Jennifer Matthews

Posted: January 30, 2013 in Blame a Dame, CIA

ImageIn my previous post, I discussed the increase of coverage of women in Intelligence in 2012. Increased coverage is good, but improper reporting of the facts is bad, so all in all, it ends up being a mixed blessing at best. The year kicked-off with renewed coverage of slain CIA agent, Jennifer Matthews, and her family speaking out on her behest due to what they felt was a misrepresentation of the facts surrounding her death, or as we refer to it in this blog, they are calling BS on what they feel is yet another round of “Blame a Dame”.

Jennifer Matthews (1964-2009), a 22-year CIA agent, an al Qaeda specialist (before there was such a thing), wife, and mother of three, was serving as the CIA base chief in Khost, Afghanistan when an asset, Jordanian doctor and double agent, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, visited the Camp Chapman base and detonated a suicide vest, thus killing not only Matthews, but six other CIA agents and a Jordanian Intelligence operative.

This is where the righteous pointing fingers rose up in indignation en masse. Now this is very normal human behavior, the need to make sense of tragedy, however, another common trait falls under Attribution Theory, where people, in trying to make sense of tragedy, will often arrive at conclusions that may be more a matter of convenience as opposed to fact in effort to assign blame. And this is where Jennifer Matthews comes in, as Chief of Base, her family feels she is being scapegoated for the entire ordeal when there is plenty of culpability go around.

The facts of the day are fairly straightforward: the doctor was transported to the base, and due to his previous visits, he was deemed trustworthy enough not to be searched. Matthews gathered her colleagues outside to greet the doctor where he then detonated the bomb he had concealed on his person. The mistakes are also straightforward: the doctor was not searched prior to transport, not searched at entry, and Matthews, apparently, had disregarded an internal security protocol by gathering her colleagues together in that manner. Official reports seemingly agree that many error across the board were made.

Where it gets mucky is that as Chief of Base, criticism leveled at Matthews was incredibly fierce. The fall-out of the event resulted in some people digging up Matthews name in connection to a scathing post-9/11 report that named Matthews and others partially responsible for Intelligence failures by not alerting the FBI to their information about a pending al Qaeda attack. Neither Matthews or others named in the report were disciplined because, frankly, a slew of people throughout the Intelligence Community have their own proverbial cross to bear when it comes to 9/11. Matthews can hardly be blamed for 70 years of non-cooperation between the CIA and the FBI. And post-attack, with more puzzle pieces in place, Matthews was a key figure in the capture of Abu Zubaida, a top al Qaeda leader, in March 2002, a mere six months after. Further, it is key to note that the doctor was a CIA asset before Matthews took the role as Base Chief. There would have been an assumption that he was properly vetted before Matthews ever knew him.

Other accusations that were leveled at Matthews was that she was not qualified to be in her position. Naturally, this gets spun in such a way to say that she was incompetent, especially given that she made the error of bringing her colleagues outside to meet the doctor, and super-especially given that her uncle, Dan Matthews, himself a noted CIA veteran, makes the ill-advised comments that she “was in over her head”. Jerky-move and family disloyalty aside, the elder Matthews’ comments reinforce the idea that she was not capable of handling the assignment.

Now here’s where I get “fussy” about wordage. Just because someone has not worked in a position before, does not mean they are unqualified. The CIA does acknowledge that of all of the applicants for the job, Matthews was the most qualified applicant. The assumption goes that you would receive a certain amount on-the-job-training in areas where you may need instruction. A sentiment voiced by Matthews’ husband, Gary Anderson, who clarifies that his wife had not received the proper training for the post.

But let me be clear: questioning Matthews’ action as Base Chief is fair play. Questioning her entire career, and certainly not in proper context, is not fair play. That, and I somehow don’t see this becoming the story it has become if Matthews were a man.

The truth in this case is a mixed bag. Yes, the good doctor should have been more thoroughly vetted, but the doctor was also an asset prior to Matthews working with him. Should she have performed her own vetting? No, you want and need to trust those you work with in that they have competently performed their own job. Should Matthews have followed strict protocols during the doctor’s arrival to the base? Definitely, but then the doctor should also have received a pat-down prior to entrance to the base. As with all things military and para-military, as the Chief of Base, the buck stops with Matthews. However, even with a pat-down prior to base entrance, the doctor would likely have detonated his vest anyway still incurring a body count. The problem here is that by gaining entrance, the doctor killed 8 high-level operatives inside a base instead of just those nameless schmoes transporting him.

The fact is, in the end, that should not matter. Anyone who dies in conflict, no matter who or where specifically, is a great loss and it should not be qualified according to rank and location. And Matthews is hardly responsible for the whole shebang, whatever her past, whatever her qualifications. This is a case where many small mistakes spread across many people culminated into a big disaster.

In the end, who do we “attribute” to this tragedy to? We attribute this tragedy where it belongs: to the abstract concept of War. As one anonymous person commented in a Washington Post story covering the Matthews story so eloquently stated:

“As a person who has gone to war “unprepared,” and by that I mean anyone who has been in a war zone has absolutely no idea what it will be like, let me tell you the instructions I have both my parents and spouse: Do not speak to the press, do not comment on my service or what I did if I am killed; I was killed because I was in harms’ way, not for any other reason. Remember that I love all of you but you are not in a position to judge what I do every day for a living. Sometimes, in war, tragic errors are made–they might be my errors or they might be others’; it’s war and the blame lies there and not with the people who had to make split-second decisions with bad information.”

Good advice.


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