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.

Creative Commons Announces “School of Open” with Courses to Focus on Digital Openness

Just in time to celebrate Open Education Week, here comes a new initiative, the School of Open, a learning environment focused on increasing our understanding of “openness” and the benefits it brings to creativity and education in the digital age.

Developed by the collaborative education platform Peer to Peer University (P2PU) with organizational support from Creative Commons, the School of Open aims to spread understanding of the power of this brave new world through free online classes.

We hear about it all the time: Universal access to research, education and culture—all good things, without a doubt—made possible by things like open source software, open educational resources and the like.

But what are these various communities and what do they mean? How can we all learn more and get involved?

School of Open has rolled the conversation back to square one so that understanding the basics is easy. Through a list of new courses created by users and experts, people can learn more about what “openness” means and how to apply it. There are stand-alone courses on copyright, writing for Wikipedia, the collaborative environment of open science, and the process behind making open video.

These free courses start March 18 (sign up by clicking the “start course” button by Sunday, March 17):

These free courses are open for you to take at any time:

The approach at P2PU encourages people to work together, assess one another’s work, and provide constructive feedback. It’s a great place to learn how to design your own course, because the design process is broken down step-by-step, and course content is vetted by users and P2PU staff. The tutorial shows you how the process works.

P2PU is also a place to learn more about what is open content and what is not. Participants in the ongoing course Open Detective learn to identify open source media and then demonstrate mastery by making something of their own using only open content. What if you’re really, really proud of the resource you create in Open Detective? Take it to the next level and get a Creative Commons license to make your work available without giving up full copyright. You guessed it, there’s a course for that too.

Open Education Week is in full swing (through Monday the 18th). There’s a full schedule of webinars to check out, including discussions about the implications of open access for political structures like the World Bank, and the impact of open, global teaching in Syria.

Related Content:

Total Noob to Learning Online? P2PU’s Peer-to-Peer Courses Hold Your Hand

700 Free Online Courses

A Meta List of MOOCs

What Entered the Public Domain in 2013? Zip, Nada, Zilch!

Noam Chomsky Spells Out the Purpose of Education

Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Visit her website at .

The State of Wikipedia Animated

Amidst the celebration of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, Jimmy Wales has narrated an animated history of the web-based encyclopedia, and where he sees it heading in the future. One place you can expect to find Wikipedia going (something slightly hinted at here) is the classroom. In the months ahead, look for Wikipedia to develop an “open educational resource platform” that will help students make better use of Wikipedia in the classroom, if not contribute to writing stronger articles/entries. The Wired Campus has more on this new initiative coming down the pike.

Related Content:

Big Thinkers on Wikipedia’s 10th Anniversary

Big Thinkers on Wikipedia’s 10th Anniversary

Wikipedia just turned 10 this weekend. And, to mark the occasion, The Atlantic asked ten “All-Star Thinkers” respond to a simple question: “What do you think about Wikipedia?” The responses? Well, they express the usual range of opinions, from appreciation to something approaching disdain. Take for example the two excerpts below:

Yochai Benkler, professor, Harvard Law School: That’s the biggest gift that Wikipedia has given to us — a vision of practical utopia. What gift can we best give back? Perhaps it is just this, to recognize the transformative role that thousands of individuals have played for all of us in how we can imagine our lives together as productive, engaged, social beings.

Jonathan Lethem, novelist, Pomona professor: With all respect to the noble volunteer army, I call it death by pedantry. Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikipedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity.

Other contributors include Clay Shirky, NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen, and Mariette DiChristina (editor-in-chief, Scientific American). Get the full list here.

Open Video Coming to Wikipedia

Wikipedia is now opening the online encyclopedia to video, giving contributors a new way to convey information in a richer way. And they’re making a point of using video in an open format (Ogg Theora).

Among the confluence of factors coming together in 2010 are: 1) the growing awareness that video is the dominant medium of the web and that video can help make Wikipedia articles even richer; 2) the development of open source players and codecs (alternatives to Flash, Quicktime, Windows Media, and H.264, 3); the introduction of public browser tools—Firefox’s Firefogg extension, for example—for uploading and playing nonproprietary video formats; 4) the willingness of nonprofits like the Participatory Culture Foundation and the Open Video Alliance and for-profits like Kaltura and Intelligent Television to dedicate themselves to open video; and the provision of strategic funding from the Mozilla Foundation and Ford Foundation, among others, to support developers, programmers, and activists.  As Wikipedia board member S. J. Klein explains in a recent Open Video Alliance video short, the day is fast coming where video will be as easy for users to write, edit, annotate, and remix as text is today. (You can find more details on the campaign here and here.)

What are the recommendations for video contributed to Wikipedia? They should be related to current articles, short and under 100 MB, free, and available to share and reuse (offered under a Creative Commons BY-SA or equivalent license). In coming weeks new videos are expected to proliferate and new strategies will be unfurled for working with educational repositories of legacy video.

This post was contributed by Peter Kaufman, the CEO and president of Intelligent Television, who shares our passion for thoughtful media.

Google Knol Prediction Revisited

Back in December 2007, I made a bet against Google Knol, the search giant’s answer to Wikipedia. In a fairly involved piece, I listed three reasons why Knol wouldn’t upend Wikipedia. Now fast forward 18+ months: Tech Crunch has reported that Knol’s traffic is trending down. It peaked in February at around 320,000 visitors per month, according to Quantcast estimates. Now it’s at around 174,000. (See the graph here.) The bottom line? You can’t win at everything. But fortunately there’s some good new things coming out of Google, and we’ll be mentioning them in the coming days.

PS In case you didn’t hear, Wikipedia is starting to put editorial restrictions on certain entries. The laissez-faire days are coming to an end.

Get Wikipedia on Your Mobile Phone

A Lifehacker post reminded me to spread the word about the newish mobile version of Wikipedia. Simply bookmark this page ( on your wireless device, and you can then research all of your questions on the fly. When did the French finally get rid of Robespierre? What’s the gist of Einstein’s special theory of relativity? Where is Bhutan? You can figure it all out wherever you are.

I’m not sure how this mobile page looks on various mobile devices. But I can report that it looks a-ok on the iPhone. iPhone users can also use the new Wikipedia Mobile app that’s now available in the iTunes store.

Knol: Ok, It’s Not Wikipedia. But What Is It?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a new piece (where I happen to get a small blurb) on Google’s Knol, asking what it will mean for students and professors. But it also deals, at least indirectly, with another question: Is Knol really intended to compete with Wikipedia?

When the content initiative was first announced, many assumed that this was Google’s way of trying to displace Wikipedia, whose links appear first in Google search results 25% of the time. But the company has since made it clear that they’re not trying to offer another encyclopedia. Rather, they’re simply offering a platform for experts to write about whatever they know. That could include entries on Rationalism, the stuff you’d expect to find in a traditional encyclopedia. But it also includes entries on how to organize your home in 15 minutes or less, or thoughts on whether people really go to heaven when they die. You can browse the range of entries here.

This approach makes Knol at once more expansive than Wikipedia and more difficult to get your arms around. By lacking a focus, Knol is a little slippery. As a reader, you’re not sure what you’ll get at Knol (academic content? recipes? how-to articles? medical information?). And, as a potential writer, you’re not sure what kind of larger body of information you’re contributing to — something that seems important for inspiring mass collaboration. This is not to say that Knol won’t yield a good amount of useful content. It probably will. But will it all hang together, and will it all contribute to another juggernaut Google product? Well, I’m less sure about that. If you disagree, feel free to make your case in the comments below.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.