The Moscow Rules
The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War
Antonio J. and Jonna Mendez, with Matt Baglio
PublicAffairs, New York, 2019, 272 pages
Book Review published on: August 30, 2019
Few people have contributed more to helping the public better understand the reality of the intelligence business than former CIA officers Antonio and Jonna Mendez. Perhaps best known from the 2013 movie Argo, which portrays the successful exfiltration of six Americans who avoided capture during the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy, Antonio and his wife Jonna were experts in devising creative disguises and ingenious evasion techniques for the CIA. In The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War, they tell firsthand the story of how CIA officers leveraged new technologies and developed innovative disguises to enable some remarkably successful clandestine operations in what was perhaps the most challenging security environment on Earth. Their book is a reassuring testament to just how resourceful U.S. intelligence officers can be when faced with a determined and skillful adversary.
The book opens with a list of forty-two rules of thumb considered essential for successful intelligence operations in Moscow during the Cold War, hence the title of the book. At that time, Moscow was considered the leading “hard target” in the world because of relentless KGB (Komitet Gosudarstuvenno Bezopasnosti, or Committee for State Security) surveillance, and the CIA had a poor track record running clandestine operations there. Through illustrative personal experiences, the authors tell how that track record changed in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the CIA turned its Moscow operations around through innovative technology and creative thinking.
Among the many unique disguise methods developed for use in Moscow, perhaps the one that seems most like it is straight out of a Hollywood movie is the disguise-on-the-run. CIA officers experimented with evasion methods that could cope with the intense Russian security, looking for ways to exploit the miniscule gaps they had discovered in KGB surveillance. Antonio relates how he helped design the disguise-on-the-run so that it could be quickly donned while walking, allowing what looked like an ordinary businessman in a raincoat carrying a briefcase to transform within forty-five seconds into an old woman in a shawl pushing a grocery cart.1
Arguably, the most productive agent ever run by the CIA in Moscow is described in chapters 7 and 8. That agent was Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who provided invaluable information on Soviet weapons research and development programs. Although Tolkachev’s story has been told in detail elsewhere, such as in David E. Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy, the authors tell it from the vantage point of those figuring out ways to meet with Tolkachev under the nose of the KGB. The authors conclude that the success of “the Tolkachev operation owes a great debt of gratitude to the handful of legendary special effects wizards and magicians out in Hollywood who agreed to share their expertise with us.”2
Perhaps the most telling testament to the skill of the CIA’s officers (and their Hollywood mentors) comes from their adversaries on the streets of Moscow. As described by an agency historian, an “article in the Soviet newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya in February 1990 discussing the Tolkachev case was clearly the work of KGB officials. It contained a number of comments that can only be taken as grudging praise for the CIA,” such as providing
Tolkachev with a cleverly compiled meeting schedule. CIA instructors made provisions for even the tiniest of details … the miniature camera came with detailed instructions and a light meter … Let us give CIA experts the credit due them, they worked really hard to find poorly illuminated and deserted places in Moscow for meetings with Tolkachev.3
Antonio and Jonna Mendez almost certainly did as much as anyone to merit that praise.
Today’s intelligence agencies face multiple new challenges from technology, politics, and the private sector.4 The services that succeed “will be those who break the old rules of the spy game and work out new ones.”5 In The Moscow Rules, Antonio and Jonna Mendez remind us that U.S. intelligence professionals have historically proven themselves to be up to the challenge. As the authors themselves put it, “The history of the Moscow Rules gives us confidence that no matter what threat the Russians present to our intelligence community today, no matter how those challenges are packaged, the CIA will be ready.”6
- Antonio J. and Jonna Mendez, and Matt Baglio, The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019), 141-46.
- Ibid., 148.
- Barry G. Royden, “Tolkachev: A Worthy Successor to Penkovsky,” Studies in Intelligence 47, no. 1 (2003): 32-33.
- Edward Lucas, “The Future of Espionage,” Foreign Policy (Spring 2019): 21-27.
- Ibid., 21.
- Mendez and Baglio, The Moscow Rules, 215.
Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas