Looking for perfect disguise

The title of one of the books written by Antonio Mendez is “Master of Disguise – My Secret Life in the CIA.”

It’s a fitting description of a career spent at the Central Intelligence Agency, and one Tri-State Area residents will have an opportunity to get a better grasp of Tuesday night.

That’s when Mendez and his wife, Jonna, are scheduled to speak in the auditorium at Steubenville High School as part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series.

The two certainly are in a position to know what they are talking about. Combined, they have more than 50 years of experience in the world of spies. They also have both served as the CIA’s chief of disguise.

Tony Mendez accomplished much during a career with the CIA that began in 1965. By the time he retired after 25 years of service, he had earned the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction. On the 50th anniversary of the CIA in 1997, he was awarded the Trailblazer Medallion, one of just 50 officers selected for the honor.

He also was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor for rescuing from Iran the six U.S. diplomats who had escaped when the U.S. embassy in Tehran fell in 1979. That operation became the basis for the movie “Argo,” which claimed best picture honors at this year’s Academy Awards.

“Argo” is expected to be among the topics covered by the couple during their Steubenville presentation, which is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. They also can be expected to cover the work of the Office of Technical Service. That’s the CIA’s technical arm for clandestine service. It’s the section that develops and deploys the technical knowhow needed for covert work.

In case you need a further explanation, it’s the real-life equivalent of the Q Branch, the fictional section of British intelligence that provides all of the gadgets 007 uses in the James Bond movies.

That’s fascinating stuff in and of itself, but Jonna Mendez added there will be a discussion of disguise and what it can do.

When most of us think about disguises, we might be thinking about a colored wig or a set of fake glasses and facial hair – the stuff of Halloween costumes.

For CIA agents, disguises can be serious stuff, the stuff of life and death, to be exact. As Tony Mendez has explained in some of his writings, those disguises have evolved much in the past 40 years or so, going from easily obtainable items to sophisticated kits that some might say are the work of Hollywood.

And in many ways they are. Tony Mendez credits his work with a man called Jerome Calloway, who was at one time one of the film industry’s top makeup artists, with helping to create new and innovative ways for officers to disguise themselves. That helped make a big difference for the West in Cold War.

Jonna Mendez seemed to put the success of their efforts into proper perspective. She related that one time she, her husband an an old foe who became a friend, Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, were involved in a discussion about the Cold War. Kalugin knows a little bit about the spy business himself, having worked in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB.

The three serve as members of the advisory board of directors of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

“When he found out that we had consultants in Hollywood who were teaching us the magic of illusion, he said that he wanted to shake Tony’s hand. ‘So that’s it,’ he said as he shook his hand,” Jonna Mendez explained of the Cold War successes.

It’s all a part of their experiences, and something they will share Tuesday night.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)