'Career spy' was master of his art

September 21, 1997


Staff Writer

You can call Antonio J. "Tony" Mendez a master of illusion. You can call him artist, magician and makeup man.

You can also call him a spy.

Mendez, 56, of Washington County, Md., is one of only 50 Central Intelligence Agency employees named "CIA Trailblazers" who were honored Thursday for their lasting contributions to the agency over its 50-year history.

The award was not the first for Mendez, who retired from the CIA six years ago after 25 years of service, much of it as an "espionage artist" plying the spy trade in some of the world's most volatile areas.


"Basically, I'm a career spy," Mendez said.

In 1980 Mendez won the agency's prestigious Intelligence Star for valor. The CIA says only that it was for Mendez' work in one of the agency's "highest profile and most successful operations."

The award came on the heels of a daring CIA operation in which six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy in Tehran were spirited out of that country. They had fled there during the capture of the American embassy on Nov. 4, 1979.

In his book "From the Shadows," former CIA Director Robert M. Gates said "a very brave CIA officer" armed with false identities for the six Americans used a commercial cover to enter Iran and, using techniques Gates thought should stay secret, managed to get the six out of the country.

Is Mendez that man? He won't say.

"Given the fact that Iran remains a terroristic threat in the world, I have no comment," he said.

Mendez was the expert sent by the CIA to disguise Carter administration official Hamilton Jordan during the same hostage crisis. Mendez said he was supposed to disguise Jordan so he could get by the media, and into negotiations with the Iranians, without being noticed.

"I did the makeup in the White House barbershop," Mendez said. "In that case, the press was the enemy." The disguise worked.

Mendez also said that on one occasion the president had to authorize his participation in a potentially dangerous mission, because of the risk involved. "Had I been caught and they found out I was a CIA guy, I would be executed," he said.

He didn't elaborate.

As the CIA knows, Mendez can keep a secret.

It was from relative obscurity that Mendez emerged to join the agency.

He grew up in Eureka, Nev., in "the loneliest spot on the loneliest road in the loneliest town in the United States," he said. His family moved to Denver when Mendez was a teen.

Mendez studied fine arts at the University of Colorado. He married his first wife Karen when he was 19, and after working as a plumber, and an illustrator for Martin Marietta, he applied for a job with the CIA, which was advertising for an artist.

Mendez said he applied for the job after a friend who answered the ad failed to pass a background check. Mendez "was clean enough" to get the job. He was 25.

"It was both a romantic and serious business," said Mendez of his work. First he learned how to counterfeit and forge - to create false documents. Eventually, he became an expert in the art of disguise. He spent seven years in Southeast Asia. "It was James Bond and the Old West in those days," he said. He also traveled to other areas of the world, including Moscow, where he plied his trade.

He met with foreign intelligence sources - the CIA calls them "foreign assets" - and with CIA officers. It was his job to keep them alive.

"If someone recruited by this government volunteers to work for us, it's my job to make sure they survive and stay as long as they can," Mendez said. "My job is to keep the water smooth. `Clandestine' is the operative word. The goal is to get into an area, get the information and get out, and they never know you did a thing."

"The job involves deception, stage management, the principles of magic as well as makeup and espionage. I'm an espionage artist."

Mendez said in his early years with the agency, disguise was a crude art. "We had to make it better," he said. To that end, Mendez got in touch with an award-winning Hollywood makeup artist who taught him and his colleagues the ins and outs of the business.

The first test came in 1971 when Mendez went to a safe site "in a small town in a small country" where he said a high-level "Kissinger-type" Asian official was passing information to a black CIA operations officer.

"The enemy was closing in. The perimeter was shrinking. Martial law and a curfew had been imposed," Mendez said. It was his job to get them out safely, past local security forces. He had to change the men into Caucasians and arm them with local diplomatic identification.

As it turned out, Mendez worked with basic masks of Victor Mature and Rex Harrison in making the identity change. The case officer ended up being a variation of Harrison, and the spy a variation of Mature, he said.

The trick was to get the spy to buy the disguise. Mendez made himself up to look like the spy would look. Then he sat in a corner of a room under a light, reading, while the spy and Mendez' colleague talked.

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