The Central Intelligence Agency is famously off the grid of public attention, neither seeking nor welcoming the spotlight. But a decade ago, when CIA Special Activities Division officer Johnny “Mike” Spann became the first American war casualty in Afghanistan, something unusual happened. When news organizations published details of Spann’s death, the CIA did not shirk from public interest. The agency publicly confirmed that on November 25 he had been killed by the Taliban in a bloody prison revolt. Spann’s death, the return of his body to the US, his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and his widow and three young children became national news.
There was a large, spontaneous outpouring of public support. People sent checks to the CIA for the Spann family, but the agency was not allowed to accept donations. Instead, a group of former officers got together to create a charitable organization that could accept donations on behalf of Shannon Spann and her children. That organization is the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation, and this month it celebrates its tenth anniversary. Over the decade it has grown from a fund for the Spann family to a means of financial support for all CIA families who have lost a loved one in the line of duty. Since Spann’s death, another 22 CIA operatives have died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Bill Harlow, the CIA’s chief spokesman from 1997 to 2004 and a member of the foundation’s board, says, “The CIA, being a much smaller organization than the military, does not have an extensive safety net. The resources available to the military are terrific, but there isn’t anything comparable for CIA officers who die in the line of duty. Their children are not equally covered. The foundation helps fill that need.”
Much of the financial assistance is used for children’s education, but not all of it. “We also provide assistance to spouses who lost a husband and who need to go back to college to get a degree,” Harlow explains.
The foundation is supported in a variety of ways. Lockheed-Martin and the Starr Foundation are the two biggest benefactors, according to the organization’s president, Jerry Komisar. “Our main fundraising event is our annual dinner in April when we give out the Richard Helms Award.” Helms was CIA director during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Past recipients of the award include two other former directors, President George H.W. Bush, and, recently, retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But Harlow says a substantial number of donations come from current and retired agency officers and “average Americans.”
In true CIA fashion, the group has no plans for a splashy recognition of the tenth anniversary. Instead, on the recent anniversary of Spann’s death, the foundation urged those interested to make a contribution to the support fund. To donate, visit the organization’s Web site.