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Children of CIA officers, still searching

Over the last year, I grew curious about a particular stream of obituaries in the back of the Metro section of The Washington Post. At least once a week, seemingly, an obituary marking the life and career of some CIA employee would appear, listing their survivors -- children who were probably brimming with questions about their parents' lives.

So, I ended up writing a piece yesterday examining not so much the lives of these dead CIA officers, but the mindsets of their children. A generation of people who worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a CIA precursor that was established in 1942, and later the CIA, is passing away. What do the children know about their parents? What do they regret never having asked them about before they passed away from old age or disease? What do they not know that eats at them even years after their parent's death?

Some families opted not to speak to me, but a few did, such as Theresa Kramer, daughter of S. Paul Kramer, a self-described "secret agent" who died nearly two years ago at the age of 93 and lived in Georgetown; the children of John R. Mapother, 87, of Potomac, who died in December; and the sons of Leonor "Lee" Sullivan, 70, of Reston, who passed away in December, after serving as a CIA translator and secretary.

Now, in the aftermath of this week's story, I have been inundated with emails from people across the country sharing similar stories of frustration -- and some who are offering help. Charles Pinck, 45, runs the OSS Society, a McLean based non-profit that counts 1,200 members -- former OSS and CIA officers; their children; and anyone else with an interest in the intelligence agency's early years. Pinck told me this morning that he fields several calls a month from children of former OSS officers looking to track down information about their parents. If their relatives were in the OSS, he directs them to the National Archives at College Park, where information on OSS officers has been declassified. If their relative was in the CIA, it's a lot harder, he said. But they can try calling a similar organization that his society shares office space with: the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

"Very often, you'll find people asking for assistance for CIA records; that being said, there's still a lot of records," Pinck said. "I would not say it's heartbreaking [to hear from relatives searching for answers], but these are people who grew up not knowing what their parents did and they want to fill that void. A lot of them have given up hope, but they come to our web site and they reach out to get some answers."

Pinck has big plans for the OSS Society, which holds reunions and annual meetings at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. Pinck, who works for an investigations and security services firm called The Georgetown Group, wants to launch a think tank in the District devoted to the study of intelligence.

In one heartbreaking interview, this morning I spoke with Alexandra Gebhardt, 42, of Roselle, N.J., a social media strategist whose story was completely different from all the families I had interviewed for my article. Gebhardt said she had no clue that her father was in the CIA until the last weeks of his life. All the other families in my reporting said their parents had told them, in their early teens, that they were in the CIA. But in Gebhardt's case, she didn't find out until her dad was on the verge of dying from lung cancer in 1995, inside the sterile confines of a hospital.

"He said he wasn't the person who he thought I was, and that he was sorry," Gebhardt recounted, tearing up. "I am sorry. This just gets very upsetting. He said he was involved in the CIA and at one point they wouldn't let him out. He said, 'I tried to stop it. I tried to get out.'"

In 2004, Gebhardt said a new mystery emerged. She called the CIA, alerting them that her father's identification card had been stolen somehow, and, more importantly, asking if the agency could disclose information about her father's past. "I said, 'He's been dead for awhile. I just want to know who I am. Then the woman on the end of the line made a comment to me: 'Did you want to know about your mother?'" Gebhardt was silent. She was 10 when her mom died of a brain tumor, she said. She always wondered about her life. "My mother was German. She was a model, a pin-up girl. She and my father met somehow."

Gebhardt was floored by what she viewed as unofficial confirmation that her mom worked at the CIA. But she never followed up to confirm or investigate. The CIA official gave her a government office in Europe to contact, but she never did. It was just too hard. "It was bad enough just to have one in the CIA, but the other? I said, 'Rest in peace.'"

By Ian Shapira  | February 4, 2010; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story, The Blowback  | Tags:  CIA; OSS; children of intelligence officers; intelligence agents; intelligence officers; CIA agents; families of CIA agents; Ian Shapira  
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Many people have served in the CIA and made positive contributions and served with honor. I sense that this article is slanted to give an other impression. Basically the CIA provides information to the President of the USA and on occasions serves as an action arm to promote the President's agenda. If you blame the CIA, go to the President. They support his (or her) agenda. We need a President who is informed. What ever that cost is worth it, even is that means some keep secrets to protect their operations, colleagues and those who cooperate.

Posted by: gary4books | February 4, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

I do have a question. How can you write about :ee Sullivan and not say much about her husband, Joh Sullivan, who wrote a book about his work?

Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner by John F. Sullivan (Paperback - May 30, 2008)

John was an expert on many areas of intelligence and was truly able to speak the truth to those in power.

Posted by: gary4books | February 4, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Actually John has two books - I will have to buy th eother one. I have:

Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam (Hardcover)
~ John F. Sullivan

Posted by: gary4books | February 4, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

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