The weather has allowed me to spend some time reading today. I completed Antonio Mendez’ “The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA”. Mendez, operating under an alias, was the CIA operative whose task was to exfiltrate the six American diplomats who were hiding out with the Canadian ambassador in Tehran in 1979, and whose success was the focus of the recent movie “Argo”, which we saw a few weeks ago.
Putting aside what I thought was hubris and arrogance, Mendez (through co-writer Malcolm McConnell, I assume) tells a fascinating story of a young man from Nevada (he was born two years before me), a natural artist, who applies for and gets a job with the CIA as a graphic artist (working on creating false identity papers, passports, visas, etc), and then graduating to disguises (used, for one thing, to sneak people out of countries where their identity needs to be protected), and finally getting involved in exfiltrations, as he received promotions in the agency, and several rewards.
His memoir, authorized by the CIA, goes through his career, and discusses several of the activities he was involved with. He starts with situations where he was one of a team putting together fake documents for agents and contacts to get in and out of countries under false identifications. He then goes into the need for fake identifications beyond the paper documents for those whose faces would otherwise be familiar to local intelligence officials. This means disguises, and he hints not only that the CIA is able to provide disguises that can change the identity of an individual totally – change ages, change ethnicities, change genders. And these disguises can be accessed quickly – in a matter of seconds, it would appear (can that really be right?). He gives two examples of the use of disguises – one in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, before the current capabilities were reached, and one in Tehran, where a former ally of the Shah who worked for the CIA had to be taken out of the country.
His discussion of the USSR is fascinating. Because of the internal spying system endemic in the USSR, there were so many trained agents that our ability to gather intelligence was very difficult. According to Mendez, it was much easier for the Soviets to spy in America, than for the United States to spy in Russia. No surprise there, and whenever there was any indication of Soviet citizens working for the CIA, and individuals arrested for such activity, not only was the treatment of the CIA agents who were caught very harsh (torture before execution), but it led to the Soviets tightening internal controls that much more, making intelligence gathering even more difficult. Mendez gives examples of Soviets working for the CIA and their fates, and tells the story of when he and one other senior agent were sent to the USSR for the sole purpose of gathering intelligence on how internal intelligence was working in the Soviet Union to help the United States better instruct and train future agents. Because the two Americans were well known in the spy community, this was another example of the use of disguise, as Mendez went to the Soviet Union completely in cognito.
As to Argo, it was interesting to see the similarities and differences from the film. There were some differences, to be sure, but although I usually object to the rewriting of history, in this case I don’t seem to be as concerned. For one thing, in the movie, the six Americans were all housed in the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran – in reality, the six were housed in two separate Canadian diplomats’ homes. Secondly, when Mendez thought of the possibility of creating a false film production company and he called his Hollywood contact, the contact suggested Argo, because it was a film that had already planned to be made, but had lost its financing. The film cartoons, for example, which played an important role in the movie, were not made by the imaginary film company, but already existed. Third, there is nothing in the book about the plan being called off, and the airline tickets cancelled, before being restored at the very last minute, as in the film. Finally, and importantly, when the six Americans escaped, everything was a little different than portrayed in “Argo” – the six were fully disguised, as their faces were known to Iranian authorities. Why this particular facet of the escape was ignored in the film, I am not sure. (I write this simply comparing the book and the film – whether in fact the film was closer to reality than it appears to me because there were certain items in the book that were not accurate, I don’t know).
I recommend the book not because of its literary quality, but because it gives you a picture of how a portion of the CIA’s operations have been carried out, which is absolutely fascinating.