Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira’s story about a CIA operative who died in a 2009 a suicide bombing in Afghanistan has drawn hundreds of comments.
Some of those comments are from Shapira himself. He spent time Sunday and Monday answering reader questions, ranging from Jennifer Matthews’ family’s willingness to talk to a reporter to whether Matthews was fit to run CIA operations in Khost province. here are some highlights of Shapira’s conversation with readers (reproduced here with light editing — for spelling, punctuation, etc.):
Comment from mil1: As a person who has gone to war “unprepared,” and by that I mean anyone who has been in a war zone has absolutely no idea what it will be like, let me tell you the instructions I have both my parents and spouse: Do not speak to the press, do not comment on my service or what I did if I am killed; I was killed because I was in harms’ way, not for any other reason. Remember that I love all of you but you are not in a position to judge what I do every day for a living. Sometimes, in war, tragic errors are made--they might be my errors or they might be others’; it’s war and the blame lies there and not with the people who had to make split-second decisions with bad information.
Shapira: Hi everyone, I really have enjoyed the discussion here. Let me respond first to Top Commenter mil1: I understand why you might give instructions to your family not to speak to the press if you die. But let me say also that people can learn and understand the complexities of war if families talk about what motivated their loved ones into battle. I was grateful that Gary Anderson, the husband of Jennifer, spoke about her career because he revealed what motivated her, and her drive. And he also stood up for her in the aftermath, when so many people might find it easy to pin the ultimate blame on an individual. I have great respect for Gary and Jennifer’s uncle, Dave Matthews. Both spoke very thoughtfully about the person they loved, and the differences they had over whether she should have gone to war.
Commenter magnus_karl: Unfortunately, the CIA has been staffed by incompetents for many years. This incident in 2009 was the final straw for me. Unless and until America’s “premier” spy agency gets back to what they do best, and do it smartly, we’re in BIG trouble. BTW, the woman had NO business being there in the first place, IMHO, of course.
Shapira: Let me just respond to magnus_karl’s comments here since they seem to embody one huge argument that Jennifer Matthews didn’t belong at the Khost base. One of the reasons that I think Gary Anderson spoke about his wife publicly is that he was tired of the suggestion she wasn’t qualified and a little peeved at the tone of those arguments. Charles Allen, the former CIA official who conducted an independent review of the attack, said that three people at the agency applied for the base chief position -- and Jennifer was by far the most qualified. That doesn’t mean she and the rest of her team handled Balawi perfectly, either. But it became clear in the end that no single person was to blame for this failed operation -- it was a collective effort. I think it’s easy for people to point the finger at one person, but the reality is always a bit more complicated. If you want a more thorough account of what happened at Khost, I highly recommend my colleague Joby Warrick’s book, The Triple Agent, which I cited twice in the story. It’s one of the most thrilling, scoop-filled books I’ve read in such a long time.
Commenter none12: Seems like to fully understand this tragedy we need to know, in detail with names and ranks, how Matthews went from a cushy desk job as a “liaison” in London directly to CHIEF of a CIA forward operating base in a combat zone. Sending her into the field might have been smart (or might not), but why was she IN CHARGE?
Commenter BillShatner: Everyone in the CIA knows the answer to this: quotas and political correctness. The CIA has a long history of being highly sexist and discriminatory; they are (under the pressure of numerous lawsuits) making massive strides but the reality is that women are now being promoted ahead of their skill set (in many, not all cases) to make up for years of discrimination.
Shapira: I’m sorry BillShatner, but what evidence do you have that the agency is promoting women ahead of their skill? The failure at Khost has nothing to do with anyone’s gender. It has more to do with the fortune, timing, the gamble to make a call this way and not the other way. I’m more persuaded by arguments about whether she and the rest of the CIA employed the right kind of tradecraft for dealing with Balawi. Many retired CIA officials I spoke with argued that Balawi should have been checked en route to the base. But others who defend what happened say they wanted to make Balawi feel welcome and that pat-downs would have scared him off or made him feel like he wasn’t trusted. The truth is that Jennifer was one of the agency’s most skilled experts on Al Qaeda, and that Balawi was flipped long before she was involved in any operation with him.
Commenter sjgl8032: Better headline would have been “Post cashes in on family’s pain.” Love the tear-jerker ending with the pendant, it’s the kind of classy below-the-belt hit for emotion that the Pulitzer committee loves to see. Hey, if it helps sells newspapers then it must be golden, am I right? Oh, but I was really touched by how hard the Post worked to “protect the privacy” of the kids, withholding their names was a real profile in courage, especially after including their photos with the article. Bet the editors had a sleepless night with that one. Honestly, why do we even bother having clandestine operatives when the media’s bread and butter is dealing in leaks and interagency gossip?
Shapira: I feel compelled to shoot down sjgl8032’s argument that we were somehow enriching ourselves off the pain and suffering of another family. By the standards of your argument, no journalist should ever write about the impact of someone’s death on the family? That we shouldn’t have photographs of the surviving relatives -- and yes, children?
Shapira: I wanted to write one last thing, a kind of summary of how this story came to be: One of my editors suggested we write a portrait of one of the victims from the Khost base, and see how their family is doing. I remembered Jennifer Matthews the most because she was from Fredericksburg. So, I dove into Joby Warrick’s excellent book “The Triple Agent,” and read about Jennifer’s life. But Jennifer’s husband, her parents, or siblings didn’t cooperate with Joby. So I set out to convince them that now was the time to talk, that this was an opportunity to clarify what has been said about Jennifer in the past, and provide a window into what it’s like when your spouse works in the service of the country at the CIA. I am extremely grateful that Gary and Dave Matthews agreed to talk so thoughtfully about their loved one’s death.