Good Hunting

An American Spymaster's Story

By Jack Devine, with Vernon Loeb

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 325 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Glen Macnow


In September 1986, a band of Afghan mujahedeen fighters trained and armed by America aimed a heat-seeking Stinger antiaircraft missile launcher, shouted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"), and blasted three approaching Soviet helicopters out of the sky.

The world changed. Within days, Jack Devine - then the CIA's point man in Afghanistan - showed a video of the exploding choppers to CIA Director James Casey and influential members of Congress. All of them were wowed. If the ragtag Afghan rebels could force Soviet helicopters to fly higher - out of range of the Stingers - it would open up the mountain passes to the rebels. That would prevent the Russians from providing air-to-ground support for their own troops. And that would doom the Soviet invasion.

Thus was born the American policy of an arms pipeline to the Afghan rebels. It certainly weakened the Red Empire. But it also empowered those rebels who later, of course, turned on America.

The world-turning moment is just one chapter in Good Hunting: An American Spymaster's Story, Devine's look back at his incredible 32-year career. Devine - a spook's version of Zelig - turns up at every critical CIA operation, from Chile to Haiti to the poppy fields of Colombia; from Iran-Contra to Afghanistan to the internal hunt for turncoat Aldrich Ames.

Devine is a son of this area, a graduate of Monsignor Bonner High who started out as a suburban social studies teacher. He spent summers unloading trucks in South Philadelphia and working as a lifeguard on the Wildwood beaches. Reading a 1964 exposé of the CIA called The Invisible Government actually turned him on to the world of spying and two years later, his handwritten note to the agency earned him an interview and a job. He rose through the ranks, and by the 1990s he was overseeing all of the agency's clandestine operations.

Good Hunting is cowritten by Vernon Loeb, a former reporter and editor for The Inquirer, whose last ghostwriting effort was Paula Broadwell's biography of Gen. David Petraeus. Loeb was embarrassed afterward when he admitted to being oblivious to the ongoing affair between Broadwell and Petraeus during the project.

At its best, Good Hunting makes you want to pull up a chair and listen to a wise old uncle recount his war stories. At other times, it reads like a bureaucrat emptying his notebook to brief his supervisors. Don't expect James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Carrie Mathison here. There are no chase scenes or love interests - although Devine does a solid job of explaining the challenges his wife and children faced living with a secretive spy.

Actually, one pop-culture reference brought to mind was the classic 1960s TV comedy Get Smart. Do you remember the laughable Cone of Silence? Devine recalls his early days when the CIA employed the "Hush-a-Phone," which he terms "an upscale variation on the old Boy Scout soup-can-and-string device." The contraption had two headsets equipped with miniature microphones. Rather than engage in a normal-toned conversation that might be bugged, the CIA men would sit 10 feet apart in the same room and whisper into their "Hush-a-Phone."

"For weeks on end, we all vigorously avoided conversations . . . so we didn't have to use the ludicrous-looking Hush-a-Phone," Devine writes. Not great for national security.

Oh, and this: CIA agents had to get their "assets" to sign receipts for cash payouts in order to be reimbursed for the expense. Devine once had a source sign in invisible ink. Later, to his horror, he discovered that the ink had eaten through and destroyed the paper.

Overall, the 325-page memoir serves as a reminder of the Cold War era, when every Soviet move prompted a countermove by the United States. In perhaps the most controversial chapter, he disputes the 1975 Senate Intelligence Committee finding that "There is no doubt that the U.S. government sought a military coup in Chile."

Devine served as a junior case officer in Chile during the 1973 military coup against the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende. He acknowledges that in 1970 President Richard M. Nixon ordered CIA director Richard Helms "in no uncertain terms to foment a coup." But he insists that the mission was to support Allende's political foes and prop up opposition newspapers. "All military contacts we made," he writes, "should be for the purposes of gathering intelligence, not fomenting coups."

In other words, the agency did not initiate or participate militarily in the brutal coup - it just ensured that conditions were ripe for that coup.

The first two-thirds of Good Hunting, in which Devine's amazing career unfolds, are far more interesting than the last 100 pages, in which he writes about the business-intelligence company he built after leaving the CIA. He also offers opinions on recent foreign policy controversies, strongly condemning torture - not because it doesn't work, but because it is immoral.

Overall, it's an interesting read. This may not be the summer beach page-turner of a spy book you're used to enjoying, but you'll learn more about what Devine calls "tradecraft" and about espionage history than you will in any Robert Ludlum thriller.

Glen Macnow is a host on Sportsradio 94WIP and a former Inquirer reporter.