A former spy teaches a crash-course in espionage
December 3, 2003
As he strolls to the podium, Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington and a former CIA officer with 25 years of experience in clandestine services, instantly has the full attention of participants at the museum’s first “Surveillance 101” workshop.
For the full house of Washingtonians who have paid $45 each to come get some insight into the shadowy world of espionage, this may well be their first look at a real, live, (former) spy. Earnest, with his military bearing and cool manner, doesn’t disappoint.
With him are two former colleagues, Jonna and Antonio Mendez. Between them, they’ve worked the CIA’s no-kidding spy turfs, such as Moscow and Havana. Tony says he was involved in the Iran hostage rescue efforts, but won’t elaborate.
The trio offers some espionage basics — “surveillance 101.” The spied-upon person (himself a spy) is the “rabbit.” The team working the rabbit are the “chasers.” And to a rabbit, everyone is a potential chaser.
Then the Mendez couple take turns telling “war stories,” such as the time Jonna was sitting in a Cuban courtyard and a young man on a bicycle tooled by, “so slowly I thought he was going to fall off.”
She knew he was surveillance. He knew she knew. But it wasn’t until a radio fell out from under his button- down shirt “and smashed into about a million pieces on the ground” that the game was really up, she says, to much laughter.
“He just picked up the mess and cycled away, but I’ll never forget the look on his face,” Jonna says, clearly relishing the memory.
It’s nothing you haven’t seen in a dozen movies, but hearing it from people who actually lived it is fascinating.
Equally fascinating is this group of 40 would-be spies.
After the lecture, the group divides in half for a CIA-led tour of inner Washington “spy spots.” The workshop leaders hope to give participants a taste of what it’s like to be a spy on an “SDR,” or surveillance detection run: walking streets, trying to figure who, if anyone, is watching you.
To this effect, the Mendez couple have salted about a dozen volunteers over a predetermined route to act as the “chasers,” or undercover surveillance team.
Unfortunately, there is no way a group of 20 people can possibly move discreetly through restaurants, hotel lobbies and subway stations.
Jonna Mendez gives it a valiant try, however.
“Your disguise is that you are a tour group!” she suggests to her crew as they move out onto F Street.
During the walk, it only takes a few random conversations to leave you with the distinct feeling there are some rich fantasy lives in the group.
Two men in their early 20s, who sat front and center, enrapt, during the lecture, are apparently speaking to one another in code.
One calls the other “Spock,” while he himself is “Captain.”
Moving on, I ask Debbie Hammel, a pony-tailed 20-something wearing black leggings, sneakers and a windbreaker, what her day job might be.
“I kill people.”
“No, no, kidding!” she quickly amends.
In real life, Hammel is a secretary, but one who loves the idea of “being able to trick people, and the high stakes” that come with accepting a clandestine cover.
Holly Blodgett, a 56-year-old privacy officer for a Washington-area software company, is another major spy fan.
“I have a whole library of espionage books,” she says as she trudges along the streets of downtown Washington. “I was always interested in it before, but now that the kids are grown, I have time to indulge it.”
Among them is Jason, a 26-year- old staff sergeant with the 5th Battalion of the 20th Infantry who is on the verge of deploying to Iraq for a year with the Army’s new Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
Blodgett played with the notion of joining the CIA, “but it never worked at the right time, and now I am too old. They don’t take anyone older than 35.”
But she has high hopes that Jason, who is clearly the apple of his proud mom’s eye, will live the life she wanted or join the special operations community.
“My clock ran out. His is just starting,” she says.
The "Moscow Rules"
During the Cold War, CIA operatives considered Moscow to be the agency’s most difficult and hazardous assignment — “Wimbledon, center court,” according to former CIA member Jonna Mendez. “It’s the place where reputations were made, and was also the most dangerous.”
In Moscow, a mistake did not simply result in a spy being declared a “persona non grata” and tossed out of the country — the usual penalty for spies caught in the act, Mendez said. A mistake could get you killed.
To handle the threat, over the years the CIA’s most seasoned Moscow hands developed informal “rules of engagement” to pass down to fledgling spies.
Known as the “Moscow Rules,” the 40 guidelines covered everything from saturation surveillance to the proper way to walk on the sidewalk. A surprising number of the rules simply emphasize the need for spies to trust their instincts.
Although the rules were developed to counter the Soviet Union’s now-defunct KGB, they remain “universal truths”: every bit as applicable to the “denied areas” of today’s war on terrorism as they did to the heart of communism, Mendez said.
So from Havana to Pyongyang, you can be sure that today’s clandestine operators are playing by the “Moscow Rules” as they work to ferret out the secrets of the United States’ enemies.
Here is an abbreviated list of the declassified “Moscow Rules”:
• Assume nothing.• Murphy is right.• Never go against your gut; it is your operational antenna.• Don’t look back — you are never completely alone.• Any operation can be aborted. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.• Maintain a natural pace.• Lull them into a sense of complacency.• Build in opportunity, but use it sparingly.• Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.• Don’t harass the opposition.• There is no limit to a human being’s ability to rationalize the truth.• Technology will always let you down.• Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.