Sprinkling a little "Spy Dust"

October 14, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Early Wednesday morning, Tony Mendez was taking out the garbage.

He lives with his wife and family off a long dirt lane in southern Washington County's Pleasant Valley.

You'd never know they just came back from a coast-to-coast book tour.

Sipping coffee in the kitchen they are remodeling, Jonna and Antonio "Tony" Mendez talk about their book, a story that reads like a spy novel.

There's intrigue, romance and gadgets that would make Maxwell Smart proud.

But the book is non-fiction. The story is true.

"Or at least as true as we can write it," says the couple, both of whom were employed by the Central Intelligence Agency.


The book, written in collaboration with Bruce Henderson, had to be reviewed and approved by the CIA before it could be published. Some of the details of the "secret history of history" were "blurred" so that continuing intelligence efforts would not be jeopardized.

Spy dust - the real thing - is an invisible electromagnetic powder that the KGB used to keep tabs on anyone the powder touches.

How did the pair get in the Central Intelligence Agency? You sort of have to read the book.

In 1966, Tony Mendez answered an ad in the Denver Post to work overseas with the U.S. Navy. Mendez, 25, went to a motel for his interview with a man who turned out to be a CIA recruiter. "You know, son, this is not the Navy," the recruiter told the artist-illustrator, a family man with three children.

Like most Americans, Tony Mendez didn't know much about the CIA. He got some books from the library and learned that a job in CIA Technical Services would mean creating false documents, false identities. He created some samples, including watercolors of Bulgarian stamps, and got the job.

On the other side of the world, same year, Jonna was working as a secretary for an American bank in Europe and noticed a group of "fun people" her age.

"Gee, who are those guys?" she wondered. She found out they worked for the CIA. She married one of them - not Tony - and hired on with the agency.

"I was a really good secretary, but it was boring," she says.

Jonna's boss in the Office of Technical Services, the technical branch of the CIA's Clandestine Service, suggested that Jonna get into photography with the agency. She did, spending a lot of time training people how to use the CIA's amazing camera equipment - tiny cameras used to secretly photograph the stuff of espionage.

Tony Mendez worked his way up to the title of Chief of Disguise for the CIA and earned the agency's Intelligence Star for his role in engineering the escape of six Americans from Iran in 1980. He also was named one of the 50 "all-time stars" of the spy trade, honored with the Trailblazer Award on the CIA's 50th anniversary.

"Spy Dust" tells the story of Cold War espionage in the voices of these two people who were there. There are climactic scenes at the Bolshoi Ballet and under the streets of Moscow.

The book also tells the story of the couple's relationship - from professional respect to friendship, to love.

"We think every married couple should write their love story," Jonna Mendez says.

Tony Mendez published his first book, "The Master of Disguise" in 1999 at the request of the CIA. The agency wanted to tell the story of the Iran rescue.

The couple launched their "Spy Dust" book tour at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. They have been involved in the museum's planning and design and are members of its advisory board. They've been to California, Seattle, Portland, New York, Baltimore and Annapolis. Former colleagues are reading the book, trying to figure out who some of the characters are in real life.

"It's a great way to pass on lessons learned," Tony Mendez says.

Jonna Mendez says she joined the CIA because it was convenient. "I stayed because it's fascinating," she says.

She had another reason for maintaining a 27-year career in espionage. "One person can make a genuine difference," she says.

Tony Mendez left the CIA in 1990, Jonna Mendez in 1993, a few months after the birth of their son Jesse, to whom the book is dedicated.

Although many CIA retirees have trouble adjusting to life without the adrenaline of espionage, Tony Mendez is fulfilling a lifelong dream of full-time painting.

Jonna Mendez parlayed her technical photography skills into art. Flowers are her frequent subjects, answering her question of what she would photograph instead of brilliant and exotic faces and colors of faraway places.

If you go

"Spy Dust" booksigning

Saturday, Oct. 19, 6 to 8 p.m.

Washington County Arts Council Gallery

41 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown

For information, call 301-791-3132.

Antonio and Jonna Mendez will sign copies of their book, in which the two "masters of disguise" reveal the tools and operations that helped win the Cold War.

Oil paintings by Antonio Mendez and photographs by Jonna Mendez will be on display in the gallery.

Also on Saturday, Oct.19, at the Arts Council Gallery, there will be a preview of an exhibit of "New Works by Jeff Bohlander."

Meet the artist at the exhibit's opening reception Sunday, Oct. 20, 2 to 4 p.m.

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