The Moscow Rules

The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War


By Antonio J. Mendez

By Jonna Mendez

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From the spymaster and inspiration for the movie Argo, discover the “real-life spy thriller” of the brilliant but under-supported CIA operatives who developed breakthrough spy tactics that helped turn the tide of the Cold War (Malcolm Nance).

Antonio Mendez and his future wife Jonna were CIA operatives working to spy on Moscow in the late 1970s, at one of the most dangerous moments in the Cold War. Soviets kept files on all foreigners, studied their patterns, and tapped their phones. Intelligence work was effectively impossible. The Soviet threat loomed larger than ever.

The Moscow Rules tells the story of the intelligence breakthroughs that turned the odds in America’s favor. As experts in disguise, Antonio and Jonna were instrumental in developing a series of tactics — Hollywood-inspired identity swaps, ingenious evasion techniques, and an armory of James Bond-style gadgets — that allowed CIA officers to outmaneuver the KGB.

As Russia again rises in opposition to America, this remarkable story is a tribute to those who risked everything for their country, and to the ingenuity that allowed them to succeed.


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• Murphy is right.

• Never go against your gut.

• Always listen to your gut; it is your operational antenna.

• Everyone is potentially under opposition control.

• Don’t look back; you are never completely alone. Use your gut.

• Go with the flow; use the terrain.

• Take the natural break of traffic.

• Maintain a natural pace.

• Establish a distinctive and dynamic profile and pattern.

• Stay consistent over time.

• Vary your pattern, and stay within your profile.

• Be nonthreatening; keep them relaxed. Mesmerize!

• Lull them into a sense of complacency.

• Know the opposition and their terrain intimately.

• Build in opportunity, but use it sparingly.

• Don’t harass the opposition.

• Make sure they can anticipate your destination.

• Pick the time and the place for action.

• Any operation can be aborted; if it feels wrong, then it is wrong.

• Keep your options open.

• If your gut says to act, overwhelm their senses.

• Use misdirection, illusion, and deception.

• Hide small operative motions in larger nonthreatening motions.

• Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.

• When free, in obscura (IO), immediately change direction and leave the area.

• Break your trail, and blend into the local scene.

• Execute a surveillance-detection run designed to draw them out over time.

• Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is an enemy action.

• Avoid static lookouts; stay away from choke points where they can reacquire you.

• Select an IO or meeting site so you can overlook the scene.

• Keep any asset separated from you by time and distance until it is time.

• If the asset has surveillance, then the operation has gone bad.

• Only approach the site when you are sure it is clean.

• After the IO meeting or act is done, close the loop at a logical cover destination.

• Be aware of surveillance’s time tolerance so they aren’t forced to raise an alert.

• If an alert is issued, they must pay a price, and so must you.

• Let them believe they lost you; act innocent.

• There is no limit to a human being’s ability to rationalize the truth.

• Technology will always let you down.

• Never fall in love with your agent.

• Betrayal may come from within.


This book contains stories from two overlapping careers in the CIA that, combined, spanned fifty-two years. For reasons of clarity, we’ve chosen to write most of our stories from Tony’s perspective, but we have also included some narratives that can only be told from Jonna’s point of view. In those cases, we’ve told those stories, her stories, in third person. Throughout the book, first-person pronouns such as “I” and “me” refer to Tony.


“Don’t harass the opposition.”

It was still dark in Moscow on the morning of June 6, 2016. Sunrise would not come until 3:48 a.m. at this northern latitude. The temperature was cool, hovering around fifty degrees Fahrenheit. The YouTube video does not show these parameters, but they set the scene: early morning, nighttime, and chilly.

The images are grainy but clear enough to make out the incident. Point of view is a security camera focused on the facade of a building. A well-lit glass doorway occupies the center of the frame. Lower right on the screen, a bright-yellow taxi emerges and pulls up to that doorway. A male figure steps out. In silhouette, we can see that the passenger is wearing a knit cap, pulled down low, and a light jacket over street clothes, but his face is obscured. He does not stop to pay the driver; he must have done so as they approached his destination. He takes three steps toward the doorway when a uniformed figure explodes out of a guard booth to the right of the frame. Moving blindingly fast, like an animated figure out of a cartoon, the guard attacks him and slams him to the ground.

This is all in the first four seconds of a one-minute video. What’s happening is that the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, is attacking a US citizen who is trying to enter the American embassy, located in the Presnensky District in Moscow’s city center.

The American is an officer assigned to the US embassy. Blindsided, he is thrown to the ground, pinned on his back. The Russian throws punches at him from above, almost as if the two were engaged in a World Wrestling Entertainment street brawl. Amazingly, while the Russian flays away at him, the American manages to kick and slide his way toward the two glass doors separating him from the safety of his embassy: US sovereign territory. After twenty seconds, it’s clear that the American is making progress, although the Russian is still raining blows on him.

Five seconds later, the officer is close enough to reach back and just touch the right-hand portion of the glass door.

The door must have an electronic sensor on it, because it opens almost instantly. The Russian struggles to maintain control, and yet the American is somehow able to swing one leg up and through the opening. A second later, the American lifts his other leg through the door and begins shoving back against the frame, pushing the two of them deeper into the American embassy foyer. They are clearly on American soil now. However, the Russian doesn’t let up and continues to pummel the American with blows. The screen goes black.

It is not clear at what point in the attack the American’s collarbone was broken, but he was evacuated out of Moscow the following day to receive urgent medical treatment.

This unprecedented physical attack on an accredited American diplomat violated all the protocols governing relations between Western countries. But the larger context was even more alarming. In the months leading up to the incident, American diplomats in Moscow had been aggressively targeted by the Russian security services on numerous occasions. US officials had their cars vandalized, their homes broken into, and their children followed home from school. Russian agents reportedly even broke in and killed the dog of a US Defense attaché in the city. The US State Department was so alarmed that it called the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, to launch a formal complaint.1

All this paled in comparison to the subsequent hacking and information war launched by the Russian secret services in an attempt to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election. A declassified intelligence assessment published on January 6, 2017, determined that Russia used a multifaceted approach involving paid social-media users, or “trolls,” as well as cyberoperations against targets like the Democratic National Committee in order to influence the election. In addition, Russia’s state-run media outlets served up made-up stories designed to misinform and contributed to the influence campaign by offering a platform for the Kremlin on an international stage. Even more alarming, though, was the conclusion by the US intelligence community that this operation was the “new normal” in a concerted effort on the part of Russia to undermine the US-led liberal-democratic order.2

In response, President Obama decided to expel thirty-five Russian diplomats and to close two compounds used by the Russian government inside the United States. In addition, Obama imposed sanctions on two of Russia’s intelligence agencies, including the military intelligence organization known as the Glavnoye Razedyvatelnoye Upravlenie, or GRU. Both of these moves made observers wonder if the United States and Russia might be entering into a new Cold War.

It was thought by some political pundits that the election of Donald Trump might be able to thaw the growing tension between Washington and the Kremlin. Throughout his campaign, Trump seemed to go out of his way to praise Putin at every opportunity, and even now, he is still reluctant to admit that Russia played any kind of role in trying to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. However, even President Trump was forced to act when Russian security agents were accused of poisoning a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, in Britain on March 5, 2018. In a similar move to President Obama’s, the Trump administration expelled nearly sixty Russian diplomats and ordered the Russian consulate in Seattle to be closed.3 Russia was quick to hit back, expelling sixty US diplomats and closing the American consulate in St. Petersburg.

While some call these developments “unprecedented,” as a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who spent time in Moscow during the Cold War, I am reminded of the adage that history tends to repeat itself.

During the summer of 1986, the United States and the Soviet Union went through a very similar tit-for-tat affair, known as the PNG War, which was touched off when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Soviet physicist Gennady Zakharov on charges of espionage. The Soviets responded by arresting US journalist Nicholas Daniloff, and in retaliation, the US government expelled twenty-five Soviet diplomats. The Soviets followed in kind, and then, in a coup de grâce, the Russians removed all 183 Foreign National employees from Moscow and Leningrad, plus another 77 personal maids, teachers, and private staff. Almost overnight, the American embassy in Moscow became the only US diplomatic mission in a foreign country with no Foreign Service National employees.

There have been other flare-ups over the years. The truth is that our two countries have always had a tense relationship. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the consensus among experts was that Russia’s ability to influence world events was finished. Their infrastructure was crumbling; their economy was in ruins; and their political leadership was in disarray. Yet somehow Russia has been able to claw its way back onto the world stage.

It’s anyone’s guess what this might mean for the balance of power going forward, but America’s clandestine services have never been more relevant to the security of our nation. For this reason, I think there are important lessons to be learned from the past. If this really is going to be the start of a new Cold War, then it seems only logical to examine the operations that played such a vital role in helping America to defeat the Soviet Union in the first place.

Throughout the Cold War, roughly from 1955 to 1988, the CIA and KGB faced off on just about every continent. Nowhere was this battle more acute than on the streets of Moscow. During the Cold War, Moscow was categorized as a “denied area.” According to Thomas Allen and Norman Polmar’s The Encyclopedia of Espionage, a denied area is “a country with such strict internal security that foreign intelligence agents dare not contact informants in person.” It is an apt description. The Soviet capital was teeming with KGB surveillance.

In the end, the harsh conditions in Moscow as well as the paranoid nature of the society itself forced the CIA to refine its tactics and develop a fresh point of view in order to combat the KGB’s Seventh Directorate, which was responsible for surveillance. This new approach—including not only a new set of techniques but also a host of new technologies and disguise methods as well as the recruitment of a new type of case officer—would come to be known as the “Moscow Rules,” and it would revolutionize clandestine operations for years to come.


“If the asset has surveillance, then the operation has gone bad.”

On the morning of November 2, 1962, the wife of Hugh Montgomery, the CIA’s deputy chief in Moscow, answered a telephone call. On the other end, the caller remained silent for ten seconds and hung up. When Montgomery’s wife told him what happened, he immediately realized the implications and began to make arrangements. The silent call was part of a prearranged signal from a Soviet spy named Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky had been missing for several months, and the CIA feared the worst. Now, out of the blue, the spy had resurfaced to signal that the Soviets were about to start World War III.1

Code-named HERO, Penkovsky was a colonel in the GRU, Soviet military intelligence. He also held a senior position at the State Committee for Coordination of Scientific Research Work, a government body that oversaw technology exchanges with the West. Both positions provided him with invaluable access to Russian military and technological capabilities.

Penkovsky first tried to contact the CIA in the winter of 1960 by handing a letter to a couple of American tourists in Red Square. After similar attempts the letter made its way into the hands of the CIA, which grew instantly suspicious. The letter was too vague. In it, Penkovsky wrote that he had important information on numerous subjects that would surely be of interest to the American government. However, he had refused to identify himself, and the chief of Moscow Station feared the whole thing might be a KGB trap. Penkovsky finally handed another letter to a British businessman, who then shared it with British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). In this letter, Penkovsky included enough details to allow his identity to be confirmed, and the Brits and Americans decided to work together. This was at a time when an indifferent American public’s knowledge of espionage was primarily derived from watching James Bond movies or reading the recent John le Carré best seller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Reality, it would seem, was trumping fiction.

Penkovsky was a dedicated and motivated spy. He hated the KGB and was disillusioned with the Soviet regime, which had repeatedly overlooked him for promotion.

Over the next seventeen months, he would become one of the most productive Soviet assets the CIA had ever run in Moscow. Their first face-to-face meeting with the Russian spy took place in a hotel room in London, where Penkovsky handed over an envelope stuffed with secret documents that included diagrams of Soviet missiles and launchers. On two subsequent visits to London and another to Paris, he delivered more than a hundred rolls of exposed film, along with nearly twelve hundred pages of handwritten notes and diagrams. In all, he provided the CIA with so much classified information that thirty translators and analysts were hired to work on the material full time.

Washington made Penkovsky’s intelligence a top priority. It was hand delivered to the president and assigned two code names, IRONBARK and CHICKADEE, to make it appear as if the material came from more than one source. The information touched on a variety of sensitive topics, including Soviet intentions during the Berlin blockade as well as the technical capabilities of nuclear missiles that the Russians sent to Cuba in the fall of 1962. In fact, it can be argued that Penkovsky’s intelligence played a key role in helping President Kennedy stand up to the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, during the Cuban missile crisis. The American president knew not only the exact type of missile the Russians had placed in Cuba but also that Khrushchev was overstating the capability of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Kennedy knew it was unlikely that the Soviets would go to war with the United States, and when he called Khrushchev’s bluff, the Soviet leader backed down.2

For his role in helping the United States navigate the Cuban missile crisis, Penkovsky would be dubbed the Spy Who Saved the World and acknowledged as one of the CIA’s most important assets of the early Cold War era.3

In the beginning, there were no rules. The Penkovsky operation went relatively smoothly while the spy was allowed to travel abroad, where it was much easier for him to slip away and meet up with his CIA handlers. Things changed, however, in the fall of 1961, when his foreign travel was curtailed. The CIA in the 1960s was woefully unprepared to run such a sensitive operation out of the US embassy in Moscow, and so arrangements had been made with MI6 to handle the case jointly. The British assigned Janet Chisholm, the wife of the MI6 station chief, to serve as a go-between for the Russian agent, and over a three-month period, she met with Penkovsky almost a dozen times.

In the summer of 1962, the CIA finally sent a trained case officer, Rodney Carlson, to link up with Penkovsky in Moscow, but Carlson and Penkovsky would never meet. By September, the Russian spy had disappeared. Had something gone wrong? Penkovsky had always been one to take risks, sometimes daring to snap photographs of sensitive materials when Soviet officials had only just stepped away from their desks. Perhaps he’d been in an accident or become ill. Due to the sensitive nature of the operation, Montgomery decided to wait rather than risk attempting contact. Then, on the morning of November 2, Montgomery’s wife lifted the telephone receiver and heard ten seconds of silence: Penkovsky had resurfaced.

Because of the heavy surveillance in Moscow, the established way of communicating with Penkovsky was a dead drop. The location for the drop was a radiator tucked under the stairs inside the entrance to an apartment building on Pushkinskaya Street. However, in the event that the spy had critical time-sensitive information—namely, that Russia was about to attack the United States—Penkovsky was to dial a series of telephone numbers, remain silent for a specified amount of time, and then hang up.4

After the silent call to the Montgomery residence, consensus at the US embassy was that the warning was a false alarm. It’s true that in November 1962, Soviet nuclear missiles were still in Cuba. But tensions had abated, and the crisis had passed. It seemed unlikely the Soviets would suddenly launch a preemptive strike after backing down. So then why had Penkovsky placed the call? With so much at stake, a case officer named Richard Jacob was sent to see if Penkovsky had loaded the dead drop site with a new message. But when Jacob entered the dingy hallway and approached the radiator, a team of KGB officers sprang from the shadows and grabbed him. It then became clear that the KGB had placed the call and set a trap. How the Russians had known the location of the dead drop and the procedure for the silent phone call was also clear: Penkovsky must have told them.

Confirmation of Penkovsky’s arrest arrived in the December 12 issue of the Russian newspaper Pravda. The article reported that the spy had been apprehended in late October, a full week before the silent call. Throughout his time in Moscow, Penkovsky had met with Janet Chisholm multiple times and passed small packages of chocolates to her, ostensibly for her three children but with exposed photographic film inside. It was unclear when and how he had been compromised, but the KGB likely had witnessed one of these exchanges and become suspicious. Or possibly George Blake, a British spy recently exposed as a double agent, had tipped them off.

Whatever the source of their suspicions, the KGB had drilled a hole in the ceiling of Penkovsky’s study and installed a camera. They had also hidden a camera on his windowsill and stationed an officer in a building across the river. Finally, a search of Penkovsky’s apartment unearthed a cache of espionage-related equipment, including a Panasonic radio used as a one-way voice link (OWVL) to send coded messages, a one-time pad (OTP) used to compose ciphers, and other encryption devices.

After grabbing him at the dead drop, the KGB held Jacob for a few hours, photographed him, and sent him back to the US embassy. Because he was an officer with diplomatic immunity, the Russians could do nothing to him. However, now that he had been identified, Jacob was declared persona non grata (PNG’d), and his days in Moscow were effectively over. He was put on a flight the following morning. Meanwhile, Oleg Penkovsky wasn’t so lucky. After a brief trial, the Soviets executed him on May 17, 1963.

The capture and killing of Oleg Penkovsky was a decisive moment in the history of the CIA as well as in the history of relations between the United States and Russia. In some ways, we still live in the wake of those events today.

On his own, Penkovsky had cracked the security system of the world’s most paranoid government and left it virtually in pieces. At that point, he was the highest-ranking Soviet officer to spy for the United States, and in the aftermath of his arrest, some three hundred Soviet intelligence officers were immediately recalled to Moscow from overseas.

Penkovsky’s avowed goal had been to prevent a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and in that, he succeeded. The technical information he provided about the Soviet missiles deployed to Cuba in 1962 allowed the United States not only to track the missiles but also to gauge their operational readiness. As a result, at the time of his meeting with Khrushchev, Kennedy knew that the Soviets needed several days to make the missiles operational, time that allowed him to achieve a diplomatic solution.5

In the wake of Penkovsky’s death, the CIA was forced to take stock and examine what had gone wrong. Although the Agency had had numerous successes recruiting agents and spies throughout the world, the Soviet capital was a different story. In describing the difficulties of working in Moscow, former CIA director Richard Helms said that it would probably have been easier to run an agent on the planet Mars.6

Moscow has always been an ominous destination for an intelligence officer. From the days of Catherine the Great through the rule of Vladimir Putin, no other espionage environment has rivaled it. As a metropolis in the same category as New York and Paris, Moscow has a distinct urban character, a mystique that hangs over the place like a fog. A visitor never mistakes the fact that they are in the Russian capital, and if that visitor happens to be a CIA officer, well, Moscow is a very special place indeed.

During the Cold War, American officials were routinely restricted in their ability to travel outside the city, but similar rules applied to Soviets in America. In fact, in Washington, DC, for many years, it was part of a CIA officer’s duties to report the presence of a car with Soviet diplomatic plates anywhere in the metropolitan area—at a shopping mall, at a Redskins game, or, most importantly, outside the city. This did not exactly replicate the attention our officers received in Moscow, but it served the same purpose. All CIA reports of Soviet sightings were funneled to the FBI, the agency responsible for keeping track of Russians in the United States, whether in Washington, DC, or at their consulates in San Francisco or New York. The Russian footprint was and is wide and extends from Washington, DC, to New York to San Francisco to Seattle and Houston.

In Moscow, on the other hand, American diplomatic cars typically came under close vehicular surveillance the instant they passed through the embassy gates. In fact, there was a militiaman at that gate whose duty it was to call out the American cars as they drove past. Surveillance teams waiting outside the compound then swung into action, tailing the American vehicle until it returned to the embassy.

These surveillance teams, both on foot and in cars, were deployed by the dreaded Second Chief Directorate (SCD), an enemy that seemed superhuman, and the Seventh Directorate–Surveillance, which supported the SCD. Together they formed a veritable army, vastly outnumbering US agents on the streets of Moscow. According to former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, during the 1970s, there were more than fifty thousand KGB officers in Moscow alone.7

Today the SCD has morphed into the shadowy FSB, the breeding ground of Putinism. The majority of Russians now in important positions of power are alumni of the FSB and its predecessor organizations.

Because the Soviets had no way of knowing which Americans belonged to the CIA, they kept a close watch on everyone. The KGB had immense resources at their disposal, and thanks to the paranoid nature of the Soviet regime, they had essentially carte blanche when it came to operational rules. Files were kept on most foreigners, phones were tapped, and patterns studied. If a subject deviated from a daily schedule or in any way acted suspiciously, the KGB closed in immediately. Any conspicuous maneuver (driving the wrong way down a one-way street, for instance) resulted in being bumper-locked, by a KGB Volga, unable to move. These heavy-handed methods applied to the US embassy as well.

Shortly after the United States recognized the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations in 1933, plans for a US embassy got underway. Stalin himself offered American ambassador William C. Bullitt a site in the Lenin Hills overlooking the Moscow River. America, however, was having none of it. We didn’t want to be outside the city, on its periphery; we wanted to be in the middle of the middle, in the center of things. The American delegation moved temporarily into an area near Red Square, and in 1953, they were offered a property on Ulitsa Chaikovskogo, a site known as the Existing Office Building (EOB).

No matter what it was called, the EOB was quickly revealed to be inadequate in every way and insecure to boot. The site had been constructed in such a way that the Soviets could conduct surveillance from every angle: from adjoining buildings that provided views of windows, the courtyard, and gates; from the militiamen who guarded those gates; from surveillance teams housed in warming rooms ringing the embassy, waiting for targets to emerge; and finally from inside the EOB itself, where information could be gathered by a multitude of electronic bugs, taps, and intercepts.


  • "An insider's look at CIA operations in Moscow, the most challenging operational city in the world, revealing the tradecraft precepts used to keep priceless assets productive against overwhelming KGB surveillance. Written by two of the people who created these breakthrough tactics, The Moscow Rules takes you every step of the way on the snowy streets of Moscow."—Jason Matthews, New York Times-bestselling author of the Red Sparrow trilogy
  • "If there was ever a single book which could sum up the dangers, heroism, inventiveness and intrepidity of the intelligence officers of the CIA it is The Moscow Rules. This final homage to one of the nation's bravest patriots will be an instant bestseller. It is the real-life spy thriller one can't put down."—Malcolm Nance, New York Times bestselling author of The Plot to Destroy Democracy
  • "Even inside the CIA, very few know the whole story of how the highest-level CIA tradecraft was developed for use in Moscow. The legendary Tony and Jonna Mendez were a vital part of creating that tradecraft, and their riveting insider account is unlike any spy story that's ever been published."—Joe Weisberg, creator/executive producer, The Americans
  • "A gripping read. Thanks to Tony Mendez's extraordinary talent, the CIA was able to elude KGB surveillance to carry out high-risk, high-payoff operations with impunity-until tripped up by traitors within our own ranks. It's all in this book-the good, the bad, and the ugly, unflinchingly revealed. Tony and his wife and coauthor, Jonna, were two of the stars from the Office of Technical Service, CIA's version of James Bond's 'Q,' and key to so many of the agency's successes-and nowhere more so than in Moscow during the Cold War."—Jack Downing, former chief of station, Moscow, and the CIA's former deputy director for operations
  • "Intriguing true stories of the techniques of CIA spying on the dangerous front line of the Cold War."—Dame Stella Rimington, former director of MI5
  • "A gripping, interesting and relevant read... reads like a spy novel yet tells a true tale of the darkest days of the espionage war largely fought between the CIA and the KGB."—Cipher Brief

On Sale
May 19, 2020
Page Count
272 pages

Antonio J. Mendez

About the Author

Antonio (Tony) Mendez served in the CIA for twenty-five years and is a highly decorated CIA officer, one of the top fifty officers in its first fifty years. He received the Intelligence Star for Valor for the ARGO operation, the story of which was told in the 2013 movie of the same name. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling Argo, The Master of Disguise, and Spy Dust.

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Jonna Mendez

About the Author

Jonna Mendez is a former Chief of Disguise with over twenty-five years of experience as a CIA officer working in Moscow and other sensitive areas. With her late husband Tony Mendez, she is the bestselling co-author of Argo, The Moscow Rules, and Spy Dust.

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