Story by Dawn Klavon
Jonna Mendez has plenty of tricks up her sleeve. Whether being tailed by KGB agents on the streets of Moscow, or being followed by the FBI on M Street in Georgetown, the now-retired CIA master of disguise can change herself, or anyone else, to be unrecognizable.
Case in point: to illustrate new mask technology, the fair-complexioned spy from Kentucky once transformed herself into an attractive, 30-something Latina for an Oval Office meeting with President George H. W. Bush. Participants in the top-level meeting were shocked (except her boss, CIA Director Judge William Webster, who was seated beside her).
Mendez shares never-before-told stories in her autobiography titled In True Face, available next year. During her illustrious 27-year career, she led operational disguise missions in the most hostile theaters of the Cold War, from Havana to Beijing to Moscow and ultimately into the Oval Office. She is currently an author, lecturer, teacher and consultant on intelligence matters.
President George H.W. Bush is briefed by CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez in full disguise.
“Writing my memoir was a chance to reflect back,” Mendez said. “I had to actually dig in and research my life in order to write a book because when you leave the CIA after 27 years, you don’t bring home anything—nothing—they just debrief you and close the door.”
The 77-year-old Reston resident was a pioneer for women, shattering the glass ceiling in the male-dominated intelligence field. A former Chief of Disguise in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service (OTS), Mendez was also a specialist in clandestine photography. While there, groundbreaking methods were developed for disguise, carrying concealed cameras and protecting operatives in the field.
“I’m going to be remembered as a woman who got involved in the operational side of [the] CIA, and that was a unique place to be,” Mendez said. “It won’t remain unique, but I might be remembered as one of the earlier women who managed to step into that part of the work.”
Mendez sits on the International Spy Museum’s advisory board, and several of the Washington, DC museum’s exhibits display her innovative disguises, like a pregnant woman suit complete with a secret camera. She speaks at museum events, educating visitors about the cloak and dagger life of a spy and the importance of the CIA.
“Jonna is so inspirational to our visitors and guests who attend programs with her,” said Amanda Ohlke, director of adult education at the International Spy Museum. “Her journey from secretary to CIA Chief of Disguise gives people such a lift.”
Tricks of the Trade
Throughout her career, Jonna worked closely with Antonio “Tony” Mendez, the man who eventually became her second husband and was also a renowned CIA officer and Chief of Disguise. The duo was instrumental in developing a series of innovative tactics, brilliant evasion techniques, Hollywood-inspired identity swaps and an arsenal of brilliant gadgets so that CIA officers could outwit the KGB, according to their book, The Moscow Rules. During the 1980s, their game-changing methods set the bar for clandestine maneuvers.
PBS once filmed a series about espionage and enlisted Tony and Jonna’s help. The television program tasked the FBI with keeping tabs on the legendary spy couple, following them to a hypothetical "drop."
The exercise simulated real-life missions in the field. Cameras waited at the ending spot and the couple endeavored to evade surveillance. As the duo led the FBI all over Georgetown, Jonna magically transformed her appearance numerous times during the exercise, starting in true face (what the intelligence agency defines as no disguise), then becoming a fanny pack-toting dog walker and moments later—somehow—an elderly mustached man with a limp. She evaded not only the FBI team assigned to follow her, but even fooled the PBS camera crew waiting to film her, who never suspected an elderly gentleman with a cane was Jonna Mendez.
CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez holds the mask she peeled off to reveal her true identity during a White House briefing with President George H.W. Bush, members of the intelligence community and White House staff.
Mendez came to play the spy game in a roundabout way. Born in Kentucky, graduating from high school in Kansas and attending Wichita State, she traveled to Germany for a friend’s wedding at age 20. While in Bavaria, Mendez chose to forego her return ticket to Kansas and instead set out on a new life. She boarded a train to Frankfurt and, though she spoke not a word of German, got a job at Chase Manhattan Bank in a city where she knew no one. While living in Frankfurt, she met and married her first husband, an American named John Goeser, who informed her three days before the wedding that he worked for the CIA.
“I thought, okay, he’s with the government, he’s traveling all over the world and that will continue and I really liked that piece of it,” she said. “The CIA? Sure! If you thought it would give me pause, it did not.”
In 1966, the CIA recruited Mendez to work as a secretary. Though happy to be in the Agency, the secretarial pool was no challenge for her. Bored, she considered quitting, but her boss recognized her potential and did not want to lose her. Mendez was sent to “the Farm” in Virginia—the CIA’s 9,000-acre covert training facility—where she learned the craft of espionage photography. Ultimately, she was assigned to the OTS in the 1970s, where she spent her illustrious career.
A Real-Life Q
“I had my sights set on it. I was really interested in that technical office and in the work they did,” Mendez said. “Even in the movies, I liked the gadgets. Remember Q? (Referring to the Head of Q Branch in James Bond films, the fictional research and development division of the British Secret Service) We were Q.”
Mendez was stationed in Europe, Asia and Washington, DC over the course of her career, honing her craft and eventually leading the OTS as Chief of Disguise. Her main goal was to protect assets and operatives in the field.
“My role always felt like offering them protection,” she said. “The disguises were a form of body armor. The subminiature cameras made it safer when they were taking pictures of things that maybe they shouldn’t be taking pictures of. We kept them safe.”
Mendez managed “technical wizards and operational specialists." OTS, she said, provided invaluable technology to keep assets alive in places like the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East. “That was the satisfaction for me and that’s what disguise was all about,” Mendez said.
Though CIA case officers collected information from agents that was passed along to policy makers, she played a different role. “I was not passing on the information; I was showing them how to collect it without getting caught. It was a very good place to be.”
Looking back over her extraordinary career, Mendez recalls the intrigue OTS offered visitors. “We had the dog and pony show. Anybody with a reputation came by because it was always so interesting to see our work,” she said. “We were always very visual.”
A Couple of Master Spies
Mendez’s late husband, Tony, was the other half of the legendary spy duo, achieving a CIA Trailblazer Award for being named one of the 50 most distinguished CIA intelligence officers of all time. Most notably, he helped rescue six US diplomats from Iran in 1980 and was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award-winning film Argo.
“Argo was his story and he did not want to tell it,” she said. “But [former CIA director] George Tenet said, ‘You have an appointment with Tim Weiner of the New York Times—we want you to go tell the story.’”
Argo eventually won an Oscar for Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards in 2013. The film chronicled how Tony created false documents and disguises that were smuggled into Iran and then, under the guise of filming a science fiction movie, helped six Americans hiding at the Canadian Embassy flee Teheran. Only after the motion picture was set to be filmed did Tony write the book Argo.
“Tony said at the beginning, ‘Well, then we’ve got to write a book, because you know what [the moviemakers] will do? They’ll change it.'”And so, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History was written.
During her CIA career, Jonna Mendez lived a life shrouded in secrecy, requiring lying to friends about her profession for decades. “I had best friends that I never could even tell them where I worked, much less that we’d almost saved the world last Thursday,” she said.
Upon retirement in the early 1990s, the dynamic duo of Tony and Jonna eventually chronicled their experiences together in the clandestine field—with full CIA approval—in several books including Spy Dust and The Moscow Rules.
“It was very satisfying to write a book about our work, where we could explain what we did and how cool it was and how it helped out when we were part of it,” she said.
Tony Mendez passed away from Parkinson’s Disease in 2019.
Shattering the Glass Ceiling
In her upcoming memoir, Mendez reveals how she navigated internal barriers in the male-dominated field of intelligence. Being undermined and overlooked were unfortunate elements of her CIA experience, but she didn’t dwell on it. “That was not top of my mind; that was just the way it was,” she said. “Watching women struggle up the ladder, after-the-fact, it was painful—it wasn’t painful in the middle of it because you were in the middle of it.”
Mendez said women in intelligence careers today are making advances, but there is still progress to be made. “Guys don’t want women out there in the field. That’s the best part of the work and they don’t want to give it up,” Mendez said. “I think they know that women can do it just as well; sometimes better.” Those that know her are encouraged by her influence on the next generation of women.
“Jonna Mendez continues to inspire all that hear her speak, but especially young women that might want to serve as future intelligence officers,” said Chris Costa, executive director of the International Spy Museum. “She persevered at a time when intelligence was a male-dominated world. Now, we’re richly rewarded by seeing her audiences animated by her spy stories.”
Not Slowing Down
Today, Mendez is busier than ever, traveling extensively and speaking about her life as a master spy. At the popular International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, visitors might be fortunate enough to hear one of her presentations, revealing now-declassified clandestine secrets. Esteemed museum colleagues who work beside her embrace Mendez’s contributions to history and her lasting legacy.
“The top of the list for me is she’s just a good human,” said Senior State Department Advisor Dexter Ingram, a member of the museum’s advisory board. “It’s better than any novel, it’s better than any movie—she’s exciting—she brings out the best in others and it’s a blessing to have her in our lives.” the