The death of a CIA spy brings renewed hope for surviving families


Posted: 11/25/2011

His death was swift, and came at the hands of a Taliban prisoner who reneged on a pledge to surrender in Afghanistan 10 years ago this month.

Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann was a member of the elite CIA team that spearheaded the U.S. invasion of the country as an answer to the 9/11 attacks. He also became the first U.S. combat casualty in those very early days of the operation.

Hank Crumpton led the CIA effort in the country. It was the beginning of a new era for an intelligence agency not yet fully understanding the profound change that lay ahead and what that change would require of its officers.

In some respects, it was pathfinding and pathbreaking, says Crumpton. Especially given that they were on their own.

Spann was part of a small elite group known as Team Alpha, which dropped into the country south of Mazar-e Sharif. There was no U.S. military presence, and the team of fewer than 10 men were completely dependent on their Afghan allies to keep them alive. They established contact with a larger group within the country and started building the relationships that would pave the way for U.S. special forces to enter a few weeks later.

At just 32 years old, Spann was one of the younger members of Team Alpha. Most of his fellow officers were in their 40s and had decades of experience in high-risk operations around the world. Even so, none of them had been on a mission quite like this before. It was the largest paramilitary operation the CIA had taken on since the Vietnam War. In part because the group was so small, Spann’s loss had a big impact.

“It was pretty hard for all of us,” said Crumpton. “It also brought a sense of renewed determination and anger, and even more of a sense of retribution required among us, on top of 9/11 of course.”

Spann had a wife and three young kids, and as the impact of his death was being processed at home, a group of former officers back at Langley began thinking about their future.

Because the CIA was so small, and didn’t typically lose large numbers of people in the line of duty, as the military does, it didn’t have the same benefits packages in place that would have helped Spanns family.

Mike Spann gets killed and everyone looks around and realizes that we just don’t have the internal structures to do for Spann’s family that the military has,” said former head of the CIA General Mike Hayden.

So a group led by former CIA Director Richard Helms began organizing what would become the CIA Officers Memorial Fund. It was December of 2001, just weeks after Spann’s death and its mission was to provide educational support for the children of fallen officers.

But with an agency clouded in secrecy by design, letting people know that such a foundation existed proved a challenge. Then, some eight years later, Khost happened.

On December 30, 2009, a group of CIA officers along with a fellow Jordanian Intelligence official were killed by a suicide bomber, a double agent, who had infiltrated their base near the Pakistan border. It was another tragic loss of life and with that single act, 13 more family members were cast into a position of need.

John McLaughlin, who once served as the acting director of the CIA and now serves as chairman of the foundation, says Khost was a turning point. It was the first time people expected the foundation to step up and fill the gap that existed in survivor benefits for families.

“It’s hugely significant on a material level and on a psychological level,” says McLaughlin. “On a material level, what we’re saying to officers is, if you die in the line of duty, you don’t have to worry about the education of your children.”

Jerry Komisar, a former member of the CIA’s clandestine service, and later, director of the crime and narcotics unit, was brought in to the fund as its full time president last year.

The main fundraiser up to that point had been an annual dinner, named in honor of Helms, who has since passed away. But the foundation also set up a website at to solicit donations.

In the 2010 academic year, the fund provided scholarships to 31 students totaling $525,000. This year, it is providing 26 students with financial assistance totaling $512,000.

“We are the only game in town to speak of,” says Komisar. “There are a lot more things we’d like to do. We are talking to the agency about where we could plug some of the gaps, where there are shortfalls in death benefits, or treatment of post traumatic stress. If we had enough resources, we could supplement that as well.”

Hayden sees it as a critical function for an agency returning to its roots.

“The CIA has not ever looked more like its ancestor the OSS, than it does today,” says Hayden, referring to the Office of Strategic Services, which was created during World War II to coordinate intelligence gathering and espionage behind enemy lines. “It is very expeditionary, action-oriented, far forward in harms way.”

Today, there are 102 stars commemorating the agency’s fallen in the lobby

of the original headquarters building. Nearly a quarter of them have been added since 9/11.

“We’ve already done some calculations,” said McLaughlin. “We can look ahead and estimate that we’re gonna have to support more than 50 children over the next 17 years.”

In part, because of the death of Mike Spann, the agency now has a foundation to help families as more stars fill up the wall.

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