who was sitting next to who sitting next to who when they can get down today to that granular level of detail in something like the Mola report, I believe that we could probably. Sousse out, little bit more information now this is a fantastic book, but, you know, and it's about a big heavy topic. It's about some very serious work here, and it's about work that it takes a special person, or a group of people to perform, and clearly, you know, you were one of those people being chief of disguise for a number of years at the CIA, but I think an interesting part of this story is how you got to that particular position and it wasn't necessarily through some kind of pedigree, you had to do some. Difficult. You had to do it. Your you had to get there yourself. You know, nobody just opened the door and said, hey, you've, you've been groomed or prepared for this hearing. It is you had to actually go do something that nobody expected you to do. That's absolutely true back in the day when I when I started working for the CIA, if you applied, as woman, it really didn't matter what your degree was in. They would put you in that typing pool. If you couldn't type they probably wouldn't hire you most women that I knew professionally started in the typing pool then the job was well, how do you get out of here? You know what, what's where's the exit? I went out of this place and everybody I knew got out of the typing pool. We all went our, our different ways. I was a really good secretary, which probably kept me in the pool longer than I should have. But I, I was the top secretary for this group of thousand people that's really interesting point. Jonah is that you were a secretary. Oh, yeah. And where did you end up? You ended up running the the gadgets unit. Okay. That is a remarkable accomplishment one. It is. But it's also I have to point out as we go along. It's also indicative of CIA's. Ability to elevate and brick elevate. Talent may, we'll let you they will give you a shot at whatever. And if you can do it, they will let you do it. And you can that's the way that you can move around in CIA as a secretary, I was going to leave. I was there was no work. I was bored, the only way up was if my boss got an assignment and I went with him. That was no good. So I was gonna go work at this Massoni, Ian. They put me instead in a photo. Course they knew I was bored, and they knew, I liked talk Affi. I loved photography. This was flying airplanes with long lenses. And it was it was one of the best days in my life, that first day of those photography courses. So I morphed into photo operations officer using those little tiny cameras traveling around the world training people how to how to collect intelligence with those cameras, and that was going splendidly. I was in a man's world. I was a woman, but I was every bit is good as men. The men were RIT graduates. They all went to film school. Well, they could talk about the to- curve of the emulsion on the film. But if a role of really important film came into our labs, and it was right at lunchtime. They would hand me the film, the guys would go to lunch. So I did I did a good job in that photo area. And I ended up on the other side of the world one summer for three months filling in for someone and it was like there was a color explosion in my head. I went from black and white, the color photography, and my personal staff came back to Washington and ask for an assignment there. I said, I'd like to work out of that particular base. They said there is no photo job there. There's just a disguise job. I said, so make me a disguise officer, and it took two years, and they did that they did that, that was under the. Under the tutelage of a man, named Tony Mendez. Who I had no idea I was going to marry someday. I always tell him I would have been so much nicer had I known that urging oh my gosh. All right. Well, you did marry him and you made history and that history continues as this book comes out as I look at it, there's a chapter in here. That's kind of caught my eye. It's called chapter six. It's like float like a butterfly sting like oh be. It was early evening in Moscow, nineteen seventy seven but it was also early in may. And so the twilight had begun to stretch out late the sun would not set until nine thirty pm. It was a fine evening, pick it up from there for us. Well that story. Wasn't interesting story in the in the book, we're talking about why do people why do people spy this by for money they spy for compromise? They spy for reasons of ego, and the best one or maybe the worst one there's always a little bit of revenge in there. And this was Anna Moscow talking about. The beginning of this chapter talks about a terrible fire that was in Moscow. We had an ambassador who was at a reception. I think at the Romanian embassy he shows up back at his own embassy, because he's been called by the marine guards to say, our embassy is burning down and so am Bassett or tune. His name was he was standing on the sidewalk in full black tail white-tie regalia, watching the Moscow, fire department comes screeching in and put the ladders going up. And then he started noticing that there was a second wave of firefighters coming in, in much better looking firefighter outfits and this caught his eye. And he always sudden became suspicious of the second group firefighters. It turns out later that his suspicions were well-founded. I group was real firefighters. The second group was KGB, but up in the embassy itself was our chief station gusts Hathaway who stood there in his Burberry coat with a handgun guarding CIA station. And one of the marines went up and said, sir, the ambassador said that you, you have to leave now and. Guess Hathaway I probably couldn't repeat exactly what he said to the marine. This is a podcast. It's not radio. He said there is no you know, no way that I am leaving. And you know they're not coming in my station, and he stayed there throughout the fire. You know he didn't die. He got the intelligence star for doing that. He became a famous, he was already famous when it happened, but it was a CIA approach to the to the KGB, like nice, try guys, but that can get in our safety. They didn't get are classified information, folks, why you have to read this book, the Moscow rules, the secret CIA tactics that helped America when the Cold War, and Tonio and John says with med Baguio bestselling authors of Argo, you know, as I have thought about the way when we met and all of the things that led up to your, your career and throughout your career, and then to this book and then us meeting at the spy me. Liam which is where we met at the opening of the news by museum. And just the way you regaled me and others with your story, and the accomplishments that are on display there can't help, but wonder knowing what we know about what you're able to do. And what existed during the Cold War, and looking at what's taking place between the US and Russia? Now. Are we going to win this one this time? This one doesn't really seem to have a name I could make up a very quick sketch of a case. The Cold War, never really ended. Did it just simmered down? And it's been at a low a low to medium simmer for some time. I'm in the middle of ambassador McFaul spoke, Michael McFaul. He was embassador think twenty twelve twenty fourteen and he's describing the harassment that he and his family. This is the embassador drying. Imagine the CIA station they, they would his wife would go out to some event. She'd come back to the embassy, where her husband was ambassador, and they would not let her in the gates, they would make her stand outside, and, you know, fifteen degree weather while they slowly tedious they'd examine her documents. It was nothing but harassment, they were following his kids to school was the book opens with an incident. Twenty sixteen where an American diplomat. Gets out of a taxi, at the entrance to his embassy three in the morning and KGB guy just bursts out of guard shack and beats the living daylights out of him beat him to a pulp even as they slowly slid across the pavement and into the embassy itself into the lobby of the American embassy. This guy still beating him up there on American soil at that time, the American officer was medevac out with a broken clavicle and God knows what else that's twenty sixteen at that time, the presidential campaign wasn't was in full swing. So this stuff is been going on for long longtime. Do you get the sense? That were still able. To pull this one out considering. You know, the advantage that you and the folks like you gave us back during the earlier times, are we in a position to, to win this, this time, whatever, whatever you call it is it because the thing that the reason I asked this question is because. You know, the Russians, you know, this very well probably better than anybody nation of chess players, and everything they do is plotted and planned well in advance and my question is how many moves behind are we? Putin, is there chessmaster, and he is a KGB graduate. You know, he was he was not that successful as KGB officer as a career officer he didn't. He didn't rise up into the ranks suddenly, he kind of peeled off and became mayor of Leningrad, so while he is trained in, in intelligence tactics. I don't know that he was ever that clever using them. I think the thing on on, on the table top right now is technology while we were a technical office technology. If toys R us technologies was really us. That's we invented a lot of the technology, even being used today. Everyone is caught up though. It's kind of it's out in the commercial market. Now. We are all able to do the same kinds of things. I think I think from my point of view, the piece of it, that I'm not sure how it's gonna play out. Is this identity transformation with disguise, we could very realistically very quickly change you in every way your gender, your ethnicity? Everything about you. We could change it. We could we could present you at a at a desk with a passport or whatever that had your picture in it. That's not quite how it's working now they're not so interested in that piece of paper, they're interested in your phone. If you're gonna walk up to that desk with that they can probably query remotely while you're standing there that piece of the identity transformation. I don't know how that works. I, I was in CIA. Just last Friday. And we talked very briefly. This is not part of what I need to know anymore. So I have no need to know. But clearly it's a it's a huge problem. And that's where a lot of the energy is going. That's where some of the solutions lie. I believe that, that every time we see technology that, that is an obstacle to us. We have always been able to turn it around and use it offensively. We have some very, very clever people working there. I have to believe that, that will find a way doubt find a way. Showed amend, is your tremendous. This book is tremendous. Well anything about this book that I haven't asked you about that. You think is important that you'd like to share before we end up. We wanted to tell the stories we wanted to get the rules out on paper we wanted to call out some of our old colleagues. Those things have all been accomplished in the book. I think the larger over arching goal was to open up. This profession is technical end of spying this gadget part of it, so that the public could take a look at what we're looking for. What kind of people we needed how we use them? And what a career there might have looked like we've highlighted some of our stars. We've removed the ones that we're not stars because you don't need to read about them. I would hope that this would generate some applications to the to the CIA of people find the, the story's interesting and the work interesting and who might consider a career working for the government. Int making a difference doing something that matters. And sometimes actually impacting, you know what's going on in the world. What's better than that? You know what I have to say this, and I don't say this in any way to disparage anyone, but, you know, you are a role model for all of us just through your work ethic, and through what you accomplished by just never giving up and continuing to push into work, but have to say a young girl or young woman listening to this has got to find the has got to find some significant inspiration in career as as as difficult. And but as rewarding as the one that you impact on exactly it is. It is rewarding years after you stop doing it. When when Tony. Were working at the time that we retired. We retired about three or four years apart. You know, the average age of our retirees men because they were all men, the average lifespan of our retirees was eighteen months. Because so many of our people treated the work as a calling the considered the agency to be a family. They thought this was their life's work. A lot of our men didn't have any outside activities. They didn't have any friends outside of the agency. They had no hobbies, Tony always said that. Working at the CIA was like drinking from a fire hose. And he said that retiring was like jumping off moving train this tough. So we had to train our people retire then then things changed. But it really is a totally absorbing field if you if you are if you've got the skills, and if you've got the focus, and if you really want to change things or help things get better make a difference. Do something that matters. Come work for the CIA gentleman does. Thank you for spending some time with us. I love to you know that. That's it for this episode coming up in our next program. Cyberspace diplomats are now getting involved in it. Everybody has noticed that Cyberspace's new domain of both civilian and military activities. And at the diplomats are now talking about what kind of behavior is allowed or not allowed by the governments in cyberspace Haley, t more clar, the ambassador at large for cybersecurity for Estonia arguably the world's leading thirty on cyber Bank. You as always for listening, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to share with you today. If you have any questions or comments about the program sent me an Email at J green at W, T O, P dot com. That's the letter j, the color, green one word and whiskey Tango. Oscar Papa dot com. Also. Follow us on Twitter at t-, USA podcast. That's Tango, uniform, Sierra podcast and sign up for the inside the skiff newsletter which talks about all the things we talk about on this program and more national security topics. WTO p dot com slash alerts. I'm Jay Jay green and this his target USA the national security had cast. 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