In True Face: A Woman's Life in the CIA, Unmasked

Image of In True Face: A Woman's Life in the CIA, Unmasked
Release Date: 
March 4, 2024
Reviewed by: 

If you like stories of adventure across borders in exotic but dangerous places by a brave woman working in a man’s world, this page turner is for you. Author Jonna Mendez, who grew up in the wind-swept fields of Kansas, worked more 27 years as a CIA case officer operating in Berlin, Moscow, Islamabad, Cairo, and other challenging locales. In between her long and brief tours abroad, she and her husband John, also a CIA officer, lived in or near Washington or nearby, training and operating in the capital or in Langley, Virginia,

Jonna had no college degree but was bursting with curiosity and driven to learn new things. She studied one topic after another in CIA facilities such as “The Farm” in Virginia—clandestine photography, creating masks to get “assets” out of a foreign country, crashing through a road block, using firearms, and—most difficult—a course in how to survive days of living in a punishment cell and getting by on two meals of cold rice and water, while giving the interrogator only the outer peels of an onion of information he sought to obtain. An admitted claustrophobe, she endured long hours locked in a sort of mattress box by envisioning the Kansas corn fields from which she had fled.

Having passed multiple courses at CIA HQ, Jonna and a tutor tried out overseas some of the techniques developed back home. such as how to fly out of a country without going through the usual exit controls.

Often underestimated and occasionally undermined by male chauvinists, Mendez lived under cover and served tours of duty all over the globe, rising first to become an international spy and ultimately to preside as Chief of Disguise at the CIA’s Office of Technical Service.

Mendez says almost nothing about the analytical work in which most CIA employees are engaged: trying to make sense of all the HUMINT—intelligence gathered covertly by human agents—and SIGNIT—intelligence from electronic signals—as well as open sources such as print media and social media.

Mendez says nothing about CIA blunders (as in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba) except to say she was aware of them.

If all government officials were trained like Mendez and placed the nation’s well-being above their private gain as she did, the policies they conceive and implement would probably be much better.

That US intelligence is doing something right has been indicated by its warnings in 2021–2022 of an imminent Russian attack that Ukrainian President Zelensky discounted and, in 2024, its warnings to Moscow of extremist plans to attack concertgoers, which Putin rejected as US provocations.

After 23 years of marriage in which both Jonna and John called the same places home, they often traveled separately and often could not tell each other where or why, they split. Besides the demands of their jobs, he liked watching football on TV while she read books and went to concerts.

In her late 40s Jonna married Antonio (Tony) Mendez, a man who at times had been her boss and trainer in the CIA. They produced a son, and she began to enjoy parenting even more than daredevil missions, Each of them retired from the CIA, they drew on their experiences to co-author the books Argo, The Moscow Rules, and Spy Dust. When Tony died from Parkinson’s disease, Jonna continued to draw on her insights at the CIA. She lectures on her life in espionage and tries to promote equal treatment of women in government and everywhere.  Her book is dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Eloise Page, whose work and dedication encouraged countless women to shatter ceilings.

The review here on May 17, 2019, of The Moscow Rules raised some issues that apply also to The True Face: “Anyone wishing to know how the Cold War was waged in scientific laboratories and back alleys as well as on other levels in public view should read this book. But this is not a handbook of political wisdom. It not a guide to wise policymaking.” It says nothing about costs—the material, psychological, spiritual, and opportunity costs of espionage, not just in blood and treasure but in opportunity costs if resources had been channeled to more productive activities.

It is possible that tough policies are necessary to cope with tough guys such as Putin and Xi Jinping. After they depart, if that ever happens, could enlightened policies by the US and other Western governments push the world away from confrontation and toward greater cooperation for mutual gain? What if—instead of persistent efforts at learning the other side’s military and political secrets—there were serious study of policies that could enhance the true fitness of all concerned?