By Gus Russo and Eric Dezenhall
In 1978, veteran CIA case officer—and irreverent thorn in the side of Agency brass—Jack “Cowboy” Platt, orchestrated a meeting with a new KGB arrival in Washington, Lt. Gennady Vasilenko. The two took an immediate liking to one another, and in short time each abandoned their assignments to try to “flip” the other into betraying his country as a spy. Along with FBI counterintelligence agent Dion Rankin, Platt chose instead to defy his bosses and pursue a deep friendship with the Russian “enemy,” a friendship that might one day even yield—as a bonus—more KGB secrets than conventional spy trickery. Platt, Vasilenko, and Rankin called themselves The Musketeers, and their mini rebellion, OPERATION DOVKA (an anagram of vodka).
This friendship weathered the deadly ’80s, when a mole (or moles) caused assets to be executed and operations to be destroyed on both sides of the Cold War. After a mid ’80s posting in Guyana, where he was often visited by the other Musketeers, Gennady himself was even thrown into a Russian hellhole prison for six months in 1988. Upon his release he was expelled by the KGB, and stripped of his hard-earned pension. So, of course he went into the security consulting business with none other than the recently retired Cowboy Platt who had become a legend for running the Agency’s fabled Internal Operations Course, the program that taught spies how to operate in hostile territory under what has become known as “Moscow Rules” (one of them being “Do not harass the opposition.”) Gennady, 52, was visiting Jack, 58, and Dion, 48, when the CIA mole, Aldrich “Rick” Ames was finally captured in 1994. With much of the leaked information outside of Ames’s purview, the CIA and FBI both came to the obvious awful conclusion that Aldrich Ames couldn’t have been responsible for all of the damage. If Ames’ treachery led to the deaths of many U.S. assets, whoever this other bastard was had also put Gennady in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison known for its Stalin-era basement executions, back in 1988. The mole hunt understandably escalated after the realizations of 1994. In the intel community, mole-hunting units were expanded from Langley to FBI HQ to the Buzzard Point and New York City field offices. Multiple lists were drawn up, with one list including three hundred CIA officers who had questionable polygraph results and another containing the names of two hundred KGB agents who were in a position to know something. When a listed KGB man was tracked down, FBI special agent Michael Rochford jumped on a plane to far-flung regions of the planet to offer them a million-dollar bounty. He counted 28 pitches he made personally to try and solve the riddle.
In 1997, as the search for the second double agent proceeded in the shadows, mass media outlets and Hollywood studios, inspired by the looming 50th anniversary of the CIA’s founding in 1947, were loading up on espionage content. Thus the world got its first look at the two spy buddies on an episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes and on a three-hour BBC special entitled CIA: America’s Secret Warriors.
Another who came calling was Milt Bearden, a renowned former CIA station chief and Jack’s former colleague in the Agency’s Soviet (SE) Division, who approached all Three Musketeers with a media job that came attached with some genuine glitz and glam: acting icon Robert De Niro was looking for technical advisors for his forthcoming true spy saga, The Good Shepherd, which the actor/director had recently signed on to both act in and direct. Since his retirement in 1994, Bearden had carved out a new career for himself as the go-to, ex-CIA media consultant. Some of his colleagues began referring to him as “Hollywood” Bearden. In 1997, De Niro was developing a movie about the CIA during the early ’60s, but that project hadn’t jelled; then the Shepherd film, about the late ’40s origins of the CIA, was brought to him. “I had always been interested in the Cold War,” De Niro said at the time. “I was raised in the Cold War. All of the intelligence stuff was interesting to me.”
The movie had been mired in a classic case of “Hollywood development Hell,” having started out as a script written by Eric Roth for Francis Ford Coppola and Columbia Pictures in 1994, before moving over to director John Frankenheimer at MGM, before pivoting to Robert De Niro and Universal, before finally landing at Morgan Creek Pictures over a decade later.
After the project stalled and De Niro took over in the late ’90s, the actor/director asked his good friend and fellow Manhattanite, celebrated U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, for ideas about consultants. Among his many postings, Holbrooke had served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany in the early ’90s. While working out of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Holbrooke had developed a good professional friendship with the CIA’s then Station Chief in Bonn, none other than Jack’s former SE colleague, Milt Bearden.
“It started out almost like a spy operation,” Bearden recalled. “Bob [De Niro] said he wanted to do a spy thriller and Holbrooke turned over a cocktail napkin and wrote my number on it.” De Niro proceeded to call Bearden at his home in New Hampshire; the former spy initially didn’t believe who was on the other end of the line. “Yeah, right,” he said to the man who claimed to be Robert De Niro.
With his well-known attention to detail, De Niro told Bearden, who would go on to work with the actor when he shot Ronin (1998) and Meet the Parents (2000), that he was especially interested in “street men” with a working knowledge not only of tradecraft, but also of the KGB. “Bob was going to Moscow and asked if I knew any KGB guys,” Bearden says. “That part was easy.” Bearden knew that nobody knew field work like former Moscow Rules wizard Cowboy Jack Platt, and nobody could open KGB doors like Cowboy’s pal, Gennady, who was loved by everyone save the KGB brass, who still had lingering suspicions about his closeness with the American Musketeers. Cowboy and De Niro were already aware of each other through Jack’s sister, Oscar nominated art director and production executive Polly Platt. “Polly sent me a draft of the script on The Good Shepherd two years before I met De Niro,” Jack later recalled. “I said, ‘It’s a piece of shit.’”
Nonetheless, the Musketeers, Roch included, enlisted in the project and, over the next few years, as the movie was being developed and revised, helped Bearden school De Niro in spy tradecraft, as well as introducing him to spies in both the U.S. and Moscow. In the summer of 1997, Bearden accompanied De Niro to the Moscow Film Festival, where the actor was to receive a lifetime achievement award. But De Niro used the Festival as his “operational cover,” from which he could slip away and meet with Gennady and his KGB pals, which included counterintelligence chief Leonid Shebarshin. Of course, the sojourn was also beneficial for Gennady and his joint venture business with Jack, since being seen with De Niro could only elevate their standing as players. According to both Bearden and the FBI’s Rochford, Jack was able to open doors in Russia by dropping De Niro’s name because the KGB guys all wanted to meet the star.
The Moscow trip included a visit to a stadium that housed a boxing training facility, and, as cued from a clichéd movie scene, one of the local tough guys, who recognized the “Raging Bull,” insisted that they go a couple of rounds in the ring. “De Niro was game for anything,” Bearden said, “but he kept looking at me, as if to say, ‘I sure hope Bearden isn't going to get me killed.’ One of the other agents asked me what I thought would happen. And I said that Bob would have the guy down by three [rounds], and that's what happened.”
Capping off the Moscow whirlwind, the group visited the Gromov Flight Research Institute south of Moscow, where De Niro met with a Russian Cosmonaut and suited up in a pressurized flight suit. But neither Cosmonauts nor birch branch wielding Cossacks made as lasting an impression on De Niro as the Russian Cowboy, Gennady Vasilenko. The two men shared a similar joie de vivre, coupled with an unyielding work ethic. Both Bearden and De Niro were taken not only with Gennady’s affable personality, but also with his telegenic charisma. “He is right out of Central Casting,” says Bearden.
“I wanted him for the lead KGB role [“Ulysses” in The Good Shepherd], but it didn't happen,” De Niro recalled recently. By the time cameras finally began rolling for Shepherd in 2005, Gennady had fallen off the face of the earth once again.
De Niro not only learned the practical side of espionage from the Musketeers, but also the human side. “Like anything, relationships are the whole thing,” he said. “A person puts their life in the handler’s hands. So the handler has to have the ability to make the asset feel comfortable… the KGB and CIA guys were brothers under the skin.” Recently, the actor seemed to echo what Cowboy Jack often said he learned from the Great Game: that spies have to be great actors.
“I was putting on a performance 24 hours a day in case I was being watched,” Jack said. “I’m on a stage, but the job can be fun.”
De Niro agreed: “You’re not who you say you are. It forces you to make other people believe you. As I became friendly with people in intelligence, I learned how smart and charming they are. They’re human, not sinister.” Jack concluded about the actor, “He would have been a hell of a case officer.”
Throughout the years of Shepherd development, De Niro would meet with over 40 CIA officers and over 20 KGB. But his lasting relationships would be those with Bearden, Cowboy, and Gennady. For the Musketeers, it was a friendship that would soon have dramatic repercussions.
Cowboy, ever obsessed with who the traitor was who had fingered Gennady for his 1988 arrest in Guyana, had, after rigorous sleuthing and astonishing luck, finally come into some fascinating information. There was a twitchy KGB agent, coincidentally an old colleague of Gennady’s, who claimed he had some information that Cowboy might find worthwhile. History making, even. Through a months-long series of ruses and negotiations (detailed for the first time in Best of Enemies), Cowboy and Rochford obtained the Russians’ most sensitive asset file—the one that led to the February 2001 rollup of FBI man-turned traitor, Robert Hanssen.
On August 25, 2005, Gennady was at his rural dacha with his mother and his girlfriend Masha and their young children—his second family. As the country celebrated its annual Moscow Days, Gennady was in the front yard “playing with the kids” when he caught sight of 10 or so black-clad Spetsnaz (special forces) encircling his property. I am about to become the first victim of hunting season, Gennady thought. As he reached out to shake hands with the sheriff, an acquaintance, the commandos pounced, beating the pulp out of him and breaking his knee in front of his hysterical mother, girlfriend, and children. “If you step one inch in any direction, we’ll shoot you in front of them,” one guard snarled. Then they hauled him off to hell.
Hell for Gennady came in many waves. First he was taken to the local police station, where he was told that illegal explosives had been found at his apartment. All the residences of his immediate family had been ransacked. The troops had “found” more explosives in Gennady’s homes and cars. In fact, the evidence had been planted to frame up the arrest. They even had been secretly coating his car with invisible explosive particles so he would have residue on his fingers. For the icing on the cake, the FSB had planted World War II–era explosives in Gennady’s garage so they could charge him with terrorism.
Finding him at the police station, his oldest son, 35-year-old Ilya, brought him a change of clothes from home, but the only jacket Gennady had at the dacha was the one Cowboy’s FBI friend Dion Rankin had given him years before, a blue fleece sweat jacket emblazoned with FBI ACADEMY. Just perfect, thought Gennady. They already think I’m with the Americans. But he was so anxious to take off his bloodstained T-shirt that he put the incriminating jacket on anyway. “Fuck ’em,” he said, uttering Cowboy’s favorite curse, which Gennady had appropriated years earlier.
When FSB thugs came into the room to soften him up with continued beatings, Gennady knew this was not about old gunpowder or boxes of hunting bullets. It was about vengeance. Concussed, he began vomiting and bleeding on his FBI sweatshirt. Drifting in and out of consciousness, lying in a pool of his own blood, he realized that today was his daughter Julia’s birthday.
Assuming their captive was now sufficiently pliable to an admission, the goons got around to the real reason for the brutality: they wanted Gennady to confess to helping the U.S. ferret out an American traitor four years earlier—Hanssen—perhaps the Russians’ most valuable double agent ever. The Russian bureaucracy was in damage-control mode since the asset’s exposure, and they couldn’t just allow those whom they thought facilitated the hard-won spy’s arrest to get away unscathed. They had to send a message, and Gennady was that message. Over the next five years, Gennady would find himself in the Gulag system, in terrible prisons and work camps all because of his connection to Cowboy, the retired CIA man who had played the key role in Hanssen’s identification.
Back in New York, Robert De Niro, unknowing of Gennady’s arrest, was ready to turn the charismatic Russian into a movie star. In the very month that Gennady was taken into custody, principal photography began, after years of delays, on De Niro’s The Good Shepherd. Apparently, Gennady had passed his audition. “I wanted Gennady to play Ulysses,” De Niro recently said. “But we couldn’t find him.” (The part ultimately went to Ukrainian actor Oleg Shtefanko.)
Cowboy learned from Gennady’s son what had happened, and guilt was eating away at him; he knew he had put Gennady in a position where it appeared to the Russians that he had betrayed them. Consequently, Jack was determined to locate and help Gennady in any way possible—wherever he might be. For the next two years, while Gennady was being beaten and starved, Jack tapped every contact he had made in 25 years in espionage. But friends in the intelligence community—and even characters with links to organized crime—only met with limited success in improving Gennady’s conditions. In addition to the physical torture, Gennady never knew when he would be awakened from an uneasy slumber on a urine-soaked tar floor of a Gulag prison in the middle of the night only to be transferred to another hellhole. All the while, Jack heard nothing from his best friend.
Cowboy then concocted a backup plan to get a message to Gennady, and more importantly, his tormentors: he paid a visit to De Niro in New York, and as expected, De Niro readily agreed to help by passing one of his annual Christmas cards to Gennady via his friend, revered Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov. The director, through his contacts in the Kremlin, should be able to determine what had become of Gennady, and have the holiday card forwarded to him. Mikhalkov agreed that if he located Gennady, he would pass along De Niro’s Christmas card to him. Since De Niro was (and still is) revered in Russia, the thinking was that both the inmates and the prison officials would never treat a friend of his badly.
A few weeks later, the famously laconic De Niro called Jack with good news in the form of just two words: “He’s fine.” De Niro’s Christmas card, with a photo of himself with Gennady, was his prison Teflon—not to mention the kind words being passed down by a Russian crime boss named Slava, who was so impressed with Gennady’s friendship with “Vito Corleone” that he permitted Gennady to invoke his name while in stir. From that point on, Gennady was treated humanely. Russian guards and inmates alike, all of whom respected tough-guys, real and fictional, suddenly acquired a new respect for the KGB man who knew young Vito Corleone, Jimmy “the Gent” Conway, Al Capone, Paul Vitti, Ace Rothstein, Noodles Aronson, Travis Bickle, and so many other characters De Niro had brought to life.
Now, at least, Cowboy could sleep at night. But how to get his friend’s sentence commuted? Even “Jake LaMotta” couldn’t help with that one. But 1,700 miles away, a seemingly unrelated event was occurring that would change everything.
From the book BEST OF ENEMIES: The Last Great Spy Story of the Cold War. Copyright (c) 2018 by Gus Russo & Eric Dezenhall. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.