Author Jonna Mendez Reveals Shocking Details About Her 27 Years in Espionage as a CIA Agent

"When I joined the CIA, it's like you walk in the door and it shuts behind you and your friends basically can't know where you went. They can't know where you are. They certainly can't know what you do," Jonna Mendez tells Inside Edition Digital.

For 27 years, Jonna Mendez had one of the most illustrious and dangerous jobs on the planet: Serving as a CIA agent. She joined the agency after marrying a CIA agent. 

She was instantly interested in all aspects of the industry, she tells Inside Edition Digital. 

“Everything they were doing and how they were doing it. I became interested in that,” she says. “The technical end of it, counterfeiting, disguise, audio penetrations, concealment devices, teeny-tiny, small cameras. It was the James Bond stuff I thought that was really interesting."

But joining did come with a price 

“When I joined the CIA, it's like you walk in the door and it shuts behind you and your friends basically can't know where you went. They can't know where you are," she says. "They certainly can't know what you do.”

She started as a secretary and while she was good at the job, she was bored. So she began working her way up the company ladder. One skill that helped her do so was photography. She began taking courses, learning how to use gadgets and traveling the world. After several years, an incredible opportunity presented itself.

“There was a disguise job opening up, and I said, ‘I could do disguise,” Mendez says. “It took some training, but I went to my dream assignment as a disguise officer, and then went home and they made me deputy. After awhile, they made me chief.”

Because she's a woman, there were hurdles along the way, Mendez says. 

“CIA was reflecting the American workplace," she says. "It was happening to women everywhere in this country. People that get caught in Russia, they got killed, they got executed. It was deadly serious. It was really scary. The men didn't think that the women could do that work.”

Mendez never held that belief, and in fact pushed back against it. 

“I said, ‘BS,’” Mendez says. “I told the women I worked with, I said, 'Don't ever apologize for being a woman. Use it. Use it in the most productive way you can.'”

She shares her journey, or what she can safely share about her journey, in her newest book, "In True Face: A Woman’s Life in the CIA, Unmasked."

“When you go into the CIA, you sign paperwork and you agree that anything you actually say publicly or write publicly is subject to review,” she says. “They can object if it is classified. They can take it out.

“When I speak to groups of people,” Mendez continues, “I always tell them up at the beginning, ‘Don't worry, I won't have to kill you because everything I'm going to talk to you about is in one of my books and I can talk about those things.’ Everyone sighs with relief.”

In her book, she details the cool gadgets she’s used.

“We wore white lab coats. We represented technologies that a lot of people wouldn't even have recognized as technologies,” she says. “Cameras that look like anything but a camera. We put them in places like buttons on overcoats. We put them in cigarette packages. We put them in your watch. We put them in your ring. We put them in your belt.  Put them in your briefcase. Put them in your purse. Put them in your glasses, anywhere, everywhere. I get goosebumps thinking about where cameras could be today.”

One portion of her book shares grueling details about torture training. This was done in case someone in the agency was on a hijacked plane or captured. 

She describes being thrown on a bus with hoods and masks on. She and her fellow "hostages" were then held in cells for several days. 

“They didn't let us sleep. They didn't let us eat," she says. "They interrogated us constantly. ‘What are you doing here?' How do I respond? It's really tough treatment. How do I handle that?" 

At one point, the group was stuffed in small boxes and were required to kneel on gravel for long periods of time. The pressure resulted in bloody body parts and other impactful injuries. 

“They took some men out of that class in tears,” Mendez says. “I've never had to do it again, but now I know I could. “

As Chief of Disguise, Mendez and her team used Hollywood technology, magic and whatever else was necessary to help perfect disguises, deception and illusion. John Chambers, a makeup artist who won an Oscar for his work on “Planet of the Apes,” helped teach them tricks to make disguises better. Eventually, their skills surpassed even Hollywood's cutting-edge tips and tricks. 

“Hollywood never made masks like we ended up making,” she says. “They were blown away when they saw what we could do.”

Mendez's skill deceived many people throughout her career, including a former president.

“We went down to the Oval Office, and we briefed President George H.W. Bush,” she says. “I was wearing (a) mask. When I took off my face, it startled them."

While Mendez notes that the character “Q” in the "James Bond" franchise is at times a good representative of the work she did, she says that for the most part, Hollywood doesn't get it right when they portray the art of espionage.

“The ‘Bond’ movies were always wildly entertaining and frustrating because the misogyny was there,” she says. “The women in the CIA would just look at the women in the Bond movies and just leave the room. It was always over the top. If you just wanted to be entertained, it would entertain you.  But it was irritating to watch it because it wasn't real. It's so wrong.”

One film that got it right was 2012's “Argo.” Ben Affleck’s character is based on Mendez’s late husband, Tony Mendez. 

“When George Clooney bought the rights to (what became) 'Argo,' first, we were thrilled,” Mendez said. “It was a historical thing that 'Argo' did.”

Tony Mendez died of Parkinson’s disease in 2019. 

Even though she’s out of the industry, Mendez’s training still somewhat guides her in life. “If I see somebody twice, or if I see them on the street and then they're next to me in the store, I perk up,” she says. “I notice that kind of thing. If somebody's paying too much attention to me, I see it.

“I keep an eye out, but it's reflexive at this point," she continues. "I don't walk around feeling threatened. I don't walk around worried somebody's after me.”

And she continues to be proud of what the agency is doing today. 

“What we're doing is collecting information on the plans and intentions of the enemy," she says. "That's it. That is the job of the CIA.”                       

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