Spy Dust by Antonio & Jonna Mendez, with Bruce Henderson
In Mad magazine years ago there used to be a running cartoon called “Spy Vs. Spy,” the adventures of a white spy versus a black spy who spent a page or so in each issue dreaming up dirty tricks and nasty ways to outsmart each other. The notable part of these cartoon tales of espionage was that there was no guiding reason for any of it, no Capitalism, no Communism, no this-ism against that-ism. In Mad magazine, at least, the spy game was played without any regard for truth or justice, but simply to win. Gamesmanship was all there was.
In works of fiction, spies are generally portrayed in a better light as romantic figures who risk their lives to save the world from a marathon of near-calamities. From James Bond to the darker, more complex inventions of authors like Graham Greene or John Le Carre, spying has been portrayed in literature as a glamorous profession. It is interesting, therefore, to pick up a non-fiction account of the real thing, such as the recently published Spy Dust by two real-life CIA agents, Antonio and Jonna Mendez, who ended up not only as co-operatives but eventually husband and wife. They have a fascinating and disturbing tale to tell of ruthless gamesmanship that is much closer to Mad magazine than Ian Flemming – interesting in this instance not because it’s well written, but because it’s true.
The story starts with Jonna in the Cold War years of the early 1980s working as part of a CIA effort to break into a Soviet embassy compound in South Asia (the name of the country is never given) in order to steal a well-guarded top secret de-coding machine known as the KAPELLE device. It’s quite an elaborate scheme, luring the Soviet officials to a tiger hunt so they’ll be gone at the proper moment, bribing a local embassy guard, split second timing – a veritable Mission Impossible scenario, risking all their lives and possible jail terms in the foreign country if they’re caught. In the end, they get the machine only to discover it wasn’t really needed. Washington already had plumbed the secrets of the KAPELLE device thanks to a highly placed mole in Moscow, and the theft in South Asia was simply play-acting, a game within a game designed to help maintain the Moscow spy’s cover.
Sound complicated? In the world of espionage, apparently, nothing is as it seems to be, and even your own side will lie and cheat and use you badly if it will help their outcome in the endless game of one-upmanship. What’s fascinating in this book is the absolute lack of anything you might loosely call “morality.” Flying into China for a vacation, for example, Jonna casually notes the various procedures for entry into a Communist country. “Whenever it was possible,” she admits, “I pocketed extra forms to give to our document operations people in Washington in the event they ever needed to make forgeries.” Forgeries, break-ins, lies – these are all part of a day’s work, so automatic that she continues with them even when she is off the job.
Spy Dust is not well-written. Unfortunately, Antonio and Jonna Mendez didn’t trust themselves to pen their own story, but gave the task to a professional named Bruce Henderson, whose style is so frisky you almost need a sedative after a chapter or two. Worse yet, he writes the kind of cheesy prose where brand names are substituted for adjectives: “The steel gray XJ-6 Jaguar purred quietly as he sat in the noonday traffic. Glancing at his Rolex, he noted that he was late again, but he really didn’t care.”
Gag me, Bruce! Yet, despite horrid prose of this sort, Spy Dust is a worthwhile read, an unforgettable look at a shadowy world where the great powers of our planet let down their hair and fight dirty with each other for reasons they’ve long forgotten. If you aren’t yet cynical about international politics, if you have any illusions about high-minded people in government looking after out better interests, this is a book you should read as quickly as possible. You will discover in the end, I’m afraid, that it’s a mad, mad world after all.