The Hero Project

05.14.12

The First American: Excerpt from Henry Crumpton’s ‘The Art of Intelligence’

One of the most noted intelligence officers of his generation, Henry “Hank” Crumpton oversaw the CIA-led assault on the Taliban and al Qaeda after Sept. 11. In an excerpt from his new book, The Art of Intelligence, he recounts the full story of the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan—and how his wife responded.

In the aftermath of the coordinated air and ground assaults and the fall of major Afghan cities to U.S. and Afghan forces in the north, we encountered a prisoner problem. Our Afghan allies had captured hundreds of the enemy but had no prison system to process and contain them. The U.S. military had not established any prisoner of war protocols or allocated resources to handle the captured enemy. With the CIA having no writ for prisoners at that time (and not wanting one) and so few U.S. troops being on the ground, the obvious default was to our Afghan allies. So, as with most everything else, they improvised.

The single largest group of enemy combatants had surrendered in the Kondūz pocket, where they had been surrounded and assaulted on all sides while being pounded from above. One of our allied commanders in that area, General Dostum, assumed responsibility for a few hundred prisoners. They were a mix of Afghan Taliban and foreign fighters, including the American traitor John Walker Lindh. Dostum transported them to the ancient fortress of Qala-i-Jangi, several miles from Mazār-e Sharīf. The massive walls and enclosed compounds resembled some aspects of a prison, but the facility was not configured to screen and control prisoners. Moreover, Dostum’s men had no experience in penal operations. They were tribal horse soldiers, not prison guards, and they failed to adequately search the prisoners.

On 25 November 2001, during an initial interrogation screening in one of the courtyards, the prisoners revolted. Using concealed weapons in a coordinated assault, they quickly overpowered the Afghan guards and attacked two CIA officers. One of our men, Mike Spann, was immediately overwhelmed. He went down. The other officer, David, fought his way across the courtyard to an interior stairwell. He backpedaled up the steep stairs, so he could face the enemy while emptying his AK-47 into the pursuing assailants. He killed several of them. Once at the top of the wall, he found cover. By then, allied Afghan guards had rallied along the parapets and prevented any breakout, but the mayhem continued. The fighting was intense.

David scrambled to safety and met a German news crew. He borrowed their satellite phone and contacted the CIA in Tashkent, who relayed his situation to Team Alpha. They were deployed, in part, still in the Kondūz area. David reported that Mike Spann was down. Within the hour, I got the call at home. It was a Sunday afternoon. I raced to the office at Langley, less than twenty minutes away. The first report, like most, left many questions unanswered. Was Mike dead or alive? Was he wounded or just stunned? Was he captive, or had he managed to escape the onslaught and was now hiding somewhere in the massive compound?

I did not know Mike well, but his reputation was solid. He was based in SAD. A marine who had joined the CIA only a couple of years earlier, he was young, tough, resourceful, and handsome. He was a low-key, quiet, modest professional. He had recently married Shannon, a CIA officer whom he had met during training. I knew Shannon, a CT who had served an interim assignment in CTC the previous year, when I was there. She spent a day shadowing me, part of an introductory program I instituted for trainees in CTC. A professor of law, she joined the CIA determined to make a contribution to our counterterrorism mission. Trim, smart, and measured, she was an excellent officer. She and Mike made an impressive couple. Mike had two daughters by a previous marriage. Mike and Shannon had a newborn son, Jake.

The previous month, just before I departed for Afghanistan, I had asked Shannon if she needed me to take anything to Mike. She gave me a new photo of Jake. While in Afghanistan I did not see Mike but had the photo delivered by another officer. It would be the last photo Mike would see of his son.

Black, Massie, and I conferred about how to tell Shannon the news. Cofer ordered his deputy, Ben Bonk, to fly to California, where Shannon was visiting family. I sent Massie to Alabama, where Mike’s parents lived. Concerned that news of a CIA officer missing in action (MIA) would leak to the press, we telephoned every family of every CIA officer deployed in Afghanistan, to inform them that their sons and husbands were OK. Meanwhile, [CIA Director George] Tenet and I sat together in my small office. We did not know what to say to each other. We sat for a long time. I took phone calls from the field, with fragmentary updates. It seemed bad, and I told Tenet. We waited for more news.

I had lost fellow CIA officers and foreign agents, some to premeditated violence, others to accidents, and still others to disease. Years earlier, I had escorted the remains of one officer and his widow from an overseas post to the heartland of America, where I met the deceased’s family. Only in his thirties, he had died suddenly of a heart attack. I had helped load his body into the casket at the morgue in a city half a world away from his hometown. I had cut a lock of his hair for his widow. I had double-checked with the airlines at all transit stops. He was a good man who served his country honorably.

the-art-of-intelligence-cover
“The Art of Intelligence: Lessons From a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service” By Henry A. Crumpton. 352 pages. $27.95; The Penguin Press. ()

So was Mike, but these circumstances were acutely different. Mike was under my command, and we were at war.

The next day, the media had some of the story: the first American to go down in combat after 9/11. But they did not have any details. By now Massie had arrived in Alabama and informed Mike’s parents. Bonk was still en route to California. The Pentagon issued a press statement that the fallen did not belong to the Department of Defense. The statement was not coordinated with the CIA.

CIA Public Affairs Officer Bill Harlow called me with the news. I was livid. Why could they not wait another few hours, for God’s sake, so we could inform Shannon? What did the Pentagon gain? Maybe Bonk would get to California before Shannon heard the news.

Shannon was driving, listening to the radio. She heard the announcement, pulled to the side of the road and called me. “I just heard a report on the radio that an officer is down. The Pentagon says it’s not one of theirs, so he must be ours. It’s Mike, isn’t it?”

The intuition of women, especially for ones they love, surpasses anything I can fathom. She not only already knew it was Mike, she knew he was dead. I could hear it in her voice.

“Yes, Shannon, he went down fighting. We cannot confirm that he is dead, but it’s likely. He was overwhelmed in a prison revolt while interrogating prisoners. I’m sorry.”

“I knew it,” she said.

I tried to imagine her on the side of a California road, cell phone in hand, traffic whizzing past. She was now a young widow with three kids.

“Ben Bonk is on the way. He will be there in a couple of hours. We will provide him details as we get them. We just don’t know much yet. There is a team on-site trying to find him, but combat there continues.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

I softly hung up the receiver. I hated al Qaeda and the Taliban. My regard for those Pentagon media pukes was not much higher.

It was another five days before the uprising was suppressed. It required air strikes and a coordinated assault by Dostum’s men, the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and the British Special Boat Service. Fewer than a hundred enemy prisoners survived. Afterward, they found Mike’s body, right where he had fallen. He had been shot.

Weeks later, after the memorial service and funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, Shannon came to visit me in my office. I steeled myself, expecting that she would need comfort and reassurance. She would need to know that Mike died a hero, serving in a mission that he had embraced. I had a box of tissues for her.

She was well dressed and composed, sitting with hands in her lap. I extended my condolences again. She accepted my sentiments politely, and then launched into a calm monologue.

“Mike died fighting. Mike died doing exactly what he wanted. I am so proud of him. This mission is so important. You cannot waver. You must finish the job. You must not relent. Mike would want that.”

I had prepared myself for anything but this. She continued to encourage me, with a serenity and strength that was like nothing I had encountered. How could she be so strong? Her love for Mike, the mission, and our nation nearly overwhelmed me. The office seemed far too small to accommodate such a force of nature. She was painfully beautiful, sad, committed, and formidable.

I promised her that we would indeed continue the fight. I gave her an update on the progress in Afghanistan. By then Kandahār had fallen. The Taliban and AQ leadership were routed, on the run to Pakistan.

She thanked me for the update. She thanked me for my leadership. Then she left, having never shed a tear nor faltered in the delivery of her message. She had not come for comfort, but rather to encourage me. I sat alone for a long spell. This junior officer had humbled me like no other in my professional life. I doubted that I could ever match her strength, but I could learn from her. I could cherish the lesson. I could honor her heartbreaking virtue by accepting her encouragement and by pursuing our mission.

Excerpted from The Art of Intelligence by Henry A. Crumpton. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) Henry A. Crumpton, 2012.