In this episode of Intelligence Matters: Declassified, Michael Morell speaks with David Tyson, a retired CIA officer who served in Afghanistan after 9/11. Tyson joins Michael on the anniversary of the death of fellow CIA officer Mike Spann, who was the first American casualty in Afghanistan. Tyson recounts the story of Spann’s death, the battle that lead to it, and how he honors Spann’s legacy today.
- Death of Mike Spann: “As the gunfire and explosions continued, the local guard force and the prisoners began to move and attack each other. A lot of people started running away. It was very chaotic. Some of the prisoners came towards me, came for me, and I started to shoot at them. I moved eventually to Mike. And I found him covered with 4 al-Qaida guys. Mike was dead at this point. I took his rifle. With his rifle and my pistol, I began to fire again. Over the course of about 17 minutes, I fired about 100 rounds and with my pistol and Mike’s rifle. It was very intense combat, very close quarters combat. And sometimes these guys were just feet away when they were shooting at me, and I was shooting at them.”
- Battle of Qala-i-Jangi: “I can’t say I remember thinking that I was going to die. I was in a state of amazement. Just trying to comprehend what was going on and what I was doing and what they were trying to do to me. Again, it was very strange. Fear was not part of the equation. It’s not because I was being brave. It was simply because fear had no place right then for me.”
- Honoring Spann’s Legacy: “The whole question of death and survival. Mike had three young children at the time, now they’re young adults. He had a wife. He had loving parents, and their loss is forever. What Mike could have done with his life, that’s all gone as well. So for me, I try to use his memory in a way so that I might be a better person as cliché as that might sound.”
“INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: DECLASSIFIED” TRANSCRIPT: DAVID TYSON
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: This episode is the story of an agency officer, Mike Spann, who was the first American killed in combat in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. I know it’s going to be especially tough because you, David, were there with Mike when he was lost. So thank you very much for doing this. I know it’s not easy.
DAVID TYSON: It’s OK, it’s a pleasure.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s start with your story. Pre 9/11, how did you come to work at CIA?
DAVID TYSON: I was born and raised in a town in Pennsylvania. After high school I enlisted in the Army, and I used the GI Bill after the army to go to college. At college, I started taking Russian, and I just loved it. I became obsessed with it, and I just wanted to do Russian. I graduated, went back into the army, became an officer, and got out. Then I went to graduate school, and I studied Central Asian languages like Uzbek and Turkmen. And while teaching in grad school, I became aware of CIA careers. I applied and got a job.
MICHAEL MORELL: When was that?
DAVID TYSON: That was in 1996 when I was first hired, and I started out as a translator using those languages, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Russian. But I soon transferred into the Directorate of Operations.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you go right to the paramilitary side of things?
DAVID TYSON: I did not go into the PM field at all. I just became a line case officer. I was in Central Asia where I spent about 10 years living out there. I had my family out there with me.
MICHAEL MORELL: Where were you when you heard 9/11 happened?
DAVID TYSON: In the couple of years prior to 9/11, I was in Central Asia with my family on a tour, and we had some experience going to Afghanistan and with Afghan issues. I was using some of the languages of Afghanistan. So I was in Central Asia when 9/11 happened. When that took place, it became clear what was going to happen next, that we were going back into Afghanistan. The agency quickly made plans to be the first government entity deployed to the country after 9/11. I was selected to go on one of the teams.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you come back to Washington first before going to Afghanistan? Or did you go right from Central Asia?
DAVID TYSON: Right from Central Asia. No, I did not go back to the headquarters area. I waited for the team to get there.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you went into Afghanistan with the team from where you were?
DAVID TYSON: Right.
MICHAEL MORELL: Was Mike with you then?
DAVID TYSON: Yeah. He and his team came out to Central Asia to prepare for our deployment. Our team of eight men flew into Afghanistan on two U.S. Special Operations Blackhawk helicopters. Mike was a member of that team.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you know him before all of this?
DAVID TYSON: I knew Mike. He had deployed to Central Asia a couple of times before. We worked together on counterterrorist issues. He was a paramilitary officer. And thanks to his background as a Marine, he took part in the training of foreign special forces troops. Like me, he had a wife and young children. We both had just started our careers at CIA. He was from Alabama. He was a patriot who was very serious about his work. He was very meticulous, and he was very professional. He always had the mission at the forefront of his mind. He was kind of quiet and had a dry, but very good sense of humor. He was a true warrior and he became a friend as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you two are working together in Afghanistan after 9/11. What’s your job?
DAVID TYSON: Our team of eight men had a so-called warlord to work with. His name was Abdul Rashid Dostum. He was ethnic Uzbek, and he had a force under his command that was fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida. Dostum and his Uzbeks were more or less cavalrymen. That’s how they did their war fighting. Commander Dostum was an excellent commander, a tactician, and partner for us. Thanks to my language skills, I got to work with him pretty closely. Soon after we arrived, we facilitated the insertion of the U.S. Army Special Forces Team, ODA, Operational Detachment Alpha 595. They were a great group of guys. We together, meaning the Afghan, Uzbeks, our team and the Green Beret team, quickly became a really formidable and effective fighting force.
One unexpected problem for us was that we had to ride horses almost every day. Believe me, we weren’t prepared for that. This was under combat conditions a lot of times and for many hours a day in some cases. Very few of us had ridden horses before. So we also had to become combat cavalrymen. While we did ride the horses, we could in no way compare to the Afghan and Uzbek fighters who had basically been born and raised on horseback. They routinely, conducted cavalry charges against the enemy and fired their machine guns and rocket propelled grenades while charging. It was just incredible to witness this. I was constantly in awe of them and their toughness and their skills. These guys became great partners for us. I have to say the pain and suffering and fear I experienced while on horseback was often intense. Most of the time, I dreaded riding. Now I feel kind of nostalgic for it. I should also note that the Green Beret team that we brought into Afghanistan and worked with was featured in the movie 12 Strong. We were with them the whole way, but our team was not depicted in the movie. The SF team was extremely well led and effective. It was a great group of guys. And by early 2001, we had made great progress. After a lot of intense combat, south of the city called Mazar-i-Sharif, these Afghan forces and us, we entered the city of Mazar.
MICHAEL MORELL: What happened there?
DAVID TYSON: Mike and I had been working a lot together. Our job was multifaceted, but we mostly work with our Afghan and Uzbek partners to learn about the situation and gather threat information. We also spoke with captured and surrendered enemy fighters. Mike had the task of setting up drop zones for the weapons and supplies that were parachuted in on a nightly basis. Towards the end of November, we got information that a large number of al-Qaida fighters were to surrender and arrive in Mazar-i-Sharif, the city we were in, on 23 or 24 of November. We spoke to our headquarters and as expected, we were ordered to learn as much as we could from these prisoners, these al-Qaida men. Who they are, what they were up to, and what they might know about past and future terrorist acts. At the time, this was the largest and only group of al-Qaida personnel to whom we had access. It was understood and it turned out to be true that many in the group had attended al-Qaida training camps. They had learned about poisons, chemical warfare and other terrorist tactics and activities.
MICHAEL MORELL: Physically where were you with them?
DAVID TYSON: They surrendered. That’s the word I’ll use. They surrendered on the 24 of November. They were taken by these Afghan and Uzbeks to a fort called Qala-i-Jangi. It was on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. There they were put into the cellar of a building. You have to understand back in Afghanistan at the time, there were no lights, there was no electricity, there were really no facilities. And at night, it was a very difficult situation to do all this. These guys were basically put into this cellar with the idea that the next day on 25 of November, we could interview them and figure out who they were and what they were up to.
MICHAEL MORELL: What was a typical interview like?
DAVID TYSON: The interviews on the 25 of November were brief. These guys were being brought out of the cellar one by one. Their hands were tied behind their back using their turbans. I was immediately impressed by the fact that there were so many languages and countries represented by these so-called prisoners. The languages were just incredible. I spoke several languages of the region, but these prisoners were from all over the world. Not only the Muslim world, but the world in general. We took possession of their documents, took photos, and as possible, we had brief conversations as to who they were and where they were from and what they were doing in Afghanistan. Most of them spoke openly about their identities, their ties to al-Qaida, and their basic desire to conduct what they considered jihad.
Some of them, of course, lied and didn’t say much. But for the most part, they were talkative. We just had so many people, up to four hundred guys to go through. There was not much time to deal with individual prisoners.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you and Mike interviewed an American citizen that day, fighting for the Taliban, John Walker Lindh. What was that like? Did you know he was an American when you talked to him?
DAVID TYSON: No, we did not. There were several European looking people among these al-Qaida prisoners. One of them was John Walker Lindh. We at the time didn’t know who he was or where he was from. He, unlike most of the other prisoners, refused to say anything.
I tried all my languages on him, but he did not even utter a word. We spoke in English to him as well. We spent a few moments with him, and he refused to speak. We went on to other things. We never knew that day that he was an American.
MICHAEL MORELL: How long were you and Mike at the fort before things went south?
DAVID TYSON: Mike and I had been there about three hours in the morning. Our goal for that first day was to identify and photograph all the men in the group. At about 10:30 in the morning, the local Afghan commander said there were about 20 men left and they were still in the cellar. And apparently, they didn’t want to come up out of the cellar. It was assumed that they were trying not to be identified. So Mike and I decided to wait until all these guys came up from the basement of the building. However, prior to that, there was a lot of gunfire that erupted in the cellar area, and explosions took place as well in this area near the basement.
MICHAEL MORELL: So where did the weapons come from?
DAVID TYSON: They did have weapons on their person, and they hid those weapons on themselves the night before. They had those weapons and they used them when they were coming up the stairs, and they shot the Afghan personnel that were trying to take the weapons away from them. That’s when it all started, the uprising started there.
MICHAEL MORELL: Where was Mike and where were you when this happened? What happened to Mike?
DAVID TYSON: Mike was in a different area. He was talking to some prisoners that were being treated medically by some Afghan doctors that we had called in. Mike was amongst those prisoners. I was a little further out with an individual talking to him. As the gunfire and explosions continued, the local guard force and the prisoners began to move and attack each other. A lot of people started running away. It was very chaotic. Some of the prisoners came towards me, came for me, and I started to shoot at them. I moved eventually to Mike. And I found him covered with 4 al-Qaida guys. Mike was dead at this point. I took his rifle. With his rifle and my pistol, I began to fire again. Over the course of about 17 minutes, I fired about 100 rounds and with my pistol and Mike’s rifle. It was very intense combat, very close quarters combat. And sometimes these guys were just feet away when they were shooting at me, and I was shooting at them. It was just crazy.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you have body armor?
DAVID TYSON: No body armor. This is right after 9/11, the idea of body armor was not really current at the time. We had no body armor.
MICHAEL MORELL: In terms of cover, you’re out in the open?
DAVID TYSON: Yeah, we were in the open. This was an open area in the southern compound, except for the building and some vehicles. I was running around, and they were running around. And again, it was very strange. I was shooting at them. They were shooting at me. Two grenades hit me, for example, one in the thigh and one in my chest. Neither exploded. It was very chaotic. As soon as the gunfire started, I remember very clearly now that I lost my sense of hearing, things moved in slow motion. I lost my peripheral vision. I thought very, very quickly. Thoughts were coming in and out of my mind very, very fast, at fractions of a second. I knew at the time this was happening to me. This strange and weird process. I was not thinking normally, and I was on some kind of autopilot. It was not normal.
MICHAEL MORELL: You knew at this point that Mike hadn’t made it. And you’re in the thick of things. Did you think this was it for you?
DAVID TYSON: I don’t think so, no. I can’t say I remember thinking that I was going to die. I was in a state of amazement. Just trying to comprehend what was going on and what I was doing and what they were trying to do to me. Again, it was very strange. Fear was not part of the equation. It’s not because I was being brave. It was simply because fear had no place right then for me. I was certainly on some kind of high of adrenaline, or something like that. But it was a very strange situation. I can’t account even today for all those 17 minutes that I was down in that southern compound.
MICHAEL MORELL: How did you get out of there?
DAVID TYSON: I just kept moving north towards this entrance of the southern compound. At the northern compound I knew that was where the friendly Afghan forces were. I made my way through an open field. I just ran through this open area to the northern compound. From there, we continued to fire upon the al-Qaida forces, who by this time had taken control of a large number of small arms and mortars. They were using those weapons against us. This firing and shooting and killing continued for about four more hours. A quick reaction force of U.S. and British military arrived to assist me and Mike. They called in airstrikes, and they laid down a large amount of machine gunfire, small arms fire on the enemy. But it was still determined by them that they couldn’t rescue me. They told me to try to escape, which I was later able to do. I climbed out over the wall of the fort, slid down the wall, and got back to my base.
MICHAEL MORELL: When were they able to recover Mike’s body?
DAVID TYSON: It took a long time, it took several days. Mike was killed outright in the initial moments of the uprising. But since I was not able to get back to his body and given my own situation of being out of communications for several hours during the fighting, we initially, Mike and myself, were considered to be missing.
It took about three more days of going back to the fort each day and assaulting the enemy positions within the fort using our Afghan forces and U.S. military assets until we got Mike’s body. We made many assaults into the southern compound. For us at least, our team, our only purpose at that time was to get Mike’s body out of there. His body was found exactly where he had fallen. We took possession of his body, and after a few more days, I accompanied his body to U.S. military bases out of the country.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you stay in Afghanistan after that or did you come home?
DAVID TYSON: I stayed for a while and then eventually, I came back out and met my family and so forth. But I deployed again to Afghanistan repeatedly. Several times, in that part of the world again.
MICHAEL MORELL: Back in Washington, I was President Bush’s daily intelligence briefer. George Tenet, then the director of the agency, and I briefed the president on what happened to you and Mike. The president wanted to know every detail. He actually read the very detailed cable that had been prepared on what happened. When he got to the end of it, he asked George Tenet about Mike’s family. George told the president about Mike’s wife, Shannon, and the kids. The president looked at his chief of staff, Andy Card, and said, I want to call Shannon today. Kind of remarkable how these two things come together.
David, you’ve been incredible with your time. And this is a tough question. If you ever felt guilty that you were the one to have made it?
DAVID TYSON: Yes, of course. Certainly, that is something that I think about very often. The whole question of death and survival. Mike had three young children at the time, now they’re young adults. He had a wife. He had loving parents, and their loss is forever. What Mike could have done with his life, that’s all gone as well. So for me, I try to use his memory in a way so that I might be a better person as cliché as that might sound. If you can remember those opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan, when Private Ryan, as an old man visits the cemetery. At the grave of the sergeant who saved his life, he struggles with that idea of sacrifice and him being the survivor. At least for me, all one can do is try to be a better person and always remember the honor and sacrifice made by people like Mike and many, many others.
MICHAEL MORELL: I think a lot of people who might have gone through what you went through might have thrown in the towel, might have left CIA, left the government, but you didn’t. You stayed. Did you ever think about leaving?
DAVID TYSON: No, I never thought about leaving. It was not an option. The people in the agency. The support we received, myself and my family. Those things, that all made the agency my home. I, with my family, we stayed out in the field for an additional eight years in that region and never had it really entered my mind that I would leave. I went back to Afghanistan a few more times. There’s no regrets. None. None whatsoever. I stress at the agency now and then, I believe it is filled with quality, good people. That’s what made the difference for me.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to let our listeners know that the loss of Mike Spann led some former agency officers to create a charity to help take care of the educational needs of the children of our officers who are lost in the line of duty. It’s called the CIA Officers Memorial Fund. There’s also another fund to help CIA officers and their families in broader ways for officers who serve in war zones. This is called the Third Option Foundation. I would encourage my listeners to Google both and to decide if they want to make a donation. David, thank you for joining us, and thank you for helping us tell Mike’s story and your own story. And most important, thank you for your service to your country over a long period of time, but in those crucial early days in Afghanistan after 9/11. Thank you.
DAVID TYSON: Thanks, Michael. I hope that people do look at those things that you talked about regarding Mike and his memory.