Foreign Affairs Focus: Jack Devine on Pinochet's Coup

The 1973 coup in Chile is often included in indictments of U.S. covert action during the Cold War. But Jack Devine, a former CIA operations officer who was stationed in Chile at the time, argues in the July/August 2014 issue that the CIA did not plot with Chilean General Augusto Pinochet to overthrow the country's democratically elected president, Salvadore Allende.

Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, recently sat down with Devine to get his take on U.S. involvement in Chile, the role of covert action in U.S. foreign policy, and Putin's playbook in Ukraine. A transcript is available below:

ROSE: Hi there. I'm Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, and welcome to another edition of “Foreign Affairs Focus.”

Today, we have the distinct privilege and pleasure of speaking with Jack Devine, a longtime American covert operative, now with the Arkin Group and the author of a wonderful new memoir, Good Hunting: An American Spymaster's Story, and a wonderful article -- “What Really Happened in Chile” -- in the new issue of Foreign Affairs.

Jack, you ended up as the acting director or associate director of the agency's covert operations outside the U.S. But as a young stripling, you were on the ground in Chile, during the fall of Allende and the rise of Pinochet, which is the subject of your piece in FA. This is a very controversial event -- episode -- in American history and Latin American history. How would you characterize the U.S. role in Allende's fall?

DEVINE: I think there's two parts to it, Gideon; one is what took place in 1970, where they tried to block Allende and the White House sent a message to Santiago, saying, we want you to stop it. The station chief said it can't be done. They said try it anyway, and it turned into a fiasco.

At that point -- most people don't realize this; another cable came and said, cease and desist plotting with the military, but by all means, support the opposition with political support, propaganda support and, very big consideration, financial support.

So the media that was in trouble, the political parties -- we bolstered that, OK? So to the degree that we roiled the waters, if you will, you know, we contributed to it. But we did not plot with the military and it's a big -- there's a big distinction in this.

I would just quickly add my view. Allende fell from his own weight, the policies, and the ideology. And the military moved because it was an institutional threat. There were young officers starting to rebel.

So it wasn't for constitution, it wasn't because of ties to the United States -- it was because their institutions and the generals wanted to take charge.

ROSE: Did we put Pinochet in? Are we responsible for Pinochet?

DEVINE: Actually, the irony of that -- and I saw the cable; I mean I know the fellow. I have -- I write about him in the book, a great operator and set up my first recruitment. He went out and met Pinochet in the assessment stage and said, oh, this man doesn't have the steel to lead. So we got that one flat wrong. 

And we didn't know what was coming. We really -- I got the first report. That's documented in the declassified documents. There was a very short cable, saying on September 11, the Navy will start the coup against Allende.

So we knew about it three days ahead of time. And my source was not a military officer, it was a businessman with a military background, who was very close -- very, very close to the military, so he told me. We did not have direct access to the military until the night before and one military official came to another officer, almost as we're going, tomorrow, as an official statement.

ROSE: When you look back on what's happened since in Chile, do you feel guilty; do you feel responsible for a lot of bad things? Do you feel like, maybe I shouldn't have gone around and played in other countries' political destinies?

DEVINE: I think, when you join CIA, you have to make some peace with do you -- are you comfortable, psychologically, philosophically, with the use of force and using it clandestinely. And I thought about it a great deal. I talk about the principles in -- in this book, Good Hunting, about when you have good covert action and bad covert action. 

But the use of force is really a philosophical argument, I think came together in the fourteenth century, to discuss the use of force. So once you make peace with that, then it becomes an issue of who decides. And I'm unequivocal: that's the president of the United States. And I know no covert action has ever taken place without the president's explicit approval and I stand ready, anyone that can step forward, on that point. 

So the president of the United States decides to take a policy, the CIA's the executor. So in that context, I do not have angst as a result of it. I was highly critical of Pinochet. In fact, before I left as a young whippersnapper, I was asked whether or not I could put some things on paper, as I was leaving -- thoughts to the new chief.

And my memo said we should use the same covert action to get rid of Pinochet, because by then -- by the summer of ‘74 -- we had a very good handle on the extent of the human rights violations. I think the chief, half in deference to me, probably though one way to end this guy's career is to be standing up, pontificating and I think it never went anywhere.

But that’s -- that was the sentiment; it wasn't just mine, either. 

ROSE: As you look around the globe today and you see what Putin is doing in Ukraine, does this strike you as very familiar?

DEVINE: You know, if it wasn't so very serious, it's almost like a welcome feeling to me. It's like, oh, I know this; I've been in this cold war. It was a more definable thing. And when I look at Ukraine, I mean Putin, an ex-KGB officer, is using the playbook of the Cold War. 

And he's using all the influence he can; intimidation, you know, plausible denial does not mean believable denial. He has Russians in there, saying those are not Russians, you know. So when you look at it, and what I think is coming, and I've written about this in other articles, saying that he isn't going to try and grab the western part -- he’s going to maximize his influence, the way we would have done it in Chile. And that is buying political power, getting agents, influencing the propaganda piece and increasing your intimidation that you can from the east. It's a classic playbook.

ROSE: Do we still do that kind of thing today? 

DEVINE: I hope so -- and I know this is a sharp edge here. I'm recommending it. As we pull out from Afghanistan and as -- now that we have Iraq behind us, I really don't see American forces on the ground unless we're hit.

And yet, the world is highly unstable; our interests are very high. We are going to have to work through diplomacy, economic sanctions, incentives, military overt assistance, but we are going to have to make sure we have special friends that we're supporting below the radar -- more than ever. 

ROSE: Jack Devine, author of "What Really Happened in Chile" and a wonderful memoir about his career in the CIA. Thank you very much.

DEVINE: Thank you.

 

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