Remembering a Spy for All Seasons

June 4, 2017–At the end of April with the death of Howard Phillips Hart, the U.S. intelligence community lost one of its true heroes. Unlike Dewey Clarridge, who tried to appropriate the title “spy for all seasons,” but who was a showboat and ideologue, Hart was the real thing, fortunately on the scene at some very real passages in recent American history. Even as a toddler. Born in St. Louis on the eve of World War II, Hart’s banker father moved the family to the Philippines, where they had the misfortune to be when the Japanese invaded after Pearl Harbor. The family were locked up in a Japanese prison camp at Los Banos and rescued in the nick of time, in 1945, as U.S. paratroopers liberated the camp before the Japanese could execute the prisoners. After the war the family went back to the Philippines.

Howard read in Oriental studies and political science at Cornell and the University of Arizona, learning Hindi and Urdu. He was thinking about joining the Marines when an agency recruiter convinced him to become a spy instead. He joined the CIA in the summer of 1966. The agency did well by Hart, assigning him to India for his first foreign tour. In that he followed Clarridge, who had served in Dehli but at this time was desk officer for India at Langley. The station chief was Clair George. Anyway, the Indians were in the process of edging closer to the Soviet Union, and in 1967 they signed a treaty of friendship and an arms delivery agreement with Moscow. Hart was wrestling with an invitation from an old friend to become a lawyer when one of his agents acquired the operating manual for the Russian SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, mainstay of the North Vietnamese air defenses that were zapping U.S. planes in the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. That coup convinced Hart to make his career as a spy.

He served three years in India, long enough to see the first rumblings of what became the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971. Hart got an education in the niceties of diplomatic relations–in India, with rising anti-Americanism, the Canadian embassy painted Canadian flags all over its cars so they wouldn’t be taken as Americans. Less than a decade later, Canadian diplomats heroically sheltered Americans in Teheran and helped smuggle them out of the country. Hart witnessed both ends of this show–first in India, then, after a tour in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. Assigned to the Teheran station, in the first phase of the Iranian revolution, the United States decided to greatly reduce its embassy staff–including the CIA station. In the summer of 1979 the spooks operated with a rump unit of a few officers within the reduced embassy, plus an undercover “outside” unit of four, headed by Howard Hart.

There were lots of adventures, including the time Hart was stopped by Revolutionary Guards at a checkpoint, beaten, and ended up blowing them away with his pistol. He got his CIA contingent safely out of the country. When the Carter administration organized the hostage rescue mission that ended so tragically at the Desert One airstrip in the Iranian outback, Howard Hart was the CIA adviser. He was physically at Desert One when the mission came apart. For Iran Hart received the Intelligence Star, an important CIA medal.

Next Howard went to Islamabad as station chief for Pakistan, and from there he directed the CIA paramilitary operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was the crucial early-mid phase of the Afghan op, when U.S. support did not quite rise to war-winning levels. Hart made the best of limited means. He finished his CIA career as an early chief of the agency’s novel “fusion center” to counter drug trafficking. Hart amassed five award decorations during his career–more than almost any other officer–and George Tenet selected him as one of fifty CIA “Trailblazers” in 1997. Unlike Clarridge or George, both of whom were swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal, Howard Hart never became controversial inside or outside the agency. That’s what made him a “spy for all seasons.”

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