A crowd of CIA employees gathered in the agency lobby last week, as the stone carver stood before the Memorial Wall.
Tim Johnston scanned the white marble displaying 107 black stars, one for each agency operative or employee killed in the line of duty, a chronicle of assassinations, suicide bombings, plane crashes and other losses that he adds to each year. With a chisel and an air-powered hammer, Johnston began carving four more stars into the gleaming Alabama marble, just below the words “In Honor of Those Members of the Central Intelligence Agency Who Gave Their Lives in the Service of Their Country.”
Even the agency’s director, John O. Brennan, came down to the lobby to watch Johnston, a 59-year-old Northern Virginian who began his masonry career cutting bathroom tiles.
“I never know who’s there. I don’t know if they’re spies,” said Johnston, who has been carving stars into the wall since the late 1980s and performs the duty a week or two before the agency’s annual memorial ceremony. He considers the CIA “family.”
“It’s all for them,” he said. “It’s all about them.”
So many have died in recent years that the Memorial Wall — the CIA’s version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — is running out of room for stars within its original minimalist design. At some point soon, the agency may have to ask Johnston to carve stars into the empty space above the memorial’s inscription, a decision the agency has wrestled with for several years, he said.
For many at the CIA, Johnston embodies the emotions that the wall inspires. He is the little-known tradesman whose work honors those who specialize in tradecraft. It’s a task that Johnston hates must be done, yet he is grateful he is the one to do it.
“You almost feel like you’re dealing with a person who is not just the sculptor of the Memorial Wall and stars, but in many ways is kind of the keeper of the flame,” said Leon E. Panetta, who endured the loss of many operatives when he was CIA director, including seven killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2009. “He’s the guy who, by virtue of having to carve each star, has had to feel the meaning of what we’re doing and the tradition of what we’re doing.”
The CIA’s main lobby, with its enormous seal on the floor and field of stars on the north wall, fuels the agency’s mythology and public image. It’s here where, for a touch of CIA vérité, Hollywood has either filmed scenes or copied its look by building mock headquarters. (Fans of Showtime’s hit series “Homeland” can even purchase black T-shirts with white stars in a nod to the third-season finale’s last scene, in front of the Memorial Wall.) It’s here where the agency director swears in new officers. And it’s here every spring where employees and family members take seats facing the rows of black stars.
George J. Tenet, whose seven-year tenure as CIA director coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said that he’d usually go downstairs from his office to watch Johnston work his chisel in the days leading to the ceremony.
“I want to go see this, I want to meet this man,” Tenet said he’d tell himself. “So, I’d slip down the director’s elevator to the lobby because it was a way to connect me with what I was going to say at the memorial ceremony.”
Hardly anyone other than employees can see Johnston carve into the wall, not even parents or widows whose loved ones he honors. (In fact, only people with official agency business can even visit the memorial.) But Shannon Spann, whose husband, Johnny “Mike” Spann, was the first American killed in Afghanistan after 9/11, saw Johnston engrave her husband’s star. One day several months after Mike’s death, Shannon, who then worked at the CIA as a terrorist targeter, was alerted that Johnston was in the lobby, about to engrave the wall’s 79th star, for her husband. She hurried down. She stood to Johnston’s left, she remembered, and watched without saying a word.
“I don’t know if Mr. Johnston knows this,” she said, “but to me personally, this was a more important time than the actual ceremony.”
Manassas Granite & Marble is located about 30 miles west of the Langley headquarters, near the Manassas Regional Airport and around the corner from a 7-Eleven and Tokyo Nails, on a two-acre site that was once a brickyard. Here, Johnston and his team make custom bathroom and kitchen countertops. And, once every spring, he creates star replicas to be given to grieving CIA families at the memorial ceremony.
In early May, it was time for Johnston to make the replicas — white marble square bricks engraved with black stars. Since he was adding four stars to the Memorial Wall, he also had to make four keepsake stars.
Some years, the CIA releases the identities of the people who are being added to the wall and writes their names in the Book of Honor, which sits in a case next to the wall. But this year, the agency decided that the identities of the four newest people had to remain secret. Not even Johnston knew who would receive the stars he was about to make.
As a colleague drilled holes into a kitchen countertop, Johnston popped in earbuds and fired up a Vince Flynn novel about a missing CIA clandestine operations officer in Afghanistan. Johnston doesn’t steep himself in the news and doesn’t always instantly know when the agency has suffered a loss. But spy fiction helps him focus on the reality of his mission.
With “The Last Man” playing in his ears, Johnston placed a small block of white Alabama marble — the same marble in the CIA lobby — onto an easel. He turned on his pneumatic hammer and attached it to the shaft of an Italian-made chisel, enabling the tool to smoothly cut through the tough marble.
Ninety minutes later, Johnston finished cutting. Then, he sprayed the stars with a dark lithochrome pigment.
“That’s it,” he said, with a slight smile.
With the May 19 memorial ceremony looming, Johnston now waited for the CIA to let him know where on the wall the agency wanted the four new stars. Would he be asked to start a sixth row? Mix the four new stars into the existing five rows? Or — in a break with tradition — add stars above the memorial’s inscription?
“They never thought they would have this many stars when the Memorial Wall was built 40 years ago,” Johnston said. “Over the last six years, it’s been a major concern about what’s going to happen. Do we put stars above the words? I can do it. We can keep going, but then at some point is the whole lobby going to be filled up with all these stars? Then, it, to me, wouldn’t look like a nice memorial.”
Panetta remembers debating whether to ask Johnston to carve stars above the words, but the former director decided against it. “You hope that maybe one day we won’t have to add stars because we’ll be living in a more peaceful world,” Panetta said, “but we know the reality of and the nature of the mission.”
Johnston almost had a career driving gasoline tankers.
But after two colleagues were killed in crashes, Johnston, a 1973 graduate of Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, Va., started a bathroom tile business. He got big contracts — setting the stones for the lobby of a Marriott hotel in Richmond, for instance. Then he met Harold Vogel, a well-known Northern Virginia stone carver, and became his apprentice. Vogel had dreamed up the design for the wall, and the first stars were carved in 1974. At the time, there were 31.
Johnston joined Vogel in carving the stars in the late 1980s. In 1996, Vogel retired and Johnston and other employees bought his business.
But Johnston said the CIA contract is something that he and Vogel, who died in 2011, have always been reluctant to advertise. “Not everyone needs to know everything,” said Johnston, who also moonlights as a scuba diving instructor at the Scuba Shack in Fredericksburg, Va.
Johnston has never spoken with any relative of the agency’s dead — only once, he said, has he been invited to the annual memorial ceremony. One recent day, a reporter showed him a photograph of one of his star replicas inside the home of Racheal LaBonte, whose husband, Darren LaBonte, was one of the seven killed in 2009 in Afghanistan.
As he looked at the photo of the star replica inside LaBonte’s home, his eyes welled up and he shoved his hands into his pockets.
“That’s awesome,” he said.“I’ve just never seen photos like that.”
On Monday, hundreds of CIA employees and families of the fallen gathered for the annual memorial ceremony in front of the Memorial Wall, where four new stars had been carved, based on the agency’s approved design. Johnston had carved one star in a middle row and three stars in a new row at the bottom of the memorial.
During the ceremony, a singer performed “Amazing Grace.” The names of all of the people represented with stars were read aloud. And Brennan spoke about each of the four newly honored, who make now make up 31 dead operatives or employees whose identities the CIA says it cannot disclose yet.
Then, before everyone went home, four families Johnston will probably never know received his stars.