Good Hunting: An American Spymaster's Story by Jack Devine is a historical memoir by 32-year CIA member and eventual acting deputy director of operations that starts during the Cold War and ends in Afghanistan (available June 3, 2014).
Jack Devine ran Charlie Wilson’s War in Afghanistan. It was the largest covert action of the Cold War, and it was Devine who put the brand-new Stinger missile into the hands of the mujahideen during their war with the Soviets, paving the way to a decisive victory against the Russians. He also pushed the CIA’s effort to run down the narcotics trafficker Pablo Escobar in Colombia. He tried to warn the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, that there was a bullet coming from Iraq with his name on it. He was in Chile when Allende fell, and he had too much to do with Iran-Contra for his own taste, though he tried to stop it. And he tangled with Rick Ames, the KGB spy inside the CIA, and hunted Robert Hanssen, the mole in the FBI.
Part memoir, part historical redress, Good Hunting debunks outright some of the myths surrounding the Agency and cautions against its misuses. Beneath the exotic allure—living abroad with his wife and six children, running operations in seven countries, and serving successive presidents from Nixon to Clinton—this is a realist, gimlet-eyed account of the Agency. Now, as Devine sees it, the CIA is trapped within a larger bureaucracy, losing swaths of turf to the military, and, most ominous of all, is becoming overly weighted toward paramilitary operations after a decade of war. Its capacity to do what it does best—spying and covert action—has been seriously degraded.
Inside the Invisible Government
The Farm, 1969
It never occurred to me growing up that I would someday join the Central Intelligence Agency. I was the son of an Irish-Catholic heating contractor. My forebears were weavers and farmers who immigrated to the United States in the wake of the potato famine of 1846, settling in South Philadelphia and joining the building trades and the police department. But somehow covert action was in my DNA, a fact I came to understand in 1966 when my wife, Pat, gave me a book for my twenty-sixth birthday.
The Invisible Government, by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, was intended as an exposé. The reader was supposed to be shocked and outraged by its revelations of a vast and secret intelligence bureaucracy, a CIA that had become so powerful that it threatened the very democracy it had been created to preserve. But a careful reading belied the book’s argument. In fact, rather than an out-of-control intelligence community engaged in clandestine operations that endangered the nation, the book revealed a system of safeguards put in place by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Reading it, I was struck by the sense of mission and vitality of the Agency, and I was so intrigued and energized by the covert operations described in its pages—not to mention the presumed adventure of living and working with foreigners in exotic places—that as soon as I finished the book, I sent off a letter to the Agency seeking employment.
At the time, I was a high school social studies teacher in suburban Philadelphia, and the CIA was the furthest thing from my mind. I supplemented teaching with summertime work loading and unloading trucks at a food distribution center in South Philly, where I got closer to the rock and rumble of life in dangerous foreign settings. I had to join the Teamsters union to work there, and once, with my union brethren, I heard Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa speak at the Philadelphia Convention Hall. He reminded me of Castro as he rambled on nonstop for over an hour, but his charisma was undeniable. The Teamsters were a tough lot. Once, I was let off work early to attend the wake of a coworker. I hardly knew him but had been surprised by his sudden death. When I asked another mourner what had happened, I was told in hushed tones that the man had tried to organize a dissident labor group and had ended up in a fight that included baseball bats.
This was far from my rather parochial upbringing. My sisters, Anna Mae and Mary Lou, and I grew up in an Ozzie and Harriet world. After World War II, our parents moved to the suburbs in Delaware County, west of the city. Ours was a blue-collar family, and wonderfully loving and secure. We never wanted for food, shelter, or entertainment. I naïvely felt that nearly everyone in America shared this experience.
I met my future wife, Pat, on the beach in North Wildwood, New Jersey, when she and her friend Nancy Paul strolled past the stand where I was a lifeguard. (After my career in intelligence, that was the second-best job I ever had.) We didn’t hit it off at first, but I ended up giving her a ride home, and when, later that evening, I volunteered to remove a splinter from the foot of one of her friends, she was taken with this act of gallantry. We were married at Good Shepherd Church in Philadelphia in November 1962. From the moment we met, Pat knew me better than I ever thought anyone could. It is not surprising that four years later she would give me the book that would change our lives.
Some time passed before I received a response to my handwritten letter to the CIA. It directed me to an office on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia for an interview. I remember being impressed with a very Ivy League–looking CIA officer in a tweed suit and wing-tip shoes, a man with excellent diction. Truth be told, the Agency was always more egalitarian than its high-profile cadre of Yale and Princeton men led many to believe. Still, I was relieved when the interview went well, and soon I was given an entry examination, much like a souped-up SAT, which measured intelligence, writing skills, and psychological stability. This was followed weeks later by much more comprehensive testing in Washington, D.C., including a polygraph examination and extensive interviews. Drugs were not an issue among middle-class America in the early 1960s. Instead, the polygrapher seemed to have a special interest in how much beer I had drunk as a college student and lifeguard. After two grueling days trying to convince the CIA that I was right for them, I returned to teaching. Finally, weeks later, I received a letter inviting me to return to Washington on February 7, 1967, to become a member of the Central Intelligence Agency.
My first assignment was to the Clandestine Service’s Records Integration Office, to become a “documents analyst,” until it was time for me to be sent off to the “Farm” for training as a clandestine operator. In the windowless basement vault of CIA headquarters, I reviewed cables for retrievable data sent back to Langley, Virginia, from officers in Eastern Europe, while ten feet away, my new colleague did the same for those from the Soviet Union. His name was Aldrich Ames. He would go on to become one of the greatest traitors in CIA history.
While I couldn’t believe I was now working inside the invisible government, my colleague was blasé about it. He had followed a different path to the secret vaulted room. Rick, as we called him, was a CIA brat. He’d spent his early teens hanging around a proper British yacht club in Rangoon, Burma, where his father worked from 1953 to 1955 as a CIA operative undercover. After flunking out of the University of Chicago and setting off on his own as a theater hand in the Windy City, Rick had come back home to McLean, in Northern Virginia. His father, Carleton Ames, then holding down a desk job after his foreign assignment, immediately helped his son land a position at the Agency.
When I met him in the fall of 1967, Rick was just finishing up his degree as a night student at George Washington University. My colleague lacked the savoir faire I associated with spies. He was unkempt, with stringy dark hair and bad teeth stained by the Camels he practically chain-smoked, and his clothes could have been charitably described as J.C. Penney specials. Still, he was arguably the best-read among us on intelligence, and had already cultivated an abiding interest in Soviet operations and counterintelligence.
In the claustrophobic, fluorescent-lit basement of CIA headquarters, my worldly, cynical office mate and I spent hours in earnest debate over the great issues of our time. Our conversations were worthy of graduate school dialectics. The more I talked on about covert action and Agency derring-do, the harder Ames would shake his head and flash a wry smile. “Jack, the core of the business is counterintelligence,” he said. How ironic.
Ames was several months ahead of me in pre-career training, but we became friendly, finding common ground living on our meager GS-8 salaries. One evening, Pat and I met Ames’s girlfriend, Nancy Segebarth, a pleasant, intelligent young woman working on the analytical side of the Agency, the Directorate of Intelligence, and in May 1969 we attended their wedding, at a Unitarian church in Northern Virginia. There I met Ames’s father, Carleton, who was just retiring after spending fifteen years with the CIA. I could sense that there was some distance between him and his son, which Ames had spoken about in the past. In any case, Ames was about to depart for his first assignment as a case officer in Ankara, Turkey, working for the Soviet/Eastern Europe (SE) Division.
Before he left, and we went our separate ways, we exchanged books. Ames gave me A Coffin for Dimitrios, a spy novel by Eric Ambler whose narrator, a mystery writer, descends into a netherworld of double agents and espionage and becomes indistinguishable from the subjects of his fiction. I gave him Psychopathology and Politics by Harold Lasswell, about how political behavior is basically predetermined by our Freudian nature. I got the book back many years later. I was surprised Ames remembered who gave it to him, and now wonder how much it applied to him.
Years later, I raised this with Sandy Grimes shortly after her book on Ames, Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed, was published in mid-November 2012. She and I met for breakfast at the Palace Hotel in New York and spent an hour over tea puzzling over him. Sandy had spent her career supporting the Agency’s recruited Soviet assets. She joined her coauthor and counter-intelligence officer, the late Jeanne Vertefeuille, on the Ames mole hunt team in 1991. They were the two officers most responsible for finally unmasking Ames in 1994, nine years after he began spying for the Soviet Union. He gave the Soviets the names of our best Russian agents, all of whom were executed after Ames’s betrayal. In Circle of Treason, Sandy describes how Ames came into her office as she was beginning the investigation that would ultimately lead to his capture and lectured her on counterintelligence. She and I spent our breakfast that day trying to figure out why he’d done that.
We talked about the impact his second wife, María del Rosario Casas Dupuy, had had on his behavior. She was high-maintenance and clearly liked to present a bella figura, requiring that Ames support her in high style. She had come from a family of some standing and wealth in Colombia. Apparently, the family’s net worth had diminished substantially over the years, but Rosario’s self-image had not. Interestingly enough, the initial investigation into Ames erroneously concluded that Rosario came from money and therefore this provided the explanation for Rick’s expenditures. Sandy and I also talked about how Ames had attempted to mask the millions the Russians paid him by buying a used Jaguar, only to pay cash when he bought his home. This would have been a red flag if CIA investigators had been allowed to look more carefully at his personal finances. This limitation has been lifted since then.
In the end, Sandy and I shared the view, over the last sip of tea, that Ames had been the perfect storm waiting to happen: family issues, financial pressure, excessive drinking, underperformance at work, and an inflated ego accompanied by a gravely exaggerated evaluation of his superior intellect. Still, he might not have volunteered himself to the Russians if his job had not provided a pretext for regular contact with them. To their credit, they played him like a violin and appealed to his psychic needs.
As you enter CIA headquarters at Langley, there are two statues, each commemorating spies. One, outdoors, is a fairly inconspicuous tribute to Nathan Hale, the first American spy to give up his life for his country, during the American Revolution. (We shouldn’t dwell on the fact that he met this fate due to poor preparation and shoddy tradecraft.) The other, depicting General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, looms large in the lobby, and large in CIA history. When World War II broke out, the U.S. government decided it needed a professional intelligence service, which became known as the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. It was led by Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer whom the journalist Thomas Powers has described as “a man of enormous crude energy and the open, adventurous mind which was to characterize American intelligence until the Bay of Pigs.”1 Donovan is still held in great esteem by the employees of the CIA.
Across the lobby, also etched in marble, are stars representing CIA officers who have fallen in the line of duty. Sadly, I have watched these stars increase in number each year. Many remain anonymous because of their covert status.
Because secrecy is so critical to everything the CIA does, the people who work there become obsessed with betrayal. At its worst, this obsession can lead to paranoia, like that demonstrated by the Agency’s legendary spy hunter James Jesus Angleton, who came to believe that nearly all our agents were “moles” penetrating the CIA. Angleton himself had fallen victim to betrayal by the infamous British defector Kim Philby. The two had worked and lived together in Italy and had shared many confidences through the years. Philby’s defection to the Russians hit Angleton hard and probably distorted his view of mankind and the intelligence business.
Hunting for moles is a staple of the business, and the counterintelligence staff has to be directed at carefully observing where cases go wrong. However, you can’t allow this to paralyze your initiative. As with many aspects of spying, you need to keep at least two compartmentalized disciplines in your mind simultaneously, operations and counterintelligence. To emphasize only counterintelligence can lead to a form of paranoia that can be very debilitating to an aggressive intelligence service such as the CIA. We spend a great deal of time training at the knee of experienced officers, learning the proper balance between valuing our agents and command alertness when looking at issues of betrayal.
My early training was a mix of classroom study and fieldwork. It lasted nine months and was split between spying and paramilitary instruction. It included agent targeting and recruiting, surveillance, technical operations, clandestine meeting preparation, and communications programs. In the second half, we underwent paramilitary training in arms use, jungle survival, jump training, and demolitions. While the training was rigorous, it had its comic moments.
One of the more embarrassing occurred when I was attempting to make a brush pass, which is handing over a document to an agent in an undercover manner, a quick walk-by scenario. From my perspective, I had selected a particularly clever spot for the pass, which involved brushing past the agent as he entered a revolving door in a downtown hotel near the training center. It would have been virtually impossible to see the handoff from any angle. I executed it without a flaw, but the agent, one of our instructors, refused to put out his hand to complete the pass, which meant that I would have to repeat the exercise at a different time and location. In my annoyance, when I reached the bottom of the steps outside the hotel, I turned and directed a huge obscene hand gesture toward the instructor’s back.
That night back at camp, the trainees were assembled for a critique of the day’s performance. The commentator announced that they had a special treat for us: they had secretly videotaped selected meetings throughout the day, a viewing of which would prove entertaining and instructive to the entire class. We were all caught off guard. This was the early days of clandestine video; we had not been exposed to it before. My graphic gesture was first on the docket, and it looked even worse than I remembered. The room howled—at my expense. I learned an unforgettable lesson that night: all my operational activities in the future could be videotaped. And I learned this, too: if you’re trying to go unnoticed and maintain your cool, obscene gestures in public won’t cut it.
The operational aspects of the clandestine training course finished up with a field exercise designed to bring together all we had learned. The class was divided into several teams, each sent to a different location in a major northeastern city. My team ended up at one of the most prestigious hotels in town. I assume our CIA instructors had chosen it because the Agency had ties to the hotel’s security office and would be able to ensure that none of us would be scooped up by the police if our strange behavior were reported. My team passed with flying colors its debriefing and surveillance exercises against multiple targets, role-played by our instructors. The rub came when we had to surreptitiously place an audio device in a hotel room. The placement went well enough, and our team transcribers diligently waited for the surveillance team to report the arrival of the target. The large reel-to-reels were running; earphones were on. Everything was going smoothly—until a maid walked in without knocking to turn down the bed. The transcriber had forgotten to lock the door! The maid, startled, beat a hasty retreat to the security office. The room was soon visited by hotel security—and our instructors. The embarrassing lesson was etched in my memory forever: when performing a clandestine act, lock the door behind you.
Finally, after working for months on tradecraft, we headed off to a special, still-secret facility for paramilitary training and courses on explosives and bomb making. (You can’t do this work in just any neighborhood without upsetting the locals.) The program began with a briefing by an instructor straight out of Central Casting. When he took to the podium, we held back a collective gasp. A jagged V-shaped scar covered a good part of his forehead. If that wasn’t enough, he was missing a couple of fingers. He extolled the excitement of working with explosives. He also stressed the need for caution when handling such materials. Looking at him, I didn’t need convincing. After that presentation, I was determined to leave the course with head and fingers intact.
One of the exercises involved blowing up telephone poles. Half a dozen students would line up, and each would walk slowly to his individual pole, where he would plant an explosive, ignite the charge (which burned at a specific rate per second), and walk briskly back to the starting position. You were told not to run, because if you ran, there was a chance you’d fall and get hit by the detonation. While that sounded reasonable enough, I decided I wouldn’t take any chances and added several extra inches of detonating cord for each of my charges, which allowed me more time to return to my starting spot. The explosives should have detonated sequentially. But because I’d lengthened my detonating cord, my telephone pole was the last to fall. My instructors didn’t see the humor or the wisdom in what I’d done. I received my lowest grade in this course, and a not-so-gentle note for my file suggesting that I “not be allowed to handle explosives.” The irony is that, in the mid-1980s, I probably handled more explosives than any other CIA officer in history.
Next we headed to Panama for a weeklong jungle survival course that included rappelling down waterfall cliffs and rafting across alligator-infested rivers. It was the rainy season, and we were perpetually drenched. When our team was able to carve out a clearing to camp for the night, we divided up the work assignments: hanging hammocks, collecting firewood, locating water. I volunteered to do the cooking, given that I had a modicum of experience. The instructors provided the food: a bag of rice and a small alligator. I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to cook the alligator, so I cut it up, threw it into boiling water, and, near the end, added rice. When chow time came, everyone was starving and eagerly scooped the gruel into their mess kits. But when I checked the kits later, it was clear that nobody had eaten more than a few mouthfuls, despite their hunger. It was a dreadful concoction.
Early in the course, I learned a lesson that stuck with me ever after: you can’t tell a survivor by his looks. Back at camp, embarking on our mission, I spotted a very self-confident colleague who looked like a former Green Beret and was dressed like Jungle Jim, with a feather tucked in his Indiana Jones hat. I figured his was the team to be on, so I positioned myself accordingly. I noticed he wasn’t paying any attention whatsoever to the way we had been instructed to carry a machete into the swamps.
“Why should he?” I thought. “He’s an experienced warrior.”
We were no more than a hundred yards into the jungle when he tripped and slid down his machete. He let out a shriek and began bleeding so profusely that he had to be evacuated to the medical facility. As the hardships mounted, I realized it was some of the least likely officers who performed best under stress. From then on, I kept this in mind whenever I needed to assemble a team: Look beyond the obvious.
The final task in the program was jump training, in which we would be expected to make five parachute jumps from a cargo plane. This was optional, but if you opted out, you were given two weeks of administrative leave. That sounded good to me. By that time, I was weary of training in general. Then, as we neared the decision date, Pat urged me to sign up anyway. She felt I would miss out on the camaraderie and fun involved in jumping from an airplane at fifteen hundred feet. She may have been right, but she wasn’t persuasive enough. The next person who urged me to jump was the commander, an ex-paratrooper colonel. Jumping, he said, is “better than sex.” That got my attention, but I quickly concluded he was missing a bolt or two. By then I’d made up my mind: it made no sense to me to voluntarily jump out of an airplane. Had it been mandatory, I would have done it. But volunteer to do it?
As luck would have it, we had arrived at the point where you selected, or were selected for, a specific line division or staff. I was a little uncertain how covert action programs were organized within the Clandestine Service, so I asked to join the Covert Action staff, a unit within the service that ran political, economic, and covert propaganda operations. Shortly thereafter, I had an interview with its chief, Hugh Tovar. Tovar was a legend. He’d served as station chief in Laos. He was also an accomplished parachutist; his office was strewn with jumping memorabilia.
I walked through his door for the interview. He looked up and said, “Have you jumped yet? It’s the greatest thing a man can do.”
Without missing a beat, I said, “No. But I’m really looking forward to it.”
Off to jump training I went.
Once I had a better understanding of the difference between the Covert Action staff and the ongoing activities of the Agency’s primary operating units, I switched my interest to the Soviet Division. Near the end of the operation training course, I had a private chat at the base club with Rocky Stone, then chief of that division, during which he encouraged me to sign up with them. Stone was a legend, too. A very charismatic senior official, he suffered from profound hearing loss and relied on a hearing aid, which he supplemented with lipreading and focusing on facial expressions. He had been one of the key players in bringing the Shah of Iran to power in 1953.
My career counselor, a man who had played an important role in the Bay of Pigs operation under the alias Tom Bender, was not encouraging. “You’re too tall for Soviet operations,” he said, chewing on his cigar.
I failed to see the connection between spying and height. The trick was to do everything with sleight of hand in a natural setting, not hiding behind bushes. In any case, Bender was a Latin Americanist and he was recruiting for the Latin America Division. He took me to see William V. Broe, yet another legendary officer, who had joined the CIA in 1948 and served as chief of the Western Hemisphere Division (later renamed the Latin America Division) from 1965 to 1972. I remember Bender telling Broe, “This guy belongs in LA Division”—and hardly because of my height. Theirs was a division that was heavily invested in covert action and therefore just the right spot for me. Not long after, I’d get my first overseas assignment: Chile.
By the time I had completed training as a clandestine officer and joined the Latin America Division in late 1969, the CIA was, by historical standards, still a fledgling agency—just twenty-two years old. We would go through middle age together: I wouldn’t retire until after its fiftieth anniversary in 1997. But at the time of my first posting, it had already matured greatly since its overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh’s government in Iran in 1953 and the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. And by my time, it was already an established arm of the U.S. government—and a lightning rod for criticism, particularly from those on the left concerned about the “invisible government.” This was well understood within the upper reaches of the government and the intelligence community, where the pluses and minuses of espionage and covert action were being critically reviewed.
As I prepared to enter clandestine training, a committee of academics and former intelligence professionals convened by CIA director Richard Helms and called the Covert Operations Study Group submitted its report on “Covert Operations of the United States Government.” It was December 1, 1968, and though they presented it to President-elect Richard M. Nixon,2 I wouldn’t be able to read the document until it became public decades later.
Even then, the intelligence community’s thinking on covert action was nuanced. In a cover letter accompanying the report, Franklin A. Lindsay, an OSS operative and close associate of Frank Wisner, the man who founded the CIA’s Clandestine Service, stated that the “CIA has not been a political organization. Its people have served successive administrations with equal loyalty.” It’s a point worth repeating, because it is as true now as it was then, even as critics on the left and right demonize the Agency. The report made clear that the CIA had been, and should remain, squarely under the president’s control. “Covert operations are an instrument; their only legitimate objective is to serve the foreign policy of the president,” the document stated. “They are not an independent aspect of U.S. foreign policy, but simply one way of furthering that policy. The expertise of the clandestine service is secrecy. Covert operations should be called upon only when something should be done in a secret manner—and only when secrecy is possible. It is up to the President to determine what he wants done and whether it should be done secretly or openly. A covert capability is like a military capability. Its use is a presidential prerogative. As with the military service, the clandestine service should not be pursuing any projects, much less self-generated ones, except by presidential decision.”
The Lindsay panel described covert action—appropriately, in my judgment—as a useful tool for the president, enabling him to engage in “forms of conflict” while avoiding open hostilities. Clandestine operations allow the CIA to maintain important relationships in foreign countries and support causes without the need to give all countries in a region “equal treatment.” And they “permit the Government to act quickly, bypassing domestic U.S. political, bureaucratic, and budgetary controls.” But the panel was also sanguine about the limitations of covert operations, which, they said, “rarely achieve an important objective alone” and often “cannot be kept secret … At best, a successful covert operation can win time, forestall a coup, or otherwise create favorable conditions which will make it possible to use covert means to finally achieve an important objective.” At the same time, there are grave risks involved with covert action, as the report spelled out clearly. “Our credibility and our effectiveness” as advocates for the rule of law around the globe, it stated, are “necessarily damaged” when our covert activities in foreign countries are revealed.
Much has changed since the panel made its report. Indeed, some of its recommendations seem almost quaint with the perspective of more than forty years. But the panel was dead-on in concluding that covert action was an indispensable foreign policy tool because there will always be times when the president has to make things happen in secret. And secrecy is the CIA’s “expertise.” I do not deny that secrecy can be corrosive, but it can also be a powerful enabler. In Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA, published in 2006, John Prados concludes that for sixty years presidents have “continually harnessed” CIA covert action to meet foreign policy goals, and in the end concludes that covert operations have been a “negative factor” in the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives. This is where Prados and I part company. I believe such operations have worked far more often than Prados or anyone on the outside will ever fully understand. Like it or not, covert action is a very powerful arrow in the quiver of a robust intelligence service, an imperative of modern statecraft.
That said, I agree that there have been good covert operations and bad covert operations, and I spent my career examining the difference between the two. In the course of this book, I will describe both. Perhaps because of what is going on in the world right now, at the top of my list of some basic lessons we have learned over the years is this: in order to best utilize the CIA and its assets, the White House must avoid dangerous “dabbling” based on the myth that “all it takes is a spark.” I can’t count the number of times over the years I have been approached to support a regime change because the local circumstances were considered so propitious that all it would take was “a little spark.” Those who say this usually have greatly inflated views of the opposition strength and no idea how much real thought, hard work, and generous resources have to go into any program to bring about significant political change abroad. They generally don’t want to do what is needed themselves and hope that the United States gets involved. I usually showed such people the door.
Additionally, covert action is bound to fail if the actions are initiated if the following criteria are not present:
• Viable partners in place. The United States must have partners within a host nation who truly share U.S. goals and objectives and are willing to fight and die for their cause. Relying on exiles is a recipe for miscommunication, blunders, and often disaster. A base of operations contiguous to your target is often critical.
• Real-time, accurate information. Foreign agents directed by CIA officers must be capable of collecting real-time information. When we rely solely on spy satellites, communications intercepts, and other technical means of collecting intelligence, we run the risk of missing key contextual details that could make or break an operation.
• Adequate resources. “Dabbling” with small sums of money and limited capability is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous. When policy makers direct the CIA to conduct covert action, they must equip the Agency to succeed, in terms both of money and of personnel.
• Bipartisan political support. Covert action, like war, should reflect, in general terms, the wishes of the American people, even if they don’t know it’s happening. If your planned action has significant detractors on either side of the aisle in Congress, you’re probably planning on doing something unwise.
• A direct threat to U.S. security. To garner support domestically and internationally, the White House must demonstrate that its adversary poses a real threat and needs to be eliminated.
• Proportionality. The desired outcome must be relatively commensurate with the cost and the collateral damage, particularly with regard to civilian casualties. The CIA or the Pentagon can’t kill thirty thousand people to save five thousand or it will never have the political support or moral high ground required to succeed.
• A reasonable prospect for success. Before an operation is launched, policy makers have to possess a clear objective and believe—based on fact, not desire—that accomplishing the operation is possible.
It is the responsibility of policy makers in the White House to make sure these conditions are met before directing the CIA to initiate a covert action campaign. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, they did just that. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Afghanistan has loomed large in the nation’s global war against Islamist terrorism. But the antecedents to 9/11 lead back to Afghanistan, “graveyard of empires,” to when the Soviets occupied the country and Islamic fighters from across the Middle East flocked to the Afghan border to fight against the Soviets alongside the Afghan mujahideen. One of those was Osama bin Laden.
Mules, Pickup Trucks, and Stinger Missiles
After he gave me the model truck that I keep on my windowsill, Charlie Wilson told me I wasn’t going to like the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. He was right. I prefer the real story.
That story began for me in early 1986, after five tours overseas, three as chief of station. Everybody knew there was an office at CIA headquarters supporting the mujahideen fighters struggling against the Russians in Afghanistan. But exactly what went on behind a locked door on the sixth floor at headquarters remained largely a mystery. The CIA had been funneling hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons to these Afghan “holy warriors” since President Carter first authorized the covert war in late 1979 after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, concerned about the loyalty of the United States’ client regime in Kabul. President Reagan reauthorized the covert war in 1981, as the first .303-caliber Lee-Enfield rifles purchased with U.S. tax dollars gave way to AK-47s, rockets, and mortars. Secret congressional appropriations grew from $30 million in 1981 to $200 million in 1984, and thanks to an agreement secured by the Agency, the Saudis were matching American appropriations dollar for dollar.
Support for the mujahideen was stoked on Capitol Hill by U.S. representative Charlie Wilson, a Texas Democrat who had come to passionately support the anticommunist crusade.
By late 1984, the return on investment was enormous. Our initial goal had simply been harassment and costly damage to the Soviet military: we wanted to make the Soviets pay as high a price as possible for their occupying Afghanistan. But when it became clear that the mujahideen could fight and that the Soviets were mortal—the mujahideen, by now well armed, had killed thousands of Soviet soldiers and controlled much of the country—Director Casey ordered a review and reevaluation of the effort. And with Charlie Wilson adding even more funding to the mix, Casey started to believe that the Soviets might actually be defeated. In league with him were other hard-liners at the National Security Council and Defense Department, and the result was National Security Decision Directive 166, a plan for ramping up the CIA’s covert war in Afghanistan. Signed by President Reagan in March 1985, it authorized the CIA to prosecute the war.
The planning was well under way when Tom Twetten, deputy chief of the Near East Division, called me to his office on the sixth floor and said he wanted me to lead what was now likely to become a full-blown task force on Afghanistan. I had a very good relationship with Twetten and his boss, Near East Division chief Bert Dunn, both of whom knew that I had been an outspoken critic of arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar before the Iran-Contra scandal erupted. I didn’t need much convincing that running the Afghan Task Force was something I wanted to do. This is why I had joined the Agency in the first place. I had had my first big taste of covert action in Chile, and now I was being given an opportunity to run a major covert operation.
The compartmentalized program that I would be taking over had for two years been the personal domain of Gust Avrakotos, chief of the South Asia Operations Group. His close relationship with Wilson became the basis for George Crile’s 2003 book, Charlie Wilson’s War, and the movie Wilson would come to warn me about years later. After the president signed NSDD 166 and the decision was made to up the ante in Afghanistan, Casey and his deputies on the seventh floor thought Avrakotos too combative and difficult to manage the escalation, and transferred him to a job in the Africa Division. His counterpart in the field, a Russian specialist serving as chief in Islamabad, who was seen as too cautious and pessimistic about the prospects for success in Afghanistan, was also reassigned.
As I took over the reins for the Afghanistan issue, I was stunned to learn just how large this “little” program was, and realized only much later that Twetten had put me in charge of running the last, and largest, CIA covert operation of the Cold War. One day early on, I found myself sitting on the sofa in Director Casey’s seventh-floor office, explaining how I planned to turn Avrakotos’s crew of about a dozen operations officers and analysts into an organization capable of acquiring enough Soviet Bloc weaponry to arm 120,000 insurgents and move millions of tons of ammunition and matériel a month through Afghanistan’s treacherous mountain passes.
I had, by then, dealt with Casey on several occasions. As a station chief in Latin America, I brought the head of my host country’s intelligence service to see him at CIA headquarters. I hadn’t gotten off on a very good foot with this foreign official. He was a talented intelligence operator but somewhat arrogant and hard to deal with. I inherited a grudge he had against the Agency, through no fault of my own, but then I unintentionally made it worse. A few years before my arrival, his political party had been voted out of office and he had called the station to ask for help in obtaining a U.S. visa, which he should have been given as a matter of professional courtesy. Instead, he was told with a flash of petulance to take his place “in line outside the embassy just like everyone else.” I’m sure a fed-up case officer thought he was bringing the official down a peg by denying him the favor, but the satisfaction the case officer would have felt from such an action is almost always ephemeral and sets up a disastrous second act should your target ever return to power—as he did a few years later. By that time the case officer was gone and I was just arriving. Almost immediately, I paid a call on the foreign official. He told me he wanted to conduct a joint mail-interception operation. I told him that with new rules and regulations flowing from the Church Committee investigation—a congressional committee that had looked into illegal intelligence gathering by the Agency, the NSA, and the FBI—I wasn’t sure how much help we could be, but that I would check. This was my mistake. “Just tell me whom I need to talk to, who has the authority to do it, and I will deal with them,” the official said. I clearly should have given him a more deft, Latin answer, something like, “Sure, sounds like a good idea; I’ll look into it,” then moved on to another subject and let the topic die a slow death from neglect. Lack of follow-through would have been a more sophisticated response, which he would have understood without losing face or being given an opportunity to challenge my authority.
Shortly thereafter, we made the liaison visit together to Langley, which gave me the chance to start mending our relationship. I am used to large egos; his was huge. By the time he told me he was the equivalent of the CIA director, I had learned my lesson and let that claim sit unchallenged.
When I brought him in to see Casey after lunch, I ended up translating, even though my guest spoke fairly good English, because of Casey’s tendency to mumble. This official liked to pontificate—and Casey fell asleep. I started interpreting louder and louder. Eventually, Casey woke up. I was never quite sure whether it was fatigue or a strategic ploy by Casey to take the air out of his visitor’s puffery. I had heard from others that they had had similar experiences in meetings with the director. Nevertheless, when our meeting was over and the official and I walked out of Casey’s office, neither of us said anything, but we both knew that the foreign spy chief had just been insulted. It gave me some psychological leverage over him, given our unspoken agreement that we were going to keep this between us. We never discussed it again, but our relationship improved after Casey fell asleep on him.
Casey reveled in running the CIA. When I served as station chief in Argentina in the early 1980s, I learned at one point that he wanted to come for a visit after the country’s disastrous war against the British over the Falkland Islands, a war that led to the toppling of Argentina’s military junta. The Argentines weren’t happy about the director’s planned visit, but I told them he was determined to come, and they reluctantly acquiesced—on the condition that he fly into a clandestine airport, keep a low profile, and use a false passport. I sent a cable back to Washington telling headquarters as much. In response, I was told by one of the director’s aides, “Casey is going to fly in on a C-130 with his wife, doctor, and a team of advisers, as well as his dog and kids. He’s not flying into a half-assed airport. He’s flying into the main airport in Buenos Aires, and he wants a band playing”—an exaggeration for effect, I’m sure.
I went back to the Argentines and told them, in less vivid language, of Casey’s plans, and they flatly turned him down. They were fearful of the potential damaging publicity that might jeopardize their position in the delicate transfer of power to civilian rule. Before I could get a cable back to Washington telling the DCI the Argentines’ response, the trip was canceled. Another Latin American country chief of station had beaten us to the punch with a similar rejection of Casey’s proposed visit. I was relieved on several levels.
Around the same time, I attended a CIA conference with Casey in Panama. It was a logistical nightmare for CIA officials who had to coordinate not only the director’s visit but also the visits of other Agency officials from around the hemisphere. I was impressed by their organization, but they were thrown off course when Casey asked if everyone could stay an extra night for a breakfast meeting the next morning. He added, “We will keep it simple. Coffee and donuts.” They hustled about to make the necessary travel arrangements, but procuring U.S.-style donuts was impossible in Panama in those days. Every five minutes during the breakfast, Casey would bellow in obvious annoyance, “Where are the donuts?” Of course, they never appeared, and in a thank-you cable to the chiefs following the conference, Casey signed off with “NEXT TIME, YOU WILL GET DONUTS.”
I was spared having to host Casey in any of my foreign postings. He never ended up coming to visit me, and I could not help but think that the Argentine officials had had a point in their refusal to meet Casey’s demands: the director of the CIA should come into a country with a very low profile and without an entourage. Before Casey, directors did not travel often, for security reasons. Today, the director travels with the fanfare of most cabinet-level dignitaries, as Casey had demanded. I have always been opposed to this type of director travel. But I should give Casey his due: in all his grandiosity, he reenergized the Agency after the Carter doldrums, and he was a covert operator at heart, going all the way back to his OSS days. He also had excellent access to the president while at the same time genuinely valuing the role of the Agency. He didn’t tamper with its culture, which involved calling things as we saw them and not as the president might have wanted them to be.
That said, I had reservations about Casey. Perhaps I caught him too late in his tenure as DCI, when he might have been beyond his prime. It certainly made me uncomfortable that he, an avowed archconservative, wasn’t averse to using the CIA to advance a political agenda—for example, supporting the Contras in Central America and, by extension, the Iran-Contra affair.
Still, my personal relationship with Casey was friendly if formal. I wasn’t in awe of him. Rather, I was guarded, both because he could be hard to read and, as I’ve said, difficult to understand.
There’s one moment when I understood his words—but failed to understand the wisdom in them. It was unwise of me. I was meeting with him about Afghanistan, and I finished by saying I thought I needed a staff of about six dozen for the Afghan Task Force. He looked at me quizzically.
“Jack, are you sure this is right? Are you sure you’ve got enough?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
He was right to question my manpower estimate. In retrospect, I should have told him flat out that I needed more than one hundred people. (We eventually went to well over 120.) But this was the biggest responsibility I had been given at the Agency up to that point, and I was trying to calibrate how much staff I could suck out of the far reaches of the CIA structure while keeping everybody supportive of what we were doing.
Once the Afghan Task Force got rolling, there was no micromanaging from Casey. He didn’t get involved, and neither did anybody else on the seventh floor. I felt they all understood that this was the only way it would work. You had to trust the person in charge, and if things weren’t working, you needed to remove that person immediately. There’s no way I could have briefed Casey or anyone else often enough about the fast-moving situation and still have done my job.
With authorization to use “any means necessary” to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Reagan administration had to decide if this would include the U.S.-made Stinger, a lethal shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile with an infrared seeker that can lock onto the heat emitted by an aircraft’s engine at a range of up to fifteen thousand feet. Despite all the pain the mujahideen had inflicted on the Soviets, the Soviets had managed to stop our supply lines through the mountain passes. All the matériel we had been shipping through for years had made the war so deadly for Moscow that the Politburo had responded by deploying fierce Mi-24D Hind helicopter gunships and the USSR’s special forces, Spetsnaz, to close the mountain passes. Now our guns weren’t flowing. Convoys of pickup trucks and mules laden with guns and crates of ammunition were no match for the Hinds, which flew in low and rained down barrages of missile and machine-gun fire. And the mujahideen lacked an effective antiaircraft weapon that could turn them back or shoot them down.
What if we armed the mujahideen with Stingers and trained them to line up the gunships in their sights and fire? There was some concern about the Stinger’s effectiveness. In fact, the manufacturer, General Dynamics, estimated only a 25 percent success rate. The Soviet analysts, who historically tended to overrate the Russian capability, also argued that the Stinger could be jammed by high-tech Russian equipment, but we tested the Russian jammer and established that it was totally ineffective against the Stinger. Still, a much bigger strategic issue had to be resolved before the Stingers would find their way to eastern Afghanistan. My predecessor, Gust Avrakotos, had always adhered to classic CIA doctrine, which called for arming insurgents with the same weapons as the army they were fighting, so that the insurgents would already be trained to use any arms they captured from the other side. He also shared the belief, expressed most forcefully in this case by John McMahon, the CIA’s former deputy director—he retired just as I assumed my position—that introducing weapons that were easily traceable to the United States, as the Stinger was, could provoke the Soviets and lead to a larger conflict. (Interestingly, McMahon was a lightning rod for conservative critics, who thought he personified an overly cautious CIA.) The two men had a point, but I put the higher priority on pushing the Russians out of Afghanistan. I was less concerned about the likelihood of an expansion of the conflict, which seemed very remote to me. There were limits, but we were in a covert war that could be recalibrated if need be. A similar debate raged within the CIA’s analytic ranks, with Soviet specialists who tended to see the Soviets as larger—than-life—arguing that the Russians were winning. Even our officers in the region seemed to support this view, based on the great difficulty they were having moving arms and supplies into Afghanistan. Analysts from the Near East Division countered that the Soviets were vulnerable and that the mujahideen were doing better than most people thought, even with their fire-and-run approach—that is, firing from a long distance.
Not long after my meeting with Casey, I represented the Agency at a meeting in the White House Situation Room, located in the basement of the West Wing, where we debated the Stinger issue one final time. A dozen of us from across the executive branch settled into the thick leather armchairs and listened to a Pentagon staffer explain this missile’s particular lethality. A brief testing range video shown at the meeting resolved any lingering doubts I had when the missile literally made a right-hand turn in midair and scored a direct hit on the test aircraft. “Okay. Let’s use it,” I said to those around the table. Everyone else had the same reaction. Our consensus was passed to the president. Almost immediately, Reagan signed an order authorizing the Stinger’s use in the covert war.
Up until then we had been playing a covert chess game with the Russians. They invaded, and we sent some weapons in. They brought in more troops, and we countered with more sophisticated weapons. They deployed the Hind helicopter gunships and the Spetsnaz special forces, and now it was our move. We hoped the Stinger would open up the mountain passes. Time would tell.
Several days later, I went over to the Pentagon to meet with an army three-star general to find out when the Department of Defense could make the delivery.
“The White House has approved it, and we need the Stingers as soon as possible,” I said.
“Jack, I understand,” the lieutenant general said, “but this is the latest system, it’s coming off the assembly line, and it’s going to the front-line troops.”
“General,” I said, “we’ve got the only fighting war in town, I really have to have them.”
“I understand your position,” he said. “I just can’t do it. It was nice meeting you. Godspeed.”
He was gracious and, frankly, he took the position I would have taken had I been in his shoes. He wanted to give the Stinger to U.S. troops first.
I went back and brought the bad news to the White House. “The DOD refuses to part with the Stingers,” I said.
My contact on the National Security Council staff promised to call me back, which he did a short time later. A call had been made to the lieutenant general, and a second meeting was set up for the next day. By then, he had a better understanding of who was behind my request. Now it was practically a pro forma discussion.
“How many do you need?” he asked.
When I told him, he barely concealed his displeasure. “You’re taking nearly my entire inventory,” he said.
“That’s what’s needed.”
Compared to my meetings with the lieutenant general, my first meeting with Charlie Wilson went off without a hitch—thanks to Gust Avrakotos. Among the many problems with the movie Charlie Wilson’s War is its depiction of my predecessor, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is no arguing that Avrakotos, the son of Greek immigrants from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, could be difficult to deal with at times—even Wilson told me that Avrakotos was the “most difficult man [he’d] ever met”—but he was nowhere near the maverick the movie made him out to be. When Avrakotos told Wilson that I was replacing him, he said I was a “good guy.” That seemed to be enough of a recommendation. Wilson was important to the program, the key congressman on Capitol Hill, someone deeply committed and paying careful enough attention to Afghanistan. He alone was responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of needed funding. When Avrakotos exited the program, he left quietly. He did not try to pull an end run around me. And he unplugged his phone with Charlie Wilson; he didn’t take any more calls from him. He was told not to deal with Wilson again, and he didn’t. That’s a disciplined officer, not a rogue on the loose, as depicted in the movie.
The task force’s expanded offices were on the fourth floor, by a set of red elevators, in the same space where Avrakotos had had his. We had a suite of vaulted cubicles and open desks, not executive offices with doors. There was a large, formal wooden desk in my office when I arrived, but I had it immediately replaced with an oval conference table as a sign that we were going to do this more collegially by opening up the discussion. It took months, given the almost military chain of command that existed inside the Agency, before I was able to bring people around to where they could challenge my views without hesitation. I wanted to encourage people to come in and say, “You’ve got it wrong and this is what you ought to do.” I recognized that I had a lot of learning to do, and I had to rely heavily on good people to fill in the gaps in my understanding of weaponry and the battlefield. I spent weeks adding staff, arranging space, building capability, developing strategy.
I was also responsible for overseeing the field operations conducted by the new chief in Islamabad, Milt Bearden. Bearden could have been a stand-up comic; he was that funny. He was also a very talented operations officer, having recently led a covert operation in which he rescued five hundred Ethiopian Jews from the Sudanese desert. For the Afghanistan program, he and his officers were managing the mujahideen’s needs through Pakistani intelligence. I had to manage relations with Congress, as well, and brief the intelligence committees, the other agencies, and the White House—all while keeping Charlie Wilson in the loop. The more we kept everyone informed, the less they got in our hair.
Since the task force resided within the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations, the operations officers detailed to me tended to be first-rate, thanks in part to my close relationship to Twetten. The analysts from the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) were sometimes a problem, however. Their uneven quality complicated my life, but analytic support from the DI was critically important. Papers and briefing books had to be written for Congress, the White House, and the policy people on the CIA’s seventh floor. Cables were constantly going back and forth between headquarters and the field.
Michael Barry, a Middle East analyst who led the analytical charge on mujahideen operations, got it right. He understood just how much damage the mujahideen were inflicting on the Russians and what they were capable of if armed with the latest weapons. The analysts from the DI’s Office of Soviet Analysis were less optimistic, tending to see the Soviet army as invincible. SOVA, as that office was known, apparently reserved its top people for other tasks, such as analyzing Soviet missile silos, wheat harvests, and industrial production. I couldn’t help thinking, “Okay, we’re kicking the hell out of them and you don’t want to be a key part of it?” I, therefore, increasingly relied on analysts from the DI’s Office of Analysis for Near East and South Asian Studies. My successor on the task force, Frank Anderson, encountered the same analytical rifts. The SOVA analysts “missed the indicators that the Russians were being defeated,” Anderson said. “It was very shortly after I joined the task force that I was persuaded that the Russians were losing badly … It is true that the analytical community, all of academia, and most of the ‘experts’ were just unable to get their heads around the idea that the Red Army could be defeated.” But we felt strongly that our best analysts on the task force were right. Our Soviet military analyst Bob Williams was particularly strong. He once helped us parse an intercepted Soviet field communication, called a morning report, that showed a shocking number of Soviet troops were unable to fight because of illness. Williams, a retired infantry officer and Russia specialist with combat experience in Vietnam and Korea, often disagreed with the SOVA analysts because he relied on his own tactical information. He understood from personal experience what the Russian troops were actually going through on the ground. “You needed to know what it was like to hold back forces in a gully…” he said. “It made a big difference to have had personal combat experience to understand what the Soviet soldier was experiencing. Something that the SOVA analyst seemingly did not have.”
I didn’t feel overwhelmed running the program, but I probably should have. There weren’t many people in the Agency who knew much about weaponry other than specialists in the Special Activities Division, the paramilitary unit in the Directorate of Operations. Avrakotos was fortunate enough to have found Michael Vickers, a very smart former Green Beret who had been detailed to the Agency, and who now serves in the Obama administration as an under Secretary of defense for intelligence. In addition to Williams, we were fortunate to have an A-plus weapons expert, a former Marine captain named Clifton Dempsey.4 Dempsey looked more like a young professor than a five-year veteran of the Marines. An expert in mortar fire, shortly after my arrival on the Afghan account, he started modeling the next year’s weapons requirements for a mujahideen army of 120,000 fighters. Before I could go out later in August 1986 and negotiate with the Egyptian and Chinese suppliers, Dempsey and I, along with Tim Burton, our highly skilled logistics chief, needed to figure out what kind of weapons the mujahideen would require beyond the Stingers, how much ammunition they were likely to expend, and what other kinds of matériel they would need to fight through the winter.
Vickers had worked up a smart, detailed formula for determining the military supplies necessary for the mujahideen, one based on an old World War II formula. Burton took Vickers’s calculations and did his best to fit them into the current political reality. At this time, we had already shifted away from the .303 Lee-Enfield rifles to the greater firepower of the AK-47, the Russian-designed assault rifle. (At that point, the formal decision to deploy the lethal Stinger had not yet been made.)
Dempsey and others on the task force worked hard to find an effective antiaircraft missile that would neutralize the devastating helicopter attacks. The British-designed Blowpipe had been tested and rejected because it was too complicated for the mujahideen to handle. The Brits also wanted to sell us the Javelin, an upgraded version of the Blowpipe, but for the same reason we said no. Dempsey recalls that we needed a “fire and forget” missile equipped with an internal guidance system that could lock on to an aircraft, and that nothing else would be viable. The SA-7 antiaircraft missile was ubiquitous worldwide, and it would have been easy to flood the field with it, but our research showed that it was not very effective and had been a failure in trying to knock down U.S. aircraft during the Vietnam War. The Swedish had the RB-70, which was exceptionally effective, but we doubted we would get Swedish approval to deploy it in combat. So in the end we turned to the lethal Stinger.
At the same time, we were also looking for a higher-caliber round that could penetrate the armor of the Hind helicopter. Dempsey recalls finding a Chinese antiarmor tungsten round that was not as good as the higher-velocity SLAP (saboted light-armor penetrator) round, but it was cheaper at just a dollar a round rather than $15 to $20. This was a significant difference when we needed to supply approximately 120,000 fighters. So we married the tungsten round to the 12.7-millimeter machine gun, which is very similar to the U.S.-manufactured .50-caliber. It worked well but not great. Still, it got the job done and helped knock out Soviet aircraft.
The procurement of weapons came through a somewhat complicated budgeting device known as end-of-year supplemental funding—that is, whatever the Department of Defense hadn’t managed to spend by the last day of the fiscal year, September 30. Covert action is often paid for with end-of-year funds. Weeks ahead of time we would get a report that read, “The Department of Defense is going to have this amount, and it looks like we’ll get this much.” That meant we had to have cables with all our field stations and suppliers around the world ready to go, with someone on the other end agreeing to the order. If you were a day late, the money would be gone. There were some discretionary funds that didn’t have to be committed in this way, but they amounted to peanuts when compared to the end-of-year Pentagon funds. And we never knew exactly how much we were going to get. Congress did not want a line item.
Every year that I was there, DOD always had a large surplus. For the Pentagon, $1 billion is a relatively small number, but there were other high-cost technical programs, such as satellites, that had to be funded. The Stingers were different—a direct purchase from the Pentagon. They weren’t too expensive—at around $60,000 each—so a few million dollars got you a lot of these lethal weapons. Still, it remained to be seen whether the mujahideen could be trained to fire them effectively at the Hinds, and whether the Stinger’s guidance system was superior to the Soviet’s antimissile technology, despite our field testing.
The entire time I was running the task force, the only calls I ever received from the White House were requests for a surge prompted by a news story—“Can you ramp up operations in the field as fast as possible?” But given our funding system, a surge was impossible, since virtually all major purchases were made on the last day of the fiscal year, and there was nothing left to surge with after that: the piggy bank was empty. Likewise, the weapon assembly lines around the world took months to crank up; there were no shelf items to draw upon. This was not an ideal way to run a war, but somehow it worked.
In the summer of 1986 we knew we would be getting a huge amount of money in addition to the end-of-year surplus, thanks largely to items Charlie Wilson was inserting into appropriations legislation. Instead of getting $200 million, we received $350 million, not counting matching funds from the Saudis.
When Tim Burton and I traveled abroad that August to make sure we had everything in place for the end of the fiscal year, our first stop was Egypt. There was an arms factory there built with U.S. tax dollars that was two blocks long. For the Egyptians, our orders represented a huge infusion of cash, which helped them build up their arms industry. Wilson had particularly close relations with the Egyptians. Consequently, we were buying about 60 percent of our weapons from Egypt and 40 percent from China. One of the most important things we did was to change the equation to 60 percent Chinese and 40 percent Egyptian. This was critically important—both in terms of cost savings and quality. The Chinese-made weapons were cheaper and more reliable. Why use both the Chinese and the Egyptian? If an incident such as that which occurred in 1989 in Tiananmen Square had happened in either country during our Afghanistan tenure, we would not have wanted to be solely reliant on one country. So we had to have at least two suppliers, and sometimes you paid a higher price in order to keep two suppliers going.
I enjoyed negotiating these deals. Sometimes on these trips, I would wonder if I had missed my true calling. Still, negotiating with the Egyptians over arms pricing wasn’t easy, and sometimes the bartering lasted several days. On one trip to Cairo, we ran into stiff opposition over the price to be paid for an AK-47, which practically every Afghan fighter carried into the battlefield. As I recall, the Egyptians were demanding $165 per weapon, and we were holding firm at $145. Fortunately, when the negotiation reached an impasse, we enjoyed an extended interruption in the bartering, because our guests had programmed a visit for us to Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s fourth-century active monastery. It was a fascinating trip by helicopter. We flew fast and low across the Sinai Desert. At that time, this historic site had few roads to it and was virtually devoid of tourists.
The chief Egyptian negotiator came along for the trip. When we arrived at Mount Sinai, he personally walked me to the biblical “burning bush,” through which, in Exodus 3:2–8, God is said to have told Moses to save the Hebrews. After a few minutes of reflection, he reverently asked me what I thought about visiting this sacred site. Without hesitation, I remarked that it was an amazing experience, adding in a hushed and grave tone that the burning bush had spoken to me. I paused for effect, then added: “It said, ‘The price is one forty-five.’” Apparently, our host had a good sense of humor, and everyone found time for a deep laugh of relief. We settled at $145 without any further negotiation. The Egyptians were careful, however, not to bring me back to the bush on future trips when we were negotiating arms prices.
I drove the same kind of tough bargain with a Greek shipowner we met with after leaving Egypt. I spent two days negotiating a lease for his ship and whittled him down to the last dollar. The ship would take the weapons from Cairo to Karachi, in Pakistan. Then they would be shipped by train up to the Afghan border, where they would be loaded on trucks. (We were probably one of the largest owners of Toyota pickup trucks in the world at that time, because those were the trucks best suited for use on the border.) Once the trucks had gone as far as they could, the weapons would be loaded onto mules for the final leg of the trip, through Afghanistan’s treacherous mountain passes.
One year, we bought nine thousand mules from the Chinese, and the Chinese supplier drove them, as in an old-fashioned Western cattle drive, across China and into Pakistan. At one point, someone suggested we go to Nigeria to buy inexpensive mules, which we did. What do I know about mules? I grew up in Philadelphia. But I quickly learned that we needed special mules, ones acclimated to high altitude. We couldn’t take a Nigerian or Tennessee mule to Afghanistan. “Using a Tennessee mule that hasn’t ever been above a thousand feet in the mountains of Afghanistan wouldn’t work,” Burton said.5 Bert Dunn, then the associate deputy director of operations, made the same point, drawing upon his West Virginia roots. Needless to say, the Nigerian mules didn’t work out, and the Afghans probably used them for field food rations instead. Burton remembers procuring mules from China, then herding and trucking them to the Afghan border to turn them over to the mujahideen. He recalls that it was “an extraordinarily successful operation,” particularly considering the parties involved. I would agree that it was, indeed, one of the most complicated parts of the whole operation.
There was an art to dealing with the Chinese, for mules and, far more important, for weapons. Socializing was important for building rapport and trust, and our meetings were all very structured. The first half hour would be devoted to testimonials. I would begin, “We trust you. Friendship is important. We’re here not because we’re looking for weapons but because it’s our mutual destiny.” This would be translated. Then we’d take a break. They would come back and give me the same speech. Later in the day, we would go out to dinner. Then, the next day, we would finally get down to business.
“Okay, this is what I’m looking for,” I’d say. “What are the best prices you can give us? Because we are friends, good friends. And we are in this together, and we have a common enemy, the Russians.”
I was, of course, negotiating with representatives of the People’s Liberation Army. They would go away to consider what we had offered, and then they would come back with their prices. I’d look at my price sheet, prepared by Burton and Dempsey, and because we’d decided ahead of time what we were prepared to pay, we would start the haggling. The Chinese knew exactly where the weapons were going, and one of the reasons I got a good price with a minimum of haggling was they wanted to be helpful in the fight against the Russians.
The only inappropriate weapon that almost got into the Afghan inventory was the Swiss-made twenty-millimeter Oerlikon cannon, which fired large and very expensive cartridges. It wasn’t called a cannon by accident. It was way too large and cumbersome for an insurgency force and would have required tremendous logistical support to position it in the field. Also, the cost of feeding this cannon an ample supply of shells at three hundred rounds per minute would have been extremely high and would have cut into the purchase of other, more valuable weapon systems.
My assumption is that prior to my forming the task force, Wilson and Avrakotos had settled on the Oerlikon out of desperation, because up until then all other efforts to deter the menacing Russian Mi-24 helicopter had failed. The Redeye, SAM7, and Blowpipe had all come up short. Still, until we neutralized the Soviet helicopters, our arms supply train would be badly debilitated. Wilson tried to force-feed the Oerlikon to the task force, and in the end Avrakotos apparently acquiesced and bought a few of them, partly to keep Wilson happy and supporting funding for the program, but as I recall, they never made it into combat. The chief of the Near East Division, Tom Twetten, remembers Wilson’s insistence on using the Swiss weapons as well.6
When I took over as chief of the task force, I was briefed about the Oerlikon with great skepticism by the staff, especially Dempsey and Burton. Fortunately, before we got too far down the road with the Swiss arms company on a new and major contract, the Stinger emerged as a more viable option, and I canceled any further acquisitions of the Oerlikon gun and replacement ammunition.
While we factored in the inevitable slippage of weapons we shipped into Afghanistan, we worked hard to make sure only a small percentage “fell off the back of the truck,” as it were. The Stingers were different; we carefully controlled all of them. Each one had a serial number. A mujahideen commander would not get a new one, via our go-betweens in Pakistani intelligence, until he had given back the expended tube after an attack, and the Stingers went only to the mujahideen leaders considered most reliable. Those who got them were specially trained and monitored, and when I visited the facilities to look at where the weapons were being kept and logged in, I was always impressed with the thoroughness of the mujahideen’s efforts. There was a great deal of management oversight. One of the things our case officers did in Pakistan was regularly go through the gun markets in the North West Frontier and elsewhere to determine how many of our weapons found their way into the market, and I was consistently surprised that almost nothing, and certainly no Stingers, showed up there.
In 1986, great anticipation greeted the arrival of the Stingers in theater. Even though we had seen the tests and knew how deadly these missiles were, firing them required certain skill and precision. A PhD wasn’t necessary, but a certain facility with technology was helpful. Could this ragtag group of mujahideen fighters be trained to handle a sophisticated weapon? I never had any doubt that they could.
Copyright © 2014 by Jack Devine.
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Jack Devine is a thirty-two-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served at the pinnacle of his career as the CIA’s top spymaster—head of the CIA’s operations outside the United States, in which capacity he had supervisory authority over thousands of CIA employees involved in sensitive missions throughout the world. He is also a founding partner and the president of The Arkin Group, an international risk consulting and intelligence firm. He lives in New York City with his wife, Pat.