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A CIA suicide sparks hard questions

about the agency’s Memorial Wall


Ian Shapira

The CIA Memorial Wall in the main lobby of the agencyʼs headquarters in Langley, Va., pays tribute
to operatives who “gave their lives in the service of their country.” (John McDonnell/The
Washington Post)

She had spent the year in Afghanistan targeting senior al-Qaeda and Taliban
members from one of the CIA’s most important bases.

Ranya Abdelsayed was less than 48 hours away from returning to the United
States in 2013 when a colleague found her body in her bed at the agency’s
Gecko Firebase in Kandahar. At 34, she had shot herself in the head.

The next year, Abdelsayed was honored with a black star on the CIA’s
vaunted Memorial Wall, which pays tribute to members of the CIA who, its
inscription reads, “gave their lives in the service of their country.”

On Tuesday, the CIA will hold its annual ceremony to recognize the fallen,
unveiling new stars on the increasingly crowded wall. But not everyone
agrees that Abdelsayed — one of at least 19 CIA deaths in Afghanistan
during the longest war in U.S. history — deserved that honor. Of the 129 men
and women given stars, she is the only one to have died by suicide.

Nicholas Dujmovic, a longtime CIA historian who retired in 2016, said that
Abdelsayed’s inclusion violates the agency’s own criteria — and that her star
“must absolutely come off the wall.”

The famed memorial, he said, is reserved for deaths that are “of an
inspirational or heroic character” or are the result of enemy actions or
hazardous conditions. But, in addition to Abdelsayed’s, some stars have been
awarded to operatives who died in airplane or vehicle accidents that had no
connection with the dangers of their assignments.

“There’s been an erosion of understanding in CIA leadership for at least two


decades about what the wall is for and who is it that we’re commemorating,”
said Dujmovic, who has researched multiple agency deaths to see whether
they meet the criteria for inclusion on the wall. “Now we have a suicide star
on the wall. That’s not what the wall is for. Suicide is a great tragedy, of
course. But the purpose of the wall is not to show compassion to the family.
It’s to show who in our community is worthy of this honor.”

[Three brothers went to war in Afghanistan. Only one came back.]

Dujmovic said he was so startled by Abdelsayed’s star that he made his


objection known to senior CIA officials, including those on the agency’s
Honor and Merit Awards Board. The board makes recommendations to the
director, who has the final say on inclusion.

“They said, ‘We understand people are plagued by demons and break in war
under psychological pressure,’ ” Dujmovic recalled. “And another said, ‘It’s
just so hard to say no.’ My thinking was, ‘Isn’t that what leadership is for?’ ”

In an interview, John Brennan, who approved Abdelsayed’s star when he


was CIA director, defended his decision. He said that Abdelsayed had
volunteered for one of the agency’s most dangerous assignments and that
“under those circumstances, there are a lot of stresses as well as daily
challenges associated with that work.”

After her death in August 2013, Brennan and his wife flew with Abdelsayed’s
parents to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the arrival of her remains.
Fathi and Nahed Abdelsayed — who declined to comment for this article —
told the Brennans that their daughter loved to paint, draw, write and play the
piano.

“There were a lot of tears and heartbreaking discussions,” Brennan said of


the trip. “A big part of them was torn away. Ranya was someone who they
not only loved but admired. They beamed with pride that their daughter
worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.”
An undated photo of CIA officer Ranya Abdelsayed, who died by suicide in Kandahar, Afghanistan,
in 2013. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

Some people raised questions when Abdelsayed became a candidate for the
wall, Brennan said. The reason for her suicide was unclear. But, ultimately, he
felt that a message needed to be sent, he said.

“Ranya was tremendously committed to the agency’s mission. Her death, I


felt, was a direct result of her work and her dedication in a very difficult
overseas environment,” he said. “It may not have been unanimous that
Ranya was deserving [of a star], but I let it be known that . . . Ranya’s death
was something the agency needed to recognize as being one of those
unfortunate consequences of the global challenges the CIA addresses.”

After her suicide, Brennan said he made it a priority for the agency to
provide more help to CIA employees who might be suffering from
depression or other psychological pressures.
And he lauded Abdelsayed and three other officers when their stars were
unveiled on May 19, 2014.

“We share your pride in them and what they achieved,” Brennan told their
colleagues and family members. “We too know the measure of their strong
character and generous spirit, and feel deeply privileged and grateful to have
served with such selfless patriots.”

[The stone carver who shapes the CIA’s Memorial Wall]

But he made no mention of how Abdelsayed died. And when the CIA added
her name to the Book of Honor that sits at the base of the wall a few years
later, there was no customary news release or public acknowledgment.

'A risky flight'

When it was created in 1974 with 31 stars, the Memorial Wall, which
dominates the agency’s main lobby, was designed to inspire awe.

Among the operatives now honored there: Barbara Robbins, a CIA secretary
killed when a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1965;
Richard Welch, the Athens station chief fatally shot by a terrorist in 1975;
Robert “Bob” Ames, the agency’s top Middle East expert, killed in a truck
bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983; and Johnny Micheal Spann,
who was killed in a prison uprising while deployed in Afghanistan two
months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Shannon Spann, wife of slain CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, holds their 6-month old son Jake
during her husbandʼs funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in December 2001. He was killed in a
prison uprising in Afghanistan. (Doug Mills/AP)

But Dujmovic, the retired historian, said that only about half the people
awarded stars died because of hostile action or terrorism.

Chiyoki “Chick” Ikeda, for example, was killed in a 1960 Northwest Airlines
plane crash as he was escorting a Japanese security official on a trip.

Ikeda was considered for inclusion in 1974, Dujmovic said, but was rejected
because his death was not deemed heroic or inspirational, the wall’s original
criteria. When his name came up again in the late 1990s, the agency’s Honor
and Merit Awards Board told then-Director George Tenet that Ikeda should
be excluded. One high-ranking CIA executive, Dujmovic said, even wrote a
memo to Tenet saying the wall’s integrity needed to be preserved.

But Tenet disagreed, and a star was added for Ikeda in 1997. Tenet declined
an interview request.

Others who have been awarded stars: John Celli, an economic analyst who
died in a traffic accident in Saudi Arabia in 1996; and Leslianne Shedd, an
operations officer who was on leave from her duty post that same year when
her Ethiopian Airlines flight was hijacked and crashed into the Indian Ocean.

While Dujmovic questions their inclusion, he does not think their stars
should be removed. And he has advocated on behalf of several other officers
who died decades ago.

[They were smoke jumpers when the CIA sent them to Laos. They came back in
caskets.]

This year, two of those, Daniel Dennett and John Creech, will be honored
with stars. The men were flying in a twin-engine aircraft on an operation for
the Central Intelligence Group — the immediate precursor to the CIA —
when their plane crashed into a mountain in the Horn of Africa in 1947.

When the wall went up in 1974, they were excluded because they were
considered not technically part of the CIA. But, as Dujmovic wrote in an
article on the CIA website, there was hardly any difference between the two
groups, save for their initials.

Another group that has repeatedly been rejected for the wall: five CIA
security officers who were flying from California to a U-2 spy plane test site
and crashed into a Nevada mountain in 1955. The crew had to fly at
dangerously low altitudes through mountains to avoid detection and
maintain radio silence.

But the CIA has turned them down for stars at least four times, Dujmovic
said. The agency, Dujmovic said, has long felt they were “simply going to
work,” though he disagrees and thinks their case is far more persuasive than
those of others already granted stars.
“It was a risky flight in hazardous conditions,” he said. “They were on the
job, not just going to the job.”

Steve Ririe, a Nevadan who spearheaded the effort to build a memorial at the
site of the crash, wondered why those killed in the accident have been denied
stars when someone who died by suicide received one.

“I am kind of shocked, but at the same time, I don’t want to judge it,” Ririe
said when told about Abdelsayed’s star. “I don’t know; what was the heroic
element? It has to be there. Because I believe what these men on the flight did
was incredible.”

Then-CIA Director John Brennan speaks at a news conference at Langley in 2014. He added Ranya
Abdelsayedʼs name to the Memorial Wall over the objections of others within the agency. (Pablo
Martinez Monsivais/AP)

'She was my sister'


The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Ranya Abdelsayed joined the CIA in
2006. Friends and colleagues called her “Rani.” In Afghanistan, she worked
nonstop as a targeter, mapping and tracking figures including drug lords and
senior Taliban members.

“She never felt like she could do enough,” said one former colleague, who
spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of
Abdelsayed’s death. “We were playing whack-a-mole out there. The stress
and intensity of her work ethic and other problems overwhelmed her in the
end.” He said Abdelsayed was widely respected but was often withdrawn
and “not really part of the cohesive team and social network.”

She was very private, said a linguist on contract with the agency who also
spoke on the condition of anonymity. The two, she said, were close friends,
working long hours together and riding bikes to relax. Abdelsayed used dark
humor to describe the job’s intensity. “Oh, it’s a clusterf--- today,” she was
fond of saying.

But whenever her colleague asked Abdelsayed about her personal life — her
family, how she got to the CIA, her ambitions — she always demurred.

“Still, she was my sister down there. She not only had the best interests of the
U.S. in her heart, but she also had the interest of the people in Afghanistan in
her heart,” the linguist said.

By August 2013, after a year in Kandahar, Abdelsayed was about to head


home to McLean, Va. Her final week, though, was tense.

According to the linguist, she grew angry at random moments. “She would
yell at me,” the linguist recalled. “A couple times, she cornered me in the
chow hall and started yelling and screaming. I’d say, ‘What’s wrong? What’s
the matter?’ She said, ‘I am sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.’ I was like, ‘Okay,
you’re having a bad day.’ ”
On the morning that Abdelsayed was to leave the base, she was supposed to
meet her friend for a 7:30 breakfast. But she did not show up. Eventually, the
linguist called her on the radio but got no reply. She got a key to her room
from a support officer.

But before entering, her colleague knocked. Maybe Abdelsayed was in the
shower, she thought. But after a few more moments, she opened the door.

“I just saw her laying down on the bed,” the linguist said. “You could see no
light in her. She was pale. I just sat on the ground of her room and called for
support and then left. The image is still carved into my head. I still have
nightmares about it.”

Abdelsayed’s official date of death, according to Fairfax County probate


records, was Aug. 28, 2013.

Her parents, Brennan said, had “already made plans to see her. It was all
taken away.”

Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

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