The call from the Central Intelligence Agency came on a December afternoon in 2009 while Gary Anderson was skiing with his three children. It’s about your wife, the agency man said.
Standing inside Eagle Rock ski lodge in Pennsylvania, Anderson pleaded for details. The CIA official said simply: Where are you? We’ll meet you.
Anderson suspected dreadful news about Jennifer Matthews, his college sweetheart, his wife of 22 years and a CIA operative on assignment almost 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. With several hours until the CIA meeting, Anderson and his three children — then 12, 9 and 6 — hit the slopes for one more hour. The father wanted to cling a little longer to normalcy, to a life between before and after.
Finally, the Fredericksburg family got into their silver minivan and headed to a nearby motel. There, in a sterile conference room, CIA officials told Anderson the news: His wife, one of the CIA’s top al-Qaeda experts, had just been killed in an explosion at a base in Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan. There was no mention of a double agent, no indication that six other CIA operatives had died in the deadliest attack on agency personnel in decades.
Anderson, who is commenting publicly on the loss of his wife for the first time, was so stunned that he couldn’t formulate questions, except: Are you sure she’s dead?
Then he summoned his children, who were waiting outside.
“I just said to them, ‘Your mom has died.’ The two oldest fell apart. They started crying,” he remembered. “One of them asked, ‘Is this really true?’ I just kind of hugged them. And then the craziness started after that.”
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A Jordanian double agent’s suicide bombing of the CIA base received days of media coverage. The CIA had been tricked into welcoming one of al-Qaeda’s own onto the agency’s base, enabling him to detonate a vest laden with explosives. On television, pundits and agency retirees called the incident a catastrophe, Langley’s “Pearl Harbor.” Initially, commentators did not utter Matthews’s name, but they did describe the Khost base chief as a “mother of three.” Anderson felt that his wife, however anonymously, was bearing all the blame.
Five months after her burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Matthews’s name became public at a CIA ceremony honoring fallen employees.
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Then, in October 2010, the CIA released results of the agency’s internal investigation into the Khost attack, fueling another round of stories that Matthews was partially responsible. Matthews and her team, the report concluded, failed to follow the agency’s procedures for vetting informants. One of Matthews’s severest critics was her uncle, Dave Matthews, a retired CIA official who had helped inspire his niece to join the agency.
Now Anderson and other relatives who once agreed not to speak with the media are breaking their silence to talk about Matthews’s life and death and about how her promotion to a perilous CIA posting has divided them.
On the surface, Anderson, a chemist and devoted churchgoer, accepts his wife’s fate even as he continues to mourn her death at the age of 45. “I loved being married to her,” he said. “She was a great lady.”
But underneath, Anderson, 50, is seething. He’s angry with the teachings in the Koran that he believes incited the suicide bomber to kill Americans; he’s upset with the CIA for failing to realize that a prized informant was a double agent willing to blow himself up; and he’s hurt by the legion of critics, including Matthews’s uncle, who have questioned her qualifications for the job she was doing.
“The suicide bomber was a bad guy, but at the time, nobody could clearly see it,” Anderson said. “I think the agency prepared my wife to be a chief of the Khost base, but not in terms of preparing for this asset. This guy wasn’t vetted.” And the mother of his three children is dead because of it.
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From the start, Dave Matthews, 74, tried to talk his niece out of going to Afghanistan. He had served during the 1960s in the agency’s secret war in Laos and didn’t think that Matthews, whom he says he loved like a daughter, had the training for a war-zone posting. But she wouldn’t listen.
Jennifer Matthews hadn’t always aspired to be a CIA operative. In 1986, she graduated with degrees in broadcast journalism and political science from Cedarville University, a small Christian college in Ohio where she met Anderson. Back then, she was an avid runner with auburn hair who believed deeply in God but also reveled in arguing about theology and politics.
“There were a lot of submissive types there,” Anderson recalled. “She wasn’t that way.”
In 1987, they married and moved to the Washington area, where she wanted to find a job that would enable her to serve God and have an impact on the world.