The Washington Post Magazine


Star Agents
(Page Three)

The Washington Post
Sunday, September 7, 1997










'THEY SAID

CERTAIN

THINGS

HAD STILL

NOT BEEN

DECLASSIFIED,'

SAYS

BUFORD ROBBINS.

'IT'S A LITTLE

STRANGE.

YOU REALLY

DON'T

KNOW

WHAT TO

THINK.'





Lawrence N. Freedman
Lawrence N. Freedman
The explosive-device expert and motorcycle enthusiast sought out dangerous assignments like Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, where, apparently driving over a mine, he was killed on December 23,1992.

'You Have Some Questions'
Barbara Annette Robbins would not have found a leading role in the novels of Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy.

She was a workaday secretary, a GS-5. Her father was a meat cutter. When she was born on June 26, 1943, in Vermillion, S.D., her father, Buford, was halfway around the world, aboard the USS Chincoteague. By the time he returned home, his daughter was 14 months old. What he remembers most about her was that she had a mind of her own. Early on, she told people she would be a missionary.

In 1948, at the age of 5, she was playing in her front yard in Sioux City, Iowa, when she saw the trolley coming, bringing her father home. She raced across the street to greet him, into the path of an oncoming car. Her ankle and foot were mangled. After that, she limped and wore a metal brace that fit into her shoe, hinged at the ankle, and fastened with a leather strap under her knee. Her injury slowed her down, but kept her from nothing.

She graduated in the top 10th of her high school class in Denver and attended Colorado State University. In the summer of 1963 she was recruited by the CIA. A year later she announced to her parents that she had volunteered for Vietnam. Her father remembers: "I went into her bedroom and sat on her bed and said, `Hey, why Vietnam? That's kind of a mess over there.' " His daughter expounded on the "domino theory," the view that communism would march from one nation to the next. "When they get to West Colfax [a Denver thoroughfare], mister, you'll wish you'd done something," she told him.

On August 5, 1964, six weeks after her 21st birthday, she arrived in Saigon as a CIA secretary in the U.S. Embassy. Her cover was as a State Department employee. But her life in Vietnam was singularly devoid of intrigue.

At 10:55 a.m. on Monday, March 30, 1965, a black Citroen sedan was observed parked on a street beside the embassy. A policeman ordered the driver to move on. Shots were fired. On the second floor of the five-story building, Robbins heard the commotion and rushed to the window. At that moment, 250 pounds of explosives detonated in the car. She was killed instantly, impaled by the steel grating that surrounded the window. The bomb left 22 dead and 186 wounded. Robbins was one of two Americans killed.

Among the telegrams read aloud at her funeral was one from Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Another came from President Lyndon Johnson. The city of Denver was staggered. Until then, the war had seemed an abstraction to many. The day after the bombing, the Denver Post's lead editorial, titled "Embassy Blast Hits Us All," observed: "The many Denverites who knew Miss Robbins can now have no doubts about the seriousness and the bloodiness of the war in Viet Nam."

Following the attack, U.S. and Vietnamese fighter-bombers unleashed a furious assault against a North Vietnamese air base. It was not, U.S. officials insisted, in reprisal for the previous day's bombing. Hardly anyone believed them.

In June 1965, Robbins's parents and brother were flown to Washington to take part in a memorial service at the State Department. Rusk presented them with a posthumous "Secretary's Award." Later they were escorted to the CIA, where they dined with Deputy Director Richard Helms and the chief of the Far East Division, William Colby.

Robbins was the youngest person honored with a star at the CIA. Thirty years after her death, in May 1995, her father, Buford, then 73, and mother, Ruth, 77, returned to the agency for a memorial service. They wondered why their daughter's name was still not inscribed in the Book of Honor. "I asked about that," says Buford Robbins. "They said certain things had still not been declassified. It's a little strange. You really don't know what to think. We are naturally proud of Barbara but at the same time, you feel like you have some questions. I think her name should be in the book."

'Chasing a Ghost'
Adrienne met him at a mixer in the gym at Connecticut's Fairfield University on November 20, 1959. The broad-shouldered sophomore persuaded her to ride with him on the back of a motor scooter. She was shy, but not too shy to accept. They dated throughout college and were married on October 5, 1963, in St. Mary's Church, Ridgefield, Conn.

Mike Maloney was a husky 5-foot-9 with a voracious appetite, a passion for sports and a knack for having a good time. But he ached for something more than the ambitions that stirred his classmates.

First and foremost, he wanted to be like his father, Arthur "Mal" Maloney. Not an easy task. A graduate of West Point, Class of '38, and a World War II veteran, his father had, at 32, risen to full colonel in the 82nd Airborne. Among his many honors were a Distinguished Service Cross, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. The last was awarded for a wound suffered in the D-Day invasion. Because of it, Maloney walked with a limp and wore a brace on his left leg. In 1947 he tried to reenlist but was turned down because of his injuries. So he joined the fledgling CIA and became a covert case officer, serving over the years in South and Central America, as well as Vietnam.

In college, friends remember Mike Maloney showing them a book that referred to his father's wartime exploits. "He wanted to emulate his father so much that I think that was the number one thought in his mind," says classmate Michael Touhey. After college, Maloney attempted to enlist in the military. But he was rejected because of asthma. So he, too, joined the CIA. After six months of paramilitary training at Camp Perry in Virginia, he was ordered overseas -- to Laos.

In September 1965 Mike Maloney, Adrienne and their 11-month-old son, Michael, moved to Bangkok and rented a house. She was already pregnant with their second son. In early October, Maloney kissed her goodbye and set out for his inaugural mission. New to the region, he would need some breaking in.

One week later, on October 12, 1965, Maloney boarded an H-34 helicopter operated by Air America, a CIA-run company. Along with him went a veteran of clandestine operations. The two were to train indigenous peoples, organizing them into "roadwatchers." Code-named "Operation Hardnose," the objective was to use Laotians to monitor and disrupt the flow of supplies to the Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Not long after the chopper took off, it suffered engine failure and plummeted into the jungle. Word of the loss went to Langley and on to Maloney's father, then stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. Mike Maloney's sister, Erin, then 14, remembers the phone ringing twice that night. The first was to say Mike was missing. The second would report that a team of commandos from the Air Rescue Strike Force had searched for survivors and instead found bodies.

In Bangkok, Adrienne was still waiting for her husband's return. "I was expecting him any day," she remembers, "and I saw this car pull up and I thought it was Mike, but it was two officials from the embassy and the wife of a friend. They told me instantly. I learned of it standing on the front steps . . . It was like the sun burst apart. Everything got very bright and we went inside."

Maloney's link to the CIA was not disclosed. In the few news accounts of the day, it was reported that Maloney had been an employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development helping to resettle refugees in Saravane province.

Maloney's mother, Mary, tried to have her son buried at Arlington National Cemetery but was refused because he had not served in the military. Instead he was interred in Lakeville, Conn., without military honors.

The Maloney family's grief was enveloped in secrecy. "All we ever heard was that he died in a helicopter accident," recalls his son Michael. "That was it. There was no mention of the Vietnam War. I got most of my information because I snooped in my mother's drawer one day and there were all these certificates and stuff. Mom has always been very tight-lipped about the agency. We were not allowed to talk to other people about it." Mike Maloney's name would not even appear on the Vietnam wall.

After nearly 25 years with the CIA, Maloney's father, Mal, retired in 1971. "He adored Mike," recalls Adrienne. "The spark went out of that man's life when Mike died." Stricken with Alzheimer's, he returned to the agency only once, on May 29, 1991, to attend a ceremony honoring his son. He died on August 18, 1994.

Mike Maloney's sons coped with the loss of their father amid uncertainty about who he had really been. It was particularly hard on Craig, born four months after his father was killed. "Because his father had never seen him, it affects him," says Adrienne. "I always made a big deal out of the fact that his father had chosen his name and could feel him kicking in me." On Craig's bedroom dresser is a picture of his father and the jump watch he used when sky diving. Craig applied to the CIA, then reconsidered. "I just came to the realization that I was doing it for the wrong reasons," he says. "I was chasing a ghost."

Now 31, he works, ironically, for an insurance company in the field of risk management. Over the years, his longing to know more about his father has intensified. "The void that has been in my life has grown as I have gotten older," he says. Thoughtful and introspective, he wrote the CIA many times asking for information about his father.

Four years ago, the agency relented and allowed Craig and Michael to examine their father's files. They were led into a room and seated at a table. The files were stamped "TOP SECRET." Some things had been removed, others blacked out. Maloney's sons pored over the papers searching for clues about their father. What they found was his CIA application, his essay on why he wanted to join the agency, his college transcripts.

Michael, 32, also considered the CIA, but missed his interview after contracting the flu. "I took it as a sign from God that I wasn't supposed to do it," he says half-jokingly. Today he teaches kindergarten in Arlington.

Maloney's widow, Adrienne, is now 56. She never remarried. Her wedding ring, inscribed "FOREVER M.A.M. TO A.L.M.," was set into the base of a gold chalice and given to a church to be used in sacraments. Several years ago she gathered her husband's letters into a pile and burned them, as if that might free her from the past.

Last year, she attended an agency memorial ceremony. As she stood before the Wall of Honor she became aware of a man standing beside her. He was in his thirties and holding the hand of a little girl, perhaps 5 years of age. "He pointed to the star," she recalls, "and I heard him say, `That's Mommy's star,' and it just chilled me."

Following the memorial service, Adrienne was introduced to then-CIA Director John Deutch. She asked him why, after 30 years, her husband's name could not be inscribed openly in the Book of Honor. Was there really some compelling national security reason to keep his name secret?

"He simply didn't understand," says Adrienne. "He looked at me and said, `Well, why isn't his name there? Why don't you write me a note? Don't put down any explanation, no song and dance, just a note.' " Adrienne Maloney did just that. "I sent it registered mail so I knew they had to sign for it." Months later she called to find out the status of her request. She was told they could not find her letter.

"I never heard from them again," she says. "I would say it's a lost cause. I really would love to see it happen, to see his name in the book, just for the sake of closure for the boys."

Deutch does not remember Adrienne Maloney, but does not dispute her account. "These things unfortunately happen," he says. "Certainly there is a lot of mail that comes in there. I regret very much if something of that importance was misdirected. Not only is it a bad reflection on my office but on the system as a whole. I am sure it was unintended."

"It's 30 years ago," Craig says, "and I can't help but think of what kind of rhetorical crap and political crap it is that they can't release his name. His name deserves to be there. We write letters and they never go where they should. I think it's completely unjust."

Not long ago, Maloney's son Michael wrote a poem for his brother, now framed on Craig's bedroom wall. It is titled "Your Father's Son." It reads, in part:

Faded Stories, Secrets Told,
A Marble Star To Behold,
Her Pictures Gathered In One Place;
To Suffice For One So Bold?
Track The Ghost Who Wears Your Face
Through The Halls Of Time And Space.

(continued on Page Four)

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