The Voices of War

39. Toby Harnden - A Deep Dive Into ‘First Casualty: The Untold Story Of The CIA Mission To Avenge 9/11‘

VOW 39 | CIA Mission

 

My guest today is Toby Harnden, who is an author, journalist, and winner of the Orwell Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for political writing. His most recent book, First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11, is the story of the first US team into Afghanistan post the attacks of September 11, 2001. A former Royal Navy officer before becoming a journalist for the likes of The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph who has subsequently reported from 33 countries, was imprisoned in Zimbabwe, and faced prosecution in Britain for protecting confidential sources, Toby is uniquely qualified to tell this story. Some of the topics we covered are: Toby’s journey into journalism, building credibility with the CIA, the story of Team Alpha, the battle of Qala-i Jangi, human terrain of Afghanistan as well as the scars of Team Alpha in the years to come.

Full show notes:

My guest today is Toby Harnden, who is an author, journalist, and winner of the Orwell Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for political writing. His most recent book is First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11 will be the main focus of our discussion today. A former foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and The Daily Telegraph who has reported from 33 countries, he specializes in terrorism and war. Born in England, Toby was imprisoned in Zimbabwe, faced prosecution in Britain for protecting confidential sources, and was vindicated by a $23 million public inquiry in Ireland. A dual British and American citizen, he spent a decade as a Royal Navy officer before becoming a journalist. He holds a First Class degree in Modern History from Corpus Christi College, Oxford and is the author of Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh (1999) as well as Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan (2009), for which he received the Orwell Prize. Previously based in London, Belfast, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Washington D.C., he now lives in Virginia.

 

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Toby’s journey into war journalism
  • Building of credibility and trust with the CIA
  • How the CIA came to lead the first mission in Afghanistan post 9/11
  • The battle of Qala-i Jangi
  • Complexity of the human terrain of Afghanistan and our ultimate failure to recognise it
  • Lessons to be drawn from Afghanistan
  • Limited warfare and likelihood of its future use
  • Team Alpha scars of Afghanistan

Listen to the podcast here

 

Toby Harnden – A Deep Dive Into ‘First Casualty: The Untold Story Of The CIA Mission To Avenge 9/11‘

My guest in this episode is Toby Harnden, who is an author, journalist, and winner of the Orwell Prize, the UK’s most prestigious prize for political writing. His book, First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11, will be the main focus of our discussion. A former foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and The Daily Telegraph who has reported from 33 countries, he specialises in terrorism and war.

Born in England, Toby was imprisoned in Zimbabwe, faced prosecution in Britain for protecting confidential sources, and was vindicated by a $23 million public inquiry in Ireland. A dual British and American citizen, he spent a decade as a Royal Navy officer before becoming a journalist. He holds a First Class degree in Modern History from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and is the author of Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh as well as Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan, for which he received the Orwell Prize. Previously based in London, Belfast, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Washington, DC, he now lives in Virginia. Toby, what a remarkable life you have lived. Thank you so much for joining me on the show.

Thanks a lot. I’m glad to be here.

Before we dig into your book, First Casualty, let’s get a little bit about your background. I note that you were in the military. Maybe we can start with that. What drew you to the military initially and then to become a journalist and writer?

As you can tell from the accent, I’m a United States citizen, but British-born. I’m a dual citizen. I still have my UK citizenship. I was born in the south of England in Portsmouth, which should be the first clue that my father was in the Navy. I’m fourth generation military. My father was in the Navy. His father was in the Army. I joined in the mid-1920s with the rank of boy and then retired as a Major in 1950.

His father was in the Army fighting in Egypt in the 1880s. I guess that was the family tradition. I had a second great-grandfather who was captured in World War I on September the 8th, 1914. He escaped from a German POW camp in March 1916. I had that lineage. I remember particularly my grandfather who’s in the original South Wales Borders, not the modern new version. With his World War II medals, badges, bits of uniform and stuff, and his stories of fighting in North Africa and Europe.

That was very much part of my childhood. I would draw pictures of soldiers. I wrote a little book when I was about 8 or 9, The Adventures of Private Murphy. I was always interested in the military. At the same time, in my last four years of high school or secondary school, we were in Manchester, a long way from the sea but I felt very insular and small. I wanted to get out, see the world and never return.

That’s what I did. The Navy seemed like a good way of doing that. I did my first interviews for the Navy when I was sixteen and the Falklands War was on, which made it very real and exciting. I then got a cadetship sponsorship through the university. I did a year’s worth of Naval training and then three years at Oxford. I had a return of service of six and a half years after that.

Given your family history, it makes absolute sense why you have followed in those footsteps. Writing and storytelling are very obvious why that’s so close to your heart, but what made you leap to become a journalist?

I joined the Navy in 1985. I was eighteen. I turned nineteen the first week I was in. It was a miserable birthday. It was day one of basic training. From Britain’s point of view, it was a big war and it was the tail end of the Cold War, and then there was the Gulf War. I was based in Scotland for that. I tried very hard to get involved and I lobbied to get sent. They weren’t interested and could manage without me.

I travelled a lot. I went to Australia twice. I was in Sydney for the 75th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy in 1986. Years later, for the bicentennial celebrations, which was pretty cool. It was great fun. I joined ships in Hong Kong twice. I went to the Caribbean states like Pakistan, Diego Garcia, and Scandinavia. I did a ton of travelling but a lot of this was after the end of the Cold War, and it didn’t seem real.

It was like, “What’s the point?” This is fun and we are getting to see lots of nice places, but what’s the point of it? I guess I still had this thirst for adventure, and I felt that I could satisfy that better outside the Navy. I also thought, “I will quit while I’m ahead because I don’t love authority, structures, and systems. I can operate within them.

As a junior, you have a lot of flexibility to work the system and arrange things so they suit you and paradoxically, the more senior you get, the more you have to toe the line and the fewer options you have. I thought, “This is a good time to get out.” I plunged into journalism because it seemed like that’s where the adventure was, and that’s how it turned out to be.

Also, that’s taken you to some interesting places, I suspect as well, coming towards the end of the century.

I was a news reporter in London initially. I did theatre reviews. I did obituaries to get my foot and get by-lines. I was a news reporter for eighteen months and then my big break was getting sent to Northern Ireland in ’96. I was inexperienced as a news reporter. There were question marks over me, like, “Can he do this? He hasn’t had the training. He hasn’t done a journalism course at college. He hasn’t got shorthand. He hasn’t been on a regional paper.”

Going to Northern Ireland, paid to that very quickly because I was there and I had to cover it. I did and I thrived on the news. It was a fantastic story because, for a while, it was the biggest story in the world. It was a small patch of land which meant that I could go to everything and I could make contacts. I could make an impact. It was this mix of terrorism and peace negotiations, which in terms of a news story was fantastic and very interesting. There are lots of opportunities there to get great stories.

There are lots of angles and dynamics that as a journalist, you are looking for the nuance, I suspect. If I’m reading between the lines, that also then carried you through for the books that you have published as well. It seems that there is an element of this dichotomy between the war and the conflict, and what is the outcome here? When does the war stop?

Also, what does it mean? I love action stories, battles, and the gritty reality of war and everything but there’s a lot of that around, particularly over the last few years. Yes, it’s important to put it in the strategic and political context, and I have very much tried to do that.

There is a bigger narrative between the blood and gore and that’s what this show is all about. I’m trying to look beyond the actual guns and bullets. Your military career would have set you up pretty well for that as well because you weren’t the cookie-cutter journalist. There were probably question marks hanging over your head. However, when you went to Northern Ireland, you proved that you could do it. Is that a fair assessment that your military career equipped you with a different lens rather than becoming mainstream?

Yeah, and I think it’s very useful as a journalist to have done something else to be on the other side and be involved in things that have been covered by the press and read the coverage and thought, “I could do better than that.” I certainly did feel that in the Navy. It makes you appreciate journalism as well because there were some contemporaries who went straight from university into national newspaper journalism.

VOW 39 | CIA Mission
CIA Mission: It is very useful for a journalist to have done something else before taking on this career.

 

Maybe they did a course in the middle of a few months on a regional paper. I felt they never appreciated it. I was 28 when I became a journalist and I was like, “I can’t believe you get paid for this. This is fantastic.” However, some other people seemed jaded already and wanted to go and become merchant bankers or something. I couldn’t identify with that at all.

The other thing is that with the Navy, it wasn’t much of a culture shock going from journalism to the Navy. I found a lot of common factors because you are working for an organisation, but your job changes a lot every couple of years. Ideally, there’s a lot of variety. No day is the same. Maybe it was partly innate, but I think I learned a lot of it in the Navy, which was dealing with admirals. Occasionally, in the Navy, you have Prince Charles, Lords, and Ladies, all the way down to ordinary sailors from some godforsaken part of Scotland whom you can barely understand.

It was like, “Go to prison or join the Armed Forces.” In the context of a ship, you are on board a frigate with 250 people, and you get to know all of them. You have a relationship with all of them, and you know their names and you say hi to them. You might be on watch for four hours, and there’s nothing going on. You are talking to some sailor and finding common interests and stuff. That was a very good background for journalism, I felt.

Also, because I was covering the military a lot in Northern Ireland, and subsequently, it helped me understand the rank structure, understanding the way service people think, I think a lot of journalists have no military in their background. They can’t conceive why anybody would want to be a soldier. For me, I could get it instantaneously. In Northern Ireland, I was the same age as a lot of the junior officers. It was very useful because I got on well with them. I went drinking with them and stuff. We each felt we were kindred spirits.

You had found a way to build rapport quite naturally. You were part of the ingroup that in this case just happens to be now writing about it as opposed to being part of it, which is very interesting. I can’t go past without asking you. You faced prosecution in Britain for protecting confidential sources. Has this to do with Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland for The Telegraph, I was writing about Bloody Sunday. It was twelve Catholics who were killed in 1972 by British Army Parachute Regiment. It’s this notorious incident and the cause amongst the Nationalists and Republicans in Ireland. At this particular time, for political reasons, there was going to be an inquiry into Bloody Sunday, which was something that Sinn Féin and the SDL, the Republican nationalist side had always asked for. They wanted justice, but it was also a stick to the British. It was a concession they would be given this inquiry.

There was a lot of controversy about these old soldiers coming back to give evidence and whether they would be granted anonymity or protection. There’d been an inquiry in the ‘70s called the Widgery Tribunal. They’d all been given letters like soldier A B, C, D, and E. At this time in 1998, the soldiers had been told they were going to have to give evidence under their true names.

They were upset about this. I was interviewing them about how they felt about it. I interviewed two of them, and they said, “We are not going to give evidence truthful evidence. If we are not going to be granted anonymity, we are not going to tell the truth.” I wrote an article about that and it wasn’t completely shocking to me that the Tribunal immediately came after me and said, “You need to hand over your notes and recordings. You need to give us the names of these soldiers.”

Under journalistic practice and ethics, I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t going to do it. Before they could subpoena me, I destroyed the tapes and notes because there was a case with the Guardian and a woman called Sarah Tisdall, who was a whistleblower in the early 1980s. She leaked documents to the Guardian. There was then a court order, a subpoena to hand over the documents that had been leaked.

The Guardian handed them over. The markings on the documents immediately identified the leaker, and Sarah Tisdall went to jail. That was very much on my mind. It’s a solemn promise when somebody speaks to you on the condition of anonymity. You will protect it basically for the duration of their life unless they release you from it. They weren’t going to release me.

The Tribunal applied for me to be held in contempt of court. I was the first witness of the Bloody Sunday Tribunal, and I was roasted. I felt like a very hostile arena. There were all these lawyers for the families. It felt like there were half a dozen of them jumping up and down. There was no examination in chief. It seemed all these people taking potshots at me. I was going through the courts in Northern Ireland fighting this contempt order. If I’d been found guilty of contempt, I would have been subject to a jail sentence.

This was hanging over me until 2004. In the end, we always knew that they had a central to our argument. You know who all the soldiers were on Bloody Sunday because they testified before the Widgery Tribunal. You have got all the records. You don’t need me to tell you. In the end, they dropped it. The soldiers testified, but I didn’t give their names. It was one of those experiences. It was time-consuming.

It would have been trying as well, but if I’m guessing, it would have certainly given you some credibility with later speaking to CIA operatives who are still on the job and so on.

It’s true. It meant that I was able to prove that I could be trusted and that I wasn’t just going to take what I could get from people and burn them afterwards. I got a lot of criticism from journalists at the time. It shows that a lot of people don’t operate on principle. They operate on which side they are on. The Bloody Sunday paratroopers were not very popular people. There were a lot of people who were like, “You should just hand it over,” or, “You shouldn’t have destroyed your notes. That was wrong.” I found that was interesting but long term, the fact that I dug my heels in on that and didn’t waiver at all was a plus.

A lot of journalists don’t operate on principle. They work on which side they are on. Share on X

The point you are making is ethics are flexible for some people. I’m pretty keen to get into the book, but I also can’t go by the fact that you were imprisoned in Zimbabwe. What was that about? It’s because it’s a dimension to you that perhaps is interesting and important.

I have thought about some of this, and maybe there’s a pattern of pushing the envelope a bit. Putting myself out there and taking too many risks, but being very prepared to take risks. I’m still alive. I still have all my limbs. I have tried not to be reckless, but I believe in putting myself out there. This was 2005 and I just spent a lot of time in Iraq. I was with a photographer who’d also spent time in Iraq, Julian Simmonds.

We were covering the parliamentary elections for the Sunday Telegraph in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. We didn’t have permits. There was this very repressive law that required you to have a state permit to practice as a journalist. We didn’t want to do that partly because we thought they wouldn’t give us a permit, but we would then have signalled that we intended to go to the country.

Also, even if we did get a permit, we didn’t want to be followed around by Mugabe’s henchman. We went in as tourists, and we got caught. We were at a polling station, which was a school. We were in a ZANU-PF area, the ruling party area and a goon grabbed us. We tried to walk very quickly out to our rental car. The police came. We were handcuffed and were in police cells.

After a weekend in the police cells, we were taken to a prison. We were suddenly in a cell with a hundred other guys, all Zimbabweans. We were put on trial accused of practising journalism without accreditation. We were facing, if we’d been found guilty, a potential four-year sentence. As soon as we were arrested, we said to each other, “It’s not that bad. We are not going to get our heads chopped off,” because that’s what we have been facing in Iraq with the orange jumpsuits and all that, but still, four years in jail in Africa would have been no joke.

The thing we hadn’t thought about was disease, which should have been our biggest concern. Julian got typhus and scabies in prison. Luckily, I didn’t. I don’t know why, but I didn’t get anything. It was an adventure and it means, I can begin anecdotes and impress my kids and stuff by saying, “When I was in prison.” At the time, we suddenly were released and then deported. On day thirteen, it was getting to be a little bit beyond a joke. We started to get worried and angry. Thankfully, it wasn’t a four-year sentence.

I guess your life has set you up very well to deal with conflict and understand conflict. Again, as you mentioned yourself, being a journalist who’s had a life before journalism to then take that further while a journalist set you well for writing your third book. Maybe it’s a good time to dig into First Casualty, which I finished. It’s a nail-biter.

VOW 39 | CIA Mission
First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11

As somebody who’s deployed to Afghanistan and tried to study Afghanistan, who talks about Afghanistan quite a lot on my show, I’m blown away by some of the complexities that you bring through the pages in a very nuanced way without casting blame on anyone, which I think that’s something that struck me. You are telling it as it is, but you are also telling some cold hard facts and it is for the reader to dig into it a little bit deeper.

I found that it made me ask a lot more questions about the context of the war than I perhaps have asked in the past. I highly recommend it. I want to say it’s an intense read. It’s one of those books that you want to keep reading because it is intense in the sense that it’s by minute account of what’s happened on the ground. I will let you then share as much as you’d like to share about the content of it. Maybe you can start with how you even get connected to the story of 9/11 and then the CIA?

It goes right back to 9/11. On 9/11, I was working for The Telegraph in Washington, DC downtown. I walked into the office as a first plane hit. I watched the second plane hit and I could see that it was an airliner. I knew it was a terrorist attack. It’s the biggest workday of my life. I knew I couldn’t screw it up, but there was also another plane in the air and there was reporting that it might be heading for the White House or the Capitol.

I was two blocks from the White House, and I remember thinking, “It could land here. It could miss and hit this building.” I was like, “There’s no point in thinking about that because if that happens, that’s it. I can’t change it. I can’t get consumed by concerns like that. I need to focus.” There’s a five-hour time difference. I have to work out what’s going on and file thousands of words in the next 3 or 4 hours.

That evening, there were Humvees and National Guardsmen on the streets of Washington, DC. For the next two years, I was reporting on a country at war. I vividly remember but now, we have a generation of people who don’t, how the world changed and how America changed. The unity in the United States and the burning desire to get into Afghanistan and get to the people who did this and stop it from happening again.

During that period, I wrote a couple of articles about Mike Spann being killed. He is a former Marine Corps officer who was in the CIA and was part of Team Alpha, which is what this book is about. I remember his widow Shannon speaking very movingly at his funeral in Arlington Cemetery. Everything moved on. It was Iraq and it’s this sense that Afghanistan’s over, but I was always very interested in Mike Spann and those early CIA missions.

In Iraq, strangely enough, in 2004, somebody said, “Have you seen the footage of the CIA officer running for his life in the fort?” I hadn’t seen it. I watched it on YouTube and it was David Tyson, who was the CIA officer who was with Mike Spann. David had seen Mike Spann being killed in this prison uprising of 400 Al-Qaeda prisoners. He’d had to kill or be killed. He had to fight his way out. He probably killed 2 dozen or 3 dozen Al-Qaeda in the space of about eleven minutes.

There was German TV footage of him running through the fort briefly, and then bumping into this German TV crew. I remember his staring eyes, a 1,000-yard stare, and wondering what was going through his mind and what was his experience. He’d been through an incredible trauma. He was in a very dangerous situation and you could see all that in his face.

I was almost very interested in that battle because the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi was the first day of what turned out to be a six-day battle. There was the CIA. There were Green Berets. There was the British Special Boat Service, and there was a Navy Seal who was serving with the SBS. There were AC-130 gunships. There was John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, although, it was Al-Qaeda. There was Abdul Rashid Dostum warlord from Tajiks. There are all these characters and all these actions.

Around 2013, I was back in the US covering US politics. Maybe, being a little bored of it. I tried to track down David Tyson. Through an academic at Indiana University who’d thanked him in some book acknowledgments, I got an introduction and I met David in a Panera Bread, a chain restaurant very close to here. It was in Northern Virginia. It was outside DC. It was strange because this happened thousands of miles away and I’d seen it in Iraq and here we were living very close to each other.

He couldn’t talk because he was still in the CIA, but I could tell that he wanted to tell his story at some point in some way. I tried to keep in contact with him. For his reasons of employment, he was keeping me at pretty arm’s length. I sometimes wouldn’t hear from him for a year or two but I got a book deal towards the end of 2019 hoping that I would speak to him and also, thinking if not, there’s the SBS, Green Berets, or the various senior CIA officers who’d retired.

However, a couple of months after that, I got an email from David saying, “I have retired. I’m ready to talk.” That was a great moment. From that, I went to speak to David and then there were a couple of others. There is J.R. Seeger who was the chief, and David was an Uzbek linguist. He was based in Tashkent and had been an academic steeped in the culture of the region.

I will come back to that point because that’s something that struck me as relevant and useful as a lesson to take out from the book about the war in Afghanistan.

J.R. Seeger who was the chief, a Dari speaker who’d worked with the Mujahideen in the 1980s as the CIA officer. Justin Sapp, who was a Green Beret, the only soldier on the team who’d been on the Special Forces Diver Course in Key West Florida on 9/11 and underwater. David was in the air flying to London to talk to people in the CIA station in London about Stinger missiles that the CIA had sold to the Mujahideen in the ’80s.

Immediately, I got a sense of these incredible characters. I wanted it to be a character-driven narrative. Initially, I felt that it was going to be a six-day battle and that’s still very much in there, but it became more the story of Team Alpha, these eight CIA officers first behind enemy lines after 9/11 dropped into the unknown and all these very interesting characters.

The oldest, Alex Hernandez was 49. He was a Sergeant Major. The youngest was Justin who was a Green Beret. He had Mike Spann who was this tough Marine very much like America after 9/11 with this, “Against us, let’s go get them, kill them all, God sort them out,” type of mentality and that’s the way the country was. Eventually, I approached people completely separately from the CIA and I had no official sanction or anything like that.

At a certain point, I’d spoken to Shannon Spann, Mike’s widow, who’s also a CIA officer, and by then, retired. Also, Cofer Black and Hank Crumpton, are the senior guys who ran the war. I built up credibility and trust. There were six surviving members of the team. Mike Spann was killed and Mark Rausenberger, the medic died in 2016 in the Philippines.

There were three more I wanted to speak to. At that point, I approached the CIA and said, “This is what I’m doing.” They were like, “Yes, we know. We have heard.” I was surprised that they were very positive and they didn’t open the vaults. They didn’t give me any secret cables or anything like that, but they did facilitate interviews including serving people because Andy, from the team, is still serving. Also, a couple of other people who are very close to Mike Spann.

Why was that? I have got that down as a question to ask because having dabbled in that world myself, I’m very conscious of the need to protect the individual’s identity and to open the doors up quite intimately to a journalist, although validated, but still, it’s risky, especially with the serving officers.

It is a bit of a risk for them. There are a lot of bureaucracies and government organisations are very risk averse because nobody is going to take you to task for not letting somebody in and saying, “That was a great opportunity we missed.” However, if it goes wrong, then they will be like, “Why the hell did you facilitate this?”

My pitch was that it was history. It was many years ago. We are about to be out of Afghanistan. There are very few operational security considerations here. Also, lots of other people have told the story like the Green Berets have had the movie Horse Soldiers, a book, and the 12 Strong movie, and the CIA was written out of it. That was a little button I pushed.

Also, George Tenet, the CIA Director at the time had described it as the CIA’s finest hour. Part of my picture also was like, “This was a success that a lot of people have forgotten. You spearheaded the war in the early months that helped to topple the Taliban and, then the Pentagon took over and it all went wrong. I guess they bought it. The people I’d already interviewed said, “Yeah. This guy is serious. He seems to be a straight shooter. He doesn’t have any hidden agenda.” I’m very grateful that they did take the risk.

Dare I say, you HUMINTed the CIA.

That’s one of the weird things about this is, yes, exactly because the other phrase people use is, “You are case-officering somebody.” You are trying to build rapport. You are trying to get them on the side. You want them to talk and relax. If you both like dogs, you start talking about dogs, sports, or whatever it is and their entire job is to do that type of stuff. It’s a weird thing because it’s a natural human way to engage and build rapport, but at the same time, it’s transparent what you are doing because they do it. Sometimes, there will be jokes about that stuff.

You are case-officering your case officer, which is why I made that point right at the start about your time in Northern Ireland and being prosecuted for protecting sources. I suspect it would have been, “This guy stands by what he means,” and that would have reinforced a little bit of trust as well.

The two previous books were good calling cards that I was serious about. I did things that I believed in accuracy, context, comprehensive accounts, and stuff. I think that helped as well.

Without giving away the entire book and I’m happy for you to share as much as you are willing to share, but the wave tops. What is the actual plot of the book? You have made some mention, but maybe give us the broad plot outline.

It very much starts on 9/11 with David flying from Tashkent to London and not learning about the attacks until he lands at Heathrow and that it’s all over. Justin’s underwater at the CIA dive school and is rinsing out his dive gear and one of the sergeants says, “Do you hear what’s happened in New York?” Mike Spann’s in the CIA headquarters, and is furious that the building’s evacuated. He’s like, “We don’t just go home. We are the CIA. We do things. We do something.”

Cofer Black is the man of the hour. He was the head of the Counter-Terrorism Centre and he has a plan. The CIA has a plan that was outlined in a book called the Blue Sky Memo, which was the result of the Bin Laden unit, the Alec Station that was set up by the CIA in 1996. There’s a small cohort of CIA people who are extremely focused on Al-Qaeda.

There’d been embassy bombings in East Africa in ’98. There’s been the USS Cole Bombing in 2000. There was the Millennium Plot. The CIA saw it coming. They didn’t know exactly where or when, but they knew it was going to happen. They had this concept of small teams of CIA officers and Green Berets going into Afghanistan working with the Indigenous resistance and Northern Alliance, as advisors to Afghan fighters and calling in American airpower and getting to Al-Qaeda that way.

The Clinton administration wasn’t interested. The Bush administration wasn’t interested before 9/11, but everything changed on 9/11. Cofer Black sells the plan to Bush. He’s told it in a very theatrical way like, “When we finish, there are going to be flies walking across their eyeballs. We are going to bring back Bin Laden’s head on a pike, or in a box full of dry ice.” It’s a language that fits the moment and also worked very well on Bush. In a way, Cofer Black was case-officering George W. Bush.

The subtitle of the book is Avenging 9/11 and that’s an important aspect of it and Bush was quite clear about that.

Mike Spann was and everybody on that team. That was a part of it. There was some debate about that. Shannon Spann, for instance, Mike’s widow was a little bit like, “I thought it was to deny Sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and collect intelligence.” It was and I spoke to people on the team like Justin in particular, and David as well. You can’t have every caveat in a subtitle. Avenging 9/11 was a big part of it. Once Bush has bought into the plan, the CIA is putting teams together.

There’s a team called Jawbreaker, which went in on September 26th, 2001 but they went into the Panjshir Valley, which is where these previous CIA missions would be going in and out of to link up with the Tajiks. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader had been assassinated on September 9th, 2001 2 days before 9/11. They were in some disarray. The Jawbreaker was fixed in place. There are lots of politics going on with the Tajiks. They didn’t want to fight.

They wanted money. They wanted US bombs but Team Alpha, the next team in with Mike Spann, David Tyson, Justin Sapp, and all those guys. They were the first behind enemy lines. They were in the mountains in Taliban-controlled territory and they linked up with Dostum who wanted to fight. Cofer Black was the man of the hour in Washington, DC. Dostum was the man of the hour in Northern Afghanistan. All of a sudden, this brutal warlord who’s accused of all these human rights atrocities was the guy.

He was a freedom fighter.

Once the Taliban had gone, the US didn’t want anything to do with the locals. They didn’t want anything to do with Dostum again. He was a warlord, and he needed to be marginalised. The book is a story of the team getting put together. Some of them barely knew each other. Four paramilitaries, and they had been a team, but then you had David, J.R., Justin, and Mark the medic who was added on.

You had this eight-man team with no helmets, no body armour, no military kit, and they flew in on two Black Hawks into the unknown link-up with Dostum. It’s the story of the fight in the mountains and manipulating and organising the tribes, which involves a lot of very sterling intelligence work by J.R. Seeger, in particular of getting the allies to be allies and not rivals or worse than that enemy, which was no easy feat in this period.

Mazar-i-Sharif fell, which was the first domino in 2001, and the beginning of the end of the Taliban regime. It then becomes the story of the prison uprising. The main effort and the last stand of the Taliban in the North is in Kunduz. That’s where most of the Americans are, and there’s this skeleton crew left behind because there’s this sense in Washington that the war in Mazar-i-Sharif is over but, spoiler alert, it isn’t.

They have got 400 Al-Qaeda surrender, and then it all converges on this Fort Qala-i-Jangi, the House of War just outside Mazar-i-Sharif on November 25th, 2001, when David Tyson and Mike Spann go in with Afghan intelligence officers and Afghan Northern Alliance guards to interrogate these 400 and do an initial sift and work out who they are.

It was a whole combination of unfortunate circumstances. There are only 2 of them instead of 3 because Justin had to go and deliver a vehicle. The Green Berets who might have gone with them were in Kunduz and the others had been given an order because there’d been a suicide explosion the night before not to go into the fort. There was this imperative to get in there because it was Al-Qaeda and the first Al-Qaeda that Americans have got their hands on since 9/11. They took a risk because they took risks every day. This wasn’t an ordinary day.

There were still fears of further attacks from Al-Qaeda.

Being in the United States at the time, I remember this. It’s like, “There is going to be another attack tomorrow, next week, or next month.” We have now had many years without a major attack on the homeland, which was something you could never have predicted and hasn’t been by accident. It was the spirit of the times and certainly the spirit of Team Alpha, Mike Spann, and David Tyson. It was not like, “Let’s wait until the situation is calmed down a bit.” We have some extra security. We have flown some FBI agents in. It’s like, “We need to get in there now. We need to sort this out,” but it was a Taliban Al-Qaeda plot to retake Mazar-i-Sharif.

The uprising was one part of it but as soon as the uprising was happening, J.R. Seeger, who was in Kunduz, and then the Green Berets in the Turkish school which was the headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif, could see Taliban force movements moving away from Kunduz and from the other side, from Balkh City towards Mazar-i-Sharif. It was this, “Holy crap moment,” that if they took control of the Fort and broke out, then there could be a Somali Black Hawk down massacred American bodies being dragged through the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif.

At that time, these were the first forces on the ground and a Trojan horse move that could have a significant disproportionate strategic impact and a victory.

The whole course of history after 9/11 would have changed. It was not only some spontaneous uprising or some accident. The CIA officers did upset the prisoners and all these things have floated. It becomes a six-day battle. This 50-man rescue force with 8 SBS including 1 SEAL.

This is another crazy little thread in there. Firstly, the SBS and then the SEAL that’s attached to them and the role they played in there as well. You couldn’t make this up. I completely understand why you were fascinated by this story because it’s so colourful.

You have these fifteen guys a bit like Team Alpha. They were hastily put together going into the unknown, arriving at the Fort and there was gunfire and ordnance because there was a load of weapons stored in containers that Al-Qaeda got their hands on. They are trying to save David. They think he’s dead, but they are not sure. They are trying to locate Mike. The SEAL crawls forward at dusk and identifies Mike Spann’s body. He fired shots on either side of the body to see if there was any movement or flinching, and there was none.

The battle goes on for six days, and you have AC-130 gunships coming in. There’s a 2,000-pound JDAM dropped on the wrong position, which kills Afghan allies and wounds a bunch of SBS and Green Berets. The Al-Qaeda guys are firing mortars, RPGs, and everything. They were skilled fighters. The Northern Alliance struggled to defeat them.

On December 1st, 2001, they were eventually almost literally flushed out of the basement of the Pink House, which is the building where they’d all converged, which had an underground bunker, which I went to. It was spooky as hell. So many people died down there. The presumption is nearly all of them are dead and then 86 of them emerge, including John Walker Lindh, all bedraggled, emaciated, and blackened. A lot of them were wounded.

They emerged, and that’s the end of it. Mike Spann’s body has been recovered, but that took a couple of days. It was an incredible story. One of those instances that you couldn’t make it up. The best stories are true because you kept on finding out these incredible things about these Team Alpha guys and these events.

It struck me as though you could write another four books out of this focusing on particular aspects of either the battle or the individual teams. I love the one you chose of Team Alpha going in. Maybe you can drill down into that a little bit because some of their members were rather unique. You mentioned, J.R. Seeger and David Tyson. They were rather unique in what they understood of Afghanistan. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit because that becomes relevant as the war unfolds in the next years.

I’m glad you picked up on that because that’s very important. These are two guys with extensive experience in the region and Afghanistan. Both of them conclude pretty early on that the complexity of Afghanistan, a big part of these events, was an incredible success. The formula of hundreds of Americans rather than 100,000 Americans, NATO forces assisting the allies of the Afghans, but making it an Afghan fight, worked but at the same time, unreliable allies, friendly fire, ambiguous surrenders, issues with prisoners human rights issues, and rivalries between ethnicities and tribes. Those are all signs of how difficult this was going to be.

David, very early on, even though he speaks near Native Uzbek and understands these Afghans intimately was struck by what he calls peeling the layers of the Afghan onion. He concludes that he could spend several lifetimes trying to work this out, but he would never get to the truth. He’d never understand it all. This is a guy who knows more than almost any other American.

J.R. Seeger similarly is a big believer that Afghanistan isn’t a country. It’s a collection of tribes and ethnicities. Like the British colonial offices in the nineteenth century, you can influence and you can try and shape it, but it’s their country. They are different from us. We can’t try and re-fashion this place in our image, or even as we did, try and run it from Kabul and have a centralised democracy. That’s just not what Afghanistan is.

VOW 39 | CIA Mission
CIA Mission: The United States can try and shape Afghanistan, but it is still their country. They are different from us. We cannot fashion it in our own image or run it using a centralized democracy.

 

Both of those men were case officers, spies and intelligence operatives. They both have military backgrounds, but they were intelligence officers and both of them were examples of the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Whereas, ignorance is bliss. You go in there and you are like, “I’m an American. I’m here to sort it all out. Here are some pencils for the kids and a bit of grain for the farmers. Plant these crops instead of opium and it will all be okay.”

Those shooting are the bad guys and those waving are the good guys.

It’s a slight caricature.

Again, in my own experience, it is not necessarily too far from the truth.

Both of them were proponents then, and now, of the light footprint that worked in 2001 rather than the USA Inc., big Army, bases, and tens of thousands of conventional troops. It’s letting the Afghans work it out, which is always going to be messy. The surrender that led to the 400 Al-Qaeda coming to the fort was very opaque and ambiguous.

J.R. was there, but he let Dostum and Mullah Fazl, who’s back in government for the Taliban butcher his arrows in the North. He let them do it because this is Afghanistan and it’s their country. The success in this limited way with these small numbers of Americans at the beginning was a template for how it could be done.

Ironically, victory was so swift. There was this sense of, “It’s easy so let’s shoot for the moon. Let’s do centralised democracy in Afghanistan. Let’s try and reshape this country in our image. Also, let’s exclude any remnants of the Taliban because they are terrorists. They are the enemy and we are not dealing with them.” I feel that this is a period of great success, but the tipping point towards what was eventually surrender and defeat was the start of December 2001.

The early victory was a victory against Al-Qaeda. That was the original mission. It was to go and prosecute Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda was expelled, but not completely. Bin Laden was still at large for another ten years, but the hindsight’s easy but certainly, people like J.R., David, and the CIA at the beginning were like, “We should take a step back here.” Instead, the Pentagon takes over and Americans pour in while at the same time, a lot of the brain power and resources of the government are diverted to Iraq.

One of the things that I find interesting and you made the point just then of referencing J.R. Seeger of if you can even call Afghanistan a country. It then begs the question, “Who’s Afghanistan will we then build?” It’s because if you think about who we supported, who we then turned our back on, and who we excluded.

The venue for the Great Game in the nineteenth century and the clash of the Russian Empire and the British. If you look at the countries that border Afghanistan and China, it’s a small border, Pakistan, Iran, and three former Soviet republics, and now, it is a vacuum and everybody is vying for control, territory, and primacy. Pakistan supported the Taliban all the way through. That was another factor. There was an Iranian intelligence officer hanging around.

He gave his condolences as well, which is an interesting little point of human relations as opposed to the political.

The same guy popped up after Mike Spann was killed and offered his condolences to Team Alpha. It’s depressing at the moment and the members of Team Alpha are working very hard to get Afghan allies out, but there is this sense of what was that all for? Yes, we stopped attacks on the homeland for the last few years, but there’s no Afghan opposition now. The Panjshir has fallen and Al-Qaeda is still there. ISIS-K is there. The senior Al-Qaeda guy is the Taliban Interior Minister. We talk about over-the-horizon attacks and stuff, but that’s not very convincing, to put it mildly.

It’s depressing. I do think that the story in Afghanistan is not over. The Taliban is going to have a hell of a job governing this place. They haven’t got majority support by any stretch. They have no mandate. They seem to have no plan as to how to govern. There’s a humanitarian crisis around the corner. I do think there will be resistance and opposition again but given those early successes as told in the book and the blood and treasure of the last many years, it’s not a great position to be and that’s the feeling from the surviving Team Alpha members.

VOW 39 | CIA Mission
CIA Mission: The story in Afghanistan is not over. The Taliban will have a hell of a job governing the place. They do not have majority support by any stretch and humanitarian crisis just around the corner.

 

That’s a point I want to touch on as well. I find the timing of your book rather amazing. The anniversary of 9/11 is very close to the death of anniversary of Mike Spann, the first casualty of the war. Also, it’s coinciding with the return of the Taliban. I suspect the first part was not coincidental. I think it was probably planned as part of the twentieth anniversary of the war. That was rather timely.

We were planning it for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Throughout 2020, there was a sense of the wars probably finally winding down from the American point of view. In the election, both Trump and Biden promised to pull out all American troops, but the national security consensus was there should be a residual force of 5,000 or so to prop up the government and keep Bagram open.

When I was there, I had the strong sense of like, “This is over.” It was only a matter of time because the Taliban surrounded Sheberghan where I was interviewing Abdul Rashid Dostum. I didn’t see a single NATO troop in weeks. You couldn’t drive from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif. You couldn’t drive from Mazar-i-Sharif to Sheberghan. The Taliban controlled large ways of the country.

As I was wrapping up, Biden announced all the troops were coming out on September 11th, 2021 the 20th anniversary. That changed to August 31st, and it was clear that essentially the US under Trump had surrendered in negotiations. There was this sense of inevitability. As I was putting the book to bed finally, it was looking very ominous. It all completely unravelled in August, as we know. In the beginning, I would not have predicted that was going to happen.

How do you think this book fits into that piece of the puzzle? What lessons are we to draw both from your book and the outcome of the war?

There are two different things in a way because there was a lot of commentary in August 2021 that I was doomed from the beginning. It was always a fool’s errand. It’s a suggestion we should never have gone in, which is ridiculous. At the time, one member of Congress, Barbara Lee from California in the House of Representatives voted against authorising force. Only 1 out of 535 members of Congress.

The UN and NATO were on board. Bush’s popularity was 90%. I still do not doubt that it was the right thing to do to go into Afghanistan. People have forgotten why we went there and the limited war aims and nature of the conduct of the campaign. At the end of something, it’s very useful to go back to the beginning. People have been surprised to be reminded that we were successful at the beginning.

I don’t think this whole enterprise was doomed. As something happens doesn’t mean it was inevitable that it would happen. That’s not the way life and history work. There are lessons that America is a country when we put our minds to it, and when we unify, we can achieve incredible things. To go in there and do what Team Alpha, the other CIA teams, and the Green Berets did was incredible. A bit of humility, realism, and a sense that the world is a dangerous place.

VOW 39 | CIA Mission
CIA Mission: The United States succeeded with the Afghan War when it began. The whole enterprise was not doomed. Just because something happens doesn’t mean it was inevitable.

 

Other countries are different from us and other peoples are different from us. We have to deal with that. We can’t shape everything to be how we think it should be. We can’t assume that the natural state of every person in the world is to be an American. I think there are a lot of lessons about mission creep, overextending ourselves, and being too ambitious with our foreign projects. There is a lot to take from this period, and it was an amazing experience for me to be able to tell that story, which was richer, varied, and more cinematic than I would ever imagined at the beginning.

For me, probably one of the most important things that I took from the book is this realisation that we need to understand the ecosystem of an area of operation. You bring that to light through the relationships and the alliances and how J.R. Seeger and David understood the local context. I don’t want to say they played the various wars well.

I guess they did or they managed those relationships in a way that probably died out with them leaving the country. You make the point as well that Dostum who was the man of the hour on the ground was then thrown out as a warlord. Were you surprised by that? “A warlord in Afghanistan, what do you mean?”

I know gambling in a casino, but how do you expect people to get to positions of power and maintain their power?

This is also not the first war Afghanistan is fighting. Afghanistan has been at war for decades at this point. These guys have survived and they have made a name for themselves for a reason. This is why we ultimately cited them. That was an error of judgment or naivety that we embraced. This idea of limited war, do you think that’s something that we will see in the future? This small footprint and I’m slowly moving away, but from your experience as a journalist and having seen a big part of the world in the contestation with China, is that something you see?

One of the problems with what’s happened in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent, Iraq before that, is there’s a danger that America will try to batten down the hatches and turn in on itself and embrace this notion that we can end wars by leaving. The lesson of 9/11 was that the war came to America. It would be a tragedy and a big mistake and could lead to something catastrophic if we felt we could turn our back on the world.

We have got to scale down. There is a middle ground between isolationism, regime change, and building new countries thousands of miles away from American shores. There are American troops, particularly Special Forces and certainly, CIA officers all over the world. There is this small footprint that’s going on. I think that it’s much more preferable than drone strikes. We saw what happened on the ground with a drone strike even when we did have a presence there.

Small numbers of Americans, elite military, and intelligence, not to mention other countries as well. The Anglosphere, NATO, the European Union or whatever combination. There are lots of countries that can do lots of things but small numbers of boots on the ground and eyes and ears are going to be very important. War and conflict are part of the natural state of man. We have got a plan for limited wars because I don’t think there’s any other option.

War and conflict are part of human’s natural state. Mankind has a plan for war because there isn’t really any other option. Share on X

You talk about it towards the end of the book, and this is maybe the last theme I want to touch on. You mentioned it as well. It’s an important one. The dissatisfaction by some members of Team Alpha with how the war had gone and many of them suffered subsequently. Can you tell us a little bit about their experience?

Justin Sapp is a Colonel now. He is still in Special Forces and serving at the US Mission to the United Nations. David just retired. Scott Spellmeyer has also just retired. They have spent big chunks of their lives in this country. They saw Mike Spann killed and lots of other comrades since then. They also have a very strong feeling for the Afghans. David in particular talks about this a lot. He’s moved to tears when he talks not only about Mike Spann, but Amanullah who was Dostum’s intelligence chief in the Dara-I-Suf Valley who was killed probably within a few seconds of Mike Spann. He was killed at the start of the uprising.

David used the word shameful that we abandoned the Afghans. We abandoned the people whom we relied on and who fought alongside us in 2001, and subsequently, America’s word should matter. It seems at the moment, it doesn’t. There is a strong sense that there shouldn’t have been a full withdrawal and that there should be a limited US presence as opposed to all-out war, and 100,000-plus troops was something that was in US interests and was something that we had a moral obligation to do for the Afghans. These are practical people who operate in the real world, and they realised that things aren’t perfect and things change. It’s grim at the moment, but the Taliban is not going to be there forever.

What they have done is they have channelled sadness, anger, frustration, or whatever emotion they are feeling and it’s a mixture of those things into helping the Afghan allies. David, Justin, Scott Spellmeyer, and Shannon Spann are all working very hard behind the scenes to get Afghans out. The translator I worked with is in Fort Dix in New Jersey, and they helped get him out. He’s going to be living in my basement.

It’s a little bit like what they did at the beginning. It’s a mission. They are getting things done. They are improvising. They are leaving politics to one side and focusing on what they can do practically. That’s how they are dealing with it. I sense that helping the Afghan allies and realising that what happened in August 2021 was bad. It’s something that most Americans anyway agree with. Everything is so divided here, but on that issue, there’s unity. There are former military, civilians and good-hearted people banding together, filling the vacuum left by the government in this case and helping these Afghans. That’s something positive and has echoes of what happened after 9/11 as well.

It was very similar for Australia as well. Those very much in the background were people who had links across the world that were trying to get people out while the government was getting its program up and running. I can certainly second that. What about David Tyson? It’s because with his story, to say extreme is probably an understatement of what he survived. How has he dealt with that trauma?

He’s a fascinating guy. He was fascinating before this because as a seventeen-year-old high school student, he wrote off to the French Foreign Legion to try and join. His brother is a plumber who still lives with their mother in Pennsylvania. He’s a complete outlier in the family. He embarked on this journey learning Russian, Uzbek, and Turkmen and then joining the CIA and going to all these places.

He is a very interesting person. He wasn’t prepared for what happened. Nobody would be, but he’d had two short spells in the Army but was not an elite warrior, combat veteran, or any of that stuff. When it counted, the core of his character propelled him to act and to survive. He was very serious and still is traumatised by what happened. He changed his life.

He took the decision, and I talked to him about this at great length to incorporate it into his life and to also live his life because Mike Spann, Amanullah, and many others can’t live their lives. If you are a survivor, to make your sacrifice worth it, you need to lead a good and productive life. That’s a choice. I guess you can let it overwhelm you, and you can drown in it, or you can try and use it in some positive way.

Partly, for his therapeutic reasons and partly so that people can learn from his experience, which is very rare for somebody to go through that and survive, David is internally in the CIA and now publicly through this book and maybe talking about it more publicly. He’s talking about it, and he’s not hiding it. He’s incorporating it into his daily life and in talking to people.

It’s incredible to witness. He’s a family man. He’s got two grown-up children. He became a very senior officer in the CIA. He was in the Senior Intelligence Service. He became one of the foremost Russian experts in the CIA. He worked on some incredible operations that he won’t tell me about but probably could be. He has nightmares 6 out of 7 days.

He will be driving in his car and he will listen to a piece of music or something and the tears will be streaming down his face. He’s still very affected by it but he’s happy. He delights in nature. When you have come so close to death and you have seen so much death, it makes you appreciate life and the beauty of the simplest things. That’s the guy he is and it’s remarkable and humbling to get to know somebody like that.

When you’ve come so close or have seen so much death, it makes you appreciate life and beauty of the simplest things. Share on X

I don’t know if this is something you have touched on with him, but now we are collectively glorifying his actions and rightly putting him up on a pedestal as a hero and somebody who’s done something remarkable. How does he feel about that? How does that affect him?

He’s pretty uncomfortable about that. We have done a couple of talks together and he will say things like, “I acted automatically. It was muscle memory. There were no decisions taken.” I will say, “Yeah,” but when you heard Mike shouting, “Dave,” you ran towards him despite the incredible danger. You could have run in the opposite direction and you could have frozen. It wasn’t a rational decision. You are in a state of there was tunnel vision. Time was slowing down. He lost most of his hearing. It was a very extreme situation but yes, the instinct and the core of his character made him act the way he did. That’s quite special.

You can tell he doesn’t particularly like me saying that because it’s too much focus on him. He is very much, “This is about Team Alpha, and it’s about our Afghan allies.” It just happened that he was in that position that most of us will never be in, and we hope we will never be in it. He was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, which is the CIA’s highest award for Valour. It’s an equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honour. He’s been recognised for his bravery, but he would like the focus to be on Mike, Team Alpha, and the Afghans. That’s genuine. It’s not some type of pose.

I have no doubt. The trauma that he’s carrying and survivor guilt, which is why I’m asking it, because I’d imagine for him it would be quite difficult to receive accolades for a situation where he probably feels like he had little influence on, and he couldn’t, in his mind, I suspect to say that one brother in arms.

He said, “If you put Mike and me next to each other in that fort, you choose Mike to be the survivor every time.” He’s 32 years old. He was super fit and a Marine. David had the least military training experience of all eight of them but Mike happened to be standing much closer to the Pink House and the prisoners jumped on him. He had no chance and David did. He doesn’t go to church, but he believes in something higher and a higher meaning to life. That sustains him as well because you can’t make sense of all this stuff. He thinks about it very deeply and all the time.

The final question is about Shannon who features in the book a lot rightly so because she’s also a former CIA officer and she’s Mike’s wife at the time. How does she feel about the book and the whole situation? Have you had a chance to speak to her?

Yeah. I speak to her quite a lot. She’s a very private person. After Mike’s death, she delivered his eulogy at Arlington Cemetery with the cameras all there. She did a number of TV appearances, and she was the Bush White House’s guest at the State of the Union in 2002. She disappeared from the public eye. Her life has been difficult. Mike had a three-month-old baby with Shannon, Jake. From his former marriage, Mike had daughters who are now grown up. Mike and Shannon just got married. Mike’s first wife had terminal cancer and died at the end of 2001.

His two daughters lost both their parents. Shannon was new on the scene. She was a lawyer from California. It was very different from the Alabama Spann family. I’m sure in time, she would have been incorporated in that through Mike, but Mike was ripped out of it. She ended up going to Australia with the three children. Eventually, she met another CIA officer when she was based in Canberra. He was in Jakarta. They married. They had another child together, a boy, but it’s been a very difficult path.

You have children. Jake is the son. He is now at the centre of the family in a way, rather than Mike, because he’s the product of Mike and Shannon. 1 other child is Shannon’s and 2 other children are Mike’s. Families are complicated at the best of times, but when you add not only divorce but traumatic death in the middle of this, it’s a huge amount to deal with.

Her life was completely turned upside. It had already been transformed because she had met Mike, and they’d had a whirlwind relationship and marriage and unexpected pregnancy. Everything was turned upside down anyway, and then it was turned again. She’s had to deal with this. We talked about it at length, and some of this is included in the book. She did the classic put one foot in front of the other, soldier on, don’t emit weakness and forge ahead.

Now she reflects on that and thinks that was probably not the right way to go sometimes and to confront the trauma you have experienced and the feelings you have had. Also, the difficulties you and the family are facing to address that in real-time rather than store it all up and then try to deal with it retrospectively is probably a better approach. She is a bit like David but in a different way.

She’s very introspective. She’s self-critical. She’s very thoughtful about what she’s been through and continues to go through and other people. Also, Mike’s parents and his daughters. It’s been incredible to get to know her as well. She was reluctant at the beginning to talk to me, and in the end, I got a text from her. I’d written her a letter with no reply and other people.

David contacted her, and there was no response. I got a text from her saying, “Everybody is saying I should talk to you, so I guess I will.” That’s opened the door. She was a bit like David. She’s uncomfortable about too much focus on her. At a time, she’s been concerned about too much focus on Mike. She’s a big one to Team Alpha as well because she was a CIA officer, and she believed very strongly in the mission.

I think she was pleased in the end that the central focus of the book was not only on Mike but was on Team Alpha and the CIA and what the country did in that period. She has embraced it, and I’m sure there are elements of the book that she finds painful, but the sense I get from her is that she feels that the story is worthwhile. She’s prepared to suffer a little bit more because she believes it’s important and significant. It’s a story that should have been told.

I asked that question because I thought you did a fantastic job of honouring her suffering as well. It speaks to a much broader point of service spouses, of men and women who go forth and serve. We oftentimes focus on their trauma and their suffering and the pain that they carry post-service or during service, but we oftentimes forget. The families oftentimes pay as high, if not a higher price, because they are not there and then on the ground. They are living in anxiety and under question marks for as long as their spouse is away. I thought you honoured her suffering remarkably well, and I think that comes through clearly in the book.

The Spann family has been through an incredible amount and continues to. It’s a very difficult terrain to navigate because you want to tell a story. You want to say what happened. You know it’s going to be painful, and there are different views within every family on events. You have to try and do justice to all those people while also writing something that worked for the general reader. I had sleepless nights about some of this, on what to include and what to leave out. I’m glad you felt that. I hope that Shannon feels that too.

What’s next for you? Is there movie series?

There are some discussions about that, which is good because I do think it will be great. There are different ways of telling stories, and I think a screen version of this or a series or something would be fantastic. I have written three books so far. One was published in 1999, one was published in 2011, and one was published in 2021. I need to up my hit rate because I want to be full-time on books. It could either be my own or ghosting or editing, but principally my own. I have another idea. I’m procrastinating a bit about writing the proposal, but hopefully, there will be something.

Are you willing to share in wave tops?

It’s something about Vietnam and the CIA. Race in America as well could be an element of it. It’s another great true story. That’s what it is, and I hope that I can get a decent deal and a bit like First Casualty. You never know at the start of a project how much you can find out and how the story will go. I think it’s a good idea. We will see. Fingers crossed.

It’s been fascinating. I loved your book and loved chatting with you all the best.

Thank you so much.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you. I enjoyed it, and I appreciate you having me on.

 

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