Matthews, who was 45 when she died in the most devastating attack on the Agency since the war on terror began in September 2001, was the CIA chief at Forward Operating Base Chapman, a station near the mountainous Afghanistan/Pakistan border. She was, according to officials, also one of the United States’ more experienced al-Qaeda analysts.
The suicide bomber was a Jordanian physician who had promised Matthews and her team detailed intelligence about al-Qaeda. He claimed he had access to its most senior leaders, that he’d even met them in person. What he was offering was so tantalizingly specific that Matthews might have believed he’d lead her straight to the men she’d been hunting for more than a decade: Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. As it turned out, the bomber was probably working for these same terrorists; the Pakistani Taliban later claimed credit for the attack.
Matthews’s death—she and her Khost colleagues are arguably the highest-profile US casualties of the war on terror since onetime NFL star Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004—wasn’t a private affair. However, her life still is mostly secret.
The Washington area is home to thousands of people like Jennifer Lynne Matthews, who live one life with their families and in their communities and a different one at work. Thousands of local residents work for the 17 US intelligence agencies, assorted Pentagon entities, and government contractors that call Washington home.
In Fredericksburg, Matthews’s family lives on a rural road without sidewalks, near streets with names such as Poplar, Stony Hill, and Countryside. Nearby houses are modest but on large plots of rolling land. Some fly American flags. Others have small boats parked outside. Matthews’s home is gray, with dark shutters and a front porch. One recent workday, a minivan sat in the driveway near a mailbox for the local paper, the Free Lance–Star.
From the outside, nothing would indicate a secret life—no video cameras or fences—but that anonymity is how the nation’s spies blend in. In our region, they’re all around.
You might see them in the local supermarket or at a PTA meeting, and you might think you know them. But even in an increasingly interconnected world, you’ll likely never find them on Facebook or Twitter. These friends and neighbors have, like Matthews, dedicated themselves to a national mission—protecting America. And a double life is part of that bargain.
Ask the CIA or Matthews’s colleagues or just about anyone who knew her to recall the details of her life—not the secret parts, just the simplest facts—and they offer mostly platitudes.
Scores of Washingtonian inquiries were met with closed doors and no comment, abruptly concluded telephone calls, and unanswered letters or e-mails. Months after an initial request for information about Matthews and the lessons the CIA learned from Khost, the Agency’s director, Leon Panetta, declined an interview. So did Valerie Plame Wilson, the hardly press-shy former spy whose cover was blown during the Bush administration and who had worked with Matthews in the Agency. “Wishing you well with this important story,” she said via e-mail while promoting Fair Game, the Hollywood movie that tells her story.
From interviews with those willing to disclose what they know and public records, the early life that emerges resembles most American childhoods.
Jennifer Lynne Matthews was born in Penbrook, Pennsylvania, in 1964. She was a middle child. Her mother was a nurse, her father a commercial printer. She graduated from Central Dauphin East High School in Harrisburg in 1982. She was a member of the National Honor Society and Youth for Christ. She looks out from page 45 of her senior-class yearbook. In an era when Farrah Fawcett’s sassy feathered hair was the rage, Matthews’s brown locks are styled simply, parted in the middle with a flip at the bottom. She wears a blouse, a necklace, and a smile. Her classmates voted her “most likely to be the next Barbara Walters.”
Matthews joined the CIA in 1989 and seemed a good fit. “She was self-assured, and she could blend into the environment,” says a Capitol Hill staffer who met Matthews overseas.
Details about her early career have never before been made public.
Matthews spent her first seven years at the Agency as an analyst, among those workers who absorb intelligence submitted by others in the field and then assess what the CIA has learned from it. By the mid-1990s, she moved to the CIA’s counterterrorist center, tracking al-Qaeda in a then-quieter corner of the Agency that would see its importance spike after the Twin Towers fell.