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Former CIA agent talks about years as disguise expert

December 04, 2005|By MARIE GILBERT

marieg@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Antonio Mendez is an artist. Working from his studio in rural Washington County, he creates paintings that sell for thousands of dollars and are featured in galleries and permanent collections around the world.

But for 25 years, Mendez set aside his paints and canvases for another form of art - the art of deception.

Mendez is a retired officer with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Over those 25 years, Mendez worked his way up the CIA ladder - from the forgery unit, where he altered documents, to head of the espionage agency's division of disguise, with a rank equal to that of a two-star general.

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Mendez created some of the CIA's most elaborate, but secretive ploys, scams and masquerades intended to fool foreign agents and enemy surveillance teams.

And, along the way, he earned the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit, as well as the Intelligence Star and two Certificates of Distinction.

But no one knew this soft-spoken artist was working as a spy - until 1997, when the CIA turned 50.

"Then, the agency did something it never did," Mendez said. "They hired a publicist, who decided the CIA should celebrate its anniversary by paying tribute to 50 people who helped shape its history. I ended up on the list."

So after years of not talking about his job, his lips were unsealed.

"It's a little scary to spend your whole life lying about what you do for a living, and then going out and talking to the media," Mendez said. "Now, my story is out there."

Mendez shared highlights of his career Saturday afternoon during a series of lectures at Discovery Station.

"People think they know about the CIA," Mendez said. "But 90 percent of what the CIA does is not out there - and that's a good thing. We were always told you don't celebrate your successes or explain your failures."

Mendez said he became involved with the CIA quite innocently.

"In 1965, I was an artist-illustrator working for an aerospace company in Denver," he said. "I illustrated electronic devices for missiles."

One day, he saw an ad in The Denver Post seeking artists to work overseas with the U.S. Navy.

"I sent my rsum to a P.O. box number, and within a couple of weeks I was in a motel room with the curtains drawn talking to a Sam Spade character, who announced, 'Son, this isn't the Navy,'" Mendez said.

Several months later, Mendez landed a job in the art department of the CIA's technical services division in Washington, D.C.

"It was clear they wanted someone to counterfeit and forge documents," Mendez said.

Forgery, he learned, was important in the spy world, where agents needed to build new identities for themselves or recruits through identification cards and travel documents.

Step by step, Mendez learned his trade and learned it well. Twenty months later, he and his family moved to the Far East, where they stayed for seven years while Mendez worked in the CIA's technical operations in Southeast Asia.

"It was during the Vietnam War and this was where the action was," Mendez said. "There was the hot war in Vietnam, a secret war in Laos and I was also operating in the alleyways of India, where the Russians were our true adversary."

Mendez's specialty was exfiltration, where persons in danger are taken to safety. And techniques of disguise became an important tool in these undertakings.

"I learned how to assemble and disassemble an identity," he said.

By 1974, Mendez had been promoted to chief of disguise and returned to the United States.

"I didn't want to come back," Mendez said. "I enjoyed being out in the field. But two years later, I was working in Moscow and then one of the more famous operations took place - the Iranian revolution in 1979."

That year, Iranian extremists held between 50 and 60 Americans hostages at the American Embassy in Iran.

"We soon learned that six U.S. employees had escaped and were hiding out in the Canadian Embassy," Mendez said. "Our mission was to get them out of the country and safely home. But how could we do that?"

The wheels of creativity started turning. Mendez decided to create a fake movie production company. He found office space in Los Angeles, made up business cards, took out ads in Hollywood trade papers and spread the word that his company would be traveling to Iran to scout locations for an upcoming movie.

After contacting the Canadian government for assistance, Mendez flew to Iran with six fake Canadian passports and a plan. He disguised the Americans as Canadian filmmakers, script writers and consultants - the ruse working to get them out of the country. For his work, he received the CIA's International Star for Valor from President Carter.

In November 1990, Mendez decided to leave espionage.

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