Video Length: 9:24 min
Jonna Mendez who worked in the CIA's Office of Technical Service for over 27 years explains how espionage officers use disguises to accomplish their missions. She retired as Chief of Disguise Operations and with her husband, Tony Mendez was a founding board member of the International Spy Museum. Tony Mendez, a former CIA technical operations officer, helped orchestrate the 1980 rescue of six American diplomats from Iran and who was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award-winning film “Argo.”
Description & Discussion
For me, the most difficult module within the Operations Certification Course (Ops course) was the disguise program. The disguise module was very much like the video linked to this contribution and Ms. Mendez’s description of what we do to change the appearance, the age, and even the ethnicity is very accurate.
I was in my early 30's when I went through the Ops Course and until that module, I was flying high with praise from our instructors, but the disguise phase was like hitting a brick wall. I was not an actor, I had no theater training and coming from the Marine Corps, law enforcement and a decade in the paramilitary side of the organization, I thought I was firmly molded into who I was and would forever be.
The struggle began with simple body language where I needed to morph into a man in his late 50's mimicking the aches and pains of a person that age (Now at 60 I realize what a terrible actor I really was). Learning how to apply the makeup correctly, and to properly age the face and hands was frustrating. Adding weight props, slumping the shoulders and then changing my gait made me want to scream. This complete rewrite of self, my appearance, my posture, and my body movements encased in that shapeshifting makeup cocoon of body altering props felt like a torture session from the Spanish Inquisition.
Then, as if it couldn't have gotten any worse, one had to go out into public venues and not only interact with people in that horrendous costume but then perform a clandestine act. I felt like I was walking through the center of the city dressed up as a college mascot. I knew everybody could see through the silly makeup that I had applied; the false round stomach and my shuffling old man walk. Needless to say, I was clearly on the road to failure.
My course counselor, Price Cochran, an old salt of an operations officer in his 70's, called me into his office after the third exercise to find out what was happening regarding the disturbing reports he was getting about me regarding the disguise training. I walked into the office and fell into the chair beside him and just stared at him. He could see the anger, frustration and the loss of control I was feeling and he knew the cause. He cocked his head, squinted his eyes and stared right back at me and said: "Don't look at me in that tone of voice!" I grinned, Price smiled and said "Spill it!
I unloaded every objection I had to "these costumed pantomimes" and proceeded to have a tantrum right then and there. I ranted about how I knew everybody I walked past could see right through this so-called disguise and that if this was a "Go-No Go" requirement to pass the course I was pretty much done with it. Price listened patiently and reiterated the teaching points made throughout the module of training, all the while reminding me of how good I was doing in every other aspect of the training. My head was not in the game, and everything he was saying was falling on deaf ears.
Finally, he leaned into my personal space and grabbing both of my knees said, "Listen, you knucklehead!" as his right hand came up with his index finger pointing right at my nose and looking eye to eye said to me, "Don't be intimidated, be intrigued!"
Decision, Design & Discipline
That simple comment refocused me not only on how I was going to approach the remaining exercises but the remainder of the training and in fact the rest of my career. What Price said, at first, was a bit fuzzy to me. I thought I knew exactly what each word meant, but I went to the dictionary and looked both words up to make sure I had a complete understanding of Price’s choice of words.
Intimidate - to make timid or fearful, especially to compel or deter by or as if by threats.
Intrigued - having one's interest, desire or curiosity strongly aroused.
Intimidation has a way of stunting you, both professionally and in personal growth. Being intrigued is looking at things with childlike wonder. I got it, what he was saying was I was suffering by default, I didn't need to sacrifice my pride or control to do those exercises, to graduate from the training program or to be a good operations officer. So, I prepared for the next two exercises which had me in a shopping mall, surrounded by hundreds of people and serving a dead drop in a very public area. First, I looked at the disguise, then the clothes I would wear and lastly at my cover story; one for being where I was (cover for status) and second for precisely what I would be doing (cover for action). I reviewed the route I was to walk, the stores I would pass by and then the timeline. I looked at the sketch of the drop site and recalled the walk by I had several weeks earlier and how I could improve on masking my activity. Then I drew up a set of questions that included:
1. As you think about what your objectives, what specifically do you need to do to be ready? Mentally prepare, plan well and be ready to interact with those who might approach you and lastly be whom your cover story says you are.
2. If engaged by a role player, an unknown or a police officer, what must you be able to explain logically? Plan out what you intend to say, rehearse it and say it with meaning.
3. You’re a 50 plus year older man, can you sell it, what do you need to do to reinforce what you were taught? Practice your walk, stand still, what are your mannerisms, are you the person the disguise says you are? Move with intent, to appear that you have someplace to be, but you're running a little early.
4. What do people really look at day to day? Visualization, without the disguise, use your situational awareness to focus on who is looking at you as you move from point A to point B while doing nothing of operational intent.
5. If a person is looking at you, what are they doing, what do they appear to be thinking or feeling, do they seem stressed, distracted or in a foul mood? If so, why? Can you respond to those cues if approached with both compassion and genuineness? Small gestures or a kind word can be incredibly disarming.
The next day, I went out to perform the last two of my disguise exercises, one serving the dead drop and then the final walking exercise as seen in the video. Because I focused on planning, preparation and execution and not the perception that I had applied the disguise poorly, or that I clearly was not an elderly man, my view of how I thought others were observing me melted away. With my head up and walking with confidence, I quickly noted that not one soul was paying any attention to me. I had been intimidated by "ghosts" (a nickname for perceived surveillance teams, that don't actually exist), my lack of confidence was rooted in my perceived ability that I was not an actor. However, with my curiosity engaged, I was intrigued at the number of ways I had contrived to pull this exercise off. I breezed through both exercises, getting superior grades along with a commendation for my "180 turn-around" performance from the first three exercises.
I took those words of advice from a very skilled veteran operations officer, and I've tried to apply them throughout my life. Learning to put to bed the perceptions we have about people, professions, environments or annoying requirements was a life lesson for me. By allowing curiosity to override the tendency to be timid in stressful times opened new doors of opportunity and led to the courage to approach a beautiful young lady who is now my wife. You can talk yourself into anything if properly motivated and you understand the need to do it. To quote the writer, critic, and loveable curmudgeon Dorthey Parker: "Of course, I talk to myself. I like a good speaker, and I appreciate an intelligent audience!"