Adept at creating new identities for anyone, anywhere, Mendez was involved in operations all over the world, from “Wild West” adventures in East Asia to Cold War intrigue in Moscow. In 1980, he orchestrated the escape of six Americans from a hostage situation in revolutionary Tehran, Iran. This extraordinary operation inspired the movie Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck.
The Master of Disguise gives us a privileged look at what really happens at the highest levels of international espionage: in the field, undercover, and behind closed doors.
About the Author
He is an award-winning painter and the author of The Master of Disguise and Spy Dust, which he co-wrote with his wife Jonna Mendez, also a retired intelligence officer. His most recent book is Argo, which tells the story of the operation he ran to rescue six Americans hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran during the hostage crisis. The operation inspired the Warner Brothers feature film of the same name. Mendez currently lives and works in his studios and gallery on his farm in Maryland with his wife.
Read an Excerpt
A Letter Slipped in the Door
Delicate indeed, truly delicate. There is no place where espionage is not used.--Sun Tzu
The Blue Ridge Mountains, Maryland, August 21,1997. The anxious memories returned to haunt me that summer night, keeping me from sleep once more...
It is past midnight near the time of the monsoon. I wait tensely on the concrete observation deck of the sweltering airport terminal, peering down at the tarmac through a thickening haze. The TWA flight from Bangkok is already two hours late. I have watches Swissair arrive from Riyadh, Lufthansa from Bangkok. An Aeroflot IL-62 arrives from Tashkent and lumbers up to the gate directly below.
My pulse suddenly surges. The appearance of the Aeroflot is an ominous sign. The operations plan called for the subject and his CIA escort to have left on the continuation of the delayed TWA flight at least an hour ago, for a very good reason. We wanted them out of here before the Aeroflot landed, with its inevitable ground retinue of KGB gumshoes.
The subject is a KGB defector who simply walked into our Station ten days earlier. Now, waiting down in the steamy, crowded departure hall, will he panic and run when he hears the Soviet flight announced?
I glance over the mildewed cement barrier. All the gates are full, but there is no American plane. Then, out of the gloom, the TWA Boeing 707 materializes. It lands, taxis down the runway, and finally stops at the far end of the poorly lit parking apron.
The haze thickens--"smit," the old Asian hands call it, ground-hugging "smoke from shit" from the millions of cow dung cooking fires burning in villagesacross the subcontinent. I squint, but the TWA plane is hard to distinguish. I wait.
The disembarking TWA passengers grope their way through the murk and stumble into the terminal, where the humidity and stench of clogged W.C.s will certainly overpower the smit.
I cannot leave the platform. My task is to confirm that our subject and his escort officer "Jacob," my partner in this operation, safely board the continuation of the TWA flight. But in this miasma, how can I see whether they reach the plane? If I don't catch sight of them coming out of the terminal with the other passengers booked for the same flight, it could mean they have run into trouble at passport control. That is where the alias documents and disguise I've helped create will be tested.
Passengers emerge from the terminal, headed for the TWA plane, but I still don't see the subject and his escort. Is it possible that they have already bolted to the two getaway cars sitting at the dark end of the parking lot with their engines running?
Whatever the outcome of the exfiltration operation, I have to pass a signal from the phone booth at the bottom of the stairway. Tonight, we will use an open code with an ostensible wrong number. Is Suzy there? (They made it.) May I speak to George? (Something went wrong.) The rest of the plan will unfold based on which of these two things happens...
Finally, I sleep, but I have no rest. Even in my dream, my mind cannot let go of the scene at the airport. I find myself descending the stairs with their chipped paint and wedging myself into the oven of the phone booth. I lift the receiver of the clumsy red Bakelite phone, put a brown coin in the slot, strike the cradle bar and release it. No dial tone. No coin drop. Damned colonial phone, a legacy of British rule that probably hasn't been maintained since the Raj folded the Union Jack.
Again I jiggle the cradle. The fat copper disk drops into the coin return slot. I jam the coin back in. A hiss, a click, a weak dial tone. Receiver held between ear and shoulder, I dial quickly, scanning the number scrawled on the hotel matchbook in my other hand. Clicks and pops, finally a coherent double whir. The phone is ringing at the other end. I press the receiver tightly against my ear. Four rings. . . five... Pick it up, Raymond. I slam the phone down after ten rings.
Why doesn't he answer? I look at my watch: 3:07, an hour past my scheduled call time. I know he's still at the safe house. They're expecting me to pass the signal. I suck in a deep breath of humid air and release it slowly to ease the tight band across my shoulders and the drumming in my ears. I have to call. I insert another fat copper coin and dial. A pause. A click.., the coin drops through again. The phone is dead.
The Master Of Disguise. Copyright © by Antonio Mendez. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
Tony Mendez has written a spell-binding memoir of CIA secret operations and the
Agency's unsung heroes of the Cold War, among whom he was one of the most
imaginative and courageous. Put aside spy novels that bear no resemblance to
reality - here is a gripping portrayal of the real world of intelligence
operations by a man who was really there.
(Robert M. Gates, Former Director of Central Intelligence)
Tony is one of the officers of the Central Intelligence Agency who have dedicated their lives to the quiet service of their country. His experiences are part of the story, still mostly classified, of how the men and women of the CIA helped bring down the Berlin Wall and win the Cold War.
The story, of course, is a continuing one. Tony's colleagues and proteges are still at their quiet work, now against rogue states and terrorists, and are still making our country a safer place to live.
I am happy that Tony has been able to bring his story, and its lessons of service, to the public.
(Porter J. Goss, Chairman of the U. S. House of Representatives' Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence)