The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez with Malcolm McConnell (HarperCollins 1999)
Nobody likes the CIA. Even the TV shows, like NCIS, that otherwise respect governmental agencies and cloak-and-dagger work, generally don't treat the CIA well. The Master of Disguise is an authorized, but candid, behind-the-scense glimpse of why the Agency deserves more respect than it gets. The situation reminds me of the Bletchley Park decoders in the United Kingdom, where the Official Secrets Act kept their heroic work unknown for decades. As we celebrate Memorial Day—which, for the record, should be tomorrow—it's good to be reminded that not all the sacrifices in the name of national and international security are made by people in uniform.
One of our friends worked for many years at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia, which she referred to as "The Farm." It is located across from the CIA, which she called "The Neighbors." More than once she answered a call from the Neighbors to come remove escaped livestock from their property. As it turns out, the CIA also has land they call "The Farm," which serves as a training ground for their agents. Supposedly the two Farms are separate, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that our friend was secretly a spy. :) She would be good at it.
As usual, the bolded emphasis below is my own.
As former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms noted in his speech at the Agency's fiftieth anniversary ceremonies ... there is no doubt that TSD [CIA Technical Services Division] work overseas can be hazardous. Helms cited three of the Division's officers, who were released in 1963 from Cuba's Isle of Pines Prison, where they had been held for two years and seven months. They had suffered repeated interrogation under torture, and survived only because the U.S. government managed to negotiate a prisoners-for-tractors exchange following the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
One of the reasons they had lived through their ordeal was the quality of their alias documents and their ability to sustain their cover story during prolonged interrogation. These officers had been captured in Havana in 1960 while engaged in an audio penetration operation.... Even in that notorious prison, however, the three managed to run a successful intelligence collection operation, working with the grim knowledge that they might be tortured to death (the fate of many of Castro's prisoners) had this brazen effort been discovered.
This was thrilling to read because I realized that I had recently sung at the funeral of one of those three men.
Covert action propaganda printing, ranging in level of "plausible denial" by the U.S. government—from white to gray to black—was also a TSD responsibility. A white propaganda operation in the 1960s was merely promoting and packaging Western policy and culture, as with Voice of America programming. Gray propaganda might have involved writing and printing election campaign materials for a foreign political party friendly to the United States, or could have included planted news stories or editorial columns written for foreign press assets cooperating with the CIA.
Russians trying to influence American elections? That's old news!
Black propaganda had been in use for decades by the time I joined the CIA. Soviet overseas intelligence officers, dating back to the KGB's predecessors, were experts at this nasty business. During the social and economic turmoil of the 1930s, the NKVD ruthlessly spread rumors of government corruption, backed up by forged documents, designed to inflame class divisions in Western Europe. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets considered "disinformation" one of their important strategic weapons.
Equally cunning, American intelligence during the Cold War found it useful to encourage similar unrest among the workers at an arms plant in a Soviet-occupied country by circulating well-forged, ostensibly confidential official documents calling for an increase in labor quotas and a decrease in food rations.
"Fake news" isn't new, either.
During [World War II], printing near-perfect replicas of foreign documents—and enemy currency—had been a major part of the OSS graphic operation. Of the talented people who worked here, OSS legend Allen Dulles would later declare proudly, "Any intelligence service worth its salt should be able to make the other fellow's currency." ... But we could not counterfeit Soviet currency: Counterfeiting another country's money was officially an act of war, and the Cold War was not a declared conflict.
Our tradecraft was slowly evolving to become more adept at building neutral, "third-country" cover legends and aliases that were more innocuous and difficult to detect.... This level of spycraft requires years of patient preparation and had long been used by sophisticated services such as the KGB in their "illegals" (spies with nonofficial cover) program, which infiltrated hundreds of bogus "refugees" from Europe and South Africa after World War II.
Here is more old news that we ignore to our peril. Basic humanity requires stable nations to take the risk of welcoming refugees, but ignoring the danger is also criminal. The wisdom of the serpent is as necessary as the harmlessness of the dove.
Ultimately, America's costly involvement in Vietnam was a tragic defeat. From the perspective of an intelligence war, we had failed to understand the fundamental nature of the enemy. Successive administrations and CIA leadership could only perceive the North Vietnamese through the lens of the Cold War.
Misunderstanding the fundamental nature of the enemy is a mistake we are still making.
Only recently has it been revealed how close we came to World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Master of Disguise showed me that we faced a similar crisis during the Yom Kippur War in 1973: Intelligence revealed that the Soviets had shipped nuclear warheads to Egypt for their Scud missiles.
[The new information] was shocking. If the fragile cease-fire on the battlefield was broken and heavy fighting resumed, the war could quickly surpass the nuclear threshold. ... The CIA urgently informed National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who advised President Nixon to immediately order American military forces to DEFCON3, a high state of nuclear alert. It was a long night for the National Security team in the White House situation room. DCI Colby was in constant communication with Langley. American Polaris submarines refined the targeting data of their ballistic missiles, while our lumbering B-52 bombers held their orbits in the Arctic and Mediterranean, awaiting orders to proceed toward Soviet airspace. The Middle East powder keg seemed ready to explode. Indeed, the global security situation had not been so precarious since the Cuban missile crisis.
But the Soviets backed down. They canceled the orders of their airborne troops preparing to fly to the Middle East, withdrew the nuclear warheads already positioned at the Egyptian Scud sites, and recalled their ships. Two days later, when the White House was convinced of the Soviets' new intention, Nixon rescinded DEFCON3. In the ensuing confusion, Nixon's many critics accused him of orchestrating this crisis to divert the nation's attention from the heightened Senate Watergate investigation.
We were reeling from the effects of Watergate, the loss of the war in Indochina, and blatant Soviet attempts to subvert legitimate postcolonial struggles. Soviet bloc intelligence services and military missions had never been so active on a worldwide scale. At the same time, the conventional and nuclear war-fighting capability of the Warsaw Pact was being upgraded, while the KGB was running scores of black propaganda and subversion operations designed to undermine the NATO alliance. It was not just a coincidence that well-funded and well-organized urban terrorist groups flourished in Western Europe at the time. The United States and its allies desperately needed the skills and resources of the CIA's Clandestine Service, adn I was determined to do may part. Riding the little blue bus back from Langley to Foggy Bottom one day, I suddenly recalled a mantra my mother had taught me as a child when times were rough. "Focus on the task at hand, be of good cheer, and things will sor themselves out."
Sounds good to me.
As the title suggests, Mendez's specialty at the CIA was disguise. I remember, as a homeschooler, commenting on the value of serendipity in education: you never knew when a child's seemingly random and idle interest would turn out to be key to a larger educational undertaking. Who would have guessed that some of our most important spywork would have its origins in ... Hollywood? But who knows better how to make a man look like someone, or something, else? And not just people:
Bull wandered restlessly through the lab. "And, Jerome, maybe you could get me one of those cobweb machines you mentioned this morning." He rubbed his hands in delight. "That's just the gadget we've been looking for to cover our entry into an audio target through a wine cellar door that hasn't been opened in fifty years." Jerome shared Bull's pleasure at the prospect of American spies using another movie illusion. "No problem, Bull. The special effects guys sell one in a nice little carrying case.... You can over a whole room with cobwebs in a couple of minutes."
I woke with a start in my hotel room to the shrill rings of the telephone. Richard was calling from the lobby. It was three in the morning and I should have been up at 2:15. My watch alarm had gone off, but I had slept through it. I jumped into the shower, dressed, and joined Richard in the lobby less than fifteen minutes later.
This incident took place at a critical point in the extraction of several American diplomatic personnel in Iran who had manage to escape the takeover of the American embassy in 1979. Their lives, and those of the people who were sheltering them, were at constant risk as the Revolutionary Guards combed the city. The story of this meticulously-planned and audacious rescue is worth the whole book. It also illustrates how small mistakes can bring down great enterprises. For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Fortunately for all involved, not this time.
What do you do when the digital revolution threatens to make your craft obsolete and leave you scrambling in the dust? You take the lead!
As succinctly as I could, I explained my "proactive" plan to prepare the Agency for the worldwide proliferation of computerized border controls and the threat of more sophisticated personal identity and travel documents, which were beginning to appear in both the East and the West.
"I think we can make inroads against these threats by helping to lead the industry in the right direction," I said. "State and INS want to include us in open symposia. This research activity would be in the public domain. We have friends in academia who can help lead our efforts."
Casey's nimble mind immediately grasped the implication of my proposal. Once the United States helped lead the world's experts on computerized security controls and high-tech documents, Soviet bloc spies and terrorists would find operating across borders more challenging. If the Agency acted swiftly, we wouldn't be caught out in the cold when a new generation of technology quickly emerged, as it always did, and we wouldn't have to reverse-engineer in order to catch up.
The Master of Disguise is almost 20 years old, and the eras it covers are older still. It's no less fascinating for that; I only wish I also had the author's perspective on more recent events.
NSFG (not safe for grandchildren) warning: It's a great book, but there's a small amount of objectionable language.