An ongoing goal here at the Inglorious Amateurs will always be to honor the memory of those who have given their lives in the performance of their duties serving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This month, we remember and honor the 7 Americans who were killed at Camp Chapman 5 years ago on December 30th:
- Jennifer Lynne Matthews, CIA Officer
- Scott Michael Roberson, CIA Officer
- Darren LaBonte, CIA Officer
- Elizabeth Hanson, CIA Officer
- Harold Brown, CIA Officer
- Dane Clark Paresi, CIA security contractor
- Jeremy Wise, CIA security contractor
On 12/30/2009, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and al-Qaeda triple agent detonated a suicide vest at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan. The detonation killed 7 Americans, a mix of contractors and CIA Officers, 1 Jordanian Intelligence Officer and an Afghan contractor. 6 other CIA officers were seriously wounded in the attack. The attack was the single largest loss of life by the CIA since the 1983 US Embassy bombing in Lebanon and carried a severe emotional toll through the Agency and the broader US intelligence community.
Al-Balawi had been arrested earlier in the year in Jordan, and reportedly had been turned as an agent against al-Qaeda. After several months of sharing information on al-Qaeda. Al-Balawi requested a meeting to share information on a senior al-Qaeda leader. That meeting was set to take place at Camp Chapman, Khost, Afghanistan, which would have been the first time the CIA had interacted directly with al-Balawi. Shortly after arrival at Camp Chapman, according to Washington post reporter Job Warrick in his book Triple Agent, after passing through 3 separate security checkpoints without being searched, al-Balawi’s vehicle arrived in the middle of the base where it stopped. As he exited the vehicle, he was approached by some of the waiting American officers to be searched. He detonated the bomb he carried prior to them reaching him.
Much has been written about the lead up to the attack, the attack itself and analysis of the various decisions made by those on site. I’ll not go in to those here except to say two things: First, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback an operation gone wrong when you were not there and with the totality of information available after the fact. It is much harder to truly say you would have made different decisions on site in the same time-frames with access to the same information at hand. Secondly, after action reports, especially in cases like this, can be invaluable as learning tools to protect our people in the future. That process though need not be a public dissection of the folks involved and their decisions. There is no legitimate public benefit served in that. The public need only know that the community is committed to learning from those mistakes and failed operations and that they will always carry a significant risk to the lives of our officers, a risk they themselves choose to bear in order to do the difficult jobs America asks of them.
Jennifer Matthews was the 45 year old Chief of Base for the CIA’s location in Khost. She was a long time CIA officer with significant experience on the al-Qaeda target. She was also a wife, and mother of three young children, an incredibly difficult balancing act for anyone in the Agency, much less someone devoted to chasing al-Qaeda in war zones. Jennifer had been married to her college sweetheart, Gary Anderson, since 1987.
Jennifer joined the Agency as an intelligence analyst the same year I did, 1989, though we only knew each other in passing. Friends who worked with her spoke very fondly of her. She was both the perfect candidate as an analyst, and an unlikely candidate at the same time. Bright, she had degrees in political science and journalism from a small Christian college in Ohio. Definitely not the stereotypical Ivy Leaguer recruited by a former OSS Officer now serving as an adjunct professor.
A co-worker who worked with her in her early role as an imagery analyst said, “Jennifer was a sharp, witty and incredibly strong-willed woman who was a natural leader in our branch. I remember fondly our daily morning meetings with Jennifer at the forefront of discussions about the overnight intelligence or the latest cable traffic. Her insights were invaluable to our team and she pushed us all to be better analysts. Passionate in her beliefs, she was especially driven by the challenges faced in protecting our national security. Most importantly, Jennifer was a good person who was devoted to her family and faith.”
Jennifer had been committed to the al-Qaeda target since the 1990’s, working for Mike Scheuer and later as one of the first members of Alec Station, in various capacities of increasing responsibility. The bombings of the US embassies in Africa in 1998 intensified her efforts to chase down the al-Qaeda threat. By the late, 1990’s she had become one of the most knowledgeable experts in the Agency on al-Qaeda. Learning about the 9/11 attacks while on vacation in Europe, her zeal for chasing down al-Qaeda was redoubled. Nada Bakos, an al-Qaeda targeting officer, described Jennifer as ”dedicated to her job, focused on finding Bin Laden and adamant that she would stay on the team until it was done.” Another CTC analyst who worked with Jennifer, Cindy Storer, called her “very intense, very focused, passionate from the beginning.”
Her experience was most firmly rooted in analysis and helping teams connect the dots in the al-Qaeda networks worldwide. She had experience overseeing operations from a distance, or through foreign liaison contacts, but had little direct operational experience herself. She has been described by co-workers as a “passionate analyst”, very bright with an “agile mind” and aggressive in her pursuit of terrorists.
Coming off a relatively comfortable assignment in Europe, Jennifer sought and was selected for the Khost assignment, an unaccompanied tour in a war zone. One likely driver for her to seek the assignment was to atone for earlier missteps in her career, but equally valid were changes in an Agency culture that, among other requirements, meant to get promoted to the senior Agency leadership, operational tours in a war zone were now required.
Less than 6 months after getting the assignment, Jennifer Matthews was mortally wounded when al-Balawi detonated the suicide vest he was wearing when he exited his vehicle at Camp Chapman. She died in a medevac helicopter on route to a hospital. She left three children and a husband.
At the time of his death, Dane Clark Paresi was a security contractor working on site at Camp Chapman. Dane had, in 2009, retired from a 27 year career in the US Army. After 12 years in the regular Army, Dane made the jump over to Special Forces, spending the rest of his career (almost 16 years) in assignments in both 1st and 3rd Special Forces Groups, deploying multiple times to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He had received the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medals, as well as the Combat Infantryman Badge.
After retiring from the Army, Dane, married and a father of two, joined XE, a private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater. Dane loved the Army and his family, as well as his home in the Pacific Northwest. His long experience in SF gave him skills well suited to supporting Agency operations in a war zone.
Isaac, who served with Dane in 1st Special Forces Group in Iraq, said, “my interactions with MSG Paresi were among the most significant in my life. He was a well-regarded, larger-than-life character. Dane was a very senior operator who made himself accessible dispensing countless nuggets of advice, covering everything from kit setup to dealing with certain personalities within the company. MSG Paresi really did his best to ensure that we were as prepared as possible. MSG Paresi was 100% mission-focused and he did not allow himself to be constrained or limited by the dictates of propriety. I did not know him well, but he played a central role in my initiation as a warrior, and his passing in 2009 left a considerable hole in the community. To me, Dane was the consummate operator and I was fortunate to have encountered him at the beginning of my career. His dedication, intensity, and directness are worthy of emulation and he is sorely missed.”
While public details are sparse about Dane’s actions that day, even senior Agency leadership said Dane’s actions spared the lives of many others when al-Balawi exited his vehicle and detonated his vest. The Agency’s Director of Security, Mary Rose Mccaffrey spoke at his memorial service. Matt, another officer at Khost that day, said he “and others owe our lives to the quick thinking and quick reaction of Dane” and two other officers.
Based on my analysis of family comments reported in the press and Washington Post articles reconstructing the attack, I believe that Dane and the other two officers recognized in al-Balawi’s demeanor, words and actions as he exited the vehicle that he posed a threat to the post and began to close on that threat in order to mitigate it. While they were unable to stop al-Balawi from detonating the vest, I believe their actions likely forced al-Balawi to detonate at a less than optimal time/distance from other officers, thereby protecting them from the full force of the blast. Had Dane and the others not taken action, it is quite possible that many others would have died.
Dane was a passionate athlete, who stayed in shape even in Afghanistan by jogging. Matt described him as compassionate, a strong leader and inspiration to others. Known for his zest for life and smile, Dane leaves a wife and two daughters.
Both Jennifer Matthews and Dane Paresi received stars on the Memorial Wall at CIA Headquarters and their names are inscribed in the memorial book underneath. Serving as an intelligence officer carries risks, doubly so in a war zone. As then Director Leon Panetta said, “The main lesson from this attack is that, like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies. They take risks to confront the enemy, gathering information to destroy its networks and disrupt its operations. This is a vicious foe, one that has struck our country before and is determined to do so again.”
We all understand those risks when we sign up for the job and we take them on willingly. We do our best to mitigate those risks, but sometimes events happen beyond our control, and other times, we make mistakes. These 7 officers died serving their nation as best they knew how, far from home, in incredibly difficult and dangerous circumstances. We thank them for their sacrifice and honor their service.