Remembering Khost

Above Photo Credit: John Makely / NBC News

This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Blogs of War, 30 December 2012

Three years later

Just to start, no I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even in DC on 30 December 2009 when Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi blew himself up taking the reported 7 Americans and 1 Jordanian and 1 Afghan with him.

I was in San Diego for the holidays, visiting family. I remember getting up and coming downstairs to make coffee for myself. Then I must have checked my phone and saw the news.

My mind raced, as I’m sure anyone whose life has been directly tied to the last 10 plus years of war does anytime news like this comes out. Who do I know OCONUS? Who can I call or text? Where can I get the most recent info? Can I get back to Langley to help in any way?

I have known of fellow agents getting injured or killed on duty. The hard part for me was this was a different kind of experience at that time. I never served in the military, so I missed that terrible experience of being just that close to something you can’t directly help or affect change upon.

I felt, and quite literally was, useless at that time. I can’t begin to imagine what those on the ground, in country and back at Langley actually felt. A few hours after I first read the news I was able to get a cryptic SMS back from a colleague who let me know that no one close had been injured or killed in the attack.

A lot has been written, mostly by fellow former Intelligence Officers who likely have years of experience on me, and as equally should know better, about what led to Balawi’s successful suicide attack that day in Khost. You can search online to see the various run downs of who was or was not following tradecraft, or who should or should not have been Chief of Station. My goal is not to try and armchair quarterback anything. Swept up in the craziness that must have been a surging tide of  “what if” the Officers on the ground and back at Headquarters pushed to make that meeting happen. Sometimes you push too hard, and chances are those are the times some crazy person will try to blow you up. The term “perfect storm” comes to mind.

This being the 3rd anniversary of this terrible event, I just wanted to share what I took away from everything.

I only knew one Officer killed at Khost, very peripherally. Elizabeth Hanson was a Targeting Officer (officially titled Specialized Skills Officer – Targeting). Very simply, her job was to look for leads to piece together detailed information related to HUMINT targets of interest. I always thought of it as looking for that one piece of thread to pull, that when pulled it unraveled the whole sweater. Balawi was that piece of thread; at least that was the idea.

I went through recruitment at the Agency at a time of flux for Headquarters based officers (HBOs). In fact, I was hired as a Targeting Officer (SSO-T), but by the time I entered on duty and drove to the back reaches of the Purple lot, I was a Headquarters Based Trainee (HBT).

Like most things in a huge bureaucracy, titles matter. Networking is hugely important in an Agency career and although it seems counter intuitive, its even more important as a headquarters based officer. I found that conversations with new acquaintances usually began with a short bio. What did you do before coming to the Agency? Where are you from? Then always ended up with: What are you? Meaning, what sort of Officer are you. Imagine the fun that could be had by knuckle-dragging Paramilitary Officers when they ask that last question and were given the response of, “I’m an HBT”…which was followed by a quick deafened response of “HVT!” (high value target). Laughter ensued.

By now quite a few former Agency Officers have detailed recruitment and training, and have even spoken of the rotations that new officers do within headquarters. For the HBT’s, soon to be HBO’s, we did similar rotations, with a certification course related to our final job selection coming right before being home-based in an office.

As part of networking and building a so called “Hall File”, or reputation, the National Clandestine Service’s HR department (HRS) advised us to attend sponsored “brown bag” lunches. These were usually informal (if your idea of informal is crowding into a conference room, in a bad suit eating your Subway sandwich purchased at the Agency Subway counter all the while sitting next to a Group Chief who is talking about how great their office is) events that were used to introduce prospective home-basing officers to an office, as well as share general information about an office or operation that was being talked about at length.

HRS also pushed the idea of more seasoned HBO’s creating individual mentoring groups for the Staff Operations Officers, Targeting Officers and Collection Management Officers. These were a rotating peer mentoring group that had the goal of helping new HBO’s find their way through the bureaucracy. Sometimes they helped calm nerves, or make introductions to offices of interest, or just shared stories about their jobs. From my memory, I met Elizabeth Hanson at one of these peer meetings for Targeting Officers. I only put it together after meeting one of her former certification instructors during my SOO certification. For whatever reason the Targeting Officers had the more active peer-mentoring group at Langley.

Elizabeth Hanson kept a small plaque with a meaningful quote on it at her desk. I know this because I had the same head instructor as her during my certification phase as a SOO. At graduation this instructor related Elizabeth’s story to us, and then tearfully gave us all the same small desk plaque with quote. She asked us to think on the quote and what it meant to us, and to live our lives and careers the way Elizabeth did hers.  Its funny, the quote itself is less meaningful than the gesture through someone’s grief at losing a friend.

When onboarding with the Agency, going through initial orientation, class instructors like to try and demystify the Agency for new employees. It would seem obvious that most of us, even when approaching the job with open eyes, have bought into at least some of the romanticism and mystique that surrounds life at the CIA, especially life working under some sort of cover. Maybe it’s for that reason, romanticism, that I’ve held onto my memory of that day at graduation. I find meaning in remembering our fallen colleagues, who right or wrong, gave of their lives in pursuit of something bigger than themselves.

I’ve taken to trying to honor those fallen in some meaningful way. At this point in my Federal career, there isn’t much I can do directly. Instead I choose to think about other fallen colleagues, even those I never worked with directly. I also try and get out and do something meaningful to me. Today I’ll be out honoring the fallen nine by pushing myself through the Crossfit Hero WOD “The Seven”. I do it every year, and the plaque still sits on my desk at work. Always there to remind me what I would attempt if I had no fear of failure. Egging me on to push through the fear.

Name Affiliation and position - Age

  • Jennifer Lynne Matthews, CIA officer, Chief of Base - 45
  • Harold Brown Jr, CIA officer - 37
  • Elizabeth Hanson, CIA officer - 30
  • Darren LaBonte, CIA officer - 35
  • Scott Michael Roberson, CIA officer - 39
  • Dane Clark Paresi, Blackwater Worldwide (Xe) - 46
  • Jeremy Wise, Blackwater Worldwide (Xe) - 35
  • Al Shareef Ali bin Zeid, Jordanian intelligence official - Undisclosed
  • Arghawan, Security director at the base - Undisclosed
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