CIA Story Time: From Patrice Lumumba's Assassination To Post-9/11 Torture

Before his death in 2008, CIA operator Larry Devlin lamented the persecution of agency interrogators. A forthcoming book sheds light on his role overthrowing Congo's first post-colonial government.

CIA Story Time: From Patrice Lumumba's Assassination To Post-9/11 Torture
Two 2-kopek USSR stamps showing the face of Patrice Lumumba, one new, one canceled.

Edited by Sam Thielman

IT WAS 2008, and an 85-year old Larry Devlin, a renowned figure from the CIA's first generation, "watched the tribulations of a younger generation at the agency with sympathy," according to a sympathetic New York Times profile of Devlin written by Scott Shane.

Back then, the major preoccupation of the CIA was the fate of its post-9/11 torture program, which we now know tortured at least 119 people and abducted an unknown but surely larger number of others. A criminal investigation was underway into the destruction of nearly 100 2002-era videotapes from the agency's black site in Thailand, which was run by Gina Haspel, who in 2005 destroyed those videotapes along with her boss, clandestine-service chief Jose Rodriguez.

"I can put myself in the shoes of the people who did the waterboarding and who thought they’d get information to save lives," reflected Devlin. Shane reported that Devlin had recently exchanged words with Rodriguez at an agency affair honoring Devlin's career. "I feel sorry for the guy," Devlin said. "I think I know what he's going through." As one of the most important CIA operators in Africa during the Cold War, dating back to his pivotal role in the fatal coup against Patrice Lumumba of Congo in 1960-1, Devlin wasn't the type to put himself in the shoes of the waterboarded.

Devlin was speaking less than a year before emphysema took his life, and his interview reads as valedictory. I came across it via the footnotes of a fantastic forthcoming book, The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of A Cold War Assassination by Stuart A. Reid, an executive editor at Foreign Affairs. Reid has exhumed and contextualized a wealth of detail about the agency's involvement in overthrowing Lumumba—which is to say Devlin's involvement in overthrowing Lumumba. The Lumumba Plot thoroughly undermines the portrayal of Devlin in Shane's piece and subsequent ones relying on that interview.  

In Devlin's telling, he was an obstacle to the assassination. Lumumba was a charismatic former beer pitchman who helped force formal independence from unspeakably brutal Belgian rule after decades of subjugation. He was elected prime minister in May 1960, and the Eisenhower administration quickly came to believe that he was a Soviet stooge. In August, President Eisenhower appears to have personally ordered Lumumba's assassination. The CIA dispatched Sidney Gottlieb, architect of its MK-ULTRA human experiments, to give Devlin a syringe of poison meant for Lumumba's food or toothpaste. "Morally I thought it was the wrong thing to do," Devlin told Shane.

Devlin didn't poison Lumumba. But Devlin did everything he could to make Lumumba's killing inevitable, to include proposing eight ways of slaying the prime minister. His work, particularly in the years after the assassination, put one of Africa's largest and wealthiest countries in America's Cold War column. It was easy to understand why the War on Terror-era CIA honored Devlin. And, down to his deceitful narrative of his own moral opposition to assassination, it was also easy to understand why Devlin looked at the CIA's torture generation and saw a group of people unfairly persecuted for making hard decisions on behalf of their country.  

"What Devlin is doing in that article is taking advantage of what the understanding of events was in 2008, which was focused very much on the poison plot," Reid tells FOREVER WARS. "But the poison plot is sort of a red herring, because it didn't end up leading to anything. It showed the depth of American hatred for Lumumba and the extreme measures it was willing to take. But as events played out, it didn't work. So Devlin was able, with a fair degree of accuracy, [to] claim that he tried to stall that plot. Now, on the question of how much he tried to stall it, it's a debatable question. I come down on saying that the record of the cable traffic is mixed."

Back then, reporters often heard from CIA leaders and Langley press flacks that those involved in what they called the enhanced interrogation program" were targets of a vengeful al-Qaeda. Likewise, Devlin told Shane that "he was made a target for death by both a Black Panther faction and Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal." Even if you choose to believe that, it amounted to not much more than mythmaking, the kind of thing that gets reporters to write about "the personal cost" of CIA work, as Shane did. Devlin died in his home of natural causes, much as Rodriguez and Haspel undoubtedly will. The only people to suffer are their victims.

ONE OF THE REASONS that Eisenhower and others in the U.S. government were convinced that Lumumba was drifting into the Soviets' orbit is because Devlin, the CIA's man in Kinshasa (then known as Leopoldville), told them so. "The embassy and station believe that Lumumba is moving left and Commie influence is increasing. Unless he is stopped in the near future, we believe he will become a strongman, eliminating moderate opposition and establishing a regime under the influence of, if not fully controlled by, the Commies," wrote Devlin on August 11, 1960, in a typical dispatch.

In reality, Lumumba was committed to Congolese and broader African independence first and foremost, and repeatedly sought American aid in 1960, a story Reid extensively documents. He even granted an American businessman, Edgar Detwiler, extensive mineral and other resource-extraction rights. The Mitrokhin Archive, a smuggled motherlode of KGB files that include its operations in the "Third World," documents nothing about Congo in 1960 or before. Only after the U.S. rebuked Lumumba and Congo endured a Belgian-sponsored secessionist movement in the resource-rich Katanga Province, prompting a U.N. intervention predicated on maintaining the country's borders, did Lumumba receive military aid from a reluctant Soviet Union. Devlin’s prophecy of Lumumba’s left turn was self-fulfilling.

There is some historical dispute, Reid recounts, over whether Eisenhower indeed ordered Lumumba's death or whether CIA Director Allen Dulles opted to rid Ike of a turbulent priest. No written record survives, but a notetaker at an August 18 White House meeting recalls Eisenhower saying "something—I can no longer remember his words—that came across to me as an order for the assassination of Lumumba." There is no dispute that Eisenhower ordered the replacement of "the Lumumba Government by constitutional means," which became known as Project Wizard, an operation whose main tool was bribery. Devlin got to work implementing it.

On September 5, Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu, with money and instruction from Project Wizard, dismissed Lumumba's government—but then botched it by not securing the centers of Congolese political gravity, such as the radio station. Within days, Lumumba overturned the dismissal with a vote in the new Congolese legislature in his favor. With Kasavubu neutralized, Devlin found a new instrument: a former journalist whom Lumumba had elevated to command the army of an independent Congo, Joseph Mobutu, the future Mobutu Sese Seko. September 14, 1960 marked the end of the U.S. using "constitutional means" and the start of Mobutu’s military coup. After their first meeting, Devlin gave Col. Mobutu a briefcase containing $5000 in cash so he could ensure the support of key officers. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

While Devlin aggressively pursued Lumumba's downfall, he appeared flexible on the question of whether or not to pursue the end of Lumumba's life. As mentioned, he didn't use Gottlieb's syringe. But by the time the Congolese Army placed Lumumba under house arrest that fall—a tense situation where an Army cordon kept Lumumba from escaping and ringed a U.N. blue-helmet cordon outside Lumumba's house that kept the Army (and the CIA) from entering —Devlin requested the CIA put in a confidential courier method called a diplomatic pouch "a high-powered, foreign-make rifle with a telescopic sight and a silencer," as, Devlin wrote, "the hunting is good here when the light's right."

In a groundbreaking 2010 article for the journal Intelligence and National Security, former U.S. congressional staffer Stephen Weissman reported that the rifle request was one of nine different proposed CIA plots—eight of them proposed by Devlin—to kill Lumumba. Ironically, there was a CIA official who refused an instruction to murder Lumumba, but it wasn't Devlin, it was a different official involved in Project Wizard, Justin O'Donnell. Weissman judges that "assassinating Lumumba was a feature of the [CIA] Station’s conversations with its Congolese ‘cooperators,' including Mobutu, as early as September 1960." Still, Reid assesses that the cable record on Devlin pursuing the assassination is mixed, and he's done the work.

O'Donnell and Devlin came up with a fallback plan to have a "third country national"—a Luxembourg native, French Resistance veteran and criminal named André Mankel, whose CIA cryptonym was QJWIN—abduct Lumumba and deliver him to Mobutu. (That showed O'Donnell's moral flexibility. Reid writes that the guy who objected to murdering Lumumba "knew full well that this would likely mean Lumumba's execution.") But just days after Mankel arrived in Congo in late November, Lumumba fatefully decided to escape house arrest in the hope of reaching his base of support in Kisangani (then Stanleyville), from where he could retake power. Instead, Mobutu's army apprehended him, with targeting aid from Devlin. There was no more need for the CIA to lay a hand on Lumumba.

A compelling thread in The Lumumba Plot is Mobutu's early-career indecisiveness. "The dirty work had to be outsourced," Reid writes. That meant sending Lumumba to the anti-Lumumba hotbed of Katanga for his execution, a decision taken by commissioners within Mobutu's government, several of whom were on Devlin's payroll. In his Intelligence and National Security article, Weissman termed Lumumba's CIA-aided transfer to Katanga "an extraordinary rendition."

Devlin learned about the impending rendition on January 14, 1961. Crucially, he did not relay that information to Langley for three days. The prevailing view in Washington, pushed by the State Department, was that no further action should be taken in Congo until John F. Kennedy was sworn in a week later. Had his superiors been informed, Reid writes, "there was good reason to think that Washington would tell Devlin to put the brakes on the commissioners' plan." Devlin's silence, Reid judges, "sealed Lumumba's fate." Weissman agrees, writing: "Devlin’s permissive stance signaled [to Mobutu] that he had no objection to the transfer, and was undoubtedly a ‘major factor’ in the government’s final action against Lumumba." On January 17, Lumumba arrived in Katanga, where Belgian military advisers directed his execution by firing squad at 9:34 p.m.

"The CIA had a role in every important plot twist that led to Lumumba's downfall and death," Reid sums up for FOREVER WARS. "It was the main pressure on Mobutu and was instrumental in Mobutu coming to power. It was constantly handing him briefcases stuffed with cash. It before that had actively worked to undermine Lumumba and funded opposition to him, faked street protests against him. And in the moment when Lumumba's life was in peril and the United States could easily have saved him, it—and by 'it,' I actually mean Devlin—decided not to intervene to save a man who everyone who knew what Devlin knew would realize was about to die."

Devlin's work wasn't finished. It turned out that JFK's campaign-trail rhetoric endorsing African independence was just a cynical way to court African-American voters while doing nothing materially for them. "Kennedy had approved the continued flow of Devlin's bribes to Mobutu and his soldiers" early in 1961, Reid writes, and by the summer had approved a proposal to buy off enough parliamentarians to marginalize the late prime minister’s remaining allies. Devlin cabled that the CIA "could take major credit for the fall of the Lumumba government and the success of the Mobutu coup, and considerable credit for [Cyrille] Adoula's nomination as premier." Mobutu visited Washington in 1963, lunching at Langley and getting his picture taken with JFK in the Rose Garden.

Devlin remained in Congo, which Mobutu renamed Zaire, and helped consolidate what would, in 1965, become Mobutu's outright control of the country. Mobutu became a pillar of western Cold War strategy in Africa. When Devlin left in June 1967, Mobutu drove a white Chevrolet convertible to his house and presented him with a portrait bearing the inscription: "To my old and excellent friend, L. Devlin, to whom the Congo and its chief owe so much." After retiring from the CIA in 1974, Devlin returned to Africa and worked in, um, the diamond trade until 1988. Shane's profile mentions that Devlin in retirement would pass information as he saw fit "to his old friends in the CIA." Mobutu's domination of Congo, during which he looted the country blind and became a billionaire, lasted until 1997. It was a happy ending for everyone except the millions of Congolese people his rule kept in abject poverty.

As Devlin put it to Shane in 2008, "We prevented the Soviets from taking over a very large part of Africa." It was no more true than Jose Rodriguez’s claim that CIA torture led to the prevention of terrorist attacks and the capture of Osama bin Laden.

SHANE COULDN'T HAVE KNOWN MOST OF THIS in 2008. It wasn't until 2010 that Weissmann published his Intelligence and National Security article reevaluating the CIA's role in Lumumba's death. And it wasn't until 2013, Reid tells me, that the State Department published the relevant cables in Foreign Relations of the United States. The plausibility of Devlin's narrative to Shane rested on what amounts to a bad judgment call by a seemingly unimpeachable source: the Church Committee.

Sen. Frank Church's 1975 congressional inquest divides the history of U.S. intelligence into a Before and After era. Thanks to Church—the subject of a new book by the Pulitzer-winning reporter and FOREVER WARS pal Jim Risen—we know a tremendous amount about COINTELPRO, NSA domestic surveillance and the CIA's worldwide assassination campaign. But while Church interviewed Devlin and documented the CIA's involvement within every significant event of the coup, the committee "concluded that while the CIA tried to assassinate Lumumba, the Agency did not kill him," Risen writes in The Last Honest Man: The CIA, The FBI, The Mafia And The Kennedys—And One Senator's Fight To Save Democracy. That "overly legalistic" decision "let the CIA off the hook," Reid writes.

"The staff never focused its investigation on drawing out and explaining the ‘intimate relationship’ under ‘Project Wizard’, and analyzing—with the help of State Department cables and scholarly works—how it had functioned to give the U.S. Government an important say in decisions concerning Lumumba," Weissman assessed in 2010. The committee's judgment was also a result of Devlin being "prepared to lie through his teeth," in Reid's phrase, much as the CIA would later treat the Senate intelligence committee's torture investigation. Weissman found that Devlin ran the same play on Church in 1975 as he ran on his bosses in 1961: He didn't tell them he knew in advance about Lumumba's rendition to Katanga. Reid even writes that Devlin told the committee he learned about the rendition after the fact "even though a contemporaneous cable, quoted in the committee's report, proved otherwise." According to Weissman, the CIA didn't produce the crucial cable until a month after Devlin testified, though that's no excuse for this lapse in the committee's due diligence.

Devlin did provide the committee an important piece of information: the irresistible detail that Sidney Gottlieb had given him a syringe full of poison meant for Patrice Lumumba. And Devlin, exemplar of moral probity, had refused to use it. A myth was born.

Risen's book references Devlin's 2007 memoir, and in so doing presents a clue as to why Devlin felt "sorry" for Rodriguez and the other post-9/11 CIA torturers. (Of course, agency tribalism is a sufficient explanation, but still.) Even though Devlin successfully played the Church Committee, Church still revealed a tremendous amount about the CIA's involvement in a coup that turned lethal, and Devlin felt stung. "I have been severely criticized for my role in Lumumba's removal from office and his eventual death," he wrote. Devlin portrayed himself as the victim of unfair attacks that demonized someone who was against killing Lumumba but couldn't say so outright. "I am aware that some people believe I should have rejected the order to implement the operation"—that is, to assassinate Lumumba—"but I do not regret the way I handled it. At the time, I realized that a refusal to obey what I believed to be an order from the president would have resulted in my immediate recall." O'Donnell, who did refuse, sure didn't get recalled.

It was a martyr's pose, reminiscent of the many such poses struck by the CIA's torturers and their sponsors, all the way up to Director John Brennan's five-minute narration of the 9/11 attacks before addressing the press to respond to the Senate intelligence committee's 2014 into the torture program. Like Devlin, they were never in any real legal jeopardy. John Durham—yes, that John Durhamsaw to that. Beyond that, the truth, and especially the moral truth, was what they made it. Devlin never assassinated Patrice Lumumba. Those eight options for killing Lumumba were just bureaucratic subterfuge that stopped the CIA from killing him. Rodriguez, Haspel and the rest never tortured anyone. What they oversaw was enhanced interrogation.

Like Shane, Weissman put Devlin into the context of the War on Terror, but in a much different way. "For understandable political reasons, President Barack Obama has said he is not interested in ‘looking backward’ at the previous Republican administration’s abuses as he recalibrates America’s anti-terrorist operations," Weissman wrote in 2010. "Yet the Lumumba affair offers a powerful illustration that by failing to analyze—and therefore confront—what actually happened in the relevant past, the administration and the public deny themselves critical knowledge of what needs to be done to prevent similar abuses in the future."

He continued:

[T]his comparison suggests that the establishment of ‘legal’ standards for covert anti-terrorist operations—from an assassination order to a directive to ensure 'humane treatment'—is insufficient to shape the behavior of secret agencies in the real world. Legal rules need to be supplemented by organizational reforms—clear and updated operating instructions, training programs and career incentives linked to ensuring appropriate performance on the ground. There is also a need for more effective external supervision of such operations, both within and outside of the Executive Branch. …
What happened in Lumumba’s case also deprives us of some of our illusions about how much resistance we can expect from covert operators to unwise or unethical orders.

Larry Devlin and the CIA were central to the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba. The coup and subsequent execution do not make sense without CIA involvement, from the invented pretext of Lumumba's communist sympathies to the agitation of the incompetent Kasavubu and indecisive Mobutu into overthrowing Lumumba, killing him and seizing power. The CIA's interference "by constitutional means" in 1960 and 1961 make Russia's 2016 U.S. election interference look amateurish and unambitious. All of it helped entrench patterns of bloodshed, impunity, deception of the American public and performative indignation that would come to define the CIA after 9/11.

Pre-order Reid's excellent book, The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of The CIA and A Cold War Assassination, out October 3 from Knopf.

I DIDN'T REALLY EXPECT to write so much about Larry Devlin and Patrice Lumumba, but the spirit took me. Usually I would put a bunch of short items here, but this edition is so long that including them would be pointless. We didn't publish last week because both Sam and I were busy with deadlines, and next week I'm going to be traveling with my family for several weeks—and while it's gonna have to be a working vacation, we'll be slowing down publication so I can recharge and enjoy a change of scenery. All that is a scatterbrained way of saying I expect I'll do another FOREVER WARS edition this week with a roundup of shorter, blog-like writeups to relevant stuff. After that, we'll be publishing in August, but at a relaxed pace. Subscribers will also get two Nation columns from me—the first, which I filed last week, is about Trump 2024's intended dictatorial consolidation of power and the role of the Security State—so I recommend subscribing to FOREVER WARS.

[WE’RE TWO YEARS OLD with this edition! Thanks so much to all our subscribers for your generous support. You make this possible. We love doing it and would like to keep it up. But we need more of you to buy subscriptions! Where else are you going to get pieces like these?Sam.]