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My Secret Life in the CIA

by Antonio J. Mendez & Malcolm McConnell

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-688-16302-5
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

The retired, highly decorated chief of disguise for the CIA highlights his adventurous 25-year career. Mendez is not modest about his considerable accomplishments. He takes credit for “creating and deploying many of the most innovative techniques in the espionage trade.” And the remainder of this book (vetted by the agency) is, in one sense, a justification of that claim. In 1965 the author began with the agency as a low-level technician—essentially a graphic artist who specialized in forging documents. Gradually—through a combination of skill, pluck, luck, diligence, and ambition—he rose through the agency hierarchy, eventually participating in dazzling cloak-and-dagger operations in some of the world most exotic and dangerous locations: southeast Asia, the Soviet Union, Iran. The most interesting sections describe his endeavors in the mid-1970s to generate techniques to cope with the umbrageous KGB surveillance of American operatives in Moscow and his gripping account (untold in full until now) of the CIA’s role in “exfiltrating” (removing) six Americans from Tehran during the hostage crisis in 1980. Oddly, Mendez and McConnell elect to record about halfway through the book his “flawless” record of 150 successful exfiltrations; this effectively removes from his subsequent accounts of such actions all vestiges of suspense—a weird decision, to say the least. Another narrative annoyance is the decision to begin many of the subsections of the book with paragraphs that sound as if they were lifted from, well, bad spy novels. For example: “—This guy is going south on us, fast,’ the Chief of Station, “Simon,’ explained, leaning over his desk and speaking with a crisp but gentle precision that was barely audible above the chugging air conditioners.” Nonetheless, the coauthors convey with clarity something of this shadow world which requires of its inhabitants hard work, strong stomachs, low blood pressure, and a full measure of creative improvisation. A swift, engrossing summary of a life and a way of life. (8 pages photos, not seen) (Book-of-the-Month Club selection; author tour)