Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Book Review - Chief of Station, Congo

Following is a review of Larry Devlin's memoir entitled Chief of Station, Congo, published by Public Affairs, NY, 2007.

For all Americans overseas who have been wrongly accused of being CIA agents, and who often wondered just what a CIA agent might do, this book provides the answer. It is a tell-all memoir by Larry Devlin, head of CIA operations in the Congo in the early 1960s.

Devlin unashamedly blows his own horn in recounting narrow escapes from drunken soldiers, armed burglars and blowhard ideologues. Perhaps some of these stories aren’t too embellished as the Congo was, in its early independent days, truly a wild and wooly place. Yet the heart of the memoir is a serious defense of – and an attempt to explain to contemporary readers – America’s cold war motivations, i.e. our conviction that Africa in general and the Congo in particular risked sliding irrevocably into the embrace of the Soviet Union. Such an eventuality would threaten the United States by loss of access to the Congo’s mineral wealth, including uranium, but more importantly would strengthen the Soviet Union’s standing world wide. Consequently if the Soviets rose, the U.S. would fall. Even though archaic by current standards and a bit foolish in hindsight, Devlin does accurately portray the intensity that policy makers – including presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and CIA chief Dulles – felt about the global contest with Khrushchev.

With that as a backdrop, Devlin immerses the reader in the minutia of Congolese politics: President Kasavubu, his squabbles with enigmatic Patrice Lumumba, the danger posed by Katangan secessionist Tshombe, and the behind the scenes role of the Binza group, especially that of Joseph Desire Mobutu. Their machinations played out against a nation in turmoil unprepared for independence where a UN peacekeeping force was a recalcitrant western presence. Devlin used the power, i.e. money, of his position to recruit a number of influential agents. In retrospect this was not difficult as his agents - of course, names are fudged - shared the U.S. objective of keeping Lumumba and fellow “communists” out of power; plus the added benefit of putting themselves in. Devlin recounts how he and the ambassadors he reported to used their entrè and contacts to influence developments.

Devlin takes pains to note that he deliberately stonewalled an instruction to assassinate Lumumba, instead believing that isolating him politically was sufficiently effective. Secondly, he denied any role in planning or abetting Mobutu’s 1965 coup d’etat, even though he readily admitted using his relationship with Mobutu afterwards to forward U.S. goals.

This memoir is an interesting read, especially for those aficionados of Congolese history or of clandestine operations.

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