Story by Ted Gup
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 7, 1997
They arrived at CIA headquarters in Langley just before 11 a.m. on May 22. Those invited were instructed to leave cameras and tape recorders at home. There would be no press, no public acknowledgment that such a convocation had even occurred. Eventually, some were told, they might receive a vetted transcript of the day's remarks, but only those portions pertaining to their loved ones.
Parents, widows and widowers, fatherless sons and motherless daughters -- they all took seats in the cavernous headquarters lobby, their places reserved on folding chairs arranged in a horseshoe pattern. Not far away, each of the CIA's 17 former directors gazed out from individual oil portraits, a gallery cordoned off by a velvet rope. Ahead of them, the guests stared directly at the Wall of Honor, a field of black stars chiseled into a sheer white face of Vermont marble, flanked on the left by the American flag and on the right by the agency's banner. There were 70 stars in all -- one for each life lost. Above them, in gold block letters, read the inscription: "IN HONOR OF THOSE MEMBERS OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY."
Those assembled could see a slender case jutting out from the wall just below the field of stars. Framed in stainless steel and topped by an inch-thick plate of glass, it held the Book of Honor, like some reliquary containing a splinter of the true cross. The book's cover was of black morocco goatskin, its rough-cut pages handmade and thick with rag.
Inscribed on its pages were the 70 stars, arranged by year of death. But only 29 stars had names beside them. Some of those were overt employees of the agency. Others had had their cover so badly blown that no semblance of secrecy was left to protect. Among those listed were pilots who died testing the U-2 spy plane, and William F. Buckley, a CIA station chief in Lebanon who was abducted and tortured by terrorists. His remains were discovered in 1991 in a plastic sack on a roadside leading to the Beirut airport.
The rest of the stars in the Book of Honor, 41 in all, were nameless. For years, their identities have been among Washington's most poignant and intriguing mysteries. The Book of Honor itself provides no clues beyond the number of clandestine agents who died in a given year. There are no specific months or dates of death, no indications of where the victims perished or why.
But there are, of course, the families they left behind. At five minutes after 11 on that May morning, Pegge Hlavacek, a fashion writer from Omaha, swept into the lobby in a lavender silk blouse and white linen jacket, husband in tow. She took her place in the front row, an arm's length from Acting CIA Director George J. Tenet. At her approach, he lowered his head in respect. Forty-seven years after her first husband's death, Pegge should have been an old hand at this, but she was not. She felt a fresh grief welling up in her throat. Far to her right sat Teresa Freedman. Widowed at 41, she had made the long drive from Fayetteville, N.C., to help commemorate her husband. There were more than a dozen others, each one a story of loss.
There was something both bizarre and wrenching about that morning's observance. It began with a woman in a tuxedo standing at her seat and singing "God Bless America" in a soprano so shrill that even Tenet could not conceal his discomfort. Then the director stood to deliver his remarks.
"Here, before the memorial wall, we remember our agency family -- the men and women who distinguished themselves by their valor, their patriotism and their commitment to this agency," he said. "Every one of those men and women served this country honorably and with great distinction. Every one was loved by family and colleagues."
Tenet singled out four covert officers who were to be posthumously honored that day. Names behind the anonymous stars were read aloud. They were uttered slowly, in cadence. Two uniformed Marines stepped forward in martial precision and set an all-white floral wreath against the Wall. There followed a moment of silence. Then taps resounded through the marble foyer. After half an hour, it was all over. There was a brief and stilted reception in the upper lobby -- some pastries and punch -- and then the families dispersed to their distant homes, carrying with them the twin burdens of grief and secrecy.
In truth, few within the CIA know the identities or stories behind all the stars. Such information is compartmentalized. Even those few privy to the names often know little more. "Most of the names didn't have any resonance with me," says former CIA director Richard Helms. "I didn't know who they were. I wouldn't have necessarily known because, after all, I would be reading dispatches and telegrams from the field and they were always under a different name." The CIA's fallen sacrificed both life and identity. "It's part of espionage," says Helms. "You learn it from day one. You may ask yourself, `Why does anybody serve in a service like that?' Everything in the United States is about celebrity or recognition."
For years, when it lost one of its own, the CIA dispatched Ben DeFelice, former deputy director of personnel, to console family members and help them through the necessary paperwork. When the deceased died under cover, the procedure was complicated. A CIA veteran of 34 years, DeFelice was known for compassion. Still, he reminded the next of kin not to speak to the press or anyone else about what they knew.
DeFelice would draft a letter expressing the personal condolences of the CIA's director; it would be signed and hand-carried to the surviving spouse or parents, usually after the funeral. But because it was seen to pose a security risk and a potential embarrassment, the letter had to be read in the presence of a CIA officer and promptly surrendered. Ultimately it would be placed in the official personnel folder of the deceased at Langley. Medals, too, were often held in custody. "We didn't want to impose an unnecessary burden on the widow," DeFelice explains.
In fact, family members of CIA employees killed in the line of duty can pay a steep price for the secrecy surrounding their relatives' deaths. In some cases, they have been lied to about the circumstances in which their loved ones died. Some have been forever tethered to bogus cover stories. Their grief can be prolonged by uncertainty over what happened or by the inability to speak openly of their loss to friends or neighbors. This lack of closure sometimes passes from one generation to the next, a dour patrimony.
What follows are the stories of six of the men and women behind the CIA's nameless stars -- who they were, how they lived and died, and the consequences of their deaths for those who knew them. Between the first anonymous star and the last stretches nearly half a century, from 1950 to 1996. Taken together, they form a remarkable strand in the history of the CIA, which this month marks its 50th anniversary.
The CIA declined to cooperate with this story. Its officials have for years followed a general policy of refusing to identify any covert operatives. The policy is designed to protect agency "sources and methods" as well as operatives in the field. Some family members and friends of the agency's dead who agreed to tell their stories can see no conceivable national security concerns about what they know. Similarly, many current and retired agency employees -- more than 100 were interviewed for this article -- believe that, especially in cases decades old, it makes no sense to perpetuate secrecy.
For its part, The Washington Post decided, in the course of preparing this story, not to publish a completed profile of one of the nameless stars who died within the past two years, after the CIA argued that identifying the deceased covert officer might endanger other agents still in place.
Certainly, the job of a covert officer is replete with risk. Over the years, across five continents, terrorists' bombs, machine-gun fire, snipers' bullets, plane crashes, land mines and torture have all added stars to the Book of Honor. The stories told here are but a sampling.
The Wall of Honor is an important part of the CIA's culture of secrecy, which many at the agency see as necessary and even heroic. "The clandestine service calls for unusual sacrifice," says Adm. Stansfield Turner, CIA director from 1977 to 1981. "It is not just the anonymity but the lack of credit for what you do. People know you're Joe Jones. They think you're a second secretary or some other position in some government bureau, but you never get very high, you never get to be the top person. You are always under cover doing a different job, and to others who don't know what you're really doing, it appears you're not terribly successful."
Family and friends of the CIA's nameless stars know that what's true of a clandestine life can be doubly true of a clandestine death.
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