CIA operative killed in Afghan prison riot, first U.S. combat death in Afghanistan

Wednesday, November 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rioting prisoners killed CIA officer Johnny ``Mike'' Spann at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, the agency said Wednesday. He was the first American killed in action inside the country since U.S. bombing began seven weeks earlier.

Officials recovered his body from a prison compound only after northern alliance rebels backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces quelled an uprising by Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners.

Spann, at the compound to interrogate prisoners, was caught inside when the riot began and had been missing since Sunday. The CIA provided few details of the circumstances of his death.

CIA Director George J. Tenet addressed agency employees Wednesday morning, saying Spann was an American hero and calling on fellow officers to ``continue the mission that Mike Spann held sacred.''

``And so we will continue our battle against evil with renewed strength and spirit,'' Tenet said, according to a statement provided by the agency.

The flag outside CIA headquarters in McLean, Va., flew at half-staff.

President Bush said through a spokesman he regretted the death. ``The president understands that this battle began Sept. 11,'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. ``There may be more injuries, there may be more deaths, and the president regrets each and every one.''

Spann was a paramilitary trooper within the CIA's Directorate of Operations, the agency's spy service.

``Quiet, serious and absolutely unflappable, Mike's stoicism concealed a dry sense of humor and a heart of gold,'' Tenet said. ``His brand of leadership was founded not on words, but on deeds _ deeds performed in conditions of hazard and hardship.''

Spann, 32, leaves a wife, two daughters and an infant son.

Originally from Winfield, Ala., he served in the Marine Corps as an artillery specialist, reaching the rank of captain before joining the CIA in June 1999.

``He wanted to be in the FBI or CIA. That's what he always wanted to do,'' said Billy Mack Spann, a distant relative in Alabama. ``He got in the service and went from there.''

``This week has really brought home the war to Winfield,'' said family friend Tracy Estes.

Four other Americans, all military personnel, have been killed in connection with the fighting in Afghanistan. All died in accidents outside the country, two in a helicopter crash in Pakistan.

The CIA has been running covert operations in Afghanistan alongside the more public military effort. CIA officers are believed to have been providing weapons, money and intelligence to rebel groups opposing the Taliban and al-Qaida, as well as interrogating prisoners captured during the fighting.

The prison riot began Sunday when hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis and other non-Afghan prisoners captured after the fall of Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north, stormed an armory for weapons.

Thousands of northern alliance fighters, aided by U.S. commandos and airstrikes, assaulted the compound, but the prisoners held out for days.

Five U.S. soldiers were seriously wounded Monday when a U.S. bomb went astray. They were evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, where one remained in intensive care and the other four were in good condition.

The alliance had recaptured most of the fortress prison by Wednesday. Hundreds of prisoners and dozens of alliance fighters were dead.

The CIA often keeps the death of one of its own secret, usually to protect a clandestine operation or the identities of foreign agents working with the officer. Neither was the case with Spann's death.

Two CIA officers died in the line of duty in 1998. No information has been released about their identities or the circumstances.

Since the agency's creation, 78 CIA officers and employees have died or have been killed in the line of duty, agency spokesman Mark Mansfield said. Each has a star on the wall in the lobby of the agency's main building.

Slightly more than half of the stars include names. The identities of the rest are secret.

Some of the better-known include Robert Ames, who died in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and William Buckley, who was killed in 1985 after being kidnapped the previous year in Lebanon.