Friday, December 12, 2008

CIA Station Chief Larry Devlin Dies at 86

For old Congo hands, this bit of news from the New York Times:
Lawrence R. Devlin, who as the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Congo in 1960 [later claimed to have] avoided carrying out an order to assassinate the ousted prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, died Dec. 6 at his home in Locust Grove, Va. He was 86.

The cause was emphysema, said his daughter, Maureen Devlin Reimuller.

Mr. Devlin particularly treasured the memories of his service in Léopoldville, Congo, despite at times being jailed, beaten and threatened with execution. He was the boss of a small C.I.A. operation during a brutal postcolonial struggle for power, a story he recounted in a 2007 memoir, “Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone” (Public Affairs).

In an episode that came to symbolize American excesses in the third world, Mr. Devlin, then 38, received word that he would be getting a visit from “Joe from Paris” with an important message. The messenger turned out to be Sidney Gottlieb, the agency’s top poison expert, who passed on orders he said had been approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to kill Lumumba, who the United States feared might ally the mineral-rich Congo with the Soviet Union.

“Morally I thought it was the wrong thing to do,” Mr. Devlin said in an interview with The New York Times this year. “And I thought it was a very dangerous thing to do,” risking retaliatory violence and damage to the United States’ standing, he said.

By his account, Mr. Devlin chose not to openly defy the order, believing he would be replaced by a more willing assassin. Instead, he said, he stalled. After Lumumba was slain by Congolese political opponents, Mr. Devlin said, he took from his safe the poison toothpaste Mr. Gottlieb had delivered to him and threw it in the Congo River.

The assassination plot was investigated in the 1970s by a Senate committee headed by Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho. The panel raised some doubts about Mr. Devlin’s version of events, saying agency cables portrayed him as taking an “affirmative, aggressive attitude” toward the assassination assignment. Mr. Devlin said he pretended to go along but never planned to carry the plot out.

For many years after his government career, Mr. Devlin worked in Africa and Washington for Maurice Tempelsman, the diamond merchant best known as the companion of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“I knew all the ministers of mines,” Mr. Devlin said in the interview. “In short, I was in a better position to negotiate than people who knew a lot about diamonds.” When he came across valuable information, he said, he passed it to old friends in the C.I.A.

This review of his book from the Economist is a less than flattering portrayal:

IF ONE man personified the cold war in Africa—that ruinous contest between the greatest powers in the world’s weakest states—it was Larry Devlin...

Mr Devlin and his masters have been blamed for much of Congo’s awful history, which culminated, between 1996 and 2002, in two wars that claimed several million lives. And there is good reason to blame them; to keep the Russians out of Africa, they did dreadful deeds...

During two stints as Congo station chief, Mr Devlin did much to help create this nightmare, conniving with Mobutu and his allies, confounding their enemies. In 1974, after quitting the agency, he returned to Congo to work for Maurice Tempelsman, an enigmatic diamond dealer and companion, in her final years, to Jacqueline Onassis...

It is wrong to demonise the old warrior. But cold-war politics helped create the calamity that is Congo, and much of Africa, today. It will fall to less partial historians than Mr Devlin to decide whether the risk of Africa falling to communism justified the terrible cost the continent has paid.

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