Ten years after a CIA operation in Afghanistan went wrong, a slain officer's family celebrates his memory

LaBonte's family told NBC News about his life and the lead-up to his death in a meeting gone wrong, an operation depicted in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty."

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By Ken Dilanian

Like a lot of parents, Dave and Camille LaBonte chronicled their son's life in a scrapbook.

There's Darren playing the string bass. Here's an article about his baseball exploits. Look at that smile as he puts his arm around his brother.

But the LaBontes' book of memories contains a document no parent would ever want to read: a letter of condolence from the president of the United States.

"We can never repay our debt to your family," it says.

An oil painting of Darren LaBonte hangs in his parents' house.Courtesy of the LaBonte family

It's been 10 years since Darren LaBonte's life ended at age 35 on a remote base in Afghanistan when a CIA operation went spectacularly wrong. A Jordanian doctor who tricked CIA officials into believing he would spy for them detonated an explosive vest, killing LaBonte and six other people. The cascade of failures uncovered by an investigation led to significant changes in the way the spy agency conducts high-threat meetings, current and former officials have said.

The LaBonte family doesn't dwell on the errors or the fact that Darren, a CIA case officer, was among those who had been raising concerns about the risks of the meeting. In interviews with NBC News, Darren's parents, his widow and a former colleague say they want to celebrate his life and honor his memory, offering a rare public portrait of one of the fallen CIA officers represented by the 133 stars carved into a marble wall in the agency's lobby.

Darren LaBonte's widow, Racheal LaBonte, and their 12-year-old daughter visit his grave in Arlington National Cemetery.André Chung / for NBC News

Darren's daughter, Raina, was 2 when her father died, but she says she remembers him holding her. The CIA Officers Memorial Foundation has supported the family financially, as it seeks to do with all families of fallen officers.

"I think that it's important for people to know that there are people out there in the shadows that are doing behind-the-scenes work that they don't even realize," Racheal LaBonte, Darren's widow, told NBC News' Savannah Guthrie for the "TODAY" show. "They are the sheepdogs to the sheep. There is danger that is lurking in the shadows, and there are people out there that are protecting every single one of us."

Darren had a reverence for the ancient Spartans, and "he talked about wanting to be the one standing on the ramparts protecting America," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a recently retired CIA officer who served alongside him. "He did that as well as any officer I ever worked with."

Darren LaBonte came to the CIA later in life than many other recruits. He grew up all over the country because his father moved the family every few years to keep up with his career at General Electric. A star athlete in high school, he turned down an offer to sign with a minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, his parents said, and instead joined the Army.

"He wanted to serve," said his mother, Camille. "He cared a lot about everything."

He became an elite Army Ranger, met and married Racheal, left the military in 1999 and became a police officer.

After he watched the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001, Darren wept, his mother said.

Darren LaBonte when he was an FBI agent.Courtesy of the LaBonte family

Then he began trying to figure out how he could get in the fight. He joined the U.S. Marshals Service and then became an FBI agent. With his Ranger background, and having won awards in his class at the FBI training academy, he was assigned to an elite detail investigating organized crime in New York City. But that didn't scratch the itch to strike against those who attacked America.

In 2006, the CIA called.

LaBonte initially joined the agency's paramilitary arm, the Special Activities Division, which often conducts joint operations with Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force. He deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, his family said.

After his daughter was born, he accepted a posting in Amman, Jordan, to work as a case officer. There, he became close with Ali bin Zeid, a Jordanian intelligence officer and member of the royal family.

As Joby Warrick writes in his exhaustively reported book on the tragedy, "The Triple Agent," it was Zeid who initially recruited the Palestinian-Jordanian doctor, an avowed extremist, as an informant. But the CIA took over the case, and the man was to have been Darren's asset if all had gone as planned.

That wasn't to be.

The Jordanian doctor had led the CIA to believe that he had infiltrated al Qaeda as a double agent, having gone so far as to provide video suggesting that he had gotten close to the terrorist group's No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri.

In truth, it was a diabolically clever ruse — he was loyal to al Qaeda all along.

CIA officials grew eager to meet with the doctor, and word of a possible spy within al Qaeda's ranks had gone all the way to President Barack Obama, a dynamic that put enormous pressure on the line officers managing the case. By the time a meeting was set for Dec. 30, 2009, at remote Camp Chapman in Khost province along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a number of senior officials were involved in the planning — too many, the investigation would conclude.

The base chief was Jennifer Matthews, a mother of three, usually a desk-bound analyst, one of the agency's foremost al Qaeda experts but lacking field experience. Matthews and other CIA officials decided that the doctor should be made to feel welcome. He would not be searched, and he would be greeted by a large number of CIA officers. Matthews even had a cake baked to present him in honor of his birthday, Warrick writes.

LaBonte, who had flown in from Jordan with Zeid, expressed reservations about the meeting to his superiors at the CIA — and also to his father.

"I said, 'Why not just call it off?'" Dave recalled, but agency managers decided the risks were worth taking. No one involved, the investigation found, had imagined a suicide bomb, something that had never happened in the history of agent recruitments.

As reported by Warrick and depicted in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," the Jordanian doctor was not patted down before he was driven onto the base, where he stepped out of the car and detonated his shrapnel-filled device in front of a group of Americans. Along with Darren, those killed were Matthews, Elizabeth Hanson, Scott Michael Roberson, Harold Brown Jr., Dane Clark Paresi and Jeremy Wise. Zeid and an Afghan security officer were also killed, and a number of other CIA officers were grievously wounded.

The investigative report that emerged 10 months later was scathing, but the CIA director, Leon Panetta, decided not to discipline anyone.

"This is a case where there are some systemic failures where all of us have responsibility, and all of us need to fix it," he said at the time.

Racheal, Raina and LaBonte's parents and brother were vacationing at a Tuscan villa, waiting for Darren to join them after the meeting. The farmhouse was so remote that the CIA couldn't find it. The Amman station chief had to break the news by phone.

Racheal LaBonte and her daughter, Raina, visit Darren LaBonte's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.André Chung / for NBC News

"I fell to my knees, started crying," Racheal LaBonte told Guthrie. "And my mother-in-law's standing right in front of me, my brother-in-law's standing right in front of me, and I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe."

On the way back home to Amman, Racheal stopped in London, where the station chief picked her up at the airport and babysat Raina while her mother picked up some clothes, the family said. That station chief was Gina Haspel, who is now the CIA director.

Polymeropoulos was given the grim task of announcing Darren's death to a roomful of his close colleagues.

He remembers "the cries and the wails of his friends who knew that he was gone," he said. "A terrible day. It's something I will never forget."

Polymeropoulos supervised Darren and had worked closely with him. "His humble, self-effacing competence had made him a mythic figure" among junior officers, he said.

"He loved people, but people loved him right back," Polymeropoulos added. "People wanted to be around him."

Before Darren deployed to Afghanistan, "he said to me, 'Marc, I want to make you and the team proud.' And that to me was everything that epitomized Darren. [He] was looking for an organization, an institution, to be the best patriot he could be, so I think he found that in CIA."

Not long before the Khost meeting, Dave said, he tried to talk his son into leaving government service for a higher-paying, safer job.

Darren wasn't having it.

Camille said: "He said, 'It's more important to do something that matters than to make money.'"

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For Darren's widow and his parents, the grief ebbs and flows — but it never goes away.

"It doesn't feel like 10 years. Feels more just like yesterday," Racheal said. "The emptiness is still there. However, the celebration of a life is way more important, and we try to do that every single year — every day of the year."

Dave and Camille say they live each day with a pain no parent should ever have to endure. Inside their tidy condominium unit on Florida's Gulf Coast is a glass cabinet filled with photos and items devoted to Darren. A sword from Jordanian intelligence. A plaque from the CIA. On the wall is an oil painting of their son, commissioned by the king of Jordan.

They wish he was still with them. But they also believe he lived exactly as he wanted to.

"For 35 years, he lived a high-speed life," Dave LaBonte said. "He did what he could to make the world a better place, and he shouldn't be forgotten."

On the Friday before Christmas, Racheal and Raina made their annual pilgrimage to Darren's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. His white headstone blends in with all the others, except for the three letters carved at the bottom under the date of his life: CIA.

Darren LaBonte was one of seven CIA officers killed during a suicide attack by al Qaeda in Khost province in Afghanistan.André Chung / for NBC News