Ex-spook tells his Africa tale, the ‘need-to-know’ version

The Congo, 1960 — The vast, resource-rich African country is roiled by internal and external threats in the chaotic wake of decolonization. Both the Soviets and Americans are itching to expand their influence in the region. The former colonial power, Belgium, isn’t quite playing by the rules and has left some of its troops in the country to back a pro-Belgian secessionist movement in the south. The country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, flirts with the Soviets as he tries to maintain his precarious hold on power while his rivals try to have him sidelined — or worse. And then, Washington issues a secret order that Lumumba is to be poisoned. What’s a well-meaning CIA station chief to do?

In Larry Devlin’s case, the answer is stall. His new book, “Chief of Station, Congo,” explains, quite earnestly, that he did not want Lumumba dead, just stripped of power — despite Langley’s orders. So he gives backing to the anti-Lumumba clique led by the Congo’s future strongman, Colonel Mobutu, in hopes that it can bring order to the country and establish a reliably anti-Soviet government. As Devlin puts it, he never carried out the assassination plans — but he didn’t actively oppose them, either.

Devlin’s account roughly squares with other, less self-interested investigations into the assassination plot, including a Belgian inquiry that concluded the Belgians and pro-Mobutu troops carried out the killing of Lumumba in January 1961, just days before President Kennedy’s inauguration. Most accounts agree now that the CIA wanted the charismatic prime minister dead but ultimately played no direct role in his grisly execution — if only because too many others were willing to do the dirty work.

To be fair, Devlin’s book is a gripping read, and he works hard to bring the reader over to his side. Lumumba, he writes, was a wild card from the start — not a communist outright, but “politically naïve and inherently unstable.” With such a leader in control, “the Russian bear would seize its chance and pounce.”

In any case, the Eisenhower administration made up its mind from the start that the prime minister was not be trusted, election results be damned. During Lumumba’s first and only trip to the U.S. in July 1960, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium called Time magazine Editor Henry Luce to ask that the editors bury their story on the visit and take Lumumba’s picture off the cover. (Luce, ever the good Cold Warrior, complied.) Then, in Washington, the State Department deflected the prime minister’s request for aid and support, effectively closing the window to bring him over the U.S. side. In his account, Devlin does not stop to consider whether this was a particularly wise decision.

Soon thereafter, Devlin got a whopping $100,000 from Langley to organize the anti-Lumumba forces and sideline the prime minister. He found a willing partner in Mobutu, who promised he would “neutralize” Lumumba and help set up an interim government that would pave the way for a pro-U.S. regime. Devlin starts writing checks and doing his part.
Then came the assassination order, in September 1960, from “Joe from Paris.” Joe claimed that Eisenhower himself authorized the murder, then handed over poisons to Devlin. Believing these plans to be “morally wrong,” Devlin held off. As he saw it, momentum was turning against Lumumba anyway, who at that point effectively was sidelined and his movements limited, thanks to internal political machinations organized by Devlin and Mobutu’s group in government. The U.N. troops on the ground, meanwhile, had Lumumba in their custody but were too weak to bring control to the country.

Perhaps out of concern that Devlin would stall indefinitely, the CIA gave him new orders in November: Lumumba must be arrested and, this time, handed over to pro-Mobutu forces. But the prime minister escaped custody and began a wild run across the country, giving fiery speeches to supporters along the way.

Then his whereabouts, and Mobutu’s own plans, became murky. The Soviets, mysteriously, held back from exploiting the chaos. Pro-Lumumba forces rallied in the east, and one of his deputies took control of an eastern province. But Lumumba himself was captured before he could reach his base in Stanleyville.

The endgame came in January 1961. Mobutu abruptly told Devlin that he and his entire clique were leaving the capital, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), to go into the heart of the turmoil. Devlin claimed he then heard nothing after that about any assassination plans. Presumably, he didn’t ask about them, either. Rumors still circulated that Lumumba was alive and kicking, but Devlin did not inquire. If he had, he would have found out that Lumumba sustained brutal beatings for days before being shot on Jan. 17. Afterward, his body was dissolved in acid.

Devlin mentions none of these details, only that he received a mysterious telegram from another agent on the ground, “Dave,” that paraphrased a popular song at the time: “Thanks for Patrice. Had we knowd he was a comin we would have baked a snake.” Devlin tells us this message was only a joke — even though it coincided with Lumumba’s death.

The rest of the story is well known. Mobutu’s clique consolidated its power, and the colonel himself took over in a bloodless coup in 1965. Under the economic mismanagement of his autocratic regime, the Congo (renamed Zaire) sunk into desperate poverty while Mobutu and his allies prospered. But the U.S. had found a reliable ally in the dictator, so Devlin considered the job done.

While the Congolese suffered under Mobutu’s rule, the ex-station chief didn’t fare too badly himself. After retiring from the CIA in 1974, he took a job in Zaire running a mining concern, Cainves Zaire. He stayed on friendly terms throughout with Mobutu, who may have had his flaws but was the “right man at the right time in September 1960.” Indeed, Devlin takes pains to point out, the dictator was “an ideal guest ... a treasure trove of interesting stories.”