Mary Louise Kelly, a former NPR intelligence correspondent, is the author of the espionage novel “Anonymous Sources.”

There is an art to writing a CIA memoir. You must divulge enough insider tradecraft and gossip that readers feel they’re getting a glimpse behind the curtain, but not so much that the censors swoop down. You have to describe covert operations in colorful detail, without revealing still-classified information. And — a challenge inherent to any Washington memoir — you want to settle old scores (“setting the record straight” is the preferred term) but not come across as an embittered has-been.

Jack Devine’s memoir, “Good Hunting,” mostly succeeds at navigating these treacherous waters. Devine was a CIA spy for 32 years. He was in Chile when Salvador Allende fell, he later ran CIA stations in Latin America and Rome, and he eventually rose to become acting chief of the agency’s clandestine service. His book jacket promises a “master class in spycraft.” The memoir doesn’t quite live up to that, but Devine does share tales of filing expense reports written with invisible ink and attempting to recruit a foreign agent in Santiago while gagging on spoonfuls of raw sea urchins.

There are flashes of the author’s keen sense of humor. While serving undercover in Rome, Devine was invited to Pope John Paul II’s private chapel at the Vatican. After Mass, the pontiff leaned in and inquired, “Where do you work?” Devine, wary of failing his next polygraph, managed to stammer, “Your Holiness, I work for the U.S. government.” (He titles the chapter “Do I Lie to the Pope, or Break Cover?”)

The book, however, is a mostly serious reflection on a long career at an institution that Devine clearly still loves. “When an autopsy is done,” he says, “you’re going to find that part of my heart contains the CIA’s stamp.”

“Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story” by Jack Devine with Vernon Loeb (Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Girous)

Devine provides an accounting of his role in some of the agency’s most controversial entanglements, from Iran-contra to the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He ran that war in the late 1980s, as director of the CIA’s Afghan Task Force. To this day, on his office wall in New York hangs a print of an official agency painting depicting the moment Afghan mujahideen fighters shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and fired a Stinger missile for the first time at a Soviet helicopter gunship. (By the way, who knew that the CIA commissions oil paintings of key moments in agency history? How much does this cost? And what other moments have made the cut?)

Oil paintings aside, Devine doesn’t deliver Earth-shattering revelations. His strength lies instead in humanizing the many larger-than-life characters he tangled with over the years. That list includes the 11 CIA directors he served. There’s a great scene featuring the famously irascible William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA chief. Devine recalls Casey flying into Panama for meetings and insisting on donuts for breakfast. “Procuring U.S.-style donuts was impossible in Panama in those days,” Devine protests, noting that in his thank you cable to staffers after the visit, Casey signed off with: “NEXT TIME, YOU WILL GET DONUTS.”

One character who haunted Devine throughout his career was Aldrich Ames. The two men first crossed paths as junior officers, combing through secret cables side by side in a basement vault at Langley. Years later in Rome, when Devine was directly supervising the man who would prove to be the greatest traitor in CIA history, he writes, “I had an eerie sensation that something was wrong, although I couldn’t put my finger on it.” Devine recalls having dinner at Ames’s home, at which Devine and his wife enjoyed a “meat and vegetable dish” and a “decent red wine.” By that point, Ames had been selling secrets to the Russians for years.

Elsewhere in the book, Devine writes of the importance of instinct in the intelligence business. “The most important thing is to let your inner ear speak to you,” he notes. If he feels guilty because his inner ear failed him on Ames, he doesn’t directly say so.

Devine retired from government in 1998, before the two most troubling episodes in modern CIA history: the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and the pre-Iraq-war intelligence fiasco. That makes it tempting to engage in finger-pointing, and Devine’s comments on Iraq in particular can come across as preachy. “As it happened, I saw the disastrous Iraq War coming,” he remarks, adding that he could not “have abided the way intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was handled.” In hindsight, of course, no one is happy with the way intelligence on Iraq was handled. But Devine’s tone will probably still strike a sour note with some former colleagues.

Looking forward, Devine offers a prescription for the CIA. The thrust of his argument is that the agency must return to what it does best — traditional espionage and covert action — while ceding some of its post-9/11 paramilitary role to the Pentagon. In this, his thinking appears to be aligned with that of the agency’s current leadership. (At his confirmation hearings last year, CIA Director John Brennan asserted, “The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities.”)

But this rebalancing is proving difficult to implement. “This decade of war has created a drift toward militarization of CIA personnel that may make it challenging to get everyone back to the traditional core mission,” Devine writes.

Today, CIA drones continue to prowl the skies above Pakistan and Yemen — an arrangement Devine welcomes because the spy agency, unlike the Pentagon, has the ability to operate “below the radar and in ways that preserve some level of plausible deniability.”

That ability remains the CIA’s raison d’etre. Devine has produced an entertaining chronicle of his decades at the agency and a persuasive case for its continued relevance. During his years as a spy, he liked to sign off on classified cables with the phrase “GOOD HUNTING,” a reference to the pursuit of intelligence sources and of America’s enemies. A fitting title for the book — and for a life’s work.

Mary Louise Kelly, a former NPR intelligence correspondent, is the author of the espionage novel “Anonymous Sources.”


An American Spymaster’s Story

By Jack Devine with Vernon Loeb

Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 324 pp. $27