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How a 14-year-old girl was awarded a CIA medal for fighting off burglars

Maureen Devlin was living in the Congo with her parents when the incident occurred.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

A 14-YEAR-old girl became the youngest recipient of the CIA’s second-highest award in the late 1960s, and she went on to become a successful intelligence officer in adulthood.

It’s one of the many fascinating insights gleaned from newly declassified documents as a result of a FOIA lawsuit.

In the Congo in 1966

In May 1966, Maureen Devlin was living in the Congo with her parents — her father, Lawrence, was the CIA’s station chief — amid civil war and general lawlessness in the capital of Kinshasa. One night, the family had a firsthand encounter with the turmoil.

Maureen was awakened by armed burglars in her bedroom as she pretended to sleep. As she kept up the ruse, the robbers stole a ring and bracelet from her hand, but it wasn’t long before she woke.

From The Youngest Intelligence Star in the agency’s Studies in Intelligence journal:

The girl heard the burglars discussing the possibility of harming her. She understood their local language, Lingala, but she did not understand the word rape, only that it was a physical threat. They turned on the lights, and one used a butcher knife to cut her nightgown. She managed to roll over and cover herself with the sheet, still feigning sleep. Her greatest fear at the time was that perhaps the men had already killed her mother and father.

She couldn’t pretend to be sleeping any longer after the burglars pricked her neck with the knife. But she acted quickly, speaking their language to tell them they shouldn’t harm anyone in the house — and in a genius move to capitalise on local superstition — told them the US embassy had “secret and magic” ways of identifying people who harmed Americans.

Later, after her parents were woken up and put into a corner of the bedroom, the girl’s mother talked back to the robbers in French and told them to leave. Maureen, for her part, told the bandits the family had “a dawa,” a black-magic spell that would result in the deaths of their wives, children, parents, and others if any harm came to them.

The journal noted the bandits had killed other families under similar circumstances.

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Awarded for her bravery

“My God, this is the end of us,” Lawrence Devlin thought at the time, according to an account in The Washington Times. He knew of the other families found murdered in their bathrooms, but he was able to slam and lock the door.

The robbers eventually gave up and left. They were later captured by police, tried, and executed.

Maureen Devlin received the CIA’s second-highest award — the Intelligence Star — for “her quick appraisal of the situation, calm deportment, knowledge and use of the local language, exploitation of local lore, and resolute action,” the article says, adding that it “served her well as a teenager, and they continue to do so now in her career as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations.”

A 2008 New York Times article also recognised Maureen as having followed her father into the CIA.

Her calm during this episode was similar to her father’s reaction to a trigger-happy Congolese soldier, who “defused a potentially lethal confrontation by calmly offering the soldier a cigarette.”

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