By Lieba Nesis
Meeting the world’s busiest former covert operative is sure to be a hassle. I tried to set up an appointment for months only to receive the reply “Sorry I will be in a different country that day.” For those who don’t know Tony Schiena he is certainly an enigma: I use the monikers “superstar” and “superspy” when referencing him. Interviewing a former spy is difficult because there are so many topics and names that are off limits-I had no idea what to expect. I was a bit nervous as to whether I would strike the right tone; a fear that was later confirmed as he became increasingly exasperated with my open ended queries.
Schiena arrived two hours late after concluding six meetings; and was inundated with telephone calls and text messages through the duration of the interview. These were not typical conversations like, “honey what’s for dinner,” but more along the urgent lines of “where should we send our people. “ Tony’s father was an Italian businessman and his mother is a Dutch housewife; hence he possesses both the machismo of an Italian tough guy as well as the perfectly chiseled features of a Dutch model. He speaks fluent German, Dutch, English and Italian. He not only trained as a spy and was a CIA asset in South Africa Johannesburg when he was 19, but went on to become the World Karate Champion (before retiring after breaking both ankles), head of an NGO to combat sex trafficking and owner of his own private military intelligence company called MOSAIC.
His company uses the best operatives from different militaries for intelligence, tactical and training operations (even choosing soldiers from the Sayeret Matkal of Israel); and now specializes in asset tracing and recovery. He helps those who have been defrauded of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars who can’t collect from the perpetrators because they live in countries that are not as legally sound as the US, such as the Middle East and United Arab Emirates. I foolishly inquire how he does this and receive his coldhearted response, “we do it legally but you can’t really expect me to answer that.” In 2016 he fought ISIS on the front lines while training Kurdish special forces in counterinsurgency; and has been credited with exposing ISIS’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds-and that’s the stuff we know about.
If that wasn’t cool enough at 6 ft. 3 he looks every bit the Hollywood protagonist; better looking than a young Harrison Ford, and more real life gravitas than ten Hollywood action stars combined. His eyes reveal a world-weariness greater than any Tinseltown leading man. His high IQ, accompanied by a killer South African accent, is readily apparent as his sophisticated vocabulary and perfect enunciation catch me off guard. Tony, whose idea of vacationing is writing a movie, wrote produced and starred in the 2016 action film “Darc” with a Netflix release later this year . Tony has harsh words for Hollywood and has a hard time coming to terms with “Hollywood types”. Tony is straight-faced when he calls Hollywood’s unscrupulousness “more of a war zone than Iraq;” while humorously acknowledging that real action moves are direct and ungraceful unlike Hollywood’s romanticized fight scenes.
Growing up “Karate Kid” had an incredible impact on Tony who later became buddies with Pat Morita even buying his Bronco from his wife when he died. Schiena recalls his youthful obsession with fellow action stars Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal and felt disappointed and “unimpressed” when he met them. While Seagal and Van Damme may act like tough guys when the special forces need a trainer they look to Schiena. It is still hard to believe Schiena is for real as he sounds like a character out of a John Grisham novel or James Bond movie.
I feverishly check the internet to confirm the veracity of his story. A lot of guys embellish their past but usually their fibs are more conventional. I see he was on a panel with the Pope on sex trafficking and has appeared in twelve Hollywood movies. Could a 42-year-old really accomplish all these milestones? And yet Tony looks weathered; like he has lived nine lives plus in a very short span of time. I sense it is all true and maybe even underembellished as his quiet impassive manner is the paradigm of a true professional-he only speaks when spoken to. Tony discusses attending the yearly meetings the Pope presides over, accompanied by other religious leaders from around the world. When I ask how it was to work with Al Pacino and speak with the Pope he refreshingly responds, “I really don’t look at actors or any other people in any other light other than normal people. And then you meet Presidents, Heads Of State and Religions and they are all just normal people”. He does seem incredibly unfazed by his surroundings. The history of Schiena is equally mysterious as Tony’s trajectory into the world of intelligence was very unconventional-not the typical Eaton or West Point graduate. In fact his story sounds more Hollywood than Hollywood.
Born outside of Johannesburg he was in college studying International Trade and Law, wanting to become a maritime attorney when his professor befriended him; ultimately, deciding he would be the perfect CIA asset during a time of tremendous turmoil in South Africa. He used the cover of a ship’s agent and international trader to move around various countries with alacrity. The government wanted a smooth transition from apartheid to the African National Congress with Mandela being the logical person to take over in 1994- Tony points out that up until 1994 Mandela was unofficially on the FBI’s top ten wanted list, until he became President in 1994. During this time Schiena was part of a CIA-led team, trying to prevent the two right wing parties in South Africa from collaborating by driving a wedge between the two parties by “false flag operations”- I was now savvy enough not to ask what that meant. He said there was inherent danger involved, which he was too young to recognize, because you are dealing with extremist mentality. During this time he was on the National Karate team becoming the World Karate Champion five years later until he was forced to retire due to two broken ankles. I foolishly ask, “how were you able to be both an operative and a karate champion,”? He stares at me incredulously with the response, “karate was my sport not my job you don’t make money from karate.”
Moving on, as my nerves begin to heighten, Tony continues to discuss the peaceful transition of power to Nelson Mandela in 1994 and his subsequent relocation to Eastern Europe and Budapest- trying to figure out what to do after dropping out of college. The professor who recruited Schiena disappears and he needs to reestablish a new contact. “Are you curious as to what happened to your recruiter?” I naively inquire. Surprisingly, Schiena responds that he doesn’t really care since he was pissed off that he was used as an expendable asset-this is straight out of the film “Spy Games.” Schiena won’t say where he was an operative or with whom but continues that at the behest of a fellow agent, who was assassinated in Budapest, he moves to California and embarks on a relatively successful acting career finding it weird to “imitate characters that he does for real.” Come September 11th and Tony is relaxing in California itching to get back to his intelligence roots and save some lives. As he watched the events unfold on television he thinks ,”what the hell am I doing in Los Angeles doing make believe stuff when all this real stuff is going on”? And so he starts his company MOSAIC without ever mentioning the word “mercenary”. Schiena casually remarks that he just came back from Miami to meet a man who flew in from Switzerland to hire Tony to recover his property in Venezuela. The next day Tony was in New York running a panel on sex trafficking, guarding a high threat person, and meeting with dozens of people.
In the next week he will be in Jordan, Israel, Switzerland, Beirut, Italy and London-where his satellite office is located. He says he is in perpetual jet lag working from the wee hours of morning until late at night with little recovery time. Upcoming “vacations” include traveling to Katmandu, an excursion up Everest and a motorcycle trip from the Himalayas into India. His high-level connections allow him access to private jets and mega-yachts with a planned trip to the salt-flats of Bolivia on the horizon. He owns homes in various countries including Dubai but was hesitant to reveal where.
When I ask how many phones he possesses, a relatively innocuous question, he again hesitates to answer. What do you think of Putin, the Dalia Lama, Benjamin Netanyahu-once again no answer. His diet consists of coffee with oil in the morning and eating clean the rest of the day. He makes sure to work out every day regardless of whether he is in Pakistan or Los Angeles; he is often in five different countries a week many of which have no gyms. I ask him if he made it big in Hollywood what would be his first big splurge. He quickly responds that he is not into “big toys” but is satisfied that he has the freedom to do what he wants. In fact, he has no more than 20 suits and lives a relatively simple life. I never ask about his personal life but assume he is unmarried since he wears no ring and doesn’t mention children-something that is later confirmed.
Tony informs me has to leave as he is late for two meetings and a business function. I try to find out what drives him and if he ever experiences commonplace nerves. “Of course, I get nervous all the time,” he responds. “What makes you nervous”? I ask in the hopes of getting a banal response such as spiders or the ocean. Predictably, he replies, “I fear that a sniper is going to kill me when I am fighting on the front lines”-so much for that. Tony has learned to control his nerves through mental conditioning and meditation. When we head outside he complains he is cold and grabs his coat-finally revealing a modicum of human frailty. When it is time to call a taxi he hurriedly runs away and I look around wondering if there is a telephone booth nearby where he can quickly change.