- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007


By Larry Devlin

PublicAffairs, $26, 288 pages, illus.


Despite the fantasies that are the lifeblood of spy fiction writers, American intelligence officers seldom worried about physical harm at the hands of their Soviet counterparts, even in the frostiest days of the Cold War. To be sure, officers could count on being cuffed around if, say, they were caught servicing a “dead drop” in Moscow to retrieve documents left by a recruited source. But, by early mutual agreement, killing one another’s operatives was a no-no.

Rules in the Third World were quite different, especially in situations where established order had collapsed and “revolutionary forces” held sway. Consider Larry Devlin’s first day in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), the Congo, as CIA station chief. It was July 1960, and what was once the Belgian Congo had achieved independence only 10 days earlier. The army mutinied, throwing the country into chaos.

A “band of mutinous soldiers on the prowl” snatched Mr. Devlin off the street. Swilling whiskey and smoking marijuana, they abused him verbally. The man in charge demanded that Mr. Devlin lick his boots. Mr. Devlin refused. Then the soldier brandished a revolver and said, “Ever play Russian roulette?”

Five times Mr. Devlin heard the hammer click on an empty chamber. He expected to die with the next pull of the trigger. “At this point, I was undoubtedly a little crazy. I remember yelling ‘[expletive]!’ at the top of my lungs as he pulled the trigger for the sixth and last time.” No explosion, only an outburst of laughter from the soldiers. “I was the only one not in on the joke. Congolese roulette.” The suddenly friendly soldiers gave Mr. Devlin a glug of whiskey, took him to his hotel and “went off to look for more fun.”

Recurring threats to his life are a sub-theme of Mr. Devlin’s “Chief of Station, Congo,” and they illustrate the dangers faced by CIA officers who worked around the world to keep the Cold War from becoming the “Hot War.”

Mr. Devlin’s book illustrates the influence a station chief could exert in a far-away corner of the globe. His first concern was guiding creation of a stable government that would stop the random violence by out-of-control soldiers bent upon raping Belgian women and hanging white men in platoon lots. Of equal importance was fending off an attempt by the Soviets to exploit the turmoil and bring the Congo into their orbit.

Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, briefed Mr. Devlin before dispatching him to Africa. The Soviets’ long-term goal was to outflank NATO in Western Europe by including bases along or near the Mediterranean. “Control of the Congo, moreover, would give the Soviet Union a near monopoly on the production of cobalt, a critical mineral used in missiles and many other weapons systems, since the Congo and the USSR were the world’s main suppliers of the minerals. Such a scenario would put the United States’ own weapons and space programs at a severe disadvantage.”

Washington’s chief adversary was a demagogic Congolese politician named Patrice Lumumba, who in common with other Third World figures had the notion that he could accept Soviet largess without falling under Moscow’s sway. The established record showed otherwise.

Permit me to skip over intricate Congolese politics and proceed to an episode that colored the rest of Mr. Devlin’s life. In September 1960, he received a cable from Richard Bissell, then the director of Agency clandestine services, reporting that “Joe from Paris” was en route, and that Mr. Devlin should obey his verbal instructions.

As Mr. Devlin writes, “He had come to the Congo carrying deadly poisons to assassinate Lumumba, and I was to do the job … I’ll never forget my reaction of total, fall-to-the-floor shock… . I exploded, ‘Isn’t this unusual?’” Mr. Devlin asked who authorized the operation.

“‘President Eisenhower,’ Joe said. ‘I wasn’t there when he approved it, but Dick Bissell said that Eisenhower wanted Lumumba removed.’” “Joe” handed over the poisons, including one in a tube of toothpaste. Mr. Devlin thought the idea immoral, and that it had the makings of a disaster for the United States. The murder was an act “that I could not justify by any argument or rationalize.” Mr. Devlin believed that the Congolese themselves would eventually solve “the Lumumba problem.”

In due course, such is what happened. Lumumba and some followers were shot to death in September. A Belgian commission later concluded that the order was given by the interior minister of Katanga, a mineral-rich province that sought to break away from Congo after independence.

Nonetheless, when a committee headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) did a grandstanding investigation of CIA “misconduct” in the 1970s, Mr. Devlin found himself in the dock. The committee concluded that “ambiguity and lack of clarity in the records … tends to contradict the evidence that the President intended an assassination effort against Lumumba.” It did not fault Mr. Devlin.

To lead the Congo, Mr. Devlin turned to Joseph Desire Mobutu, a former sergeant who became the army chief. Mobuto at first appeared a winner. He restored order. But in due course he changed its name to Zaire and turned it into a veritable kleptocracy, ruling until he died in 1997. (When CIA is blamed for creating this mess, one need only glance around the continent and see the chaos Africans achieved on their own.)

One further note on violence. Gunmen burst into the home one night and threatened to kill Mr. Devlin, wife Colette and daughter Maureen, 14. The girl, speaking in the Lingala dialect, brazenly warned the men that the family was protected by a “dawa” — relatives of any-one who killed themwould themselves die. Startled,the gunmen shoved the family into the bath.

“My God, this is the end of us,” Mr. Devlin thought, remembering families had been found murdered in their bathrooms. He managed to slam and lock the door and the gunmen retreated. For her bravery, young Maureen was awarded the Intelligence Star, the CIA equivalent of the military’s Silver Star; she is now a CIA officer in her own right.

Mr. Devlin went on to head the massive CIA station in Laos during the Vietnam War — hopefully the subject of a further memoir?

Joe Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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