When CIA operatives die, the agency stays quiet

By Ted Gup
Sunday, January 17, 2010; B02

When it comes to death, the CIA's default setting has always been silence.

Historically, the agency has not publicly identified its fallen operatives, much less said anything about their missions. And its headquarters features the most unusual of memorials: a Wall of Honor, into which 90 black stars are carved, and below it, a Book of Honor, in which the year of each loss is recorded, alongside a name (in 55 cases) or an anonymous star (in 35 others). Together they form a unique tribute to hidden casualties and hidden deeds.

The murders two weeks ago of seven CIA officers and contractors in Afghanistan, in the second-deadliest attack in the agency's 63-year history, present Langley with an obvious tragedy and an enormous loss of human assets. But how it handles those deaths -- whether it cloaks the identities of those killed or names the fallen -- will reveal something of the agency's current character. Not since 1983, when the CIA lost eight of its own in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, has it faced such a staggering toll or such a complex dilemma as to how much information to release. Twenty-seven years later, the agency still has not divulged the identities of those it lost that day -- a position in keeping with its history.

But already, its handling of the casualties in Afghanistan has diverged from that tradition. In the blizzard of news reports that followed the bombing at the base near Khost, neither President Obama nor CIA head Leon Panetta took long to acknowledge the losses. Some funerals have been televised, and the agency has allowed its personnel to speak at memorial services. In equally short order, the identities of some of those killed made their way into the media. Now, should the CIA release the names -- some, all or none -- of the dead?

The agency maintains that post-mortem secrecy is necessary because naming the casualties can endanger the living and compromise sensitive "sources and methods," the who and how of intelligence gathering. But at times, Langley's obsession with concealment has bordered on ludicrous, adding to the suffering of loved ones without any apparent benefit or justification.

For 36 years, the CIA refused to acknowledge the names of the four pilots killed in the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs operation, as if clinging to the fiction that the CIA had no part in the invasion. In such instances, the agency's treatment of its dead has reflected a stubborn unwillingness to admit what was already widely known. Its reticence also left some of the families of those pilots alone to fend off allegations that their loved ones were simply mercenaries.

Douglas S. Mackiernan, who was spying on China when Mao Zedong came to power, was killed along the Tibetan border in 1950, but it took more than five decades for the CIA to enter his name -- rather than an anonymous star -- in the Book of Honor. The Chinese knew he was a spy; only the American public did not. Such denials supposedly preserve important political and diplomatic fictions -- for example, that the United States has not sought to destabilize governments, support counterinsurgencies or court treasonous behavior.

The agency rightfully maintains that foreign citizens who provide sensitive information to CIA case officers are often committing treason and that unmasking the identities of their agency contacts would put them at great risk. But in at least some instances of CIA casualties, there were no foreign agents involved. Among these is the case of Barbara Robbins, a 21-year-old CIA secretary killed in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1965. It was one of her father Buford Robbins's last wishes that instead of the anonymous star in the Book of Honor, her name be inscribed. He died in 1998; her name is still not in the book.

At other times, a parent's persistence has paid off. Gregg Wenzel, 33, died in Ethiopia in 2003 and was represented with a nameless star. His father hounded the CIA and then-President George W. Bush, asking that his son's name be inscribed in the Book of Honor. After five years, the agency relented.

The losses experienced by CIA families are especially complex. Their loved ones are often killed in the prime of life, in their 30s or 40s, and in violent circumstances, like the losses suffered in war. But unlike military families, if the deceased had been under cover or had previously served in the clandestine ranks, the loved ones left behind are forbidden from speaking the truth of what happened -- if they even know. Being tethered to cover stories for decades can be a harsh burden.

Until the 1970s, families were sometimes misled about the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths. John Merriman's widow was told in 1964 that her husband, who had been shot down over the Congo, had passed away quietly in a Puerto Rican hospital after receiving the best of care. It was years before their enterprising son would uncover the full truth: Merriman had suffered greatly and died in a transport plane over the Atlantic, in no small measure because of medical neglect.

In past decades, several families were told they could not look inside the coffins holding their loved ones. Only later did the family of Pharies "Bud" Petty learn that the casket they buried in 1989 was empty.

Some agency officials charged with dealing with grieving families, such as the late Ben DeFelice, the longtime chief of the CIA's Casualty Affairs Branch, could not have been more compassionate, but sometimes their hands were tied. DeFelice would draft a letter of condolence, take it to the CIA director for his signature and then hand-deliver it to the widow or widower. But as soon as the grieving spouse had finished reading it, he would often take it back, because the agency did not want to leave any evidence connecting the death to the CIA. The letter was deposited in the personnel file.

That practice has been abandoned, and, short of identifying their loved ones, the CIA insists it does everything it can for the families -- including counseling, invitations to yearly memorial services and scholarships for children.

Today, except in the most sensitive cases, the agency is struggling to move beyond its old rigidity. It had little choice in Afghanistan. Within days of the bombing, the names of some of the deceased were in newspapers and on television, on the Web and in social media. For Langley, the barrage of attention poses new problems. In the Internet age, the CIA no longer enjoys a stranglehold on information -- but neither can it afford to always have its hand forced. "I wonder if we could have won World War II with this kind of transparency," said one senior veteran of the CIA's clandestine ranks. "I don't see how you can put it back in the bottle."

The story of all those operatives who have died over the years is the story of the CIA itself. The woman who was the base chief at the camp outside Khost, and who was killed in the bombing, has been described as signaling a new era, one in which women lead dangerous CIA field operations. But she is hardly the first woman to die in service to the agency. Before her, at least five others lost their lives, only one of whom is named in the Book of Honor. Among the memorial's stars are young and old; male and female; black, white, Asian American and Native American.

The 90 stars do not represent the total CIA dead, only those singled out for heroism and courage. Some, such as Tucker Gougelmann, who was tortured and killed in 1976 upon returning to Vietnam, had to wait 25 years to be awarded a place in the Book of Honor. Intelligence officials say the seven killed in Afghanistan will not have to wait nearly so long.

A decade ago I wrote a magazine essay and a book about the lives behind the anonymous stars. Before publishing my accounts, I told the CIA that I had learned the identities of all its unnamed casualties, and I invited officials to make the case for why the names of certain individuals should not be included. George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, made a compelling argument that the most recent fatality should be excluded, and it was. But to my surprise, he made no additional request, suggesting that the dozens of other veiled fatalities were not so sensitive. How, I wondered, can one so burden families who had already given so much and yet not consider the circumstances sensitive enough to make a case for continued secrecy?

Those who volunteer for CIA service are a special breed; they recognize that they will probably receive no public credit for their risks, successes or sacrifices. But they have a right to expect that, absent compelling national security interests, their families will not be smothered in secrecy. That is the task that confronts the agency: protecting sources and methods while exercising reason and compassion. Even now, officials are reviewing the careers of the deceased, trying to make that calculation.

Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter with The Washington Post and Time, teaches journalism at Emerson College and is the author of "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA."

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