60 Minutes | Society

Former CIA officer Jonna Mendez on changing man to woman in 45 seconds

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Jonna Mendez is former Chief of Disguise at the CIA and a member of the advisory board of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. which (re)opened its doors to the public on new premises in Washington D.C. early this month. Mendez is a specialist in clandestine photography and was responsible for disguise in several theatres of the Cold War, including in Havana, Moscow and Beijing. Excerpts from an interview:

On living and working in India…

I don’t usually talk about where I was assigned, or where I worked. But the assumption is that we never worked in the country we were assigned to... and does that make sense to you?

That makes sense. So, I was based there [in India], but my work was elsewhere.

There’s a long history of costume and theatre in India. Did that in any way influence your thinking on disguise?

I went out to India for a summer — I was a fill-in for someone. I was a photographer in real life, and did some photo work when I was working, and India was like an explosion in my brain. So I started colour photography while I was there. I said, “I can’t do this in black and white, this is colour.” And then I came back to Washington, and said, “I want to live there.”

Was it in the 70s you visited India?

Yeah, and I had to go to some great lengths to do that. I had to retrain, I had to change my field, to be assigned to India. The whole point is that I loved India.

What are the most important elements in disguise?

If someone came into our laboratory, our labs, we would write the memo in our heads. Okay, so I’m looking at this guy and he is short, so I wanna make him taller. He has dark hair, I want to make it lighter. His hair is straight, so maybe curly. He has no facial hair, I wanna add facial hair. He wears glasses, I wanna take them off. We wanted the memo that would describe him on paper to be wrong. He was married, he had a wedding ring, no, he didn’t. He had cigarettes, he smoked, he doesn’t smoke. You know, it’s just on and on and on. If you do enough of those things, the person starts disappearing. We always said disguise is like an onion with translucent layers. We would add things you didn’t have. We might even put your arm in a sling. I mean it depends on what’s going on, what you want to do, what we would do.

How has the philosophy and the practice of disguise changed over the past 70-odd years, since the CIA was established?

We got better, I’m sure. We got a lot better at it. There was a lot of technology we were able to use. Things like cybertechnology.

Well, when we were doing disguise, maybe we scanned you. Then you could go back to work, because we had you in three dimensions, and we could do things on your scan. I mean lots of things change, materials got better. We discovered new materials... So as materials got better, our final product got better.

Is it correct to assume that as your final product got better, so did the capabilities of your adversaries to undo your disguises?

You know, we never saw another intelligence service that was as involved in the disguise technology as we were. We watched to see what other intelligence services were doing. We thought we were miles ahead of anyone. We had Hollywood over there on the West Coast, and they were working, we were working with them. We worked with John Chambers, who did Planet of the Apes... the original masks, that actually animated. Never mind that they were gorillas.

We worked with the magic community. So how do you engineer one of these deceptions? How do you make someone fly, when clearly they’re not flying? Your eye refuses. It’s very involved. How do you make someone disappear on the stage? Because we want to make someone disappear too. On another stage, on a street. So, how do we do that? Well, it gets very interesting…

How has facial recognition technology impeded this work? How does it interact with disguises?

I’m sure it has [impeded the efficacy of disguise]. My husband was involved in the original discussions at CIA about facial identification. He talked to one of the directors of CIA, Director Casey, about it, and then in National Geographic, there was this coverage of my husband, 64 little thumbnails [images] of him defeating facial identification.

This was 20 years ago. I doubt that you could defeat it in the same way today. But I believe you still can defeat it if you want, it’s all algorithms. It’s all various points that come together when they’re looking at the image, and if you can obscure those points, if you can cover them, if you can change them, you can defeat it.

There must have been times when the moustache started unravelling, or something started falling apart?

Not my moustaches. I actually have three fresh moustaches on my dining room table right now, and I’m going to stick one on someone tomorrow night and it will stay on. But, of course, there are funny stories about them falling off.

What’s your all-time favourite disguise?

It’s in the new book that I’ve just written called The Moscow Rules . It describes my husband creating a disguise called ‘disguise on the run’. He was in a business suit with a briefcase, walking down the street and he turned into an old woman, the briefcase turned into a shopping cart. His trench coat turned into a pink thing with a shawl. The shawl came up, hair came down. He was an old lady with a shopping cart. It took 45 seconds, 45 steps. That was a whole new way of it. You don’t do that on an empty street, you do that in a crowd. It was very effective.

You probably don’t do that on an empty stomach either. Tell us about the time you pranked former President George H.W. Bush?

We had disguised him when he was head of CIA. It was something very simple. So I took some still photography of him in disguise. I said, “Well, this is the old days, and I’m here to show you what we’re doing now.”

He said, “Okay, show me.”

I said, “Well, I’m showing you.” [Points to her face, indicating she was in disguise]. “So now I’m gonna take it off.”

He said, “No, no, no, don’t take it off.”

He got up and walked around and he looked, and looked, and looked, and he went back to his desk and said, “Take it off.” It just came off, and he loved it.

sriram.lakshman@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 4:20:01 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/former-cia-officer-jonna-mendez-on-changing-man-to-woman-in-45-seconds/article27234975.ece