Inside The CIA's Covert Forces

  • In the town of Winfield, Ala., where everybody knows everybody and flags have flown proudly since Sept. 11, folks remember Johnny Micheal Spann as a polite kid who studied hard, played football for the Winfield High Pirates and didn't draw attention to himself. But there was one secret he would share with anyone who would listen. As football practice began one day, his coach, Joe Hubbert, asked him, "What do you want to be in your life?" "I want to be involved in the FBI or CIA," Hubbert recalls the teenager's telling him intently. "That's my goal."

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    Mike Spann realized his dream. After a stint as a Marine Corps artillery officer, Spann joined the CIA two years ago. Last October the rookie covert officer packed off to Afghanistan, where he roamed the country in Afghan garb. In a prison near Mazar-i-Sharif, the adventure ended tragically when Spann, 32, and a colleague identified only as "Dave" were overpowered by prisoners they were interrogating and Spann was killed.

    He was "an American hero," proclaimed CIA Director George Tenet, who enraged some agency graybeards by revealing the identity of not only the spy but also his family. The CIA, which is under fire for failing to anticipate the Sept. 11 attacks, had publicly named only 43 of the 78 other officers who have died in the line of duty. Tenet, however, decided to acknowledge Spann's death after press reports circulated that a CIA agent had died.

    Spann was part of a secretive paramilitary unit of the CIA, a special-operations group of several hundred covert commandos skilled in sabotage, collecting intelligence in war zones and training foreign guerrillas. During the Vietnam War, the CIA had as many as 500 paramilitary officers organizing counterguerrilla operations in Southeast Asia. But after Vietnam and the scandals of the 1970s, when the agency was accused of being involved in torture and assassinations, the paramilitary force was practically disbanded. Traditional CIA intelligence officers, who prowled diplomatic cocktail circuits and hired foreign agents to do their spying, looked down on the remaining "knuckle draggers," as they derisively called the SOG operatives. When the agency needed paramilitary experts for its covert operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan or for training contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s, it borrowed Army Green Berets or Navy SEALs or hired retired commandos on contract.

    In the past two years, however, Tenet has enlarged the CIA's paramilitary force. The SOG is divided into ground, maritime and air branches that have light arms, surveillance gear, riverboats and small planes. And since Sept. 11, intelligence sources tell TIME, the agency has been on a hiring binge and has spent tens of millions of dollars on extra hardware. More than a hundred CIA operatives are now in Afghanistan, collecting intelligence on Osama bin Laden and urging warlords to turn against the Taliban. For the worldwide war against terrorism, "the CIA is practically creating its own army, navy and air force," says an intelligence source.

    That leaves Pentagon officers uneasy. Will a beefed-up CIA paramilitary force duplicate what the military's 40,000 special-ops commandos already do? Some soldiers complain that the CIA's spies in Afghanistan still don't like to share the intelligence they gather. (The agency denies the allegation.) But President Bush knows the war against terrorism must be waged covertly, so he has allowed the CIA to throw everything at it. Spann's father Johnny recalls that his son once said, "Someone's got to do the things that no one else wants to do." And sometimes, those who make that choice will pay the ultimate price for it.