Spymaster Jack Devine on Building a Better CIA

Jack Devine, longtime veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and at one point its top spymaster, was there for Charlie Wilsons War, the hunt for Pablo Escobar, and the unmasking of KGB spy Aldrich Ames. From Pinochets coup in Chile to Iran-Contra, he sets the record straight about the CIAs Cold War record in his new memoir and its controversial role during wartime.

In your book, you seem to wax poetic about the agency. You write, “When an autopsy is done you’re going to find that part of my heart contains the CIA’s stamp.” Why? Most Americans probably hold more negative views of the CIA.

I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that most Americans hold negative views of the CIA. In fact, I think many in mainstream American see the CIA as playing an invaluable role for the nation, and understand the need for it. Once you step away from the academic arenas, the average American person is much more supportive of the CIA. Furthermore, Congress continues to fund the CIA with a robust budget, as it is sensitive to the needs and opinions of the American people. As for my interest in the CIA, intrigue drew me to Langley. However, even more than that, I believed in the essential mission of the CIA which kept me in the profession for over thirty years.

You write that the CIA is “probably the least-understood instruments of the U.S. government.” What do you mean? Are you saying that Hollywood gets it wrong and that people like Saul Berenson (of Homeland) don’t exist?

The element of the CIA that is least understood has to do with who directs and controls covert action. In over thirty years with CIA, I never saw or participated in a “rogue operation” – something the CIA executed on its own without explicit approval from the White House. To my knowledge, there has never been a covert action that has not been approved by the president through a presidential finding. In December of 1968, the Covert Operations Study Group submitted its report on “Covert Operations of the United States Government” where they made clear “Covert operations are an instrument; their only legitimate objective is to serve the foreign policy of the president.”  This continues to be the case today.

With regards to Hollywood, it is true that the CIA is lionized and caricatured. Early on in my career, I thought that Hollywood trivialized the profession. However, I came to realize that Hollywood in fact in many cases enhanced the folk lore and prestige of the CIA. The Agency’s larger-than-life image in Latin America worked to our advantage. The CIA came to be known as “the Company,” in Latin America, and it was both revered and feared throughout the region. This image enabled us to develop strong liaison relationships with host governments and to recruit sources to our cause. I’ve also learned that Hollywood frequently dramatizes in order to visually convey real emotions and feelings, and needs to do so in order to tell a cohesive and compelling story. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are great examples of dramatization used to portray genuine emotions.

What is the “myth” that bothers you most about the CIA?

There are three myths that I would point to. First would be the notion of “rogue operations” that I addressed in the previous question. The second would be that the CIA was directly responsible for the overthrow of President Allende in Chile in 1973, which I will address in a later question. The third, which I discuss at length in the book, is the assertion of a connection between the CIA’s covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the creation of al-Qaeda. The CIA supported Afghanistanmujahedinfighters, not the Arab organizations that later became al-Qaeda.  In addition, the CIA never supported Osama bin Laden or provided his associates with weapons or other materiel support. 

The CIA supported Afghanistan mujahedin fighters, not the Arab organizations that later became al-Qaeda.  The CIA never supported Osama bin Laden or provided his associates with weapons or other materiel support. 

You ran covert operations from seven countries. How has intelligence gathering changed from the Cold War to the present? It seems after Iraq, Curveball, extraordinary renditions, and so forth, the profession has come under intense scrutiny and derision.

The largest change has been the increased access to information. The internet has transformed the intelligence community in countless ways, from communicating to researching. Today, there is a tremendous amount of information that is accessible online. Anyone can go online and, within a matter of minutes, see what is going on in Ukraine or in Israel. However, what cannot be easily found online are motives and intentions. This is the place where human intelligence is a timeless and invaluable craft. The ability to learn why Putin is doing what he is doing – his motives and his plans – remains of the highest importance. To your second point, I would contend that the Agency is not experiencing unprecedented scrutiny. Whether it was the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s or Iran-Contra in the 1980s, the CIA has weathered its fair share of criticism. I do, however, believe that the issue of enhanced interrogation immediately following 9/11 – an issue which I have publicly opposed for many years – will bring about a new spike in criticism.

What about the agency’s turf battles in Washington? How are these changing vis-à-vis the military and rest of the sprawling intel-gathering bureaucracy?

Turf battles are a part of life in Washington. As I mention in the book, I continue to believe that the Agency’s founding fathers got it right in the aftermath of World War II: The nation needed a strong, central intelligence agency that would bring together core missions so each could influence and enhance the others. Over the past decades, we have seen the rise of new agencies, many of them inside the Department of Defense. This expanded the community and diluted the centrality of the CIA. While the Pentagon has always had a large role in the intelligence community, I think we are seeing more recently that they have begun to drift into what in the past was viewed as the domain of civilian collectors. This is largely the result of the two wars in the post 9/11 period, which have greatly increased the role of military power in U.S. foreign policy.

There has been a lot of controversy over the years as to whether and to what degree and with what weapons America should arm allied sides in so-called “low intensity conflicts.” Syria is a recent example, with arms reportedly finally beginning to flow to moderate anti-Assad forces. Given your quite successful experience of arming the mujaheddin in Afghanistan with Stinger missiles to down Soviet air assets, what factors should be taken into consideration before America arms or equips proxies or partners in these type of conflicts?

In Good Hunting, I outline six principles that decision makers need to keep in mind when they consider committing the United States to a particular covert action. First, we must identify a legitimate enemy whose defeat is in the U.S. national interest. Second, we must determine the on-the-ground conditions, and there must be a reasonable likelihood of success. We can provide support to a movement, but we can’t spark one that isn’t there. Third, we must ensure adequate funding and staff. Fourth, there must be legitimate local partners in place. Fifth, it is imperative to determine proportionality. Sixth and finally, it is essential to acquire bipartisan political support. Covert action is bound to fail when these criteria are not present.

As for the current crises you listed, we need to apply these principals to whatever policies we choose to pursue there, including arming and supporting opposition groups or host governments.  If and when we do decide to pursue such policies, we should also be careful to avoid “dabbling,” and commit to getting the job done before we decide to move forward with a particular initiative.

If and when we do decide to [intervene in Syria], we should be careful to avoid “dabbling,” and commit to getting the job done before we decide to move forward with a particular initiative. 

Some have compared changes in the intelligence game since 9/11 as a shift from a gatherer to hunter culture with the focus on actionable intelligence and a target to eliminate. This is a different sort of mindset from the Cold War in which there was more of a big-picture, grand strategy focus of defeating a world-class foe, the Soviet Union. Given the title of your book, do you think that CIA will be able to let go of hunting terrorists in order to one day focus on big picture strategy and defeating larger geostrategic foes such as China?

I would disagree slightly with the premise of this question. I think you are correct in noting the importance placed on actionable intelligence. Particularly in today’s world order, actionable intelligence plays a critically important role in combating terrorism. However, every single day, time and energy are certainly placed on non-actionable intelligence within the CIA. There is great emphasis on understanding what is going on behind the scenes in Iran, North Korea and Russia. Furthermore, budgets are so robust, that the CIA should be emphasizing both actionable and non-actionable intelligence.  This is particularly true with human intelligence, the collection of which is relatively cheap compared with other types of foreign operations.

Do you believe that U.S. intelligence has become too SIGINT focused? Why does HUMINT appear to be a continuing weakness for the U.S. and many of its Western allies?

I don’t believe that U.S. intelligence has become too SIGINT focused. The intelligence community’s relationship with SIGINT dates as far back as the origins of the community itself. Operation Mincemeat is a terrific example of the early employment of SIGINT. In 1943, after the Allies intercepted a German message indicating that the Germans believed the Allies were going to invade Greece through Sardinia, the Allies were able to orchestrate a game-changing disinformation campaign. Planting “top secret” war plans for an invasion through Sicily on a dead body and later washed up on the beach, the Allies successfully threw Germany off the scent of the Allies’ true plans.  SIGINT – whether it be reading mail or intercepting messages – has always been at the core of the intelligence community.

I would push back on the notion that HUMINT is a continuing weakness for the United States. Convincing someone to betray their country is a challenge for any government, but we have become quite good at it over the years.  Of course, we need to ensure that we continue to polish those skills, since HUMINT will always be the bread and butter of the intelligence community.  No matter how much technical collection you have, actual human beings will always provide a window into a foreign government or scenario that cannot be found elsewhere.

You were also in Chile when Allende fell in 1973. You’ve taken to the pages of Foreign Affairs to set the record on that episode straight. For those who have not read the article, what explains the widespread perception that the CIA masterminded Pinochet’s coup?

There are those that have spent decades insisting that the CIA was the architect of the 1973 Chilean military coup against Allende. I served as a CIA field operative in Santiago during the Allende era, and I can say with conviction that the Chilean military moved against Allende not because the United States wanted it to do so but because the country was in disarray. The confusion over this event centers largely on the conflation of the U.S. role in the 1970 coup attempt, which was substantial, and our later support of the opposition and free media in Chile in 1973 in the run-up to the actual overthrow of Allende. Our support of the coup in 1970 aligned closely with my definition of bad covert action, as it did not meet many of the requirements outlined above.  By 1973, however, our support was aimed at keeping the opposition alive and helping it to defeat Allende in the elections, not to orchestrate his ouster. We also did not have robust ties with the Chilean military, despite what many have claimed. The Allende regime put Chile under a great deal of economic and political pressure, which is what eventually led to his overthrow.

Madeleine Albright has recently said, “The world is a mess.” As a former top CIA official, do you see it that way? Are there, in fact, more crises and conflicts today than in previous decades?

Since World War II, I don’t think that we have faced an arc of insecurity like we face today. What is so unique about the current situation is not just the quantity of conflicts but also the different natures of these conflicts. Today, the United States faces diverse problems with diverse conditions. Whether it is addressing the nuclear issue with Iran or Putin’s advances in Ukraine or the civil war in Syria, there is no overlapping narrative that neatly explains the world order like what we saw during the Cold War. I don’t think I have ever seen the world this messy.


Jack Devine is a thirty-two-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is also a founding partner and the president of the Arkin Group, which specializes in international crisis management, strategic intelligence, investigative research, and business problem-solving. He is the recipient of the Agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal and several meritorious awards. 


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