It is rare that officers serving the United States in its intelligence agencies are outed in the media. That is their job: to work in the shadows to rout terrorists, hegemons, and narcotraffickers. But in the war on terror that began in the days just after the 9/11 attacks, covert military and CIA operators were the first to respond and have boots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some CIA officers worked hand-in-hand with their military counterparts to interrogate prisoners who could offer a look into the operations of Islamist terror cells. Some of those they interrogated were fellow Americans such as John Walker Lind, a California man who followed the siren call of Islamism to betray the country of his birth on the battlefield.
Among those CIA operators killed was Mike Spann. A memorial fund has been established to assist the surviving children of officers such as Spann, thus allowing Americans to recognize and thank their Shadow Warriors whose only memorial is a gold star carved on a wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Here follows a description from the CIA Memorial foundation website of the life and sacrifice of Mike Spann:
Just sixteen days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency inserted its first covert team into Afghanistan. These were the first Americans on the ground responding to the horror visited upon the United States by al-Qa'ida.
In the few short weeks that followed, a small band of CIA paramilitary officers, along with a handful of U.S. military Special Forces units, combined with Afghan militias, and supported by a massive aerial bombardment campaign, routed the Taliban and killed or captured many of Usama bin Ladin's top lieutenants.
Among the earliest CIA officers in Afghanistan was Johnny Micheal Spann. A native of Winfield, Alabama, Mike had been active in his church and in athletics as a boy and earned a private pilot's license at the age of 17. After graduating from college, he served with distinction as an artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps before joining the clandestine service of the CIA in 1999.
By November 2001, the military successes led by a relatively small handful of Americans, including Mike Spann, were stunning. Allied forces amassed huge numbers of prisoners. On Sunday November 25th, Spann, along with a fellow Agency officer we'll call "Dave," was collecting intelligence by interrogating Taliban prisoners at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif. There were hundreds of detainees in an open prison yard guarded by only a few Northern Alliance soldiers. It later became tragically apparent that the guards had not screened the prisoners well enough.
The interviewing had been going on for several hours when bystanders heard explosions and automatic weapons fire. Both Dave and Mike fought back heroically against a sudden swarm of armed detainees. Reports say that each man emptied their AK-47 and pistols and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. In the chaos, Dave saw several prisoners fall on top of Spann and then he lost sight of him. Eventually Dave was able to reach temporary shelter in a building on the perimeter of the compound where he came across five foreign journalists whom he later helped escape.
Some of the journalists said they saw Mike escape too but his status remained unknown for almost two days. Eventually U.S. and Afghan forces were able to retake the fortress and, heartbreakingly, learned that Spann had been killed in the uprising.
Just as the first Americans in Afghanistan were from the Agency, the first American combat casualty in that conflict also was from the CIA.
Although CIA officers often live and sometimes die in the shadows, in Mike's case, word of his sacrifice for his country leaked to the news media. The CIA determined that there was no operational need and no real possibility of keeping Spann's identity or affiliation secret, and therefore the Agency publicly confirmed the sad news.
In announcing Mike's death, CIA Director George J. Tenet described Spann as "Quiet, serious, and absolutely unflappable..." Mike's brand of leadership, Tenet said, "was founded not on words, but on deeds -- deeds performed in conditions of hazard and hardship."
On December 10, 2001, Mike Spann was given a heroes' burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Tenet spoke at the graveside service saying that Spann had answered his country's call when he went to Afghanistan. "To that place of danger and terror, he sought to bring justice and freedom. And to our nation -- which he held so close to his heart -- he sought to bring a still greater measure of strength and security."
Mike's widow, Shannon, herself an Agency officer, spoke movingly at the service saying: "My husband was a hero not because of the way he died, but rather for the way that he lived."
In the lobby of the CIA's headquarters building in Virginia is a marble Wall of Honor on which a star is carved to memorialize each Agency officer who gives his or her life in the line of duty. The 79th star carved on that wall is in honor of Mike Spann. Tragically, master stone carvers have been called upon to chisel 23 more stars into the wall in the decade since Mike fell at Mazar-e-Sharif.
In addition to Shannon, Mike left behind three small children.
Mike performed one last service for his Agency. His sacrifice inspired others to create the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation which is intended to make sure that the families of heroes like Mike Spann are not forgotten. Those of us blessed with the freedom and safety that people like Mike secured, have an opportunity to help look after the children they leave behind.