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A Dangerous Mission

November 29, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Like the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency sends personnel into harm’s way, but often in secret wars. And for many who die serving the CIA, There’s no public acknowledgment. Dozens of stars memorialize the dead at the agency’s Virginia headquarters; only about half are identified for the public. Yesterday the Afghan war resulted in very public recognition by the CIA that it had lost one its own. In a press release, the agency praised Johnny Michael Spann, a 32-year-old former marine who worked for the agency’s secret espionage division. Yesterday Spann’s father called his son a hero.

JOHNNY SPANN, CIA Agent’s Father: We recall him saying, "someone has got to do the things that no one else wants to do." That is exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan. He gave his life in the line of work, in the line of duty, during a prison riot near a fortress at Mazar-e Sharif.

KWAME HOLMAN: The riot began Sunday when Taliban prisoners rebelled against their Northern Alliance captors. Spann reportedly was interrogating prisoners, but the details of his death are unclear. A German TV crew shot these pictures of a man describing a possible American casualty.

MAN: There’s hundreds of dead here, at least, and I’m not… I don’t know how many Americans are dead. I think one was killed. I’m not sure.

KWAME HOLMAN: In recent days, the Pentagon confirmed that CIA personnel are working with military Special Forces in Afghanistan. CIA agents reportedly are operating unmanned surveillance planes that carry anti-tank missiles, and assisting anti- Taliban commanders in the North and South. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said CIA and military units both report to the US Central Command.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The CIA, just to get it right up on the table, has had individuals in the country. They have been working very closely with individuals we’ve had in the country, and they’ve been doing a darn good job.

KWAME HOLMAN: Praise has not been unanimous for the CIA. The agency was criticized for failing to anticipate the September 11 attacks. On that day, Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the NewsHour the tragedy "was not an intelligence success."

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: And if it’s not a success, it’s a failure. What intelligence is about is timely information. If we don’t continue to improve our situation with intelligence gathering and preventing terrorist attacks, we’re waiting for the next attack.

KWAME HOLMAN: Since the attacks, the CIA has received much attention– some of it satirical– for its new recruitment drive directed at people with Afghan language skills and knowledge of Central Asia. The agency says applications from college students and others are seven times higher than a year ago. Last month, President Bush approved an order for the CIA to use "all necessary means" to destroy Osama bin Laden and his network.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to James Risen, investigative reporter for the New York Times; Larry Johnson, a former counter terrorism officer at the CIA; And Ted Gup, author of The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA.

Jim Risen, beginning with you, tell us more about this CIA Operative who was killed. What kind of a mission was he on?

JAMES RISEN: Well, he was killed while he was trying to interrogate prisoners at the fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif. And it’s believed that there was another CIA officer with him at a time at the time. Beyond, that it’s a little unclear whether there were other Americans in the area, whether there were any Special Forces working with them. But it appears that his main job at the time was interrogation of Taliban and possible al-Qaida operatives.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he’s been described as a paramilitary officer with one division within the CIA. Explain that and what does that mean?

JAMES RISEN: Well, he was a member… He was based within the CIA — they call home basing, where you are… You start your career in one division, especially in the directorate of operations, which is the clandestine espionage arm of the CIA You begin in one…usually a regional division or, in this case, a paramilitary division. It’s called the special activities division. But he had been sent or transferred, at least temporarily, to the counter terrorism center of the CIA for action in Afghanistan. But both the special activities division, which is primarily the paramilitary arm of the CIA, and the CTC, the Counter Terrorism Center, have officers in Afghanistan working both to interrogate prisoners, to provide logistical and intelligence support both to the Special Forces and to the anti-Taliban rebels, and to act as a liaison with other intelligence services in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve covered the intelligence community for quite some time. Have you ever received a press release before announcing publicly, identifying the death of an agent?

JAMES RISEN: No, not like this. This was a surprise to me, and I think it was… It was unusual. It’s not unprecedented, but I think the CIA decided to announce his death because it had been widely reported already and some of the reports had been somewhat garbled, suggesting that he was a CIA contractor, when in fact he was a staff officers. And I think the CIA decided that, because there was so much attention already on the incident and because it was well known that they have officers in the country, that they thought it was okay to announce this.

MARGARET WARNER: Ted Gup, what did you make of this very public acknowledgment? You’ve written widely– that’s are what your book is all about– about the men and women who have never been identified publicly who died in the line of duty.

TED GUP: Right. I think Jim Risen is right in his read on this. I would caution that we not read too much into this disclosure. I don’t think that it represents a sudden break with tradition or policy at the agency, a sudden rush towards revelation and openness. I think that the reason that his identity could be revealed was not only because it was somewhat compromised by the media, because in the past others have been outed, so to speak, by the media in life and in death. And the agency has not owned up to it. But in this case, I think he was purely paramilitary in his functions, as opposed to the sort of clandestine case officer working in an embassy who has a long-running relationship with foreign nationals, running them as agents, getting intelligence and documents and such.

So in this case, exposing his identity, I think, did not run the risk of endangering foreign nationals who are who were reporting to him. I think he was in country a brief time. He had only been at the agency for two years, and so I think they could afford to disclose his identity without those other ramifications.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Larry Johnson that’s what, in fact, the CIA spokesman said yesterday, no threat to national security. How do you see it?

LARRY JOHNSON: Boy, you talk about being dead wrong, and it’s amateur hour at CIA. Number one, they have now put Mr. Spann’s family at risk in the United States. I grieve for that family, and my prayers and tears go out to them.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean you think they would be targets?

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, they’re definitely targets now because you’ve identified them. It is unprecedented to identify the family. One of the reasons you don’t go out and identify case officers, and this man was a case officer, he was not an agent. Agents are paid traders for other countries. He was a case officer in the tradition of CIA. But the virtue of CIA is supposed to be clandestine and covert. You know you’ve blown it when it’s on the front page of the Washington Post, the New York Times and on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. In my experience, when there have been CIA individuals that someone could report on, the media has always been responsible about protecting that.

What is unprecedented now is not just CIA, When you have Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announcing that the CIA is operating there, by doing this, they’re showing, one, they don’t understand clandestine operations; number two, you put… Mrs. Gup should be worrying about grieving for her husband, and the father of her children…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean Mrs. Spann.

LARRY JOHNSON: I’m sorry. She should be grieving for, that instead, now she needs to be seriously concerned about her security. I’ve had people over there, "was this man over there torturing Taliban?" There are radical extremists still in this country and if they believe this man was torturing, it’s not beyond them to target a family. And George Tenet had better put a 24-hour security detail with that family. He’s a brave American, his farther is exactly right, he’s a hero but the thrust of CIA is it’s to be done in the dark, not on the front pages.

MARGARET WARNER: Ted Gup, your reaction to that. I mean do you think this family is in danger do you think this was really amateur hour?

TED GUP: Well, I don’t think it’s amateur hour. I am a little reluctant to quarrel with Larry because he’s got years of experience in the field. But it’s not without precedent. I do remember a former director of Central Intelligence going to claim the body of a fallen clandestine officer, I believe in what was the Soviet Republic of Georgia, protecting Shevardnaze. Perhaps he could elaborate on that and distinguish between that case and this one.

LARRY JOHNSON: That’s a very good point. What you didn’t have then and what happened yesterday at CIA, they sent an internal memorandum around identifying the man, identifying where the family lives. That never happened when I was there. And this is not just my reaction. I have talked to several current chiefs of station and former chiefs of station who served in the most sensitive posts.

The common denominator, as well as military special operations that are highly classified, everybody had the same phrase, "Their jaw dropped, they couldn’t believe it, because the other thing here is Mr. Spann didn’t need to die. He was put out in the field too early without enough senior heads around him to keep him alive. He was a brave man doing what he… You know, hard charging, but he did not have the assistance. This was a failure at leadership at CIA as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think it was released?

LARRY JOHNSON: Because the CIA has decided that they’re in a public relations battle. They are correctly under the gun for the intelligence failures of the 11th. There are some severe problems with inside, and the notion that they’re competing with special operations for press coverage, the only way they get access like that and the kind of access that Bob Woodward has provided on the front pages of the post-is because people at George Tenet’s level have given the thumbs-up.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s possible, Ted Gup, that that was the reason for doing this?

TED GUP: Well, I think it’s possible that certainly the agency’s concerned with its image. It’s just suffered the largest intelligence failure in half a century. Whether it’s to blame for that or not is another issue. But they didn’t catch it, they didn’t preempt or disrupt it which is part of the motto of CTC the counter terrorist center. On the other hand, there are about 79 stars on the wall at CIA headquarters, of which 40 are disclosed, not just by George Tenet, but by most of his predecessors. So this is not as unprecedented as it may appear to be, and many of those who died before were killed in somewhat similar circumstances. Larry, I’d love to know what your thought is on that.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me stick with this particular case, if I could — and go back to Jim Risen. Jim Risen, just back to the CIA’s role in this particular war, what do you think it says about this war that the first casualty, as you wrote today, is a CIA officer, not a uniformed soldier?

JIM RISEN: Well, it does underscore the extent of the CIA’s involvement in the campaign. And this… I think going in to… After September 11, I think everyone realized that this would really largely be an intelligence war because of the nature of the fight against terrorism. It’s not a conventional military operation in that sense. There is almost two parallel campaigns going on. One is a military operation to break the Taliban’s military hold on Afghanistan, and the other is to catch and either kill or capture the leadership of al-Qaida and a few Taliban leaders, as well.

And so that second goal, which is really the ultimate objective of the campaign, is largely an intelligence and law enforcement and only indirectly a military operation. And I think that’s why the CIA… the CIA has most of the government’s institutional knowledge about al-Qaida at the Counter Terrorism Center. And so it makes a lot of sense that they would be kind of the brains behind the operation here.

MARGARET WARNER: Pick up on that, Larry Johnson. What do the CIA people bring that, say, the special ops military special ops forces don’t?

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, let’s look back into history because I don’t want to compromise what’s going on now. When the CIA operation in Afghanistan against the Russians where you support another force so they can fight, the CIA brings a broad array of capabilities to support both paramilitary operations and intelligence. In the case of Vietnam, we saw a different role for the CIA, where they were conducting some operations, but it was under military cover. I’m not compromising anything. That’s in public. But that’s really the model you ought to go after. But what you have here right now are two competing groups, and just a quick plug: Ted did write a wonderful book and people should read it. I mean it deals with some of these issues, but this is one where right now they still haven’t sorted out who’s in charge, and you’ve got CIA itself leading the charge saying, "hey, look how wonderful we are, what we’re doing." That’s ridiculous.

MARGARET WARNER: Ted Gup a brief final word now, do you think it’s a more enhanced role for the CIA? Is this part of the new kind of war?

TED GUP: Well, once more, it’s not unprecedented. The first casualty in Somalia in 1992 was CIA, and although he was listed as a Defense Department employee, Larry Friedman was CIA. He was the first casualty in that conflict. And I think that you will see the CIA in this kind of lead position again and again.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you all three very much.