Family Centers presents ‘Spymaster’ Jack Devine with an insider’s view of the CIA

Jack Devine will speak on Friday for Family Centers' benefit.

Jack Devine will speak on Friday for Family Centers’ benefit.

The life of a spy seems fascinating, full of danger and intrigue and action. But what’s it like in real life when it’s not James Bond or someone on Homeland? That’s what a former top CIA official is going to speak about in Greenwich on Friday.

Former CIA acting Director Jack Devine is slated to speak Dec. 12 at 7:30 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich as a benefit for Family Centers. Mr. Devine’s presentation, A Peek Behind the CIA Curtain with Spymaster Jack Devine,” will help support Family Centers’ nonprofit efforts to bring education and family services to Greenwich and throughout Fairfield County. For more information and tickets, call 203-869-4848 or visit

The author of a memoir, Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story, that was released this past summer, Mr. Devine had a career at the CIA spanning decades, beginning in the late 1960s and ending in 1999, taking him through turbulent times around the globe.

His life inside the CIA included involvement in some of the most controversial and famous events, like the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Chile in 1973 and the rise to power of a brutal dictator, the funding of the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union, later immortalized in the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War, and even the Iran-Contra scandal that resulted in the resignation and indictment of senior officials in the cabinet of President Ronald Reagan.

Just one of these events would have been the basis for a memoir, but Mr. Devine saw it all and many more dramatic events, including the capture of international drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the traitorous actions of Aldrich Ames, with whom Mr. Devine worked closely and whose wedding he attended.

The winner of the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal as well as other honors, he rose all the way to associate director and acting director of operations at the agency. A career like that was filled with stories, but it took until now for him to finally turn his life into a book. A friend of his writing for the Washington Post told him, “Jack, I think you have a book,” when he looked at the recently declassified documents about the coup in Chile. What Mr. Devine expected would take a year to write ended up taking three.

“There’s been a lot of non-practioners talking about [the work of the CIA] lately,” Mr. Devine said. “That’s not a criticism. It’s an observation. A lot of people are out there talking and writing about the use of the action arm of the CIA. The espionage arm is something I think everybody understands, but the action arm has the controversy. What I wanted to do was write a book, because half of my career was involved in action, which is quite rare. CIA officials usually never get involved in it. I ended up involved in half a dozen [covert action operations], and I can talk about them because almost all covert action operations at some point end up in the public, such as the overthrow of Allende in 1973 in Chile and the Iran-Contra scandal.”

And now, with more known about these events, Mr. Devine said he wanted to set the record straight about what he saw and what he says really happened. This is particularly the case with the events in Chile, which saw President Salvador Allende ousted and replaced with Augusto Pinochet, who was later found to be guilty of ordering the mass murder of those who opposed him. While it has been commonly believed for decades that the CIA was behind the coup to oust the leftist-leaning Allende for a more “American-friendly” ally against the Soviets in Pinochet, Mr. Devine said that is not what happened at all, and he shares his own eyewitness experiences from Chile at the time of the coup.

“The perception in the public’s mind that we actually plotted with the military to overthrow Allende is not what happened,” Mr. Devine said. “I can say that because the documents have been declassified. There’s a great confusion about what took place when Allende was first elected with a plurality. At that time, the Nixon White House sent instructions to try and block him from taking power in 1971. The chief of station in Chile wrote back, saying the conditions on the ground aren’t right and that it would be bloody and it wouldn’t work. He was given instructions to try it, and lo and behold, it ended up being a disaster. A rogue group tried to kidnap the commander in chief of the armed forces. He was killed in the process and the entire country was set to revulsion.”

After that attempt failed, Mr. Devine said, a cable came from Washington saying there would be no more coup plotting, and that while support could be given to the opposition of Allende and the newspapers that were against him, there could be no more direct CIA involvement in attempting to remove him from power.

“Those instructions were adhered to,” Mr. Devine said. “The way we found out about the plot, interesting enough, was that my wife received the first report three or four days before the coup from an agent of mine who called from the airport and told her that he couldn’t reach me and that the military was going to move on Sept. 11. I went out and found another agent who supported that. Both of them were not active-duty military. They just had very good connections. That’s how the CIA found out that Pinochet and the other leaders of the military were going to overthrow Allende. This is not well understood, and to some degree I’m satisfied that for people in academia and those that study this that there is a record here. We did make life difficult for Allende, but we did not plot with the military.”

Mr. Devine said he also wanted to set the record straight about negotiations with Iran in the 1980s to release American hostages by selling it arms, the proceeds of which were then partially used to fund illegal operations in Central America. This scandal was known as Iran-Contra. As chief of Iranian operations at the CIA at the time, Mr. Devine said, he opposed the operation, and he said no one he knew at CIA was aware of the money and how it was used. He puts the finger of blame at the Reagan White House and said it was the result of bad policy decisions and illegal operations that resulted from them.

While portions of the book are devoted to espionage efforts, the action operations make up a great deal of it. He goes into the good and the bad as well as the “why” when it comes to certain operations and what worked and what didn’t, plus why they were done in the first place.

Mr. Devine said he also wanted to counter the notion of rogue CIA operations existing without any kind of approval. To him, that is a creation of movies and television that has become a commonly accepted fact. He wanted people to see just how much planning and consideration go into an actual covert operation.

“I know of no covert action in the history of the CIA that wasn’t approved by the president of the United States personally in writing,” Mr. Devine said. “I think most people would say that defies all of Hollywood’s descriptions of it. And I also made sure to take some pains in the book to talk about when you do covert actions what the policy makers need to keep in mind. What are the conditions? When can you use action? Not all of it is original thinking. Much of it comes from philosophers in the 14th Century who wrote about what makes for a just war. It’s the same sorts of arguments. You have to have a true strategic enemy. You have to have a reasonable chance of success. You have to have exhausted all other means of resolving the problem. You shouldn’t dabble with it and have the loss of life for no purpose. Then I go and modernize it and say you should have bipartisan support and have it amply funded by Congress. You have to have people on the ground who are identified with you and the U.S., not necessarily democracy but our national security interests, and are willing and able to fight.”

Mr. Devine said that if you don’t do this, there will be “considerable blowback” to any operation, because to do so without the support of the people is inconsistent with the CIA’s goals. Overall, while many of the stories do have a lot of gripping entertainment value, the book is Mr. Devine’s attempt to help people better understand how the CIA operates and why decisions are made.

“I want to educate,” Mr. Devine said. “There’s a lot of information about the CIA, but not a lot of it tackles the covert action part and what makes for good covert action and bad covert action. I want to shine a little light on it from an insider’s point of view.”

Mr. Devine doesn’t say this just as a history lesson. It’s also meant to be applied today when it comes to global trouble spots like Iraq, Ukraine and Syria. Mr. Devine speaks out against the use of enhanced interrogation techniques as “not consistent with our values” and said Iraq will prove to be “one of the great foreign policy blunders.” Instead of using armed forces, Mr. Devine advocates for use of the CIA and special forces below the radar to work with surrogates. He said the book is not meant as a defense of the agency but rather an advocacy of how to use the CIA and covert actions correctly before American troop boots are on the ground.

It’s Mr. Devine’s work in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan that he called one of the biggest operations of his career. He headed the Afghan Task Force with Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman later immortalized in the book and movie starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Just as in movies that told stories about what happened in Chile, such as the Jack Lemmon drama Missing, Mr. Devine said, sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good movie plot.

“It wasn’t really Charlie’s war,” Mr. Devine said. “Wars don’t come about because of a congressman and a rogue CIA guy. They come about because Congress approves it and the president approves it. They’re big government programs. I liked Charlie immensely, and that comes across well in the book, but it doesn’t make for a good movie to say this was your government planning, Democrats and Republicans together, and funding it with regular bureaucrats. How do you get Julia Roberts in a story like that? How do you get Tom Hanks? This is why I wrote the book. People know the old saying about old soldiers never die, they just fade away; well, the same is true about old spies. But if you have a pen, you can live a lot longer.”

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