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Volunteer spirit takes man to desert

April 01, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andreabh@herald-mail.com

After terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, retired Air Force intelligence analyst Charles "Ken" Clopper volunteered for duty at a remote air base in Saudi Arabia.

"That's where I needed to be," said Clopper, 60, of Clear Spring. "I had the knowledge."

He departed Sept. 27 and spent more than five months working counter-intelligence as a high-level civilian analyst within the confines of the fenced 100-mile perimeter of Prince Sultan Air Base in the middle of the Saudi desert.

Clopper and his peers provided counter-intelligence support to force protection.

In layman's terms, he said, they tried to prevent terrorist attacks against U.S. Air Force soldiers and U.S. coalition forces involved in the war against terrorism by analyzing intelligence information gathered in the field.

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Clopper couldn't give details about the top secret work. As an intelligence operative, he said, he must "stay in the shadows."

But he stressed the importance of his work in the Middle East.

"If we didn't do our job right, something bad could happen to U.S. and coalition forces," Clopper said. "My job was to prevent that from happening, and, through our work or luck or whatever, it didn't."

Clopper returned March 9 to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, where he has worked as a civilian counter-intelligence analyst since 1998.

He tried working in the "real world" after retiring as an Air Force chief master sergeant in 1988, but found "there were too many civilians out there," he said.

Clopper was military to the core after spending nearly 30 years in the Air Force. He enlisted soon after graduating from Clear Spring High School in 1959, leaving the family dairy farm to pursue his lifelong dream of a career in the military.

"The Air Force is the only thing I ever wanted," Clopper said. "When all I knew was the south end of a northbound cow, the Air Force seemed like a pretty good deal to me."

Clopper had expected to join the Air Force band because of his years of musical experience in Clear Spring, but his recruiter suggested the intelligence field because of his high test scores, he said.

His high school sweetheart and new wife, Barbara, soon understood that her husband's work would remain a mystery even to her.

She remembered once touring the Air Force intelligence office with other spouses. Walls and desks were covered with brown paper, she said.

"I just accepted it from the get-go," Barbara Clopper said.

Clopper spent an average of 150 days a year away from home as his wife raised their three children in houses from San Antonio to Okinawa. He worked intelligence operations in Pakistan, Hawaii, Vietnam, Japan and Germany with a four-year stint at Joint Special Operations in Fort Bragg, N.C., and interim returns to an air base in Texas, he said.

"San Antonio was our home away from home," said Clopper, whose two married daughters still live in Texas.

He started getting civilian job offers from the Air Force, National Security Agency and State Department within a few months of retiring, Clopper said.

He and Barbara moved to Waldorf, Md., when he went to work at the Pentagon as a U.S. Department of Defense civilian intelligence analyst for the Air Force in 1989. Seven years later, he returned to Western Maryland to work for the U.S. Army as the civilian security manager at Fort Ritchie in Cascade then at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., when Fort Ritchie closed.

The Cloppers built a home on the Clear Spring family farm property.

"I never thought I'd end up back in Maryland," Clopper said. "And I certainly never thought I would end up 100 yards from where I was raised."

Barbara Clopper's dream home in Clear Spring soon became a weekend-only residence for her husband when, in 1998, he took a counter-intelligence post with the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations at Andrews Air Force Base.

Clopper still works for OSI, "trying to keep the bad guys from collecting intelligence on us," he said.

Unlike "positive intelligence" - such as gathering information needed to locate Osama bin Laden - counter-intelligence focuses on keeping hostile agents from collecting sensitive information about the U.S., Clopper said.

His work turned to terrorism in October 1999 when he volunteered for a five-month tour with the U.S. Central Command's Joint Intelligence Support Element in Saudi Arabia. That operation was launched after the 1996 terrorist attack at Khobar Towers during which 19 Americans were killed when a powerful truck bomb ripped through the apartment buildings at a military compound in Saudi Arabia.

Clopper analyzed intelligence information from the Arabian peninsula to determine if terrorism threats were credible, he said.

His group anticipated such terrorist tactics as vehicle bombings, he said. They didn't consider the threat of 19 terrorists successfully hijacking four U.S. planes and crashing them into American targets.

"Nobody really thought of that as a possibility," Clopper said.

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