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The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA Paperback – November 7, 2000
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The CIA has allowed a top level operative to tell all in The Master Of Disguise.
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Although the movie Argo is well-known, it is only a small part of this author’s story. What was most interesting to me were the years this painter-turned spy spent behind the iron curtain under disguise. Entering into the secret service because of his artistic ability, Tony Mendez became a copier of documents first, then expanded his horizons into disguise to help with surveillance and counter-surveillance. The book also discusses the stories of the turncoats in the service and those defectors from the other side who lost big.
Some of the things the author talked about in the book made me think that maybe I shouldn’t be knowing or reading these things as they might have something to do with the welfare of my country, but the author clarified this concern by saying that his book was checked out by those who knew these things and what he relates to the general public is already known by the other side. In any case, now that he is retired from the service, the author has turned to painting again in his home in Knoxville.
The writing is clear and easily understandable, and I found the entire story stunning.
The bottom line is, I was amazed by the incredible courage the people in the CIA and other such services have shown and possibly still are continuing to show. If it did nothing, this book has been good for making us aware of that purpose.
The author describes CIA operations in locations around the world, including Indochina, the Middle East, and the then-intact Soviet Union. Three themes emerge from these accounts. One is the trust developed among CIA officers who spend much of their time deceiving others. It helps explain the anger and disgust they feel for moles, traitors and double agents. The second theme is an increasing sophistication in the technology used to create documents and disguises. Disguises remain challenging since they must be good enough to alter appearance but simple enough for agents to don quickly with little training. The final theme explores internal CIA politics. We hear about jealousies between wage-grade and white collar employees, jostling for overseas assignments, and the "pinball game" of gaining support for new initiatives.
Each chapter is seasoned with tidbits of tradecraft and hard-won experience. Advice ranges from general strategies like "keep your options open" to more specific techniques like how to use the two-handed "forgers bridge" to do precision drawing. Some procedures seem obvious once you read about them, but were useful again and again in the field. For example, shipping containers equipped with automatic cameras sent through Warsaw Pact countries yielded volumes of information about routes, customs procedures, and security personnel. Buildings, vehicles and people were inspected repeatedly, but nobody thought to check the containers.
Equally fascinating is the information the book does not present. Most CIA officers and agents are referred to only by code names or aliases. Times and locations are reported only generally. Readers also become conscious of a trend as the narrative proceeds. Details of all kinds are increasingly reduced, altered, or glossed over to protect techniques still in use and officers still on active duty. What we learn about spycraft becomes all the more impressive as we realize it must be out of date or we would not be reading about it.
The book is an enjoyable read and teaches lessons about careful work as well as innovation under pressure. It is worth reading on its own merits, but will be especially intriguing to those who are familiar with the Argo movie.
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Tony Mendez was active in many arenas, and he writes of his own experiences in the cia in his...Read more