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The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. During IPW 17.

INDUSTRY EDGE

TRADE SHOWS & CONFERENCES

Crucial Psychology & Trade craft Mechanics: Jonna Mendez

Former  CIA Officer & Founding Partner Of International Spy Museum In Washington D.C. Discusses Mindset During IPW Confab

Jonna Mendez, Former CIA Disguise Officer, At The International Spy Museum In Washington D.C. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Jonna Mendez has seen a lot. As retired CIA officer with over 25 years of experience including crucial times during the 1960s and 1980s in engineering and disguise respectively, she understands both the psychology and mechanics plus the trade craft necessary to create great officers and how to function in the field. Currently an author, along with her husband Tony Mendez of “Argo” fame, as well as a founding member of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., Mendez sat down with MRV: The Buzz Editor In Chief inside the facility during the IPW conference to discuss confidence, the art of the pivot and hiding in plain sight. 

The Buzz: In talking about the International Spy Museum, spycraft is as much about psychology as it is about how to use the materials that you have at your disposal. As we discussed before, you're always looking for details. Can you talk about details in the spy trade in terms of knowing what needs to be used in certain scenarios versus the psychology of somebody using them? 

 Jonna Mendez: From the point of view of the work I did in the office, I was representing -- we had a customer base in the CIA, which was the case officer - the DDO - the operational element. And for many years we were part of that operational element, then they pulled us out and put us in science and technology where the money was so we could work more readily, and fund our equipment. A big problem for us [though], we would have these case officers come in and by [their] very definition, they were these outgoing, charismatic, glad-to-meet-you, just-wanted-to-be-your-best-friend [type of people]. And they'd come in and they'd say, "Oh, okay. Here's what I need. I need this and this and this." We'd have to sit down with them and walk them through a process that they didn't want to go through. It was kind of a -- it was a vetting process of: What is the target? What are you after? What are the problems? What are the restraints? What are the restrictions? What is the climate? And then come up with the solution to the problem. But they [the officers] typically would come in pre-loaded with the solution to their problem. And so for our officers -- training our officers to do our work wasn't something that a lot of them thought about when they first started. [But] you had to be able to stand up to these kinds of personalities and steer them to the right solution for the problem. 

The Buzz: Now, where was your mindset when you first entered into this sector and how did you perceive the intelligence community per se? You probably had a perception going in and that changed. 

JM: I came in through the RND side of OTS which was the engineering side. But I was not an engineer. I was an administrative person. I was always drawn to that work. So I thought the engineering part of it might be the most interesting. And it wasn't. The operational side was the most interesting to me. It always is. And then what is most interesting to me is the people. The people out there are risking their lives using our equipment. And so we wanted to make sure that they were using the right equipment. If you're going to risk your life using one of my tiny concealed cameras I'm going to make sure that you know how to use that thing so if somebody walks into your office while you're photographing the minutes, they won't arrest you...because if you're Moscow, he'll kill you. It was an enormous satisfaction...teaching people to approach it that way, from a human point of view. And lots of people died. I mean, lots of people were caught and shot. And whenever you'd hear that we lost an asset you'd always think, "Ah, did I forget something? Did I do that?" Remember when Aldred James was giving away names every week, and they shot 11 of our people in a row in Moscow...our SE division was just-- it was horrible. I'm not answering your question (laughing

The Buzz: No, but see it's interesting because you're talking about teaching. The whole intelligence community has changed so much in that way. As a teacher, it's also about the balance of logic versus emotion and how you do those kind of things work together? 

JM: Well, it would always be about logic versus emotion, there was a throwaway line that was never fall in love with your agent and what that meant was don't get too wrapped up in the personal part of this. This is actually not personal. So yeah, you'd always take it back to the technology. I thought as a trainer –- I was told initially that there were parts of the world that I couldn't work in, that men would not listen to me. The Middle East, they didn't give women enough credence that they would value my information [and] I said, "I think you're wrong. I think if I can teach them how not to get caught, how not to get shot, how to be safe, how to go home to their families at night, and guess what I bet you –- they're going to listen to me."

Special Photographic Equipment On Display At The International Spy Museum In Washington D.C. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Artifacts Of 'Argo' At The International Spy Museum In Washington D.C. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Listening Devices Exhibit At The International Spy Museum In Washington D.C. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

JM: And they did, or they'd listen to any of the women that got into that position because women, just by our nature, are more nurturing than men. The guys were teaching the same things: how to use the cameras, what's the focusing angle, what's the distance, how do you make a tripod with your elbows? How do you do all of this to make sure you get it right? Sometimes our men would be teaching, and if the asset didn't get it, they'd get impatient. [Maybe it was] just a guy thing or the asset wouldn't admit that he didn't get it because he didn't want to lose face. But when a woman was in the room, all of that changed. It was like "Here, let me show you or try it again." It's just that women are really good teachers. 

The Buzz: How did that change when you went from the engineering side into disguise operations...especially in the texture of women versus men? Could you talk about that sort of transition from your perspective? 

 JM: We had an issue in disguise with CIA men who didn't want to wear disguises. You could only imagine that if somebody tried to put a wig on you, you might resist. You don't want any makeup, you don't -- men don't like to do that. Men like to think that they'll muscle their way through a situation [in the field]. 

 The Buzz: Which is not true. 

 JM: No...it turns out the disguise can be and is more a form of personal protection...it's like body armor. If you're working at an embassy and the Marine guard comes and says, "Oh, there is somebody in the lobby who wants to talk to an intelligence official, says he has important information."...somebody is going to go down and talk to that guy [and] depending on where you are in the world, you might not want to do that in true face. You might not want to set up a scenario where when you walk out the door to go to your car in the evening [and] somebody is waiting to follow you home to see where you live, do you have a wife, do you have a dog? You might want to meet him in disguise, [for] personal protection. So we started doing that down the road when we started working with narcotics against narcotics, against terrorism. [At that point], disguise took on a heftier weight at CIA. Still, you could issue somebody [materials] -- you could cut a wig, I [could] show you how to do the glasses, maybe a do rag, wherever we were going and hand it to you when you're going to go off on your assignment. The odds were not good that you would ever use it so what we did when I was there, we said, "Okay, it all fits. You look great. Go to the cafeteria. It's lunch time. Everybody you know will be there having lunch. Go have lunch." So they'd go to the cafeteria and there's their boss and their three best friends waiting for them. So you'd do that a couple of times where they wear it out in public, with people who know them and they discover that this is this powerful thing where you are hidden in plain sight. And once you know it works then you give them the doc kit, send them out the door and if they need it, they'll probably give it a shot. There were women in disguise when I was there. There were more women than men that worked for me at that time. And I think as the women came into that office, I think that whole thing softened a little and we started doing that kind of “wear it here first”. And if we were overseas and doing disguise, we'd work it up and put it on them and say, "So go to the corner store and get me something and bring it back." [You] just make them wear it out in public because the first time you wear a disguise in public, you think they're going to arrest you. Wherever you are, the 7 Eleven in Arlington, you think “Oh they're going to see it and they're going to wonder why am I wearing a wig and a mustache. But people don't look closely. 

 The Buzz: That goes into my next question which is the aspect of back story. Knowing your back story so well because it's all about how you live it. 

 JM: You better know it.

Guests Explore The International Spy Museum In Washington D.C. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: Could you talk about having to implement that which is seen in many of the stories told at the International Spy Museum? 

JM: It's like in Argo (the book of which the movies was based on was written her husband Tony Mendez). The odds that they were really going to have to walk through those stories. Who knew? But they had to learn those stories. They had to learn a new birth date, a new mother, a new father, what do you do for a living, why are you here, when do you arrive, what's the purpose of your trip, blah, blah, blah. And you have to be able to roll it off. If you don't, the immigration officers -- that's what they're trained to do. They're trained to see “Oh, you can't remember your middle name”. It's important. Those kinds of things are important...[and it was] our job is to make sure that when they left us they had the package they needed to do the work. 

The Buzz: Can you talk about coming back as far as a founding partner in this museum? How much do you want to keep a mystery? How much do you want to show the public? And how much do they need to see? 

JM: I think they need to see enough to have an appreciation. Somewhere along the line -– there's a little exhibit of batteries here because the CIA had this huge battery program. Think about it. A lot of what we did was battery powered. A lot of the bugs we put in conference rooms and under the table in a wood block had batteries in them so if you could get in there once and get that thing in, you're golden. But when the batteries die, the odds of going in and changing the batteries are slim to none so we were always inventing smaller, stronger, more powerful [batteries]. So there's an exhibit in the museum that shows the steadily shrinking battery size. At the end of that, there is a wire with this little thing attached and it says “present”. This is the present day state of that battery but it's not because this museum doesn't do present. “Present” is classified. That's as close as you can imagine how small those batteries are today. If it's classified, it's not in this museum. That's one of the things that pulled the intelligence community into this community because they realized that we're not giving away anything. We're just explaining history through another lens. 

The Buzz: But you have to have a respect for it...a respect to the intelligence community for what they did but also respect for what they do now. 

JM: This museum is amazing in what it accomplished. It was a one of a kind. It was a one/off. It was one man's idea: Milt Malts. One man's money initially built it. He had a vision. He was 15 months in the NSA in the Korean War and he tucked away this idea and he built it. And we couldn't be more proud to work with this group of people. 

The Buzz: My last question to you is because obviously you still have a passion for spy craft. You're a great storyteller and obviously you and Tony write books at length. Can you talk about what's the essential element of being a good storyteller but also being a good spy within that? 

JM: I don't really know. I like to tell stories. I'm very enthusiastic about the subject. I was so introverted as a kid that I couldn't stand up in front of class and give a book report. But I discovered I think somewhere between small cameras and disguise that I was the authority on whatever the subject it was and that I was happy talking to, at one of our training facilities, [maybe] 500 young people, not young, young officers. And I had no fear whatsoever. I never get stage fright. Tony and I just talked to 950 people in Dallas and people say, "Don't you –?" No. I don't know what it is but I like to talk and tell stories. And I like the stories that I tell. 

The Buzz: Did you find that confidence at one specific point? 

JM: Somewhere along the line, I did a pivot. I stopped being the quiet person in the back row and became the person up on the stage. It's learning your trade and getting good at it I guess.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

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