How Cowboy Jack Saved Me in a Moscow Jail Cell, Part I

Date: 07/14/2021

Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.

This week’s installment in the Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale series addresses the most unusual colleague I ran across during my years in the business. We will discuss the field developments of what this guy taught me next time.

He was the walking personification of what the eighteen century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau probably had in mind. Early in his Confessions, Rousseau said: “Whether nature has done well or ill in breaking the mold in which it cast me, is something which cannot be judged until I have been read.”

The passage always struck me as a quintessential counsel from a writer who was also a personal favorite. Look at the entirety of a person’s life before making judgments, an admonition that is almost impossible in today’s festering political climate. That it was penned by one of history’s most irreverent figures should not be left in the shadows either.

It has come down to us as one version of “When God created me, he destroyed the mold.” Overlooking that such a statement (if it referred to “gods”) could more properly be ascribed to the classical Latin poet/critic Horace, it has come to have a particular meaning.

It refers to an unforgettable “one of a kind” character, somebody who bucks the system. In some cases, that character will influence the way others live their lives. For a few, it may even extend to being able to continue living that life at all.

I guess I am in this latter category.

The “mold breaker” and subject of this Spy Tale is John Cheney Platt, III who died on January 4, 2017, a month before his 81st birthday. He was a unique character, better known in the intelligence community as “Cowboy Jack.” There were few other operatives who had the effect Jack had, even among those who did not like him.

Upon his death, the “company wake” at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA had a huge attendance. It drew in people from around the country, me included.

Jack graduated from Williams College in far northwestern Massachusetts, the same liberal arts mecca from which I received my first degree (see “A Giving of Accounts…from Massachusetts to Vietnam,” Classified Intelligence Brief, February 17, 2021) and later served in the Marines before landing at the CIA in 1963, where he spent most of his career in the SE (Soviet East Europe) division.

He is probably best known these days for his unlikely friendship with a KGB officer named Gennady Vasilenko (Genya) which began in the 1970s and survived the Cold War. That unlikely friendship is the basis of a great book entitled The Best of Enemies, published in 2018.  

Cowboy Jack (left) and Genya (Gennady Vasilenko), ca. 2016 Photo:

It reminds me of my association with “Sergei,” as recounted in two Spy Tale entries last month (“Cornering ‘Sergei’ in Arbat,” Classified Intelligence Brief,  June 9, 2021; “‘Sergei’ Runs Interference to Sheremetyevo,” Classified Intelligence Brief, June 16, 2021).

Jack was supposed to pursue Vasilenko when the Russian was posted to Washington in the hopes of turning him. Instead, they developed an improbable attachment that survived Jack’s problems in agency politics and Genya’s years in a Soviet prison.

In the process they even brought actor Robert De Niro into their entourage. Jack had advised on The Good Shepherd, a 2006 movie in which De Niro both starred (with Matt Damon) and directed. Genya appeared as a tuxedo-wearing extra in De Niro’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook. 

Of the two “tux guys” in this photo, Vasilenko is the one on the left

De Niro would even work behind the scenes in the multi-year effort to release Genya from a Russian prison. That finally happened in a 2010 “spy swap.”

Back at home, Jack would occasionally run afoul of those who did not appreciate his unorthodox methods in the field (especially after some still unexplained exchanges with Genya in Africa), paper pushers (who consistently bemoaned his refusal to follow procedures), and those who just did not trust him period.

Periodically, that meant he would be reassigned to, as he put it, “shore duty.” On several of those rotations, Jack would be on staff at Camp Perry, outside Williamsburg, Virginia. It was during one of those stints that we met and something he developed would figure prominently in my later survival.

Still officially known as the Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity (AFETA), Camp Perry is also the location of The Farm, the CIA training facility. Its 10,000 acres of swamps, brush forest, target ranges, nasty mosquitoes, jump training, a dark lake, a landing strip, classrooms, and spartan barracks are where spy craft is learned.

It all begins behind an innocent looking exit off of an interstate highway.

Exit sign off of Interstate 64
Main gate, Camp Perry photo:
“Welcome sign,” entrance, Camp Perry photo:

Jack called it “necessary harassment 101.” Officially, it went by the name of the Internal Operations Course (or IOC). By the time I took it, shortly before my assignment as a NOC in Moscow (see “Setting the Stage in Moscow,” Classified Intelligence Brief, May 12, 2021), officers, code clerks, secretaries, office personnel, everybody (and especially those, like me, who were going in under “No Official Cover”) had to take IOC as part of pre-assignment preparation before moving into Iron Curtain or other denied areas.

IOC became particularly important for NOCs and support going into a hostile field area where they would not be able to claim diplomatic cover. Folks like me were in the open all the time and could not rely upon embassy help if the local trouble found us. We needed to have some ability to navigate the terrain and withstand what the other side might do. Since career operatives (those formally attached to the CIA Station under a consulate or embassy cover in someplace like Moscow) were probably known to the KGB, their use was limited on the street. That put a premium on NOCs.

IOC was one of the toughest things I have ever done. It was not only because it was physical. Rather, it was worse, playing on your mind and emotions. Much of it would take place off camp in the streets of Washington, northern Virginia, and rural areas. It was a grueling prolonged test of mental stamina and endurance made to parallel parameters in a denied area. Jack would greet an IOC class on the first day, saying: “If you pass this, you will still love your mother. But you will hate the day I was born.” By the time it was closed over a decade ago, out of the 350 who entered the IOC training over the years, only six women ever made it through. Three of them are stars on the wall in the old administration building at Langley having died in action. The rest of us still can size up a room on entering it, identify recurring faces in crowds, recognize cars that passed hours ago, blend into any scenery anywhere, and undergo continuous pain. We are also, to a person, exceptionally light sleepers.

Jack did that.

As he recalled to some of us years later: “The [IOC] goal was survival, survival, survival. You’re being sent into hell, a political dictatorship. They’ll wreck your car, break into your house, jump you in an alley, throw you in a jail cell. The only way to learn to live with that is to be harassed yourself.”

And boy did he ever.

Jack made sure every single one of us had to run a gauntlet of what appeared to be progressively more real-life situations. This included running ops exposing us to potential legal action. In one of these, I was instructed to steal a file from a downtown government office.

He made certain that I was arrested by the FBI, taken into an alley, and turned over to guys in black hoods, thrown on the ground and then in a van, beaten, subjected to several hours of (occasionally physically rough) interrogation, and put in dark confinement. By the time he came to “rescue me,” in my mind it was no longer an exercise but a personal test of survival.  I also had a broken rib before it was done.

As Jack would say later over beers,” I always want a real arrest, to have you bounced off the  f**king wall. If it doesn’t feel genuine, it’s a waste of time and manpower.”

The IOC experience was not pleasant but I somehow made it through. Even received a strange, framed award citation testifying to my successful completion of a “Camp Perry training exercise.” It remains one of my most cherished mementos, although I still occasionally wince when looking at it.

The overall design of the IOC was to hone senses and discipline how one acclimates to a hostile environment over an extensive period. You became focused not on how to make it through a situation but how to take make it through the next sixty seconds. “Baby steps’ is the way Jack would put it.

I would put the course to the test almost two years later. The address was Ulitsa Lefortovskiy Val, house 5, Moscow,111250. But the KGB simply referred to it as Lefortovo Prison. The locals preferred not to think about it at all.

Lefortovo Prison Photo:

We pick up this Spy Tale in Part II next time.

Dr. Kent Moors

This is an installment of Classified Intelligence Brief, your guide to what’s really happening behind the headlines… and how to profit from it. Dr. Kent Moors served the United States for 30 years as one of the most highly decorated intelligence operatives alive today (including THREE Presidential commendations).

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