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“Joseph Finder ... is a master when it comes to creating tension.”
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 I was posted yesterday.
1. What did we hope to gain in Afghanistan?
Devine: My objective after 9/11 was to bring down the Taliban and get bin Laden. I would have left CIA infrastructure behind, but I would not have been involved in nation-building. I’ve been in disagreement about nation-building. The latest developments are not surprising in Iraq, and I expect similar results in Afghanistan. The people on the ground have to want democracy.
2. Do you feel that our intelligence gathering is adequate, and has it been hampered after the Snowden revelations?
Devine: We have an ample [intelligence] budget. The problem is that we’ve been involved in wars for ten years, and that sucks up a lot of energy. NSA has been a great source of information, and Snowden has dealt a huge blow to our ability to discover adversaries and potential adversaries.
Everybody’s collecting and exploiting data, but how is it actually used? It may not be perfect, but there is a process for how the government uses this information. When you see the reforms, it’s going to be honest people making very modest changes. [NSA surveillance] isn’t the intrusion that people believe it to be, and it’s indispensable.
Edward Snowden knows exactly what he did, that’s why he ended up in Russia. He’s not coming back because he knows he did a great deal of damage. NSA called his bluff. He had many channels to pursue, other than the one he followed, to offer an official complaint. He thought he was doing a public service? By compromising our platforms? Someone explain how that’s a public service.
3. What is the most surprising aspect to working in the CIA that no one would believe? What is the most attractive aspect of working for the CIA?
Devine: Its great sense of professional integrity in reporting, and its sensitivity to the law. I don’t think people realize how much internal oversight we have. For the last ten years of my career, I had a lawyer at my elbow whose job it was to make sure that everything I did was legal. You don’t want to be doing things that aren’t legal within the US system. People would be surprised at how much time and energy is spent on staying within the lines.
The thing that brings most people in the front door is a sense of mission: “I am nobly serving my country, and my country stands for a high set of principles.” If you’re looking for fame and glory, you’re going to the wrong place. If you want to serve your country, that’s where you should be.
4. What makes a good spy?
Devine: Well, good-looking . . . (laughs). There’s a high premium on judgment: judging people, judging risk. You have to have good, not necessarily flamboyant interpersonal skills. You must be able to interact with people and you must be flexible with foreign cultures — you must be able to enjoy the experience of living in a foreign culture. You also have to be able to close a deal, to convince somebody that it’s in their interest that they work with us. Some people are very good at everything else, but they can’t close the deal.
At a slightly higher level, it’s the entrepreneurial energy — you have to build a network, you have to build a team. You should have that at level one, because you’ll need it to stay challenged.
5. Do you believe you made a difference for the better, for mankind?
Devine: That’s something I certainly would hope for, and the place where I would draw the most direct line is when I ran the Afghan Task Force in the late 1980s.
6. What is your idea of the ultimate conspiracy?
Devine: My job was often to conspire. It is because I conspired that I approach most public conspiracies with a high degree of agnosticism. When you have a tragic incident, you’re going to have hundreds of different versions of it.
What I’m most adamant about is those who believe that their government conspires against them. I have not seen conspiracies inside the U.S. government. The idea that agencies within the government would conspire with each other is so unlikely, not only because of the legal framework, but because people come from such different backgrounds. The idea that you could have a conspiracy with no one reporting it is completely inconceivable, in terms of how our government operates.