If Moscow Rules sound like a playbook for Cold War spying that’s because they were developed in the decades before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a deadly era when Moscow surveillance was a smothering embrace of hostile scrutiny.
The Moscow Rules
A gentleman’s agreement was brokered between the US and Russia to tone down the danger. Spies would be ‘PNG’d’ - expelled as a persona non grata - rather than harmed but US contacts in Moscow still faced almost certain death. The ‘Moscow Rules’ became shorthand to describe the tradecraft needed to operate secretly in the world’s most dangerous city.
“There's a Moscow Rule that tells you to assume the bad guys are behind you and don't look over your shoulder,” Jonna Mendez, an ex-CIA spy and co-author of Moscow Rules, told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast. “Just assume that they're there, but you keep moving forward, always working on what's coming - what's next, what's ahead.”
Tony Mendez - an ex-CIA agent and Jonna’s late husband - laid out many of the Moscow Rules in his memoir, The Master of Disguise. Mendez, who was played by actor Ben Affleck in the movie Argo - worked in Russia In 1976, when the Moscow Rules were a one-page ‘Eyes Only’ classified memo.
The Cone of Silence
The rules were explained to Mendez in the US embassy ‘bubble’ - a plastic, walled enclosure raised from the floor and nicknamed the ‘Cone of Silence’ in honor of the TV show Get Smart. Mendez was ordered to follow Moscow Rules to the letter. It was the height of the Cold War, and he’d entered the belly of the beast.
He broke down the rules roughly as follows:
1. Everyone is a potential spy
“Assume every Soviet you encounter is connected to a larger surveillance apparatus,” Mendez was told. “This means the woman shovelling snow in the winter and the guy selling ice cream in Gorky Park. The ticket-taker at the zoo reports to the KGB. The bartenders in every hard-currency bar and restaurant are on the payroll of the Seventh Chief Directorate. Half the taxis in this part of the city are driven by their men.”
2. Maintain non-threatening behavior patterns
The KGB's Seventh Chief Directorate dedicated a team to follow each suspected US intelligence officer 24 hours a day on foot and using a rotating stable of cars. The KGB studied their behavior patterns, demeanor, and examined daily profiles. Spies had to check their behavior whenever they stepped outside of the embassy or their apartment. Any change might mean increased surveillance. The KGB also scrutinized Canadian and West Germans so there was no safety in hiding among allies.
3. Don’t speak freely at home or work
Mendez’s apartment was bugged 24/7 and the transmission live streamed. Phone lines into offices and apartments were also bugged. US Embassy staff, targeted by microwave rays, suspected their homes were bugged with augmented audio to acquire ‘spicy’ tapes for potential blackmail. “Not only do the walls have ears,” Mendez was told. “They also have beady, bloodshot eyes.”
4. No ‘provocative’ moves
Any suspicious actions could blow apart a carefully constructed legend. The KGB would marshal additional teams if a suspected secret agent ran a red light, bolted across traffic, or drove the wrong way down a one-way street. “This type of action was absolutely against Moscow Rules, unless it became necessary for officers, near the end of their tours, to try to break surveillance this way,” Mendez said.
SPYSCAPE’s Moscow Rules
• Listen to your gut
• Trust no one, betrayal may come from within
• Go with the flow to maintain your cover
• Keep your options open
• Build in opportunity but use it sparingly
• Pick the time and place for action
• Use misdirection, illusion, and deception
• Appear non-threatening to lull your opponent into complacency
• Murphy’s Law is right; technology will let you down
• Don’t look back, assume the bad guys are behind you and keep moving forward