Cross-country bike ride to honor CIA officers killed in Khost attack

Rob Richer of Centreville is training for the 3,200-mile trip, which he plans to start in September.
Rob Richer of Centreville is training for the 3,200-mile trip, which he plans to start in September. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Joby Warrick
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Barred by law from uttering his slain comrades' names in public, retired CIA officer Rob Richer recently hit upon a novel idea for memorializing the five agency officers and two contractors killed last year in a suicide bombing near Khost, Afghanistan: He would climb on his bike and ride across the country in their honor.

But the 56-year-old former Marine had no sooner posted the itinerary for the 3,200-mile odyssey on his Web site than his phone began lighting up. Dozens of people, many of them strangers, were calling to ask if they could participate, either through donations or by joining him on the journey. Retired intelligence officers, soldiers, cops and students wanted to sign up.

"Some wanted to know if they could ride along for a few hours, or a day, or even a week," said Richer, who had envisioned making the trip this fall with only his wife, also a former Marine, pedaling alongside him. "They just wanted to find some way to help."

Five months after the Dec. 30 bombing, the same sentiment has spurred what CIA veterans describe as an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and support following the deadliest attack on the agency in a quarter-century. Former intelligence officials have raised more than $3 million to help the families of the dead and wounded, and others, such as Richer, have launched individual initiatives to raise money or awareness.

The CIA is preparing to formally honor the dead officers with a ceremony in early June that will include the unveiling of five new stars on the Memorial Wall at the agency's headquarters in Langley. The white marble wall currently has 90 stars representing intelligence officers slain since the agency's founding. Some of their names are recorded in a black, leather-bound volume near the display, but 35 of the entries are anonymous, denoting an officer in the clandestine service whose identity remains secret.

The December attack on the CIA's Forward Operating Base Chapman killed the bomber and nine other people, including the five agency officers and two contractors, an Afghan driver, and a Jordanian intelligence officer. The CIA continues to classify as secret the names of two of the officers, including the base chief, a Northern Virginia resident and mother of three who was among the agency's leading al-Qaeda experts. She and the others were killed by a Jordanian double agent who came to the base claiming to have information about top al-Qaeda operatives.

The agency is conducting a formal inquiry into how the double agent was able to get so close to so many CIA officers before being searched.

More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years, but former agency officials say the CIA deaths have evoked an unusually strong public response, in part because the officers' contributions to national security -- and, indeed, their identities -- are opaque to most Americans.

"They serve and lose their lives, but they remain anonymous," said Richer, a former CIA deputy director for operations who retired in 2005. "They don't get a parade."

Within the close-knit community of current and former intelligence officers, the deaths were a "singular shock" because the victims and their families were well known, said former CIA director Michael V. Hayden. Afterward, he said, many were looking for ways to help.

"Despite its wartime expansion, CIA is still a relatively small service," Hayden said. "So when something like Khost happens, almost everyone has a personal link to the tragedy and its victims."

At least four former CIA directors, including Hayden and former president George H.W. Bush, presided at a fundraising banquet in January to benefit the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation, which supports the families of slain officers. Two former agency officials familiar with the fund said that all money raised will be used to provide support to families of Khost bombing victims and pay for college tuition for nine children who lost a parent in the attack. Already, the charity is helping pay tuition for 27 children of slain CIA officers, said Jeffrey Smith, a former agency lawyer who serves as the foundation's general counsel.

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