Secure behind the gates of the CIA compound in Langley, Va., is a memorial that most Americans will never see. It is one of Washington's most mysterious monuments: a constellation of 77 solemn black stars. Below, in a locked case, is the Book of Honor with dates but, in many cases, no names. Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.
They gave their lives serving their country. But, for these fallen warriors, there is no CIA honor guard, no marching band - just a very private ceremony to which select family members are invited.
The CIA memorial is the only acknowledgement of the secret lives of America's secret agents. You will find the name John Merriman inscribed in the Book of Honor. But it took 30 years for his family to find out what really happened to him.
Merriman was an ace pilot secretly posted by the CIA to the Congo. His mission: to make sure communists didn't nab control of the resource-rich country. Merriman's young wife, Val, knew where her husband was going but nothing more. Then she got a visit from the CIA. They told her that her husband had had an accident and had died on the way home.
"They said he had died in Puerto Rico on an Army base in a hospital with care, that they had come around at midnight, and John had asked for ice cream," she says. "He went to sleep, and they said when they checked on him at 6 in the morning, he had died."
There was even a death certificate to prove it.
But investigative journalist Ted Gup spent four years filling in the blanks in The Book of Honor: Covert Lives & Classified Deaths at the CIA. He pieced together the extraordinary stories behind the CIA's fallen stars. What he discovered is that while John Merriman had crashed in the Congo, the reality wasn't quite as comforting as his widow was led to believe.
Says Gup: "He was plucked from the wreckage, brought to a bush hospital where there were not even aspirin. He passed in and out of consciousness. All he said when he was aware enough to speak was, 'I want to go home.' He had broken bones, internal bleeding. And days passed."
And weeks passed. Colleagues begged for an airlift. According to Gup, the U.S. embassy said it wasn't a priority. When the airlift finally happened, Merriman died midflight.
"Well, I guess they abandoned him," says his widow. "They certainly didn't rush in and get him out, which is what you would think that they would do."
She says she thinks that, as far as the CIA was concerned, her husband was expendable.
"Just because it was 36 years ago doesn't mean it hurts less," she says tearfully.
Robert Gates knows the life of a CIA operative is nothing like it is in the movies. He was with the CIA for 27 years, and the aency's director from 1991 to 1993. He says there are times when the welfare of an individual takes a back seat to greater needs.
"That happens all the time," says Gates. "Every case officer who steps into the shadows in a place like Beirut or some place like that - that's exactly what's happening. He or she is putting their personal interest or security secondary to the national purpose."
But Sylvia Donner has a nagging sense that national security is a convenient cover for clumsy and sometimes insensitive behavior by the agency. The first American casualty in Somalia in 1992 was her brother Larry Friedman. When he was killed by a land mine, the official story was that he worked for the Army. The reality was that he worked undercover for the CIA.
"They don't deal well with families," Donner says. "With my family, they would not talk to us. They would not bring my father up from Florida when Larry died, to have him be with the family, and kept him at arm's length until they had a credible story."
Hearing this, Gates says, "It sounds like this one case may have happened on my watch, and I just wasn't aware that the father was excluded. And sometimes people make mistakes in judgment."
Donner says her brother was perfect for the CIA. He loved living on the edge, and he knew the risks.
Still, if the CIA asked her what she wants the agency to do differently, Donner says, "I would tell them to acknowledge the families, to include them in the process. I'm not saying tell the world what they do. I'm saying, 'Wrap your arms around the families.'"
The CIA insists it has learned from past mistakes, but don't tell that to Losue Hagler and Joyce Shiver. For years, they have been asking for a meeting with the agency. They got one last month in the hopes they would finally find out what really happened to Bud Petty, their brother.
Bud Petty was a veteran CIA pilot whose plane crashed during a covert mission in Angola in 1989. The mission was so secretive that his name is still missing from the CIA's Book of Honor. But long after the funeral, his family would discover something even more important was missing.
"It was an empty coffin. We buried an empty coffin," says Hagler, adding, "I know in my heart my brother's dead. But there's always that grain of doubt."
Says Gup, "I understand why deception is practiced overseas in the gathering of intelligence. I do not understand why it's practiced domestically, why here, at home, families who have given their loved ones are the victims of the same deception. That's not a matter of gathering intelligence. It's a matter of avoiding accountability."
The CIA asked Gup not to write his book, but he persisted. For Gup, the book is not simply about uncovering the secret lives - and deaths - of secret agents.
"They used the secrecy stamp not merely to protect sources and methods, as they claimed, but to shied their own actions from public scrutiny," says the author.
But Gup did agree to a CIA request to protect the identity of one of the unnamed stars so that no one else would be endangered.
Robert Gates insists the CIA's veil of secrecy is a necessity. "Real lives are at stake," he says. "And when somebody accuses a clandestine services officer of being preoccupied with secrecy, 99 times out of 1,000, it's because he's got the burden of responsibility of somebody else's life on his hands."
John Merriman's widow and son can't help feeling that the agency he served so loyally betrayed him and his family.
"It's just that they don't see their heroes as heroes. They throw people away," says Val Merriman Folkins. "And I think it would be great if the families were actually told the truth."
"Most people can take that," she says. "If they know that it's a secret, that it's something that shouldn't be told, I don't think they would tell it. I think it could remain a secret."
Seventy-seven stars and a book with missing names serves as a memorial to men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation: They lost their lives, and they lost their identities.
Copyright 2000 CBS. All rights reserved.