.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John Le Carré is one of my favorite books of all time. Le Carré's pacing, the plot, the characters, the tone and atmosphere, every part of it and the constituent whole is simply a masterpiece. George Smiley, the main character, is a curiously admirable figure. A beleaguered spy master who is either representative of the “keep calm and carry on” attitude, a romantic patriot at his core, or a deeply cynical figure. For me, he is the archetypal spy. Unassuming and forgettable, quietly and persistently curious, always watching and learning, yet able to handle the complexities of the human character and spirit. He’s able to gain the confidence of would-be agents, run them successfully, and tend to their egos and needs.

Spymaster's Prism: The Fight against Russian Aggression | Jack Devine | Potomac Books | March 2021.

Yet, despite this, the scene that stands out most for me is not the agent running or the climax where the mole is revealed, but one in a quiet home in rural England. On the trail of the Circus’ mole, he visits Connie Sachs, who recalls the long train of events that brought the case together, highlighting the suspicions and holes in the alibis of suspicious characters, all the while Smiley teases at threads, allowing her to fill in the gaps. It is a masterful scene and one that I dearly love for its intimacy and admirability. He is the consummate spy even with his friend and former colleague. Le Carré's brilliance is on display in that one scene, and it is one I return to with some frequency.

Jack Devine, a former CIA operations officer who rose to the highest levels of the Agency before retiring, may not be an American version of Smiley—indeed in his own words his appearance and voice are large and booming, so much so that new officers were too intimidated to sit near him at the Agency’s training center, a.k.a. the “Farm” —but I was nonetheless reminded of Smiley in his latest book “Spymaster’s Prism”.

In “Spymaster’s Prism” Devine sets out to cover the panoply of Russian aggression and America’s historical efforts to counter Moscow’s espionage and covert action. It is a calm, rich, and fascinating survey that is Smiley-esque in its measured tone, at least at the operational level. Structured along a series of lessons, Devine’s book outlines what he argues is a strategy to counter the renewed campaign of Russian subversion. Devine is excellent at the tactical and operational levels, his descriptions of the key cases themselves, the recruitment of the agents, their handling in complex and hostile circumstances, and the development of their intelligence is excellent.

Where he falls a bit short is in attempting to speak to the strategic-level policy challenges facing the United States today. Here, when he strays into the bigger picture, the Smiley tenor, tone, and measure are lost, with too common hyperbole replacing the focus on facts. For example, the titular “spymaster” is a figure that sees all of the threads and strands of espionage, policy, and action, and is able to weave them together. In Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Devine sees such a figure. Here he lapses into, unfortunately too common tropes of Putin as the spymaster—a Bond-esque villain—who rapidly rose to power based on his intelligence background and acumen. Putin’s ability to read people and manipulate situations, in Devine’s telling, is responsible for his swift rise to power and his current dominance of the Russian political system. Unfortunately, as other authors such as Mark Galeotti, Kathryn Stoner, Timothy Frye, and Catherine Belton have astutely demonstrated, this isn’t the case. Properly understanding Putin and the political system in which he lives is critical to making smart policy.

At another point, Devine unfortunately cites the non-existent Gerasimov Doctrine. Coined by Galeotti as a shorthand for the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s writings on strategic thought, it took on a life of its own, with analysts believing that there was, in fact, some mythical doctrine that explained Russia’s political and irregular warfare. Galeotti has since retracted the concept, yet it continues to live on, refusing to die.

The strength of “Spymaster’s Prism” is that it shows America’s intelligence professionals know the business of espionage and know how to confront Moscow, having successfully done so in the Cold War. Devine shows that Langley knows how to recruit and run agents. It knows how to conduct covert operations. It knows how to confront and contain Russian expansionism on the intelligence playing field. Both its successes and failures inform this knowledge, and that should inspire confidence in this renewed era of strategic competition. Too often only the failures of the CIA and its British counterparts, SIS, are known. This is, of course, part of the nature of the business of spying—your successes are never known, but your failures make front page news. Devine does a good job of correcting the record.

Most, if not all, of the spy cases Devine describes have been covered in feature length books in their own right—“Billion Dollar Spy” by David Hoffman, “The Spy Who Saved the World” by Jerrold Schecter, “A Spy Among Friends” and “The Spy and the Traitor” both by Ben Macintyre” spring to mind. But Devine’s collection of these cases and their contextualization in the current fight against Moscow is both novel and interesting.

There are valuable lessons drawn from his commentary. Devine rightly says that the CIA must look beyond political and military targets for recruitment. Here, one wonders what would happen if the State Department were better resourced and shifted away from the “bunker” mentality—particularly in hostile or semi-hostile environments—that seems to affect many of its embassies and foreign officers. This attitude is unsurprising given the 9/11 attacks and the assault in Benghazi, but a consequence has been a shifting of the onus from the foreign service officer to the operations officer. The latter is best tasked with targeting those hard to reach agents, but is often tasked with capturing atmospherics as the former rarely leaves the embassy due to bureaucratic regulations.

Interestingly, Devine does not address open source intelligence outfits like Bellingcat or the adoption of those research methods into the Intelligence Community. The CIA’s Open Source Center is certainly active and one imagines that there are units within the Intelligence Community dedicated to exploiting such publicly available information. In an era of open source intelligence gathering and the near ubiquity of the internet, arguably much of what could be gathered via clandestine means is ripe for the picking and publicly available. Conversely, these digital footprints and the glowing panopticon makes the job of officers all the more difficult, if not impossible.

His emphasis on counterintelligence is also apropos and certainly out of the mainstream. The end of June was the anniversary of the so-called “Illegals” case in which a number of Russian spies were rounded-up and extradited—brilliantly captured in Gordon Corera’s “Russians Among Us”. These spies were deep-cover, long term officers that many in the press decried as bumbling and ineffective, missing the fact that Moscow was playing a long-game, hoping to insert the agents’ children into the U.S. government—they would have been as American as apple pie at first glance. Devine is likely right in suggesting that there are almost certainly Russian agents in the U.S. government or its surrounding ecosystem. That is the nature of espionage. But he is also right that rooting out those spies, certainly a priority, must not regress into the paranoia of James Jesus Angleton, the former counterintelligence chief, burned by British spy Kim Philby, who hamstrung the Agency for years with his paranoia.

Devine’s involvement in the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan is interesting and informs his “philosophy” on covert action, which in “Spymaster’s Prism” blends elements of just war theory with his own experiences. The problem is that it is predicated on conditions that don’t necessarily exist: he suggests that covert action should only be undertaken when there is a partner on the ground like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Yet, there are likely to be too few local or indigenous forces with whom the Agency can successfully partner—look at the challenges in Syria with the Free Syrian Army. Even then, there is no guarantee one will be able to guide or shape those partner’s actions.

Equally, his suggestion that covert action should have bipartisan support is arguably out of bygone era. The days of consensus on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and its Senate counterpart, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, are almost certainly gone. So much time seems to be spent on politicking rather than the committees’ main responsibility—oversight.

In this renewed era of strategic competition with Russia and China, the United States needs more George (and Jane) Smileys and fewer Jason Bournes, despite Ted Cruz’s assertion. Devine’s book should fill the reader with confidence that the officers of Langley are very much in the mold of the former, but with the capacity to act as the latter when the situation demands.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression

Photo by Rosalind Chang via Unsplash.

July 3, 2021

In “Spymaster’s Prism” Devine sets out to cover the panoply of Russian aggression and America’s historical efforts to counter Moscow’s espionage and covert action. It is a calm, rich, and fascinating survey that is Smiley-esque in its measured tone, at least at the operational level.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John Le Carré is one of my favorite books of all time. Le Carré's pacing, the plot, the characters, the tone and atmosphere, every part of it and the constituent whole is simply a masterpiece. George Smiley, the main character, is a curiously admirable figure. A beleaguered spy master who is either representative of the “keep calm and carry on” attitude, a romantic patriot at his core, or a deeply cynical figure. For me, he is the archetypal spy. Unassuming and forgettable, quietly and persistently curious, always watching and learning, yet able to handle the complexities of the human character and spirit. He’s able to gain the confidence of would-be agents, run them successfully, and tend to their egos and needs.

Spymaster's Prism: The Fight against Russian Aggression | Jack Devine | Potomac Books | March 2021.

Yet, despite this, the scene that stands out most for me is not the agent running or the climax where the mole is revealed, but one in a quiet home in rural England. On the trail of the Circus’ mole, he visits Connie Sachs, who recalls the long train of events that brought the case together, highlighting the suspicions and holes in the alibis of suspicious characters, all the while Smiley teases at threads, allowing her to fill in the gaps. It is a masterful scene and one that I dearly love for its intimacy and admirability. He is the consummate spy even with his friend and former colleague. Le Carré's brilliance is on display in that one scene, and it is one I return to with some frequency.

Jack Devine, a former CIA operations officer who rose to the highest levels of the Agency before retiring, may not be an American version of Smiley—indeed in his own words his appearance and voice are large and booming, so much so that new officers were too intimidated to sit near him at the Agency’s training center, a.k.a. the “Farm” —but I was nonetheless reminded of Smiley in his latest book “Spymaster’s Prism”.

In “Spymaster’s Prism” Devine sets out to cover the panoply of Russian aggression and America’s historical efforts to counter Moscow’s espionage and covert action. It is a calm, rich, and fascinating survey that is Smiley-esque in its measured tone, at least at the operational level. Structured along a series of lessons, Devine’s book outlines what he argues is a strategy to counter the renewed campaign of Russian subversion. Devine is excellent at the tactical and operational levels, his descriptions of the key cases themselves, the recruitment of the agents, their handling in complex and hostile circumstances, and the development of their intelligence is excellent.

Where he falls a bit short is in attempting to speak to the strategic-level policy challenges facing the United States today. Here, when he strays into the bigger picture, the Smiley tenor, tone, and measure are lost, with too common hyperbole replacing the focus on facts. For example, the titular “spymaster” is a figure that sees all of the threads and strands of espionage, policy, and action, and is able to weave them together. In Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Devine sees such a figure. Here he lapses into, unfortunately too common tropes of Putin as the spymaster—a Bond-esque villain—who rapidly rose to power based on his intelligence background and acumen. Putin’s ability to read people and manipulate situations, in Devine’s telling, is responsible for his swift rise to power and his current dominance of the Russian political system. Unfortunately, as other authors such as Mark Galeotti, Kathryn Stoner, Timothy Frye, and Catherine Belton have astutely demonstrated, this isn’t the case. Properly understanding Putin and the political system in which he lives is critical to making smart policy.

At another point, Devine unfortunately cites the non-existent Gerasimov Doctrine. Coined by Galeotti as a shorthand for the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s writings on strategic thought, it took on a life of its own, with analysts believing that there was, in fact, some mythical doctrine that explained Russia’s political and irregular warfare. Galeotti has since retracted the concept, yet it continues to live on, refusing to die.

The strength of “Spymaster’s Prism” is that it shows America’s intelligence professionals know the business of espionage and know how to confront Moscow, having successfully done so in the Cold War. Devine shows that Langley knows how to recruit and run agents. It knows how to conduct covert operations. It knows how to confront and contain Russian expansionism on the intelligence playing field. Both its successes and failures inform this knowledge, and that should inspire confidence in this renewed era of strategic competition. Too often only the failures of the CIA and its British counterparts, SIS, are known. This is, of course, part of the nature of the business of spying—your successes are never known, but your failures make front page news. Devine does a good job of correcting the record.

Most, if not all, of the spy cases Devine describes have been covered in feature length books in their own right—“Billion Dollar Spy” by David Hoffman, “The Spy Who Saved the World” by Jerrold Schecter, “A Spy Among Friends” and “The Spy and the Traitor” both by Ben Macintyre” spring to mind. But Devine’s collection of these cases and their contextualization in the current fight against Moscow is both novel and interesting.

There are valuable lessons drawn from his commentary. Devine rightly says that the CIA must look beyond political and military targets for recruitment. Here, one wonders what would happen if the State Department were better resourced and shifted away from the “bunker” mentality—particularly in hostile or semi-hostile environments—that seems to affect many of its embassies and foreign officers. This attitude is unsurprising given the 9/11 attacks and the assault in Benghazi, but a consequence has been a shifting of the onus from the foreign service officer to the operations officer. The latter is best tasked with targeting those hard to reach agents, but is often tasked with capturing atmospherics as the former rarely leaves the embassy due to bureaucratic regulations.

Interestingly, Devine does not address open source intelligence outfits like Bellingcat or the adoption of those research methods into the Intelligence Community. The CIA’s Open Source Center is certainly active and one imagines that there are units within the Intelligence Community dedicated to exploiting such publicly available information. In an era of open source intelligence gathering and the near ubiquity of the internet, arguably much of what could be gathered via clandestine means is ripe for the picking and publicly available. Conversely, these digital footprints and the glowing panopticon makes the job of officers all the more difficult, if not impossible.

His emphasis on counterintelligence is also apropos and certainly out of the mainstream. The end of June was the anniversary of the so-called “Illegals” case in which a number of Russian spies were rounded-up and extradited—brilliantly captured in Gordon Corera’s “Russians Among Us”. These spies were deep-cover, long term officers that many in the press decried as bumbling and ineffective, missing the fact that Moscow was playing a long-game, hoping to insert the agents’ children into the U.S. government—they would have been as American as apple pie at first glance. Devine is likely right in suggesting that there are almost certainly Russian agents in the U.S. government or its surrounding ecosystem. That is the nature of espionage. But he is also right that rooting out those spies, certainly a priority, must not regress into the paranoia of James Jesus Angleton, the former counterintelligence chief, burned by British spy Kim Philby, who hamstrung the Agency for years with his paranoia.

Devine’s involvement in the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan is interesting and informs his “philosophy” on covert action, which in “Spymaster’s Prism” blends elements of just war theory with his own experiences. The problem is that it is predicated on conditions that don’t necessarily exist: he suggests that covert action should only be undertaken when there is a partner on the ground like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Yet, there are likely to be too few local or indigenous forces with whom the Agency can successfully partner—look at the challenges in Syria with the Free Syrian Army. Even then, there is no guarantee one will be able to guide or shape those partner’s actions.

Equally, his suggestion that covert action should have bipartisan support is arguably out of bygone era. The days of consensus on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and its Senate counterpart, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, are almost certainly gone. So much time seems to be spent on politicking rather than the committees’ main responsibility—oversight.

In this renewed era of strategic competition with Russia and China, the United States needs more George (and Jane) Smileys and fewer Jason Bournes, despite Ted Cruz’s assertion. Devine’s book should fill the reader with confidence that the officers of Langley are very much in the mold of the former, but with the capacity to act as the latter when the situation demands.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.