Los Angeles Times

Paul Wong
Northern alliance fighters look at local Red Cross workers carrying the body of a pro-Taliban fighter in a fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, yesterday. The first American to die in the war was killed at the fortress this week.<br><br>AP

WASHINGTON A covert CIA officer who was collecting intelligence during the interrogation of Taliban prisoners became the first American killed in combat in the Afghan war, the agency confirmed yesterday.

Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann, a former U.S. Marine artillery captain, had worked as a clandestine operative for the CIA”s Directorate of Operations since June 1999. He had been in Afghanistan for about six weeks, one of several hundred operatives the agency has deployed in the region in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and others in the al-Qaida terror network.

Spann, 32, was killed Sunday morning at the start of a prison uprising near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, but his body wasn”t recovered until yesterday morning, after intense U.S. airstrikes and ground attacks with tanks and other heavy weapons helped crush the revolt.

CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who reported that Spann”s body was en route back to the United States, said it was still unclear how he had died. Five U.S. special operations officers were seriously wounded Monday by an errant U.S. bomb during the same revolt.

Armed with $1 billion in new funding, mostly for covert action, the CIA has dispatched an array of operatives, from linguists to special commandos, to Afghanistan and beyond since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

CIA analysts and translators have scoured offices and houses abandoned by fleeing Taliban and al-Qaida forces, collecting diaries, records, bank statements and other materials that may help unravel the global terrorist web. They have helped identify possible laboratories for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, although no such weapons have been found so far.

Other CIA officers have contacted former rebel commanders from the Afghans” CIA-supported war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s “to make sure they”re in the right place and do the right thing now,” said an official familiar with the CIA”s secret war.

CIA officers also have worked closely with U.S. military forces to help direct airstrikes against facilities believed to contain senior Taliban or al-Qaida members, and to operate pilotless spy planes capable of transmitting real-time video and other intelligence about potential targets on the ground.

Officials said Spann was killed at the outset of a three-day uprising by Taliban prisoners at a 19th century mud-walled fortress and prison complex at Qala-i-Jangy, near Mazar-e-Sharif.

An estimated 500 Taliban forces, including Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and other non-Afghan allies, had been detained at the fort after the Taliban surrendered the northern stronghold of Kunduz. Early Sunday morning, they overpowered their guards and seized an arsenal of assault rifles, grenade launchers and other weapons.

Most of the prisoners apparently were killed during intense U.S. airstrikes, which detonated the fort”s ammunition depot, as well as during pitched gun battles with anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces backed by several dozen U.S. and British commandos.

Northern Alliance officials told reporters at the scene that the revolt began because the prisoners feared they were about to be executed, and because they objected to the presence of Americans interviewing the prisoners. Spann did not speak any local languages, according to the CIA, but was involved in the questioning of prisoners.

George J. Tenet, head of the CIA, said in a statement that Spann was in the fortress “where Taliban prisoners were being held and questioned. Although these captives had given themselves up, their pledge of surrender like so many other pledges from the vicious group they represent proved worthless.”

Tenet praised Spann as “a very brave American” who was “no stranger to challenge or daring.”

Spann, a resident of Manassas Park, Va., was raised in Winfield, Ala., and studied criminal justice at Auburn University before joining the Marines in the early 1990s. He was married to another CIA employee, Shannon Spann, and is survived by an infant son and two young daughters.

Including Spann, the CIA has lost 79 officers in the line of duty since its creation in 1947, but only has publicly identified 44.

It insists the other names must remain classified to protect intelligence sources and methods.

The CIA initially had refused to confirm that one of its agents was missing or had been killed. Family members were told Sunday that Spann was missing in action, leading to local news reports in Alabama. His father, Johnny Spann, a real estate dealer in Winfield, told reporters that he was notified late Tuesday night of his son”s death.

Former CIA officers described the agency”s decision to issue a press release about Spann”s death as extremely unusual, if not unprecedented. But some noted that it is in the agency”s interest to break its policy of secrecy in this case.

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