The Moscow Rules

More spy stuff.

This one came to me for review from the Amazon Vine program.

Review: The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War, Antonio Mendez and Jonna Mendez with Matt Baglio, 2019.51L4Zb7vRoL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

You’re in a gloomy city, Moscow. The natives, out of self preservation, don’t like to talk to you. Everywhere you go, you are followed. In fact, if you’re a diplomat or a CIA agent operating under diplomatic cover, there are tens of thousands of KGB agents in the city to watch you every time you step out. They’ve bugged your embassy. They’ve bugged your apartment. They’ve bugged your phone.

Go out and chat up the local Russians and try to recruit them to be spies? If you do manage to recruit any, if they actually volunteer to give you information, authentic information and not “dangles” meant to embarrass you to create a diplomatic incident or feed you misinformation, how are you going to get it? A dead drop when your surveilled by multiple teams of KGB agents? A brush contact?

You might as well try to try to recruit agents on Mars. In fact, that’s just what your boss, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, said.

You remember what happened in that Oleg Penkovsky case? He was that member of the Russian military intelligence, the GRU, that gave very valuable information to the CIA on Soviet missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know what happened to him? Well, KGB legend says he was burned alive, an event filmed to give  show what “death to traitors” means. (This book doesn’t actually note his reputed method of execution.) That was back in 1963.

And can you really trust any agent from the Soviet bloc? They just want to feed you misinformation. That’s what the CIA’s famous chief of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, held.

That was how things stood if you were a CIA agent in Moscow in the early 1970s.

This book was how that all changed. How the CIA developed the Moscow Rules for conducting intelligence in the “denied area” of the Soviet capitol. How you can use surveillance to lure the watchers into complacency. How, if you can just avoid surveillance on the street for 15 or 20 seconds, you can meet up with your agents. How you can even tap a secured communication line running from a military base to the Soviet Ministry of Defense.

It was done with magic. Literally, tricks developed from street and stage magicians. It was done with the help of Hollywood makeup masters like John Chambers.

Antonio Mendez, who started out as a self-employed graphics designer, became a forger in the CIA’s Office of Technical Services and, eventually, its master of disguise. In pop culture, he was played by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo based on Mendez’s famous mission to exfiltrate US diplomats from Khomeni’s Tehran.

This is not just his story or the story of his wife Jonna Mendez but also the story of how CIA administrators and technical staff developed the Moscow Rules, and CIA agents on the ground put the Moscow Rules into practice and refined them.

And it’s the story of how it all came tumbling down from traitors within the CIA and the inevitable countertechniques the KGB developed.

This book is full of the nitty-gritty of tradecraft and chokeful of spy gadgets: miniature cameras, disguise kits, hidden radios, “spy dust”, burst transmitters (the world’s first Blackberry in effect). There’s sex dolls and cyanide pills – which the CIA really didn’t like giving to its Russian agents — too.

Even if you are familiar with the stories of traitors Aldrich Ames and Edward Lee Howard (I had heard Howard’s name but knew little about his characters), that level of detail and meeting lesser known CIA agents like Marsha Petersen, the first to put the Moscow Rules into effect on a mission, make this must reading for fans of espionage history.

My only small complaint is that this is another modern espionage history still tinged by the Cold War assumption that Russia is still America’s main adversary (the book opens with an attack by Federal Security Bureau (the descendent of the KGB) agents on an American diplomat in 2016). That would seem to be China these days, but it’s understandable that Antonio Mendez, whose CIA career ended in 1991, would still retain the attitudes of a Cold Warrior.

Fortean Aside

One of those magicians that the CIA consulted with was Jim Steinmeyer who wrote a biography of Charles Fort.



More reviews of works on espionage history are indexed on the espionage page.

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