A CIA Suicide Sparks Hard Questions About the Agency’s Memorial Wall
By Ian Shapira
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.