Masters of disguise teach students the art of deception

They made cameras out of lipstick tubes and suit jacket buttons, forged government documents and transformed men into women and women into men.

For the duration of career, until their names were released from the Central Intelligence Agency, Tony and Jonna Mendez could not tell a soul.

But on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in the School of Communication courtyard, Tony and Jonna Mendez, who each have about 30 years of experience at the Central Intelligece Agency, confided with students about the tricks of the trade in disguise and deception. Distinguished by the CIA as one of 50 trailblazers or leaders within the history of the agency, Tony Mendez spoke of accounts previously retold in his books, The Master of Disguise and Spy Dust, which he co-authored with his wife, Jonna Mendez. These books are suggested reading for new CIA recruits.

Tony Mendez revealed how an operation involving the creation of a fake Hollywood film scouting party rescued six U.S. Diplomats from Iran during the 444-day hostage crisis.

“Hollywood is eccentric and would go anywhere, no matter the political situation,” Tony Mendez said. “The plan was so crazy that we thought it just might work.”

Jonna Mendez, a former chief of Disguise Division, highlighted some common American habits that they had to train out of their officers before sending them out on missions.

“The way you eat, smoke and how you wear you wedding ring on your left hand all identify you as an American,” she said.

Jonna Mendez explained that Americans always stand on one leg and slouch, while most Europeans stand straight on both legs.

Also, when Americans are standing near a wall, a column or a structure, they always lean against it.

She also recommended that if one wants to blend in with the locals, one should shop for clothes in their local stores and wear their clothing.

Both mentioned that there is not really one academic track for someone interested in joining the CIA. Some traits that are helpful are language skills, a knack for logic and problem solving and most of all passion for the job and the country one serves.

Most of all, both Tony and Jonna Mendez stressed, working at the CIA is not for someone who needs a lot of feedback on job performance.

“You can save the world on Tuesday and get no applause,” Jonna Mendez said. “Only internal gratification, it rules out a whole lot of people who need a pat on the back.”

There was a large student turnout to the event, filling every chair available and forcing many into standing room only.

Some students appreciated the frankness of the speakers about a subject not generally talked about.

“Intelligence in America is an issue surrounded by a lot of hype and secrecy, and it was interesting to have an insider’s view of both the exciting and tedious parts of the job,” Sivan Goobich, a sophomore, said.

Elaine Fenna, a sophomore, was glad to hear an account of those working in the CIA and appreciated the speakers’ pragmatic approach.

“I am glad that I had the opportunity to hear a first hand account of the experience of working for the CIA, and of the extensive work required to execute overseas operations,” she said. “While they did confirm some aspects of the otherwise unbelievable accounts of the agency’s work, they also dispelled a lot of the mysticism that usually surrounds the intelligence community.”

The lecture was sponsored by the School of Business and the Intelligence Awareness Organization, a student organization on campus whose stated mission is the discussion and education of intelligence gathering and espionage.

IAO may be contacted at regarding upcoming events.

Shelley Rood may be contacted at

September 15, 2006


The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami

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