In the Line of Duty
CIA as a field operative, they were not surprised, especially since serving his country had been another of his abiding passions.
But on Nov. 25 all that zest and promise came to a savage end in Afghanistan. While interrogating Taliban prisoners near the city of Mazar-e Sharif, attempting to determine which of them might be members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist organization, Spann, 32, was attacked. The Taliban shot and beat him to death. It was the first American combat fatality in the Afghan campaign, and it led to a bloody prison uprising that took Northern Alliance forces three days to quell and killed hundreds of Taliban prisoners. In a rare departure from its secretive ways, the CIA confirmed that Spann, who lived in Manassas Park, Va., with his wife, Shannon, 32, their 6-month-old son Jake and his daughters Alison, 9, and Emily, 4, by a first marriage, had been working for the agency. In fact, it announced that a star honoring Spann would be etched into the white marble entryway of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., one of 79 stars symbolizing each of the CIA agents killed in the line of duty. Back in Winfield, where his parents still live, his father, Johnny, 53, movingly declared, "Our family wants the world to know that we are very proud of our son Mike. And we consider him a hero."
It was a role—if not a fate—to which Spann had long aspired. Growing up in Winfield, where his father is a prominent real estate developer, and his mother, Gail, 52, is a homemaker and businesswoman, he had a comfortable life. All the same, he was known as a straight-arrow, no-nonsense kid who loved to test the limits of his abilities. Sister Tammy, a graduate student in elementary education at the University of Alabama, recalls how he used to compete with her and their other sister Tonya Ingram, 29, a mortgage-banking officer, in swimming underwater laps in their pool. "We got to the point where we could do five laps because of him," says Tammy, "because he pushed us to that level."
Though not big—only about 5'8" and 155 lbs.—Mike played high school football. "A lot of kids cannot really handle contact," says his coach Joe Hubbert. "That didn't bother him. Mike had no fear." Which is not to say he didn't have a softer side. "He was not into being the most popular kid," says Tammy. "But once you really got to know him you could sit and laugh and joke and cut up with him."
Even as a teenager, Spann openly talked about his ambition to be an FBI or CIA agent. At Auburn he majored in criminal justice. Spann signed on as a Marine private when he got out, then went to Officer Candidate School. During his eight years in the Corps he rose to become a captain in the artillery.
He left the Marines expressly because he wanted to fulfill his dream of joining the CIA. He was assigned to the Directorate of Operations. Strictly speaking, Spann was not a spy but rather a member of the CIA's paramilitary force, which carries out covert missions around the world. He plainly wasn't doing it for the money—his salary was roughly $50,000 a year. At the time of his death he had been in Afghanistan for about a month, gathering intelligence. He was well aware of the risks he was taking every time he embarked on an operation, but shrugged them off. " 'Someone has got to do the things no one else wants to do,' " his father recalled him saying. "That is exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan."
Don Sider in Winfield and Colleen O'Connor in Washington, D.C.