CIA seal in entrance of the CIA headquarters lobby.

All warfare is based on deception.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is famous for its use of disguises, which allow the protagonists to impersonate anyone they want. However, how realistic are they? In actuality, the technology is not as far-fetched as it seems. In fact, some of the techniques used in the movies are based on real-life methods of disguise and deception.

Photo of Steven Hill as Dan Briggs and Martin Landau as master of disguise Rollin Hand from the 1966 premiere of the television program Mission: Impossible.

Master of Disguise Jonna Mendez

Jonna Mendez (née Hiestand) is a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intelligence officer who served for 27 years and became the Chief of Disguise in the Office of Technical Service (OTS), the division that provides technical support and innovations for espionage operations. The OTS is a branch of the CIA’s Directorate of Science & Technology (DS&T), which was created on 5 August 1963, by then Director of Central Intelligence John McCone. She was responsible for creating and implementing disguises, identity transformations, and clandestine imaging for CIA operatives around the world, especially in denied areas where surveillance and counterintelligence were intense

She was born in 1945 in Campbellsville, Kentucky. She finished high school in Wichita, Kansas in 1963 and pursued higher education at Wichita State. She then moved to Frankfurt to work for Chase Manhattan Bank. She was recruited by the CIA in 1966, where she initially worked as a secretary. The CIA quickly recognized her potential and sent her to its 9,000-acre covert training facility, “the Farm”, in Virginia where she learned the craft of espionage photography.

Tessina camera in a cigarette pack. Concealing devices was an important part of gathering intelligence, especially in everyday objects like this cigarette pack. Photo: Central Intelligence Agency

She worked in some of the most difficult and hostile areas, such as Moscow, East Germany, and Cuba, where she had to outsmart the formidable adversaries of the KGB, the Stasi and the DGI. As Photo Operations Officer taught CIA’s most highly placed foreign assets on the techniques. She was one of the few selected for a year-long leadership development program in 1982 and was promoted to Deputy Chief of Disguise in 1988 and Chief of Disguise in 1991. During her tenure as Chief of Disguise, she met with President George H.W. Bush in a mask disguise, which she removed in the meeting to demonstrate the effectiveness of the art of disguise.

She retired in 1993 and was awarded the CIA’s Commendation Medal for her service, The Commendation Medal is awarded by the CIA for “the performance of especially commendable service or for an act or achievement significantly above normal duties which results in an important contribution to the mission of the Agency.”

She has co-authored several books with her late husband Tony Mendez, who was also a CIA officer and a master of disguise, most famously known for his role in the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1980, which was depicted in the movie Argo. Jonna Mendez is an expert in the art and science of espionage and disguise, and has demonstrated her techniques in various media outlets, such as WIRED and Atlas Obscura. She also serves on the board of directors for the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, where some of her disguises and spy gadgets are displayed.

CIA disguise kit. Not all CIA officers get disguises but there are times when disguises must be employed. Photo: Central Intelligence Agency.

She met Tony Mendez while they were both assigned to Bangkok in 1989. They were working on a project to create new identities for two Soviet defectors who had been exposed by Aldrich Ames, a CIA mole who spied for the KGB. They had to transform the appearance, voice, mannerisms, and background of the defectors to protect them from assassination by the KGB. They also had to train them how to live under their new identities in America.

To create new identities for the defectors, Jonna and Tony Mendez used a combination of disguise techniques and forged documents. They coached the defectors on how to memorize their new details and how to behave convincingly as their new selves and how to avoid detection.

Jonna Mendez is a remarkable woman who contributed greatly to the history and art of espionage.


The Master of Disguise Jonna Mendez Official Site

CIA Museum

International Spy Museum

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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