True Spies Episode 56: The Boiling Frog
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies.
JACK DEVINE: 'On September 11th, the military will start a coup in Valparaíso. It'll kick off at seven in the morning, and it will include the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Carabineros. And it'll be announced on Radio Agricultura.' I've only sent one 'Critic' in my life. And that was it.
NARRATOR: Episode 56: The Boiling Frog.
JACK DEVINE: I'm Jack Devine and I was the acting and associate deputy director of the CIA. I joined the CIA in the late 60s and spent over 32 years in the CIA.
NARRATOR: Jack Devine built a career being in the right place at exactly the right time. He ran the Counter Narcotics Center and oversaw the capture of drug lord Pablo Escobar. He went to dinner parties at the home of Aldrich Ames, before Ames became one of the KGB’s most notorious double agents. Ever heard of a little operation called Charlie Wilson’s War? More like: Jack Devine’s War. Jack ran the largest covert action campaign of the Cold War. He equipped the Afghan mujahideen with stinger missiles - a game-changing move in the war with the Soviets. He made his way up the ranks of the CIA to become the second-in-command in the Clandestine Service, and later to lead its worldwide operations. In short, he was, at the peak of his career, the world’s top spymaster. His career in the Agency spanned over three decades and seven foreign assignments. But this story takes place on his first overseas assignment, in 1970s Chile. When president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup, and Jack, then a junior officer, was trapped in his station in the embassy in Santiago, wondering how history would be written.
JACK DEVINE: I spent a lot of time looking out the window, which, by the way, you shouldn't do a lot of that when you're expecting a crisis. But you're in the intelligence business - at least you could give an eyewitness report. I think we sent a note saying: So far nothing. So, I don't think there was a lot of chatting; I think the chief sat in his office thinking: "What is about to happen and how that is going to play out?" And I was there, likewise, sitting there thinking: "What's the next move here? What are we doing?" We didn't know. You didn't know the answer. I mean, what happened was not foreseen.
NARRATOR: What happened was the rise of Augusto Pinochet, who reversed Allende’s leftist policies and led a brutal dictatorship that lasted for nearly two decades. Under the Pinochet regime, tens of thousands of Chileans were tortured and thousands more were killed or disappeared. Contrary to popular belief, the CIA was not responsible for the coup that brought Pinochet to power. Or, at least, so says Jack, who wants to get the record straight.
JACK DEVINE: It's just not true. Trust me, I was right in the embassy.
NARRATOR: Of course, The Agency did attempt one coup in Chile, three years earlier. In 1970, socialist politician Salvador Allende won the country’s presidential election with less than 37 percent of the vote. He squeaked out his victory in spite of a highly secretive effort on the part of the CIA, a strategy they called ‘Track One’. At the time, there was widespread fear that Allende would install Cuban-style socialism in Chile. Under Track One, the Agency gave its covert backing to media and political parties that could undermine his support. Obviously, things didn’t quite go according to Plan A. So after Allende won the election, Richard Nixon devised a Plan B.
JACK DEVINE: Track Two when, in 1970, the CIA was instructed to try and organize a coup, which failed terribly. When the election came and they realized that it was made up, that Allende actually won, they were surprised. They felt that Chile could become communist. If it became communist, it could march up the continent. And people have forgotten all the struggles with Che Guevara in Bolivia and the Tupamaros. There were real problems with the Cuban exportation of the revolution. So when you're trying to get this in the context today, it's hard. You have to understand the world's view at that time.
NARRATOR: Richard Nixon believed that a communist takeover of Chile would create what he called a 'red sandwich' in Latin America.
JACK DEVINE: When they talk about the red sandwich, it's on one end, you have Cuba - you have all Latin America and South America - and then you get to Chile. And they were anticipating that there would be a squeeze to bring communism to Latin America. As a young person in Chile, I thought: ‘This struggle is going to go on for the rest of my life, but we're going to hold the line everywhere, and we are not going to cede Latin American or Latin American friends under a communist system.’ And this was the core reason why there was an effort to try and block Allende.
NARRATOR: Could Chile be the domino that toppled the democratic world? US leadership was determined not to find out. But in 1970 the Chilean military had no interest in thwarting Allende, and the Chilean people… well, they had elected him fair and square. The conditions just weren’t right for staging a coup. Even the Santiago station chief at the time believed that fomenting a coup was a bad idea. Nevertheless, in October 1970, and with the backing of the CIA, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army was shot during an attempted kidnapping. General René Schneider had opposed military intervention in presidential politics so a group led by current and former military officials had conceived a plan. They would kidnap Schneider, clearing the way for a coup that would prevent Chile from falling under the Soviet sphere of influence. But in the midst of the abduction, the conspirators shot the general, who later died in hospital. Rather than paving the way for a coup, Schneider’s killing only amplified the popularity of the president-elect. Within days, Allende was inaugurated. Jack claims that there’s confusion between the failed coup of 1970 and the events of 1973. He says that’s why so many people think the CIA was behind the fall of Allende.
JACK DEVINE: What people don't realize, but they should understand by these comments that I'm making: we were not wired into the military in the way that fake news would lead you to believe, which is that the CIA had no interaction with the military in ‘73 in preparing a coup and only found out about it on the 7th of September. The coup was on 11 September. In fact, the report I sent in was the first report advising Washington that there was a coup.
NARRATOR: Got it? Good. So the CIA may not have worked directly with the Chileans to overthrow Allende. But it did help to create the right conditions for a coup to take place by actively supporting the opposition. And that’s what brought a young Jack Devine to Santiago in the summer of 1971. His role: to support the political parties, media, and labor organizations that would keep democracy alive under Allende’s leadership until he could be defeated in the next election. Santiago, the nation’s capital, sits at the feet of the Andes mountains and is dotted with impressive neoclassical architecture. On its face, it was a vibrant city - picturesque, charming, full of culture and ideas. But under Allende, Jack says, the nation was in crisis.
JACK DEVINE: It's a beautiful country. And the people are amazingly friendly, talented, and intellectually curious… a great nation, great, great history. But the country was in turmoil. So many people had left. Food supplies...you shouldn't have wasted your time in those days going to a supermarket. There literally was virtually nothing to buy in the supermarket. And the inflation was rampant. And in fact, when you would go to the store, the prices would change during the day. The inflation was so horrendous by ‘71. One has to visualize a country where there's no media - no CNN, no Western newspapers coming in. The only way I could get outside reporting was with the BBC. The country was much more isolated than people realize. Travel was greatly reduced. US government officials were not allowed in Chile without special permission.
NARRATOR: Chile was considered a hostile operating environment. When officials came and went, they were potentially more likely to be put under surveillance. In other words, it wasn't just, you got on a plane to go down and fix the computer. So it was a really tight environment because they considered the risk too high to have nonessential travel, and that stayed in place for years.
JACK DEVINE: So there was a tremendous amount of personal tension, national tension, which only grew as the years passed under Allende. Every month, the situation became increasingly tense.
NARRATOR: Jack arrived in Chile with his wife, Pat, and five children between the ages of two and seven. You must remember: for a junior officer, Santiago was the place to be. Chile was one of the most important locations for covert action at the time, second only to Vietnam. Jack was so excited by the job that he didn’t give much notice to the danger that surrounded his family. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, he hardly noticed that he was in hot water even as things slowly came to a boil.
JACK DEVINE: There is a naiveté that exists in people, and I'll step up and say, you know, you're young, you think everything is manageable, nothing bad is going to happen to you. But I remember one of the most personal mistakes I think I made was to sit down with my wife in the living room and pull out a shotgun and say: ‘Look, we could have riots. People could be coming through the door. And if they come to the door, aim at the chest.’ And she said: ‘Well, how do you reload?’
NARRATOR: Being married to a spy is not for the faint of heart. But Jack’s wife Pat took a keen interest in helping her husband succeed. In their early days in Chile, Devine was tasked with recruiting agents, typically foreigners, who would share secrets with the Agency. And Pat got in on the effort.
JACK DEVINE: She was very gregarious, and I was more or what I would call a wallflower. So we would go to cocktail parties, and next thing I know, she’d be over and say: ‘Look, Jack, meet this guy, give him a card.’ And I got better at it. I needed a little push there. It isn't the movies, where you go in and you throw some blackmail documents in front of someone. Particularly in the American intelligence business, it was often finding the right person who wanted to work with you.
NARRATOR: But how do you make someone want to work with you? Pat had an instinct: invite them over for a party. Loosen up your prospective foreign targets with a few cocktails, a bit of disco and dancing, and who knows? Maybe that Soviet doing the hustle will become your next key asset.
JACK DEVINE: Anything for the government…
NARRATOR: One asset, in particular, would prove instrumental in building up the opposition. She was a grandmotherly middle-class woman and a member of a civil activists’ group. Maybe not the first person you’d expect to be involved in covert action.
JACK DEVINE: She surely would blend in in a way in which you would not say: ‘Well, there. Who was that person?’ So the beauty of it was, she looked very average. What she had, though, which I probably under-appreciated, was there was a lot of enthusiasm and energy in this woman, and a real desire to make a difference in an environment that she saw changing in a way that threatened her middle-class existence.
NARRATOR: In other words, an asset who could fly under the radar. She even flew under Jack's radar.
JACK DEVINE: I didn't see where the intelligence was coming from. The country was moving and in bigger ways than your local social club. But she seemed enthusiastic and said: ‘Well, I'm organizing our group to do a march because of the shortage of food. And, it'd help if we had a little money. We could get out more people.’ And so, I gave her the equivalent of $800. That was the end of it. I walked out of the room. So it was interesting to keep in mind for future things. I didn't think about it for months. And then I was leaving the embassy one afternoon and I could hear a little noise and I was walking down the street and there were thousands of women marching with pots and pans.
NARRATOR: Masses of women and students, beating their kitchenware, protesting nationwide shortages of food and household goods. And there at the very front of the parade was Jack’s asset. Turns out, $800 can go a long way. There was another face in the crowd he recognized, too: the woman who cleaned his house.
JACK DEVINE: And I thought: ‘No, this is not just the middle class. This is more pervasive.’ It was eye-opening for me. It opened my eyes to the depth of the problems that the government was facing. If I were in the Allende government, I would have tried to take notice of that because maybe they had crossed the Rubicon. There is no way back economically at a certain point.
NARRATOR: He left the scene of the march with his chest out and head high, proud that he’d made a smart investment in a highly effective asset. Mission accomplished. Or so he thought.
JACK DEVINE: I wasn't anticipating that there was going to be a problem or I would have stayed on the street for sure. I would have followed it all the way to its ultimate conclusion. But it seemed to me to be a nice march which will terminate with a nice speech, and that'll be the end of it.
NARRATOR: Oh, Jack. Haven’t you noticed? The pot has started to simmer. That night, Jack dined at the elegant rooftop restaurant of the Carrera Hotel, situated on the plaza in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace. In the middle of his meal, people began to gather at the windows to get a look at the crowds protesting below.
JACK DEVINE: It got bigger and bigger, and there were thousands and thousands of women beating pots and pans.
NARRATOR: 5,000 of them, to be exact.
JACK DEVINE: It still would not have turned into a determining event except the far left socialists - which were far more leftist than the Communist Party, young people called Miristas - they started throwing things at the women. The next thing you know, you had a riot, and that was a picture that was shot around the world.
NARRATOR: From the hotel window, Jack witnessed the Chilean women being attacked by the left-wing Miristas. Dozens of people were injured; at least one was shot. Imagine: You’re sitting in one of the poshest restaurants in the city, looking down at a violent scene you unknowingly helped orchestrate. How does it feel to see one small decision create a ripple effect across thousands of lives? To place countless numbers of women in danger? Is it worth it if it’s to your benefit? What about the benefits of global democracy? For our young spy, the March of Empty Pots and Pans taught him an invaluable lesson.
JACK DEVINE: Make sure you evaluate. Some of your assets may have a lot more potential than you give them credit for. So make sure you take a good, a good hard look at it.
NARRATOR: The march in December 1971 was a galvanizing event for the opposition. Other marches followed, mobilizing ever greater numbers of people against Allende and his policies. And as the numbers grew, so did the sense of unease.
JACK DEVINE: People began to realize the depth of the tension between large segments of the population and the government. And it started, I think, also to sink in to the military that there might be an unhappy ending to this.
NARRATOR: By the Autumn of 1972, the atmosphere in Santiago had grown feverish. The second anniversary of Allende’s election was marked by violent protests, which the police dispersed with the use of tear gas. By October, workers all across the country began to go on strike. After his election, Allende had begun to nationalize various industries. And like the students and homemakers before them, business people started to push back. Shopkeepers, civil engineers, even doctors, and dentists began to strike in response to the economic hardship they faced.
JACK DEVINE: One of the most decisive groups was the truckers. You got a truck and you've got an asset and buying gas was a problem and not being able to deliver the food or get the food delivered. So the truckers were very alienated.
NARRATOR: Many of these truckers were small, independent businesses. Under the socialist government, it became increasingly difficult for them to get their hands on spare parts thanks to high import prices.
JACK DEVINE: Everything rolls on trucks, so if you have a national strike of truckers you better get ready for a really rough, rough time.
NARRATOR: But how much rougher could things get? As it turns out, the answer was just around the corner. Within months, rumors were swirling of an imminent coup but it was hard to sort out the credible news from the empty threats. Jack says that one of the worst ideas proliferating in the intelligence business is to rely on baffling code language to deliver information.
JACK DEVINE: Many people do this intelligence business - and I would tell them for a good reason, please don't do this - if it's a coup, they have to tell you if it’s a coup: ‘Call the embassy at this line and say: 'Uncle Harry's here,' or 'The baby's about to be delivered.’
NARRATOR: One particular headache came in early 1973 when an asset placed a phone call saying: ‘My aunt is sick and may not live to recover.’ But the code language to indicate a coup was, in fact: ‘My aunt has died.’
JACK DEVINE: So when you get a message like that, you really have to say: ‘When? Where? Who? How? Are you sure? Double sure? Triple sure?’ And when the message went and nothing happened, everybody was chagrined, I'll put it mildly.
NARRATOR: No coup. Worse, station management had begun to seem like the boy who cried wolf. Jack made it a policy not to use ambiguously coded phrases from then on out.
JACK DEVINE: I still didn't see the coup coming when it did. I thought that the democratic forces would win in the next national election and that our efforts were going to keep them afloat until we got there. But in the summer of '73, there was an event. It's called the Tanquetazo.
NARRATOR: Tanquetazo. The tank putsch. When a group of seditionist soldiers, allegedly liquored up from the night before, drove a column of tanks to downtown Santiago and surrounded La Moneda.
JACK DEVINE: Imagine that happening in Washington, DC, 18 tanks in front of 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You're going to have a tense moment. But the commander in chief of the armed forces, Carlos Prats, came out and talked them back. He said: ‘Look here, your soldiers are going to follow my commands.’ So they left. And I thought: ‘Allende's safe. I mean, I know we're getting tense and there's a crisis and people are feeling it very, very strongly. But here you had a crisis and the military stayed behind the president.’ Remember, this is a country with 150 years of Democratic history where the military, as you know, adhere to the Constitution. So I think our collective judgment was that no coup was coming.
NARRATOR: It might have felt like a crisis averted, but in fact, it was only the start of one. The military leadership was spooked. According to Jack, Augusto Pinochet believed that if he didn’t join forces with the soldiers, he’d lose control to them. Pinochet was then a military officer. Allende would soon name him commander-in-chief of the Chilean army.
JACK DEVINE: What I didn't know, until a few years later, is that's the day that the military went back and started planning coup plotting. Not because of the marches and the strikes and the food. They went back because the military institution was starting to get cracks in it and they were losing control over their own institution. And that is the trigger. By September, the country was still rocking and rolling, and we were getting more and more of the view that it might not last until the end.
NARRATOR: It might not last for Allende. Jack received word of the final event one afternoon a few weeks later. It came from his number-one asset: his wife, Pat.
JACK DEVINE: I was in a great Italian restaurant. It was called the Da Carla and I was having lunch with a colleague. And one of the officers from the station came in and said: ‘Jack, your wife really needs to talk to you.’
NARRATOR: Why would Pat need to speak with Jack so urgently that she would try to reach him at a restaurant? Jack had a hunch. He quickly made his way back to the station to get on a secure phone line. Pat told him in no uncertain terms: "Your friend called from the airport. He’s leaving the country. He told me to tell you the military has decided to move. It’s going to happen on September 11th." The warning was soon confirmed by a second source, who added the time that the coup was to take place: 7 am. Jack sent the information to the White House in a Critic, a top-secret cable delivered straight to the President and to the top of every relevant governmental agency. He kept his message short and sweet.
JACK DEVINE: 'On September 11th, the military will start a coup in Valparaíso. It'll kick off at seven in the morning, and it will include the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Carabineros. And it'll be announced on Radio Agricultura.' I've only sent one Critic in my life. And that was it.
NARRATOR: But the baby had been born, Uncle Harry had arrived. The aunt had died, and the station had cried wolf one too many times.
JACK DEVINE: When the message that I sent and reached the analyst, sadly they committed the mistake that happens in the analytical world. In the analytical world, this mistake is often conventional wisdom: it never happens here, it will never happen here. Conventional wisdom overrides. So the analytical world was far away from the streets of Santiago. It said: ‘There isn't going to be a military coup.’ And they didn't dissent or at least didn't move on it. But because it was a Critic message, you got to the White House nonetheless.
NARRATOR: The night before the coup was set to unfold, Jack remained in the station with a few of his colleagues. As the hours went by, they received a series of bizarre phone calls, presumably assets warning about the coup in unintelligible codes. Finally, it was 7 am on the morning of September 11th - precisely the time the coup was scheduled to take place. As the minutes passed, Jack grew uneasy.
JACK DEVINE: I looked out the window and I thought: ‘Well, this is a second big embarrassment. We just sent a message, and it's not going to pan out.’ And then you started to literally see the tank rolling down the street alongside the embassy.
NARRATOR: 8 am. The asset had been off by an hour. By nine o’clock, armed forces had seized the entire country but downtown Santiago was in chaos. Chilean air force jets blazed overhead.
JACK DEVINE: They were releasing their rockets. We had no idea they were flying right over the embassy with these rockets. So there were some tense moments there. A lot of the folks were pushed into a vault room, you know, lead walls or steel walls. And because there was concern that if a bomb misses - it wasn't meant for the Americans, but we were vulnerable.
NARRATOR: Firefights, skirmishes, and gunfire persisted for hours. At 11 am, Allende delivered a live radio address, effectively, his suicide note: ‘Long live Chile,’ he said. ‘Long live the people. Long live the workers. These are my last words. I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain.’ Sometime around two o’clock, Salvador Allende placed a gun under his chin and fired. The long and painful Pinochet regime had begun.
JACK DEVINE: There was an immediate but not long-lasting sense that an international national security crisis has been averted. We're not going to have another Cuba. So in that context, when they collapsed, it was that the red menace, this red sandwich, had dissipated. And now, we'll have to fight them in other places. So there was indeed a sense of: ‘Okay, Allende was stopped.’ But what was not factored in is what came behind it.
NARRATOR: The atmosphere was hardly jubilant. Having worked through the night, Jack was now trapped in the station.
JACK DEVINE: A couple of hours later, there was a total lockdown that lasted for several days. And you couldn't leave, so we had to break into the embassy commissary and get food along with the defense attaché. So we were stuck in there and that is when Pinochet's forces rounded up people. We didn't see it. You couldn't see it. You didn't know what was happening. We were stuck in there.
NARRATOR: They did receive occasional reports, however. One was particularly rattling.
JACK DEVINE: There was a very brief window where I received notice that there was going to be an attack by the military against a house adjacent to me that Cubans had lived in. And when I knew the attack was coming - bad things can go wrong.
NARRATOR: Bad things can go wrong for your wife and five young children. Remember, he hasn’t seen his family since the coup began. Amidst all the turmoil, Pat has been holding down the fort on her own. Jack began to worry. What if they raided the wrong house? The military had lifted the curfew for a small window of time so that people could go out and procure supplies. Jack checked. There were just 10 minutes left. Put yourself in Jack’s shoes. You moved your beloved wife and family to a country in political turmoil. You worked to bolster the opposition, setting the scene for upheaval and violence. Now, the capital city is effectively a war zone. ‘Cleanup operations’ are taking place on the streets, and next door to the site of a scheduled raid your family is hiding out, without you. If something happened to them… Well, who’s to blame? Could you live with the consequences? Jack immediately got in touch with a colleague, Jerry, who lived just a few blocks from the Devines. Jerry agreed to race to the house, squeeze all six of them into his car, and shuttle them to safety. And that’s exactly what he did as a military helicopter hovered overhead.
JACK DEVINE: And that's when that naiveté wears off really fast. Never again did I feel so relaxed about the crisis and the need to be totally prepared for all contingencies - not so much in the job, because I think you do that by training - you've got to make sure your personal life is in order as well.
NARRATOR: After three days, he emerged from the station feeling victorious. Without orchestrating the coup, he and the other Santiago station members had created precisely the right environment for one to take place. Soon he would be on his way out of Chile, off to his next assignment. Of course, in hindsight, it all looks a little less rosy. Chile had traded one dark chapter of its history for another even darker one.
JACK DEVINE: A couple of years later, I ran into a Russian intelligence officer. We both pretended we didn't know each other, but Pinochet came up. He said: 'Oh, he'll be in for 20 years.' And I thought: 'Eh, no way.' But he was right. When you look at Pinochet, it wasn't the CIA's dream of how this was going to come out. There was a deep tragedy for the country, very painful. The Allende period was extremely painful, and so was the Pinochet period, extremely painful.
NARRATOR: In the aftermath of the coup, Jack met with an asset who had been held captive by the Pinochet regime who believed that he was a member of the far left. When he said that he’d been tortured, Jack suspected he might have been exaggerating. So the asset rolled up his trouser leg, displaying the evidence. His scars and bruises confirmed that he had been shackled by his jailers.
JACK DEVINE: You don't do that for theater. In other words, the story you're telling is probably accurate.
NARRATOR: So, Jack. Was it all worth it in the end?
JACK DEVINE: Do I have any regrets about my career at the agency and particularly in covert action operations? I do not have any regrets. I consider myself to be fortunate to have been in the CIA. I would have thought, along with the chief of station in 1970, the idea of the coup was a bad idea. I believe the Track One effort, supporting the media when it was being suppressed when access to print was being denied deliberately to censor the political parties, to give them the wherewithal and give people that have a voice, the wherewithal to challenge a government that was heavily influenced by the Communist Party and the leftists in the context of the Cold War. I have no trouble with that whatsoever. And I think that that was appropriate and so I don't have regrets.
I remember when I got back to the United States, ‘74. I pulled into the Miami airport and got in a taxi - and [I will] remember, never forget it - he started immediately criticizing the president's statements and attacking him. I thought: ‘Wow, America is a great place. Here you are, a cab driver, you can say whatever you want without waiting at the next light to be drugged out, thrown in jail, or disappeared.’ So we don't understand very well, those of us that haven't been - those that haven't experienced that - how precious that freedom is. And so when you see it being suppressed in the Allende administration, then you see it in the Pinochet administration, including violence and torture and other unsavory things. You come to: (a) appreciate the democratic values, and; (b) be even more convinced in the righteousness of trying to share those values.
NARRATOR: Jack Devine. He’s still at work today as the president of his own intelligence firm headquartered in New York City. You can read more about his life and work in his new book The Spymaster’s Prism.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. I’ll be back next week for another liaison with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Jack Devine worked for the CIA for more than 30 years, serving as acting director and associate director of operations outside of the US from 1993-1995. He was also chief of the Latin American division and the principal manager of the CIA’s sensitive projects in Latin America. In 1987, he was awarded the CIA’s Meritorious Officer Award.