Thank you for all your questions! This AMA is now closed. Stay tuned for more from WIRED and with Jonna coming soon!

I'm Jonna Mendez and I am the CIA's former Chief of Disguise and am on the Advisory Board for the International Spy Museum. I am also co-author of Spy Dust and the forthcoming "Moscow Rules," with my husband, Tony, (who was the basis for the lead character in Argo!) I recently worked with WIRED on a video about How Spies Use Disguise and we got a lot of great responses, so we decided to do an AMA.


Comments: 2268 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

yes_its_him4528 karma

What do you really look like?

wiredmagazine7852 karma

Not sure I can answer this. Maybe I can say that I don’t look like I want to, but I left my tools in the CIA Disguise Labs. There is a mask back there that makes me look pretty wonderful, but they won’t let me have it anymore...

dance_seagull3460 karma

Can a disguise fool facial recognition AI used in public places?

wiredmagazine6484 karma

We were part of the process of the development of facial recognition. One of CIA’s directors, Bill Casey, asked Tony Mendez if we had facial recognition like in one of the Bond movies - Goldfinger I think. We did not. Casey said, “Well, let’s get on with it!” and to my knowledge that was the beginning of our participation. Facial recognition is based on multiple immovable points on a human face, things like the distance between the eyes, from outer corner of the eye to the outer corner of the mouth. How the ears are set. Things that are hard to alter. Hard, but not impossible. That is where it intersects with disguise. Facial Recognition is a terrific tool, but not foolproof.

_nakre2984 karma

Thanks for doing this. Do you ever wear a disguise in public just for grins? Also, what are some simple things a person could do if they wanted to disguise their appearance?

wiredmagazine3629 karma

I do not wear a disguise for fun. Wigs give me headaches!

randomized_botanist2960 karma

Do you think Clark Kent's glasses were an effective disguise? This leads me to a further question about the simplest way you could pull off an effective disguise.

wiredmagazine4145 karma

No. That was always the crazy part of the story. Glasses? Really? He took them off and became Superman? Lois didn’t realize that he was the hero, right in front of her. No. Glasses are useful in they break up the geometry of the face, can distract depending on the style (cat-eye with rhinestones anybody?) but by themselves they aren’t enough. In Clark Kent’s case, I think they were serving simply as a stand-in for the absence of the Superman costume.

rampant_cellotaping2931 karma

What are the greatest lengths you’ve gone to to disguise somebody?

wiredmagazine9721 karma

Well, we could stretch pretty far. We could turn men into women, but not just any man. Not a Marine, for instance! Not every man would let us put a wig on him...We could change ethnicity as well as gender. There are so many stories that it is hard to settle on one - but we did turn a 6’5” blonde Texan into a Pakistani wearing shalwar kameez and sandals made out of recycled tires, carrying a cigar into the lair of a terrorist at one part. That was as much an acting gig as it was a disguise operation - but it worked, to his credit. Nobody, including me, got shot!

wiredmagazine2600 karma

Hi, I’m Jonna, so excited to be here and getting ready to go. One more cup of coffee and we will take off. Looking forward to an interesting and fun discussion. Feel free to hit me with your questions!

riskymouth1739 karma

Can you tell us about a failed disguise operation in the field? Why did it fail?

wiredmagazine5819 karma

I can tell you a little about a failed operation - one that has always been stuck in my mind because I can’t really say exactly why it went wrong. I don’t know why. But it did, and it was in Moscow. One of our officers was using a disguise that I had helped prepare for him. It was a mask. Somewhere during that evening the operation went wrong and our officer had to abort. Part of that act was to remove his disguise and stash it somewhere nearby - like maybe under a rock. I don’t know. What I DO know is that the KGB found it, and that it is now on display in the KGB museum in Moscow - a place that, unfortunately, I cannot visit. I would love to see my work on display, even if it is these years later and even if it is probably slowly decaying. It was a lovely piece of work at the time...

rampant_cellotaping1555 karma

What is something that you would look for in someone’s features to uncover a disguise?

wiredmagazine4021 karma

I would start off by saying that if you walk by me on the street wearing a toupee, forget about it. I will see it and my head will turn as you pass by. Sorry, but it is a reflex. The world is full of bad toupees worn badly by well-meaning guys. A bad wig is almost as obvious to me. Other than the hairgoods, the other things that we routinely use are hard to put your finger on. The good disguises are undetectable. I did an operation against the FBI’s G’s, their surveillance team, in Washington, disguised as a man. I think that the fact that I was smoking a cigar the whole time clinched the deal, and they didn’t look much more closely than that. And that, of course, is the whole idea.

elightened-n-lost1399 karma

You mention making a mask for someone in an operation. I've got a Mission Impossible scene playing in my head now. Obviously you can't make the masks as fast as they can but for someone to be in public wearing one I'm assuming they must be pretty damn good. Are there any situations you wouldn't trust it to fool people? Like certain lighting or small groups of people you need to closely interact with?

wiredmagazine3346 karma

The masks are good enough that I was able to go to the White House and brief President George H.W. (bless him) Bush in the Oval Office without him or others recognizing it. That’s pretty good. The mask was a Semi-Animated Mask; we called it a SAM. It does not fully animate, it does not smile, but it talks. There are certain lighting conditions where you would want to be particularly careful. They are not perfect. But tremendously useful.

dbatchison1381 karma

Not a disguise question, but of all the gagets and gizmos housed in the spy museum, what's your favorite?

wiredmagazine3838 karma

This one is easy. A little, tiny camera that is on display at the Spy Museum alongside the Mont Blanc fountain pen that it lived in. The pen was a working concealment device, an “active” concealment in that it would write with one end and take photos with the other. The camera was a marvel of innovation, developed by a man named Paul Howe who worked in my old office - the Office of Technical Service at CIA. OTS was roughly equivalent to “Q” in the James Bond movies. Audio bugs, counterfeits, disguises, false documents, whatever you needed. And we needed this itty-bitty camera to photograph some of the most important intelligence collected during the Cold War. I worked on many of those cases, training the foreign agents, then developing and printing their work. Some of it went straight to the Oval Office. Imagine that!

CubeLifeDeskJob1164 karma

I saw the Wired video, and thought it was really cool!

But isn't your participation in that video giving away CIA secrets?

wiredmagazine2582 karma

Thanks for the compliment, but I have no intention of giving away CIA secrets. In fact, the CIA had a general idea of what I planned to discuss in that video. I don’t submit a “script,” and needless to say they have no idea where we are going to go in this conversation today. But I do know where the guardrails are and I always stay on the inside of those. We have just finished another book, due out in May and called “The Moscow Rules,” and that has just gone through an extensive CIA publication review. They barely touched it, I would add. It is possible to talk about these subjects without impacting on operational equities.

groceryliszt1137 karma

In regards to international spy assignments, you talk about the differences between Europeans and Americans (generally, how they hold cigarettes, use food utensils, and stand straight). Is there any other comparison between two types of people that is equally as compelling?

wiredmagazine2135 karma

More broadly, generalizing (and it is always a little dangerous to generalize) Americans are seen as a bit more casual in their dress on the street than other nationalities. Casual might be too soft a word. Sloppy? Nobody else seems to be wearing sweatpants and shirts on the streets. We are also thought to be loud, for instance you can identify the group of Americans in front of the tourist office by the noise that they make. We are not disparaged everywhere, but we do tend to stand out.

spinaltap540974 karma

How did your life/career experience lead you to the CIA?

wiredmagazine2158 karma

I believe that everything leading up to my life/career in the CIA was simply preparation for the real thing. I have difficulty separating my life from the work at CIA. This is true for a lot of my colleagues. Early on I found that the men in my office, upon retirement, had an average life-span of 18 months. Eighteen! Their work was their life, and most of them didn’t have outside interests. They literally lived their careers inside the CIA. We changed our retirement procedures to deal with this problem and it got better. Tony Mendez used to say that working at CIA was like drinking from a firehose and that retirement was like jumping from a moving train. True that!

wiredmagazine817 karma

Thank you for your questions! I had so much fun. Stay tuned for more spy content: at the International Spy Museum (SPY) located in Washington, DC (where I’m on the Advisory Board); in the upcoming project I’m working on with WIRED and SPY, and from my forthcoming book “The Moscow Rules” (set for May 21!).

Baetheon662 karma

What's your favorite disguise you've either worked on, or worn yourself?

wiredmagazine1561 karma

I was an African American female in red stilettos in Georgetown while training one of our officers who was getting ready to go overseas. And then it started raining, pouring down rain. I was stuck on a street corner waiting to be picked up by our surveillance team. I couldn’t go inside and couldn’t get out of the rain. Ruined those fabulous red shoes. But the officer received a training exercise that he wasn’t going to forget soon.

Tenacal638 karma

What was the most ridiculous looking disguise you put together that actually ended up fooling the target(s)?

wiredmagazine2036 karma

Well, the disguise here would be in that category perhaps. We worked on some disguises that unveiled themselves as you moved down the street, and Tony demonstrated one that was ridiculous but devastating at the same time. He began as a businessman in a coat and tie, wearing a raincoat, carrying a briefcase. As he walked down the street, in a crowd, he turned into an old lady wearing a purple coat with a shawl, wearing black Mary Jane shoes and black stockings, and the briefcase had miraculously turned into a grocery cart full of groceries. In broad daylight. That has to fit into your category, right? This is a scene in that new book mentioned earlier, The Moscow Rules. We did some outrageous things to fool KGB surveillance.

dance_seagull509 karma

Does anything like those full face masks from mission impossible actually exist - or a way to do a major appearance change instantly?

wiredmagazine1346 karma

Yes. But not like the ones in Mission Impossible. Those are faux full face masks as far as we are concerned. They have hours to apply, lots of time to remove, and a basket full of facial wipes and adhesive remover to get the star back to the starting place. Ours went on in seconds, off in seconds, instantly changing the officer. If you have watched the new Tom Cruise movie, Fallout, you will see a mask scene early on involving Wolf Blitzer. Watch closely. That is the excellent use of lights and camera angles. We had no such accoutrements...

sirpoopsicle491 karma

Thanks for doing this! I’m wondering if you have a family and did they know that you were working for the CIA the whole time? If they didn’t, how did they react when you came out to them?

wiredmagazine1515 karma

My father knew early on, and it was a mistake. He was so enamored about the fact that he was no good at keeping the secret. I always regretted that. The rest of my family - sisters and mom - knew and they both kept the secret and worried about me too. One of my best friends never knew, throughout over twenty years, and when she found out her feelings were hurt. She told me everything about her job; I told her only that my administrative job was so boring that we never discussed it. It was hard to make and keep friends outside of the agency for this reason.

oxpoleon416 karma

What are your favourite disguise shoes? I've heard that one way to spot a tail is that although they will often change their appearance through the use of layered clothing, and altering their silhouette, one common downfall is maintaining the same pair of shoes - because they are well-fitting, shoes can't be layered, and carrying extra shoes means significant additional bulk. What shoes get around this? What shoes are popular for field work?

wiredmagazine661 karma

This whole thing about shoes is true. Are you an undercover officer? Perhaps looking for a pair of more comfortable footwear? Sneakers are still the best, but they are not worn as widely around the world as they are here. Certainly not in urban environments, not in work places. The bit about following shoes is very true. Surveillance has difficulty changing shoes but our disguise folks were fairly ingenious in making fake shoe covers - at least for men. For women - not so much. Women are so picky about their shoes that they wouldn’t usually consider putting on anything that looked clumsy or unattractive.

nickXminaj403 karma

What was your most surreal moment on the job?

wiredmagazine1982 karma

There were many. I am thinking of being on the sub-continent in a safe-house, on the second floor, in a walk-in closet where I had set up a huge document copy operation complete with four high intensity flood lamps. It was so hot I was barefoot, wearing a tank top, shorts, and a headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes. Downstairs there was a meeting going on and I had been handed a huge manual that represented the next generation of armaments from a country we were very interested in. My job was to quietly copy the manual. The agent downstairs meeting with our officer could not know I was there. I backed into a light, however, while realigning the document, and burned the back of my arm pretty severely. I sweated and cried my way through the rest of the job, with the smell of sizzling flesh in the air, wondering if they were really paying me enough to do this job...

lazyqc368 karma

How much info about an operation would you get before working on the cover? Did you ever work with the same agent more than once?

wiredmagazine627 karma

Good question. You would get as much as you could. Sometimes the operations people wanted to give you only minimal info and it was our job to insist that we be told as much as possible. That was the only way to ensure that they got the support they really needed. Compartmentation was the problem here; there is a tendency to provide information in a very stingy manner. We called it requirement definition - almost a military concept. And yes, we worked with the same agents more than once, often. If it was a long term operation we might be called in over and over as the operation moved from city to city or country to country or as other elements changed. We would get to the point where we felt like some of the agents were almost family...

CaptCurmudgeon355 karma

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

wiredmagazine1201 karma

In Bangkok, on the Chao Phyra River, at my favorite hotel, looking at Wat Arun, planning my next visit to the Weekend Market.

TwatMobile292 karma

What can you tell us about the type of training disguisers go thru? It must be more than the physical mask; how do they train to actually embody their new identities?

wiredmagazine750 karma

Well, getting the materials together and doing a final fitting is just the beginning of issuing a disguise. The first time that you go out in public in disguise you feel foolish, maybe a little paranoid. Like people will notice. They won’t. So if we were here in the states we would send the officer down to our CIA headquarters cafeteria to have lunch. All their colleagues and friends would be there too, including their boss probably. Once they worked their way through the meal, our officers would have discovered that nobody was paying any attention to their disguise. They would usually come back with very positive reports and we would know that when they were overseas and needed to use their disguises, they would not hesitate. If we weren’t in the Headquarters building, I would send them out to a local store to buy me something, almost anything, and we would accomplish the confidence thing. Without this breaking in period, the disguises might just sit in the office safe and never be used.

wiredmagazine852 karma

One other thing: We would put the pieces together and then we had to make sure they were comfortable wearing them. If they were going to a “normal” place in the world, that would be enough. If, however, they were going to what we called denied areas - and Moscow was always a denied area - then more training would ensue. CIA had a series of surveillance teams for training purposes, and my office, the Office of Technical Service, had our own team. They would emulate the techniques used on the streets of Moscow. We would take our officers out to work against them, and then generally end up in a bar in downtown DC to debrief them. We would ask them how many surveillants they had seen that evening. They would say - maybe five or six. Then the team would start coming in, moving tables together, ordering a couple of pitchers of beer. Up to 20-30 members would end up critiquing our officers on their demeanor, etc. THEN, they could board the plane for Moscow.

PaulaNancyMillstoneJ241 karma

How do you fit a disguise to the right person? Or the right person to a disguise?

wiredmagazine435 karma

This goes back to a previous question. Requirement definition would ensure that you understood just who the disguise was being made for. Who were you trying to fool. And for how long? Where would it be used? It all came together when you were choosing materials. A real hair wig or a kanekalon fiber? Real facial hair or a glued on goatee or moustache? A spray on tanning material or just plain old makeup. Temperature, humidity, environment all played a role.

melocoh240 karma

Hi Jonna. I really enjoyed the Wired video. How did you get into this profession? What type of qualification / education do the CIA look for when hiring people to make and apply the disguise?

wiredmagazine426 karma

I sort of hit on this answer earlier in this session. There are many job categories at CIA - analyst, admin, operations, technical. For the operations jobs they are looking for problem solvers, an adventurous spirit, someone interested in the world and its events, someone with a curiosity about that world, someone with strong inter-personal skills. There are lots of things that can be taught - languages, area knowledge, technical skills. But the applicant has to bring those character traits with him when he walks through the door.

driplikewater216 karma

What's a crazy close call that happened due to an oversight in the disguise you implemented on your subject?

wiredmagazine392 karma

Not sure that I can answer this. I don’t mean to imply that there were no mistakes made, but unless they were major or embedded in our process, we might not have heard back about it. There was always a mountain of operations, a torrent, and we did not hear back on small things. Large things, of course. Sorry I can’t come up with an example.

Enantiomorph193 karma

What feature when altered changes a person's appearance the most drastically?

wiredmagazine553 karma

The facial oval is not the only thing involved in disguise. A unique walk (I have one!), “busy hands” that are uniquely yours, poor posture, those kinds of things have to be evaluated and changed if required. A walk can be changed by a small piece of gravel in one shoe, busy hands can be quieted by holding something - a pipe, a set of keys, anything, and poor posture can be addressed with orthopedic back braces. Those are only three things that quickly come to mind that we would deal with. People who know me can see me a block away, no matter what disguise I might be wearing, and call out “Hey, Jonna!” because they recognize my walk.

spinaltap540184 karma

What's it like to be married to Ben Affleck?

wiredmagazine543 karma

Do I wish I knew? Not really. My husband, Tony Mendez, told Ben Affleck at the time of the filming of ARGO that he (Ben) was not good looking enough to play him (Tony Mendez). It got a good laugh, but I’m not sure my husband was kidding. Ben was terrific to work with and to partner with at PR events and dealing with the press. I follow his exploits in the press. I think I would rather be married to Tony Mendez, but it was pretty nice to receive (multiple) hugs from Ben every time we met. I am hoping he has another chance to do another great movie like ARGO.

mizmaddy169 karma

Love the International Spy Museum and their podcast!

Do you ever feel like a magician ? Little plaster-chango and bam! Disguise !

wiredmagazine239 karma

I wish I did. Love magicians. Love their “tricks”. Love the people behind those tricks, the ones who build them. Or explain them as Jim Steinmeyer does in his books. Or the Magic Castle where you can watch them close up. Maybe I am a magician wanna-be...

rampant_cellotaping159 karma

How long does it take to adequately disguise someone?

wiredmagazine276 karma

It depends. You generally want an initial meeting to size up the individual and decide what you want to prepare. That’s when you can do measurements, color matches, clothing sizes, etc. A second meeting is usually weeks later for a final fitting of everything that you have put together in the disguise labs. It can be done faster, but that is a typical schedule.

Stradke132 karma

Was there any point in your carrier that due to a situation that occurred during a mission, you changed ways on how you made disguises/personas? I hesitate asking the question because you probably have but can’t tell us. So maybe one you learned from a predecessor or colleague. Example being changing from using masking tape instead of scotch tape because one is more sticky

wiredmagazine345 karma

There is always room for a better adhesive for those moustaches...

cynikalAhole99119 karma

any hollywood movies get their disguise attempts 'right' or was it too overdone? one of my kids likes spy movies and disguises - any tips on effective 'kid friendly/fun' disguises? TIA

wiredmagazine246 karma

We are working with WIRED on just this question, but not ready to discuss just yet. Frankly I don’t watch enough movies to respond to your question, but in general I would say that Hollywood can do anything they want and do it very well because their medium allows for thoughtful presentation of their final product. A lot of our disguise technology came out of Hollywood, and the great John Chambers (the first Oscar for makeup was presented to him for Planet of the Apes!) was instrumental in leading us to some of the materials that they use. But their use was markedly different. It didn’t have to go on fast, it didn’t have to come off clean, and it didn’t have to be done in seconds. They had all day, and they often took all day. And when you see it on the screen it is incredible. I will refer you to “Fallout” again.

onrocketfalls92 karma

What are you most proud of in regards to your career?

wiredmagazine347 karma

This ability to speak out and undemonize the agency.

snipern185 karma

What was the biggest change in disguise design during your period as Chief of Disguise?

wiredmagazine158 karma

The development and use of our animated masks was a huge sea change in our ability to quickly and radically change a person’s appearance.

Rexcorso63 karma

What's your best advice to someone who wants to become a spy but feels like they made some mistakes in life? Is it ever too late to be a spy? I'm going back to school at 28 years old hoping to gain the skills to be a modern James McParland (Cyber style).

wiredmagazine180 karma

Well, for an operations officer I believe that the cut-off age is 32. So it is not too late. CIA would rather see you after you have had some life experiences, maybe traveled the world, had an adventure or two, speak a foreign language? If you show up at their door fresh out of college they might send you away to accomplish something and then come back and reapply. Drugs are an issue, as is any police record. Otherwise, go for it! If you are looking for a position that is not a case officer, that 32 year sell-by date does not apply.

A_Feathered_Raptor32 karma

Pineapple in cheeseburgers. Yay or nay?

wiredmagazine82 karma

No. But bacon, onions, etc. - Sure!

yoloGolf1 karma

Are you really a woman or is that a disguise?

wiredmagazine6 karma

When Tony and I used to speak frequently to large groups we always played a game that I was him and that he was me. We stopped doing that when we realized that some people believed us.