Memories of a C.I.A. Officer Resonate in a New Era
LOCUST GROVE, Va. — Larry Devlin is 85 now, suffering from emphysema and tethered to an oxygen tank, his Central Intelligence Agency career long behind him. But he recalls with sunlit clarity the day in Congo nearly half a century ago when he was handed a packet of poisons, including toxic toothpaste, and ordered to carry out a political assassination.
“I was totally taken aback,” said Mr. Devlin, sitting in his den, looking out on a small lake in the Virginia countryside. He uttered a mild profanity, he recalled, and asked, “Isn’t this unusual?’ ”
It was 1960, and Mr. Devlin, the C.I.A.’s young station chief, was in the middle of a political maelstrom as Congolese factions fought for control of the newly independent nation and the United States jostled with the Soviet Union for influence and control over deposits of critical metals.
Mr. Devlin had no problems with bribery, blackmail or other varieties of skulduggery — “all part of the game” for the C.I.A. under Allen Dulles at the height of the cold war, he said. But he thought the order to kill Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic Congolese politician the Eisenhower administration feared would become an African Fidel Castro, was both wrong and stupid, a desperate plan that could easily go awry and devastate American influence in Africa.
“Worldwide it would have been disastrous,” he said.
So he stalled. And Lumumba’s political rivals eventually killed him without the C.I.A.’s help.
Today, Mr. Devlin’s story has new resonance amid a renewed debate about the proper limits of C.I.A. actions to counter a different global threat and their cost to the United States’ standing. The C.I.A.’s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations is under criminal investigation. Congress has been reviewing the C.I.A.’s secret detention program and the transfer of terrorist suspects to countries that practice torture, though so far no inquiry has approached the sweep of the Church Committee in the Senate in the 1970s, whose reports quote Mr. Devlin under a pseudonym, Victor S. Hedgeman.
“I think there’s an eerie and disturbing correlation between that era and this one,” said John Prados, an intelligence historian and the author of “Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the C.I.A.”
He said the threat of terrorism now, like the threat of communism then, was used to justify extreme measures that “later become controversial legally, morally and politically.”
Mr. Prados said the historical record supported Mr. Devlin’s account of his actions, which he described last year in an autobiography, “Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone.”
“I believe there’s no reason to doubt that Mr. Devlin conspired to defuse the orders to kill Lumumba,” he said.
Mr. Devlin, who was station chief in Congo and in Laos during the Vietnam war and retired from the agency in 1974, said he never used force during interrogations and worried that endorsing such methods might put Americans at greater risk of mistreatment.
But he has watched the tribulations of a younger generation at the agency with sympathy. He can attest not only to the quandary of a field officer directed to take extreme measures, but also to the personal cost that can follow. Because his name got associated with the plot against Lumumba, Mr. Devlin was later told, he himself was made a target for death by both a Black Panther faction and Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal.
“I can put myself in the shoes of the people who did the waterboarding and who thought they’d get information to save lives,” Mr. Devlin said. “I’ve often wondered: How would I react if I thought I had the man who knows about a bomb?”
The son of an Army colonel and a schoolteacher in San Diego, Mr. Devlin recalls being shaken when he read “Mein Kampf” at the age of 16 and paying 25 cents to hear lectures on foreign affairs at the local Unitarian church.
After serving in combat in North Africa and Europe during World War II, he went to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. One Sunday afternoon, he was summoned by a professor, William Y. Elliott, a historian and longtime adviser to presidents. Waiting for him was McGeorge Bundy, who went on to be the national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mr. Bundy urged him to join the recently formed C.I.A. to keep the cold war from turning hot.
His first job was as what C.I.A. calls a “noc,” for nonofficial cover, traveling in the guise of a writer of travel guides. At the age of 38, he landed in the tumult of Congo, where he would be jailed, beaten and narrowly escape death on several occasions.
In September 1960, Mr. Devlin received a cable advising him that he would get an important message from “Joe from Paris.” The envoy turned out to be Sidney Gottlieb, the agency’s club-footed poisons expert, whom Mr. Devlin had met during operations to install listening devices overseas, and who would later become notorious for mind-control experiments using L.S.D.
Mr. Gottlieb said that the assassination had been approved by President Eisenhower but admitted that he had not seen the presidential orders. He explained that the poisons, including the spiked toothpaste, had been chosen to make the death appear to result from natural causes.
“Morally I thought it was the wrong thing to do,” Mr. Devlin said. “And I thought it was a very dangerous thing to do. If I screwed up and brought in the wrong person and it got out that the United States had done this, I had visions of even Africans who didn’t like Lumumba wiping out every white man they could find. It might have cost hundreds of lives.”
Mr. Devlin said he figured that if he refused his orders outright, his C.I.A. bosses would simply call him home and send a more willing replacement. So he listened sagely and hid the poisons in his office safe, scribbling a warning on the box — “just in case someone got in and tried the toothpaste.”
After Mr. Lumumba was executed by opponents in January 1961, Mr. Devlin decided he needed to get rid of the poisons in his safe. He took the box to a rocky stretch of the Congo River where no one was likely to stumble upon it, and tossed it in.
Such episodes aside, he defends the C.I.A’ s achievements in Congo, including support for the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko, who would become a symbol of corruption in his 32-year rule. “We prevented the Soviets from taking over a very large part of Africa,” he said.
Though he retired from the C.I.A., Mr. Devlin stayed in Africa and worked in the diamond business for 12 years, until 1988. His boss was Maurice Tempelsman, a Belgian-American diamond importer best known as the companion of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the last 15 years of her life.
“Diamonds are a political thing,” Mr. Devlin said. “I knew all the ministers of mines. In short, I was in a better position to negotiate than people who knew a lot about diamonds.” When he came across interesting information, he added, he passed it to his old friends in the C.I.A.
Last year, Mr. Devlin was called back to C.I.A. headquarters to receive an award honoring his career and exchanged a few words with Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the chief of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service. He has closely followed the news since Mr. Rodriguez came under investigation for giving the order to destroy the videotapes.
“I feel sorry for the guy,” Mr. Devlin said. “I think I know what he’s going through.”