Colby Magazine Colby College
When Elizabeth C. Hanson ’02 died in December 2009, along with six other CIA operatives killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, little was publicly known about what the young woman did and why the agency had dispatched her to Afghanistan.
But Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick began investigating the attack, and soon the Post was reporting facts of the case: that the CIA personnel were killed by an informant, that the informant was someone the CIA believed to have infiltrated the highest ranks of al Qaeda, that there was concern the informant might not be trustworthy. Warrick also revealed how shaken his CIA sources were by the loss of their colleagues.
“The way this incident hit them was so emotional,” Warrick said in an interview for Colby. “We all got drawn into learning about who these people were.”
The result was his book The Triple Agent, published last fall, which recounts the events that led up to the attack by the informant, Jordanian Humam Khalil al Balawi. The book profiles the seven CIA agents who died and reveals concerns some had about what turned out to be a fatal meeting. Warrick, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, said he has continued to talk to CIA sources since the book was published, adding to the portrait of Hanson, an elite “targeter” who culled information to hunt down terrorists sought by the agency.
“She was an amazing person who did a job that most folks would never hear about,” Warrick said. “And she was quite good at it.”
In fact sources quoted in the book told Warrick that Hanson was one of the CIA’s most talented “terrorist hunters,” attracting the attention and praise of her supervisors and CIA directors Leon Panetta and Michael Hayden. Before she turned 30, she had been promoted to lead a high level group of targeters charged with hunting down al Qaeda leaders on a list that included Osama bin Laden.
“She was an amazing person who did a job that most folks would never hear about. And she was quite good at it.”
“I talked to some of her supervisors, and they said she just was remarkably gifted at what it takes to be one of these targeters,” Warrick said. “And that is the ability to assimilate torrents of information to look for clues, to be a detective, to think innovatively about where to find things, about where people might be. And just to have the courage to tackle the information to help the agency when it clearly goes after people.”
E mail, wiretaps, reports from informants, information gleaned from the Internet it was monitored and analyzed around the clock in the underground facility at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va., where Hanson worked.
Hanson not only analyzed the information, she also helped decide when the intelligence was sufficient to kill the person targeted, usually through a missile strike by a Predator drone.
“Liz kept a paperweight on her desk wherever she worked with the question inscribed ‘What would you do if you knew you could not fail.'”
“As you can imagine, that’s not something everybody can do. It takes a certain amount of fortitude but also the conviction that you’re doing the right thing.”
Hanson joined the CIA in 2005, he said, when she was just 26. While Colby records showed that she worked for a consulting firm in Washington, that company was a CIA cover. “I’ve got a copy of her ID badge [from the consulting firm],” he said. “It wasn’t a real job.”
Elizabeth Hanson ’02 shortly before she reported to Afghanistan in 2009. She died four months later.
She was prepped at The Farm, the CIA facility where new hires go through the intelligence version of basic training. Though the instruction includes firearms training and other military skills, Hanson was part of a crop of tech savvy officers hired after 9/11, the book says, as the CIA changed from a cloak and dagger operation to one geared to tracking information online or over the airwaves or through sophisticated electronic surveillance.
While it quickly became apparent that Hanson’s analytical skills were formidable,
her casual style also became her trademark, Warrick writes. She typically wore jeans and flip flops at work, sometimes putting her mane of blonde hair in pigtails. The book reports that she kept a pair of dressier shoes under her desk in case she had to report to higher ups about al Qaeda.
“And yet she not only did it, but she was really good at it,” Warrick said. “She was a surprising person, I think. Her supervisors talked about that combination that made her endearing. People respected her, but they couldn’t help but like her. That likeability aspect combined with the ability to be absolutely cold and methodical doing her job.”
Hanson was funny, sometimes goofy, charming and disarming, the book says. Some of her closest CIA friends knew her by her childhood nickname, “Monkie,” after monkey sock puppets made in her hometown of Rockford, Ill.
A Sense of Duty
Elizabeth Ann Hanson said she had read only parts of The Triple Agent, the book that recounts events surrounding the death of her daughter, CIA officer Elizabeth Curry Hanson ’02. But Hanson knows the story.
“I know everything that is in there, because everyone who is still alive, anyone who has been involved with it, I have talked with each and every one of them,” she said. “I don’t know the book, but I do know them.” Many members of what she calls the CIA “extended family” called or wrote to her on Feb. 14, which would have been Elizabeth’s 33rd birthday. A group that she calls “amazingly and wonderfully” close knit has taken her in, she said.
Hanson said the members of the group are committed to each other and to their work. Elizabeth C. Hanson pursued her career, her mother said, not out of personal ambition but from a sense of duty. “She was not as much about ambitious as she was about, ‘This is my country. I have to do this right. We need to get the job done.'”
Hanson said that, though her daughter could chat up a storm, she didn’t divulge information about her CIA work. In fact she knew some of her daughter’s friends and coworkers only by their initials. “No one had any idea,” she said. “None. Which is the way it needed to be.”
But Hanson did say she was very close to her daughter, that Elizabeth called her most days, when it was possible.
She described her daughter as someone who could wear a strapless evening dress to an embassy party and look stunning, though she never knew it. “And an hour later she could be in a mud hole, working. She was an extraordinary lady in many, many ways.”
Her daughter, Hanson said, filled the family home in suburban Chicago with books and kept the complete works of Shakespeare on her handheld computer. She was studious but also threw herself into the physical training that was required in her job. Prior to her assignment overseas she took a driving course, training to drive up mountains, through mud and snow.
“And she would come home with her little car,” Hanson said. “It was like some of the shows you see on TV of the guys in their mud trucks.”