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Book Review

‘Good Hunting’ by Jack Devine with Vernon Loeb

Jack Devine’s career in the CIA spanned three decades and six presidencies.

Jack Devine’s career in the CIA spanned three decades and six presidencies.

Spies don’t often weigh in publicly on CIA controversies, for obvious reasons. In “Good Hunting,’’ former spymaster Jack Devine, whose career spanned three decades and six presidencies — from Nixon to Clinton — tackles some of the agency’s hot-button issues, joining the small but growing number of CIA veterans to turn memoirist in recent years.

As head of several prominent overseas stations, then as leader of the division charged with overseeing thousands of American spies around the world, Devine helped shepherd the CIA through the end of the Cold War and into the early days of the war on terror. He insists that spycraft is even more crucial to national security today — more important than even the military. Spies, he argues, can maneuver more nimbly than soldiers, especially against terrorists who are themselves alarmingly nimble.

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The memoir is well-written and engaging, studded with insights and opinions that are thoughtful, if not always surprising. For the most part, Devine lauds his fellow spies and spymasters, lashing out at agency detractors and objecting especially to Hollywood depictions of rogue CIA officers as nearly commonplace. He holds the agency up as a model of professionalism, with a top-down hierarchy obeyed as strictly as in the military: no Carrie Mathisons gambling with global politics on a whim.

He supports the use of drones and is tactfully ambivalent on the topic of assassination, as well as on the mass surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden. But he diverges from the party line by condemning torture, including waterboarding, not on the grounds that it’s ineffective in making people talk, but because it’s “just wrong.”

The book is far from a tell-all, as you might expect from a man who made a career of keeping secrets — but it is clear that he intends to set the historical record straight. In one chapter, he writes vaguely about an assignment in the late 1990s that he tells us he is not at liberty to describe in any detail. Still, he provides a nuanced behind-the-scenes look at the CIA’s Cold War machinations, from the good (fall of the Berlin Wall) to the bad (installation of Pinochet in Chile) to the ugly (Iran-Contra).

Structured more or less chronologically, the book walks the reader through some of the triumphs of Devine’s impressive career. Most notably, he helped force the Russians out of Afghanistan in the mid-1980s by arming mujahideen fighters with Stinger missiles capable of knocking Soviet helicopters out of the sky. Devine paints a vivid image of the legwork involved in getting Stingers into Afghan hands, which involved herding thousands of mules across treacherous mountain passes with the missiles strapped to their backs.

Later portions of the narrative lag, however, boiling down to bureaucratic intrigue — who disagrees with whom on policy, whose office has the best view, who parks where in the CIA parking lot — that is far less intriguing. Most compelling is when Devine offers up glimpses of humanity within the acronym- and euphemism-heavy world of secret intelligence, where real life is obscured by a fog of doublespeak.

In these passages, he is often self-deprecating, as when he reveals that his wife, who played a role in some of his undercover missions, was the more natural spy of the pair. Gruff-demeanored and 6-foot-5, Devine often had trouble blending in; he quotes an ambassador who called him “the big, sinister-looking guy.” He charmingly documents the hardships of balancing normal family life with a clandestine occupation, from the harrowing (scrambling to get his wife and children to safety during the 1973 Chilean coup) to the relatively mundane (delicately breaking cover to his 16-year-old daughter, who misunderstands what he actually does and shrieks, “You’re an assassin?”).

Devine acknowledges that it takes a “special psychological makeup” to become a good spy, with a “highly compartmentalized mind” capable of serving our nation’s interests by manipulating foreign officials into betraying their own. The most fascinating revelations in this close-to-the-chest memoir give the reader a glance inside the compartmentalized mind of a man who led this twin life with surefooted adeptness.

Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, which makes people socially uninhibited and indiscriminately friendly.
She tweets at @JennieLatson.
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