THE MASTER OF DISGUISE--MY SECRET LIFE IN THE CIA

THE MASTER OF DISGUISE--MY SECRET LIFE IN THE CIA

Intelligence in Recent Public Literature The Master of By Disguise: My Antonio Mendez. New York Reviewed by Jim City: William Secret Life in ...

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A TROUBLING FEATURE OF THE COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS INI-. TIATIVE (CCSSI) FOR EN GLISH LANGUAGE ARTS (ELA) IS ITS FAI

Intelligence

in Recent Public Literature

The Master of By

Disguise: My

Antonio Mendez. New York

Reviewed

by

Jim

City: William

Secret Life in the CIA

Morrow and

Company, 1999. 351

pages.

Steinmeyer

Magicians love gimmicks. In fact, I think it is this admiration for contraptionsfor tricky pieces of apparatus that do this when you push thatwhich often attracts people to the field of conjuring. The best magicians come to understand that these gimmicks are mere tools for the presentation. Illusion, not mere gimmicks, must he present in any real magic performance. The way a great magician comes to under stand his or her environment and subtly crafts the illusions is worthy of swdy. The current trend in magic, which a friend of mine calls jazz magic, is a celebration of and ability, ingenuity, improvisation. Decades ago the renosvned sleight-of-hand magician Dai Vernon called this The Trick that Cannot Be Explained, a thrilling, seat-of-your-pants technique, in which gimmicks were damned and the whims of the spectators, the experience of the performer, coincidences, and opportunities were all smoothly blended into a performance. Jazz indeeddangerous jazzbut still just a magic trick. The jazz is

never more

dangerous,

the

potential

melodies

never

sweeter, than the

operations and deceptions outlined in Antonio Mendezs remarkable book, The Master of Disguise. The master of disguise is, in fact, a master of deception, and Mendezs true stories of his CIA operations are inspiring lessons in illusion. It should not be a surprise that Mendez is something of an amateur magician. More to the point, lie has taken examples from such trickery, and applied the principles like a masterful conjurer. a boy, Mendez had a natural fascination with the clandestine. He was, like many boy, deceitful enough to sell yesterdays papers to passengers on the train. He was also clever enough to carry one copy of that days edition, which made his siack of papers look more authentic and, if caught red-handed, gave him a quick ow. In his later career, this would he called plausible deniahility, but it was based in standard magic. He had studied a 1905 book of do-it-yourself wonders called The Boy Mechanic. He was in good company. That book, just a kids collection of projects and tricks, was the inspiration for many aspiring magicians and provided the blueprints that were later assembled into the special effects of Walt Disneys

As a

I-Taunted

Mansion

attraction.

At the

CIA, Mendezs early lessons in surveillance were lessons in deception. The of watching closely gives certain opportunities for illusion. Magicians have understood this for many years. That is the basic explanation for generations of phony psychics who have achieved success by fooling the scientists determined to very

act

watch them

closely.

Scientists, of course, have been

taught

to

think in certain ways,

JUn Steinmeyer is the inventor of illusions used by leading magicians and in Broadway shows, and the author of numerous books on magic and historical illusions.

67

Book Reviews

deceiving them

and

has been

notoriously for

easy.

Similarly.

Mendez learned

to

appre

think like the

learning watching opportunities mysterious man trailing him. His later mastery of gimmicksin his case innovative disguisesnever replaced his understanding of the bigger picture Magicians call it presentation An early co-worker explained it to him: A disguise is only a tool, Tony. Befcire you use any tradecraft tool, you have to set up the operation for the deception. In fact, CIA agents who did not want to fuss with such things often greeted disguises with suspicion An important part of Mendezs job was to sell ciate each situation,

these skills

to

to

and

his co-workers.

magician must understand his audience, Mendezs balancing of cultures and expectations. An eastern culture Just

as a

misshapen person clearly dropwas smeared with messy motor successful illusions could depend on dozens

look

of

a

I-lb

in the eye. A tin

a

dead

can

~vork involved would find

filled with

oil. Who would

it

constant

difficult

to

informationpart want to pick it up?

of these subtle, natural tendencies.

challenge. the spotlight that magicians their hands by watching dread. Sleight-of-hand artists refer to audiences burning Moscows constant surveillance, listening, so closely that maneuvers are impossible. watching. and trailing, left barely any room for intelligence gathering Parts of Men dezs cloak operations in Moscow were the ultimate examples of understanding the audience. KGB officers were in trouble if they lost track of a CIA operative they \ere following. By giving the impression that the tail was successful, by keeping them comfortable, operatives gained precious moments to accomplish their goals. If the KGB was burning Mendez, he had to deceive them into thinking that they as a magicians concedes, you were doing their job perfectlyjust got me, buddy, and then waits for the audience to drop its guard For Mendez, his diligent work seems to have gotten him into trouble, and he may have been slipped a dose of poison in an exclusive Russian club. He caught the action, avoided the trap, and left In Moscow. Mendez found

the ultimate

the country

emphasizes not only the philosophy of his jol) but also the misconceptions. We may long have suspected that the spy business never involved freewheeling James Bonds, with souped up sports cars, martinis with exploding olives, and swizzle sticks with radio transmitters. That is just in the movies. The reality, however, can he even harder to imagine. Spying can involve being bent over a desk in a steamy room in Indochina for IS hours a clay, day after day. fidgeting and adjusting the latest forged papers. In The Master

of Disguise,

Mendez

fascinating aspects of this firsthand account is its hint at the levels of bureaucracy and politics involved in any operation It is often easy to forget that even the most gritty operations are tied to the big picture of the CIA, where person nel changes and political trade \\inds can rattle the case officers in the trenches The Shah of Iran, Alas/er oJDisgzitse reminds us of how the storms on the surfacethe felt under the layers of bureau Watergate, Aldridge Ames, pe;-estrotkacoulcl he object of Pinball cracy. Menclez came to call the political process ~}~inl)all~The there table as long as possible and keep it was to place the ball ~rour idea) on the One of the

68

most

Book Reviews

how

to see

ously. youd about

Back at Headquarters, competing for a score you could rack up and technical resources was, in fact, a game. If you took it too seri tighten up and lose. In films, the master spies do not have to worry

high

budget, staff,

budgets.

Mendez reminds

are

that the real world

is quite different.

expert at documents, disguises, and procedures under his acquired the virtuosity to play variations on the themejazz. These the most hairraising aspects of his CIA adventures. With all the gim

With experience

belt,

us

as an

Mendez

clearly

place, the documents prepared, and the parts rehearsed, there were times came down to quick thinking. In Teheran, during one carefully planned exfiltration, the disguised man lost his nerve and hid in the mens room as the plane was hoarding. Mendez had a premonition. He boldly maneuvered through the air port, located the man, and gave him the necessary push at the necessary moment. It micks in

when it all

worked.

insights and skills were best demonstrated in his most famous achievement, sneaking six Americans out of Iran by disguising them as~j Holly

Perhaps

these

wood film

Even Mendez admitted that it did not make

crew

intelligence business,

match

sense.

the

In

usually try legends closely experience of the person involved. A cover should be bland, as uninteresting as possible, so the casual observer, or the notso-casual immigration official. doesnt probe too deeply. The situation in Teheran, however, was unusual, and Mendez suggested a surprising deception. The film crew would he flashy and interesting. The ruse would only work because it would be unexpected, and it would be unex

pected

to

we

to

cover

the actual

because the rules of the game had been well established.

illusion

clown

to meticulous detail. He actually established a Holly production company, with a script, arnvork, job descriptions, and trade ads announcing their upcoming project. This was matched, in detail, by the forged dloc uments and disguises for the six Americans. It was an indulgence that \vas the dream of any magician Mendezs improvisation was performed within carefully rehearsed scenes, meticulous papenvork, hackstopped stories, and exhaustive research. If the six Americans seemed to saunter efforfiessly through the Teheran airport, it was because the stage had been beautifully set and the scene masterfully presented. It wasa demonstration of Kellar the Magicians famous boast that, once he had an audience under his spell, he could march an elephant across the stage

Mendezs

came

wood

and

no one

would notice.

One of my favorite

quotes

on

deception

comes

from the famous British

landscape

painter, John Constable. Faced with an elaborate panorama, an example of the 19th century craze for grand-scale, super-realistic paintings, he just shook his head. The That is a good analogy for Antonio art pleases by reminding, not by deceiving. Mendez. In essence, Mendez began with a watercolor kit as a boy. then treated his forgeries as works of art, later graduated to the subtle colors and adjustments of make-up. and finally retired from the CIA to pursue his lifelong interest in painting.

Harry

Kellar

~vas

the

leading

stage magician in the

early

I

900s

69

Book Reviews

When it

comes to

reminders that

creating

a

deception, the art lies right, comforting, and

in subtle reassurance, the

familiar. The

goal might not be painters eye. It is about seeing the entire scene and always adjust the colors, fill in the picture, and comfort the viewer with a deft everything

is

far from Mendezs

working

to

brushstroke.

Magicians practice for endless hours has

to

shuffle the cards and

give the impression

happened. Mendez orchestrated scenes in which KGB agents could tail him and later report, confidently, that nothing had happened. Even if the art istry is concealed, in magic we proudly call the best of our work an art, and ii should be no different for this master of disguise. that

70

nothing