“The Moscow Rules”: The CIA’s Unwritten Rules of Engagement For Spies In Soviet Russia

CIA cold war

The Cold War almost brought the United States and the Soviet Union to blows, but it was narrowly avoided. But the conflict was enough to keep their intelligence operatives on their toes.

Operating Against The KGB

West Berlin, Vienna, and Washington were hotbeds of spy activity, and espionage was taken very seriously. If the Soviets caught you, you were tortured or killed. If a CIA agent was exposed and sent home, their career was over.

It was difficult for the CIA to work in Moscow. Only the top agents could make it, and they followed a set of unwritten rules while there.

In his memoirs, CIA officer Tony Mendez discussed the agency’s unwritten rules that officers and agents were required to follow while in the country, “the Moscow Rules.”

Tony Mendez wrote in The Master of Disguise, “Although no one had written them down, they were the precepts we all understood… By the time they got to Moscow, everyone knew these rules. They were dead simple and full of common sense…”

The Unwritten Rules

The first rule was assume nothing. CIA operatives were expected to ask questions and thoroughly vet every piece of information. Rule two was never to go against your gut. You know that sinking feeling you get when something doesn’t feel quite right? Listen to it, and it will never steer you wrong.

Anyone and everyone could be working against you. CIA agents had to assume everyone was a KGB operative. Rule four is never look back. You are never completely alone. The KGB could be listening on a wire, even in their homes.

Rule five was to go with the flow and blend in. Agents were expected to stick to their cover story the entire time they were in Moscow. Vary your pattern and stay within your cover. The KGB surveilled anyone they thought might be an American spy and were relentless.

Lull them into a sense of complacency. If the KGB team surveilling you believes your back story, they may slip up. Don’t harass the opposition because it’s not wise to poke the bear.

Pick the time and place for action. For example, if a CIA agent meets with another operative, then the case officer gets to set the rules.

The final rule was to keep your options open. Operatives were always changing sides, so they had to be open to new informants and plans.




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