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Children of dead CIA officers try to learn about their work

Children of early CIA recruits are realizing that decades of intriguing mystery does not end after their loved ones die.

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

John F. Sullivan had always wondered about his mother, Leonor E. "Lee" Sullivan, a CIA secretary and translator who died in December at 70, and especially about the strange telephones in their Reston home in the late 1970s and '80s. The Spy Phones, as the family called them, looked like ordinary tan rotary phones, but the standing orders were clear: Those are Mommy's phones. Never pick them up if they ring.

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Sullivan, 36, a Waldorf resident who works in Naval intelligence preparing SEALs for missions, has little idea whom his mother was talking to on those phones or what the precise nature of her work was.

"Mom said: 'Don't ever get on that phone. When I am on it, get away,' " said Sullivan, whose office staff greets callers with a chirpy "Hello, irregular warfare." "The notes my mom would keep, she kept in a safe. Now, the safe is gone."

His younger brother Jimmy Sullivan, however, recalled picking up the Spy Phone when playing video games with friends. "We'd be playing Atari, and we'd listen in," he said. "Or we'd pick up, and it'd be some dude in German ranting and raving."

When CIA employees are slain in action, as happened in Afghanistan in December, when a suicide bomber killed seven officers and contractors, relatives who live in the dark about their loved one's work often fall into confusion and a passion to know more. Now, as the agency's earliest generation of Cold Warriors fades away from old age or disease, grown children who might have known only that their parents were in the CIA are stumbling upon letters and other records that fill holes in their family's narrative.

As children, even if they grew up envisioning clandestine heroics, they knew not to ask many questions. As adults, they often didn't want to intrude. Now, they are learning that after a loved one's death, decades of unslaked curiosity can be only partially satisfied.

The first generation of employees of the secretive agency and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (established in 1942), is dying off. In the past two years, more than 130 obituaries of retired or former CIA or OSS staff members have appeared in The Washington Post describing the employees as officer, spy or something blander yet tantalizing -- project director or analyst.

Even after employees die, the CIA generally does not disclose their former duties or involvement in history's major moments. CIA spokeswoman Marie E. Harf said many employees' successes from that first generation "can't be shared publicly even now." But unlike the families of the CIA officers killed in Afghanistan, relatives of deceased CIA employees contacted for this article said they have not been ordered to keep silent about their loved one's career or life. "In all cases, the judgment of the individual employee is key," Harf said, adding that time can ease the restrictions on some secrets: "Operational equities and sensitivities, of course, can lessen with the passage of time."

What did Mom really do?

The elder Sullivan brother remembers only a few details about his parents' lives in the agency. He recalls having to wait in the CIA's lobby in Langley on days that his parents dragged him along. But he has enough shreds of knowledge to tease him with dark possibilities. In college, he learned about the Phoenix program, the CIA's controversial counterinsurgency effort during the Vietnam War in which Americans trained South Vietnamese units to capture and interrogate Viet Cong targets. Some of those targets were killed, leading many Americans to think of Phoenix as an assassination program. Sullivan, born in 1973 in Vietnam, never knew much about what his parents did there at the tail end of the war.

So, one day in about 1993, as a third-class midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he asked.

"I said: 'Were you involved in the Phoenix program? Can you tell me?' " Sullivan recalls. "She said, 'I was an administrative assistant.' That's all she said. Oh, and that she worked with Frank Snepp," referring to the CIA analyst and counterintelligence officer whose 1977 bestseller criticized the CIA for its role in Vietnam. "I never knew the exact details. She wasn't involved in pulling the trigger, but she may have been involved in administering the orders."

Theresa Kramer, a longtime Georgetown ballet instructor, still wonders about the mysteries cloaking the life of her dead father, a longtime federal intelligence operative. S. Paul Kramer died nearly two years ago at 93, but his daughter sees only etchings of his life's narrative.


CONTINUED     1        >

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