- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

With the announcement that CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed in combat in Afghanistan, there will now be a 79th black star on the white marble wall in the agency's headquarters. The memorial bears the words, "In honor of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country." Thirty-five stars remain anonymous for reasons of national security.

The CIA's confirmation of Mr. Spann's death, like the recent coverage of intelligence operations in Afghanistan, specifically at the fortress prison at Mazar-e-Sharif, provided a rare glimpse into the actions of our nation's intelligence assets. By necessity the CIA, military intelligence, and other covert organizations, operate in silence their victories unheralded and most missions undisclosed. Even the details of Mr. Spann's death, according to a statement by CIA Director George Tenet, could be discussed "only in broad terms."

Were it not for the attack at the fortress, Mr. Spann's name would probably never be in the news, though he was, as Mr. Tenet described him, "an American hero, a man who showed passion for his country and his Agency through his selfless courage." Yet, unlike the well-deserved publicity of the heroic firefighters and police officers who responded to the September attacks, covert heroes are little-known, and their accomplishments are often untouted outside of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and outside the Pentagon.

But, despite their lack of publicity, the intelligence community has been an integral part of every American war, and has probably prevented many more. From Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris' clandestine operation to secure gunpowder from Bermuda America's first covert operation to satellite imagery and CIA ground troops in the current conflict, success has been frequent, quiet and essential. Most actions occur far from the public eye but remain indispensable. Former Sen. David Boren explained it well in a recent television interview, saying he discovered as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that "when we were having our greatest success in terms of what was happening on the intelligence front, no one knew about them that's the nature of intelligence success."

Critics have complained that America is severely lacking in intelligence assets, particularly human intelligence operatives "on the street" speaking the local tongue, blending in with the locals. Many of the complaints may have merit, but even if false, it would not be in the interest of national security to controvert the charges. A point-by-point refutation of critics' charges may pacify the pundits, but would certainly mean the loss of valuable intelligence assets, or worse, loss of human life.

Real or perceived shortages of intelligence assets in the region will soon be a problem of the past. Afghans, and soon other oppressed peoples, have been liberated by the United States and her allies. These newly freed residents of Afghanistan are an excellent source of intelligence on terrorists and their networks, a source that will soon be utilized. We are already benefitting from the information and language skills these people can provide. The same will be true as the war on terror frees other nations from oppressive, terrorist-sponsoring regimes. Soon, new informants and linguists, and recently recruited Central and Southwest Asia experts in the United States, will swell the ranks of our information organizations.

President Bush forewarned that our responses to the terrorist attacks would include "dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success." We've seen the dramatic strikes on TV, and political reality may force some display of covert achievements to keep critics at bay. But even if they're not on the evening news, heroes like Johnny Spann are still secretly spending their lives in the service of their country.

Robert Stewart is a former Army intelligence officer.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide