Spying lifts its cover

Museum: A for-profit venture contains artifacts and exhibits from the world of espionage.

July 25, 2002|By Phil Patton | Phil Patton,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - "We were Q," said Jonna Mendez, a former chief of disguise for the Central Intelligence Agency, referring to the fictional British technical expert who came up with whiz-bang gadgets for 007.

Mrs. Mendez and her husband, Antonio J. Mendez, are alumni of the CIA Office of Technical Affairs. At what they sometimes call "the Magic Kingdom," they devised gadgets, bogus documents and disguises.

But unlike Q, who simply handed the gadgets over to James Bond, "we weren't just going to let James break some million-dollar device," Mrs. Mendez said. "We went along with James to be sure he knew how to use it."

Lately the Mendezes have been playing a new role: They helped design the newly opened $40 million International Spy Museum in Washington, at 800 F St. NW, a few blocks from the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters.

The museum, a for-profit venture developed by some of the founders of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, contains artifacts, many drawn from the collection of the military historian H. Keith Melton, along with interactive installations and multimedia exhibits.

Devices on display

The devices include an overcoat with a camera lens in one of its buttons, tripped with a pocket shutter. "If you visited Moscow before the end of the Cold War you were probably photographed with one of these," Melton said.

Other equipment includes a single-shot pistol housed in a lipstick tube and known as the "Kiss of Death," an exploding tree stump and an 18th-century code-breaking wheel of the type used by Thomas Jefferson. There is also an Aston Martin DB5 resembling the car driven by James Bond in Goldfinger. (It does not, however, have a working ejection seat or generate smoke.)

And though the museum has no official connection with the CIA or other intelligence agencies, the CIA, seeking to burnish its image, has been informally helpful. Members of the museum's advisory board include the Mendezes, Melton, the former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster, and Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB general renowned for organizing the elimination of a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella. (Last month, Kalugin, who now works for a counterintelligence research group in Northern Virginia, was convicted of treason in absentia for revealing Soviet state secrets in his 1994 autobiography. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.)

The Mendezes advised a team of professional designers on exhibits. Making the private world of espionage public means showing how much of it is like theater, they say. "The best spy is an actor," Mr. Mendez once wrote.

He has even designed a disguise kit to be sold in the museum shop, though it is not likely to be as elaborate as the disguise technology he helped develop for the CIA in collaboration with Hollywood makeup masters. One method - code-named Dagger - lets a spy don a paper-thin mask in minutes, without help. The method is still classified, but from Mr. Mendez's accounts it sounds a lot like the peel-off latex mask used by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2.

More than a decade after they thought they had abandoned the clandestine world for a quiet life on a 40-acre farm in the mountains of western Virginia, the Mendezes have surprisingly found themselves in the middle of a second career. His first book, The Master of Disguise, was published in 1999. The couple collaborated on the book Spy Dust, due out this fall. They are also technical advisers to the CBS television show The Agency, about the CIA.

He has a mustache and she is several inches taller. One can't help thinking of, yes, Boris and Natasha from Bullwinkle.

During her years with the CIA, Mrs. Mendez worked with pinhole cameras and facial disguises. She once visited the first President Bush in disguise, then stripped off her false face right in the Oval Office to demonstrate the state of the disguise art for the startled president. "I made myself younger and considerably prettier and gave myself the hair I always wanted," she said.

Adventure in Iran

Mr. Mendez managed intelligence operations in Moscow and in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The highlight of his 30-year career came in 1979 when he smuggled or, as he put it, exfiltrated, six U.S. Embassy employees out of Iran during the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. The legend, or cover story, he created depicted those staff members as part of a film production unit seeking locations. To make the film seem real, Mr. Mendez even bought ads in Variety.

Mr. Mendez met Jonna Heistand, who was to become his wife, during an operation in Bangkok. She later succeeded him as chief of disguise. He retired in 1990, they married in 1991, and she retired the next year. Both had little to do with the agency until 1997, when a FedEx envelope brought Mr. Mendez the news that he had been chosen one of 50 trailblazers honored as part of the agency's 50th anniversary celebration. "They made Tony a kind of poster boy," Mrs. Mendez said.

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