Moscow Rules for the Rest of Us

In intelligence, Moscow Rules — a set of axioms and precepts designed to generally inform operations in a denied area — are held as revered nuggets of wisdom. And while who knows if the dominant public version really reflects the real one, the spirit of finding room to maneuver in the gap by lulling the opposition into complacency still shines through.

However, as a civilian who is not part of the intelligence apparatus, I am rarely in need of carefully worded reminders about how to detect and slip away from hostile surveillance. That being said, we all have those little rules-of-thumb that we learn to live by. In my professional and academic work, I’ve encountered some aphorisms that have evolved into a set of my own Moscow Rules for avoiding the various traps and pitfalls that plague both the modern professional and (based on my experience) the modern intelligence officer.

Whether I’m planning in advance or solving a problem in the moment, I try to always keep these thoughts in mind:

  1. Cover Thine Ass.
  2. Everything happens once for the first time.
  3. Rehearse everything.
  4. You always have to be imaginative, operationally and otherwise.
  5. Remember, you don’t know as much as you think you do.
  6. Your gut is your friend: if something seems odd to you, it usually is.
  7. You don’t do more with less; you do less with less.
  8. A significant enemy is the reality of not having enough information to operate effectively.
  9. Never miss an opportunity to shut the fuck up.
  10. Check your ego at the door; success is a team effort and often a contact sport.
  11. If you’re a leader/supervisor/manager, be responsible for your team: take less than your realistic share of the credit for successes, remember that the buck stops with you for failures, and it is your duty to protect your team from the worse impulses of those above you.
  12. Always hear out those with opposing views — red team everything.
  13. Be wary of seeing what you want in a situation — if you find yourself seeing innocent explanations for anomalies, revisit them more critically.
  14. Turf will kill you every time.
  15. Technology is a crucial force multiplier, but no substitute for real skills employed by a human being.
  16. Shit will happen — Murphy done told you that.
  17. Mitigation planning is underrated: when something goes wrong, and it will, you want to be able to minimize the damage.
  18. Slow down: be quick, but don’t hurry.
  19. Work Fast. Throw Strikes. Change Speeds.
  20. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

Bonus mindset advice: “Think aggressively, act prudently.” — Burton Gerber

All that being said, the original Moscow Rules do hold up. As does the old adage “When confronted: admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations,” although hopefully you won’t need that one.

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Open source counterintelligence referent. Views here are personal, not my employer’s. All original content © Alex Orleans, 2014–2021.

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