The rules are associated with Moscow because the city developed a reputation as being a particularly harsh locale for clandestine operatives who were exposed. The list may never have existed as written; agent Tony Mendez wrote "Although no one had written them down, they were the precepts we all understood ... By the time they got to Moscow, everyone knew these rules. They were dead simple and full of common sense...".
- Assume nothing.
- Never go against your gut.
- Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
- Don't look back; you are never completely alone.
- Go with the flow, blend in.
- Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
- Lull them into a sense of complacency.
- Don't harass the opposition.
- Pick the time and place for action.
- Keep your options open.
Other rules which have been circulated around the Internet and used in fiction include:
- Murphy is right. (i.e., "What can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment.")
- Any operation can be aborted. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
- Maintain a natural pace.
- Build in opportunity, but use it sparingly.
- Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. (Borrowed from Muhammad Ali.)
- 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. (Taken from Ian Fleming's novel Goldfinger)
- Don't attract attention, even by being too careful.
Moscow rules are prominently referenced in John le Carré's cold war books including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, as tradecraft, including use of inconspicuous signal markers (thumb tacks, chalk marks), the use of dead drops, and the ways to signal the need for a (rare) face-to-face meeting. Moscow Rules are important at the beginning of Smiley's People, where the General invokes the rules to request a meeting with Smiley, but he is followed and killed by KGB assassins before it can happen. The applicable rule states that no documents may be carried that cannot be instantly discarded, in this instance a 35mm negative concealed in an empty pack of cigarettes.
In Spooks there are references to the Moscow Rules. In particular, in Season 6 Episode 10, Harry Pearce tells someone, "Treat London as enemy territory, keep your head down, find an opportunity, and make a move." In an earlier episode in Season 5, rogue MI6 agent Richard Dempsey is said to be in disguise and following the Moscow Rules, where the idea of treating the place as enemy territory is repeated.
- Mendez, Antonio and Jonna Mendez, Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations That Helped Win the Cold War, Simon & Schuster, 2003, p. 36
- The Spy Museum, Moscow Rules, accessed May 19, 2013
- Whidden. Glenn H. A Guidebook For Beginning Sweepers. Technical Services Agency