The Oracle: Cloak & Dagger & Devine

Meet Jack Devine, the former spymaster who's now a master of risk

Someone made David Copperfield’s trucks disappear— and it wasn’t the magician.

The story goes that Copperfield was doing his show in Moscow years ago when his on-site promoters decided they wanted more money, and helped themselves to the trucks to leverage a sweeter deal. Now, Russia is not a place where you want to stare down the locals, especially when Moscow’s then-mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is in on the shakedown. But Copperfield had a lot of pull in Washington, as celebs often do, and so the U.S. State Department promptly advised his people: “Don’t negotiate, we’ll démarche them.” A démarche is a diplomatic letter of protest. In other words, the American embassy in Moscow expected to intimidate some shady, and probably very dangerous, types with stern language.

Not surprisingly, nothing happened.

Okay, send in the lawyers.

Nothing happened.

“Someone said, ‘Well look, let’s send over a couple people to tell them we’re not going to take it lying down,’” recalls Jack Devine. “So they sent over a couple of Germans. The worst thing to do! If you haven’t read history, refer to history.”

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This time, something did happen— the price went up. Devine says that Copperfield even made an appeal to Hillary Clinton, and the problem ended up on the desk of then-presidential advisor Sandy Berger. But finally, someone said, “Let’s see if Jack can figure out something.”

Jack, as in Jack Devine. As in the former acting deputy director for the CIA. As in the man who helped get Stinger missiles to the mujahideen in Afghanistan to take on the invading Russians. The same Jack Devine who served with the CIA as Allende was toppled in Chile. That Jack Devine. Having moved from a career in covert ops to the world of risk management, yes, he could, indeed, figure out something. He enlisted the help of ex-KGB types who had left the Russian government to form their own investigative groups, and they “went in, and as Russian to Russian, they were able to negotiate a deal, and we ended up with a KGB-sponsored escort to get the trucks out, and to get [them] into Finland.”

Not a typical day at the office, but it sounds like Devine has never had one in his life. After all, when he started his intelligence career, he was reviewing cables in a basement in Langley ten feet away from Aldrich Ames—who would go on to become one of America’s most notorious traitors. Now he’s put all of his exploits—from what really went on Chile to his own role in the events behind Charlie Wilson’s War—in a memoir, Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. Devine’s book is a surprisingly candid and accessible volume, full of cracking good yarns. The Washington Post, no less, decided that he “produced an entertaining chronicle of his decades at the agency and a persuasive case for its continued relevance.”

“From where I sit, it’s understanding the environment you’re in, validating your perceptions, making sure you’re getting a broad reading and not be overwhelmed by a person with a great pitch and materials that haven’t been vetted.”

“I have been engaged in all aspects of the spy business,” writes Devine. “I’ve written in invisible ink and run black bag jobs. I have argued against flawed coup plots and directed the largest covert action of the Cold War.”

Having played a critical role in the history of Afghanistan, he’s blunt when it comes to the question of any happy ending for the troubled country. He believes “there are real objectives that can be measured and effective, and you win. If you then decide, you know, I’ve got a big heart here in Canada and America, and we want to make these people have a better life and we’re going to make them have a functioning parliament and elections, and we’re going to build a national entity, you’re whistling Dixie.” He considers Afghanistan a tribal society that hasn’t advanced.

“You know, you can change half the world and spend all your resources and be like Rome and deplete your own energy. So, I’m arguing, the book is not a defense of the CIA, which it could be. It’s an advocacy for using those belowthe-radar capabilities to protect our interest—not to build nations, but to protect our interest.” He also strongly opposes the CIA being politicized by whatever administration is in the White House. He says the mantra of the intelligence business is “just get the facts. Not what you’d like to see, not what someone else wants you to see… So, if you’re politicized, then you’re spinning that, and you’re not working the mantra. I mean, I get emotional about this.”

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His memoir has its share of farcical humour, too. Devine describes how a colleague, who was into the geek stuff out of Popular Mechanics, pushed a device for the agency to use for avoiding surveillance. It was called the Hush-a-Phone, and Devine says, “it wasn’t the soup can and string, but it was damn close.” With a miniature mike attached to a headset, the device “would literally be on a very thin cord and you could be ten, fifteen feet apart, and you would talk into it”—in hushed voices, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. “I refused to use it,” says Devine, “and as far as I could make out, no one else did either.” He took it well when I kidded him that it sounded like the “Cone of Silence” out of the old Get Smart series.

The subtext for all the episodes in Good Hunting—though, perhaps, not by conscious design—is that great events sometimes hinge on the capricious whims of men in power who fall far short of godhood. Don’t think global conspiracy; think personal bad judgment when it comes to how things can go wrong in world crises. Then again, a lot of things went right, and we just never learned about them. And then Devine retired.

His second life in risk management also has enough adventures to fill a Ludlum novel, and Corporate Risk Canada is the first and, so far as we know, the only magazine to interview Devine about this side of his career. A founding partner of the Arkin Group in New York City, Devine has had to deal with everything from tracking down the proper ownership of centuries-old illuminated manuscripts to analyzing the exposures for a mining company in Asia caught in the middle of civil unrest.

A month after 9/11, a major Saudi figure wanted the company to advise him on how to deal with the worst PR nightmare imaginable—being related to Osama bin Laden.

What’s surprising is that Devine doesn’t rely on former intelligence cronies nearly as much as one might think. When I asked him about this, he replied candidly that “when I came out of the business, it’s really unprofessional, unethical in my view, to leave the CIA and go back to any people you know.” Security is one concern: the risks are all still there, but with none of the protection of the U.S. government. Plus, “it’s a bit like having a non-compete.” He says it would be like leaving a firm and then trying to sell software by working your old relationships. “I think it’s unprofessional. On the security side you put the assets at risk, but it’s also from a well-established business arrangement that, when you sign up at the CIA, you’re never to divulge who you deal with, or what, and you take that to the grave.”

Instead, Devine and his colleagues developed a vast network of local contacts, whether in Buenos Aires or Mumbai, to get more direct information rather than relying on middlemen; that is, former intelligence types, whose information wouldn’t be as current.

“You can gather all that strategic intelligence, but eventually there’s got to be a resolution figured out,” I suggested, “and in some of these scenarios, you’re not going to be able to effect a resolution.” Surely, I argued, there’s only so much you can do, right?

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“Well, take Thailand,” answered Devine, without hesitating. As it happened, a pharmaceutical client had to cope with the recent political unrest there. “The very first call is, you know, what’s going to happen? And we said, if push comes to shove, the military’s coming in.” The Arkin Group had a British security professional go in and brief the staff on procedures. “Now, can you stop the riot? No, but in places like Egypt, the question is, ‘Will we be able to do business? Are you able to give us insights on whether or not our business is on the expropriation list…’

“I did a mining survey—which is fascinating—in Mexico. I would submit to you that parts of Mexico are more dangerous than Iraq in terms of the cartels, and they rob the mines, so it’s very dangerous. So I would turn to a couple of ex-Navy Seals and a couple of former Mexican intelligence types that I’ve known for years and have great confidence in, and you’re able to go into those facilities and make recommendations. So you can go in and be very, very helpful, and this is more in the security field rather than the intelligence world, but it starts with the intelligence.”

In his book, Devine contends that his network “includes all sorts of specialists,” from forensic accountants to a corporate psychiatrist, “who can analyze the personalities involved in a business dispute and identify which buttons to push and which to avoid… Today, there isn’t a location in the world where we can’t put together a tailored network of resources.”

With all those open doors and contacts, the Arkin Group is quite selective about its clientele. A month after 9/11, a major Saudi figure wanted the company to advise him on how to deal with the worst PR nightmare imaginable—being related to Osama bin Laden. Osama was supposed to be off in his Afghan cave (though he was actually in Pakistan), while Abdullah bin Laden was trying to run his $5-billion construction empire. Arkin’s fees could have been huge. In the end, the firm turned him down.

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Interestingly, Devine says that while virtually everyone in business understands the due diligence process, there are many folks who “just to go through the steps. They really don’t want too much information because they don’t want to kill the deal, and this is often in the financial institutions.” So there are the database miners and those who go with their guts… But they’re still relying on public information. Devine will have to chaperone clients through the risks. There are, he’s quick to remind you, a lot of things that can ruin the reputation of your company, so hold back from writing that big cheque. Once upon a time, he met with prospective partners for a client, and “they showed up, they had a Cadillac. They overdid it. Everything was Gucci, you know? They had the bags, the coat.” And they turned out to be con men who bilked a respected U.S. financial institution out of about $20 million. “From where I sit, it’s understanding the environment you’re in, validating your perceptions, making sure you’re getting a broad reading and not be overwhelmed by a person with a great pitch and materials that haven’t been vetted.

“Then you have to do the nitty-gritty of digging in their records and files, talking to people, and if you do that, your chances of having a failure [come down to] what you really can control: the manufacturing of this item, delivering it on time. If you go into China and you have not done enough preparatory work, you’re going to have your lunch handed to you.”

It’s interesting to hear the perspective of a risk professional—and a retired spy to boot—when so much of what we consider “valuable” information today depends now on the cyber landscape. But, while Devine is a veteran of old-school field intelligence work, he’s also no Luddite (Hush-a-Phone aside).

When it comes to technology, he says, “The truth of the matter is you need it. Stop resisting it, marry it, court it. Bring it into your tool system… You’ve got all this information from the Internet; what a wonderful blessing for the intelligence world.

“You have social networking. I could have controlled the world if I had social networking, and no one else had it years ago. I had to work and get people out on the street and pay them money to demonstrate. Today I can sit in my office and start a revolution with social networks. So, it cuts both ways. I mean it’s a great tool.” He says you still often need human sources. When he began his career, there was no CNN, let alone the Internet, and “you could be the local guy running around picking up stuff… Today, that isn’t needed, and my point would be, yeah, that’s great… why don’t you go do the high end?”

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It would be nice to know, he suggests, what Vladimir Putin’s real plans are or the intentions of the minister of agriculture in Argentina. At the investigative level, if you rely on Google, “you’re not going to find information that’s terribly helpful to you on second-layer South Asian economic and political leaders. There’s just not that much in the system, and much of it has been corrupted or is not accurate… You’re not going to find that in any drone or any database system. And all these technologies have to be driven by human intelligence— human intelligence has to tell you that you have a problem before you put a drone on it, or you go into a computer system and break it down.”

Human intelligence—and human judgment. Regardless of all the romanticism and mystique surrounding spies and secret agents (which must be slowly building up for certain specialties in the risk field as well), no one survives very long in intelligence without good judgment. Devine is leonine in both appearance and personality, the big old cat who has survived by his wits.

“I ended up in a perfect spot where I’m doing what I know best, and what I like best,” says Devine. He is, after all, in the “production of high-quality information” to support commercial and financial institutions. Granted it’s not directly in service to his country anymore, “but this is as close as I can get.” He adds quickly with a laugh, “Plus the Justice Department doesn’t authorize me to overthrow governments anymore. I’m a tad more benign than I used to be.”

Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the November 2014 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine

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