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 the growing field of literature on countering Russia, Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight against Russian Aggression stands out for its relevance and applicability.

Jack Devine’s experience with the clandestine conflicts against the Soviet Union are invaluable for present-day intelligence personnel, military leaders, and policy makers. Devine explicitly wrote this book to help leaders choose “how to effectively respond in light of Russia and others’ ongoing intelligence assaults on the United States” (xx). His hard-earned lessons from the Cold War will make American decision makers more successful today.

Spymaster’s Prism, Devine’s second book, is a passing of the flag between generations of those dedicated to preserving America and our way of life. His first book, Good Hunting, is an autobiography detailing his time at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While Spymaster’s Prism describes some of his life, it emphasizes choices available to the US national security establishment.

In this book, Devine distills 32 years of experience as a Central Intelligence Agency officer, solidifying his position to speak as an authority on US efforts against Russia. His career covered such notable events as the Aldrich Ames scandal, Iran-Contra affair, and the US arming of mujahidin forces in Afghanistan. He ended his career as the CIA’s acting deputy director for overseas operations.

Spymaster’s Prism fits with similar books on US and Russian competition, such as Michael McFaul’s From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, Richard Stengel’s Information Wars: How We Lost the Global War Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It , Stephen F. Cohen’s War with Russia: From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate, or Ion Mihai Pacepa and Ronald J. Rychlak’s Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism. But Devine adds a unique perspective, coming from his time within the US Intelligence Community (IC). His prescriptions aim at countering Russia in a domain where that nation traditionally excels.

Devine’s experience is crucial at this moment, since “Russia’s assault on Western democracy has primarily been predicated on what can traditionally be considered intelligence actions” (xviii). This is natural for a nation led by a former intelligence officer and a close association of the so-called “Siloviki,” or members of Russia’s security services. Moscow’s most recent actions toward the West, including assassinations, election interference, planting illegal agents, or corrupting Western officials, all illustrate this point.  

Yet, these are not new steps for Russia. As Devine states in the introduction, the “current contest with Russia is very much a continuation of our intelligence dueling with Moscow since the end of World War II” (xxi). For most of that time, the difference was an informal, mutually agreed-upon intelligence competition framework existed between the United States and Soviet Union—the Moscow Rules. Devine describes how this framework was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Without it, the United States and the West lack a common language to deter or mitigate Russian aggression.

The bulk of Spymaster’s Prism is dedicated to 13 axioms to use in creating a new set of “Moscow Rules.” These observations (called “lessons”) center on the human dimension of intelligence, including descriptions of Russia’s leadership and goals, suggestions for gaining sources within Russia, or counterintelligence actions to be taken within the United States. These recommendations appear effective because they narrowly focus on the IC. Relatively little discussion of technical methods, including cyber, happen. Devine is less interested in the means to take an action than he is in the ends they seek.

While a strength, Devine’s focus can also be Spymaster’s Prism’s greatest weakness. His book is a product of the US intelligence community, written for the members of the same group, especially human intelligence practitioners. His recommendations will be less applicable for those in other fields. Similarly, Devine perceives Russia exclusively through the lens of intelligence competition. Thus, his lessons are all symmetric to Russian actions, founded on the assumption that Russia will respond in kind.

This last assumption is where perhaps Devine is most vulnerable. His understanding of Russia as a revanchist Cold War power might not be an accurate representation of Russia after 2000, with the ascension of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Events since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, show that Putin and his Siloviki might not be interested in creating a shared framework.

The Soviet Union at least understood that it needed to compete cooperatively with the United States; naked aggression would lead to catastrophe. In contrast, modern Russian leaders seem willing to cut their country off from the West and indeed the entire liberal, democratic global community. Russian leadership’s collective policy shrug toward spiraling sanctions indicates a willingness to take measures the Soviet Union never would have. Western leaders today may need to reevaluate what levers of influence are truly available to the United States to alter Russian behavior.

By contrast, Devine’s vision of America is compelling. Although he witnessed moral failures in US leadership, such as Aldrich Ames’ spy activities or the Iran-Contra investigation, he retains an unshakable faith in America’s moral superiority and historical exceptionalism. As he describes it, this “combination of freedom, quality of life, and aspirational wish for a more fair and just world” (220) is the source of America’s ultimate success. The need to live by these values is woven throughout his lessons. Devine dedicates two chapters to the requirement to fight a just conflict without stooping to the immoral practices that ultimately form a cancer in our adversaries.

Spymaster’s Prism is a useful read for members of the US Intelligence Community, military leaders, and policy makers. It adds texture to a rich field on applying Cold War principles to the ongoing, overt conflict with Russia. More than that, Devine builds a credible structure to use when evaluating Russian actions or determining the appropriate American response. It is a reminder that all conflicts must follow our beliefs and values to succeed; otherwise, we fall into the moral trap Russian leaders set. While clear-eyed, Devine insists we can prevail if we hold true to our mission and integrity.   

Lieutenant Colonel J. Alexander Ippoliti, ANG

"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."