The CIA’s Former Chief of Disguise Show How Spies Use Costumes in Undercover Operations

Think on this as you ready your Hal­loween fin­ery. Some­times it’s not a case of win­ning a cos­tume con­test, or impress­ing your friends with your wit­ty take on cur­rent events or pop cul­ture.

Some­times, mas­quer­ade is a thin line between life and death.

The CIA’s for­mer Chief of Dis­guise, Jon­na Mendez, rose up through the ranks, hav­ing signed on as recep­tion­ist short­ly after her fiancé revealed—three days before the wedding—that he was actu­al­ly an under­cov­er agent.

As Chief of Dis­guise, her mis­sion was to pro­tect case offi­cers in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions, as well as for­eign sources who rou­tine­ly put their lives at risk by meet­ing with Amer­i­can oper­a­tives.

Trans­form­ing their appear­ance was an addi­tive proposition—while it’s dif­fi­cult to make some­one short­er, slim­mer, or younger, it’s not dif­fi­cult to ren­der them taller, heav­ier, old­er…

In her expe­ri­ence, women are eas­i­ly dis­guised as men. (She shared with The New York Times’ Matthew Rosen­berg how she her­self passed unde­tect­ed in male mufti, thanks pri­mar­i­ly to a lit cig­ar.)

Men have a tougher time pass­ing as women. Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race might take excep­tion to this posi­tion, were it not for the asser­tion that blend­ing in is key.

The goal is to be for­get­table, not fab­u­lous.

For Amer­i­cans abroad, this pos­es cer­tain cul­tur­al chal­lenges.

Mendez stress­es that dis­guise is much more than a sim­ple facial trans­for­ma­tion, involv­ing make­up, false hair, and pros­thet­ics.

It’s dress, car­riage, gait, jew­el­ry, scent…

The biggest Amer­i­can give­away is our shoes. An Ital­ian civil­ian can peg ‘em with one swift glance.

Pass­ing requires fur­ther behav­ioral mod­i­fi­ca­tions in the realms of table man­ners, gait, and even hang­ing out. (Euro­peans dis­trib­ute their weight even­ly, where­as Amer­i­cans lean.)

To fly beneath the radar, the dis­guised oper­a­tive must shoot to trans­form every aspect of their appear­ance. Imag­ine a sur­vey where­in the par­tic­i­pant recalls every phys­i­cal aspect of some­one they’ve just encoun­tered. The goal is to nudge that par­tic­i­pant into answer­ing every ques­tion incor­rect­ly.

What col­or are your eyes? Your hair? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? How old?  How would you describe your nose? Your voice? Your cloth­ing?

Change it.

Change it all.

You can do so by low tech meth­ods, using what­ev­er is on hand. Mendez once maneu­vered an agent out of a tight spot on the Sub-Con­ti­nent, by impro­vis­ing a quick change with Dr. Scholl’s pow­der and cos­met­ics col­lect­ed from local CIA wives.

She cred­its her own sec­ond hus­band, CIA “mas­ter of dis­guise” Tony Mendez (the inspi­ra­tion for Ben Affleck’s char­ac­ter in Argo) with many trade secrets she put into reg­u­lar prac­tice: den­tal facades, speech-alter­ing arti­fi­cial palettes, pros­thet­ics…

At the high end is the mask she wore to brief for­mer CIA Chief, Pres­i­dent George HW Bush, on devel­op­ments with­in the dis­guise pro­gram. The Pres­i­dent was none the wis­er.

Mean­while, a masked Amer­i­can agent chucked his mask under a Moscow rock when dan­ger com­pelled him to scup­per his mis­sion mid­way through. That mask now resides in the KGB muse­um where Mendez can­not vis­it it.

Check out the Mendezes’ book Spy­dust for more infor­ma­tion on their adven­tures in the field.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

The CIA Assess­es the Pow­er of French Post-Mod­ern Philoso­phers: Read a New­ly Declas­si­fied CIA Report from 1985

Declas­si­fied CIA Doc­u­ment Reveals That Ben Franklin (and His Big Ego) Put U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty at Risk

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Novem­ber 12 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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