Jonna Mendez - Chief of Disguise



Introduction: Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord. A podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.


Brian Lord: Hi, I'm Brian Lord, your host for the Beyond Speaking podcast and today we have on Jonna Mendez. Right now, we're in the first half of 2020. We're in a time of a lot of uncertainty, the stakes are high. There's a lot of conflicting information coming at people. Danger seems to lurk around every corner. People are on high alert. So I thought there was no better person to have on right now than Jonna Mendez. She's a former CIA Chief of Disguise and author of several books, including Moscow Rules. Jonna, thanks for coming on.


Jonna Mendez: Glad to be here.


Brian Lord: So you worked for the CIA for 27 years. And for those watching who don't know, your husband was Tony Mendez. Antonio Mendez, who's played by Ben Affleck in the amazing movie Argo, one of my favorites. You served your country all over the world, including Moscow during the Cold War. And from that came out of your book, Moscow Rules. And those rules right now, I think are a really good playbook and have some really good guidelines on how to react and how to lead and how to operate in a time when there is a whole lot of uncertainty going on like we're in right now. So if you could maybe lay out a kind of the general framework or maybe the idea behind the Moscow Rules and where those came from?


Jonna Mendez: Well, first of all, we didn't write the Moscow rules. We didn't invent them. What Tony and I did is write them down. They'd been floating around forever. People that would serve tours of duty with the CIA in Moscow. They would very quickly learn these rules. These are these strategies and the tactics of doing your work in the most difficult place in the world for a CIA officer to operate. So they're not narrow and specific. They're really quite broad, but they're giving you signposts along the road. They give you some guidance. They tell you when to stop. They tell you when to turn, they tell you how to conduct yourself. The problem in Moscow- the reason we have Moscow Rules. I mean, we don't have Paris Rules. We don't have Rome Rules. Moscow was just uniquely difficult for us to work in. It wasn't for everyone. The CIA, the CIA was up against the KGB. It was like a mano a mano. They were behind us in front of us. They were in the walls. They were sitting next to us at our embassy. If you were walking down the street, they were stalking behind you. You could not work. And that was their whole point. They didn't want you to work. We were there to do a job and they were there to keep us from doing the job. We still had to figure out ways to get around them or bypass them or... And that's what the Moscow Rules were. Telling you broadly, how to manage yourself on the streets of Moscow.


Brian Lord: And where did you kind of come into play with all of this?


Jonna Mendez: Tony always had a running list. He just as he thought of them, he would write them down. And we kept that list in the office because we were the Office of Technical Service at CIA. That's a technical- the technical arm of the agency. It's not the only technical arm. There's a satellite section of the agency that's enormous. But for feet-on-the-ground espionage officers, we were the Q. We almost you'd think we were modeled after Q. We did all the audio bugs. We did bugs in things you'd never dream would be bugs. Think of a boulder on a beach with a bug in it. A tree branch with a bug in it. And of course, we could put them in any, any... We had third story guys that could get in anywhere and put them in. We did disguises, we did false documents, did all kinds of forensics. We did low light level video. We actually invented it. We're in the photo section of CIA, which is where I began, we had tiny, tiny cameras, film cameras, and fountain pens and lipsticks and Bic lighters. And when I left, I think we were going to put one in a Pez, one of those Pez. They could be in anything. We were the gadget people. But one of the differences between Ian Fleming's version and our own, we always went with James. We'd give him the equipment. We'd find out what he needed, give him the equipment, and we would accompany him because we knew that he was going to wreck it somehow. He was going to lose it, he was going to break it- Something would go wrong. That was one of our rules that Murphy, you know, Murphy is always there. You have to always be ready to plaster over the thing that just broke. And so the job wasn't a job working in a lab somewhere. The job was going all over the world. That's what we did. It was a traveling job. It was amazing, it was fun.


Brian Lord: What was your favorite part of it?


Jonna Mendez: I started out in photography, I went into the CIA as a secretary, and the only way I got out of that was my interest in photography and my ability with cameras. So I did clandestine photography for some years, for maybe 10 years. I traveled the world, taught people how to use various cameras to collect intelligence for us, and get and get it to us. And then I did a reverse 180 and I went into disguise. I did that because I had gone to a part of the world that I just fell in love with and I wanted an assignment there. But there was no photo operations officer job there for me. There was a disguise officer coming up in two years. So I said, make me a disguise officer and they did. I got my wish.


Brian Lord: What makes someone a good officer?


Jonna Mendez: Wow. Well, a lot of people ask that. A lot of young people today want to know what are they looking for? I mean, what how can I make myself valuable? What do they want from me? We want all the things that any office of any big corporation wants when they're hiring. You want young, smart, technically capable. You want... Then, then we start going off in another direction. We'd love it if you had languages. We'd love it if you traveled the world and kind of knew your way around. We'd love it if you'd already had a job and industry had a real taste of a career before you came to us. We used to love it if you had been in the military- it's not so much anymore, I think. But beyond all of that, there's a working in our part of it working, in OTS. We wanted a degreed chemist, physicists, engineers, all kinds of technical people who were on the cutting edge of whatever their specialty was. But mostly when people ask that question, they want to know about the DO, about the directorate of operations, about those case officers. They want to know, "How do you get to be one of those?" That's the job everybody wants. And that's a hard job. Those are big shoes and it's hard to fill. We were always looking for these kind of Type A personalities, larger than life personalities, the kind of person you'd meet at a bar at a friend's house and you'd instantly want to be their buddy. I mean, there are people that are charismatic like that. We wanted that charisma. And, you know, that's one of the things you can't teach. You have to find it. They bring it to you. You can't go out... We can teach languages and we can teach area familiarity. We can teach everything. We can't teach that that personality type. We need people who are discreet. We need people who are problem-solvers. The list just goes on and on and on. But the thing is that once we find that person, imagine that person is probably the president of his high school class or she was. Then we say, OK, we'll hire you, but we're going to stuff you in this box where you can never tell anybody what you do. And if you almost saved the world last Tuesday, no one could know. There's no bragging, there are no pats on the back. And a lot of people, when they retire, keep their cover. And so no one ever knows. And a whole group of them just take a hard right and say, "Well, thank you, you know, it was great talking to you." That's a big ask.


Brian Lord: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I found really interesting and one of your articles you talked about, and so a lot of people listening, watching right now are event planners. And so you mentioned that a lot of these things that will happen at trade shows. Is that every trade show, is it only ones that are, you know, aerospace and military or where do these things happen?


Jonna Mendez: We were... The way intelligence collection works, it's not like willy nilly. It comes out from Washington. It goes overseas to CIA stations and bases where we are. They say we need information about whatever it is, say it's a technology, a new emerging technology. We need information about that. Our officers have to figure out where do you find that? Who has that information? Is it in a company? Is it a person? Who has the knowledge? And then we have to access the knowledge. A lot of times that will end up a group of like people meeting at a trade show, for instance. And so you end up at the trade show looking for someone who has access to the information that you want. Then you have to figure out how to get them to part with it willingly. Over the long term. This is not an easy job. As a matter of fact, I was just always in awe of our case officers that could talk people into this. I used to think, what would it take for someone to come up to me anywhere and say, "You know, you know, so and so right? And you used to work on that project, right? Well, I'm really- I'm so interested in that project. And I wonder if you could help me. Could get something, you know?" And I'd say, get the hell out of here. What would it take to get you to betray your country? That's what those larger than life guys- That's what the job is. To get people to do that and have enormous success doing it. It's always amazing.


Brian Lord: One of the things I really like about what you do and I think really applies well to, you know, the corporate world right now or at any time really is just the ability to innovate, to experiment, to think outside the box. And what are some of the ways or what how is that process set up that you are able to innovate in such difficult circumstances?


Jonna Mendez: That's the job. Very often, that is the job. In this office that I was in the Office of Technical Service, our case officer colleagues would come and they'd say, "I've got this operation. What I need is a black box like this at that frequency." And it would, you know, and it would be very often something that didn't even exist in technology, what they wanted. But if they could convince us that would solve their problem, we would set about inventing it. We did that over and over. We did that over and over. We were for so many years ahead of the commercial technology. We were things like bubble memories, things like these ultra-small, tiny, hugely powerful batteries. We needed them to put into our audio bugs because once you get into Putin's conference room and you've got this woodblock with rows of little batteries and you put it up under his conference table, you will never get back in to change batteries. That's only going to last as long as the batteries. And we were always trying to buy more time. It's a matter of fact, I think I mentioned in the book we had one man named George who spent his career- the front end of his career, a big part of it, working on batteries. And he was a genius. He looked a little crazy. He was a wonderful man. But I didn't know until some years ago, a few years ago, that he was part of the team that saved the Hubble.


Brian Lord: Really?


Jonna Mendez: He was our battery guy. And the Hubble was evidently having a power problem out there in space. And George was, you know, one of the people on the team. At CIA, they have named a school after George Methlie, the George Methlie Directorate of Science and Technology, because of his innovations, his abilities were amazing. So innovation was our middle name and desperation was the thing that drove us forward.


Brian Lord: One of the things a lot of people talk about is borrowing from other industries in order to be more creative, to be more successful. And that's something that you and your group did really well with Magic and Hollywood. Obviously, a lot of people know Argo, but how did that come about? And was that a regular thing or is that just once in a while or how did that come about?


Jonna Mendez: Well, with the magic cards, it was Tony Mendez. With a lot of things back in the day it was Tony Mendez. Tony went into CIA as an artist. That's a very funny career track to take you into the field of espionage. And he couldn't figure out why they were looking for an artist. Well, they weren't actually looking for an artist. They were looking for a forger, counterfeiter. And he was very good at it. But there he ended up plopped down in the middle of a group of right-brain thinkers and Tony's thinking with the other side of his brain. He was creative, he was innovative. That magic thing was always on his mind, in the back of his mind. But he didn't apply it to work until we got to Moscow. And he thought to himself, you know, this deception and illusion business is so interesting on the stage and it always fascinated him. So why couldn't we use those tools here in Moscow? Well, we could. I mean, if they can walk an elephant out onto a stage and help in a big empty box, yes, it's empty. But the elephant in the box closed the door. Talk for 30 seconds. Open the door. The elephant's gone. I mean, you know, the elephants are not gone. So you're sitting there squirming in the audience thinking, where is the elephant? No trap door is big enough to lower- I mean, where is it? He loved that stuff. And in the end, we started using those ideas of deception and illusion in Moscow. And the KGB never knew what hit them. They never knew we did it. I mean, that was the beauty. They couldn't get mad at you. They couldn't bumper lock you because they didn't know that the person in the car in front of them wasn't you anymore. You had stepped out. And maybe this is a pop-up dummy wearing your face. That's one solution. Maybe it was another person wearing a mask that looked just like you. That's ano- I mean, there were a thousand ways to do it. And if you did it right, they never do. So we always said it's like robbing the bank every night and they don't even know the money's gone.


Brian Lord: One of the things that you talk about, one of the Moscow Rules is never go against your gut. How can that apply? I mean, how did that apply to you, and then how could that apply for businesses today?


Jonna Mendez: Well, you know, it works in different ways. The rule when we're using it- never go against your gut- Was was built around the idea that you need to meet face to face with your foreign agent every once in a while. You just must. You got to look them in the eye and tell him, you know, it's so important what they're doing. The information is really I mean, you just have to pump them up. You can't just do it all remotely. On the other hand, you can't lead the KGB to them. KGB didn't want us. They wanted those people working for us. They wanted to arrest them and they would execute them. And they executed a number of them over the years. I think the average life was like 18 months working for us.


Brian Lord: Wow.


Jonna Mendez: So the idea of don't go against your gut means that if you're going to that meeting, that face to face meeting, and you just sense something is a little bit off and you can't even- You don't have to even know what it is. You can just say this is something's wrong here. I'm not going to go. You would say you would abort the meeting. That was almost policy. Abort the meeting. If your gut says this is a no go, then don't go. And there are no explanations. That's a little hard to carry that into a business environment where you're supposed to do this, you're supposed to bring this package together. But what we were always talking about with the gut is kind of considering it as one half of the pattern and analysis as the other. They are in competition. They're almost in war with each other. Your gut feeling and the analytic approach to whatever it is you're doing. But at the end of the day, your gut, I think, wins because you've got this like it's like body armor. It's all your visceral parts of you saying, "No, we shouldn't do this." You can apply it to almost any situation that you might be in, but you usually don't go down the wrong road if you're listening to your intuition and to your gut.


Brian Lord: One of those things to like that kind of seems like the medium in between, you know, talking about innovation, but also one of the other rules is stay consistent over time. How does that factor in?


Jonna Mendez: For us, consistent over time meant to live your cover. Never break your cover. Don't do anything- If you're supposed to be a businessman in that city working for some organization, you never break your cover. Be consistent. If you're consistent, the KGB would get bored with you. They would decide that you weren't of interest to them. They would start backing off. They'd start giving you some room. They'd relax. That's what it meant to us. In business, the idea of being consistent. Being dependable, being reliable, being someone that people can count on. Again and again, no matter how the circumstances change. That's how I interpret that rule in a business environment, is to be the one that everybody comes to. They know they can count on you.


Brian Lord: Absolutely. And part of that goes into, too, I think, you know, your people know who you are as a leader. You know, you're consistent with that over time. And I think that trust builds just like, you know, you're talking about on the streets, too. But also, I know from reading your book and other things, you talk about being that consistent person for the people that you're working with. You know, the assets that you're developing on the other side, knowing, you know, them being consistent with YouTube. I think that that definitely all plays into it. And you don't want to either. Not that we'll go through every single one. But I also really like know your opposition and know their terrain intimately, which I definitely think fits really well with businesses today of knowing what's out there and what they need to do.


Jonna Mendez: You know, there's strategy and there are tactics. And you need both if you're going to go up against any kind of an opponent, whether you're actually fighting a war or whether you're in a commercial environment and you're trying to win the prize, you're trying to come out on top of that, the development cycle that goes back to [Inaudible], actually. But it's really, really true. If you don't know your enemy, you can't you can't get your arms around it. Where do you begin? We see this with this coronavirus. With that, we're all just we keep learning more about it. We still don't know all about it. But all the bits and pieces of it, that that you know, how it manifests, how it's circulating, how it's moving. The idea of looking for a vaccine, what they're trying to do is, is come up with some strategy and some tactics where they can nail that virus down and then they can engage in a fight with it. But until they know it intimately, you can't really have the war that we need to have. You have got to know your enemy inside out.


Brian Lord: Certainly. And one of the things that's great about you, too, as well that I like is, you know, I posted "Hey, you know, what questions do you have for Jonna?" And so I know a lot of your talk is, you know, specific business points, how these things relate. And, but a lot of people just like the kind of cool, you know, spy stuff. One person, I said, "Just let her know that the Spy Museum is awesome. Like, I don't have a question. I just love the Spy Museum." Which you helped, which you helped found. You know, what- I guess one of the things that were that was what was the most rewarding part of your career? Is one of the questions that we got in?


Jonna Mendez: Hmm. Well, you don't stay twenty-seven years unless you're getting something out of it. What I liked about my job, especially the disguise part of it, was the feeling that we were- through disguise, we were protecting a lot of people that were putting their life on the line for the United States government. I'm talking about the foreigners, that the agents that we were running that were providing us with intelligence. The ones that the KGB would like to catch and kill. And through the use of disguise, we could keep those agents separated from their CIA handlers, keep them safe, keep their families safe. And if it started going wrong because we didn't control every piece of it to our offices, we could exfiltrate them. We could save them. And we did. Numerous times.


Brian Lord: And that's one of those things, I think you told me one time, and hopefully this was during a public interview, but something like is either like Tony did 150 and you did 1500- some crazy number of exfiltrations of getting people out of bad places. Like, that part amazed me.


Jonna Mendez: That was that was Tony's bailiwick. He was... You know what? People would agree to work for us, there's a little bit of paperwork. Actually, we have them sign something that is a formality, but we do. And in that paperwork, we reassure them that we will rescue them and their families if we can, should we need to. And so the whole time they would work for us, say, ten years. We would have documents, travel documents, ready for them, ready to hand to them so they can get out of town. If they had little kids and little kids growing up, we'd come in and take their pictures every now and then and make them updated documents. So as a family, we could move them. That idea of of taking care of the people that were working for us was powerful. I mean, I loved collecting intelligence. I loved seeing our government do well. But the people part of it was always a big part of it for me. Whether I was training someone did how to use a camera that didn't look like a camera to get information for us that would help protect him from being arrested when he's taking information. The whole package was, to me, was serving our government, doing something that mattered, making a difference. And helping those people who were helping us. I just thought, what's better than that?


Brian Lord: Absolutely. So one of the other questions is, which is the- Which movies or TV shows are the most realistic, like James Bond? Jason Bourne and some of the others there? What's what's the most realistic?


Jonna Mendez: Well, I love the Bond movies today. I love Daniel Craig. But they're not realistic, of course, just like Daniel Craig. Realistic was the Americans. Loved that show. I actually wrote The Washington Post- the review at the end. That kind of wrap up review of the series. A funny story because someone said "Who's watching the Americans?" This was at the Spy Museum. I said, "I am." They said, "Would you write this thing?" I said, "Sure, I'll write that." But I had only seen like four episodes. And it ran for six years, but I didn't know that. So I you know, you talked about binge-watching. I watched every episode. And I loved it more and more and more. It was a really- I thought it was an excellent show.


Brian Lord: What about it makes it more realistic than some of the others?


Jonna Mendez: That family situation just rang true. The neighbor next door, the FBI neighbor, that was you know, that was kind of a push, but it was just... That was our worst nightmare. He came back again, knocking on the door with, I don't know, with some fried chicken. It was just. Oh, God, yes. The kids... That's an issue that none of these other shows go into, that kind of the family dynamics. People who are doing that kind of work, that was tricky.


Brian Lord: Well, this is a great fun and sort of unintentional follow-up. This is from Leah Hayes in Nashville. What was your marriage like having both partners in such high-stress and high-stakes roles? And how did you prioritize each other?


Jonna Mendez: Well, you have to completely separate your private life from your business life. Because what you're doing at work is kind of lying for a living. And then when you are not at work, it's absolutely unacceptable to lie. There's this... We always talked about our moral compass. You had to keep it straight. You had to remember "Now, work, this is OK. Home, this is not." I know, Tony and I once we were boarding a flight for France and we had our son when he was three months- no he was three years old. When a pile of luggage because we were going to be gone a while and we got to Dulles Airport, Air France, front of the line. Tony put down his documents. Tony, the king of documents, had an expired passport. So that man at Air France was holding it like was a bug. And he said, "Oh, she's expired you must be [Blows raspberry]...." Tony comes over to me. There's a pile of luggage. There's Jessie our little boy. Tony says, "Five minutes in the men's room. I could fix this." And I said, "I think it's a felony." And so we went to a hotel, and it turns out, as I've always known, this. But the U.S. passport office is one of these incredibly efficient machines. He went and he got a new passport, a real one, the next morning.


Brian Lord: That's a lot of fun. I guess what are some of the things that sort of spilled over? Were there things that you say you had to be honest one place and you know with the others it's always the cover. What are some of the things that may be spilled over- skills that spilled over from your CIA life into your I guess regular life, or real life.


Jonna Mendez: Well, there's Halloween. And that was never fair, was it?


Brian Lord: [Laughing] What was your best Halloween costume or how did you do Halloween differently than your average American would?


Jonna Mendez: My personal best was I was part of the pumpkin patch one year. We were all pumpkins that were connected. And it was just so funny. It was really great- until somebody had to go to the bathroom.


Brian Lord: [Laughing]


Jonna Mendez: The patch had to stand in front of the door and the vine, you know, went in and I don't know, over the years, we did a lot of things like that. Photography. You know, I, when I worked at CIA, the photography that I did was to collect intelligence. It was photographing pieces of paper. After I left I was able to do some fine art photography. We had an art studio for 25, 30 years after we left. Tony was a painter. I was the photography and Tony had a grandson from his first marriage who was a sculptor, Toby Mendez. And so the three of us, we had gigantic art shows twice a year. That was what we did. We were artists. Each one of us using well, not Toby, but Tony and I using all kinds of skills that we have acquired at work.


Brian Lord: How do spies raise their kids differently maybe than people outside of that? Like, do all your kids have those skills or do they grow up learning five languages? Or how is that maybe different than what the average person would have?


Jonna Mendez: I think the thread that runs through the kids is artistic. The youngest son right now is a musician. He does I.T. work in the daytime and he does music at night. He went to Berklee College of Music up in Boston. Toby Mendez, Tony's older son is a sculptor, graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. Art seems to be the theme. His daughter, Amanda, was always the bookkeeper to keep everybody, you know, organized because the stereotype is that artists can't manage their books. We write them, but we can't, you know, keep the numbers straight.


Brian Lord: [Laughing] So I know a lot of this stuff, you know, you've lived this whole life being very, very private. But then the, like, how did all this stuff start coming out? You know, you've written four books. I believe between you and Tony have written four books. The newest, yours, you were just saying it's gone incredibly well. The paperback comes out May 19 and, you know, what was that like going from having- I think I know you mentioned before having that codename that you've got or the alias you've gone with, with your whole life to being a very public about everything. What was that transition like?


Jonna Mendez: That was really hard. It started with Tony being... The CIA, there was this quiet moment right before 9/11 when Patrick Moynihan was saying maybe we don't even need CIA anymore. That was kind of a this little groundswell. And so George Tenet said, let's... We're going have a contest. We're going to take out our 50 top people in first 50 years, 50 top spies. We're going to do it publicly and Tony was one. Well, Tony was just, just- He'd been retired nine years. He was a painter now. He just- It was amazing. So that was done. It was done publicly. And then Tenet called Tony and he said, "I want to put one story out there sort of as a marker of this 50 year. I want to tell the Argo story." And Tony said, "Well, we can't." He said "It's classified." I think he was shocked. And Tenet said, "Well, not anymore. It's not classified. There are no real equities. There are no concerns. So I want you to go to The New York Times and talk to Tim Wiener." That was the charge. And Tony did not want to do that, but he did it. And then it just grew out of that. And you could watch him like if he did an interview or something. It took him some time to get comfortable with even talking about that one story. He was never going to tell that story. And then he got more comfortable and he did a lot of interviews and then we wrote some books and then I mean it just the whole thing just went crazy. The movie Argo was absolutely amazing. George Clooney was going to make it. George Clooney bought it. He was going to star in it, direct and write it. He was going to write the script. The odds of that turning into one of the best movies you ever saw... I mean, what are the odds? This just kept piling on top of itself. What are the odds that you're going to pick Tony as one of the 50? What are the odds that story's going to get out? They're going to make a movie out of it. Is it going to be a good movie? We were just we just were stunned. But we watched, we saw the movie. Just the two of us. There's this gem of the American Film Institute, has a tiny movie theater in Washington, D.C. It's- I don't think it's open to the public. It doesn't seat maybe 20 people. It's like being in a jewel box. We sat there was somebody from Warner Brothers, three of us, and watched the movie. And somewhere in the middle of it, Tony cried. That's where there's a whole big screen. And it was Ben Affleck's face. The whole screen was his face. And he was saying, my name is Tony Mendez.


Brian Lord: Wow.


Jonna Mendez: It was absolutely moving. It was. And it was so good!


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Jonna Mendez: Former CIA Chief of Disguise, Author, Speaker

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