Illustration alumnus goes from CIAS to the CIA

Nov 19, 2014

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by Rich Kiley

In the political thriller Argo, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operative Tony Mendez artfully uses disguises and diversion in leading the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.

Dan Caster ’89 (fine art/illustration) cited the 2012 movie as a prime example of how mission successes were borne out of innovative and highly creative actions combined with imaginative thinking.

“When you have that creative perspective or dimension to your thinking, it gives you the ability to look at a difficult situation from many different sides,” Caster said. “It enables you to creatively put together a plan, even under high risk.”

It also helps explain how Caster went on to a decorated career as a mission integrator supporting counter-terrorism operations with the CIA, retiring in 2012 with over 22 years participating in sensitive missions in more than 25 countries.

Caster’s military service began when he entered active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 1979, serving as an aerospace photographic systems specialist teaching foreign nationals as a technical school instructor at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.

His college years started when he attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where he began pursuing illustration from 1985 to 1986. After his mother became ill, he wanted to be closer to his family, so he enrolled at RIT.

During Caster’s junior year, he attended a presentation by CIA recruiters. “My résumé included my military experience and security clearance, including my work with foreign military personnel (at Lowry),” he continued. “They hit on it immediately.”

Caster subsequently was called into an interview with CIA recruiters in 1988.

“For the most part, I built a design portfolio specifically for the agency,” he said. “They were looking for political and multicultural understanding. I wanted to do disguises; only Hollywood does it better than the CIA.”

Caster’s real-life experiences enabled him to design highly precise portraits, expertly matching skin tones and textures in his visual renderings and sketches.

His final “wild card” portfolio piece was an artist’s impression of a main battle tank with special armor on the latest tanks fielded by the former Soviet Union. No clear images of the armored vehicle existed anywhere in the West, but Caster was able to “fill in the gaps” with the up-close knowledge he gained from trying to identify vulnerabilities of similar tanks during his time in the military.

“I drew my impression of what that tank would look like,” Caster said. “They were amazed, and when they matched it against the real thing, it was very accurate.”

Caster landed a position as a visual information specialist from 1990 to 1993, when he was assigned to the Design and Presentation Center at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. There he specialized in crafting culturally unique illustrations and graphics in support of agency field operations and the presentation of finished intelligence. He also developed a forte for creating custom, highly visual presentations used to inform Congressional oversight committees.

Another specialty was designing formal portraits of high-level CIA officials, including outgoing directors, as gifts. His personal favorite is an “unfinished” rendering of Robert Gates, who served as former defense secretary and CIA director. “He left the position earlier than expected, so his work was not complete,” Caster explained.

While Caster’s art career at the CIA eventually gave way to supporting highly sensitive counter-terrorism operations worldwide over the next 20 years, “I still relied on my creative abilities many times throughout my career with the agency,” Caster said.