Go to Homepage   Antonio J. Mendez with Malcolm McConnell, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA

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Four moon gifWilliam Morrow (Hardcover), ISBN 0688163025
November 4, 1979, Tehran, Iran. Militant Iranian students storm the U. S. Embassy with Ayatollah Khomeini's blessing. The students abduct and hold hostage American diplomats. Six Americans escape, however, finding asylum in Canadian diplomats' homes. After three months, discovery appears imminent. Antonio J. Mendez flies into Tehran with orders to get the Americans out -- "exfiltrate" them. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, Mendez provides the fugitives with new identities through make-up, counterfeit foreign documents, accessories and "pocket litter."  

Book: Antonio J. Mendez, The Master of DisguiseIn his autobiography, Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, Mendez reveals how he spirited the Americans through the Tehran airport and onto a Swiss flight to freedom. This operation blends humor (the cover story for the six) and suspense (waiting in an airport filled with Revolutionary Guards). This reviewer could not stop reading until the episode ended.  

Mendez spent 25 years with the CIA, beginning in the forgery unit and rising to head of the Disguise Division (equivalent to a two-star general). In 1997, Mendez received the "Trailblazer Award" as one of fifty agents chosen to commemorate the CIA's 50th Anniversary. 

Mendez created new personas for his subjects and even himself. He developed innovative and sophisticated make-up and face-mask techniques. Over his career, Mendez worked in Vietnam, Laos, Iran, the Soviet Union and other hostile locales -- his own life often in danger -- using his skills to rescue agents, informers and defectors and duping foreign spies. 

For many years, this reviewer read only biographies and non-fiction, preferring the real to the invented. Mendez's autobiography rekindled this feeling. Mendez's account of his first "exfil" of a high-ranking KGB officer, "NESTOR," contains the suspense and thrills of the best spy stories. The defector, Mendez and his CIA colleagues eluded the Soviets' massive manhunt, including stories and photographs in newspapers nationwide about the "missing" man. The rescue demanded intricate stratagems and a masterpiece of disguise. Finally, the operation's entire success hinged on the defector's bluffing at airport security.  

The NESTOR story also includes a voluptuous nightclub singer attempting to seduce Mendez, an unexpected locked gate and the telephone call to report success. The tension builds as the story progresses. See if you can put the book down. This reviewer couldn't. 

A caveat. Mr. Mendez explains that under U. S. law, the CIA Publication Review Board scrutinizes everything agents say and/or write publicly. If the review board finds classified and/or sensitive information, it may eliminate this material from the publication. 

In addition, Mr. Mendez wrote this book in conjunction with the CIA's 50th Anniversary. On the whole, his book extols CIA and United States action in clandestine operations. The Master of Disguise represents one man's (and a former agent's) view of the CIA and its role in the global balance of power. How the reader responds to this work will depend on his or her own political beliefs about United States foreign intelligence policy and the agency implementing it.  

Lynn I. Miller


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