Post-9/11, with more than a decade of experience under her belt, Matthews managed operations to find the top leaders in al-Qaeda. Once they were captured, she was in charge of looking at interrogation reports and vetting the accuracy of what the captives said. She also was responsible for providing questions for interrogators and debriefers. A US official with knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Matthews’s assignment says, “Jennifer was one of the US government’s top experts on al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. She was capable, smart, and passionate about the mission.”
Her job at CIA headquarters in Langley often took her into the field, where she traveled to Asia and the Middle East, but never for more than a month or two.
There were high-profile assignments. She managed the operation that located Abu Zubaydah and led to his capture. Zubaydah was the first high-value al-Qaeda target captured after 9/11, and sources say Matthews was personally involved in his questioning. He was captured in 2002, shuttled around the world, and eventually held at a CIA black site—a secret prison—in Thailand, where he was waterboarded, beaten, and subjected to extreme temperatures and underwent other “enhanced interrogation” methods. Matthews was “integrally involved in all of the CIA’s rendition operations,” according to an intelligence source.
From 2005 to 2009, she served as chief of the counterterrorism branch in London, a flagship post that would mark her first extensive service overseas; her husband and children moved with her to the United Kingdom. One highlight of Matthews’s tenure was her role in the bust of the 2006 al-Qaeda plot to bomb as many as ten US-bound jets.
Matthews surely knew the risks she was taking by deploying to Khost, the remote reaches of a war zone, in September 2009. She volunteered for the assignment—though it would be her first long stint in such a dangerous place. She thought she was ready. Matthews’s pseudonym within the Agency was Ruth. Her nickname? “Ruthless.”
For Matthews, the move to Khost provided a chance to show she had the intelligence chops to help the nation make strides in the war on terror. Infiltrating al-Qaeda would have helped her earn her stripes and rise in the CIA.
“What impressed me about Jennifer was her competence and her commitment to what she was doing,” says Fran Townsend, who was the homeland-security and counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush and the only former high-ranking official who had met Matthews and would talk on the record. “You don’t go where she was and you don’t do what she was doing unless you really believe in it.”
Matthews was also part of a significant corps of women in the ranks of America’s spies. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, women represent 38 percent of the intelligence-community workforce, which includes the CIA and 16 other agencies. In the six largest of them, 27 percent of senior executive positions are held by women. It’s hard to make a historic comparison about the rise of women in the intelligence world because such data has been kept only since 2005. But women have held key positions at the Agency, particularly in counterterrorism sections.
Congressman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, says Matthews was “a total professional.” She’d briefed him overseas on al-Qaeda earlier in 2009. “I don’t think there’s any reason to second-guess any of the things that she did there,” Reyes says. “There’s nothing that I know of in this that says that she was not prepared for that challenge. Quite the opposite, from my perspective.”
The facts surrounding Matthews’s death, and the CIA’s own review of the bombing, suggest otherwise.