She sent an application to Langley and landed a job as an intelligence analyst in 1989. Her first assignment involved interpreting aerial photographs from Iran, said Anderson, who was excited about his wife’s new career but quickly realized that he would have to abide by a certain spousal code: Don’t expect too many details about her work.
Her uncle was proud that Matthews was following in his footsteps and thought that his beloved niece was destined to vault up the the agency’s hierarchy. “Hell, I thought she’d be the director of the CIA,” he said. “But then, she got sucked into operations.”
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Matthews became fixated on Osama bin Laden long before most Americans had ever heard of him. By the mid-1990s, she had been assigned to Alec Station, a special unit based in Northern Virginia that was responsible for targeting al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
“Jennifer was one of the visionaries who recognized the threat of al-Qaeda,” said one of Matthews’s colleagues, a CIA counterterrorism officer made available by the agency. The officer works undercover and cannot be named.
Al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 intensified Matthews’s job. “They were understaffed and overworked,” Anderson said. “It was demoralizing for her. Pre-9/11, they knew something big was going to happen.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Matthews and Anderson were in Switzerland on vacation when they learned about the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Anderson won’t describe how she reacted. “It was just horror,” he said.
The attacks fueled her. Inside a tiny conference room in Tysons Corner, Matthews led a squad of CIA officers who were working nonstop to hunt down al-Qaeda’s leaders. She helped make the first big catch, an al-Qaeda logistics planner known as Abu Zubaida.
She flew to Thailand for Abu Zubaida’s interrogation and witnessed him being waterboarded, according to “The Triple Agent,” a book by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick that explores the Khost attack.
Matthews was known at the agency as a forceful, opinionated person, unafraid to speak candidly to superiors. “She didn’t tolerate idiots,” Anderson said. “But she was diplomatic, too. She was good at reading people.”
Yet just a few years after the terrorist attacks, Matthews suffered a surprising comedown. The CIA had launched a probe to determine why the agency failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. The report, only partially released, recommended disciplinary action against Matthews and other agency managers for not warning the FBI about two al-Qaeda operatives who had entered the country in 2000.
Although the names were never made public and then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss declined to take any disciplinary action, the report infuriated Matthews and her colleagues. But the humiliation of being named in the report didn’t derail her career.
In 2005, Matthews received a plum assignment, the London station, where she served as chief counterterrorism liaison to the British intelligence services. Anderson and their three children went with her, spending four years in a rowhouse near the U.S. Embassy and Hyde Park. It was a comfortable life. A nanny cooked. On Saturday nights, they would eat dinner while watching “Doctor Who,” the British science-fiction show.
In early 2009, she noticed a job posting for a one-year assignment tracking down al-Qaeda leaders as chief of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost. She would work with CIA-funded Afghan commandos to pursue targets. She would help coordinate drone attacks.
Her husband and children would have to return to Fredericksburg, but the Khost job could bump her up the CIA pay scale and lead to promotions. Most of all, Anderson said, his wife felt obligated, given her cushy four-year London gig.
“She asked me what I thought, and I just said: ‘This sounds really good. You’d be really good at it,’ ” Anderson recalled.
Charles E. Allen, a former assistant director at the CIA, who helped lead an independent review of the Khost attack at the agency’s behest, said Matthews was “haunted” by the blame she received after the Sept. 11 attacks and thought the hardship posting could help erase that stain.
Her husband did broach the subject of roadside bombs. But she stressed that the base would be surrounded by the military. He also sensed that leaving their children weighed on her. “But she didn’t verbalize those concerns to me,” Anderson said. “She knew I was capable and that I could take care of stuff.”
By April 2009, the job was hers. There was only one person left to hash it out with: Dave Matthews, her uncle.
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On one side of the front porch at his home in southern Virginia was the retired CIA official, who was once in charge of finding safe houses during the Cold War. On the other was his ambitious, active-duty niece, eager to wage war against Islamist extremists.