Thursday, November 29, 2001

America suffered its first combat death in the war in Afghanistan, the CIA said yesterday, confirming that an intelligence officer was killed Sunday during a bloody prison uprising near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The spy agency identified the casualty as Johnny Micheal Spann, 32, an ex-Marine who served in the agency’s paramilitary operation against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist group.
Mr. Spann, who lived with his wife and three children in Manassas, was inside the 19th-century Qala-i-Jhangi fortress collecting intelligence, when 700 Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners staged a riot that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Mr. Spann and another CIA officer were working near the uprising’s epicenter as Northern Alliance soldiers interrogated detainees. Trapped amid hundreds of rabid fighters, both officers drew weapons and tried to escape. One officer made it; Mr. Spann did not.
“Both were fighting and attempting to get out,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who provided the account on the condition he not be identified.
Hours after Mr. Spann’s body was found at the scene of carnage, CIA Director George Tenet issued a statement both identifying and praising his field officer.
“Johnny Micheal ‘Mike’ Spann, who worked in the Directorate of Operations, was where he wanted to be: on the front lines serving his country,” Mr. Tenet said. “Mike was in the fortress of Mazar-e-Sharif, where Taliban prisoners were being held and questioned.
“Although these captives had given themselves up, their pledge of surrender like so many other pledges from the vicious group they represent proved worthless,” Mr. Tenet’s statement said. “Their prison uprising which had murder as its goal claimed many lives, among them that of a very brave American, whose body was recovered just hours ago.”
The CIA historically discloses the identity of an officer killed in the line of duty when permitted by the type of mission. Of the 78 stars in the lobby of the CIA’s Langley headquarters, each representing an officer killed on duty, 43 are named in the “Book of Honor.” The last two stars unnamed went up in 1998.
The operations directorate is the CIA’s clandestine branch responsible for spying overseas. In Afghanistan, the directorate runs a paramilitary operation through its military branch, the Special Activities Division.
Its mission: bring down the Taliban rulers, break up al Qaeda and kill its leader, bin Laden. The United States blames the ex-Saudi citizen for the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon that killed more than 4,000 people, most of whom were civilians.
Paramilitary officers such as Mr. Spann have been working closely with U.S. special-operations troops in arming and advising Taliban opposition. In the fortress uprising, the soldiers fought alongside the Northern Alliance and called in air strikes against holed-up clusters of Taliban.
One satellite-guided bomb went off course and seriously wounded five American soldiers. Hundreds of enemy fighters were killed before the rebellion finally ended yesterday. Mr. Spann had been missing since Sunday.
Northern Alliance soldiers had failed to adequately search all the captured Taliban when Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the opposition. Some had smuggled in hand-grenades hidden in their turbans. The captured mostly Arabs and Pakistanis fanatically loyal to bin Laden detonated the explosives in a suicide prison break. Other prisoners raced to a cache of arms and ammunition, and the deadly three-day standoff ensued.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said yesterday the United States is determining why the Northern Alliance failed to find the hidden munitions.
“There’s a lot of questions that obviously need to be asked or answers that need to be obtained as to how that came about and how that can be prevented in the future,” said Adm. Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman. “My sense is that the opposition groups learned quite a bit from this experience, as well as what we have observed. But until you can get into a position where you can start to interrogate some of these people and find out what they’re willing to talk about, you aren’t going to know what the intentions are.”
Mr. Spann grew up in the small town of Winfield, Ala., about 75 miles northwest of Birmingham. In high school, he told classmates he wanted a life of adventure.
After graduating from Auburn University with a degree in law enforcement, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1991 as a private.
A year later, he was commissioned an officer, specializing in tactical combat and artillery during a seven-year active duty career.
He left the corps in June 1999 as a captain to become a CIA officer in Langley’s Special Activities Division.
“He came to us from the United States Marine Corps, whose traditions he loved and whose values of courage and commitment he carried with him to the end,” Mr. Tenet said.
Six weeks ago, he went to Afghanistan, assigned to the agency’s Counter-Terrorism Center.
Mike Spann is survived by his wife, Shannon, a 6-month-old son and two daughters, ages 4 and 9. He was the son of Johnny and Gail Spann.
The elder Mr. Spann, a real estate developer, emerged from his Winfield home shortly before 6 p.m. yesterday to read, in somber tones, a tribute to his fallen son, of whose fate he learned at 11 p.m. Tuesday.
“He gave his life in the line of duty,” Mr. Spann said, recalling that “Mike” decided to join the CIA because “he felt he would be able to make the world a better place to live.”
“Mike was a loyal, patriotic American and he loved his country very much,” the father said. “We consider him a hero. He was out there fighting for our country, our freedom.”
The flag at CIA headquarters flew at half-staff yesterday, as did flags throughout Winfield.
The elder Mr. Spann described the venue as a typical southern town, friendly and patriotic.
“Everybody knows everybody, and everybody takes care of everybody,” he said.
Danny Little, an insurance agent in town, told the Associated Press, “Lord knows how many people will benefit because those people he was fighting are evil.”
His Manassas neighbors spoke highly of Mr. Spann although they said they saw little of him in the almost two years he had lived there.
“I’ve come in contact with him only one time in the two years I’ve been here,” said Michelle McRunnel. “But that one time, as he was jogging by, he stopped to help me start my lawnmower.”
Florentina Rehanek said that “his wife let my daughter play in their mini-playground in their back yard. I feel so sorry for his wife and his three children.”
Mr. Tenet informed CIA employees of the loss on closed-circuit television.
In eulogizing his officer, the CIA director said, “His was a career of promise in a life of energy and achievement. A precious life given in noble cause. Mike fell bringing freedom to a distant people while defending freedom for all of us here at home. Mike Spann was an American hero, a man who showed passion for his country and his agency through his selfless courage. Mike Spann will live forever in our memories. May God grant him eternal peace and give his wonderful family the strength to carry on.”
Asked for President Bush’s reaction to Mr. Spann’s death, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “You’ve heard the president previously talk about the first casualties in the war on terrorism took place on September 11. And that’s a time when some 4,000 Americans were killed up in New York, Americans were killed at the Pentagon, Americans were killed on Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania. Since then, there have been people who have been hurt in accidents on the battlefield or in the region, and, I just think the president understands that this battle began September 11. There may be more injuries, there may be more deaths, and the president regrets each and every one.”
Brian DeBose contributed to this report.

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