Bin Laden’s slaying thrills CIA years after al-Qaida bomb killed heroes
WASHINGTON — For a small cadre of CIA veterans, the Navy SEALs’ slaying of Osama bin Laden was more than just a national moment of relief and closure. It was also a measure of payback, a settling of a score for a pair of deaths, the details of which have remained a secret for 13 years.
Uttamlal “Tom” Shah and Molly Huckaby Hardy were among the 44 U.S. Embassy employees killed in 1998 when a truck bomb exploded outside the embassy compound in Kenya.
Though it has never been publicly acknowledged, the two were working undercover for the CIA. In al-Qaida’s war on the United States, they are believed to be the first CIA casualties.
Their names probably will not be among those read this weekend at Memorial Day celebrations across the country. Like many CIA officers, their service remained a secret in both life and death, marked only by anonymous stars on the wall at CIA headquarters and blank entries in its book of honor.
Their CIA ties were described to The Associated Press by a half-dozen current and former U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because Shah’s and Hardy’s jobs are still secret, even now.
“History has shown that tyrants who threaten global peace and freedom must eventually face their natural enemies: America’s war fighters, and the silent warriors of our Intelligence Community,” CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote in a Memorial Day message to agency employees.
These silent warriors took very different paths to Nairobi.
Hardy was a divorced mom from Valdosta, Ga., who raised a daughter as she traveled to Asia, South America and Africa over a lengthy career. At the CIA station in Kenya, she handled the office finances, including the CIA’s stash of money used to pay sources and to carry out spying operations. She was a new grandmother and was eager to get back home when al-Qaida struck.
Shah took an unpredictable route to the nation’s clandestine service. He was not a solider or a Marine, a linguist or an Ivy Leaguer. He was a musician from the Midwest.
“He was a vivacious, upbeat guy who had a very poignant, self-deprecating sense of humor,” said Dan McDevitt, a classmate and close friend from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, where Shah was a standout trumpeter.
Shah was the only child of an Indian immigrant father and an American mother, McDevitt said. He had a fascination with international affairs. He participated in the school’s model United Nations and, in the midst of the Cold War, was one of the school’s first students to learn Russian. From time to time, he went to India with his father, giving him a rare world perspective.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston and Ball State University’s music school, he taught music classes and occasionally played in backup bands for entertainers Red Skelton, Perry Como and Jim Nabors.
Shah and his wife, Linda, were married in 1983, the year he received his master’s degree. In 1987, after earning his doctorate, Shah joined the U.S. government. On paper, he had become a diplomat. In reality, he was shipped to the Farm, the CIA’s spy school in Virginia.
He received the usual battery of training in surveillance, counterespionage and the art of building sources. The last is particularly hard to teach, but it came naturally to Shah, former officials said. He was regarded as one of the top members of his class and was assigned to the Near East Division, which covers the Middle East.
He spoke fluent Hindi and decent Russian when he arrived and quickly showed a knack for languages by learning Arabic. He worked in Cairo and Damascus, and though he was young, former colleagues said he was quickly proving himself as one of the agency’s most promising stars.
In 1997, he was dispatched to headquarters as part of the Iraq Operations Group, the CIA team that ran spying campaigns against Saddam Hussein’s regime. About that time, the CIA became convinced that a senior Iraqi official was willing to provide intelligence in exchange for a new life in America. Before the United States could make that deal, it had to be sure the information was credible and the would-be defector was not really a double agent. But even talking to him was a risky move. If a meeting with the CIA was discovered, the Iraqi would be killed for sure.
Somebody had to meet with the informant, somebody who knew the Middle East and could be trusted with such a sensitive mission. A senior officer recommended Shah.
The meetings were set up in Kenya, former officials said, because it was considered relatively safe from Middle East intelligence services. It was perhaps the most important operation being run under the Africa Division at the time, current and former officials said.
Officials say Shah was among those who went to the window in 1998 when shooting began outside the embassy gates in Nairobi. Most who did were killed when the bomb exploded. He was 38. Hardy also was killed in the blast. She was 51.
Hardy’s daughter, Brandi Plants, said she did not want to discuss her mother’s employment. Shah’s widow, Linda, sent word through a neighbor that the topic was still too painful to discuss.
Shah and Hardy are among the names etched into stone at a memorial at the embassy in Nairobi, with no mention of their CIA service. Shah also is commemorated with a plaque in a CIA conference room at its headquarters. Both were among those whose names Panetta read last week at the annual ceremony for fallen officers.
“Throughout the effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida, our fallen colleagues have been with us in memory and in spirit,” Panetta said. “With their strength and determination as our guide, we achieved a great victory three weeks ago.”
Bin Laden said the embassy in Nairobi was targeted because it was a major CIA station. He died never knowing that he had killed two CIA officers there.