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December 4, 2001
reposted with permission

CIA Defends Decision to Identify Officer Killed in Afghanistan

Dec. 4, 2001 -- The CIA yesterday lashed out against "several self-described" experts who criticized its decision to identify the agency officer killed last week in Afghanistan as a public relations stunt.

In an unusual display of frustration and anger, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow issued a Dec. 3 statement contending that recent remarks aired on several national television networks by "uninformed critics" of the CIA are "reckless, malicious and cynical."

Johnny "Mike" Spann, 32, was killed near Mazar-i-Sharif during a prison uprising by Taliban prisoners. After reports surfaced in the press, some identifying Spann as the officer killed inside the prison fortress, the CIA confirmed his death on Nov. 28.

The CIA's revelation spurred speculation from intelligence experts who said the agency's confirmation could compromise intelligence operations in Afghanistan or put Spann's family at risk. Others argued that if Spann could be identified, other employees of the clandestine agency killed in the line of duty should be marked by more than a star etched on the agency's memorial wall. Out of the 78 CIA employees killed, each acknowledged with a star on the wall, only 43 employees are identified.

"These individuals have claimed that the decision was 'unprecedented' and have even suggested that the agency was exploiting Mr. Spann's death in an effort to garner positive publicity," Harlow wrote. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Such comments are irresponsible and do a great disservice to the agency, the people who work for it, and Mr. Spann's family."

Harlow added that the Spann's "entire chain of command" concurred that releasing his name would not compromise security or current intelligence activities and that Spann's family supported the decision.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the recent charges against the CIA did seem "unwarranted and rather hysterical." Still, the agency's assertion that it did not harm national security only begs the question of why others under similar circumstances remain anonymous, he said.

"The other side of the coin is that [the CIA still] does not address the policy of disclosure, which is inconsistent," Aftergood said.

Ted Gup, author of "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA," agreed. Gup said the CIA has become "obsessed with secrecy," leaving too many people skeptical of its classification process.

Gup said he has maintained no one can read too much into the agency's decision to reveal Spann's identity. He speculated in an interview today that the agency might have felt comfortable confirming the information because Spann was a paramilitary officer conducting interrogations at the prison, rather than establishing covert intelligence connections. The CIA has confirmed only that Spann worked in its directorate of operations.

While conducting research for his book, Gup said he was able to uncover the names of every CIA employee who had died in the line of duty. Prior to publication, the agency asked him to withhold the name of one officer, suspecting Gup was prepared to reveal the identity. Gup obliged, dropping the name from the book.

Of the approximately 1,000 letters he received in response to "The Book of Honor," Gup said only two chided him for possibly harming intelligence operations; neither of those two letters came from the CIA, Gup claims.

CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher was unable to say whether Gup's book -- which identifies almost all of the CIA officers killed in the line of duty -- has jeopardized lives or intelligence operations.

"When we've been able to publicly identify every CIA employee who has made the ultimate sacrifice, we have done so," she said. "We may never be able to reveal the name behind every star for good reason, but for reasons that may not be readily apparent or understandable." -- Anne Plummer

Copyright 2001 Inside Washington Publishers

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