In From the Cold, to a Cold Shoulder

A former top CIA spy, after years of duty in hot spots, has serious health problems. But his highly unusual worker's comp claim has been rejected.

By Greg Miller
Times Staff Writer

May 19, 2005

STANARDSVILLE, Va. Last month, surgeons at the University of Virginia hospital dragged a scalpel along a thick, pink scar that stretched across the right side of Howard Hart's rib cage.

The doctors set about repairing his damaged chest wall, affixing a layer of mesh across an opening that was allowing Hart's organs to bulge out into a purple bubble over his ribs.

It was his third such operation in about two years. The first time doctors cut Hart open, in February 2003, they were perplexed by what they saw: intestines pushed up around his right lung, extensive damage to the diaphragm, which is supposed to separate the abdomen from the chest, and ribs splayed out like they had been pried apart with a crowbar.

"I'd never seen a case like this," said Dr. Richard J. Brewer, who performed the first operation. The damage was similar to that seen in pedestrians hit by cars, he said, except those cases tended to have accompanying organ injuries that were often fatal. In the middle of the operation, Brewer said a colleague looked up from the patient and asked: "How does that happen and you don't get killed in the process?"

In Hart's case, the answer may have something to do with the fact that he managed to kill the other guys first.

Hart, 64, was among the most storied CIA case officers of his generation, handling a series of sensitive overseas posts and high-ranking positions at headquarters. When he retired in 1991, he put all that behind him and set up a consulting business that he could operate from his home atop the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

But health problems in recent years have reopened a long-forgotten chapter in his life. When doctors asked him how he had sustained such injuries, he realized that there was only one possible cause a severe beating he took after a clandestine midnight meeting in Iran in 1979.

He took a string of demanding assignments afterward, but the surgeries have waylaid him in a way the beating did not. Often unable to work, his well-paying consulting business shriveled. To cover the loss in income, he did what any ordinary employee might do: He filed for worker's compensation coverage.

But Hart was no ordinary worker, and his was no run-of-the-mill claim. His injury wasn't diagnosed until years into his retirement despite numerous medical checkups during his career. The CIA had no record of the incident that caused the injuries because Hart, fearful that he would be pulled out of his assignment, never reported it. So far, the government has refused to pay.

As a result, Hart has spent a good chunk of the last few years replaying that night in Tehran, recovering from operations and appealing denials of disability payments from the government he served for 25 years.

"It's surreal," Hart said recently. "My whole life has not only stopped. It's gone backward."

Despite his ailments, Hart remains a strapping figure 6 feet, 2 inches tall with white hair and a gravelly voice that skips an octave when he laughs. He lives at the end of a long dirt driveway that winds nearly 2,000 feet up the hills northwest of Charlottesville rural territory favored by CIA retirees who like to be a safe distance from Washington but close enough to return for consulting work and other assignments.

Hart and his wife, Jean, live in a house with a wraparound deck, hot tub and panoramic view of the Virginia piedmont. Inside, two big rooms display his extensive collection of historic military firearms.

One picture on a wall shows a blond-haired Hart giving instructions to Marines clad in gas masks guarding the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Another frame contains the five medals he has been awarded by the CIA. Among them is one he received in 1997, when the CIA picked 50 of its most revered employees to honor on the agency's 50th anniversary. Hart was named a trailblazer who had "helped shape the agency's history."

In many ways, history helped shape Hart.

As a child, he spent three years in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines that was liberated in 1945 by troops under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. One of Hart's earliest memories is of being carried to safety under the arm of a U.S. paratrooper. Hart, 5 at the time, remembers the soldier repeating: "Don't worry, kid. You're going home."

Hart's father, an officer with National City Bank of New York, had taken a position with the bank's branch in the Philippines. After the war, the family returned to the island nation, where Hart went to school with students whose fathers had waged guerrilla war against the Japanese. The stories they told were an education in insurgency warfare that would prove invaluable in his future career.

Hart earned degrees in Asian studies and political science at the University of Arizona, while learning to speak Hindustani and Urdu. As he considered career options, "I remembered the GI very quietly many times," Hart said. "The U.S. gave me my life. I owe them my life a life for a life."

He thought of enlisting in the Marines. But his language skills and experience overseas caught the eye of a CIA recruiter. In 1968, the agency sent him on his first overseas assignment, to India.

Clair George was a case officer stationed in Delhi who went on to become deputy director for operations at the CIA. He recalled Hart as a magnetic presence who had an innate understanding of spy work.

"My first impression was that he was a wonderful, glad-handing extrovert," George said. Some CIA officers spend their careers trying to master their trade. But even before he arrived in Delhi, George said, "Howard knew what to do."

The CIA's clandestine service has always had an abundance of hard-charging personalities, but Hart charged harder than most. He sought Third World postings and disdained case officers who spent their time chasing sources at embassy cocktail parties.

"I always wanted to serve in tough places that were absolutely awful but mattered," he said. "I probably said that 500 times, pissing off European case officers whose biggest problem is figuring out the Paris Metro."

After five years in India, and two in Bahrain, Hart arrived in Iran. He was put in charge of a small "unilateral operations" section made up of case officers who were not declared to the Iranian government, and instead were there to spy on it.

In 1953, the CIA had orchestrated a coup that installed the shah in power. But by 1978, the shah was teetering. Riots, strikes and demonstrations erupted in full-scale revolution in early 1979. The shah fled the country, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile and Tehran convulsed in violence.

Thousands of Americans were evacuated from Iran, including Hart's first wife and their two young sons. Most U.S. Embassy and CIA employees also were taken out of the country. Five case officers stayed, and Hart was named acting station chief.

He and his crew recruited sources among moderates of Khomeini's movement and filed daily intelligence reports to Washington. They also tried to protect their sources in the old regime.

"Scores were being settled all over the country," Hart said. "Every regime official that [Islamic militants] could get their hands on was being executed or thrown in the slammer."

Particularly vulnerable were former agents of SAVAK, the shah's secret police and intelligence service. Revolutionaries had seized SAVAK's files, torched its headquarters and begun executing its agents.

One high-level official in SAVAK had been among the CIA's most valuable informants. To help him flee, Hart had assembled alias documents and cash, and had arranged to meet the agent on an empty street in northern Tehran. The meeting was set for 2 a.m. March 18, 1979, about six weeks after Khomeini's return.

Hart plotted his route, cased the area ahead of time, and made sure he wasn't followed. The handoff went without a hitch, and Hart headed back to a CIA safe house.

Then he made a wrong turn.

Just blocks from the meeting location, two Revolutionary Guards had set up a checkpoint. Armed with assault rifles, they pulled Hart from his car and tossed him facedown on the pavement. Shouting "CIA!" one held a gun at Hart's head while the other began driving his boot into Hart's ribs.

After a series of vicious kicks, one guard wedged his boot under Hart and began to roll him over onto his back. Hart said he caught a glimpse of the other guard gripping his rifle by the barrel and hoisting it over his head.

But the guards were better armed than trained. Hart said they had failed to pat him down before dropping him to the pavement.

As he rolled from his belly to his back, Hart pulled a standard, CIA-issue Browning 9-millimeter pistol from his belt and fired one round at the guard with the raised gun, then another at the guard who had been flipping him with his foot.

"They went down and made no noise," Hart said.

Spitting up blood and hurting badly, Hart remembered crawling into his car, making his way to a safe house and sleeping through most of the next two days. When he woke, he was still in pain, but the bleeding had stopped and he figured he had broken some ribs. Within a week, he said, he was moving around the city and meeting sources.

Hart said he never reported the incident to his superiors because he didn't want to be yanked out of Tehran before his tour was up. Nor did he want to be seen as portraying himself as a hero. The only CIA person he ever told, Hart said, was a colleague in Tehran, Kenneth Haas, who was killed in Beirut in 1983.

Hart returned to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., in July 1979, four months before Iranian militants took more than five dozen Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy, including three CIA officers. Hart had a routine physical, but X-rays showed no internal damage. CIA medical records indicate the only problem doctors found was "some dryness of hands and feet."

Whatever his injuries, they didn't slow his career.

Less than a year after returning from Iran, Hart was assigned to help rescue the hostages. The SAVAK agent, who had been set up with a new life in the United States, helped devise an elaborate plan to evacuate them from the embassy. Hart was among those on the scene when a helicopter crash in the Iranian desert ended the rescue mission. A photo in his home shows him meeting with President Carter in the disastrous aftermath.

The 52 Americans were freed 444 days after the ordeal began.

From 1981 to 1984, he was station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, running the covert CIA program to arm Muslim fighters and drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. He then moved into a series of high-level assignments at CIA headquarters: running the CIA's deep-cover program and paramilitary branch before launching the agency's counternarcotics center at a time when the drug war was paramount.

As he climbed the CIA's ranks, Hart came to be regarded by peers as extremely effective but unbecomingly ambitious.

"Some saw him as the consummate case officer, mixed with a little bit of the visionary which was my experience with him," said David Carey, who was Hart's deputy at the counternarcotics center and later served as executive director of the CIA. "Others saw him as ruthlessly competitive and trying to get ahead."

Many assumed he was in line to become deputy director for operations, the powerful position atop the CIA's clandestine service. Which is why many were stunned when Hart retired in 1991 at age 50 exactly, he said, as he had always planned it.

Like many retired CIA case officers, Hart set up a consulting business in which he tapped his overseas knowledge and contacts to advise American companies on their foreign operations and investments. For years, his income was well into six figures.

Occasional twinges would make him wonder whether something was physically wrong. One night on a cruise ship, he tossed in his bed and felt a shooting pain in his abdomen. But it didn't linger, and he brushed it aside.

After turning 60, his health began to decline. He felt sluggish, out of breath, and in 2003 found himself in the hospital with pneumonia. Again X-rays showed nothing beyond fluid in his lungs. But after several days of violent coughing, doctors lifted his gown to see bruising on his right side and a swollen lump of flesh. It's not unusual for men in their 60s to get hernias, but it is unusual for them to surface so far above the waistline.

Doctors ordered a CAT scan which can see internal organs and tissues that X-rays don't pick up and found the injuries that apparently had gone undiagnosed for more than two decades.

Brewer, Hart's surgeon, said it was not surprising that Hart's career wasn't disrupted by his injuries his organs continued to work, but some were in the wrong place. Now the injured muscles and tissue in his chest had deteriorated so much that they had to be fixed.

In February 2003, surgeons sewed pieces of polypropylene mesh across holes that were allowing organs to migrate. They also repaired significant damage to the cartilage portion of his rib cage injuries that didn't appear in X-rays because they weren't located in dense bone.

The surgery repaired some problems, but led to others. Hart has undergone two follow-up operations to deal with infections, a new hernia that poked through his initial incision, and the overall deterioration of his chest wall and diaphragm.

Hart is a heavy smoker and has health issues unrelated to his injuries in Iran. He recently had a titanium pin inserted in his spine because of deterioration of the spinal column. But he said it was the operations on his chest that have altered his life he runs a steady, low-grade fever, sleeps long stretches during the middle of the day, and, because of pain medication, cannot concentrate well enough to do his consulting work.

The CIA prides itself on its ability to bypass bureaucracy and tackle daunting missions around the world. It has bulging classified accounts for almost every espionage-related expense imaginable, from arming militias to resettling former spies like the SAVAK agent.

But when it comes to its own employees, the CIA is in many ways just another federal agency. So when Hart asked if he were eligible for compensation, the CIA gave him a standard form to apply for worker's compensation with the Department of Labor. Although Hart's life might make an interesting screenplay, it makes for a messy worker's comp claim. Several officials with unions that represent federal workers said they had never seen or heard of one like it.

The Department of Labor says federal workers are eligible for worker's compensation years after their injuries even if they are retired and earning money in the private sector if they can show they were hurt on their federal job but that the effects didn't surface until later.

In Hart's case, the department doesn't dispute his account of the incident, or the medical problems it caused. But it has rejected his claim twice, despite appeals from at least two members of Congress. To the Department of Labor, Hart's initial wounds were so severe and instantly apparent unlike a back that gives out after years of heavy lifting that his injury could not possibly be considered latent.

After a hearing in March 2004, a Department of Labor official wrote that she found Hart's testimony "to be very credible and certainly gripping." But, she wrote, "the fact that the injuries were possibly more severe than he had believed does not excuse the fact that he was aware he was injured and failed to report that injury to the agency."

Hart acknowledges that he is likely pursuing a modest sum, and that he isn't without means. He has savings from his consulting business, and continues to collect $1,400 a month in CIA retirement pay, after deducting alimony to his former wife. His current wife works as a management consultant to the CIA.

Nevertheless, Hart finds the situation hard to accept. To him, it's a collision of government cultures: a CIA case officer, steeped in the values of sacrifice and dedication to mission, being penalized for his decision 26 years ago, in the middle of an Islamic revolution, to forget his injuries and get back to the business of spying.

"It was something that happened when I was just trying to do my job," Hart said. "I didn't complain about it. I didn't want anything but to forget about it and go on to other things. Now it's this sort of Greek play bang, something that happened 20-plus years ago comes back to catch up with you."

Hart has the right to one final appeal before a special employees' compensation board. His hearing is scheduled for next month.
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