The call from the Central Intelligence Agency came on a December afternoon in 2009 while Gary Anderson was skiing with his three children. It’s about your wife, the agency man said.
Standing inside Eagle Rock ski lodge in Pennsylvania, Anderson pleaded for details. The CIA official said simply: Where are you? We’ll meet you.
Anderson suspected dreadful news about Jennifer Matthews, his college sweetheart, his wife of 22 years and a CIA operative on assignment almost 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. With several hours until the CIA meeting, Anderson and his three children — then 12, 9 and 6 — hit the slopes for one more hour. The father wanted to cling a little longer to normalcy, to a life between before and after.
Finally, the Fredericksburg family got into their silver minivan and headed to a nearby motel. There, in a sterile conference room, CIA officials told Anderson the news: His wife, one of the CIA’s top al-Qaeda experts, had just been killed in an explosion at a base in Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan. There was no mention of a double agent, no indication that six other CIA operatives had died in the deadliest attack on agency personnel in decades.
Anderson, who is commenting publicly on the loss of his wife for the first time, was so stunned that he couldn’t formulate questions, except: Are you sure she’s dead?
Then he summoned his children, who were waiting outside.
“I just said to them, ‘Your mom has died.’ The two oldest fell apart. They started crying,” he remembered. “One of them asked, ‘Is this really true?’ I just kind of hugged them. And then the craziness started after that.”
* * *
A Jordanian double agent’s suicide bombing of the CIA base received days of media coverage. The CIA had been tricked into welcoming one of al-Qaeda’s own onto the agency’s base, enabling him to detonate a vest laden with explosives. On television, pundits and agency retirees called the incident a catastrophe, Langley’s “Pearl Harbor.” Initially, commentators did not utter Matthews’s name, but they did describe the Khost base chief as a “mother of three.” Anderson felt that his wife, however anonymously, was bearing all the blame.
Five months after her burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Matthews’s name became public at a CIA ceremony honoring fallen employees.
Then, in October 2010, the CIA released results of the agency’s internal investigation into the Khost attack, fueling another round of stories that Matthews was partially responsible. Matthews and her team, the report concluded, failed to follow the agency’s procedures for vetting informants. One of Matthews’s severest critics was her uncle, Dave Matthews, a retired CIA official who had helped inspire his niece to join the agency.
Now Anderson and other relatives who once agreed not to speak with the media are breaking their silence to talk about Matthews’s life and death and about how her promotion to a perilous CIA posting has divided them.
On the surface, Anderson, a chemist and devoted churchgoer, accepts his wife’s fate even as he continues to mourn her death at the age of 45. “I loved being married to her,” he said. “She was a great lady.”
But underneath, Anderson, 50, is seething. He’s angry with the teachings in the Koran that he believes incited the suicide bomber to kill Americans; he’s upset with the CIA for failing to realize that a prized informant was a double agent willing to blow himself up; and he’s hurt by the legion of critics, including Matthews’s uncle, who have questioned her qualifications for the job she was doing.
“The suicide bomber was a bad guy, but at the time, nobody could clearly see it,” Anderson said. “I think the agency prepared my wife to be a chief of the Khost base, but not in terms of preparing for this asset. This guy wasn’t vetted.” And the mother of his three children is dead because of it.
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From the start, Dave Matthews, 74, tried to talk his niece out of going to Afghanistan. He had served during the 1960s in the agency’s secret war in Laos and didn’t think that Matthews, whom he says he loved like a daughter, had the training for a war-zone posting. But she wouldn’t listen.
Jennifer Matthews hadn’t always aspired to be a CIA operative. In 1986, she graduated with degrees in broadcast journalism and political science from Cedarville University, a small Christian college in Ohio where she met Anderson. Back then, she was an avid runner with auburn hair who believed deeply in God but also reveled in arguing about theology and politics.
“There were a lot of submissive types there,” Anderson recalled. “She wasn’t that way.”
In 1987, they married and moved to the Washington area, where she wanted to find a job that would enable her to serve God and have an impact on the world.
She sent an application to Langley and landed a job as an intelligence analyst in 1989. Her first assignment involved interpreting aerial photographs from Iran, said Anderson, who was excited about his wife’s new career but quickly realized that he would have to abide by a certain spousal code: Don’t expect too many details about her work.
Her uncle was proud that Matthews was following in his footsteps and thought that his beloved niece was destined to vault up the the agency’s hierarchy. “Hell, I thought she’d be the director of the CIA,” he said. “But then, she got sucked into operations.”
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Matthews became fixated on Osama bin Laden long before most Americans had ever heard of him. By the mid-1990s, she had been assigned to Alec Station, a special unit based in Northern Virginia that was responsible for targeting al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
“Jennifer was one of the visionaries who recognized the threat of al-Qaeda,” said one of Matthews’s colleagues, a CIA counterterrorism officer made available by the agency. The officer works undercover and cannot be named.
Al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 intensified Matthews’s job. “They were understaffed and overworked,” Anderson said. “It was demoralizing for her. Pre-9/11, they knew something big was going to happen.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Matthews and Anderson were in Switzerland on vacation when they learned about the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Anderson won’t describe how she reacted. “It was just horror,” he said.
The attacks fueled her. Inside a tiny conference room in Tysons Corner, Matthews led a squad of CIA officers who were working nonstop to hunt down al-Qaeda’s leaders. She helped make the first big catch, an al-Qaeda logistics planner known as Abu Zubaida.
She flew to Thailand for Abu Zubaida’s interrogation and witnessed him being waterboarded, according to “The Triple Agent,” a book by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick that explores the Khost attack.
Matthews was known at the agency as a forceful, opinionated person, unafraid to speak candidly to superiors. “She didn’t tolerate idiots,” Anderson said. “But she was diplomatic, too. She was good at reading people.”
Yet just a few years after the terrorist attacks, Matthews suffered a surprising comedown. The CIA had launched a probe to determine why the agency failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. The report, only partially released, recommended disciplinary action against Matthews and other agency managers for not warning the FBI about two al-Qaeda operatives who had entered the country in 2000.
Although the names were never made public and then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss declined to take any disciplinary action, the report infuriated Matthews and her colleagues. But the humiliation of being named in the report didn’t derail her career.
In 2005, Matthews received a plum assignment, the London station, where she served as chief counterterrorism liaison to the British intelligence services. Anderson and their three children went with her, spending four years in a rowhouse near the U.S. Embassy and Hyde Park. It was a comfortable life. A nanny cooked. On Saturday nights, they would eat dinner while watching “Doctor Who,” the British science-fiction show.
In early 2009, she noticed a job posting for a one-year assignment tracking down al-Qaeda leaders as chief of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost. She would work with CIA-funded Afghan commandos to pursue targets. She would help coordinate drone attacks.
Her husband and children would have to return to Fredericksburg, but the Khost job could bump her up the CIA pay scale and lead to promotions. Most of all, Anderson said, his wife felt obligated, given her cushy four-year London gig.
“She asked me what I thought, and I just said: ‘This sounds really good. You’d be really good at it,’ ” Anderson recalled.
Charles E. Allen, a former assistant director at the CIA, who helped lead an independent review of the Khost attack at the agency’s behest, said Matthews was “haunted” by the blame she received after the Sept. 11 attacks and thought the hardship posting could help erase that stain.
Her husband did broach the subject of roadside bombs. But she stressed that the base would be surrounded by the military. He also sensed that leaving their children weighed on her. “But she didn’t verbalize those concerns to me,” Anderson said. “She knew I was capable and that I could take care of stuff.”
By April 2009, the job was hers. There was only one person left to hash it out with: Dave Matthews, her uncle.
* * *
On one side of the front porch at his home in southern Virginia was the retired CIA official, who was once in charge of finding safe houses during the Cold War. On the other was his ambitious, active-duty niece, eager to wage war against Islamist extremists.
Dave Matthews brought up the obvious: “I said, ‘You have your children,’ and she said, ‘I would never put myself at risk because of the kids.’ ”
He suggested that she was just doing it to climb the agency ladder and make more money — a remark that offended her. He urged her to resign rather than go to Afghanistan.
“I said, ‘These people over there are ruthless. Here you are, a Christian woman, killing their heroes. Everything’s wrong about it, Jenny,’ ” the uncle recalled. “She took offense at any suggestion that a female can’t do what a male can do.”
Anderson also thought that the arguments were sexist and that his wife would be safe.
“ ‘It’s her decision,’ ” the uncle recalled Anderson saying. “They thought God would protect her.”
* * *
On Dec. 30, 2009, Matthews and six other CIA operatives at Forward Operating Base Chapman were waiting for Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who they believed had infiltrated al-Qaeda’s upper ranks. Balawi had been sending tantalizing video of the cell’s leaders. The CIA thought Balawi might ultimately lead the agency to bin Laden, the world’s No. 1 wanted man.
The CIA arranged for Balawi to be driven to its Khost base for a secret debriefing with several agency officers, including Matthews. She and her team were so eager to meet Balawi that they arrayed themselves in front of his car to greet him.
Balawi, sitting in the back, climbed out and yelled to Allah. Then Balawi, who was wearing a vest laden with C-4 explosives, hit the detonator. A flash lit up the base as the explosion unleashed bits of shrapnel and ball bearings. Shrapnel tore through Matthews’s neck, and one of her legs was so badly burned the bone was exposed, according to “The Triple Agent.”
She died in a helicopter on the way to a hospital. Six other CIA employees and contractors also were killed: Elizabeth Hanson, Darren LaBonte, Scott Michael Roberson, Dane Clark Paresi, Jeremy Wise and Harold Brown Jr.
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Anderson is grateful to the CIA for etching his wife’s name in the legendary Book of Honor on display in the agency’s main lobby. He appreciates that then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta attended her memorial service and her graveside service at Arlington National Cemetery, where the spymaster handed Anderson an American flag.
But he is critical of the CIA for being so easily seduced by Balawi, who was discovered in 2008 writing screeds on jihadist Web sites. He was arrested and supposedly turned by the Jordanian spy agency in mere days. The CIA joined in handling him.
“When you look at the history of this guy, he was flipped in a matter of days, which is ridiculous,” Anderson said. “Why wasn’t he checked in transit to the base?”
Anderson was even more baffled after he learned that LaBonte, one of the CIA officers killed in the attack, was sounding alarms about Balawi’s trustworthiness before the Khost meeting.
“Why couldn’t he convince Jennifer that they shouldn’t let this guy on the base without being searched?” Anderson said, adding that he hesitates to blame LaBonte, either. “This stuff should have gone back to headquarters, and someone should have made a call.”
Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador who helped conduct the independent review of the attack, said, “We don’t know if Darren ever articulated his concerns in a cohesive way.” But Pickering also said that circumstantial evidence suggested that Matthews did not heed her security officer’s warnings not to greet Balawi with too many people — a breach of long-standing tradecraft.
Anderson tires of the postmortem attacks on his wife. He was especially incensed by former CIA operative Robert Baer’s piece in GQ magazine. Baer used a pseudonym — “Kathy” — for Matthews but asserted that she was “set up to fail” and “in over her head.”
“It was just mean,” Anderson said. “It was like, ‘Girls can’t do this stuff.’ ”
Anderson and Dave Matthews haven’t spoken since shortly after her death. “About a week before the funeral, Dave said she didn’t know what she was doing. And this was her fault. I was like, ‘Okay, we’re done,’ ” Anderson said.
Dave Matthews thinks the agency is more culpable than his niece.
“I was saying to Gary that if Jenny followed tradecraft rules, this wouldn’t have happened. And that she wasn’t trained” in how to vet informants, Matthews recalled. “Gary was too supportive. As a husband, he should have fussed with her about going. But he just dismissed me. He said my knowledge was from the Cold War. I said, ‘Jeez, Gary, look at the evidence. How many have to die for you to realize that something went tragically wrong?’ ”
The phone call ended.
Jennifer Matthews’s parents voiced some of the same concerns as her uncle.
“When we found out she was going to a danger zone, we questioned it,” said her father, Bill Matthews, 78, a retired printing press operator from Harrisburg, Pa. “I do believe she needed more training.”
As devout Christians, they believe that “there is a plan and purpose behind it all,” her father said. “She’s in heaven right now. Some day, we’ll see her.”
* * *
At his home near Fredericksburg, Anderson spends most of his time with his daughter, now 14, and two sons, 11 and 9. (He didn’t want their names published to protect their privacy.) The family is living off a stipend paid by the federal government as a result of his wife’s death. He wants a new job, something science-related, but his chief focus is on being a single father.
“I can’t be a mom, but I gotta be better dad than I was before because I have to make up for the fact Jen’s not around,” he said.
The children don’t ask a lot of questions about her death. He figures that, as they mature, they’ll insist on knowing more.
“They just miss their mom,” he said. “Sometimes, they’ll ask, ‘What food did she like?’ ” Or they’ll reminisce about how they used to put fake snakes and spiders in her bed. How she used to tease the boys about possible girlfriends.
Anderson is surrounded by his wife’s things. Some of her jewelry sits on her bureau. He misses one piece, especially. It was a platinum Celtic cross necklace that he shipped to her at Khost for Christmas.
“She wanted to delineate herself since she was going to a Muslim country,” he said.
She was wearing it the day she was killed.