A Veteran Spymaster Answers Readers’ Questions, Part I


Earlier this month it was my privilege to interview Jack Devine, a founding partner and President of The Arkin Group LLC. Jack’s memoir, GOOD HUNTING: An American Spymaster’s Story, written with Vernon Loeb, was published by Macmillan in June and is already being hailed as a modern classic.

In his 32 years with the Central Intelligence Agency, Jack Devine held numerous senior positions, including Chief of the Latin American Division, head of the Counternarcotics Center, and both Acting Director and Associate Director of the CIA’s operations outside the United States. He received the agency’s Meritorious Officer Award for his role as head of the CIA’s Afghan Task Force, which countered Soviet aggression in an operation immortalized on film as “Charlie Wilson’s War.” With Stanley Arkin, he now heads The Arkin Group, an international risk consulting and intelligence firm.

Jack came to the Harvard Book Store to discuss his book and answer questions, and before the event, I asked my own readers what they’d ask him, given the opportunity. My conversation with Jack took off, however, and we had so much to talk about in our limited time that I never got to ask any of my readers’ questions. He was kind enough to take some time a few days later to answer some of the best questions, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with you. These questions came in via my Facebook page, and I have condensed, clarified and combined them — thanks to everyone who submitted one!

Because we covered so much ground, I’m posting this interview in two sections. Part II will follow tomorrow.


1. How did you swallow your fear of being exposed and being killed? What kind of mind set does it take to be able to organize a mission? Do you just put the "what could go wrong" issues away in a compartment in your brain, and close the door?

Devine: Every time you’re making a clandestine meeting, there’s a risk — and while there’s a risk for you, the risk is greater for the person you’re meeting. [To be an operative], you must have a certain level of confidence . . . when you’re making a clandestine meeting, you’re putting the other person at risk, and you’re so focused on that, you displace your own fear.

Secondly, when you’re in a place that’s in turmoil, the thing you have to be very careful of is that if you live there, you get increasingly more comfortable with the level of instability. There’s a problem with highly volatile environments: the human body and mind get used to it. The bigger problem is that you have to watch people so they don’t get overly confident, that they’re not appreciating the full risk. I don’t think that I often had gut-wrenching fear.

2. Do covert agents typically reach a point where it feels like a normal job to them? Or does the risk prevent it from ever becoming routine?

Devine: That’s my concern, and that’s why for headquarters or the backbone of an operation, responsibility rests on them to not over-weight the confidence they hear from people in the field. Experienced managers realize that you cannot rely on their judgment, and you need to be the arbiter, and call off the operation if necessary. You rely on them [the field operatives] for local judgment, but in a dangerous or volatile environment, the call should rest in Washington.

The body does adapt to all types of anxiety and fear. In the book, I talk about how this happened to me in Chile. I describe it as one of my worst personal judgments — telling my wife how she could defend herself, when the family should have gone home. People in our business want to stay and duke it out, complete the mission. But when families are at stake, it’s not a hard call. When officers are at stake, it needs to be done prudently.

3. Does it frustrate you that our leaders don’t seem to consider blowback while planning strategy, and do you think this will ever change?

Devine: I think that’s an unfair description. Most of the people I’ve known over the years, particularly public servants, are experienced professionals. They consider the consequences pretty carefully; what most people get hung up on are the unintended consequences . . . As a class, your government officials, your policymakers, are pretty thoughtful.

One of my recommendations [in GOOD HUNTING] is that when you have policies, you air them with the appropriate government officials. You need to be challenged on your suppositions.

It’s a hard line to draw between finger-pointing and lessons learned. The military does the best job — after a failed operation, they really do a good job of scrubbing the operations. Civilians have a harder time. It’s part culture: you need to be able to hold people accountable without being overly punitive. This is why I like bipartisan commissions. You’re better off with both parties, you have a better chance of getting to reality.

The national security arena, for most of my public life, was an area of Congressional bipartisanship in the Intelligence Committees. I still like to believe that our elected representatives put our national security first. I’m hopeful, in the case of Benghazi, that this is a serious effort to get the facts.

4. How do you deal with the need to inform Senators and Representatives beforehand?

Devine: I absolutely believe that you have to get legislative support for executive branch covert action. If you’re going to do something that’s going to cause a firefight with Congress, then the operation may not be a smart idea. The people elected the Congress. Now, that doesn’t mean you brief 435 members of Congress; you brief the [Intelligence] Committees.

In terms of leaks, in my experience, there were very few things leaked by the Intelligence Committees in Congress; most of the leaks I saw came from the executive branch. Congress should be fully briefed.

If you can’t carry the day, maybe you shouldn’t do it. Review by Congress is appropriate and helpful.

5. Which presidents do you have respect for, and why?

Devine: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower (laughs). Then it gets fuzzy. We’re too close to it. I can point to successes and major accomplishments by each President. I do have my favorites of the last several, but it’s not partisan . . . I have worked very hard to be nonpartisan, and that’s what a professional CIA person should do.

6. My assumption is that running a CIA operation is like playing a game of chess. How do you ensure that your chess game doesn’t fall into predictable and recognizable moves? And what’s your biggest pet peeve of how the CIA is depicted in novels, movies, and television?

Devine: I would say that our strategic views should be known. The American people should know what our position is, and our public diplomacy should be known. But the tactical moves — how, for example, we deploy the drones and the special forces — your hope is that you can conceal that from your opposition. It’s hard to support 125,000 fighters in Afghanistan without anyone knowing that you’re doing it, but exactly how is easier to conceal.

There’s a general perception that the CIA operates as a rogue government entity. It makes for good movies and good theater, but I don’t know of a single covert action that wasn’t specifically approved by the President of the United States. People may think they have a problem with the CIA, but what they really have a problem with is the policy.

7. Are CIA agents depicted accurately in any films or books? If so, which ones?

Devine: The Recruit [2003, starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell] is good in the beginning; the first half hour depicts the training, and is quite accurate. The rest of it, well . . . The Spy Who Came in From the Cold gets to the deep psychological truth of the business. I liked Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, too. And I like an older movie, called The Informer [1935, directed by John Ford], about this Irish IRA member who informs on his friends . . . the James Bond movies are entertaining, but they don’t get to the details of what we do.

As for books, I like Agatha Christie’s Curtain, where she explores how you get someone else to kill for you. Very cleverly done. I tend to like mostly historical books, biographies. I’m reading The Bully Pulpit now, about Roosevelt and Taft.

8. What about the BBC series, like “Spooks” and “MI5”?

Devine: I try to watch all the BBC series, and I think they do great stuff. I don’t know why, but they do it a little better — it has less tinsel.

Jack Devine’s memoir, GOOD HUNTING: An American Spymaster’s Story, is in stores now. Read more about it here. Joseph Finder’s bestselling novel SUSPICION is also on sale.