History Mighty Heroes

This CIA agent was the ‘Master of Disguise’

This master of disguise unknowingly stepped into the clandestine world of the CIA. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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tony mendez master of disguise

Every superhero has an origin story, and Antonio “Tony” Mendez is no exception. Born in Eureka, Nevada, in 1940, Mendez had a knack for artistry from a young age. His flair for creativity was clear as he painted his high school’s banners and signs. Little did he know that one day all those doodles would help him land his career. In fact, his path led him to a place where artistry had a whole new meaning. Following the birth of his son, Mendez decided to seek a steady job. That’s when he spotted a newspaper ad by the U.S. Navy seeking artists to work overseas. He applied, unknowingly stepping into the clandestine world of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And the rest, as they say, is history.

The art of espionage

After joining the CIA in 1965, Mendez put his artistic skills to good use in the Technical Services Division. Here’s where the magic happened. Disguise, forgery, you name it. It quickly became clear that Mendez was the CIA’s very own in-house wizard. He put his art skills to work, crafting everything from passports to full-body disguises. But his most critical job was ensuring that undercover agents could infiltrate and exfiltrate without a hitch. The work was demanding and high stakes, but Mendez was up to the task. In 1979, he was made the Chief of the Disguise Division, recognizing his mastery of the art of deception.

cia headquarters
Aerial view of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.


If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning movie “Argo,” you’ll know this part of Mendez’s tale. In 1979, when the U.S. embassy in Iran was stormed and American staff were taken hostage, six embassy employees managed to escape and were hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. The CIA quickly recognized the need to extract the six Americans from the heart of Tehran, a city teeming with anti-American sentiment. The brain behind the audacious plan was none other than Mendez.

But how?

Enter Mendez.

The mission, known as the “Canadian Caper,” saw Mendez conjure an elaborate ruse. He cobbled together a faux-Hollywood film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film titled “Argo.” Mendez himself went into the lion’s den, posing as the film’s producer. After a nerve-wracking week of rehearsing their cover stories and dodging Iranian authorities, the group of seven flew out of Tehran, right under the noses of their pursuers.

Life beyond the CIA

Tony Mendez retired from the CIA in 1990, but his adventures were far from over. Alongside his wife, Jonna, he authored several books detailing his experiences, including the aptly named “The Master of Disguise” and “Argo,” the latter serving as the basis for the 2012 film of the same name. Mendez’s work was a testament to the art of intelligence and the quiet, unassuming heroes working behind the scenes.

mendez agent master of disguise
Agent Antonio J. Mendez is congratulated by President Jimmy Carter on the success of Operation Argo.

The woman behind the master of disguise

Behind every great man, there’s a great woman, and Tony Mendez was no exception. His wife, Jonna Mendez, was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. A former Chief of Disguise in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service herself, she was responsible for the creation of espionage equipment and illusionary techniques that gave agents an edge in their covert operations. Jonna was a crucial player in numerous missions, working behind the scenes to ensure the success of field operatives.

The two masters of disguise didn’t just share a professional background; they also collaborated on several books that shed light on the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage. Their joint memoir, “The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War,” is a fascinating insight into the high-stakes world of Cold War espionage. The pair were not just partners in love, but also in their unwavering commitment to their country.

Origin story of the CIA

In order to appreciate the work of Tony Mendez, one must understand the origin and evolution of the agency he dedicated his life to. The CIA was born out of the ashes of World War II. It was the successor to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency, and was tasked with coordinating the country’s foreign intelligence and counterintelligence operations.

The early years of the CIA were focused on combating the spread of communism during the Cold War, undertaking covert operations to influence and disrupt Soviet activities. Over time, the agency has evolved, responding to global crises, technological advancements, and changing political landscapes. The importance of human intelligence, however, remains unchanged.

The work of operatives like Tony and Jonna Mendez epitomizes the essential, hidden aspect of the CIA’s operations. The world of espionage might be invisible to most, but its impact resonates across the globe. It is a world that thrives in the shadows, constantly shifting, always vigilant, and forever crucial to the safety and security of the nation.

Legacy of the master of disguise

Mendez passed away in 2019, but his legacy as a master of disguise, a daring operative, and a symbol of courage endures. His contributions were lauded with several awards, including the CIA’s Intelligence Star and the Trailblazer Award. Today, Mendez stands as an embodiment of the unsung heroes who risk their lives in the shadows, turning the tide of history with their courage and ingenuity. As his tale is told and retold in classrooms, books, and films, Tony Mendez continues to inspire the brave, the bold, and the imaginative.