Former CIA operative puts disguise skills on display for Liberty University students
A longtime master of disguise for the CIA, Jonna Mendez shared her experience at Liberty University’s Convocation on Wednesday, April 24, while also having some fun unveiling a few tricks of the trade.
Mendez received a commendation medal upon her retirement from the CIA, where she served as Chief of Disguise. She currently sits on the board of advisors for the International Spy Museum and tells her story through books — the latest, “Moscow Rules,” is set to release next month — and internet videos, which have amassed millions of views. She also wrote books with her late husband, Tony Mendez, also a former operative whose story was brought to life by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award-winning film “Argo.”
Setting the tone for an insightful conversation wrapped in playful banter, Liberty President Jerry Falwell introduced Mendez: “Today, we have a real-live spy,” he said. “She is going to tell you how much you are being watched and listened to.”
Falwell’s wife, Becki, and Liberty’s Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser, also joined Mendez on the stage for a discussion about her insider espionage knowledge.
In regard to privacy and national security, Mendez said that U.S. intelligence is much more concerned with collecting data on foreigners than its own citizens.
“I never worry about anything I say on my phone being picked up by an American intelligence service,” she said. “I worry about the Russians listening to my phone calls.”
She added that technology is advancing so rapidly that “pretty soon any country in the world, with a cadre of students like in this room, is going to be able to do that.”
Mendez touched on highlights of her career, including making eye contact with a wanted terrorist in a hotel and briefing President George H.W. Bush while wearing a mask and then revealing her deception to him so he could see the possibilities of using the latest methods in disguise for intelligence purposes.
“It changed the way we were able to work,” Mendez said of President Bush’s support after seeing her disguise. “We could make a twin for you, we could change your gender, we could change your ethnicity, we could change everything. It was a great tool.”
She added that it takes about five hours to put on a disguise and another half hour to clean up and remove one.
Mendez discussed popular spy films, from James Bond to Jason Borne and FX’s “The Americans,” stating that while her office was “the equivalent of Q in the James Bond movies,” much of what is seen on screen is unrealistic. “The Americans,” she said, comes closest to reality.
Students also saw a “Liberty Mission: Impossible” video in which Mendez had disguised Nasser and the Falwells and sent them to work in the dining hall on Thursday. No students noticed as the administrators served them food.
“You have to inhabit the disguise,” Mendez explained after the video played. “(Nasser) was another person. Becki figured out who she was before she even walked in the cafeteria. She had invented a backstory for herself. … That is what made you believe.”
Though Mendez’s work experience has shown her much of what is wrong with the world, she told the Liberty students that her visit to campus was inspiring.
“This has been nothing but a positive look at this generation,” she said. “It gives me some hope; it really does.”
“That was such a fun Convo,” senior Abigail Brewer said. “Our guest speaker had a really unique niche of expertise within her line of work, and we were able to learn something from her life experiences. This is why I love Liberty’s Convocation — we have the opportunity to hear about interesting experiences, grow in our understanding, and have fun while doing so.”
During Convocation, Mendez encouraged the students to consider careers in intelligence, calling it an “honorable profession” where one can travel the world and solve critical problems.
Liberty alumni are already shining at top federal agencies. On average, Liberty graduates gain security clearance for jobs in the FBI’s Cyber Division faster than students from other institutions. The university’s cyber program is formally recognized by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education. Helms School of Government students have multiple opportunities to engage in large-scale, hands-on exercises, including simulated crime scenes and terrorist attacks, alongside state and national agencies as they train for future careers.