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Former CIA agent unveils secrets that made him 'Master of Disguise'
(CNN) -- Antonio Mendez has been an artist most of his life and today, his paintings sell for thousands of dollars. But it wasn't so long ago that his canvas took an entirely different form.
For years, instead of paintbrushes, Mendez used tools like rubber cement, scissors or a comb to craft disguises for agents at the CIA.
"I went to Washington for 10 days of disguise training," he says of his start in the business of subterfuge, "and when I came back to Denver where my wife was waiting for me at the gate ... I did two things. I changed my hair line, and I put on a pair of glasses.
"But, what I didn't do is make eye contact, and I walked right past her."
He left the CIA in 1990, after years of conjuring up such convincing new identities for agents that their own families were not able to recognize them. He also amassed a body of remarkable stories, which are the subject of his recently released book, "Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA" (William Morrow & Company).
Mendez came from the Nevada desert, yearning for an escape to a more exciting and adventurous life.
"I was applying to a blind ad in the Denver Post, 'Artist to work overseas with the U.S. Navy.' So I answered the ad, just to see what it was, and the next thing you know I was in a motel room with the blinds drawn, talking to a CIA recruiter."
He signed on, and took a job titled "technical operations officer," the same job held by the fictional James Bond's colleague Q. Like Q, Mendez has a collection of gadgets -- among them, a skin mole that carries a piece of espionage equipment called a bullet lens, and a coat on which one button is the lens to a concealed camera.
Joining the CIA during the heyday of spy vs. spy, Mendez's specialty was exfiltration -- getting friendly agents out of hostile territory. He helped move people out of all the hot spots of the Cold War, including Southeast Asia and Moscow.
But his most prominent mission involved moving U.S. embassy employees out of Iran. In 1979, when Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage, six U.S. embassy employees managed to escape and hide out at the homes of Canadian diplomats based in Tehran. Mendez had to get them out of the country safely.
"What I had to do was present an idea that was so interesting and so alluring that everybody could believe in it, and the idea of a motion picture scouting party was what I came up with," he says.
Using a Canadian alias and passport, Mendez created a fake movie production company called Studio Six. He made up a movie poster for the fictitious film, and even took out ads in Hollywood trade papers, announcing the production. Then he flew to Iran with six fake Canadian passports and a risky plan.
Keeping in mind the entire time the potential worst case scenario -- should everybody be caught, "obviously it would go badly for the six" -- Mendez disguised the American diplomats as Canadian filmmakers looking to make a movie in Iran. The ruse worked to get them out of the country, an accomplishment for which he received the CIA's Intelligence Star for valor from President Jimmy Carter.
Deception came easy to Mendez, but he says a strong moral fiber helped him do the right thing, and to make the transition back to civilian life. "The ability to have a strong moral compass, and know the difference between a lie you should tell and one you shouldn't is very important," he says.
After spending their careers blurring truth and fiction, many retired agents are challenged by life after the CIA. Mendez has focused his energies on painting, on his book, and on spending more time with his wife, also a retired CIA agent and former chief of disguise.
Still, 10 years after Mendez dropped his cover and picked up his paintbrushes, he carries a career's worth of memories, many of which still remain in the shadows.
"The operative word was 'intrigue,'" he says. "That word was the operative word for 25 years. It was intriguing, and every day you got a chance to get your hand on the lever, and to alter the course of world events. It was great fun."
Review: Her spy, his wife
William Morrow & Co.
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