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Meet the CIA’s disguise artists who helped Cold War spies disappear

Legendary spy power couple Jonna and Tony Mendez met while working for the CIA in the Soviet Union, building the tools of espionage: the disguise kit, the camera that could hide anywhere, the cyanide pen. There they followed guidelines they called the "Moscow Rules" -- now the name of a new book they co-wrote before Tony's death. Jonna Mendez talks with Nick Schifrin about their work and mission.

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  • John Yang:

    Jonna Mendez is one-half of a legendary espionage power couple. She and her husband, Tony, met as American spies in the Soviet Union and took turns as the CIA's chief of disguise.

    Before Tony died earlier this year, the couple wrote a book about living undercover at the height of the Cold War. Their work is now enshrined in a permanent exhibit at the International Spy Museum in Washington.

    That's where Nick Schifrin caught up with Jonna and her trove of cloaks and daggers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For 27 years, across Cold War hot spots, Jonna Mendez worked undercover for the CIA. But while the blonde from Kentucky was always pursued, the master of disguise was never caught.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    With disguise, we just surpassed anyone's dreams. I mean, we some had amazing successes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The we were Jonna and Tony Mendez, spouses and stars of the CIA, both former chiefs of disguise. They were married for almost 30 years, before he died in January.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    Tony had creative energy that he spread around like fairy dust. I give him credit for a lot of really innovative ideas that we worked with. But I take some responsibility for seeing that they happened. We were a good team.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Their team was part of the CIA's Office of Technical Service, or OTS. They built the tools of espionage, the disguise kit, the cameras that could hide anywhere, the underwear to pretend to be pregnant, secrets used in Soviet Moscow now at the International Spy Museum in Washington.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    We're not trying to say that OTS won the Cold War. But the tools that we provided to our case officers that let them get out on the street, that let them in fact meet face to face with some of our Russian sources made an enormous difference.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The first challenge was right outside the embassy's gates on the streets of Moscow. The Russians were always tailing them, so they got a little help from their friend Jack.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    Jack in the Box was every HOV commuters' dream. It was a pop-up dummy that would emerge out of various things.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Everywhere agents drove, a Soviet car would follow. So, the Mendezes created a gap. As the Americans turned a corner, the Soviets were blind just long enough for the American agent to jump out of the car, and Jack in the Box to pop up in his place.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    It looked like a person. It was three-dimensional. It were real clothes. It had a face. It had hair. It could look exactly like the person who had just left that seat.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In pop culture spies have catchphrases, like James Bond.

  • Sean Connery:

    Bond, James Bond.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And big explosions like Jason Bourne.

    But Mendez says there's only one spy who gets it right.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    The male star in "The Americans" had this wonderful ability to put on these nothing disguises, and then he became nothing. He became almost invisible. He was perfect.

    And if he got on the elevator with you and got off two floors later, you would never remember that he'd even been on the elevator. He just could disappear into his disguises.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That disappearing act is what she perfected at the height of the Cold War for American agents and their Russian assets.

    Moscow became so dangerous, it was a denied area, meaning CIA officers couldn't meet Russian informants face to face. In Cold War Moscow, every face was watched. So Jonna and Tony gave their colleagues more than one.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    We didn't need to use masks in any other place. But we needed them in Moscow, because it was a solution that was almost forced upon us.

    Without disguise, our case officers would have been totally stymied. That was the intention of the KGB. They wanted us to be unable to collect intelligence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mendez even came to the White House disguised in her own handiwork.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    A woman who worked with me who gave me her face as a farewell present.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So this is a real person's face?

  • Jonna Mendez:

    Yes, that's her.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Moscow, they followed a set of informal guidelines, which Tony wrote down and turned into "The Moscow Rules," the name of their new book, rules like, don't harass the opposition.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    Don't mess with them. Something bad will happen to you. Maybe you're going to get beat up in front of your own embassy, and medevaced the next day with a broken clavicle.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Their most sacred mission, keep Soviet agents alive.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    There's something so personal about the Russian side of it. Taking care of those people, that was basically what our office did. We provided them with the technology to be safe, with tradecraft and methods of communication that would allow us to keep a distance between us and them, so we wouldn't contaminate them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of their best assets, Alexander Ogorodnik, code name Trigon, a Soviet diplomat who shared thousands of sensitive cables. He hid from the KGB with Mendez's help.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    He was the first one I know of who said: "I will take these risks, but I'm not going to let them kill me the way they want to do it. If they arrest me, I want an L-pill."

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Cyanide pill.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    That was a cyanide pill.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That pill was hidden in a pen. When he was caught, he went to write a confession and bit down on the pen. He died in seconds.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    People look at like poison pens in the pop culture, and they go, do we really do that?

    Well, yes, we did.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's when Tony Mendez broke one of his own Moscow rules. He mourned Trigon's death.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    The rule is, never fall in love with your with your agent. And it didn't mean fall in love. It meant almost like a doctor-patient relationship. Don't ever let it get personal.

    Tony was so attached to Trigon. And when they lost Trigon, it was tragedy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tony was the central character in the movie "Argo" about how he rescued Americans hiding in Tehran after the 1979 hostage crisis by disguising them as a Canadian film crew.

  • Ben Affleck:

    You have to know your resume back to front.

  • Actor:

    You really believe your little story's going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

  • Ben Affleck:

    I think my story's the only thing between you and a gun to your head.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He was part spymaster, part ringmaster, had the flair of a magician and the eye of an artist. He carried his disguises in this painter's case.

  • Jonna Mendez:

    We used to say that you had a problem, an operational problem, and you could have a meeting and solve it, get Tony in, make sure he's at the table, because everybody knows that artists think just a little differently.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Mendez helped CIA think differently. This painting commemorating his work hangs on the wall at Langley headquarters.

    How important are the lessons that you and Tony learned and wrote about?

  • Jonna Mendez:

    One of the big lessons is that you do nothing alone. It's a team. It's always a team. And this book is trying to call out that OTS team, the people behind you or beside you, or maybe even the people that you were supporting that were in front of you. But everyone in OTS knew that you don't do anything alone.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jonna and Tony Mendez never did anything alone, and they never stopped living by the Moscow rules.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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