‘The Moscow Rules’ are a set of directives said to have been developed during the Cold War to be used by spies and others working in Moscow. The rules are associated with Moscow because the city developed a reputation as being a particularly harsh locale for clandestine operatives who were exposed.
In this article we unpack the 10 Moscow Rules and discuss if they’re still relevant today… (spoiler: they are) so read on.
Moscow Rule 1: Assume nothing.
The first of the Mosco rules, tells intelligence officers to put their preconceived notions, ideas and bias to the side. If I was writing the list of traits for intelligence professionals, being sceptical would be somewhere up the top.
You’ve probably all heard the saying; ‘assume nothing & question everything’, and in the often murky world of intelligence, these are words to live by.
“Nothing is what it seems” – The Recruit (Movie)
Since intelligence professionals often deal in half-truths, concealed agendas and incomplete information; here are a couple of easy techniques you can use to place an analytical lens over information or scenarios as they unfold.
- Every conversation has a subtext – so ask yourself, what are they really trying to say? Or, perhaps, why are they telling me this right now?
- Second, always consider someone’s agenda. Ask yourself, ‘what is their motivation…?’ because everyone has one.
Moscow Rule 2: Never go against your gut.
During a recent hold’em poker tournament –I raised my opponents’ bet because I was so sure I had him beat.
I was holding the middle pair (a pair of 10s)… but after he pushed ‘all in’ over the top, I talked myself down – rationalising, and recalling the action.
Eventually, I conceded I must be beaten, so I folded my hand – face down. As I did, my opponent stood in a triumphant display of macho aggressiveness and showed me a bluff – he had nothing.
I was seething. I knew he had nothing. I should have trusted my gut!
We’ve all been in that position before right? Whether you’re talking to someone you don’t believe – or when things just don’t seem right…
If you feel like a distraction from work, check out Magnus Walkers TedX talk about the importance of following your gut here (19 minutes) –
Here’s how this principle applies to the world of Intelligence:
- There’s no artificial intelligence that can deduce intelligence and logic like the human brain. We’re capable of combining feelings, experiences, thought and logic to shape opinions and form unique assessments. Your ‘gut’ feeling, comes from previous experience, lessons learnt and your worldview – so trust it.
- Second, don’t be afraid to disagree, if your opinion differs from the norm, but your gut tells you you’re right – don’t be afraid to listen to that little voice inside. Remeber what Mark Twain wrote; ‘when you find yourself on the side of the majority, its time to pause and reflect.’
Moscow Rule 3: Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
Ultimately this could be written a second way: trust no-one.
Whilst I understand, a culture of hyper-vigilance might be bad for making new friends, in the world of intelligence professionals, assume the worst and hope for the best.
The reality is, whilst not everyone will be under opposition control, using this as a default will mean you approach relationships with some scepticism and ensure you protect yourself before letting your guard down.
I caution against oversharing during first interactions and be wary of people who lead the conversation to topics you like, enjoy or feel passionate about.
Moscow Rule 4: Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.
Picture this. You’re an intelligence officer operating in a foreign country.
You’ve left the security of your cover job to meet with an asset at a pre-arranged location.
Your goal here is to avoid being suspicious.
Counter surveillance 101 – don’t look back!
Think of how it would look to you if the person walking down the street in front of you kept looking back over their shoulder. Imaging watching someone glancing from left to right, watching out for cameras or people following them in shop windows. Act natural and don’t draw attention to yourself, which brings us to the next rule…
Moscow Rule 5: Go with the flow, blend in.
In line with the previous rule, this rule is about ‘blending-in’. In essence, this rule can be summed up with the following actions – Bore the shit out of them and become the grey man.
Here are a few tips,
- Determine a ‘baseline’ – identify what is ‘normal’ in order to fit into that environment. Example, you’re not going to wear a suit to the beach (or a bikini in the boardroom).
- Act as if… If you want to look like a tourist, get out your map, have your travel guide in your hand and start taking photos. If you want to look like a local, use a branded shopping bag, pick up a newspaper or put on some headphones.
- Avoid eye contact! It’s a simple thing – but making eye contact will trigger a stimulus in someone and cause them to register your presence. If you want to remain the grey man, avoid making eye contact.
Moscow Rule 6: Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
When I was deployed overseas, each time we would step out on patrol we varied our patrol times, places and the routes we took to avoid becoming predictable.
This rule suggests you vary your patterns which might mean getting coffee from a different café, leaving the house earlier (or later), or driving a different route to work.
How to stay within your cover;
Be boring. If you’ve haven’t seen the TV series ‘the Americans’, the characters, who are a ‘Russian sleeper agents’ try to maintain their cover by having a fairly inconspicuous travel agency. Pretty boring.
Be authentic. If you’re using a cover, make sure you know the details – there’s no point in pretending to be a plutonium scientist if you don’t know the meaning of neutron flux.
Remember you’ve got an accent – don’t pretend to be a nationality you’re not. That’s just dumb.
Here are two (external) articles about remaining undetected and staying undercover:
Moscow Rule 7: Lull them into a sense of complacency
People become complacent when they’re secure, or feel in control. Allowing people to become complacent, means they might pay less attention to details – or less scrutiny.
How can you lull someone into a sense of complacency?
- You can reassure someone of what they already know.
- Allow them to see the outcome or the endpoint before it occurs.
- Make a situation appear like many others before it.
- Allow someone to feel in control, like they’re making the decisions.
Moscow Rule 8: Don’t harass the opposition
Why would you want to make your life more difficult – or invite unnecessarily scrutiny to your actions? Although you might enjoy the excitement, it’s short lived, and probably won’t end well.
I once heard of a bank robber called the ‘post-card bandit’ who would send letters to the police, gloating of his success and in essence taunting them to catch him. Eventually, after the media caught wind of the letters – they established a task force and tracked him down.
That’s about as smart as this guy who taunted Chinese Police to ‘come and catch him’ – they did.
Lesson: “Don’t poke the bear!
Moscow Rule 9: Pick the time and place for action.
This is key – act on your time, at a place of your choosing.
Arranging any meeting, or activity should be on your terms.
This avoids being caught off guard, unprepared, or without a full and detailed understating of the operating environment.
I practice this daily – by choosing not to answer unknown numbers – if I don’t know who is calling, and I choose not to be caught off guard.
Remember to remain in control.
Moscow Rule 10: Keep your options open
There are two meanings to this rule;
First, opportunity abounds – who knows when the right person or piece of information will present itself. Remaining open to different options at any time means being ready to react or capitalise on opportunities.
Second, never remaining fixed to one idea, or to one plan. For example, Army officers, for example, are tested on ever-changing scenarios to test their flexibility and ability to processes changing the environment.
Keeping your options open means not being fixed on a specific outcome. If something changes, asses the situation, and react.
Always have a contingency. Think: if this, then what…
So they’re The Moscow Rules, as displayed in the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Let me know your thoughts, experiences and whether you think it’s about time the Moscow Rules were updated or if they’ve stood the test of time…