The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War

Image of The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War
Release Date: 
May 7, 2019
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This is a serious and engaging book about a serious business—learning as much as possible about an adversary through HUMINT—intelligence gathered covertly by human agents. HUMINT can supplement or substitute for satellite images and SIGNIT—intelligence from electronic signals. However, the HUMINT described in this book also depended heavily on technology—from facial disguises to cameras hidden in fountain pens to automobile driving so as to lose a tail and toss a bundle for a waiting agent.

The “Moscow rules” are the evolving guidelines by which American spies do their business in Russia, where extensive counterintelligence surveils every suspected foreign agent. The rules are supposed to shield US agents and protect Russians who risk their lives to give information to the enemy. Antonio and his wife did not invent the rules but helped to refine them. Antonio became one of the most highly decorated CIA agents after a 25-year career, 1965 to 1990. Jonna became chief of disguise at CIA headquarters in a shop that resembled the MI-5 laboratory in James Bond films.  

The authors got into the HUMINT operations of the CIA by a series of flukes, starting with Antonio’s childhood interest in magic and his work as a draftsman and painter. Once on the CIA payroll, he spent much time in Hollywood mastering many aspects of stage makeup and performance.

If the reader thinks all this is a lark, she or he will discover that life and death issues were at stake. One of the most valuable US/UK assets in Moscow, Col. Oleg Penkovsk, may have been compromised by his practice of giving intelligence-filled chocolates to some British embassy children. Many other Soviet-era double agents were betrayed by American insider-traitors.  

Thanks to economic and other factors, the Cold War may have followed its real-life trajectory with no help from tricks and dirty tricks, but we cannot be sure. Penkovsky delivered detailed information on Soviet missiles that, together with satellite images, bolstered JFK’s confidence that Khrushchev was exaggerating his nuclear-missile strengths. This knowledge permitted the US president to take a firmer stand on Cuba in 1962 than if he had taken Soviet claims at face value.  

Information provided to one of the first female CIA agents in Moscow by another Soviet, code-named TRIGON, in the mid-1970s, before he was compromised (by a Czech double agent) and committed suicide, “changed the face of the Cold War,” according to this book. President Carter and his security assistant, Zbigniew Brzezinski, were suitably impressed.

Still another informant, Adolf G. Tolkachev (code-named CKSPHERE), delivered reams of technical info on his institute’s innovations for Soviet fighter planes and radar, saving the Pentagon huge sums by knowing about new Soviet equipment before it was deployed. Tolkachev requested a suicide pill in case he was caught, but the pill was elsewhere when he was apprehended and so he was executed, leaving his wife and children behind.

Antonio notes in passing that his CIA office also planned assassinations. He and his wife operated in a tough milieu. Besides the several moles within the CIA, Antonio also expresses profound displeasure with Stansfield Turner (Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, 1977–1981) and Arthur Hartman (Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow, 1981–1987), because they failed to do more to support clandestine operations. (For a more balanced picture, see Turner’s obituary in The New York Times, January 18, 2018, and Hartman’s, March 18, 2015; also that of Antonio Mendez, January 21, 2019. See also reviews in the Washington Post and elsewhere of his post-CIA landscape paintings, his wife’s photographs, and his son’s sculptures. 

The authors record many cases of intelligence gained but say nothing about the negative outcomes of some CIA operations. Antonio played a key role in smuggling six US diplomats out of Iran, as depicted in the book and the film entitled Argo, but one would never grasp from this book how the US blindly courted the Shah and did almost nothing to deal with the furies his rule fostered.

Not only did many CIA-assisted coups backfire, as in Chile, but the CIA also failed to anticipate profound challenges to US interests as they emerged in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. With some exceptions, the CIA tended to exaggerate Soviet economic and military power and to underestimate Soviet weaknesses. The authors of Moscow Rules probably had no hand in these big picture disasters—omissions and commissions, but their book could encourage a short-sighted view of what is good for the United States in world affairs.

Mendez claims in the Epilogue that the CIA defeated the KGB in Moscow but notes that the Putin regime has taken the game into new territory by efforts to manipulate the US government. Though the book appears to have been completed in 2018, Mendez fails to acknowledge what may have been one of the greatest intelligence achievements in history: Russian help to elect a US president many of whose whose words and deeds serve Kremlin interests.

Anyone wishing to know how the Cold War was waged in scientific laboratories and back alleys as well as other levels in public view should read this book. But this is not a handbook of political wisdom. It not a guide to wise policymaking. The authors say nothing about costs—the material, psychological, spiritual, and opportunity costs of their endeavors. In retrospect one can say that the US-Soviet competition profited no one except the makers of military hardware.

What if—instead of persistent efforts at learning the other side’s military and political secrets—there had been a more serious study of policies that could enhance the true fitness of all concerned? The Cold War competition showed that the top-down Soviet system was too inefficient to endure. The United States and its partners prevailed, but at what cost—not just in blood and treasure but opportunity costs if resources had been channeled to more productive ends?

To be sure, the Soviets started the competition when a power-hungry clique led by monomaniacal leaders took the helm in 1917 and started a campaign to overthrow capitalism. The tactics perfected by Antonio Mendez and others were part of a broader response to Soviet actions. The United States often followed a model of multiple symmetry—whatever they did, we tried to do better.  Americans will be tempted to say, “We had no choice but to match and outdo them.” 

But this response ignores how the other side saw the situation. The hardline taken by former KGB agent Vladimir Putin looks like a virtual repeat of erstwhile Soviet policies. But Putin’s instincts were surely intensified by NATO expansion in the 1990s into countries that had been Soviet satellites or even Soviet Republics. George F. Kennan and other seasoned observers warned that bringing the alliance to the Russian border would trigger terrible consequences. But the Clinton administration, riding high, felt it could do as it pleased vis-à-vis a weakened Russia led by a boozy Boris Yeltsin.

Who was to blame for the dark aspects of human behavior—Adam or Eve or our genes? Dirty tricks are comparatively easy; wise foresight and appropriate action are hard.