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RESPONSE TO TERROR | COVERT OPERATIONS

CIA Agent First U.S. Fatality in Afghan Combat

Intelligence: The agency confirms that the former Marine, who was involved in questioning Taliban inmates, was killed during weekend prison uprising.

November 29, 2001|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A covert CIA officer who was collecting intelligence during the interrogation of Taliban prisoners became the first American killed in combat in the Afghan war, the agency confirmed Wednesday.

Johnny "Mike" Spann, a former Marine artillery captain, had worked as a clandestine operative for the CIA's Directorate of Operations since June 1999. He had been in Afghanistan for about six weeks, one of several hundred operatives the agency has deployed in the region to hunt for Osama bin Laden and others in the Al Qaeda terrorism network.

Spann, 32, was killed Sunday morning at the start of a prison uprising near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, but his body wasn't recovered until Wednesday morning, after intense U.S. airstrikes and ground attacks with tanks and other heavy weapons helped crush the revolt.

CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who reported that Spann's body was en route to the United States, said it was still unclear how he died. Five U.S. special operations officers were seriously wounded Monday by an errant U.S. bomb during the same revolt.

Armed with $1 billion in new funding, mostly for covert action, the CIA has dispatched an array of operatives, from linguists to commandos, to Afghanistan and beyond since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

CIA analysts and translators have scoured offices and houses abandoned by fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, collecting diaries, records, bank statements and other material that may help unravel the global network. They have helped to identify possible laboratories for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, although no such weapons have been found.

Other CIA officers have contacted former rebel commanders from the Afghans' CIA-supported war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s "to make sure they're in the right place and do the right thing now," said an official familiar with the CIA's operations.

CIA officers also have worked closely with U.S. military forces to help direct airstrikes against facilities believed to contain senior Taliban or Al Qaeda members and to operate pilotless spy planes capable of transmitting real-time video and other intelligence about potential targets on the ground.

Officials said Spann was killed at the start of the uprising by Taliban prisoners at a 19th century mud-walled fortress and prison complex at Qala-i-Jangy, near Mazar-i-Sharif.

An estimated 500 Taliban forces, including Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and other non-Afghan allies, had been detained at the fort after the Taliban surrendered the northern stronghold of Kunduz. Early Sunday morning, they overpowered their guards and seized an arsenal of assault rifles, grenade launchers and other weapons.

Most of the prisoners apparently were killed during intense U.S. airstrikes, which detonated the fort's ammunition depot, as well as during pitched gun battles with anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces backed by several dozen U.S. and British commandos.

The fighting ended Wednesday. Television footage showed bodies sprawled in trenches and scattered across dusty courtyards of the massive fortress.

Northern Alliance officials told reporters at the scene that the revolt began because the prisoners feared they were about to be executed and because they objected to the presence of Americans interviewing the prisoners. Spann did not speak any local languages, according to the CIA, but was involved in the questioning of prisoners.

CIA Director George J. Tenet said in a statement that Spann was in the fortress "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."

Tenet praised Spann as "a very brave American" who was "no stranger to challenge or daring."

He added: "Quiet, serious and absolutely unflappable, Mike's stoicism concealed a dry sense of humor and a heart of gold. His brand of leadership was founded not on words but on deeds--deeds performed in conditions of hazard and hardship."

Spann, a resident of Manassas Park, Va., was raised in Winfield, Ala., and studied criminal justice at Auburn University before joining the Marines in the early 1990s. He was married to another CIA employee, Shannon Spann, and is survived by an infant son and two young daughters.

Including Spann, the CIA has lost 79 officers in the line of duty since its creation in 1947, but it has publicly identified only 44.

It insists that the other names must remain classified to protect intelligence sources and methods. But some families have challenged that policy in recent years, complaining that they were denied information. Each of those killed is memorialized with a star engraved in the Wall of Honor at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

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