WHERE WAS JACK DEVINE on Sept. 11, 1973?

Devine is a large man, in ambition and personality no less than sheer physical size. His whereabouts on that particular day loom large as well in one of the most pressing mysteries left over from the Cold War:

Did the Central Intelligence Agency pull the strings on a coup 27 years ago that put a ruthless dictator in power and left a democratically elected president to die in a blaze of gunfire?

If, as critics charge, the CIA pulled the trigger on the Chilean coup, Devine, then a 32-year-old case officer, would have almost certainly known about it and would have been very busy in the early days of September 1973.

Retired from the agency now for two years, Devine is talking about the coup for the first time: "I'm not saying maybe, I'm saying flat out--the CIA did not overthrow Allende."

In fact, he says, he was the first one in the CIA to find out about the coup plans just two or three days in advance--and his wife knew before he did. The way he tells it, he was sitting with a group of friends finishing lunch at DaCarla, a noisy Italian bistro in downtown Santiago, when another CIA man walked into the restaurant and delivered a whispered message: Call home immediately. It was urgent.

He tried to duck out of the lunch as discreetly as someone who measures 6-5 can manage. He knew what his wife would tell him.

The whole country was exhausted, waiting for weeks for something to happen, certain that Chile's restive right-wing military would move against the country's embattled left-wing president, Salvador Allende. Now it was beginning.

He called his wife, Pat, home in a well-to-do Santiago district minding five small children and fielding furtive calls for her spy husband.

"Your friend called from the airport," she said. "He's leaving the country. He told me to tell you: The military has decided to move. It's going to happen on the 11th. The navy will lead it off."

A second source later called the CIA station and agreed to meet Devine at a safe house just after dark. He added one key detail, the time the coup would begin: 7 a.m.

His report, confirming the first, formed the basis of a secret cable to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Markings on the document, declassified in redacted form last year, indicate that it was distributed to President Nixon and other top U.S. policymakers on Sept. 10, the following day.

The source's name has been blacked out, but his message bears an unadorned sense of urgency: ". . . a coup attempt will be initiated on 11 September. All three branches of the Armed Forces and the Carabineros are involved in this action. A declaration will be read on Radio Agricultura at 7 a.m. on Sept. 11 . . . the Carabineros have the responsibility for seizing President Salvador Allende."

This is how the U.S. government learned of the coup, Devine said, willing to talk in hopes of righting a wrong he feels has plagued the CIA ever since Allende died in a blaze of gunfire at La Moneda, the presidential palace, 27 years ago. The agency's hands are clean, he insists.

That may be hard for many Americans to believe, given a central conclusion reached in 1975 by the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Frank Church.

"There is no doubt that the U.S. government sought a military coup in Chile," the committee concluded.

Indeed, President Nixon ordered the CIA in 1970 to foment a coup to keep the socialist Allende from being inaugurated after a narrow victory at the polls--an effort that failed and was abandoned.

The 1973 coup that toppled Allende, mounted by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and other military leaders, is a different matter. "There is no hard evidence of direct U.S. assistance to the coup, despite frequent allegations of such aid," the committee found.

But the distinction has been lost over time. And even if the CIA didn't direct the coup, did its "extensive and continuous" covert operations aimed at undermining Allende's government set the stage? The Church committee posed the question--one it could not answer.

Devine believes that even with no CIA effort in Chile, the result would have been the same.

"It was inevitable the coup was coming," said Devine, who retired after a 27-year CIA career and now heads the Arkin Group, a consulting firm he formed with New York power lawyer Stanley Arkin that specializes in crisis management for business clients.

"The whole country was saying the government was going to fall of its own weight," Devine said. "Had we not been there, the opposition would have collapsed before then, and the military probably would have acted sooner than it did. Allende brought this on himself."

A cold warrior who rose swiftly through the ranks of the CIA's clandestine service, Devine agreed to talk about Chile earlier this year when it looked as though the CIA would be making public hundreds of documents on its activities before and after the September 1973 coup as part of a declassification project ordered by President Clinton following Pinochet's arrest in Brittain in 1998. Devine was, in essence, willing to let the record stand as a check against his own memory.

But last month, CIA Director George J. Tenet refused to release many of the documents without further review, citing fears that they would reveal operational methods still in use around the world by the CIA. Last week the National Security Council announced that the release of any material would be delayed for another two to three weeks.

Human rights activists who have tried for years to get the full story declassified were not pleased.

"The controversy over the U.S. covert role in, and responsibility for, Pinochet's bloody coup will continue until the CIA releases the full story of its actions--not a censored history, but a full and unabridged account of its operations in Chile," said Peter Kornbluh, a Chile expert and researcher at the nonprofit National Security Archive, which has led the fight for full CIA disclosure.

"The question of whether the coup would have taken place without the U.S. being present in Chile in a big way is irrelevant--because the U.S. was in Chile in a big way," said Kornbluh. "The CIA's own documents--which it gave to the Church committee--take credit for setting the stage for the coup. And these are the documents the CIA still seeks to conceal."

Devine said he isn't afraid of what the documents might reveal. He knows what he knows from being there. His judgments are, to be sure, based on impressions formed many years ago by an idealistic, inexperienced young spy.

But he's confident that the documents will bear him out whenever they're finally released. "My point is, the degree to which we can get the story out," Devine said, "we're better off for it."

John J. Devine, big and bold, with jet black hair and a long, angular face, grew up playing stickball in southwest Philadelphia, the only son of a heating contractor.

By 1967, when he was 25, Devine had risen to head of the social studies department at Sharon Hills High School. A bestseller changed his life.

"The Invisible Government," a 1964 book by Thomas Ross and David Wise, was written as an expose of the secret schemings of the CIA. But it had an unintended effect on Devine. "I read it and thought, 'Jeez, what a fascinating line of work,' " Devine recalled.

Three years later, Devine was given one of the hottest tickets at CIA headquarters--a job on the Chile task force.

In September 1970, after socialist Salvador Allende finished first in a three-way presidential election, President Nixon summoned CIA Director Richard Helms to the White House and told him in no uncertain terms to foment a coup. Nixon believed Allende to be a dangerous leftist in a country suddenly teeming with Cuban advisers. This coup attempt, which Nixon ordered the CIA to conceal from the U.S. ambassador and other American officials in Chile, came to be known as "Track II"--the secret complement to political and propaganda efforts proceeding on Track I.

Young Jack Devine soon found himself on the night shift at the nerve center, fashioning cables from Santiago into a morning intelligence report for the bosses.

"This is exactly the place I wanted to be, inside the Invisible Government, saving democracy from the commies," Devine said.

The CIA's explicit coup plotting came to an end in October 1970, when a bungled coup by a group of Chilean officers not supported by the CIA had the effect of rallying the country around Allende, who was inaugurated two days later.

In aiming to depose an elected president, Devine believed he was fighting to help maintain democracy in Chile. When he left the country three years later, he realized that hadn't happened. But his belief in covert action--support for opposition parties, propaganda campaigns, even paramilitary action--remained very much intact.

Swiftly, he rose in the CIA's Latin America Division to chief of station in the Dominican Republic, then Venezuela and Argentina.

When legendary CIA operative Dewey Clarridge, then chief of the Latin America Division, called his station chiefs to Washington in 1981 to poll them on his plans for arming the contras in Nicaragua, Devine was one of only two who voiced objections.

"He was apprehensive about another potentially volatile operation and was frank in expressing his reservations," Clarridge writes in his memoir, "A Spy for All Seasons."

"I appreciated his honesty. There were some, however, who were not so kind. They saw him as someone motivated largely by a desire to advance his career."

Frank Anderson, former head of the CIA's Near East Division, and a Devine supporters, sees him differently, "as the kind of guy who would speak truth to power."

Either way, careerist or straight-talker, Devine's career was major-league.

He was serving as head of the Iran branch in 1985, when he refused to serve as the handler of Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian middleman at the heart of the Reagan administration's missiles-for-hostages deal with Iran.

"I told my wife, 'I might have to resign, I just can't do this one,' " Devine said, recalling how he considered Ghorbanifar a liar and strongly recommended that he be given a polygraph before the CIA dealt with him. Devine also says he wrote a memo calling the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran "inimical to U.S. interests."

When Ghorbanifar failed his polygraph badly, Devine said, Claire George, then deputy director for operations, agreed that the CIA shouldn't be doing business with him. "What I didn't know was that [CIA Director William] Casey handed him off to someone in another directorate," Devine said.

George remembered Devine's stand and, within a year, in 1986, appointed Devine chairman of the Afghan Task Force, a position that put him in control of the CIA's last and largest covert operation of the Cold War, funneling $1 billion in U.S. arms to the Afghan mujaheddin, who helped drive the Soviet army from Afghanistan.

Devine was in the middle of the action again in 1994 when, as chief of the Latin America Division, the White House sent him to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to tell the country's dictators that it was time to yield for deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return.

Devine rounded out his career as associate deputy director for operations, then acting director, of the CIA's clandestine service, the Directorate of Operations, capped by three years as London station chief before retiring in December 1998. Looking back, though, there was nothing quite like Chile.

Not long after he arrived in Santiago in the fall of 1971, Devine climbed into the car of one of the CIA's Chilean informants--or "assets"--and drove slowly around a small city park. Unexpectedly, the asset handed Devine a sheaf of documents. Devine had to decide whether to take them, knowing that his cover could be blown if he were caught with them on the street.

But this was a one-time offer, and Devine's car was parked nearby, so he grabbed the papers and cut through the park on foot--only to find himself chased by five wild dogs. Imagine the scene: a towering CIA spy, secret documents in hand, running from a pack of snarling canines.

As Devine turned a corner, he realized one of his colleagues lived nearby and headed straight for his front door. By then, the dogs had tuckered out, but when the two CIA men drove back to Devine's car, there they were, like sentries.

"You've got to see how ferocious these dogs are," Devine said.

At which point his colleague got out of his car, approached one of the four-legged assailants and held out his hand. The dog started licking it profusely.

"I bet you have cats," he said, wondering whether this new guy would ever make it as a spy.

Several weeks later, Devine handed over a wad of cash to another asset from a Chilean newspaper opposed to Allende. Since the CIA is, first and foremost, a large bureaucracy, Devine needed a receipt to send back to Langley at the end of the month.

And since he was just out of spy school and didn't want to be caught with a document signed by a covert source, Devine wrote out the receipt--and had the asset sign it--in invisible ink. The asset was, needless to say, impressed by such trade craft.

Devine went back to the station, applied the magic chemical. Everything had worked perfectly. There was only one problem: When he went to file his expense account several weeks later, the invisible ink had eaten through the paper. He had to go back to his source, and beg.

But Devine learned quickly. He spent his nights in safe houses and obscure cafes, meeting media and political assets working to undermine Allende's government. He spent his days in the station, furiously writing intelligence reports.

Between the unsuccessful coup in October 1970 and the successful coup that finally toppled Allende in September 1973, Chile's economy--blockaded by the United States--ground to a halt as violence between the right and the left became a daily fact of life.

The larger context in which all of this played out was the Cold War, with Nixon and Henry Kissinger fearing the spread of communism in Latin America as the Soviet Union sent aid to Allende's government and Cuba flooded the country with advisers.

There remains, to this day, some confusion about what the CIA's marching orders actually were in this interim period. Kissinger, then national security adviser, told the Church committee that he ordered the CIA to stop its coup plotting at a meeting on Oct. 15, 1970, precisely a month after Nixon set Track II in motion.

Thomas Karamessines, the CIA's deputy director for plans, came away from the meeting with the opposite impression, sending a cable to the Santiago station the following day that said: "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. . . . Please review all your present and possibly new activities to include propaganda, black operations . . . or anything else your imagination can conjure."

Devine, for his part, said he is certain that by the time he arrived at the Santiago station in the fall of 1971, Track II was long over, coup plotting was verboten, and CIA case officers were under strict orders that all military contacts were for the purposes of gathering intelligence, not fomenting coups.

"I can't recall a specific directive or cable that went to the field, but it was almost like the Bible: no coup-plotting with the military. All of the effort was geared to collecting information about what the military was doing."

A close colleague of Devine remembers no such line in the sand. "I think our posture was a little more aggressive than that," recalled Donald P. Winters, who shared space with Devine in the Santiago station and went on to several tours of heading stations in Latin American before retiring in 1993. "We were not in [on] planning. But our contacts with the military let them know where we stood--that was, we were not terribly happy with this government."

Covert involvement in Chile, the Church committee found, was "extensive and continuous," with the CIA spending $8 million on covert operations from 1970 to 1973.

"What did covert CIA money buy in Chile? It financed activities from simple propaganda manipulation of the press to large-scale support for Chilean political parties," the committee reported.

As for the CIA's ties to the Chilean military, the Church committee reported that the agency maintained "close contact with the Chilean armed forces" and, throughout the months before the coup, "received intelligence reports on the coup planning."

While Devine agrees with most of the committee's conclusions, he believes the committee overestimated the CIA's sources in the military, which he insists were not nearly as numerous or important as the agency's media and political assets.

"I'm not saying we didn't have assets in the military. But we didn't have flag-rank people [reporting to us]; we didn't have any of the decision makers," Devine said. The CIA had no relationship before the coup with Pinochet, he said, and it simply did not receive hard reports about the coup by those responsible throughout the summer.

"Everybody was talking about a coup in August. But in terms of senior military commanders plotting, I doubt there was a report," Devine said.

Winters remembers differently: "We'd been talking to military leaders for months."

But both men say the Chilean military did not need, seek or want CIA involvement in planning and executing the coup. "The understanding was they would do it when they were ready and at the final moment tell us it was going to happen," Winters said.

By the time the military finally did move on the morning of Sept. 11, the CIA had confirmed the report from Devine's first asset four times over.

Inside the station, everyone waited. An observation post had been set up in a hotel across the street with instructions to keep an open line back to the station on the seventh floor of the U.S. Embassy, around the corner from La Moneda, the presidential palace.

Just as Devine's asset had said, the Navy began the coup early in the morning with an uprising in Valparaiso. Troops soon filled the street in downtown Santiago, where skirmishes and sporadic gunfire erupted. Barricades went up around the U.S. Embassy, and traffic quickly ground to a halt.

Shortly before noon, Hawker Hunter jets from the Chilean air force screamed across downtown Santiago and began firing rockets into La Moneda with pinpoint accuracy. The whole city erupted in gunfire. Devine and his CIA colleagues dove for cover as stray bullets shattered windows.

Around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Chilean troops stormed into the presidential palace. Not long after that, Allende was dead.

The military claimed he committed suicide, though most other accounts of the coup say his body was found riddled with bullets.

When the military imposed an ironclad curfew across Santiago, Devine and a handful of other agency officers, including station chief Ray Warren, found themselves trapped inside the embassy for three days, breaking into the cafeteria just to eat.

Devine says he and his colleagues felt a certain satisfaction that Allende's government was finally gone. But there was no sense of elation. "No partying," he said. "You sensed that this was a country going through a terrible crisis."

Locked down in the embassy, he remembered, the CIA had little ability to track what was happening in the streets in the coup's immediate aftermath. And lacking close ties with Pinochet and other members of the new junta, he said, the agency had little comprehension of--and no control over--the military's bloody purge of "subversives" in the weeks following the coup.

The CIA soon gained some understanding of the magnitude of those atrocities--and reported on them to Washington. A secret memo dated Sept. 24, 1973, less than two weeks after the coup, stated that "the deaths of the great majority of persons killed in cleanup operations against extremists . . . are not recorded. Only the Junta members will have a really clear idea of the correct death figures, which they will probably keep secret."

An Oct. 12, 1973, memo quoted a source as saying that 1,600 civilians had been killed between Sept. 11 and Oct. 10.

But by far the most explosive document released last year under President Clinton's declassification initiative was a State Department memorandum drafted in 1976 about the case of Charles Horman, an American journalist whose kidnapping and murder in the immediate aftermath of the coup inspired the 1982 Jack Lemmon-Sissy Spacek movie "Missing."

The document--which offers no evidence--states: "U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death. At best, it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder . . . . At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the [Chilean junta] saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of [Chilean] paranoia."

What's more, another State Department document declassified last year revealed that the consular official who played the leading role in locating the bodies of Horman and Frank Teruggi, another American journalist murdered by Chilean military intelligence after the coup, was actually a CIA case officer, James E. Anderson.

Devine is categorical in denying CIA involvement in either slaying. "Horman and Teruggi were not known to CIA--at all," he said, characterizing the State Department document as after-the-fact speculation. Devine also said that Anderson became involved in searching for the bodies only because of his role as a consular official, not because of CIA interest. And after both bodies had been found, Devine said, Anderson was deeply distraught about the murders.

Reached by telephone, Anderson confirmed Devine's version of events. "I was extremely upset that Americans were killed," Anderson said, breaking a long silence about his actions in Chile.

Neither the U.S. Consulate nor the CIA, he said, had any knowledge that Horman and Teruggi were even in Chile until both men were reported missing. "This was an extremely difficult time," he said. "How people can blame the agency for trying to kill these guys, I don't know. There's just no smoking gun there. I know Mrs. [Joyce] Horman will never believe that, but it was just an impossible time."

Kornbluh applauds Devine, Winters and Anderson for finally talking about what they did in Chile all those years ago. But what they have revealed, he said, only whets the appetite for full disclosure by the CIA, particularly concerning the extent of U.S. government support for Pinochet's regime in the years following the coup.

Devine left Chile in the spring of 1974, disillusioned by the Pinochet regime, he says. When a new station chief arrived to replace Warren, he asked Devine to write a memo about the situation in Chile, since by then Devine was one of the most senior officers left in Santiago.

Devine remembers climbing up "on this high horse as a young man" and penning a memo called on the CIA to start using the very same tactics they used against Allende against Pinochet.

"I wanted to see the democratic institutions restored," he said. "I had no sympathy for military governments."

Looking back, he laments the violence inflicted by Pinochet's regime and says no one in the CIA's Santiago station--"in their wildest dreams"--would ever have believed the dictatorship would last until 1991.

As for his memo, Devine doubts the station chief even sent it back to Washington--to protect Devine's career, if nothing else.

But Devine still hopes he did. Maybe someday he'll find out, when all the documents finally come out.