REVIEW: The Master of Disguise. My Secret Life in the CIA


By Antonio Mendez. New York City: William Morrow and Company, 1999. 351 pages.

Reviewed by Jim Steinmeyer


Magicians love gimmicks. In fact, I think it is this admiration for contraptions—for tricky pieces of apparatus that do this when you push that —which often attracts people to the field of conjuring. The best magicians come to understand that these gimmicks are mere tools for the presentation. Illusion, not mere gimmicks, must be present in any real magic performance. The way a great magician comes to understand his or her environment and subtly crafts the illusions is worthy of study. The current trend in magic, which a friend of mine calls "jazz magic," is a celebration of ability, ingenuity, and improvisation. Decades ago the renowned sleight-of-hand magician Dai Vernon called this "The Trick that Cannot Be Explained," a thrilling, seat-of-your-pants technique, in which gimmicks were damned and the whims of the spectators, the experience of the performer, coincidences, and opportunities were all smoothly blended into a performance. Jazz indeed—dangerous jazz—but still just a magic trick.

The jazz is never more dangerous, the potential melodies never sweeter, than the operations and deceptions outlined in Antonio Mendez's remarkable book, The Master of Disguise . The master of disguise is, in fact, a master of deception, and Mendez's true stories of his CIA operations are inspiring lessons in illusion. It should not be a surprise that Mendez is something of an amateur magician. More to the point, he has taken examples from such trickery, and applied the principles like a masterful conjurer.

As a boy, Mendez had a natural fascination with the clandestine. He was, like many a boy, deceitful enough to sell yesterday's papers to passengers on the train. He was also clever enough to carry one copy of that day's edition, which made his stack of papers look more authentic and, if caught red-handed, gave him a quick out. In his later career, this would be called "plausible deniability," but it was based in standard magic. He had studied a 1905 book of do-it-yourself wonders called The Boy Mechanic . He was in good company. That book, just a kid's collection of projects and tricks, was the inspiration for many aspiring magicians and provided the blueprints that were later assembled into the special effects of Walt Disney's "Haunted Mansion" attraction.

At the CIA, Mendez's early lessons in surveillance were lessons in deception. The very act of watching closely gives certain opportunities for illusion. Magicians have understood this for many years. That is the basic explanation for generations of phony psychics who have achieved success by fooling the scientists determined to watch them closely. Scientists, of course, have been taught to think in certain ways, and deceiving them has been notoriously easy. Similarly, Mendez learned to appreciate each situation, watching for opportunities and learning to think like the mysterious man trailing him. His later mastery of gimmicks—in his case innovative disguises—never replaced his understanding of the bigger picture. Magicians call it presentation. An early co-worker explained it to him: "A disguise is only a tool, Tony. Before you use any tradecraft tool, you have to set up the operation for the deception." In fact, CIA..

Read more: