His younger brother Jimmy Sullivan, however, recalled picking up the Spy Phone when playing video games with friends. "We'd be playing Atari, and we'd listen in," he said. "Or we'd pick up, and it'd be some dude in German ranting and raving."
When CIA employees are slain in action, as happened in Afghanistan in December, when a suicide bomber killed seven officers and contractors, relatives who live in the dark about their loved one's work often fall into confusion and a passion to know more. Now, as the agency's earliest generation of Cold Warriors fades away from old age or disease, grown children who might have known only that their parents were in the CIA are stumbling upon letters and other records that fill holes in their family's narrative.
As children, even if they grew up envisioning clandestine heroics, they knew not to ask many questions. As adults, they often didn't want to intrude. Now, they are learning that after a loved one's death, decades of unslaked curiosity can be only partially satisfied.
The first generation of employees of the secretive agency and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (established in 1942), is dying off. In the past two years, more than 130 obituaries of retired or former CIA or OSS staff members have appeared in The Washington Post describing the employees as officer, spy or something blander yet tantalizing -- project director or analyst.
Even after employees die, the CIA generally does not disclose their former duties or involvement in history's major moments. CIA spokeswoman Marie E. Harf said many employees' successes from that first generation "can't be shared publicly even now." But unlike the families of the CIA officers killed in Afghanistan, relatives of deceased CIA employees contacted for this article said they have not been ordered to keep silent about their loved one's career or life. "In all cases, the judgment of the individual employee is key," Harf said, adding that time can ease the restrictions on some secrets: "Operational equities and sensitivities, of course, can lessen with the passage of time."