Spymaster Jack Devine offers tough talk

CIA veteran Jack Devine signed copies of his book and spoke at an event to benefit Family Centers, the Greenwich-based agency that provides education and family services throughout lower Fairfield County.

CIA veteran Jack Devine signed copies of his book and spoke at an event to benefit Family Centers, the Greenwich-based agency that provides education and family services throughout lower Fairfield County.

The CIA has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, and as he spoke at a benefit for Family Centers last week, Jack Devine, a former associate director and acting director of operations at the agency, did not shy away from the topic.

Last week the U.S. Senate released a long-awaited report discussing the treatment of detainees by the CIA post-9/11, and the results caused an international outrage. The report found instances of abuse and torture by CIA officers and those working with the agency, and while both former and current CIA officials have disputed that finding, Mr. Devine did not. He said that he did have some objections to the Senate’s report, but condemned the enhanced interrogation techniques, as he has in the past.

“I’m unequivocally opposed to torture,” Mr. Devine said. “In the 70s our country decided it was going to promote human rights around the world and the CIA was expected to be a part of that. I can’t tell you how many foreign governments I worked with where we said, ‘We’re going to support you, but don’t do anything that equates to violations of human rights,’ and we have a hard time saying that today. I think that’s the right thing to say. In a democratic society, you need to decide if the ends justify the means. If you say that they do, then you’re probably off the beaten path.”

The question Mr. Devine was responding to framed the discussion in a way positive to the CIA officers accused of taking such actions, saying the country was “apologizing for our interrogation techniques while they’re chopping our heads off.” But while Mr. Devine said he favored a more aggressive action against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and other countries, he said the techniques alleged in the report were not the way to do it, calling it inconsistent with American values.

“Is torture effective? We’re going to fight that argument whether we got the reports or not,” Mr. Devine said. “My personal belief is it is effective, but my argument is really a different one. If I had been in charge I would not have authorized the use of torture. It matters around the world how we are seen. I could recruit people because the people I wanted to recruit wanted to be part of our value system. The Russians had a hard time saying that. Don’t underestimate just how powerful democratic civil liberties and the democratic process is.”

This was the first question Mr. Devine faced at the breakfast fund-raiser on Dec. 12, where he spoke about his decades of experience in the CIA dating from the 1960s to the 1990s. His career took him right into the teeth of a coup in Chile, the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s and the efforts to fund Afghani rebels against the Soviet Union, which was immortalized in the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Mr. Devine discussed all of this in his memoir, Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story, which was released this past summer, but he knew what people wanted to talk about given the report’s findings.

Mr. Devine joked that he had been asked by Family Centers to “try and stir up a little interest” and added, to loud laughter from the crowd, “I can’t tell you how hard it was to get the Senate report released Tuesday so we might have something to talk about.”

In discussing his career, Mr. Devine mentioned working with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on operations during the Cold War. During the question-and-answer segment at the end of the event, Mr. Devine then was asked about the current situation in Egypt after Mubarak was arrested and accused of crimes ranging from corruption to torture and murder against his own people. The country went through a second coup after Mubarak stepped down during what was known as the “Arab spring” in 2011 and has been unstable ever since. Given the limited time at the event, Mr. Devine broadened his reply to cover the entire Middle East and said he was worried about how unstable things had become.

“I would have left all the dictators in power,” Mr. Devine said. “As repugnant as many of them may have been, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, I would have done that because of my concern that we didn’t have the plumbing in and didn’t know what was coming in behind them. I would work to ameliorate them as much as we could. We’d go in and say, ‘You’ll get some support but you’d better not do anything with us that’s in violation.’ I would have left them in. We saw the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring, but I never thought there was going to be an Arab Summer. The fact is that the world that we look at today is so much more unstable because we pushed these people out. We strengthened Iran’s hand more than they ever could have dreamed in 15 years.”

That answer was in keeping with other points Mr. Devine made in discussing his career on the “action” end of the CIA. He said it was important to remember the consequences of covert operations and that these things happen in real life. Mr. Devine started out his presentation playing a clip of an interview he gave to Showtime to help promote its hit spy thriller Homeland, which he called “a lark” but one he enjoyed, and then joked that real life teaches you that very few spies actually looked like Sean Connery or Brad Pitt. So while he acknowledged the allure of fictional spy adventures, he kept things grounded in realism.

That meant having to form other identities and take risks to pull off clandestine operations in not optimal situations with lives on the line. Because of that, Mr. Devine stressed the need to carefully plan operations and take all factors into account. He said force should be used only in very specific situations, something he discusses in his memoir, and that doesn’t always coincide with the political agendas of people in Washington.

In his remarks, Mr. Devine talked about several of the most notable points of his career, covering several subjects during his close to 45-minute speech while teasing stories he tells in his memoir, of which he was signing copies. He talked about dramatic moments like a coup in Chile that deposed President Salvador Allende for a military dictator in Augusto Pinochet that left his own family at risk for several days while installing a brutal man that killed his own people. That taught him valuable lessons about what he could and couldn’t trust from the ground and he also discussed ways that bad political policy leads to disaster, such as in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The event was held to benefit Family Centers, the Greenwich-based nonprofit agency that provides education and family services throughout lower Fairfield County. Beyond the discussion of the spy life, good and bad, there was also a call to give from both event co-chairs Jan Dilenschneider and Linda McMahon and Family Centers President Bob Arnold, who spoke about the 22,500 people, half of them children, assisted by Family Centers programs over the last year.

“Many of these youngsters live in single-parent households headed up by mothers, and they are suddenly faced with one crisis or another,” Mr. Arnold said. “In order for us to help this large volume of families, we have to raise over $3.5 million this year in private fund raising. The need to raise those funds is what brought us here this morning. While government grants provide substantial support, we couldn’t run the clinics, preschools, job readiness programs, and crisis intervention programs or anything else without strong community support.”

More information may be found online at Familycenters.org.

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