Matthew Kevin Gannon was flying home from a hectic temporary duty (TDY) assignment in the Middle East to spend Christmas with his family. He was on the final leg of his journey, a flight from London to NYC. The plane on which he was a passenger was Pan Am Flight 103.
In the evening hours of December 21, 1988, thirty minutes after taking off from Heathrow Airport, Pan American Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crewmembers on board, including Matt, and 11 people on the ground. After more than 11 years of determined investigation by many officials in many countries, two Libyans were tried for the crime in a Scottish court convened in the Netherlands. One was convicted. Matt was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his legacy is forever commemorated with a star on the CIA’s memorial wall. This is his story.
Matt spent the majority of his childhood in San Juan Capistrano, California. He was the eighth of ten children from a devoutly Catholic family. During high school Matt worked for a local farm, setting up irrigation lines, planting crops, plowing and cultivating the land, and transporting fruit and vegetables to local markets. He also worked as a restaurant waiter. On weekends and in summers he served as assistant manager at the Mission San Juan Capistrano performing administrative and maintenance duties. He graduated in 1972 from St. Michael’s Preparatory High School in Orange County.
Matt attended the University of Southern California (USC), graduating in 1976 with a degree in International Relations. He spent his senior year studying abroad, mostly in Europe and the Middle East, and deepened his already strong interest in Arab culture, religion, and politics.
Matt quickly landed his first professional-level job in July 1976 as a trainee loan manager with Nationwide Financial Corporation. At Nationwide, he underwent an intensive training program while also carrying out a wide array of administrative support duties. Not long after beginning his bank job, however, Matt became interested in the CIA—influenced, no doubt, by his brother, a State Department employee. Matt saw the Agency as an opportunity to further develop and apply his Arabic and Middle East area studies.
Life at the CIA:
Matt joined CIA in May 1977 and was soon accepted into the Career Trainee Program (now known as the Clandestine Service Trainee Program) as a junior Operations Officer. He successfully completed all phases of this highly challenging training regimen.
Matt continued his Arabic language study and was rated as an “exceptional” student. He tested at the 2+ and 3 levels (5 represents native speakers) for speaking and understanding a foreign language—no small feat for someone who had less than two years of formal study of this difficult language. Matt was assigned to the Near East Division and began working on several assignments in the Middle East. He was popular amongst his colleagues and managers and was known for his quick mind, language ability, and rapidly advancing operational skills. He even helped with several sensitive and successful clandestine operations in a hostile environment.
Matt’s next Mideast assignment began in September 1981, where senior Station managers observed that he had come into his own as an operations officer. He orchestrated a complicated scenario involving the handling of many agents. He also continued to recruit assets, and he worked effectively against hard targets, all while handling a full-time job. Matt was transferred in October 1984 to a small, but active station in the Middle East. In the semi-hostile environment that prevailed at that time, his recruitments soon were providing three-quarters of the Station’s reporting. In a highly unusual development, Matt received a special achievement award from his management for outstanding performance of his full-time job duties.
Matt came back to Washington in May 1987, serving in the Counterterrorism Center as a deputy branch chief working against terrorist groups. As an Arabist by training with nearly a decade of experience working on the Mideast, Matt was a major asset to the Center. He had mastered the key elements of the Arabic language and had a solid grasp of Arab culture. He had also succeeded in recruiting an asset in one of the most notorious international terrorist organizations. For four months during this assignment, Matt also served as acting chief of the branch, where he was an effective and popular manager and leader.
His Final Mission:
What turned out to be Matt’s last assignment, in the late fall of 1988, was important, sensitive, and risky. As one of only a handful of case officers who possessed the language and operational skills required for this assignment, Matt agreed to fill in temporarily in a hectic position in the Middle East. Soon after his arrival, he produced 24 intelligence reports in as many days. These reports added considerably to the Agency’s storehouse of knowledge. By every measure, Matt’s TDY was a complete success.
By late December 1988, Matt had been in the Middle East for several challenging weeks and was eager to come home for Christmas to spend time with his wife and two children. He had made flight reservations that would put him back in Washington by the 22nd. Matt spent a good part of his last day at the Station scurrying around the treacherous city to purchase local wine as gifts for colleagues who helped him during his TDY assignment. By December 21, Matt had traveled from the Station, through several countries, and had finally arrived in the United Kingdom. In London that day, he boarded Pan American Flight 103 for the last leg of his journey home to America.
On the evening of December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747, took off from London headed for New York City. As it was climbing on its northerly flight path and was nearing 30,000 feet in altitude, the aircraft exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, when a terrorist bomb ripped the fuselage apart. The explosion scattered wreckage and remains over the nearby hillsides and in the village below. All 259 passengers and crewmembers, and 11 people on the ground were killed. Matt was only 34 years old when he died. His wife and two children, ages 4 and 1, survived him.
Honoring His Service:
The bombing of Pan Am 103 was widely regarded as an assault on a symbol of the US, with 189 of the victims being Americans, and stood as the deadliest terrorist attack on American civilians until the attacks of September 11, 2001.
During the CIA’s annual Memorial Ceremony on May 21, 2012, when Matt’s name was unveiled and added to the CIA’s Book of Honor, former Director Petraeus spoke of Matt’s dedication to his country. “His deft tradecraft skills, superb language ability, and strong interest in Middle Eastern cultures would have put him on course to be a leading officer in the war against al-Qa`ida and its affiliates.” Matt was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and he was posthumously awarded the Agency’s Intelligence Star in recognition of his exceptional service and sacrifice.
Matt’s star joined an honored constellation of souls, fallen officers whose courage, integrity and devotion to the safety and security of our nation will never be forgotten. “In them,” said Petraeus, “we saw what is best and most admirable about our Agency and, indeed, our country.”