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CIA's Role Important in War in Afghanistan

Aired December 6, 2001 - 14:36   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Collecting ground intelligence, as Mike Spann was doing when he died, is obviously a critical part of this conflict. To penetrate terrorist groups, CIA field officers need every advantage they can get, including disguises and even phony identities.

CNN's Joie Chen is with a man who spent decades perfecting the art of deceit. Hi, Joie.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Judy, good afternoon.

Yes, we have been hearing these reports from Winfield, Alabama and CNN's Brian Cabell at the memorial service for CIA officer Mike Spann. He is, of course, the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan.

Spann was a member of the CIA's paramilitary special activities division. He was killed by the pro-Taliban forces during the prison uprising at Mazar-e Sharif. Now, his death raises our interest today in the agency's involvement in wartime. The CIA was founded just after World War II.

For insight on the agency's role in conflicts since then, joining us is Tony Mendez, former CIA operative who served in Afghanistan and also in Vietnam. We appreciate your being with us and giving us some insight into something that most of us lay people know very little about. The CIA has been active in all of the conflicts since World War II?

TONY MENDEZ, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Yes, and including World War II, our predecessor organization, OSS, worked behind the enemy lines in World War II. So, you know, you're the first one in and the last one out in that kind of situation.

CHEN: Now, we talk about intelligence gathering and some of these notions that your guys are covert, undercover in disguise and these sort of things. How much of that is a picture from movie experiences in our minds -- how much of that is really that part of the role for the CIA in wartime?

MENDEZ: In wartime war or in peacetime, you are using all those cloaking tricks, but that doesn't mean that the rules of engagement are the same for each theater. So, you know, you may be using one thing in Havana where you're using another thing in New Delhi. It has to do with what situation we are working with.

CHEN: At the time of his death, I understand that Spann was inside doing some questioning, trying to illicit more information. Is this an operation that he would have been covert in -- that is to say -- trying to blend in to the local community, trying to look like an Afghan fighter, for example.

MENDEZ: Absolutely. And he went in there before there was actually a war underway. The only way you can start a war of that kind is to get people on the ground. So, CIA had been in there for years in one form or another.

CHEN: Does the CIA teach those things? I mean, I look at Mike Spann and he, frankly, looks like a boy from Alabama. He does not look like he would be able to blend in well in a place like Afghanistan. How do you teach your people to do that?

MENDEZ: Well, again, it depends on the situation. When Mike went in there, I would guess that there was a fair American presence at that point. We had, you know -- the CIA's job, in this case, would to be hook up with the friendlies, much like we did in World War II. We dropped three-man teams behind the lines into fortress Europe way before D-Day and they hooked up with the resistance. So, Mike was doing something like that. It's well known to be an American at that point, but if he was in enemy territory, he would have had to use some form of disguise or blending in.

CHEN: Language skills as well?

MENDEZ: Absolutely. You know, that's why language is so important in this kind of operation. You have to know that there is at least 20 or so operatives in there that had the language.

CHEN: You mentioned something a moment ago, you said in Europe using say small groups, maybe three or so. Is that sort of typical? And what kind of relationship is there with the active military in an engagement area?

MENDEZ: The active military would be coming in after the CIA would be making their first footholds. And, actually, the active military would be called in, probably by the CIA in concert with the Defense Department. So they would be working -- really doing the same job. The Green Berets that were shown earlier and named right after, they were casualties, were really doing the same job as Mike Spann at that point.

CHEN: So there is kind of a blurred line there? I mean, in a sense, for example, Mike Spann, of course, had Marine training as well. I mean, he was a Marine first. So, you actually have to have combat skills as well as intelligence skills?

MENDEZ: That's right. Mike's unit in the CIA is made up of people who have military backgrounds or who have military training and are able to work, you know, right alongside the military.

CHEN: Tony Mendez, a former CIA operative, he had served in Afghanistan as well himself and in Vietnam, of course, a bit earlier in time than Afghanistan -- quite as recently as this current conflict. We appreciate your insight for us today and helping us understand a little more about what the CIA's roll is.

MENDEZ: Thank you.

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