Jack Devine, Spymaster’s Prism (Potomac Books, 2021)
When a former senior official in the CIA writes a book warning of the dangers posed to the West by Putin’s Russia, you have to take notice. That is precisely Jack Devine’s stated motive in Spymaster’s Prism. He surveys the Cold War history of competitive espionage between the USA and Soviet Union and how that has carried forward to the present day. All of that was carried out under a set of unwritten codes known as “Moscow Rules”. They helped keep the Cold War cool; but Devine notes that under Putin, those rules have been abrogated. We are therefore in a very dangerous situation.
Devine organises his book into thirteen intelligence lessons circling a central premise: “never trust the Russians”. It follows that Devine sees complacency towards Russia where there should be vigilance; Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election should have tipped us off to that. His evaluation of Putin and his strategic vision is scathing, but not surprising. This takes Devine into his survey of espionage from World War II when the Soviet Union’s KGB held most of the cards. The CIA was formed in response, but Devine points out that since 9/11 their efforts have been focused on the problems associated with that event with Russia left behind as almost an afterthought. And that chapter structure of looking back to look forward, typifies this book, which makes for an engaging and stimulating read. Along the way, we meet the notorious spies on both sides and the techniques used then and now to create leverage against the ‘enemy’. In the end, Devine pleads the case for renewed attention to Russia and a renegotiation for Moscow Rules.
As with all polemics, Spymaster’s Prism has to be treated carefully, and there is no doubt that Devine’s position in the CIA encourages a level of suspicion that his book might not deserve. From a historical perspective, Devine provides a fascinating insight into some of the great espionage cases of the 20th Century. His clear exposition of the current Russian threat is also well grounded in his sources, particularly the Mueller Investigation that should have, and maybe did, set all the alarm bells ringing. And there’s the rub; we don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re probably not supposed to, that’s how intelligence works. So, who is the audience for this public appeal? The politicians, American voters, the intelligence community, all of the above? I’m not sure, but I do know that as a student of espionage I enjoyed this book even if I’m not completely sold on Devine’s fearful thesis.