Howard P. Hart, a daring CIA operative who ran the agency’s clandestine program arming Afghan fighters against Soviet forces in the early 1980s, died April 30 at his home in Dyke, Va., a community north of Charlottesville. He was 76.
The cause was liver cancer, said his wife, Jean Hart.
Mr. Hart’s career placed him at the center of some of the most dramatic and dangerous events of his era in espionage. He was injured in Iran during the Islamic overthrow of the government and took part in the doomed U.S. commando mission to rescue American hostages. Later, he led the CIA’s foray into the Reagan-era war on drugs with a pioneering agency branch that teamed analysts with overseas operatives.
He was best known for his role in overseeing secret arms shipments to Afghan militants through a covert CIA program aimed at ousting Soviet forces that occupied the country to prop up its Marxist government. The shipments, routed through Pakistan, escalated through the 1980s, ultimately forcing the wounded superpower to abandon Afghanistan.
“I was the first chief of station ever sent abroad with this wonderful order: ‘Go kill Soviet soldiers,’ ” Mr. Hart recalled years later, in characteristically gleeful terms, from a 2005 speech at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “Imagine! I loved it.”
Mr. Hart, who retired from the CIA in 1991, stood 6 feet 2 inches tall with a shock of blond hair that ultimately turned white. His personality was equally imposing, making him a dominating — and at times resented — presence in his overseas assignments as well as at CIA headquarters.
In 1997, on the CIA’s 50th anniversary, the agency named Mr. Hart to the equivalent of its espionage dream team, putting his name on a list of 50 “trailblazers” who had shaped its history.
His penchant for finding himself at the center of historic events began well before he joined the CIA. Howard Phillips Hart was born Oct. 16, 1940, in St. Louis, and spent much of his childhood abroad for his father’s career with the First National City Bank of New York (now Citibank).
The family was living in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded during World War II, and the Harts were held with other Allied civilians in an internment camp.
In 1945, as Japan faced defeat, the camp commander made plans to begin executing prisoners and ordered adult men to begin digging trenches, an outcome that was averted when the camp was liberated by airborne troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
One of Mr. Hart’s earliest memories was of being carried to safety under the arm of a U.S. paratrooper, said in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Don’t worry kid,” the soldier told him. “You’re going home.”
Mr. Hart regarded that rescue as a debt to the United States that he would devote his life to repaying. “A life for a life,” he said.
After the war, his family returned to the Philippines, where Mr. Hart was surrounded by school-age children whose fathers had waged guerrilla war against the Japanese. Their childhood games were built around insurgency scenarios, playacting that served as rehearsal for the role that Mr. Hart would play years later in Pakistan.
Mr. Hart received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Oriental studies and political science at the University of Arizona. He also learned to speak Hindi and Urdu. He thought about enlisting in the Marine Corps before an encounter with a CIA recruiter. By 1968 he was on his first overseas assignment in Delhi, where his supervisor was another ambitious officer, Clair E. George.
“My first impression was that he was a wonderful, glad-handing extrovert,” George later said of the recruit. “Howard knew what to do.”
In 1979, Mr. Hart was based in Tehran as riots against the American-backed shah erupted in revolution. Thousands of Americans were evacuated, including Mr. Hart’s first wife and their two sons. Mr. Hart was among five CIA officers who stayed, and he served as station chief.
Among his missions was to help CIA informants, including agents from the shah’s brutal secret police and intelligence service, get out of the country. One night, after delivering alias documents and cash to a particularly valuable CIA asset, Mr. Hart was stopped at a checkpoint, pulled out of his vehicle and beaten.
By his own account, Mr. Hart produced a CIA-issued Browning 9mm pistol and killed two checkpoint guards. He never reported the incident, saying that he feared adverse consequences to his career. The story emerged years later when he sought disability payments for lingering health problems that he attributed to the injuries he sustained that night.
Back at CIA headquarters, Mr. Hart helped to plan the doomed 1980 Special Operations mission to rescue American hostages held at the U.S. Embassy after Ayatollah Khomeini took power. He was among those on the scene when U.S. helicopters caught in a sandstorm crashed in a staging area miles from Tehran.
A year later, Mr. Hart was tapped as the CIA’s top officer in Islamabad at a time when that station served as the nerve center for a covert program shipping arms to Islamic rebels operating out of training camps in Pakistan — networks that would later give rise to militant groups including the al-Qaeda terrorism network.
Mr. Hart figures prominently in George Crile III’s book “Charlie Wilson’s War,” about the flamboyant Texas congressman and the covert CIA arms program in Afghanistan, as well as “Ghost Wars,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the U.S. conflict with al-Qaeda by journalist Steve Coll.
Coll portrayed Mr. Hart as a rugged operative who thrived in the lawless environment along the Afghan border. One scene depicts Mr. Hart standing alone “in Peshawar’s cold, smoky night air. He was a tall, bespectacled American shuffling his feet on a darkened road in an arid frontier city teeming with Afghan refugees, rebel fighters, smugglers, money changers, poets, proselytizers, prostitutes, and intriguers of every additional stripe.”
Mr. Hart led the effort until 1984. After his departure, the arms shipments escalated dramatically and included Stinger missiles used to shoot down Soviet helicopters. By then, Hart had moved on to serve as station chief in Germany before returning to CIA headquarters, where the adventurer always seemed less in his element.
For his final assignment, in 1989, Mr. Hart was put in charge of the Counternarcotics Center, an early experiment in fusing operators with analysts in the hope that forcing those two wary sides of the agency to collaborate would help gain traction on critical issues. The approach has been replicated across the agency.
His first marriage, to Susan Newburg, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 29 years, the former Jean Brown, who also worked for the CIA; two sons from his first marriage, Colin Hart of Arlington, Va., and Guy Hart of San Diego; a brother; and 10 grandchildren.
Mr. Hart spent much of his retirement at a mountainside home with sweeping views of the Piedmont. Inside, the walls of his home were covered with an extensive collection of historic firearms and photos from his postings overseas. Much of that martial collection will be donated to the Virginia War Memorial Museum in Richmond and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
He wrote a memoir, titled “A Life for A Life.”
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