An unlikely friendship

The untold story of two Cold War spies

Created date

November 5th, 2018
Former CIA agent Jack Platt (left) and former KGB officer Gennady Vasilenko met trying to work each other for intelligence. They became lifelong friends.

Former CIA agent Jack Platt (left) and former KGB officer Gennady Vasilenko met trying to work each other for intelligence. They became lifelong friends.

In September 2014, author Gus Russo’s phone rang. Answering it, he heard a gruff voice: “Is this Russo?”

“Who’s asking?” he inquired.

“This is Platt, Jack Platt,” came the reply. “Bobby D. [actor Robert DeNiro] says you’re the guy to do my book.”

The mystery caller on the line was a retired CIA agent with an incredible story to tell. And along with his coauthor Eric Dezenhall, Russo wound up writing the book to which Platt had referred.

Best of Enemies: The Last Great Spy Story of the Cold War (Twelve, 2018) is a tale of both intrigue and an enduring friendship that shouldn’t have been.

It all started in 1978, when Platt and KGB agent Gennady Vasilenko received orders to seduce each other into becoming double agents within their respective agencies. First meeting under false names at a Harlem Globetrotters game, the two men from completely different worlds discovered they were more alike than they ever could have imagined.

Platt was a maverick within the highly bureaucratic, straightlaced CIA. Free thinking, hard drinking, and foul mouthed, the ex-Marine walked the Agency’s corridors wearing cowboy boots and jeans.

Vasilenko, in many respects, was Platt’s Russian equivalent. He was just as free thinking, partied hard, and loved women.

Real-life espionage

Their superiors tolerated their iconoclastic ways because they were so good at their jobs. And the book’s rich portrait of real-life espionage gives readers an in-depth look at what so-called spies really do.

“People often think a lot more spying goes on in the traditional sense of the term,” says Russo. “Actually, Jack didn’t consider himself a spy. He once said, ‘I wasn’t a spy. I looked for spies. I followed spies.’”

As Russo and Dezenhall illustrate, Platt and Vasilenko were essentially recruiters. They charmed and finessed foreign agents and diplomatic workers, plumbing them for bits of intelligence and, in the best-case scenario, turning them into willing conduits of inside information.

For instance, in one of his initial attempts to flip Vasilenko, Platt appealed to the Russian’s love of firearms. Similarly, Vasilenko’s naturally warm, fun-loving personality was a draw for Platt, as was the booze Vasilenko brought to their outings.

Such relationships were supposed to stop short of personal attachment and intimate friendship. They were merely a means to an end.

Budding friendship

But whenever the two got together, they weren’t engaging in counterintelligence, they were hanging out. Once enemy spies, Platt and Vasilenko were soon best friends.

To anyone else watching, though, the only conceivable explanation for the time they spent together was that one of them had turned. The Russians believed it was Vasilenko.

In 1988 and 2005, his friendship with Platt twice landed him in hellish gulags, where he was tortured daily. Russo’s and Dezenhall’s description of his horrific existence adds a shocking edge to the book’s masterful final act.

Vasilenko did not betray Russia, yet he was ceaseless in his love for America. Not until 2010, as part of the famous spy swap with the U.S., was he able to return to his adopted homeland, this time permanently.

More importantly, he was reunited with Platt.

“They were like soul mates,” says Russo. “Gennady bought a house near Jack’s in Virginia. They sometimes met daily to have lunch or go shooting. They were inseparable.”

To be sure, their friendship defies logic; it contradicts accepted notions of culture and nationality and instead highlights the significance of our humanity.

“Their eyes were opened to the idea that we’re all human beings, regardless of language and origin,” explains Russo. “Jack and Gennady were able to see through their own preconceptions of the other’s country and accepted one another as people.”

Robert DeNiro, who, prior to Vasilenko’s second arrest, had hired the duo as consultants on his spy film The Good Shepherd (2006), also recognized this. Their story deserved a book, and Gus Russo was the writer he had in mind.

Even with the book’s completion, Russo still marvels at the rarity of his subject.

“What are the odds of this happening again?” he ponders, adding, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime story. If there were more of them out there, the world would probably be a better place.”