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CIA Agent Lead Poisoned

When Franklin A. Richards, a CIA agent, readily accepted assignment to Iraq, he knew he might have to take a bullet — some lead — for his country.

And he says he took plenty, but not because he was shot.

Richards, a firearms expert, was sent to Iraq in August 2003 to provide weapons training. He wasn’t hit by a bullet during the three weeks he was there, but according to a lawsuit he has filed, he was seriously wounded by lead poisoning.

Now he can no longer work as an agent, or at much of anything else, he says. The former agent is suing the CIA because of a long list of ailments that he alleges grew from being ordered to labor in a toxic workplace that even the Army had placed off-limits.

Richards says he didn’t enjoy taking action against the CIA, because he considers it part of his family and not just in the general workplace-camaraderie sort of way.

“I’m the product of two parents who worked at the agency,” he said in a low, slow voice. “I knew I was going to work there since I was a kid. They met there. My wife and I met there.”

But after a series of events, detailed in his complaint, Richards decided he had to try to hold the CIA accountable: A supervisor ordered him to provide training in an old, underground firing range with no ventilation, where everything was coated with toxic dust; then a CIA doctor, without taking a blood sample, declared that Richards did not have lead poisoning; and an agency lawyer rejected his claim for compensation.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by his lawyer, Daniel S. Ward, makes no mention of Iraq, referring instead to a “Middle Eastern country.” And because of CIA restrictions, Ward would not let Richards, whose 42nd birthday is Wednesday, identify that country during interviews.

In its response to the $3 million suit, the Justice Department did not deny, or confirm, Richards’s charges. It did argue that his complaint should be dismissed on several jurisdictional and procedural grounds.

Although Iraq is not mentioned in the lawsuit, other information, including Richards’s CIA medal from the “Directorate of Operations Iraq Operations Group,” given “In Appreciation of your efforts against the Iraqi Target 2003,” and a document from the outside physician the CIA eventually sent him to, confirm his service there. The CIA would not comment on the lawsuit but did verify that his medal is from the agency.

His lawsuit outlines a series of situations that seemingly could have been easily avoided.

When Richards and another trainer arrived in Iraq, they went to the firing range arranged by the agency’s chief of station, identified in the brief only as “Gordon P.” “The range was filthy,” alleges the complaint. “It was clear that millions of rounds of ammunition had been discharged in the room over the years and little or no time had been spent on range maintenance.”

Richards and the other trainer felt ill after visiting the range. They found an outside location for training, but Gordon, according to Richards, insisted on using the underground site. Richards said his partner refused to use the indoor range, so Richards conducted sessions there while the other trainer held lessons outside.

Although Richards cleaned the range between the “live fire” sessions, even his students who were there for only one class were later found to have dangerously high levels of lead, the suit said.

After returning to the United States, Richards went to Brian H., a CIA physician, who said Richards had post-traumatic stress disorder and not lead poisoning. But at the insistence of Richards’s supervisor at CIA headquarters, and after a delay of several weeks, Brian sent Richards to Margit L. Bleecker, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology in Baltimore. That was more than two months after his exposure.

That delay, along with Brian’s misdiagnosis, caused Richards to miss the period when chelation therapy treatment for lead poisoning would have been useful, according to his lawsuit.

As a final insult, Richards said, he was medically retired on May 4, 2006, at grade GS-12, instead of GS-13, as he was promised in a letter from K.D. “Dusty” Foggo, then the agency’s executive director. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Washington Post. Richards said he now gets $4,244 in monthly Federal Employment Compensation Act payments, “far below” what he was paid previously.

“We appreciate your dedication and service, and we understand that the tragic circumstances of your illness are a direct result of that dedication,” Foggo wrote on Richards’s last day.

Lead poisoning can cause a variety of problems, including personality changes, loss of concentration and memory, changes in sleep patterns, headaches, and even seizures and comas. The impact of lead on Richards was detailed in an April 23, 2010, report from Bleecker, also obtained by The Post. It lists Richards’s “health related problems related to lead poisoning in Iraq,” including clinical depression, memory impairment, peripheral neuropathy, migraines and erectile dysfunction.

That’s the clinical description of what ails Richards. When he and his wife, April, speak about the impact of lead on their lives and on their 10-year-old son, it gets much more personal.

“If I sent Frank to the grocery store and I asked him to get bread, milk and cheese, Frank would probably come back with ice cream, chips and sodas,” April said, describing his inability to carry out even routine duties. “Simple tasks, walking the dog, taking out the trash, it’s just not something I can expect of him.”

Richards appeared tense as the strain grew more evident in his wife’s voice.

Before suffering lead poisoning, he said, “I felt like I was making a huge difference to the country, and now I feel like I can’t even make a huge difference to my son.” But “for anyone with a brain injury,” he added, being around a child is the best rehabilitation therapy they can have.

His dealings with other family members can be hard for him. Now, Richards said, it can be weird to be around his brothers and sisters, with whom he often enjoyed lively discussions. “Fast responses are just nonexistent for me, so I’m left way behind in family conversations. . . . I can’t even sit with them and talk anymore. It just doesn’t work.”

But, “most importantly,” he added, “I’m not the guy my wife married. . . . She signed up for this guy I was, and now, I wouldn’t want me. Who would want me?

“But she stays.”

/end article: reposted from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/15/AR2010061505338_2.html

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