WASHINGTON (Hearst Newspapers) — The nation’s worldwide war against terrorism is claiming a growing number of Central Intelligence Agency officers.
The surge in covert-war casualties has prompted the CIA, Congress and the private CIA Officers Memorial Foundation to improve benefits for families of intelligence officers killed or wounded in the line of duty.
At least 24 CIA operatives have died in the 11 years since the 9/11 attacks — including 12 in Afghanistan.
The toll accounts for 23 percent of the 104 line-of-duty deaths during the CIA’s entire 65-year history.
The latest: A CIA employee gunned down in Kabul last September by a rogue Afghan working for the U.S. government.
Additional intelligence officers have been wounded, including two agents in an attack on their armored vehicle south of Mexico City in late August.
“The agency is a tight-knit community whose members are often called upon to do dangerous work,” says CIA spokesman Preston Golson. “Like the military, our officers regularly serve in high-risk environments so it is important for them to know that if anything happens to them, the agency will do its best to ensure their family is supported.”
A devastating attack in 2009 exposed loopholes in the CIA safety net that have been front-and-center ever since.
A trusted CIA informant betrayed the United States to kill for the Taliban in the suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009. Seven CIA officers died and six others were wounded.
It was the deadliest attack on American intelligence officers since eight died in the 1983 suicide truck bombing at the U.S. embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people.
At the time of the Khost attack, the agency’s burial allowance stood at only $1,000. The CIA director was barred from accepting the outpouring of private assistance and gifts for wounded officers. And fund-raising for victims’ families risked being deemed unlawful “solicitation.”
“We don’t have across-the-board programs for intelligence officers the way we do for the armed services,” says Rep. William McClellan “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas, a top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee as well as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s much more individualized. If we lose somebody or somebody’s injured, the question gets asked, ‘What are we doing for them?’”
The limitations contrasted to wide-ranging support available for the families of GIs killed or wounded in combat. GIs can buy up to $400,000 in life insurance. Their families receive a $100,000 tax-free death payment and surviving spouses receive almost $14,000 a year in ongoing compensation as well as nearly $3,500 for each child under 18.
The Pentagon’s Wounded Warriors program has served many of the nearly 48,000 GIs injured in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That has been augmented by the private, non-profit Wounded Warriors Project that raised $70 million last year to provide assistance to almost 21,000 wounded GIs.
“There is quite a disparity between uniformed military and non-uniformed combatants that extends beyond the agency to others who do not wear a uniform,” says Jerry Komisar, a retired veteran of the clandestine service serving as president of the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation. “Agents do not get anywhere near the death benefits available to uniformed military. There’s a huge disconnect.”
The latest intelligence legislation addressed the issue, increasing the burial allowance to $15,000. It freed CIA Director David Petraeus to solicit and accept private support “for specific employees, dependents of employees and survivors of an employee who was killed by hostile or terrorist activities or in connection with an intelligence activity having significant risk.”
And CIA employees injured in attacks can now accept private gifts “subject to counterintelligence considerations” such as potential blackmail.
CIA officials acknowledge changes, but balk at any suggestion of inequities. Intelligence officers enjoy higher pay than troops, greater flexibility on life insurance, and survivor benefits are paid out over time rather than as lump sum payments.
“When you take a comprehensive look at the overall benefits package, there isn’t a major disparity between uniformed military and civilian federal employees,” the CIA official said. “The benefits generally equal out.”
Bob Patneau, of Lexington, N.C., said his family “could not have asked for more generous support” after losing his son Jeff, 26, an undercover CIA officer, in a suspicious vehicle accident in Yemen in 2008.
“We feel as much a part of the CIA professional family as they feel themselves,” says Patneau, a Marine in Vietnam who subsequently served in the Army Special Forces Reserve.
The CIA’s little-known Casualty Assistance Office coordinates support and benefits for families.
The death of an agency officer is “thankfully rare,” the CIA official said.
“When an officer makes the ultimate sacrifice for the nation, our casualty officers make sure family members are notified honorably and respectfully, have all the help they need arranging benefits, and (they) remain in close contact — often for years — to answer questions and provide bereavement support,” the CIA spokesman says.
Families draw financial support from life insurance policies or disability accounts available to federal employees, as well as benefits from the $514 million Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability Fund. Families of deceased officers receive a $100,000 tax-free death benefit or a year’s salary, whichever is greater.
The CIA also offers “free and confidential grief, crisis and mental health assistance” to grieving families that have lost a breadwinner in the prime of his or her life.
“Families may not even know who the officer really worked for,” says Komisar. “It’s not easy for families dealing with the extra complications of a cover.”
With casualties on the increase, the agency appears to have sped up public identification of slain officers to accompany their anonymous memorial stars that are carved into the lobby wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. The wall bears the inscription: “In honor of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country.”
At the latest annual memorial ceremony in May, the agency publicly identified 15 slain CIA officers, stretching back from Patneau, who died in 2008, to five of the officers who died in the Beirut embassy bombing 29 years ago.
The impact of mounting CIA casualties is reflected as well in the expanding mission of the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation. The private nonprofit was established in 2001 to provide educational support for the three children of CIA paramilitary officer Johnny “Mike” Spann, killed as he tried to question captured Taliban fighters at a prison in northern Afghanistan on Nov. 25, 2001. Spann was the first U.S. combatant killed in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The foundation has steadily grown to take in $4.9 million in donations and grants in 2010. In the current academic year, it has provided $575,000 in college scholarships for 25 children and two widows who returned to school.
But with 60 children of slain CIA employees already eligible to receive educational support over the next 15 years, the foundation has started raising donations for a $20 million endowment “to help meet our obligations to future generations of CIA families,” says Komisar, the retired career officer.
“We have to factor in the unknown — the next Khost, God forbid,” says the foundation president. “The business we’re in is risky and we’re going to be exposed to more and more risks.”
The foundation has expanded beyond scholarships for trade schools and colleges to also finance students’ books and laptops, and day care expenses for young widows or widowers resuming their education to boost earnings as the sole breadwinner.
One of the youngest children expected to benefit from the foundation’s work will be Piper Roberson, 2, born to Molly Roberson in 2010 months after the death of Scott Roberson, a former Atlanta police officer and CIA employee who died in the Khost bombing.
“Scott was so excited that Molly was pregnant — and he would have loved Piper so,” says the officer’s mother, Sally Roberson, 71, of Stow, Ohio. “Now when we see Piper and talk about Scott, we are able to keep him alive.”