Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight against Russian Aggression

  • Published

Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight against Russian Aggression by Jack Devine. Potomac Books, 2021, 266 pp.

In Spymaster’s Prism, Jack Devine draws on his 32 years with the CIA to paint in vivid detail the diverse methods of espionage and subterfuge employed by Russia and its predecessor Soviet Union. Mr. Devine pays equal attention to the array of unblinking American efforts to stymie intelligence campaigns from Soviet and Russian operatives. For anyone interested in intelligence gathering relating to one of America’s longest enduring near peers, this book will cast light on shadowy spy craft while serving as a memoir for a celebrated veteran of the CIA.

Mr. Devine pays outsized homage to the CIA as the nation’s leading professional intelligence service, which should come as no surprise given his lengthy tenure with the spy agency. Devine rose through the CIA’s ranks to hold many senior positions during crucial years in our nation’s history. He knows the value of collecting intelligence through espionage, engaging in covert action when necessary, protecting security through counterintelligence, and recruiting the best applicants to serve their country.

The principal theme is the Russians’ “unceasing efforts to undermine the United States and its democratic system” (115). Further, Russia’s intelligence assault in the form of active measures against the United States was substantial in the Soviet era and “has continued unabated” to this day (155). To expound on this theme, Devine outlines his book in 13 sequential chapters. Numbered lessons flesh out the author’s notion of a strategy to counter Russia’s modern campaign of subterfuge and misinformation. The author’s own accounts of fieldwork color the narrative.

At its most riveting, Devine’s book takes the reader to the tactical and operational levels of intelligence work, drawing on recollections of events available only to a spy in the trenches. Cases unfold in exquisite detail, portraying individuals in minute detail, their handling during evolving situations abroad, and the slow and deliberate development of sources for intelligence cultivation. By contrast, Devine falls somewhat short in his lack of commentary on strategic-level policy. This can be forgiven, considering he has been out of the intelligence field for several years.

Devine takes President Putin as his subject in several chapters, particularly chapter 4, “A Spymaster President.” The author has obviously studied Mr. Putin at length, as evidenced by his granular portrayal of Putin’s early years as an agent in the Soviet KGB’s foreign intelligence wing through his rise to power in the Russian state. Yet, at times, the author lapses into hyperbole about Putin, sensationalizing the leader as someone akin to a Hollywood villain or maniacal spymaster rather than portraying the objective facts of his personal history. In doing so, the author risks losing credibility, especially as Putin’s rapid rise to power seems to be well founded in his intelligence background and acumen.

Similarly, Devine’s writing is captivating and masterful but at times overdrawn. He states, for instance, that “Putin grew up on the streets of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), learning judo first for survival and later for dominance” (58). Such declarations are based in fact but verge on sensational exaggeration. His writing also tends to include reminders of his high-profile appointments and successes in the CIA, such as when beginning a war story.

Spymaster’s Prism could not come at a better time as the United States conducts its postmortem of Russian efforts to meddle with the 2016 US presidential election. The author claims that this offensive and other spy efforts support Russia’s overall thrust to regain its sphere of influence, a perennial obsession since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Beyond election meddling, Russia has exerted ever-greater pressure on Ukraine and Belarus to expand its regional influence in smaller neighboring states. Russia is well versed in developing multiple counternarratives filled with a combination of half-truths, false moral equivalencies, distractions, and information purges (42). These efforts can have a specific operational goal, such as the US election interference in 2016, or a general aim of sowing confusion and discontent. Perhaps no other book offers an approachable synopsis of Russia’s shift from the Cold War spy tactics of GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency) agents to election meddling and misinformation, as substantiated by the Mueller Report and subsequent indictments.

One of the book’s key weaknesses is its lack of identity. Spymaster’s Prism purports to be a useful manual with knowledge and strategy about a key national adversary in the intelligence wars. Yet the author’s anecdotes and working knowledge of the CIA are severely dated, considering that Mr. Devine joined the CIA in the late 1960s and separated in the early 1990s. Despite his extensive experience with the spy agency, vast portions of his book consist of recounting his glory days in the CIA rather than actionable insight on the future of Russia’s intelligence efforts. For this reason, the book may be more appropriately characterized as a memoir or autobiography than a pedagogical tool for today’s policy makers.

At its most fascinating, Spymaster’s Prism offers a glimpse into the spy craft of the late twentieth century that is still relevant today. For instance, it describes  Russian “illegals,” intelligence operatives with “non-official cover” status and not the kinds of spies typically reflected in Hollywood films. Illegals maintain everyday profiles that are often underwhelming and unlikely to attract undue attention. Their routine taskings are commonly boring, long term, and unsuccessful, yet they still exist today (67).

As a final perspective on Spymaster’s Prism, one cannot help wondering if focusing overwhelmingly on Russia is a somewhat antiquated and misplaced approach at a time when China is the topic du jour. Just this year, the CIA announced it would reorganize itself to place a renewed focus on China. The CIA hopes that a new mission center will focus resources, information collection, and analysis of China’s activities. With this monumental development, it is perhaps unusual and ill-timed to publish a book targeted squarely at Russia. Nevertheless, Russia may prove to remain a key adversary of the United States even after China’s light dims. At the very least, there is always an audience for spymaster intrigue.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."