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RESPONSE TO TERROR | COVERT OPERATIONS

Boyhood Focus Led Him to CIA

November 29, 2001|GREG MILLER and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WINFIELD, Ala. — Johnny "Mike" Spann seemed never to have had much doubt about the path he would pursue out of his rural home town.

High school classmates said Spann had mapped out a life in the military and national security before career plans ever occurred to most of his peers. Family members said it's hard to remember a time when he wasn't focused on a future that seemed so certain to him.

His high school football coach, Joe Hubbert, remembers the unflinching reply he got one day at practice when he asked the teenage running back what he wanted to do with his life.

"Coach," Spann replied, "I want to join the CIA or the FBI."

Barely two years into a career with the CIA's clandestine service, Spann this week became the 79th officer in the agency's history to be killed in the line of duty, and the first American killed in action in Afghanistan since the United States launched its war there.

Four other Americans have been killed in noncombat accidents related to the war, all outside Afghanistan.

CIA officials confirmed Spann's death Wednesday after recovering his body from the carnage of a fierce uprising at a prison compound near Mazar-i-Sharif in the northern part of the country. Spann, 32 and the father of three children, had been on a covert assignment gathering intelligence from captured members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Spann's father, Johnny Spann, described his son Wednesday as "an ordinary type of a boy. He was never the kind of person that wanted a lot of attention. Never did things to get attention."

But he was given a hero's accolades in Washington, where the CIA took the unprecedented step of issuing a news release about a slain officer. CIA Director George Tenet described Spann as "a very brave American" and "a precious life given in a noble cause."

"His was a career of promise in a life of energy and achievement," Tenet said. "Mike Spann was an American hero, a man who showed passion for his country and his agency through his selfless courage."

CIA officials said Spann's body was being flown back to Washington and that a new star--the anonymous symbol of a fallen agent--would be added to the agency's Wall of Honor at its headquarters in Langley, Va.

The tragic news spread swiftly through Winfield, a town of 4,500 in the rolling hills of northwest Alabama where Spann's parents and dozens of other members of his extended family still live.

As in many small towns across America, Winfield's patriotism is pronounced. American flags hang from lampposts and business marquees bear "God Bless America" and "United We Stand" slogans.

Like many sons of such small towns, Spann yearned for far-flung adventure. But earlier than most, friends and family members said, he plotted a clear path to achieve those ambitions.

"Even at a young age, Mike knew exactly what he wanted," said Randy Sanders, 32, a Navy recruiter in Winfield who says he was Spann's best friend through high school. "Everybody changes what they want to be 20 times. But from the seventh grade on, Mike knew."

At Winfield High School, Spann was a solid student and a fitness fanatic and was recalled for his serious demeanor.

Under his senior picture in the Winfield yearbook is a passage from Proverbs: "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise; but a companion of fools shall be destroyed."

After Winfield, he entered Auburn University, where he majored in criminal justice and enrolled in the ROTC. After graduation, he joined the Marine Corps, where he served eight years, rising to the rank of artillery captain before leaving in December 1999 to join the CIA.

"When he decided to leave military service to work for CIA, he told me he did so because he felt he would be able to make the world a better place for us to live," his father, a prominent real estate developer in Winfield, told reporters.

"I recall him saying, 'Someone has got to do the things that no one else wants to do,' " the elder Spann said. "That's exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan."

Spann had been in Afghanistan for six weeks, one of dozens of agents dispatched by the CIA to comb the country for clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Spann's assignment was to help question Taliban and Al Qaeda members captured by the Northern Alliance and herded into the mud-walled prison complex near Mazar-i-Sharif. But the compound erupted in a bloody revolt over the weekend that appears to have caught allies completely off-guard.

Spann is believed to have been killed on Sunday, at the outset of the three-day uprising, which was quelled only after a series of U.S. airstrikes that injured five American servicemen.

Spann's family was notified Sunday that he was missing in action. They were not informed that he had died until 11 p.m. Tuesday, his father said. CIA officials said they were not able to recover his body until hours before that notification, and they still haven't determined exactly how he died.

Spann lived in Manassas Park, Va., with his wife, Shannon, two daughters, ages 4 and 9, and a son born just six months ago. Shannon Spann, a former Orange County resident and a 1988 graduate of Villa Park High School, is also a CIA employee, intelligence sources said.

*

Times staff writers H.G. Reza and Ray Herndon contributed to this report.

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