Best of Enemies: The Last Great Spy Story of the Cold War

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The epilogue to the 2003 book, The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB, co-authored by retired CIA operations officer Milt Bearden and James Risen (Random House, 2003), comments on events in the careers of officers with whom Bearden served. These include CIA case officer Jack Platt and his friend, KGB colonel Gennady Vasilenko, both having retired in the late 1980s. Platt became “a partner in an international security company and works closely with his old adversaries assisting American businesses in Moscow.” Vasilenko, having “survived his interrogation at Lefortovo prison . . . was reduced in rank and fired without pension for misconduct in his association with Jack Platt . . . and now works on private security investigations in Moscow, when he is not hunting in Russia’s birch forests.” 

As can be inferred from their retirement occupations, their relationship did not end there. Best of Enemies begins when Platt learns in 2005 that Gennady has been rearrested and, write co-authors Russo and Dezenhall, “it was Jack’s fault again.” (14) The authors return to that perplexing statement and the unusual relationship between Platt and Vasilenko that began in 1979 in Washington, DC. It was there that Platt—known as “cowboy,” in part because he always wore cowboy boots—first met Vasilenko with the aim of recruiting him to spy for the CIA. (16) Based mainly on interviews with those involved (no source notes are provided), Best of Enemies presents an account of the careers of both colorful, competent, bureaucracy-abhorring intelligence officers that explains why neither recruited the other and how they became friends instead.

After their first meeting, Platt concluded there was no possibility of a “coerced recruitment.” (62) Thus a long term approach ensued that included the FBI since the two were functioning in the United States. For several years, despite frequent meetings and veiled suggestions to Gennady that he would be happy if he stayed in America, Gennady was not interested. But the KGB began to think otherwise, and in 1988, he was sent back to Moscow and interrogated in Lefortovo prison for the first time. Platt wondered then whether he had somehow been responsible; Gennady wondered the same thing. (171) And, despite having no evidence and ignoring the outspoken support from his KGB colleagues, Gennady was cashiered without a pension and started his security business. Platt, on the other hand retired voluntarily and returned as a contractor to train officers in field operations and consult with actor Robert De Niro—with whom he became friends— on De Niro’s film The Good Shepherd.  

The period of prolonged attempted recruitment had coincided with some momentous counterintelligence operations—Edward Howard’s defection, the Ames and Hanssen betrayals, the Yurchenko revelations—in which Platt and Vasilenko were involved to varying degrees even after retirement. Best of Enemies discusses the impact of these cases on both men. In Vasilenko’s case, one—he had handled Ronald Pelton, the former NSA officer—contributed to his second arrest and his being sentenced to the Gulag for “helping the CIA.” (261)

Whether Jack Platt bore any responsibility for Gennady’s second imprisonment would not be resolved until 2010, when they met again in Washington. This remarkable event followed a counterintelligence investigation that led to the exposure of 10 Russian illegals living in the United States. Best of Enemies tells how Operation Ghost Stories, conducted by the FBI and CIA, resulted in the exchange of the illegals for four Russians, one of whom was Gennady Vasilenko.

Best of Enemies is a tribute to both men and their families and a story well told, with one exception. From time to time the authors begin chapters with Gennady’s recollections while undergoing interrogation in 2005 and then flash back to previous events. This can be confusing but the reader is encouraged to persevere.

Jack Platt and Gennady Vasilenko remained friends until Jack’s death from esophageal cancer in January 2017. Gennady lives in Virginia and has “made clear his wish to be buried beside Jack someday.”