Larry Devlin, a CIA station chief in Congo who claimed to have refused an order to assassinate the ousted prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, during the newly independent nation’s chaotic early days, died Dec. 6 of emphysema at his home in Lake of the Woods, Va. He was 86.
In the fall of 1960, shortly after assuming his duties as station chief in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), he received a packet of poisons that included toxic toothpaste and said he was ordered to carry out a political assassination.
At the time, Congolese factions were battling for control of the new nation. The United States and the Soviet Union were maneuvering for influence over Congo’s bountiful resources, particularly cobalt, a critical mineral used in missiles.
The CIA under Director Allen Dulles determined that the nation’s first democratically elected prime minister, Lumumba, had the potential to be an African Fidel Castro and must be eliminated.
In an interview this year, Devlin told the New York Times he had no qualms about bribery, blackmail and other Cold War tactics -- “all part of the game,” he said -- but killing Lumumba, he believed, would have been disastrous for the U.S. worldwide.
He stalled, and Lumumba died at the hands of his rivals in 1961.
Joseph Mobutu took over Congo in a U.S.-backed coup in 1965 and ruled the nation (renamed Zaire) for 32 years. Although Mobutu grew corrupt and autocratic, Devlin said he thought the CIA’s work in Africa helped prevent the Soviet Union from taking over much of the continent.
Lawrence Raymond Devlin was born June 18, 1922, in Concord, N.H., and grew up in San Diego. He served in the Army in North Africa and Europe during World War II.
He received his undergraduate degree from San Diego State University in 1947 and began a doctoral program in international relations at Harvard. He was recruited to the CIA while in college and joined the agency in 1949.
From 1957 to 1960, he was stationed in Brussels -- Belgium was the colonial power in Congo -- where he met Mobutu. He arrived in Leopoldville as station chief 10 days after Congo won independence.
In his book, “Chief of Station, Congo” (2007), he recalled how on his first day on the job he was snatched off the street by a “band of mutinous soldiers on the prowl.” Drunk on whiskey and high on marijuana, they subjected him to an impromptu game of Russian roulette.
Five times the soldier brandishing the gun pulled the trigger on an empty chamber. “At this point, I was undoubtedly a little crazy,” Devlin wrote. He wrote that he remembered yelling an expletive as the soldier “pulled the trigger for the sixth and last time.”
The only noise he heard was the explosive laughter from the soldiers, who treated him to a shot of whiskey, escorted him to his hotel and “went off to look for more fun.”
That was in July. In September, he received a message advising him to expect an important visit from “Joe from Paris,” the code name, it turned out, for Sidney Gottlieb, the agency’s poisons expert. (Gottlieb later gained public attention for his involvement in CIA mind-control experiments with LSD.)
Gottlieb told Devlin the Lumumba assassination had been approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though he admitted he had not seen the presidential orders. The spiked toothpaste, he explained, was chosen to make it appear that Lumumba had died from natural causes.
Devlin’s survivors include his wife of 23 years, Mary Rountree Devlin; a daughter from his first marriage, Maureen Devlin Reimuller of Great Falls, Va.; two stepchildren, Meredith Rountree of Austin, Texas, and Ashley Rountree of Paris; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Joe Holley writes for the Washington Post.