A CIA spy pursued bin Laden after 9/11. Now he's being mourned as a legend.
The Washington Post September 9, 2022
Inside her Northern Virginia home, Anne McFadden keeps an informal shrine to her late husband Gary Schroen, a fellow spy and one of the CIA's most revered and longest-serving officers.
A staircase wall shows the cover of "First In," Schroen's book that chronicles his mission at the age of 59 leading the agency's first officers into Afghanistan two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. An adjacent photo features Schroen and his colleagues on that team - its code name was "Jawbreaker" - sporting black-and-white keffiyehs next to their helicopter, tail sign: "91101." On a sideboard, 11 CIA medals, most emblazoned with the agency's seal of an eagle and a 16-point compass star, sit open in square-shaped wooden cases.
"You know, he didn't talk that much about what he got the medals for," McFadden said on a recent day inside their home, where the counterintelligence specialist granted her first interview since her husband's death last month. "He had these in a drawer. I put them out."
Schroen worked for the CIA as an operations officer and contractor for more than 50 years before dying, Aug. 1, after complications from a fall outside their Alexandria home. He was 80.
At the CIA, he managed case officers and recruited foreigners as spies and collaborators, paying them with hard cash and running covert actions against enemies abroad.
Even though Schroen wrote an acclaimed memoir about his most legendary operation - and even though McFadden herself has worked as a CIA employee and contractor for more than 35 years - her husband's modesty and penchant for secrecy meant she only knew so much.
But McFadden, 66, said her husband's Jawbreaker mission, which laid the groundwork for the Taliban's collapse in the fall of 2001 and the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan, gave Schroen the most gratification.
The operation also helped make Schroen famous at Langley, where the Russian-made (and CIA-modified) Mi-17 that choppered the Jawbreaker team over the Hindu Kush Mountains into Afghanistan was dedicated in a ceremony in 2019 as an agency museum exhibit outside on its campus.
When Schroen died - shortly after a CIA drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri - agency director William J. Burns released a statement, hailing him as a "legend and inspiration to every Agency officer."
The acknowledgment was a rare gesture. Typically, the CIA announces the death of an officer when they have been killed in the line of duty and awarded a black star engraved on its lobby's Memorial Wall. Even then, the agency only names them if their identities are deemed no longer sensitive.
But Schroen, a main character in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars" by Steve Coll, was well-known to the world, at least among spy services, reporters and other national security types. At a memorial service at their church later this month, McFadden said, she expects several hundred to attend, many of them Langley friends or mentees.
"Gary said [Jawbreaker] was the best thing he did in his career. It was the culmination of everything he'd been trying to do," McFadden said. "There" was a little bit of vengeance, but mostly, he just said, 'I was the right person to go.' I once asked him if he was afraid and he said, 'Not really.' "
Sitting on her couch, McFadden pulled out her husband's papers.
The Illinois native, born Nov. 6, 1941, joined the Army Security Agency in 1959 at the age of 18.
But Schroen's career almost blew up as soon as it began, according to an unpublished story he wrote, "Off to a Bad Start." When a beer bottle he had left on top of his barracks mailbox in Germany spilled all over outgoing Christmas cards and other correspondence, his enraged commanding officer threatened him with a court-martial and 25 years in prison. He was accused of "tampering with the U.S. mail," Schroen wrote.
The court-martial never happened. Instead, he got busted back one grade to private E-2. Soon, after an honorable discharge in 1962, he was off to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. During college, where he worked side jobs as a janitor and unloading trucks for UPS, he got a letter in the mail from another three-letter agency.
He entered the CIA in June 1969 when the agency, led by Richard Helms, was combating the Soviets and running clandestine operations in southeast Asia.
But Schroen was dispatched to another part of the world. In the early 1970s, he and his first wife, Pat - their first date was seeing "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" - settled in Iran with their only child at the time, Christopher.
Around then, members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq had launched several attacks against Americans in Tehran, Schroen wrote in another of his biographical stories. Under high alert, several CIA officers in Tehran were issued concealed-carry weapons.
So, one night in September 1975, Schroen wrote, he began his seven-block walk home from the embassy - armed.
"He looked like any other young diplomat at the Embassy, except a closer examination would have revealed a Browning 9mm Hi-Power automatic tucked under his belt on his left side, hidden by the suit jacket," Schroen wrote of himself in the third person.
When Schroen was about four blocks from home, he saw two Iranian men in suits, standing by a sedan. One man reached his hand into a small bag - the "perfect size for a handgun," he wrote.
Then, Schroen pulled out his Browning. He was going to shoot, but one of the men shook his head no, and the second man nodded. Schroen took off in a sprint.
"In looking back over the years, it is clear to me that this was an MEK assassination operation targeting me," Schroen wrote. "The fact that I was alert and armed, and I drew my weapon before they could react, I am sure saved my life."
It wouldn't be the last time Schroen was nearly killed. On Nov. 21, 1979, student protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, setting it on fire and trapping Schroen and many others inside. A Marine was fatally shot, but Schroen outlasted the rioters in a code room vault and left the compound physically unscathed.
"If there aren't 3,000 students coming over the fence, then it's not an emergency," McFadden said her husband used to say.
Nearly two decades later, as the chief of station in Islamabad, he helped lead a 1997 CIA-FBI operation that captured Mir Aimal Kansi, an FBI "Top Ten" fugitive. On Jan. 25, 1993, Kansi had fatally shot two CIA employees and wounded others while they were waiting in their cars at a stoplight to enter agency headquarters.
"Kansi's arrest wouldn't have happened without Gary," said a former CIA colleague on contract with the agency and who helped with the planning. "Gary was the one who had a good relationship with Pakistan's intelligence service. He nurtured it over years. To try to do something like that unilaterally, in western Pakistan, in no man's land, would have been, in my view, difficult to do without Pakistan's assistance."
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2o01, Schroen drove to the CIA. He had recently completed a stint as the deputy chief of the agency's Near East Division, helping oversee covert operations.
But now, he was a little less than two months away from turning 60, and he had entered a retirement transition program. His plans changed that morning when he saw people congregate around a television, he wrote in "First In." One of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan had been hit by a plane.
Then, another aircraft struck the second tower, followed by a plane plowing into the Pentagon.
Days later, Schroen met with the CIA's counterterrorist center director, Cofer Black. The agency was now assigning the near-retiree the mission of a lifetime: to captain a team of CIA officers and lead them into Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, where they needed to collaborate with the Northern Alliance, defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and hunt down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Their team would soon get a code name: Jawbreaker.
"I want bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice," Black told him, Schroen recounted in his book.
Shortly after Schroen and his fellow Jawbreakers arrived in late September in Afghanistan, they generated hundreds of intelligence reports that allowed U.S. military aircraft to strike Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds, he wrote. After about six weeks - an intense period of paying off warlords, dealing with demands from headquarters, and suffering multiple bouts of stomach issues - Schroen was summoned home, just days before his 60th birthday. Later that month, one of his CIA colleagues, Johnny "Mike" Spann, became the first American killed in Afghanistan.
Hank Crumpton, the special operations chief of the agency's counterterrorist center at the time, spoke to Schroen nearly every day while he was in Afghanistan. "He had a huge impact in my planning with the agency director [George Tenet] and even directly with President George W. Bush," Crumpton recalled in an interview. "I took what he said as gospel."
Though Schroen retired from the CIA in November 2001, he couldn't resist the pull of coming back as a contractor.
By 2007, he was teaching new CIA officers in tradecraft. That is when he met McFadden, an agency colleague. Gary's second marriage was falling apart, and now, he wanted to date. On their first outing, McFadden recalled, he was waiting for her at the hostess stand of a steak house, dressed in a suit and holding a martini.
"I asked him, 'Are you trying to do a James Bond?'" McFadden said, laughing.
The two married on Nov. 27, 2009 at Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va. McFadden, whose career spanned a range of subjects from Iran to chemical and biological counterproliferation, was always surprised that someone of Schroen's standing treated her with such respect.
"I just felt cherished, there is no other word," McFadden said. "It astonishes me every day that Gary Schroen fell in love with me."
About 18 months later, they were asleep when their home phone rang in the middle of the night. It was a reporter, McFadden said, and this was how he learned that bin Laden had been killed in a Navy SEAL raid on May 2, 2011, at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
"He was happy, really happy, that it was done, and that what he and his colleagues started so long ago was accomplished," McFadden said.
Schroen worked into his 70s. Recently, he had been retained as an expert by the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler, which is representing relatives of the Sept. 11 victims in a suit against Saudi Arabia, alleging the kingdom abetted al-Qaeda in the run-up to the terrorist attacks.
He also dealt with his share of heartbreaks. His son, Christopher Schroen, died of cancer in 2017, at the age of 47.
One of his daughters, Jenny Schroen, said that, growing up as the child of a spy, they were taught a certain secrecy: "He made it clear and said that, 'If anyone asks where I worked, just say the government. If they press, then say, the State Department.'"
His other daughter, Kate Cowell, posted on her Instagram account a photo from the 1980s of herself as a teenager next to her father. The spy wore a white sweater and a polo shirt with a popped collar, and glasses with huge rectangle-shaped lenses.
"My dad was so many things. At his core he was truly a badass. Really an American hero," Cowell wrote in her Instagram caption. "He made America safer and 99% of you never knew it. On a deeply personal level, he was my dad. . .And I'm absolutely shattered."
Back at their Alexandria home, where Schroen enjoyed tending to their rescue dog, Gracie, and watching cardinals flock to the bird feeders by the crepe myrtle, McFadden walked into her bedroom. There, on her dresser, next to a framed photo of the two of them by a Christmas tree, she picked up one of her husband's most prized possessions. It was a Rolex. Blue, gold, and silver.
The timepiece was a gift he bought himself nearly 21 years ago - a gift for his 60th birthday and an award for his safe return from Jawbreaker's mission.
"He said, 'I've always wanted a Rolex and I survived Afghanistan and I am buying one,'" McFadden recalled. "He wore it all the time."