CIA officer died in jail revolt

Agency identifies interrogator killed at Afghan fortress

Second American escaped

Paramilitary effort signals changing role in terrorism fight

War On Terrorism

November 29, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The first American to die in combat in Afghanistan was a Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary officer killed Sunday during a bloody revolt by al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners in a mud-walled fortress near Mazar-e Sharif, the CIA said yesterday.

The death of Johnny Micheal "Mike" Spann, 32, underscored the key role CIA paramilitary officers are playing in guiding U.S. attacks, interrogating prisoners and tracking Osama Bin Laden. The agency's deployment on the ground in Afghanistan is the largest since the war in Vietnam and signals a new, more assertive CIA role in battling terrorism, government officials and outside experts say.

"This is not any longer a passive agency devoted to quietly collecting and analyzing data," said Ted Gup, a veteran journalist and author of a book on CIA operatives' deaths. He said it remains to be seen whether the agency, a Cold War creation, can reinvent itself to face a new, stateless enemy: "Its history and background have not prepared it well for the challenge it faces today."

CIA Director George J. Tenet announced Spann's death to his colleagues over an internal television system at the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters late yesterday morning, hours after his body was recovered from the smoldering Qalai Janghi fortress.

"Mike Spann was an American hero, a man who showed passion for his country and his agency through his selfless courage," Tenet said of the former Marine captain from the tiny town of Winfield, Ala. Spann was married and had two young daughters and an infant son.

Calling Spann "quiet, serious and absolutely unflappable," Tenet said the agency "is in mourning."

Spann and another CIA officer were in the sprawling fortress Sunday to question Taliban fighters who surrendered to Northern Alliance forces in the city of Kunduz. Most of the approximately 600 prisoners were non-Afghans, including Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and others.

It's not clear what set off the rebellion; Northern Alliance soldiers told a New York Times reporter that the arrival of the two Westerners may have been the spark. Some prisoners wielded smuggled weapons, but the rebels quickly seized a large store of Northern Alliance arms.

For nearly three days, despite intensive bombardment by U.S. planes, the prisoners battled their Northern Alliance captors and a small number of U.S. and British soldiers. Five U.S. soldiers were wounded by a stray U.S. bomb.

Alliance officers told Western journalists at the scene that Spann was killed in the first minutes of the revolt. His body could not be recovered until yesterday, after nearly all the prisoners had been killed, officials said.

Four American soldiers have died in accidents since the war began, and eight journalists have been murdered by Taliban supporters or bandits. But Spann is the first U.S. government operative to die at enemy hands.

His death will be marked by the addition of the 79th star to the memorial wall at CIA headquarters. Of the 78 employees who have died on duty, 35 remain anonymous.

"When we're able to identify a CIA employee who's made the ultimate sacrifice, we've done so," said agency spokesman Mark Mansfield. The last two to die, in 1998, remain unidentified.

Spann worked for the CIA's Special Activities Division, the paramilitary unit in the Directorate of Operations, a government official said. He worked in close collaboration with both U.S. military special forces and the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, which has doubled in size since the Sept. 11 attacks, the official said.

Prisoners kept near weapons

Bart Bechtel, a veteran CIA operations officer who retired in 1998, said Spann may have been a victim of the haphazard skills of the Northern Alliance, which he said blundered by putting prisoners near a weapons supply.

"You don't house a whole bunch of prisoners in your armory," Bechtel said.

Spann's chief role at the fortress was to interrogate prisoners, though he was not a linguist and relied on interpreters, a government official said.

"If you're trying to breach al-Qaida, what better place to look than among all those al-Qaida people?" said J. Ransom Clark, a college administrator who had worked for the CIA from 1964 to 1990. "Especially among al-Qaida who may be very afraid. ... Maybe they could turn some of them."

Afghanistan was the focus of one of the most successful CIA operations of the Cold War - the 10-year covert support of Islamic guerrillas battling Soviet forces. But after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, U.S. involvement in the area lapsed almost completely.

That neglect is now widely seen as a strategic mistake, leading to several years of chaos that brought the Taliban to power and allowed bin Laden to operate terrorist training camps.

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