THE BOOK OF HONOR -- AFTERWORD
Nine months have passed since The Book of Honor was published. In that time, much has happened, both to the families of the nameless stars and to the Agency itself. Publication provided a long-awaited lifting of the veil of secrecy, a chance for family members to revisit the events and, in some cases, to learn what really happened and to finally speak openly of both their grief and their pride. The book was the product of the families' collective courage in defying the CIA's edict of silence. It is only right, then, that they should finally be able to talk openly about their experiences.
Among those deeply affected was Losue Hagler. She is the sister of Bud Petty, who died in 1989 attempting to resupply Jonas Savimbi, Angola's rebel leader. The CIA, after a decade of ignoring her inquiries, invited her to attend the annual memorial service. It also promised to at last answer questions about her brother's death, But first she was required to pledge that she would not disclose whatever was revealed to her. This she reluctantly did. In the end, the Agency told her nothing new.
For the children of the nameless stars, the book provided the first credible account of what happened to their lost parents. Debbie Spessard's two sons, Jarad and Jason, were five and seven respectively when their father, James, was killed in the same mission that claimed Bud Petty's life. Now they are teenagers. She called them into a room, sat them down, and had them read the chapter on their father. Then they talked about James Spessard's life and death, what they had learned, and what it meant to them.
I was also contacted by someone on behalf of Paul Weinberg, a lifelong friend of Larry Freedman, who was killed in Somalia in 1992. Weinberg had been of inestimable help in coming to understand Larry Freedman. I was asked to provide an advance copy of the book though the release date for publication was only a week away. Weinberg was dying of cancer. Unfortunately, he passed away only days later.
No meeting moved me more than that with Val Merriman. She was the widow of John Merriman, who was shot down over the Congo in 1964. For decades she had been lied to, told her husband died painlessly in a Puerto Rican hospital after receiving the best of medical attention. Nothing in the Agency's account was true. Val Merriman, together with her son Jon, met me at a book signing in Washington and presented me with a dozen long-stemmed red roses. "My family loves you," she said.
Nor will I forget what transpired in the minutes prior to the taping of ABC's Good Morning America, which did a segment on the book. The network had flown a dozen family members of the nameless stars to New York from around the country. Before taping, the families mingled outside a Manhattan restaurant. They were meeting for the first time. There were widows and sisters and brothers and nephews. Each had assumed that they alone had suffered the crushing effects of secrecy that had come to define their lives. Now they were no longer alone.
For others, the past months have not brought peace. The family of Matthew Gannon, together with the families of other victims of the bombing of Pan AM 103, endured a second kind of horror as two o Libyan defendants were brought to trial in the Netherlands. The consensus of court observers was that the CIA had profoundly bungled the investigation, built its argument upon an informant of highly dubious character, and, in so doing, jeopardized the entire case. It was not only the C1A's witness whose credibility was shaken. So too was the Agency's. In the end, one of the Libyans was convicted of mass murder, the other walked.
In the weeks and months prior to and following publication of the book, the CIA inscribed into its own Book of Honor the names of several of those anonymous stars identified in my book. Among these were Mike Deuel, Wayne McNulty, Ray Seaborg, and John W. Kearns. They had perished in Vietnam or Laos decades earlier.
But the CIA did not undergo any fundamental reexamination of its culture of secrecy. Nor did I expect it to. Officially, the CIA maintained its silence about my book. When reporters asked about it, Agency spokesmen replied with the usual mantra, "We will neither confirm nor deny ..."
Though the book was on the Washington Post Bestseller List and was a frequent topic of conversation among Agency employees, it was not to be sold within the CIA's own store. There, the shelves are lined with books that have been vetted by the CIA or are deemed to promote its interests. It is as if by keeping my book from its shelves the Agency could ignore the truth of the stories contained therein and the tragedies it chronicled. That capacity to embrace fiction over fact, to adopt a kind of see-no-evil mentality, is not without precedent at the CIA.
Since publication, seven more stars have been added to the Agency's Book of Honor, four of them nameless. Two of the named stars belong to Norman A. Schwartz and Robert C. Snoddy. The two were killed on November 29, 1952, on a mission to snatch from Mainland China an operative named Li Chun-ying. The Chinese lay in wait ready to foil the attempt. Snoddy and Schwartz were killed as the plane came in. They were buried on the spot.
The families were told the plane went down in the Sea of Japan. Two decades passed before the incident was even acknowledged. In July 2000, three months after the CIA's memorial service, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, Schwartz's hometown, dedicated a simple limestone bench in a park as a place to meditate upon his loss and that of others A brass plaque reads: IN COMMEMORATION OF PILOT NORMAN A. SCHWARTZ, WHO GAVE HIS LIFE FOR THE PRESERVATION OF PEACE, AND IN RECOGNITION OF ALL MEN AND WOMEN WHO SERVED IN THE COLD WAR (1945-1991). Relatives of Schwartz are pressing the Chinese to return the airman's remains. Also on board that same aircraft had been two young CIA operatives, John Downey and Richard Fecteau. They would spend two decades in a Chinese prison.
But even as the CIA's Book of Honor belatedly closes the chapter on the Cold War, it reflects the perils faced by today's clandestine operatives. Among the anonymous stars recently added to that tome are fresh victims of terrorism.
How long will they too remain faceless? Half a century later, the identity of the first star -- the star that represents Douglas Seymour Mackiernan, gunned down in Tibet in 1950 -- remains a state secret. So too do the identities of Barbara Robbins, Hugh Redmond, John Peterson, Raymond Rayner, Ivan King, Dennis Cabriel, Matt Gannon, Larry Freedman, Fred Woodruff; the victims of the 1983 Beirut Bombing and the 1989 Angola operation. As of this writing, there are seventy- seven stars in the CIA's Book of Honor. Thirty-five have no name.
By the end of 2000, the CIA seemed largely immune to the sort of tough congressional scrutiny that alone may hold it accountable. It had survived a series of disturbing fiascoes -- the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the targeting of a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, the bungling of the investigation of John Deutch's security violations, the failure to spot India's impending nuclear test, the mishandling of the Pan Am 103 probe. And still, Director CIA George Tenet and his agency appeared to enjoy the support of both the outgoing Clinton administration and the incoming Bush administration.
Tenet has been popular within the CIA and on Capitol Hill. He defends his Agency vigorously and is politically savvy. He has brought stability after years of turbulence and has overseen recruiting efforts designed to offset the hemorrhaging of experienced officers who have retired or resigned. Though he has steadfastly refused to speak with me, I know him to be a congenial figure and, by all accounts, a decent man. But his capacity to shield his Agency from the full brunt of operational and intelligence failures also reflects the vagaries of Washington's Old Boy Network. As the former senior staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Tenet's links to Capitol Hill, and the residual loyalties that go with them, have protected him from what might have been a more withering criticism from his former colleagues.
So too it has been with the House oversight committee. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is headed by Porter J. Goss, a conservative Florida congressman who seemingly cannot do enough to promote the interests and ambitions of Langley. Before becoming a congressman, Representative Goss was himself a CIA case officer. Such pervasive CIA influence also contributes to public cynicism and the perception that the Agency's tentacles of power render it answerable to no one.
Most ominous was a sweeping provision requested by the CIA and championed by Goss that Congress attached to the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2001. That measure, passed behind closed doors and without a public hearing, would have made it a crime punishable by three years in prison for any official to disclose classified material. It was a thinly disguised antileak provision aimed at silencing those who talk to the press or who would challenge the near-absolute control that the U.S. national security apparatus exercises over what and when the public learns of its activities.
The bill was ultimately vetoed by President Clinton, but only after a concerted campaign by the nation's foremost news publications to sound the tocsin. Such a measure would have had dire consequences for the First Amendment and for the ability of reporters like myself to inform the public. Had such a provision been law at the time of my research for The Book of Honor, some four hundred current and retired covert operatives -- all who spoke with me -- might well have gone to prison. Of course, the more likely outcome would have been that the chilling effect of such a measure would have blunted my efforts to identify the anonymous stars.
In either case, there would have been no The Book of Honor. The measure would have created the perfect chokehold on the public's access to information concerning the conduct of foreign affairs and covert operations. It bears watching whether the new Bush administration will be emboldened to resurrect that measure.
Even as the bill made its way through Congress there was evidence aplenty that government secrecy had already gone too far rather than not far enough. The ordeal of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese American scientist accused of security breaches at Los Alamos National Laboratory, finally came to an end, but not before his reputation and career were in ruins. Federal prosecutors never produced any evidence to support the allegation of espionage.
Then too there was the case of Mazen Al-Najjar, held in an American prison for three and a half years without being charged with a crime. He was seen as a security threat and held on "secret evidence" to which neither he nor his lawyers had access. His recent release would have been cause for celebration by civil libertarians were it not for the fact that so many others are still being held on "secret evidence."
We are forced to wonder whether it is not lax security but excessive secrecy that poses by far the greater threat to the interests of the American people.
A final word. In the wake of publication, the book was widely and favorably reviewed, but among the reviews were two recurrent observations with which I would take exception. First, that the men and women of whom I wrote understood that if they were killed their sacrifices would remain anonymous. Such is the nature of espionage, it is argued. Granted, these men and women accepted that if they were killed, security concerns would prohibit their roles and identities from being made public so long as security sensitivities remained. But it is equally true that in service to government they had every right to expect that when common sense dictated that such security concerns were no longer applicable, the strictures would be lifted and their surviving family members would no longer be made to suffer the cruelties of what would then be a blind and obsessive secrecy. In short, they could expect the government in whose service they gave their lives to behave humanely and not to use secrecy as a way to escape accountability.
The second criticism was that those whose deaths are recorded in this book died for naught, that their missions were failures and therefore their lives were wasted. It is true that in some cases these lives might have been saved and that in others the missions accomplished little. But I do not believe that it follows that their lives were wasted or devoid of meaning. Though I do not share many of the agendas in whose service they were deployed, I believe that in most instances these men and women were doing that which was most important to them. I am uncomfortable judging the value of another's life or sacrifice by outcome alone. I would not want my own life to be measured against such a standard. These men and women understood the risks attendant to their chosen careers. They acted out of love of country. If the wisdom of their missions was suspect -- as often it was -- then it casts a shadow not upon the individual but upon the institution that dispatched them.
What we, the living, can do, is honor them both by remembering them and by insisting that the very secrecy under which they died is not permitted to threaten the values for which they lived.