The north wall in the lobby of the CIA’s headquarters in Northern Virginia is emblazoned with 117 stars, each one carved into the white Vermont marble to commemorate a CIA employee killed in the line of duty. Together, they chronicle the most dangerous work from an agency that seldom takes credit for its successes or its failures.
One star represents Nathan Ross Chapman, an Army Green Beret and CIA communications specialist who was the first American soldier to die by enemy fire in the war in Afghanistan.
Another is for William Buckley, the CIA’s legendary station chief in Lebanon, who died in 1985 after being kidnapped and tortured by Hezbollah.
And, indeed, there’s one for Douglas Mackiernan, a spy who became the first CIA officer killed on the job when he was gunned down by a Tibetan border patrol in 1950 while investigating Soviet and Chinese communist activities.
In the more than four decades since the first stars were carved, the CIA Memorial Wall has taken on an almost sacred significance for the notoriously secretive and often maligned agency. As CIA Director John Brennan, who resigned Friday when President Obama left office, said during a memorial ceremony last year: “For anyone who wants to understand the essence of the CIA, one need look no further than this hallowed wall.”
If President Trump was aware of that, he hardly acknowledged it in his remarks at CIA headquarters on Saturday.
In his first major speaking engagement on his first full day in office, Trump used the wall as a backdrop for a rambling, campaign-style speech, touching on everything from his appearances on the cover of Time magazine (“I think we have the all-time record”) to Islamic extremism to the size of his inauguration crowd. He praised Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), his pick to lead the CIA, and blamed the media for creating tension between him and the intelligence community, which he repeatedly vilified during his transition and compared to Nazis.
He briefly referenced the “very special” wall behind him before moving on to other topics, including the election results.
“Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me,” he said at one point.
Had a great meeting at CIA Headquarters yesterday, packed house, paid great respect to Wall, long standing ovations, amazing people. WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
Though he received applause from the officers who attended (all of whom had signed up to see him), Trump’s remarks were salt in the wound for others in the intelligence community, including Brennan, who called the speech a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes” and said through a spokesman that Trump “should be ashamed of himself.” Other intelligence and diplomatic officials echoed him.
“It’s simply inappropriate to engage in self obsession on a spot that memorializes those who obsessed about others, and about mission, more than themselves,” former CIA acting director John McLaughlin told the New Yorker.
What Trump might not have understood was just how sacrosanct the Memorial Wall is for the CIA.
For the first quarter century of its existence, the CIA did little to commemorate its dead, at least in any official capacity. That changed in 1973, when the idea for a memorial gained traction, according to Nicholas Dujmovic, CIA historian and veteran intelligence analyst. It was a disastrous time for the agency, which was “under siege” after a range of its activities came to light, including its infiltration of student groups during the Cold War and its abuse and torture of prisoners in the Vietnam War, as Dujmovic wrote in 2008.
Morale was low, he said, and the agency needed a boost.
“By 1973,” Dujmovic wrote, “with the Agency under attack, there was a felt need for commemoration.”
A memorial wall was approved at the end of the year and quietly sculpted in 1974. “No ceremony was held to dedicate it,” Dujmovic wrote. “It simply appeared one day.”
It wasn’t until 13 years later, in 1987, that the wall was formally dedicated. Again, the agency needed a morale boost. Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon, had been killed by Hezbollah two years earlier, and the agency had drawn intense negative publicity from the Iran-contra affair, in which CIA operatives and senior government officials helped sell arms to Iran in exchange for money to fund militant groups in Nicaragua. Deputy Director Robert Gates, who would go on to lead the agency and later the Department of Defense, presided at the ceremony, laying the wreaths that have become fixtures at the memorial.
After that, the CIA began holding annual memorial ceremonies, first just for agency employees, then for their family members. In 1995, as the agency was again mired in controversy over human rights violations and other issues, the director for the first time read the names of all the dead — a tradition that has carried on to the present, according to Dujmovic.
“The ‘Stars,’ as we have come to call our commemorated dead at CIA,” Dujmovic wrote, “have become part of the symbolic vocabulary recognizable to all.”
Not every CIA employee who dies receives a star. According to the agency, a special awards panel must recommend an employee to the director. Death must be “of an inspirational or heroic character,” or the result of terrorism, hazardous conditions or premeditated violence specifically targeting the person because of their CIA affiliation.
Even if a fallen officer meets those criteria, the process can take years, as in the case of Nathan Ross Chapman. The U.S. Army sergeant had been officially assigned to a CIA paramilitary team when he was killed by gunfire in Khost, Afghanistan, in early 2002, just months after U.S. troops entered the country. The CIA didn’t mark his death with a star on the wall until 2015, as The Washington Post has reported.
Nor is the identity behind every star made public. As The Post’s Ian Shapira has reported, some years, the CIA releases new names in the Book of Honor, which sits in a case in front of the memorial, but some remain secret. Those who go unidentified are marked in the book by a sole gold leaf star.
“The stars on the Memorial Wall are to us more than symbols, more than history,” McLaughlin, the former acting director, said in 2001. “They are a priceless part of who we are.”
In 2017, the CIA is again facing intense scrutiny, this time from a president who has repeatedly attacked the intelligence community over reports that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to help him win.
As he addressed CIA employees on Saturday, standing against the backdrop of the 117 black stars, he pledged his support to the agency.
“There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” he said. “I am so behind you.”