The Washington Post Magazine

Star Agents
(Page Four)

The Washington Post
Sunday, September 7, 1997



















Richard Spicer
Richard Spicer
Before he died in a plane crash on a mission in support of Nicaragua's contra rebels, on October 18, 1984, Spicer was a proficient pilot working for a public utility in Houston in the early 1980s.

'I Am Going on a Trip'
It rained on the October day in 1984 when they lowered Richard Spicer's mangled body into the grave. It was a sloppy rain that carried off the fresh dirt and swept everything clean. By the time the sod was replaced, there was no evidence a grave had even been dug. Nor did the gravediggers lay their usual temporary aluminum marker to locate the grave while they waited for a permanent marker. "The government man who came here told me not to mark the grave," at least for a time, recalls funeral director Donald McKinney of Youngsville, Pa.

The local obituary noted that Spicer was 53 and had died in "southern Florida." McKinney remembers being told by "the government man" that Spicer had died in a car accident in Miami.

Not withstanding the CIA's efforts, Spicer's death made front page news around the nation. He and the three men who died with him in a plane crash over El Salvador were the first known U.S. casualties in Central America since the Reagan administration began funding a secret war there in the early 1980s. Within days, newspaper reporters found Spicer's grave and began trying to reconstruct the circumstances of his death.

Spicer had been part of the shadowy but publicly acknowledged U.S. government support for Nicaragua's contra rebels, who mounted violent resistance to Managua's Soviet-backed, leftist Sandinista government. The contras received arms, training, money and political support from Washington, channeled in substantial part through the CIA. They were one of a number of anti-leftist forces worldwide that the Reagan administration supported to keep the Soviet Union off balance.

Spicer's death certificate noted he had been a pilot and had died on October 18, 1984, at 8:30 p.m. It was signed by the U.S. vice consul in El Salvador. The CIA acknowledged that two of the men on the plane, Scott Van Lieshout and Curtis Wood, were its employees. Those two would later have their names inscribed in the Book of Honor. But Spicer's death was different. He had been covert. Within a day of the crash, though there was no hope of concealing his identity, the agency continued its quixotic efforts to keep his name out of the press.

Spicer himself was a vague and private figure. He had grown up on farms in Arkansas and California where his father raised crops and managed the land. His mother, now 87, remembers that, as a child, he was captivated by planes. "I'm going to fly one of those one day," he would say each time a plane passed overhead. At 17 he dropped out of school to enlist in the Army. Later he spent 10 years with the Air Force.

He was married three times and was the father of three daughters and two sons. But, as his elder son, Richard, says, "He couldn't hack being a father." He was unemotional. An arch-conservative, he converted from the Baptist faith to Catholicism but grew disaffected with the church, suspecting it had come under leftist influence.

Closest to him was his younger brother, Carroll, now a retired Tulsa firefighter. The two spoke often. "When he went with the CIA he called me and swore me to secrecy," Carroll recalls. "I was not to tell any family member what he was doing." Spicer was fascinated with the technical capabilities of the aircraft he flew on agency missions. "He would tell me they were flying a Merlin twin engine, that it was a flying laboratory. Their mission was to search, locate and report. They were to fly over Nicaragua using infrared sensors, look for pack trains, mules, horses -- and X-ray them to see what they were carrying, if it was, in his words, 'contraband.' They were then to radio ahead. They [also] had listening devices" they could use to intercept conversations on the ground, Carroll says.

Often the conversations with his brother were cryptic. "The night he called me was the night before he left for the trip that killed him. 'Carroll,' he said, 'I am going on a trip. Let's hope you don't hear anything bad on the news about a guy by the name of Dick Brinks, with an "s." ' I said, 'That's your old Air Force buddy,' and he said, 'That's Dick Brink.' And with that I understood that that was the name he was going to use on that trip." Carroll says his brother was with the agency less than four months before he died.

The CIA took care of all funeral arrangements, shipping Spicer's body, already embalmed, to Youngsville on Eastern Air Lines. Everything was prepaid. With the casket arrived a neatly folded U.S. flag.

Spicer's brother Carroll isn't sure what to believe. He still does not buy the agency's explanation that the plane crashed into a mountainside. His brother was a crack pilot with 27,000 hours in the air. He isn't even convinced his brother is dead. He wonders if perhaps his brother is not somewhere on assignment under deepest cover.

After attending a memorial service at Langley, Spicer's son Richard was promised he would receive a photograph of Spicer's widow, against a backdrop of the nameless stars, holding an award certificate his father received posthumously. When the picture arrived, he says, it had been doctored so that the words on the certificate were blurred and no longer legible.

Today Spicer's grave is openly marked by a bronze tablet. On it is written: "Richard C. Spicer SSGT [Staff Sergeant] U.S. Air Force."

'Look in the Mirror'
In some ways, Lawrence N. Freedman was an unlikely candidate for the career he chose. Born into a devoutly Jewish home in Philadelphia, he brazenly declared himself "SuperJew," a nickname used by his colleagues in Delta Force, the elite counter-terrorist unit headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. His sister even made him a Superman-like cape with the Hebrew letter for "S" that he wore at parties. On Friday evenings he would sometimes say the blessing over the Sabbath candles, but he could also be as obscene and profane as anyone on base.

He was deliberately over-the-top. A notorious flirt and rogue, he tested all who came in contact with him, taking their measure and weeding out the squeamish. He was only 5-foot-9, but armored with muscle from years of pumping iron, running five miles a day and keeping his survival skills sharp. When he wasn't on a mission he was often cruising down the highway on his Harley Davidson FXRT, 1340 cc, the fringe of his black leather jacket and chaps flying. To the outside world he might well have been mistaken for an aging truant, but many who got close enough to know him saw him as a man consumed by the military's ideals of duty and honor. "He believed in everything we all believed in -- red, white and blue, John Wayne, apple pie," says former colleague Ron Franklin.

Freedman sought out risky assignments around the world. First it was as a Green Beret in Vietnam, where he married his first wife, a Vietnamese woman, and adopted her two children. Then it was Central America. He was there for Desert One, the aborted 1980 mission to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran, a journey that took the lives of eight of his fellow soldiers. From 1986 until 1990, he helped train the Delta Force. Then he retired -- at least that was his cover story. In fact, he signed on with the CIA's Counter-Terrorism unit.

As a soldier, Freedman was many things -- a medic, a "bomber" trained to defuse explosive devices, an intelligence officer, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and a communications, or "commo," man. But as a sniper he was nearly without peer. Once, remembers Gale McMillan, a maker of specialty weapons, the two of them were testing night scopes at Camp Perry. It was a night so dark it swallowed up the faces of their watches. Freedman lay down, steadied his arm on a sandbag, and fixed his scope at a target no larger than a quarter at a distance of 250 yards. He squeezed off five shots. When they examined the target they found a single ragged hole through which all five bullets had passed, McMillan says.

In 1992, Freedman sought an assignment in Operation Restore Hope, the campaign to deliver food to Somalia's famine-stricken population and to restrain the country's warring factions. He was a 51-year-old grandfather. Some 10 days before shipping out, he visited McMillan in Phoenix. The visit was part personal, part professional. Freedman appreciated weapons. He always carried a Colt .45, its grip customized to fit his hand, its works "tuned to combat" -- retooled so the clip would feed faster. In Phoenix, he bought a tactical scope for his .308 rifle, a 10-power built to click each time he adjusted his aim for distance. The day before Freedman left, he and McMillan had a long talk. "I was telling him," recalls McMillan, " 'Look in the mirror and see the silver in your temples. That ought to tell you it's time to slow down and let the young guys take the risks and do the dirty work. You've already done everything expected of you.' He kind of laughed and said, 'If there's any way I want to go, it's doing it.' "

His wife, Teresa, remembers the last phone call she got from him. "His voice was different. It was more like a real goodbye. It was more like this was a journey he was going on and he wasn't going to be returning. I sensed the fear that possibly this time he would not be back."

At 6 a.m. on December 23, 1992, Teresa's doorbell rang. It was the CIA's liaison officer at Fort Bragg. His message was stark, if incomplete: Larry had been killed the day before. Teresa screamed, then collapsed in his arms.

Only days and weeks later would she be given any details. She was told Freedman had driven over a Russian-built mine near the town of Bardera. His body had been helicoptered to the USS Tripoli, where a medical officer filled out the death certificate. The blast had caused severe head trauma, blown off his lower right leg and opened his chest. Death was "immediate." Three men with Freedman, all listed as "State Department Security Personnel," were also wounded. One of them died, she was later told.

A former CIA officer who worked with Freedman says that while the precise nature of his mission in Somalia was not known to him, it was essentially to perform a liaison role between the U.S. Embassy in Somalia and the U.S. military forces then arriving in the country. Freedman was part of a "pickup" team, an elite paramilitary unit whose job was to provide the agency and the resident ambassador with a stream of intelligence to guide specific military operations.

Freedman's funeral was held at Fort Myer Chapel in Arlington. Col. Sanford Dresin, then the senior-ranking Jewish chaplain in the armed forces, gathered Freedman's immediate family together to observe a time-honored ritual of grief-the rending of the black cloth known as keriah. But they could find no black cloth, so Dresin improvised and used black paper. Such a field expediency would have been appreciated by Freedman, he remarked.

During the service, Dresin referred to the tradition of Jewish warriors, such as the Maccabees who two millenniums earlier had valiantly struggled with the Syrians. The service was attended by family and friends, among them beefy members of Delta Force and a cadre of dark-suited men behind mirrored sunglasses, some of whom arrived by limousine. In the days after, Teresa received many expressions of condolence. One of the callers was President George Bush, who telephoned from Camp David.

To the public, Freedman was identified as a civilian employee of the Defense Department. On a Pentagon casualty list, his name was even misspelled and he was given the wrong middle initial. Hardly anyone recognized the error, much less the man.

On December 31, 1992, CIA Director Robert M. Gates awarded Freedman a posthumous Intelligence Star for exceptional service. The citation recognized his "superior performance under hazardous combat conditions with the Central Intelligence Agency."

It took three years for the agency to send Teresa the medal and citation. With it came a letter and a warning: "Those persons who may be told of these awards will be left to your judgment; however, please do not disclose the details on which the awards were based. In addition, please do not release or cooperate in the release of any publicity concerning these awards."

Following Freedman's death, contributions in his honor were made to a Fort Bragg museum dedicated to special warfare, supporting construction of the "Sergeant First Class Lawrence 'SuperJew' Freedman Memorial Theater."

Teresa retains a photograph of two Belgian paratroopers standing at an American-built bridge in Somalia near where her husband fell. Stenciled in white paint on a steel plate at the entrance to the bridge is written "Lawrence R. Freedman Bridge." (Again the middle initial is wrong.) And at Fort Bragg, in the plaza that honors heroes of the Special Operations Command, Freedman's name appears on a plaque, listed as a State Department casualty.

Today Freedman's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Section Eight, No. 10177, is marked by a jet-black tombstone. On it is the Star of David, the wings of a paratrooper, a Green Beret and an inscription: "The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living."

'The True Believers'
Outside the agency's Old Headquarters Building is a memorial garden consecrated last year in "remembrance of those whose unheralded efforts served a grateful nation." A tiny waterfall spills into a pool where koi take refuge in the shadows of lilies. The garden was created as an oasis of quiet contemplation where CIA employees can come to restore themselves "in those rare instances when we are tired and discouraged," as former director John M. Deutch put it during the dedication.

These days, of course, such instances of disillusionment are not so rare. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CIA's mission has become mired in ambiguity. America's enemies are less recognizable and the threats the country faces are more diffuse. Respectable public figures question the CIA's relevance and suggest it should be abolished as an independent center of power. Such arguments have been bolstered lately by ugly betrayals by two prominent career officers, Aldrich H. Ames and Harold J. Nicholson. Five directors in seven years have failed to clarify where the CIA is going.

Amid this drift and uncertainty, the old culture and the old ideals persist, at least rhetorically. "God, honor, duty, country," Richard Helms intoned as he dedicated the memorial garden. "This was once taken for granted. No longer. But this change in the public attitude need not daunt you, the true believers. The country needs you."

As it prepares to observe its 50th anniversary, the CIA has shown a renewed interest in its nameless stars, perhaps to remember past glory, or to draw from their anonymous sacrifices some revitalized sense of purpose and identity. But it does so within the same uncompromising code of secrecy that has always defined its culture and character. Such secrecy rests upon a circuitous logic: that only the few privy to such secrets are in a position to judge whether such strictures are necessary. The agency's unwillingness to inscribe the names of its anonymous stars in the Book of Honor, particularly those dead 20, 30, even 40 years, contributes to a perception, among some family members, that the CIA is an institution mired in bureaucracy, a vast machinery that finds it easiest to classify first and ask questions later-if ever. The families of the dead have no institutional clout at Langley. The questions they ask about the need for continued secrecy often are just brushed aside, their appeals to common sense and compassion left unanswered.

But even those who chafe at the secrecy do so quietly, out of respect for the loved ones lost and the institution they served. For those at the memorial service on May 22, what often mattered more were the individual memories that had brought them all together. The day before the service, as Larry Freedman's widow, Teresa, prepared for the trip to Langley, she shared with a visitor her stash of treasures -- her late husband's personal belongings. From behind the headboard of their king-size bed she removed dozens of small velvet-lined boxes and spread them across the comforter. Inside were countless ribbons and medals, among them a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. In another box was an old buck knife, dog tags from Vietnam strung beside the Hebrew "chai" for "life," and a medic's kit.

As she walked through her tidy brick rambler, she stopped to point out a photograph of Freedman that hangs on the wall in the den. It was taken in Somalia five days before he was killed. In the photo, Freedman is wearing a khaki shooter's vest, a Harley Davidson hat, and dark tinted glasses. He is carrying his customized .45 and a machine gun. His salt-and-pepper beard is thick, his hair long and shaggy, his face radiant with satisfaction. That is how Teresa chooses to remember him.

A thousand miles away in Omaha, Pegge Mackiernan Hlavacek readied herself for the same journey. Twice before, she had attended CIA memorial services for her first husband. This time, the agency told her that Douglas Mackiernan would be singled out for special mention. Indeed, she fielded numerous calls from an agency speechwriter who was drafting Director Tenet's remarks.

In the 47 years since Mackiernan's death on the Tibetan border at the dawn of the Cold War, so much had changed in the lives of those he left behind. His mother died in 1986 at the age of 99. Three of his brothers survive. Mackiernan's daughter from his first marriage, Gail, inherited an interest in science. Today she lives in Silver Spring and heads a marine ecology project at the University of Maryland. Mackiernan's twins both live in California. His son, Mike, goes by his adoptive father's name, Hlavacek. He has little attachment to Mackiernan, a man who last looked upon him when he was 6 weeks old. Mike's sister Mary is a doctor. She was adamant about keeping the name "Mackiernan." At home, buried in a bedroom drawer and wrapped in tissue paper is her father's State Department medal and a tiny black-and-white photograph of the twins in the laundry basket the day they were spirited out of China.

As for Pegge, she never really had time to grieve fully. "I went into a whole new world of coping for twin babies," she says. The U.S. government got her a job as a press attache in Karachi, Pakistan, provided her with Mackiernan's pension and with financial assistance for the twins' education. She arrived late to the May 22 memorial service, first misreading the agency's map and then losing her plastic visitor's badge in the frenzied dash to the ceremony. She found her seat and listened.

"Those stars remind us that we should be grateful for their sacrifice," Tenet said during his speech, itself classified. "They speak with the very same words that are inscribed at a British military memorial in India. The words are simple and elegant:

When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today."

Pegge Hlavacek feels no bitterness toward the agency and is resigned to its obsession with secrecy. "I guess security is something like oxygen that you breathe in and out," she says. Still, she was surprised when, two weeks after the ceremony, she received an envelope from the CIA. Inside was a transcript of Tenet's remarks about her late husband.

She couldn't help but notice what was missing. The dates, the country and the names -- the director's, Mackiernan's, even her own -- had all been deleted.

Former Washington Post reporter Ted Gup is a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and lives in Bethesda.

Page One    |    Page Two    |    Page Three

Back to the top

Go to National Section
Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!