Russian spies. Masks. Pen cameras. Blow up dolls. The new book, The Moscow Rules, by Jonna Mendez and her late husband Tony, paints a fascinating portrait of what it was like to be a spy in Moscow during the Cold War. The title refers to ten guidelines used by CIA operatives stationed in Moscow during the Cold War. Speaking recently at the new International Spy Museum, Mendez explained the origin of the guidelines.
“I don’t want the title to be misleading; we didn’t write the rules. We didn’t invent the rules. All we did was put them down on paper,” she says. “The Moscow Rules were understood by most of our case officers who were headed out to Moscow to be the rules of the road, the rules of comportment, how you managed yourself on the street. They were themselves a form of tradecraft. If you followed the rules, you would probably emerge from your assignment in the belly of the beast unscathed. If you broke the rules, all kinds of interesting things could happen to you.”
The Moscow Rules is the fourth and final book written by the couple, with Tony’s recent death from Parkinson’s earlier this year. Before publishing, the book had to go through the notoriously lengthy and rigorous approval process by the CIA. As Jonna and Tony were awaiting approval, Tony’s health was failing. She asked the CIA if they could please take this into account and speed up the process. They received CIA approval to go to print the day before Tony passed away. Jonna told the crowd at the Spy Museum, with difficulty but with joy, “They approved it on the 18th of January and my husband passed on the 19th. I don’t think they were related, but it’s nice to know that he knew that his last book was through the gate.”
How the CIA’s Office of Technical Service made spying in moscow possible
The book primarily deals with their work with the Office of Technical Service (OTS) and how it served agents in the field in Moscow. As Jonna explained:
“Moscow station was a special place. It was special in every way. It was the hardest place for us to work in the world. Surveillance in Moscow, against Americans in general – embassy personnel in particular – and CIA case officers, if they were suspect, was like a smothering embrace. You couldn’t do anything without surveillance. If you were at home in your apartment, there were bugs in the walls…If you were in your car, they were tailing you. They had teams – they would rotate cars so they were with you wherever you went. If you were on foot in the city, they were stalking you, right behind you. And they were looking to see how you reacted to what they were doing, because if you reacted, you would confirm that you were an intelligence officer…some of the rules had to do with that surveillance and how you should behave.”
With this intense environment, the OTS team needed to pull out all the stops. Jonna summarized their work as “the equivalent of Q” from the James Bond series. Q Branch, like OTS, provided agents on the ground with the technical support they needed to gather intelligence. OTS consisted of engineers, battery specialists, ink specialists – even one guy who specialized in hot air balloons. All were essential to creating the kinds of gadgets necessary to gather intelligence in the stifling environment of Cold War Moscow.
Mendez Was a Spy Gadget Visionary
Inventions pioneered by Mendez were things like the “Jack in the Box,” a blow up doll hidden in a suitcase meant to fool the ever-present KGB surveillance. When deployed in the front seat of a car, it mimicked an “agent,” freeing the real object of surveillance to slip out and make dead drops, talk to sources, or whatever else was needed.
Jonna also read aloud the account of Tony’s demonstration of “Disguise on the Run” for the Agency’s top brass. As fate would have it, Jonna herself – who would years later become Tony’s wife – was there to witness the demonstration. Essentially a magic trick, “Disguise on the Run” was a self-contained costume that could transform a person’s entire appearance in about 45 seconds – all just while walking down the street. She explained how in less than a minute, Tony transformed himself from a businessman wearing a full suit and carrying an attache case to a little old granny pushing a grocery cart.
Another such invention was the Tropel camera, which could be inserted into a pen, a tube of lipstick, or many other small, inconspicuous items. It was this camera that CIA agents passed along to Adolf Tolkachev, famously called “the billion dollar spy.” The book explains how KGB agent Tolkachev repeatedly harassed the CIA in Moscow, offering to spy for the U.S. But because of internal politics at the time, his advances were considered a “dangle,” or a Soviet trap to feed disinformation to the CIA. Eventually the Agency did listen to Tolkachev, and with his hidden camera, he was able to photograph future Soviet military plans that would save the U.S. approximately $1 billion in research and development. Thus, he was dubbed “the billion dollar spy.”
The Moscow Rules Turns Spy Magic to Reality
One of the greatest things about “The Moscow Rules” – and the Mendez’ books – is the incredibly human face they put on the highly-romanticized concept of life as a spy. They offer the real names of people like Marti Peterson, the first female CIA agent to work in Moscow. She exclusively handled the relationship with Soviet diplomat Alexander Dmitrievich Ogorodnik, also known as “TRIGON,” another incredibly valuable CIA asset. Like Tolkachev, TRIGON also met a sad end at the hands of the KGB; the book talks about them, their families, and the real cost of the Cold War.
But the book also shows how Tony used his relationships with Hollywood make-up artists and magicians to make illusions that protected the lives of American agents and allowed them to do their work. It was these relationships that would prove invaluable yet again when Tony would exfiltrate six American hostages from Iran during the Iranian Revolution. It was this harrowing mission that inspired their book, “Argo,” and the Oscar-winning film starring Ben Affleck.
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of Jonna and Tony Mendez on the history of the CIA. Both served for over 25 years. Both served as the Agency’s Chief of Disguise – first Tony, then Jonna a decade later. Their work with the Office of Technical Service provided spies with the technical support they needed in the height of the Cold War. It also popularized disguise as a valuable tool – something the CIA had not previously looked upon with favor. “The Moscow Rules” is a fitting tribute to their decades of faithful service, their unique talents, and their marriage.