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WASHINGTON — For a small cadre of CIA veterans, the death 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.
Tom Shah and Molly Huckaby Hardy were among the 44 U.S. Embassy employees killed when a truck bomb exploded outside the embassy compound in Kenya in 1998.
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 at Memorial Day celebrations around the country this weekend. 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 Shaw’s and Hardy’s jobs are still secret, even now.
The deaths weighed heavily on many at the CIA, particularly the two senior officers who were running operations in Africa during the attack. Over the past decade, as the CIA waged war against al-Qaida, those officers have taken on central roles in counterterrorism. Both were deeply involved in hunting down bin Laden and planning the raid on the terrorist who killed their colleagues.
“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 travelled 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 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. But his story, and the secret mission that brought him to Africa, was straight out of a Hollywood spy movie.
“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 trumpet player.
Shah — his given name was Uttamlal — 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.
“At the time, that was unheard of. You might as well have gone to Mars,” said McDevitt, who lost touch with his high school friend long before he joined the agency.
Shah graduated from 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. His doctoral thesis at Indiana’s Ball State offered no hints about the career he would pursue: “The Solo Songs of Edward MacDowell: An Examination of Style and Literary Influence.”
“He was one of our outstanding people,” said Kirby Koriath, the graduate student adviser at Ball State.
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 latter is particularly hard to teach, but it came naturally to Shah, former officials said. Shah 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 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. Around 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 U.S. could make that deal, it had to be sure the information was credible and the would-be defector wasn’t 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. Among the agency managers overseeing it was John Bennett, the deputy chief of the division. He and his operations chief, who remains undercover, were seasoned Africa hands and veterans of countless spying operations.
Because of the mission’s sensitivity, Shah bottled up his normally outgoing and friendly personality while at the embassy.
“This is the glory and the tragedy of discreet work,” said Prudence Bushnell, the former ambassador to Kenya. “You keep a very low profile and you don’t do things that make you memorable.”
Officials say Shah was among those who went to the window when shooting began outside the embassy gates. Most who did were killed when the massive bomb exploded. He was 38. Hardy was also killed in the blast. She was 51.
The U.S. government said both victims were State Department employees. But like all fallen officers, they received private memorial services at CIA headquarters. Every year, their names are among those read at a ceremony for family members and colleagues.
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’s death did not stall his mission. The Africa Division pressed on and confirmed that the Iraqi source was legitimate, his information extremely valuable. He defected and was re-located to the United States with a new identity.
Bennett later went on to be the station chief in Islamabad, where he ran the agency’s effort to kill al-Qaida members by using unmanned aircraft. He now sits in one of the most important seats in the agency, overseeing clandestine operations worldwide. His former Africa operations chief now runs the agency’s counterterrorism center. Both have been hunting for bin Laden for years. Both were directly involved in the raid.
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 is also 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.