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Richard M. Helms

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Richard M. Helms

Richard Helms
United States Ambassador to Iran
In office
April 5, 1973 – January 1, 1977
President Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Preceded by Joseph S. Farland
Succeeded by William H. Sullivan
8th Director of Central Intelligence
In office
June 30, 1966 – February 2, 1973
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard Nixon
Deputy Rufus Taylor
Robert E. Cushman, Jr.
Vernon A. Walters
Preceded by William Raborn
Succeeded by James R. Schlesinger
Deputy Director of Central Intelligence
In office
April 28, 1965 – June 30, 1966
President Lyndon Johnson
Director William Raborn
Preceded by Marshall Carter
Succeeded by Rufus Taylor
Personal details
Born Richard McGarrah Helms
(1913-03-30)March 30, 1913
St. Davids, Pennsylvania
Died October 22, 2002(2002-10-22) (aged 89)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Nationality United States
Alma mater Williams College

Richard McGarrah Helms (March 30, 1913 – October 22, 2002) served as the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), June 1966 to February 1973. He began intelligence work with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Following the 1947 creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) he rose in its ranks during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations. Helms served as DCI under Johnson, then Nixon.

Helms favored information gathering (whether interpersonal or technical, whether covert or overt) and its analysis, and counterintelligence, but remained a skeptic about clandestine operations. He saw it as his duty to keep official secrets. Helms understood his career role as being a person who might express strong opinions over a decision under review, yet in the end working as a team player within the agency, where the President had the final say. While DCI, Helms followed his predecessor McCone in improving the management of the agency. In 1977, as an indirect result of earlier clandestine operations in Chile, he became the only DCI convicted of misleading Congress. His last post in government service was Ambassador to Iran.[1]

Life up to World War II

Helms was born in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, in 1913, to Marion (McGarrah) and Herman Helms, an executive for Alcoa. His maternal grandfather, Gates McGarrah, was a noted international banker. He grew up in South Orange, New Jersey and began high school there at Carteret Academy. Foreign language fluency was considered very important; accordingly his family, father, mother, elder sister, and two younger brothers, all moved to Lausanne on Lac Léman. His next year of high school was spent nearby at the prestigious Swiss Institut Le Rosey where he studied the French language. After a brief return to America, the family settled in Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany, where at the Realgymnasium he became conversant in German.[2][3][4]

During his years at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he served as class president and as editor of The Williams Record which encouraged his interest in journalism. Following graduation, in 1935 he got a job at the United Press (UP) office in London, working in the News of the World building. The economic depression in London, however, caused Helms to look for work at the UP office in Berlin. There he translated and rewrote stories from the German language press. He also met well-known journalists, e.g., William L. Shirer and H. R. Knickerbocker, as well as Bennett Cerf, a publisher at Random House. Substituting for an ill UP colleague, Helms attended the annual NSDAP Parteitag in September 1936. There Helms heard Adolf Hitler speak to a massed party formation, and later with a small group of news reporters met and briefly questioned him in the Nuremberg Castle. Earlier he had covered the Berlin Olympic Games, conversing afterward to gold medalist Jesse Owens. In mid-1937 Helms left the Berlin UP office and returned home to America.[5]

Helms had determined on a career in print media, and wanted eventually to become a publisher and run a metropolitan daily newspaper. Accordingly he sought hands-on business experience in this line. He had heard it that "in the flinty eyes of owners, reporters were easy to find and a dime a dozen". He got a job on the retail advertising staff of the Indianapolis Times where he soon rose to be its national advertising manager.[6]

In 1939, Helms had married Julia Bretzman Shields, a "divorcée with two children" so that immediately his home became a "whole family". With his wife he entered a new life in local society. Three years later his son Dennis was born. Yet by then America had already entered into World War II.[7]

War-time intelligence

Following the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Helms volunteered for the United States Navy, receiving officer training at Harvard. First stationed in New York City, he plotted the whereabouts of German submarines.[8] Then in 1943 he received orders transferring him to the Secret Intelligence Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, D.C. He was chosen for the OSS because of: his ability to speak German and French, his journalism experience, and his time in pre-war Europe. His new training included some hand-to-hand combat. Also, he was told to get hired at a civilian defense factory without showing any identification papers; this gave him "a slight, very slight, taste of the anxiety and stress that are endemic to espionage."[9]

After a period spent writing up fruitless "secret plans", Helms was pulled away and put into a small group under Ferdinand Meyers "responsible for coordinating intelligence collection on Germany". At the OSS office in Bern, Switzerland, Allen Dulles had made working contact with Fritz Kolbe, "a disaffected member of the Nazi foreign office in Berlin". Kolbe had approached the British first but, suspicious, the British considered him a plant by Nazi counterintelligence. Under American guidance rendered by Dulles, however, Kolbe became a valuable source of quality information, e.g., regarding German secret weapons, coding, and war strategy. "Kolbe's information is now recognized as the very best produced by any Allied agent in World War II." The Meyers group facilitated Kolbe's espionage file; Helms praised him as "an authentic hero of the German resistance to Hitler." Fritz Kolbe transmitted to the OSS some 1600 documents and cables, traveling between Berlin and Bern, "slipping through a half dozen Gestapo checkpoints while carrying his death-by-torture warrant in a shabby briefcase", Helms wrote.[10][11][12] Kolbe "who in his active days had never sought compensation" after the war retired in Switzerland on a modest CIA pension.[13][14]

In January 1945, Helms was sent to the OSS German Branch in London. Housing was in short supply and Helms shared a flat with his OSS superior William J. Casey (who would later head the CIA under Reagan).[15] In passing, Helms notes the similarity between Bill Casey and General William J. Donovan, the first and only leader of the OSS (June 1942-September 1945).[16] Both were charismatic, Irish Catholic lawyers, "furiouslly hardworking, impatient, demanding of everyone around them", public servants, and conservative Republicans. Both favored covert action; about "Wild Bill" Donovan an aura developed.[17][18] At the time of Helms' arrival in London, talk about the recent German attack on the Ardennes front conceded that it had surprised everyone including the OSS. Bill Casey considered it an "Allied intelligence failure". Already the OSS office had been discussing whether to attempt parachuting new agents into Germany (in addition to in place agents, like Fritz Kolbe).[19]

Casey assigned Helms to supervise the London office in preparing and dispatching OSS-trained German volunteers who were to be dropped, with false papers and portable radios (then awkward and heavy), into Nazi Germany to collect military information. They were provided with lethal pills in case of capture. Helms describes riding with one such agent at night, seeing him off at an unlit airfield.[20] Few survived.[21] His colleagues report that Helms reached conclusions derived from his wartime experience, and formed two general convictions: secret intelligence matters; but covert action "dering-do" seldom does.[22]

Truman presidency

In October 1945, Allen Dulles turned the OSS 'Berlin office' over to Helms. Then in early 1946 Helms, at the age of 33, was put in charge of information gathering and counter-intelligence operations in Central Europe, i.e., Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. This new job was located in Washington, with the SSU/OSO unit of the then CIG.[23][24]

In March 1951, Helms was promoted, so that he was lifted from "the Central European Division to chief of the Foreign Intelligence (FI) Staff with responsibility for intelligence collection operations worldwide". In this role he was able to increase his understanding of the various CIA stations outside Europe and get to know CIA people serving there. The new position, also in the old OSO (but since 1947 within CIA), was soon merged into the newly formed, clandestine-oriented Directorate for Plans managed by Frank Wisner as DDP.[25]


In the aftermath of the war, in September/October 1945, President Truman terminated the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). "[T]hose of us in Germany were taken completely by surprise," Helms later wrote.[26] Over the next few years, the entire intelligence activity of the United States government (USG) would be reformed. During this period many competing government departments (War, and State), agencies (FBI), and political alignments struggled to have their notions established in the regulations of the new intelligence institutions and to see their partisans in positions of influence.[27] After the demise of the OSS, "Truman immediately commenced building a new intelligence system".[28] In early 1946 the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) was created, reporting directly to the National Intelligence Authority (NIA).[29]

While this complicated process of institutional infighting unfolded, the group within the old OSS where Helms had labored was rescued from extinction.[30] Instead it continued as the newly formed Strategic Services Unit (SSU), located initially in the War Department.[31] Later this working group (with Helms in it), in the meantime renamed the Office of Special Operations (OSO), was then taken from the War Department and incorporated into the Central Intelligence Group (CIG). The CIG soon became transformed into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[32][33] Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) at CIG, General Hoyt Vandenberg had played an effective role in reassembling the pieces of the old OSS.[34][35]

Thus the OSS transitioned, via the War Department and the CIG, into the CIA. The SSU/OSO component which handled intelligence gathering and covert operations, of course, formed only a part of the CIA's sphere of activity. Other agency duties included, e.g., analysis of information gathered and its dissemination. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created by Truman's National Security Act of 1947, an act which also created the Department of Defense (DOD) with its Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), as well as the National Security Council (NSC) to which the CIA's Director (DCI) reported.[36][37]

Helms and his colleagues labored during these sweeping organizational changes, which directly affected the institutional structures and chain of command under which they reported. In these early years, Helms had heard the different perspectives voiced, and observed the high-level maneuvering, concerning the political decisions about responsibility limits and administrative contours of the emerging intelligence agency. Yet at this point in his career, Helms "hadn't played much role in the battle" over various strategies and choices; he had then considered himself "below the salt".[38][39]

Enhanced CIA powers

Although the new CIA was set up to coordinate the USG's different intelligence divisions (i.e., military, diplomatic, domestic), it was often left dependent and without sufficient discretionary authority. It started out hemmed in, e.g., the State Department's ambassador to a foreign country could veto the CIA's ability to use information collected there.[40] Yet soon the CIA's independence was greatly increased. The 1948 National Security Council Directive (NSCD) 10/2 empowered the Agency to perform covert operations, and also provided that the USG be able to "plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them".[41][42][43]

Later, the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949 provided a permanent and apparently legal method whereby the CIA could regularly exercise its newly enhanced covert operations power in the field. It was hurriedly passed by Congress, a supporter remarking at the time, "The less we say about this bill, the better off all of us will be".[44]

"Congress gave the agency the widest conceivable powers. ... [T]he CIA was barred only from behaving like a secret police force inside the United States. The act gave the agency the ability to do almost anything it wanted, as long as Congress provide the money in an annual package. Approval of the secret budget by a small armed services subcommittee was understood by those in the know to constitute a legal authorization for all secret operations. ... If it's secret, it's legal, Richard M. Nixon [later] said. [¶] The CIA now had free rein: unvouchered funds--untraceable money buried under falsified items in the Pentagon's budget--meant unlimited license."[45][46]

Nonetheless, Helms later wrote of his experience and understanding: it was the elected President of the United States who ultimately made the decision about CIA operations, which specific activity the agency undertook. The role of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was to inform the President about the actual situation as it was understood, however imperfectly, and to advise the President about the known capabilities of the CIA as an instrument of USG policy. Helms states: "The fact that significant areas of the Agency's activity must remain cloaked from public view magnifies the DCI's responsibility for keeping the President and appropriate congressional committees fully informed... ."[47] In practice the decision whether or not to embark on a course of action was then for the President to make, according to Helms. Thereafter, it became the DCI's duty to diligently carry out the President's instructions.[48][49][50][51][52] Yet serious problems may arise, e.g., if a President orders that the DCI direct the CIA to perform acts outside the scope of its jurisdiction, i.e., forbidden to it.[53][54][55]

Cold War in Europe

Helms had been sent to Europe in early 1945. From Washington, he shipped to war-time London, where he roomed with William Casey. Helms then landed in newly liberated Paris, and by May when Germany surrendered he was in Rheims at Eisenhower's headquarters with Gen. Bedell Smith and Allen Dulles of OSS, both future DCIs. After crossing into defeated Germany, Helms shared a house in Wiesbaden with his new boss Allen Dulles, and Frank Wisner.[56] Dulles and Helms then traveled to Berlin, in which the Soviet Red Army was positioned having recently taken the city. In Berlin he worked in espionage as deputy chief of the OSS Secret Intelligence Branch under Dulles.[57] The Soviets often aggressively overreached in the ruined city; the focus of American intelligence shifted to target the Red Army.[58] In the Europe of December 1945, after Truman's order terminating the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Helms discussed at length with Wisner the future of American intelligence. Although they differed markedly (Helms favored espionage, Wisner covert action) they became long-standing "uneasy allies". They continued their discussion during an 18-hour flight back to Washington.[59][60] Helms returned to continue his intelligence work, now for the War Department's SSU.[57]

The post-war occupation of central and eastern Europe by the Soviet Red Army had led to the formation of a half-dozen satellite states each run by a national Communist Party under general direction from Moscow. During the early years of the Cold War the optimal strategy of the NATO countries would have been to seek a "rollback" of such Soviet control. In fact, starting September 1948 the OPC, directed by Helms' 'ally' Frank Wisner, made a major effort "to roll the Soviets back to Russia's old boundaries and free Europe from communist control".[61] Later Eisenhower's 1952 campaign for President called for "the free world to liberate the Soviet satellites".[62][63] Allen Dulles, Eisenhower's pick to head the CIA, advocated efforts "to restore freedom of choice" to captive nations.[64]

During the war, the traumatized peoples of central Europe got direct experience of horrific violence wrought by the military and political struggle. Afterwards, in economies destroyed by war, their existence remained precarious; formidable, post-war reconstruction projects were required. They also faced a Soviet occupying army both hardened and victorious. Moreover, the studied and thorough, ruthless and on occasion deadly, methods employed by the communist regimes (under Soviet guidance) to control the exhausted, subject populations at first proved very effective. "CIA officers came to realize that the communist intelligence and security services were far bigger and markedly more sophisticated than the agency."[65][66] Both DCI Dulles and Helms (later DCI) write about how the Soviets had studied the Czarist secret police.[67][68][69] The CIA's early attempts (Helms participated here) to recruit agents-in-place in the Soviet-controlled satellite countries were generally fruitless. Difficult to relinquish for some in CIA, roll-back then proved an unworkable illusion.[70][71][72][73]

America's Marshall Plan, begun in 1948, consisting of massive economic investments in western Europe, was a major response to the Soviet occupation in central Europe. This bi-partisan plan at first avoided anti-Soviet rhetoric, and instead sought to energize positive social values, to spur commercial growth and renewal in Europe. Helms called the Marshall Plan "a uniquely generous offer to fund the reconstruction of the European economies of both victors and vanquished".[74] Under Truman, the successful Marshall Plan had accompanied a containment policy (often credited to George Kennan) as a Cold War strategy, meant to temporarily replace roll-back.[75] Some Marshall money went to the CIA.[76]

Helms had direct experience in managing CIG/CIA activity in central Europe, especially from 1945 to 1951. Consequently, Helms acquired close familiarity not only with clandestine intelligence in the field, but with how such activities were affected by issues of foreign policy. His mentor Frank Wisner's OPC led aggressive covert operations in Europe associated with rollback strategy,[77][78][79] and also with containment policy.[80] In the early 1950s, the CIA managed to set up Radio Free Europe and other media to broadcast or disseminate information to 'captured Europe'.[81][82]

Helms' assignments

Immediately following the war, Helms worked in Germany under Allen Dulles at the Berlin station of the OSS. Helms describes his duties as management of OSS efforts "tracking down die-hard Nazis... , searching for hundreds of war criminals... , seeking evidence of stolen treasures and looted artworks... , monitor[ing] Russian military depredation... , [and finding] German scientists... ."[83]

Back in Washington in 1946, Helms managed "228 overseas personnel" as head of the SSU's information gathering and counterintelligence group for central Europe. He quickly purged officers corrupted by the Berlin black market. He also directed the search for German scientists to send west.[84] Helms' duties involved significant liaison activity with foreign intelligence services, especially the British, regarding covert information gathering in Europe. Later the CIA would regularly participate in USG agreements to share such data.[24][85]

The "iron curtain" soon made the issue of Soviet political-military strength in Europe the dominant intelligence question (as American armed forces in Europe were being withdrawn). Rumors circulated that agile Soviet intelligence services already had infiltrated their western counterparts, including the OSS and the SSU.[86][87] "By war's end, the NKVD and GRU had established a baker's dozen agents and a fistful of enthusiastic contacts in the OSS Washington offices."[88] The DCI General Hoyt Vandenberg asked Helms to find out 'everything' about Soviet activity and occupying forces.[85] In chaotic, uprooted Europe, many refugees negotiated their way without papers, while Soviet counterintelligence agents were also circulating undercover. Helms' dangerous task would be difficult; the USG was largely without eyes and ears in the Soviet camp. In his memoirs Helms wrote that in 1946 at the SSU he had "felt like an apprentice juggler trying to keep an inflated beach ball, an open milk bottle, and a loaded submachine gun in the air."[29][89]

On May 22, 1945, a German Major General named Reinhard Gehlen surrendered to the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) of the U.S. Army. Gehlen had for the previous three years been in charge of the German military's espionage on the eastern front.[90][91][92] Consequently he had acquired a large number of agents and files on the character and deployment of the Soviet Red Army. He offered to negotiate for their use by the Americans. OSS officer Frank Wisner interviewed him.[93][94][95] Investigation and evaluation of the character of Gen. Gehlen, and of the provenience of the information he possessed, took over a year. Whether he was part of a sting operation by Soviet counterintelligence was a question to be addressed. In 1947 the Pentagon requested the CIA to take over the case. Although DCI Vandenberg made the overall decisions on Gehlen and his organization, wrote Helms later, "the ongoing responsibility was very much mine".[96]

Gehlen reestablished the prior network of contacts, and developed new agents. Helms states that significant amounts of substantive, quality information on the Soviets was brought in. Yet troubles followed. The SSU/CIA itself, according to Helms, faced a shortage of people suitable for field work, its candidates being of a great variety of background and inclinations, e.g., some anti-fascists being suspected pro-communists.[98] In the Gehlen group many were suspect because of service in the Nazi regime. Too, Soviet agents eventually managed to penetrate the Gehlen organization.[99][100] Due to the unsettled nature of late-1940s Europe, sorting out who was who involved careful scrutiny.[101] Regarding Gehlen's sources and information, the quality of the work product began to deteriorate. Helms learned how some opportunists would fabricate the information provided to stay on the payroll. There were reforms and prunings. A constant risk was inclusion of Soviet-planted disinformation.[102][103] Helms notes that in 1956 the Gehlen organization became the basis of the intelligence service BND of the new Federal Republic of Germany.[104]

When the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb in September 1949, the USG augmented funding for espionage information, which thus increased its effective demand and hence the price paid for its supply. Soon "a legion of political exiles, former intelligence officers, ex-agents, and sundry entrepreneurs" became brokers of "fabricated-to-order information". Some émigré organizations, with former high-level politicians, began to make an industry of fabrication, which peaked in 1952.[105] The same phoney data might be packaged and sold to different intelligence services. In an effort to detect such fraud, the CIA found that study of the process used to create the offered information was more effective than attempting to evaluate the actual information itself. Experienced agents, however, were in short supply. At last the CIA, with Helms playing a major role, managed to construct anti-fraud procedures and educate other USG intelligence services, which checked the problem. General Walter Bedell Smith, the new DCI (1950–1953), provided Helms with the institutional access to other USG agencies and thus with the opportunity to finish his assignment against the 'fabrication factories'.[106][107]

Gen. Bedell Smith brought to the CIA substantial bureaucratic clout and force of will. Accordingly, Smith was able for the first time to achieve some degree of coordination under the CIA direction of other intelligence services, e.g., State and Defense.[108] Among Smith's other fundamental institutional changes was creation of the Office of National Estimates (ONE), associated with the NIE.[109] The CIA now employed fifteen thousand people and managed more than fifty overseas stations. Smith was able to shape the CIA "into an organization that looked much the way it would for the next fifty years".[110] Helms wrote about Smith's background before coming to the CIA, that the General "had earned his stars by furiously hard work, an iron self-discipline, and relentless attention to business". Under Bedell Smith the CIA gained focus and direction.[111]

Elephant and gorilla

Another of Bedell Smith's institutional actions concerned the merger of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) and the Office of Special Operations (OSO), a CIA successor to the SSU. OPC was a covert outfit which undertook paramilitary operations and other covert activities in foreign lands; although within CIA it had been somewhat autonomous. The CIA's OSO was also covert; it ran spies abroad, and did other information gathering.[112][113][114] Gen. Smith's reputation allowed him to exert complete control of all CIA covert operations, so that he took over direct supervision of OPC, which had been run semi-independently by Helms' mentor Frank Wisner. Until then, OPC had followed State more than CIA.[115][116] As for Helms, he was a member of the espionage-oriented OSO, an institutional rival of OPC; Helms then naturally favored OSO interests over those of OPC.[117]

A veteran CIA counterespionage officer later published in the CIA house journal a "remarkable" yet "controversial" article, in which analysts of information were termed elephants and operatives in the field were called gorillas, in order to dramatize their different occupational proclivities toward similar clandestine tradecraft. In short, the analyst's habit is to find principles and causes in evidence, the field officer searches for motive and objective. This CIA article also draws attention to the symbiosis between 'analysts of information' and 'collectors of information', the latter including clandestine collection through espionage. These zoological metaphors work to contrast the spy-runners at OSO and the field operatives of OPC. Yet these two groups were joined in the far-reaching, intra-CIA merger under Bedell Smith.[118][119] The merged enties were together directed first in 1951 by DDP Dulles, then starting in 1952 by DDP Wisner the former OPC head, when the two became more integrated.[117][120] Helms led his OSO group into this initially uneasy merger, serving under the newly created office of Deputy Director for Plans (DDP),[121] which was also known as the Clandestine Service.[122][123]

Helms recalled that when first located in offices adjacent to each other an unpleasant, intramural "antagonism" had developed between OPC and OSO.[124] Started in 1948, Wisner had recruited OPC officers often from "independently wealthy" graduates of "Ivy League" universities, among them "lawyers and bankers". Wisner had a budget allowing for handsome compensation, and OPC had a reputation for adventure and "derring-do". Au contraire, OSO members considered themselves as sober practitioners of a difficult and demanding profession, whose longer service (often begun in war-time) did not enjoy comparable salaries. Hence "antagonism" resulted.[125][126][127] "The worse feature [of the rivalry] was that we were often competing for the same [in place] agents," noted Helms.[128] Yet Helms, a career CIA officer in his training and experience, the product and personification of this new American institution of intelligence, managed to combine aspects of both rivals within his professional compass. He served as DDP Wisner's chief of operations, second in command.[129] "It took some doing... but the merger was achieved," wrote Helms.[130] The new Directorate for Plans would soon control 80% of the CIA budget, and contain 60% of its people.[131]

Formation of Helms

As a result of his earlier experience in clandestine service (noted above), Helms usually disfavored for pragmatic reasons the CIA's involvement in covert operations. Not only did he think such efforts seldom fruitful in the long run, covert action usually was not performed as planned, jeopardized in-place agents, and too often got into the newspaper. "But the 1950s were the CIA's great age of clandestine operations" and thus Helms became known as something of an "anomaly at Dulles' CIA".[132] Helms nonetheless established an enduring work relationship in the 1950s with Frank Wisner, generally a strong advocate for CIA covert action.[133]

"Helms's attitude toward political violence was one of lucid caution. He did not so much argue that violence was wrong--he was, after all, something in the nature of a soldier--as that it was often crude, disruptive, and inefficient. His arguments against assassination were of the same sort.[134][135]

Professionally, he was described as a "good soldier", one who may protest a policy under discussion, but once made would support a decision loyally. William Colby DCI 1973-1976, quotes Helms as saying, "The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we too are honorable men devoted to her service."[136] Yet critics of the Agency pointedly challenge such self-serving platitudes.[137][138] Throughout his career Helms generally favored secret intelligence gathering, trending against suggested covert operations.[139]

Helms became proficient in the more subtle, quiet work of espionage, e.g., the clandestine cultivation of in-place foreign agents. Such discreet efforts seldom left telltale traces to the outside observer, yet the accumulation of information gathered could greatly illuminate an obscure political landscape. On occasion such quiet undercover work yielded key, crucial insights, of high value to the political decision maker, ultimately the President. On the other hand, covert operations were inherently more risky. The unknowns and uncertainties required making a gamble on actions that might fail to achieve intended results and instead backfire, acquiring unwanted publicity and alienating nearby friends and neutrals. Accordingly, Helms preferred the Agency to focus on information gathering, covert and overt, while protecting itself against double agents and other enemy intelligence schemes through counterintelligence.[140][141][142]

Raised in a business oriented family, Helms had developed his managerial sense. He drew on his years as a journalist, and other newspaper work as director of advertising, when evaluating the worth of incoming information.[143][144] Skeptical of proposals for covert operations, he scrutinized its likelihood of success and figured the odds of avoiding media interest. Later when DCI, his reporter's instincts assisted Helms in finding the best approach to convey the frequent briefings for the President.[145]

Manifestly, Helms took pride in his intelligence work. Later, more than a decade after the end of his CIA career and years as DCI, he described his view of reasons for the Agency's existence. Helms started with the pedestrian proposition that because we humans are not angels, societies require those services provided by the military and police. He continued, noting his commonplace, personal observation that:

"[M]any nations of the world are governed by non-angels. While this state of affairs continues--and it appears unlikely it will change much in our lifetimes--we must have a CIA. ... [I]ntelligence is necessary to the public good and, by being necessary, becomes honorable."[146]

Eisenhower presidency

At the start of the Eisenhower Administration, the intelligence veteran Allen Dulles was appointed to the Agency's top position, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).[147] Helms had known Dulles through work starting in World War II. Dulles would serve as DCI until 1961. Also, in January 1953, Helms was promoted as Chief of Operations (COPS). He replaced Lyman Kirkpatrick who was sidelined due to illness. In this post Helms' duties included "responsibility for both intelligence collection and covert action operations" at the Agency. Accordingly Helms came to serve directly under his admired colleague Frank Wisner, who was the Deputy Director for Plans (DDP).[148]

McCarthy era

When between former allies the Cold War became earnest and the hot Korean War raged, in America suspicions were aroused about Communist infiltration of domestic institutions. Later with hindsight it became a national consensus that some politicians, notably the eponymous Senator Joseph McCarthy, seized on this issue as an opportunity to draw public attention and, inappropriately, to defame opponents with false accusations of treason. Then the CIA had "always insisted on its liberal credentials". In origin, the CIA had evolved from the earlier Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which in the early 1940s was compromised by Soviet intelligence. In the early years of the Eisenhower administration, the CIA and its agents were put on the list of those being targeted by McCarthy.[149][150]

The CIA had earlier undergone an internal security check conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which resulted in significant purges.[151] Yet in fact the Agency was vulnerable, e.g., it had been already duped by Soviet intelligence in post-war Europe. McCarthy privately told Allen Dulles the DCI "that CIA was neither sacrosanct nor immune from investigation".[152][153]

Dulles appointed Helms to head the CIA team working to counter McCarthy's apparent attempts at clandestine penetration of the Agency. Helms conducted internal searches for undercover approaches to CIA personnel. Targeted CIA were saved from being isolated and compromised by McCarthy's investigators; instead they received aid and comfort from colleagues. Helms' job was to plug any leaks in security. Dulles announced to the CIA that none of its officers would need to testify before McCarthy's notorious committee, nor was any CIA to speak privately to McCarthy.[154]

Dulles "also ran a down-and-dirty covert operation on McCarthy... to penetrate the Senator's office with a spy or a bug". Dulles told the CIA's James Angleton of counterintelligence "to feed disinformation" to McCarthy. Phony reports were planted. The CIA managed to escape McCarthy, and to avoid the establishment of rigorous Congressional oversight.[155]

Mind control, drugs

The notorious Moscow show trials of 1937 indicated to some that the Soviets possessed nefarious techniques used to manipulate human behavior from a distance over time. Also, the recent experience of American POWs taken prisoner by Communist forces during the Korean War resulted in a phenomena termed brain washing. Such episodes caused the CIA beginning in 1953 to undertake various development projects which were initially called MKUltra.[156] Helms, now working under DDP Frank Wisner, proposed to DCI Dulles experiments to develop "a program for the covert use of biological and chemical materials".[157][158] For 23 years the CIA investigated "ways of controlling human behavior". Project Bluebird involved research into drugs, e.g., a truth serum. Project Artichoke likewise involved the effect of drugs. Toxins were also the object of CIA testing. An experiment where the psychoactive substance LSD was given to colleagues without their prior knowledge led to the suicide of Frank Olson, an Army civilian.[159] Yet Helms later defended such "unwitting" experimentation as the only context that was field-realistic, but he urged "maximum safeguards".[160] Once these activities were started, operations were not properly supervised and "excesses" resulted. "Those responsible for the drug testing programs were exempt from routine Agency procedures of accountability and approval."[161][162]

The MKUltra projects "arose from CIA's growing frustration at its inability to penetrate the iron curtain with agents, and its fear of enemies within."[163] Author Tim Weiner traces the CIA's involvement in such techniques to its difficulty in the detection of Soviet double agents in post-war Europe, a problem that Helms had encountered by 1948. In the Panama Canal Zone the CIA then "set up clandestine prisons to wring confessions out of suspected double agents." These prisons were comparable to those at Guantánamo a half century later following the September 11, 2001 attacks on America. According to retired CIA officer Tom Polgar, in both, "It was anything goes." In the earlier Panama prison cells, the CIA had conducted "secret experiments in harsh interrogation, using techniques on the edge of torture, drug-induced mind control, and brainwashing." Weiner concluded that here personal responsibility lay in Dulles, Wisner, and Helms. "The drive to penetrate the iron curtain had led the CIA to adopt the tactics of its enemies."[164][165][166] During the Eisenhower years, "there was still a national consensus that the CIA was justified in taking almost any action in that 'back alley' struggle against communism... ."[167]

In 1972, Helms as DCI ordered the destruction of most records from the sprawling Project MKUltra.[168][169][170][171] Included were over 150 CIA-funded research projects, many illegal, designed to explore possibilities of mind control.[172] Project MKUltra became public knowledge two years later, after a report in The New York Times disclosed other CIA domestic operations. The celebrated front-page story of December 1974, "Huge CIA Operation reported in U.S. against Anti-War Forces, other Dissidents in Nixon Years", was written by Seymour Hersh. Public and Congressional reaction to this newspaper article and similar publications eventually led to disclosure of the 1950s-era MKUltra and other formerly clandestine CIA projects.[173][174]

Iran: Mossadegh

In August 1953, the secular Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq (1882-1967), was forced out of power. The coup d'etat was considered for the most part a joint venture by American and British intelligence services. Largely engineered by the CIA's regional operation chief, Kermit 'Kim' Roosevelt (grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt), the coup seemed to involve trashing political party headquarters, burning newspaper offices, hired thugs and street demonstrators, bribed politicians and army officers, and one difficult-to-persuade Shah. The previously nationalized (with "just compensation" to be negotiated) Anglo Iranian Oil Company (an oil monopoly) was returned to its former British owners and other western oil companies. The Shah was returned to his throne, and the struggles of the fledgling representative democracy under the historic Constitution were replaced by his authoritarian rule. To the CIA the operation's code-name was Ajax, to the British it was Boot. Fear of communist influence was mentioned as a rationale.[175][176][177][178][179][180][181][182][183][184]

This action was viewed at the time by many in the west as an efficient and deft stroke of good fortune.[185][186] Yet soon there were American critics of the CIA's interventionism. Robert Lovett, a former Secretary of Defense (1951–1953) under Truman, and long an influential voice in USG affairs, sat on the President's Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities. A 1956 report to President Eisenhower, written by Lovett and David Bruce, an American diplomat, criticized covert operations by the CIA under DCI Allen Dulles and called for the establishment of outside supervision.[187][188]

The report "sharply denounc[ed] 'King Making' by the CIA. It warned that all those bright young men being recruited by the CIA out of Yale were becoming freewheeling, well-financed buccaneers. Lovett and Bruce cautioned Eisenhower that the agency was out of control, that it needed formal oversight... ."[189]

Helms, in his memoirs, offers a subtler picture of the motivation and reasoning of 'Kim' Roosevelt, i.e., words of explanation and in his defense. The situation in Iran, Roosevelt argued, was suitable for this particular intervention because its result proved acceptable to the Iranian people and the army. Roosevelt reasoned that if such covert action had produced an unpopular government, then the resulting social tension, malfunctions, instability, unrest, and revolt, would have nullified any positive objectives and hence indicate that the CIA had misjudged the political situation, that its actions had been mistaken. Roosevelt explained his position thus to State's John Foster Dulles, who seemed unimpressed. Later, Helms observes, when Roosevelt was asked by the CIA to repeat the procedure in another country (Guatemala), Roosevelt out of principle declined for the above reasons. Helms refers to Roosevelt's 1979 book on the 1953 Iran coup.[190][191][192][193]

Yet, other observers find such explanations of the coup d'etat against Mosaddeq unacceptable. To many Iranians, in 1953 and now, their own inability then to themselves make the choices that determine their political-economic future is galling enough; more so, a foreigner's self-interested appraisal of their post-coup status appears irrelevant and may be objectively challenged, presumptively.[194][195]

"A crucial turning point in the history of modern Iran, the coup had a stifling impact on Iranian civic-nationalist and democratic aspirations and derailed the constitutional development of the country. By restoring foreign domination over Iran and its oil resources, the coup also dealt a blow to Iranian national sovereignty. It adversely affected the Iranian political culture... . The coup would be ingrained in the collective memory of most politically discerning Iranians as... a stark reminder that Iranians were not in control of their own fortunes. [¶] The coup irrevocably alterred the character of... the Shah, driving him in an increasingly autocratic direction and toward greater dependence on foreign support."[196][197]

Helms in his memoirs and elsewhere, from time to time, gave his respect to the wider scope and deeper layers encountered by the CIA, and pondered the more inscrutable nuances of the intelligence craft. He mentions "unintended consequences" in terms of CIA covert operations. Here he offers his thoughts about how to understand the results of Operation Ajax according to multiple values over the long run, and on the difficult probabilities of even a merely utilitarian evaluation, as well as on the institutional limitations of the CIA as an instrument of USG policy.[198]

"Some observers consider Operation AJAX to have been a mistake. Had Mossadegh remained in office, they reason, he might have created an Iranian political system which would have headed off the revolution against the monarchy without bringing about the oppressive rule of the mullahs. ... [¶] However one may evaluate these speculations, it must be remembered that the Agency's role in Operation AJAX, as directed by the President, was to depose Mossadegh. ... After any such successful operation, the continuing responsibility for establishing and nurturing a sound new government is not, and should never be, the ongoing task of an intelligence agency. This sort of nation building is the proper province of the State Department and other government and aid agencies. In some situations, the Department of Defense must lend a hand."[199]

After the coup, the Shah declared three years of martial law. At the Shah's request, the CIA and the American military assisted him in creating a new intelligence service, known as Savak. This new and feared Iranian secret police, "trained and equipped by the CIA, enforced his rule for more than twenty years."[200][201] "The short-term success of the coup, however, was heavily outweighed... . It was easy for the KGB [Soviet intelligence] to encourage the widespread Iranian belief that the CIA and SIS [British intelligence] continued to engage in sinister conspiracies behind the scenes."[202]

Long after his term as Ambassador to Iran (1973-1977), and after the rise to power of Khomeini in 1979, Helms "reflected on how so many things went wrong in the latter years of the Shah's rule". No political system developed to improve the "well-being of the largely illiterate and impoverished general population" and the gap "widened" between rich and poor. "Corruption was rife, foreign businesses flourished" but few foreigners knew anything of Iran, and profits "never trickled down to the working class". The [CIA-trained] Iranian security service Savak, wrote Helms, "inflicted its power ruthlessly" and with "brutality".[203]

Guatemala: Árbenz

Jacobo Árbenz, President of the Republic of Guatemala, in June, 1954, by a series of CIA maneuvers, was pressured out of office. Several causes convinced the President Eisenhower to order the operation: (a) Árbenz promoted social reforms which alienated the country's wealthy oligarchy; (b) though Árbenz was democratically elected, his opponent had been killed by unknown assassins; (c) Árbenz expropriated idle plantation lands of the United Fruit Company; (d) Árbenz legalized the Communist Party; (e) a Swedish ship Alfhem docked in Guatemala with 2000 tons of Czech firearms and artillery; (f) American diplomatic suasion had failed. CIA operation PBsuccess then commenced. An American-trained military officer of Guatemala formed a small rebel army. A pirate radio began broadcasting alarming reports about fictitious battles and poisoned wells. Fear and social tensions mounted. Árbenz considered his own military unreliable, but when he started arming civilian militias, the Guatemalan Army forced him to resign.[204][205]

American author and critic Tim Weiner notes that in 1954 "Guatemala was at the beginning of forty years of military rulers, death squads, and armed repression."[206] The 'coup' against Árbenz created a "powerful myth" of American meddling among Latin leftists, which tended to drive some into the communist camp.[207]

At the CIA, "Helms played only a tangential supporting role." Yet, according to author Thomas Powers, Helms thought the coup's price had been too high, that a covert operation of such size could not maintain its cover, and that as a result "the CIA was more notorious than ever". Even though "the American press had been deceived", a traveling CIA agent reported that among many in Latin America the Agency had become more resented than the prior USG instrument of foreign regime change: the Marines.[208]

East Berlin tunnel

In 1955, Helms engaged in a large clandesine operation to gather intelligence in central Europe. He supervised "the secret digging of a 500-yard tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin" dug in order to tap "the main Soviet telephone lines between Moscow and East Berlin." Such covert activity was undoubtedly considered illegal by local communist authorities. As a consequence of the wire tap, for more that eleven months the CIA was able to listen to the Soviet government's telephone conversations with its army commanders, e.g., concerning the occupied satellite regimes of the DDR and Poland. A successful operation, Helms was reportedly given much of the credit.[209] Eventually, however, the tunnel was detected.[210]

The tunnel started in Altglienecke, a remote section of West Berlin containing a "squattersville" of shacks built by refugees from the east. It ran "under the feet of Soviet troops and East Berlin guards." The target telephone cables were buried 18" below the Schoenefelder Chaussee, a highway to Karlshorst. The wire tap technology applied included significant CIA innovations. An engineering challenge, the tunnel required ventilation from the opening alone (managing heat coming off electronic gear), accuracy, and secrecy. Helms recalls that once as dawn broke "a dusting of snow was melting on the warm ground above the tunnel." The CIA's William Harvey quickly stopped operations and soon commandeered air conditioning units from the Army to cool down the tunnel air.[211] The volume of information collected was enormous; major facilities and resources were specially devoted to its analysis which took over three years. The translated recordings yielded valuable information on Soviet affairs: military preparedness, including order of battle; intelligence agents; and decisionmaking.[212][213][214][215]

The Berlin tunnel's code name was Operation Gold, it being similar to a previous Operation Silver in Vienna. In each British MI6 agents from the start creatively participated, including analysis of information. One of the items picked up indicated a Soviet spy located in the British intelligence station at Berlin. George Blake, then an unknown double agent, informed the Soviet KGB about the tunnel.[216][217][218] KGB then, it is speculated, could have doctored some telephone conversations to deceive the CIA eavesdroppers. Yet apparently the intercepted phone calls were not "contaminated" by KGB. In his memoirs Helms wrote, "When Blake was arrested in 1961 a retrospective examination of the tunnel material was initiated. ... Again, no indication of deception was found."[219][220][221][222]

On April 22, 1956, the secret tunnel was exposed to the world by the Soviets. Yet in the west, it was celebrated by several major press publications. The "Wonderful Tunnel" it was called, evidence of its inventor's skill and daring.[223][224] The Agency's covert accessing of a major telephone cable in the Soviet zone turned out to be "one of the biggest CIA intelligence gathering achievements" of the early Cold War era.[225] "The tunnel was regarded at the time as the CIA's greatest public triumph."[226][227][228]

Hungary and Suez

Following Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the CIA was not prescient enough to be able to forewarn about the subsequent allied military attack. Indeed Allen Dulles the DCI, despite several warnings, had previously called the idea of such an attack "absurd".[229] Allen Dulles, however, wrote that an "advance warning" had been quietly given by CIA.[230][231] The ensuing conflict and diplomacy constituted the Suez Crisis.

The surprise was bitter for some in the CIA. When the DDP Frank Wisner (Helms' immediate superior) appeared in London for a long-scheduled meeting with "Sir Patrick Dean, a senior British intelligence officer" and the Chair of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, Dean failed to show.

"The British spy had another engagement: he was in a villa outside Paris, putting the final touches on a coordinated military attack on Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel. They aimed to destroy Nasser's government and take the Suez canal back by force. ... The CIA knew none of this."[232][233]

DDP Wisner continued his European itinerary, but upon his return to Washington, Wisner fell ill and was hospitalized. From his mental collapse he never fully recovered. He took temporary leave which lost him his position. Despite later returns to work, he eventually resigned. As a result, Helms lost his immediate superior, a seasoned colleague, and a friend at work. Helms was Wisner's protégé. "Frank Wisner and I worked as a team," Helms wrote in his memoirs.[234][235][236][237][238] According to British author John Ranelagh:

"Eisenhower personally was furious at being misled by British and French political leaders... . It was not surprising, therefore, that America proved itself willing to push [them] aside... . The old empires, in their dissolute last throes, were not to be allowed to jeopardize democratic interests as they wrested desperately with their inevitable loss of empire, endangering the future for short-term advantage."[239][240]

The attack on Egypt apparently had an adverse impact on the situation in Hungary. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was said to be hesitating, reluctant to order an armed assault on Budapest, and seemingly "on the verge of making important concessions". Yet the counter-example of the western attack on Egypt persuaded him to invade Hungary.[242][243][244][245] All the while that Wisner was in Europe during this period, and later while Wisner was hospitalized, Helms served as the acting DDP.[246][247]

Novel events of 1956, e.g., Khrushchev's Secret Speech, and labor unrest in Poland, as well as the domestic political situation in Hungary, led to the tragic popular civil uprising in Budapest. Apparently the Soviet occupation forces were initially overwhelmed and a new government set up under Imre Nagy, but 200,000 Soviet-led reinforcements with 2500 tanks re-invaded, crushing the revolt and "killing tens of thousands".[248][249] The CIA could do little, and had no in-place agents.[250] In fact, perhaps too much was done: author Tim Weiner alleges that Radio Free Europe (RFE) urged Hungarians to risk all, to commit 'sabotage' and fight 'to the death', all but promising outside help.[251][252] Yet with one exception Helms denied such allegations about RFE excess in Hungary; in Poland RFE had urged caution.[253]

Afterwards Helms, as the CIA's acting DDP, reported on the flood of over 250,000 Hungarian refugees who were crossing into Austria, in his briefing of the Vice President before Nixon's official trip to Vienna.[254][255][256][257] Helms states that in late summer, before the Budapest uprising, CIA policy advisors at Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich had "spotted a changing mood in Eastern Europe, and gave warning of a likely confrontation". But the DCI Dulles was not convinced.[246]

The violence in Hungary and in Suez both arose during late October and carried over into November. These events were concurrent with the last days of the American presidential campaign, and voting in the presidential election of 1956, which Eisenhower won.[258]

The U-2 and Bissell

A major triumph of the CIA during the late 1950s, the high-altitude U-2 photo-reconnaissance planes overflew the Soviet Union from May 1956 to May 1960. Despite growing danger, Dulles and Bissell at CIA had fought for these flights to continue. Then the Russians shot one down, which increased Cold War tensions. The spy plane could not be "plausibly denied" by President Eisenhower.[259][260] Thereafter, photo-reconnaissance of the Soviet Union was done by CIA satellite. Richard Bissell of the CIA had played a leading role in developing both of these new technical systems.[261][262]

Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) 1953-1961, had appointed Bissell the new Deputy Director for Plans (DDP) in 1958, replacing the retired Frank Wisner. The position many thought should have gone to Richard Helms, who as Wisner's chief of operations had proved his ability to manage affairs. Bissell and Helms did always not get along. Bissell considered that the new spy technology had superseded espionage, which employed human agents.[263][264] Yet Bissell as DDP turned out to be an "anarchic administrator". Then his leading role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to his eventual resignation as DDP in February 1962.[265] Beforehand the new DCI McCone had offered him a 'transfer' as Deputy Director of the new Science and Technology directorate, but Bissell had declined.[266] At the farewell dinner for the outgoing DDP given by McCone, following the toasts, Helms gave a short speech of "grace and warmth" that first "surprised and then touched" Richard Bissell.[267]

Such turn of events at the agency then opened the way for Helms. At the time of Bissell's 1958 appointment as DDP, Helms had been "surprised and disappointed" at this "apparent vote of no confidence" by DCI Dulles.[268] As the long-standing and trusted associate of the former DDP Wisner, who was his mentor, Helms had directly participated in the responsibilities of the DDP and often acted in Wisner's stead. Helms for years had accompanied DDP Wisner at his daily conferences with Dulles. In consequence, Helms considered resigning or taking a "step down" to a "less stressful" post as a CIA station chief overseas. Yet he reasoned that both Dulles and Bissell were well known as "covert action enthusiasts" and, if Helms left, others would figure it signaled the future direction of the CIA. Helms himself was skeptical of paramilitary operations, and instead favored espionage, less risky and more manageable, yet whose benefits slowly accumulated. Accordingly Helms had decided back in 1958 to "soldier on" as Dulles advised him.[269][270]

Congo: Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) was a nationalist leader in the Congo during the chaotic creation of an independent state after Belgian colonial rule (1908-1960). Lumumba, who headed a leftist political party that won a plurality in the May 1960 election, served as the new Prime Minister. A major rival was Mobutu, a Congolese career soldier who managed to acquire the support of the USG. Fears arose in the west because the young Lumumba appeared susceptible to manipulation by the Soviets. Eventually, the USG decided to insert special CIA operatives into the Congo. "The chain of events revealed by the documents and testimony is strong enough to permit a reasonable inference that the plot to assassinate Lumumba was authorized by President Eisenhower," later reported the Senate's Church Committee, although "countervailing testimony" and "ambiguity" in the records "preclude the Committee from making [such] a finding".[271][272][273][274]

The Belgians had tried to continue their control of the disorganized country even after independence, but were frustrated. Yet the Belgians backed the secession of mineral-rich Katanga province led by Tshombe. Meanwhile, several Congolese army units rebelled resulting in further disorder and civilian deaths. The Belgians sent in their military. Internal discord in the new government caused an institutional rupture and increased confusion, with Lumumba heading one of the rival factions. The country seemed in chaos. Action taken at the United Nations led to the installation of its own international peacekeeping force.[275]

Lumumba, sensing collusion of UN leader Hammarskjöld with the Belgians, broke with the United Nations and appeared to invite Soviet intervention. A CIA agent had been sent to the Congo, somewhat prepared to kill Lumumba.[276][277][278] Instead Mobutu, who had himself led a coup and thus ruled in the western provinces, managed to capture Lumumba, who at one point had sought refuge with the United Nations. Ill-treated and moved about several times, he was flown to Katanga. There Lumumba was killed, but not by the CIA.[279][280][281][282][283][284][285][286]

Helms viewed the assassination as a project approved by President Eisenhower. Helms sensed that Eisenhower's experience in commanding the allied forces in Europe during World War II certainly qualified him to understand the implications of such a decision. Accordingly, Helms signed the corresponding operations cable to the field, which had been drafted by Dulles the DCI. Yet Helms remained a pragmatic sceptic about violent activity by the Agency. Thus Helms sympathized with a young CIA agent, who had refused to go to the Congo for the operation to kill Lumumba. When this agent had come personally to Helms to protest his predicament, Helms voiced an appreciation of his views.[287][288][289][290]

Thereafter, the military politician whom Dulles had favored, Mobutu, achieved complete power by 1965. He provided the CIA with a base "for American covert action throughout the continent during the cold war. He ruled for three decades as one of the world's most brutal and corrupt dictators, stealing billions of dollars... ."[277] Soviet propaganda would "portray Lumumba as a victim of American imperialism." Khrushchev announced "the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University to provide higher education in Moscow for students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America." The KGB worked to recruit Third World agents from its student body.[291]

Kennedy presidency

During the second year of the Kennedy administration, on February 17, 1962, Helms became Deputy Director for Plans (DDP) which office managed operations and espionage. Helms here served under Kennedy's new Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John McCone (1961–1965). Under McCone's predecessor Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell had been appointed DDP following Frank Wisner's retirement, but then Bissell himself had resigned following his involvement in the Bay of Pigs operation.

Bay of Pigs, Mongoose

Under the Eisenhower administration the CIA was given a prominent role in what became a covert plan to invade the island nation of Cuba with a landing force of exiled anti-Castro Cubans. It had the support of the CIA Director Allen Dulles and was directed by his DDP Richard Bissell. Although the Kennedys strongly and persistently favored regime change regarding the Cuban government under Fidel Castro, when the newly elected President was first briefed on the covert CIA-led invasion plan, he only reluctantly agreed to it. Unfortunately the project's presence already during 1960 had become an 'open secret' mentioned in the press. Just before the mid-April invasion, Castro detained in makeshift camps 100,000 suspects.[292][293]

Helms, who highly valued secrecy and who was generally against covert actions, early saw a disjointed operation and soon distanced himself from the plan. Helms remained extremely skeptical of its chances, an opinion widely shared among CIA not working on the project. Yet such internal CIA opposition was not made public. In the event, the 1961 CIA-assisted invasion at the Bay of Pigs turned into a costly military defeat and a bitter political failure. In addition to other casualties, the DCI Dulles was respectfully required by the Kennedy administration to soon leave his position at CIA, and the DDP Bissell later resigned.[294][295]

Yet, the Kennedy Administration continued the drive to remove the Castro regime, and the new DCI John McCone received orders for action by the CIA. Not only the CIA, but also State, Defense, Treasury, Commerce, and the FBI were included, among others, all led at the top by Robert Kennedy the Attorney General and brother of the President. Its USG code name: Operation Mongoose. In his very first meeting with Helms, McCone "forcefully" told him of the Kennedys' "determination" and appointed Helms as his "man for Cuba". Helms later wrote that he quickly "established a task force under my command". The CIA component of Mongoose grew to 600 CIA agents, 4,000 to 5,000 contract personnel, and a 'secret CIA flotilla'. Orders repeatedly referenced eliminating Castro. Yet the entire multi-agency operation, Helms wrote, made little progress toward regime change.[296][297][298]

Soviet-made forgeries

Helms testified before a Congressional committee in June 1961, presenting evidence on Soviet forgeries, according to Allen Dulles (DCI, Feb. 1953-Nov. 1961). Dulles, writing in the early 1960s, describes various falsifying and fraudulent activities of the Soviet State Security Service (KGB). A particular KGB bureau was known to specialize in disinformation. It "formulates" papers that "purport to be official documents of the United States" and other western countries, in order to "mistate and misrepresent [their] policies".[299][300] In post-war Europe Helms had gained first-hand experience about how to deal with, and ferret out, forged documents.[301]

Here Helms presented a paper prepared by Angleton's Counterintelligence Staff, before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. "My first public appearance before Congress," Helms called it, but his name was omitted from the published report.[302] He was identified as an "Assistant Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency", a nonexistent title. Helms then was serving under DDP Richard Bissell.[303] The Soviet forgeries were "usually prepared on official letterhead paper stolen or reproduced in Moscow" bearing the "forged signatures" of "senior American officials". "The texts were relatively well prepared but quite easily shown to have been fabricated. Errors in format, spelling, syntax, and official titles were common."[304]

Chosen for Helms to introduce to Congress were 32 "succulent" Soviet forgeries from the period 1957 to 1960.[305] Probably included was a fake letter purportedly from John Foster Dulles the United States Secretary of State addressed to his Ambassador in Iran, "belittling the Shah's ability and implying that the United States was plotting his overthrow". Copies of this fake, dated February 1958, were circulated to politicians and editors in Tehran, and one found its way to the Shah. Evidently "the Shah was completely taken in" and demanded an explanation from the American embassy, which "dismissed it as a forgery" but unfortunately "its denials were disbelieved". Thereafter rumors about it circulated in the Iranian elite.[306] John Foster Dulles was the older brother of Allen Dulles.

"To avoid the appearance of coming directly from Moscow," Helms later wrote, "the forgeries were most often slipped to left-leaning or communist-owned foreign newspapers." From there such a story would circulate, perhaps later to be published by the mainstream Western press. For instance, on 23 April 1961 Paese Sera, an Italian newspaper with ties to the Italian Communist Party, ran a story that the CIA had supported the recent, failed coup d'état by French army officers per the Algerian war. Very soon the story appeared in Pravda, TASS, and on Soviet radio. Eventually, even the influential Paris newspaper Le Monde was taken in. The explosive story threatened to cancel a scheduled June meeting between President Charles de Gaulle and President Kennedy which, however, took place as planned.[307]

DCI Allen Dulles describes Helms' testimony as conveying that the KGB seeks "to discredit the West... in the eyes of the world; to sow suspicion and discord among the Western allies; and to drive a wedge between the peoples" and their non-Communist governments. While many Soviet forgeries were said to look genuine to the untrained eye, they did not fool the experts. Instead as propaganda they were meant for mass consumption, to deceive the general public. Here, Dulles refers to Helms as a "high official" of the CIA.[299] Former CIA officer Victor Marchetti concurs about the Soviet-made forgeries but adds that, if full disclosure was made, Helms would also mention examples of "the pervasive lying the CIA commits in the name of the United States."[308] According to Helms' biographer Thomas Powers, exposing enemy lies, and camouflaging American secret operations, are essential to the CIA's role in the USG.[309]

Cuban Missile Crisis

The U-2 high-altitude spy plane, operated by the CIA,[310] was the instrument by which the USG first made its sightings of ballistic missiles being installed by Soviet forces at launch sites in Cuba. Aerial photographs were taken on Sunday, October 14, 1962, and quickly CIA analysts confirmed the missiles, which could deliver nuclear warheads. President Kennedy commenced an intense week of secret strategy sessions, followed by the President's public address. Helms called it a "gut-wrenching doomsday confrontation" with Soviet leadership. CIA sleuth thus led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.[311][312]

Before on August 10, the DCI John McCone had voiced to Dean Rusk at State, Robert McNamara at Defense, and Robert Kennedy the Attorney General, his opinion based on 'gut instinct' that the Soviets would install nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. His opinion was rejected. On August 29, a U-2 fly over revealed the presence of Soviet Surface-to-air missiles (SAM) in Cuba. McCone figured these anti-aircraft batteries were in Cuba to protect something else: nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Yet the CIA's own Special National Intelligence Estimate of September 19, stated, "The establishment on Cuban soil of Soviet nuclear striking forces which could be used against the US would be incompatible with Soviet policy." The USG considered the SAMs nothing but defensive; McCone disagreed.[313][314][315]

When the mid-October U-2 flight eventually discovered the Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba the CIA, according to Helms, confirmed it "by agent observations on the ground". Helms relates how the Agency, in order to provide verification (here, of the missiles' identification), employed a variety of different sources in addition to in-place agents and the U-2's aerial photography, such as analysis of data culled from public media (e.g., cartography, geology, engineering, industry) and from covert information generated by espionage and counterintelligence, here especially Oleg Penkovsky of Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU).[316]

During the crisis, the CIA's McCone acted as administration insider, measuring out selected new developments and current points of view to members of Congress and the press corps.[317] DCI McCone sat at the head table and participated in decision making at the highest level, i.e., President Kennedy's EXCOM committee meetings in the White House. As McCone's DDP, Helms wrote in his memoirs:

"I was fully occupied with focusing the Agency's espionage operations on every possible aspect of the confrontation. This kept me a step away from those at the EXCOM level who had the lonely responsibility for dealing firsthand with the very real possibility of nuclear war. From October 16... to October 28" when Khrushchev blinked.[318]

During World War II, McCone had led a California company that built many Liberty ships, which experience of "ships at sea" educated his focus on Cuba during the EXCOM strategy sessions. The perplexity of how to counter the Soviets was troubling, as too little display would not show sufficient resolve, yet a bloody attack might provoke a nuclear exchange. It was McCone who first suggested the naval blockade of the island nation, later styled as a 'quarantine on Soviet shipping', as the appropriate manner in which to apply USG force during the tense bargaining.[319][320] "McCone's central role in the Cuban missile crisis was obscrured" later, due to politics.[321][322]

Khrushchev finally offered to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba, if the USG withdrew its similar missiles from Turkey. Nonetheless the Joint Chiefs then "strongly recommended to EXCOM a full-scale attack on Cuba" which McNamara warned would be "damned dangerous". But McCone cried out, "Make the trade then!" which was seconded by other voices. The deal was made, "provided it was never made public. The Kennedys could not be seen making a deal with Khrushchev."[323][324] "In the face of possible nuclear war," Helms wrote decades later, "the President presided over his administration with what today strikes me as considerable wisdom."[325]

Vietnam: Diem

Following the Geneva Conference in 1954, Vietnam was divided into an established communist state in the north under Ho Chi Minh and a southern territory. The political culture of Vietnam was largely traditional and differed radically from western norms.[326] America began to support the south as the French withdrew. Against the odds, the anti-communist nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem in a few years managed to stand-up an independent government in South Vietnam.[327] Soon, however, a local communist insurgency associated with Hanoi emerged, gaining strength. Diem, politically a Vietnamese Confucian and of mandarin rank, favored a traditional authoritarian state; he was intolerant of rivalry even from other anti-communist politicians.[328] In name only, "elections" were held. A distrustful Diem often favored his own fellow Vietnamese Catholics, yet Buddhists who nominally constituted over eighty percent of the population also served in his regime. When a relatively small Buddhist faction entered politics in opposition to Diem, local government forces shot nine dead at a peaceful demonstration in May 1963, and widespread manifestations of public opposition to Diem arose. The martyrdom of an elderly monk by fiery self-immolation made world headlines. Diem strongly resisted American advice to include rivals in his government. The Vietnam War had begun to draw increased participation by American forces. Angry politicians in America began to challenge Diem's status as a leader worthy of American support.[329][330][331][332]

On 24 August 1963, a proposed cable originating in the United States State Department in effect advocated a military coup to overthrow the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. By circumstance Helms, DDP at the CIA in Washington, was available and took the telephone call made by either Roger Hilsman or Averell Harriman (both at State), who read Helms the cable and informed him that President John F. Kennedy had orally approved it. Helms then reportedly responded, "It's about time we bit this bullet."[333][334][335] Later William Colby, former CIA chief of station at the South Vietnamese capital Saigon and a successor to Helms as DCI, wrote that although Helms cleared this cable, he did not considered it an intelligence matter, but rather as policy, hence a subject outside the Agency's formal responsibility.[336]

This State Department cable (afterwards the subject of dispute) was sent to Henry Cabot Lodge at the American Embassy in Saigon.[337] Yet then CIA Director John McCone quickly and strongly voiced his long-held opposition to a coup d'état in South Vietnam.[338] Nonetheless, on 1 November 1963 the controversial military coup by generals of the South Vietnamese Army resulted in the killing of President Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.[339][340]

The next day, McCone, at a meeting for deputy directors and other high officials at CIA, described the President's reaction to learning of Diem's murder, i.e., that Kennedy got up and quickly left the room in dismay. Author Thomas Powers comments with gravitas on the "emotional consequences of the murder of a national leader" especially condidering "Diem's status as an American ally and client". Helms speculated that although Kennedy "okayed the August cable" when confronted with Diem's violent death, he was shocked, having "never quite hoisted this operation aboard".[341][342]

DCI McCone years later recalled that he had expressed his opinion beforehand to President Kennedy and the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that "if Diem was removed we would have not one coup but we would have a succession of coups and political disorder in Vietnam and it might last several years and indeed it did."[343][344][345][346][347] About accountability for Diem's death in the coup, Helms stated in 1983, "We were not responsible for Diem. He was killed by his own people for very simple political reasons." Helms added, "Any other way of having a transition of power in Vietnam without this killing would have been far better in the end."[348][349]

JFK assassination

"Helms and McCone were at headquarters, sharing a lunch of sandwiches in the director's suite" when "the terrible news broke."[350] Decades later, Helms wrote in fundamental agreement with the Warren Commission. Oswald alone assassinated President Kennedy. "I know of no information whatsoever that might have any bearing on the assassination that has been concealed from the public."[351][352][353] Yet author Tim Weiner states that the CIA "concealed much of what it knew to be true from the [Warren] commission."[354]

The CIA had its own dossier on the former Soviet-defector Oswald, who recently had been to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. This raised the spectre of the CIA's highly secret and formally covert operation against Castro.[355] The DCI McCone ordered a CIA internal investigation and Helms (head of CIA's Mongoose re Cuba) put John Whitten (CIA covert operations for Mexico) in charge of it. Quickly McCone informed the new President of this Oswald-Cuba-CIA link the next day the 23rd, then again on Sunday morning the 24th about how the CIA had been ordered to plot Castro's assassination. Oswald himself was killed that morning.[356][357]

After a week, President Johnson "cajoled the reluctant chief justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, to lead the investigation". President Johnson was worried about people concluding "that Khrushchev killed Kennedy, or Castro killed him."[358] Following Robert Kennedy's suggestion, President Johnson also called upon the CIA's former DCI Allen Dulles to serve as one of its seven members.[359] The Warren Commission, however, "posed a crushing moral dilemma" for Richard Helms at CIA.

"Helms realized that disclosing the assassination plots would reflect very poorly on the Agency and reflect very poorly on him, and it might turn out that the Cubans had undertaken this assassination in retaliation for our operations to assassinate Castro. This would have a disastrous affect on him and the Agency.[360][361]

Dulles and James Angleton, CIA chief of Counterintelligence (CI), were in close communication and, according to author Weiner, "controlled the flow of information from the CIA" to the Warren Commission. Angleton was a "bitter" rival of Whitten (who led the CIA investigation). Weiner finds fault because "Angleton and Helms agreed to tell the Warren Commission and the CIA's own investigators nothing about the plots to kill Castro."[362]

The author Thomas Powers provides a different view. "The first principle of a secret intelligence service is secrecy." Accordingly, there would be a great effort to cloak "any matter as explosive as assassination". The means of concealment could take the form of "the regular spiel" in which CIA officials, e.g., the DCIs Dulles, McCone, and Helms, categorically denied any possibility of Agency involvement in such acts. "Eisenhower and Kennedy went after two enemies in particular... Lumumba in the Congo and Castro in Cuba--but when they gave the job to the CIA they expected secrecy, and that is what they got."[363]

Two months after the assassination, Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko, "a mid-level KGB operative", defected to the west. Almost immediately, he claimed he had read "the entire KGB file" on Oswald, which showed the Soviets had found him too "unstable" to employ. Following CIA interrogation, some CIA, e.g., Angleton, began to doubt his bona fides. Helms then met with Earl Warren the Chief Justice and explained the inability of the CIA to vouch for Nosenko's testimony.[364][365] The difference of opinion at CIA about him continued to deepen. He was subjected to "strict solitary confinement" and "hostile interrogation" (challenging his responses), but "many obvious untruths" remained in his answers. DCI Helms was baffled by this case, and writes about it in a chapter called "A Bone in the Throat".[366][367] After five inconclusive years, he was released. "Nosenko received citizenship, assumed a different identity, married an American woman, and is now pursuing a new career" in America. He was retained on Agency contract.[368] After another twenty years, a final CIA report refurbished Nosenko as a valuable source of information on Soviet intelligence.[369][370]

In his memoir, Helms specifically addresses two subjects pertinent to conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. First, in mid-October 1963, a CIA veteran officer met a Cuban dissident in Paris.[371][372][373] Second, in early 1967 Helms received a call from a district attorney in New Orleans named Jim Garrison, who later prosecuted Clay Shaw for murder. Helms then describes "the Paese Sera, an obscure Italian newspaper with ties to the Italian Communist Party" and how it claimed that Clay Shaw was "a CIA operative". The Soviet media picked up the story and eventually there was a "press firestorm". But Shaw apparently never worked for the CIA.[374] Oliver Stone later made the film JFK "[a]pparently intrigued by Garrison's absurd conglomeration of theories".[375] Helms opines:

"Somewhere along his path, Garrison realized that no matter how implausible an allegation might be, the fact that it had been made meant that every time the lies were refuted, the charges were perforce repeated. ... Rather than arguing, the demagogue ignores the points made... and attacks the motives of his critics."[376]

Helms cites articles critical of Garrison and Stone, and books by Edward Jay Epstein (1968), Patricia Lambert (1998), and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1998). Yet he notes that "Garrison's scheming has taken on a life of its own".[377]

Johnson presidency

In June 1966, Helms was appointed Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). At the White House later that month, he was sworn in during a ceremony arranged by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, which included members of Congress and featured a marine band.[378] In April of the prior year John McCone had resigned as DCI. Johnson then had appointed Admiral William Raborn, well regarded for his work on the submarine-launched Polaris missile, as the new DCI (1965–1966). Johnson immediately chose Helms to serve as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI). Raborn and Helms soon journeyed to the LBJ ranch in Texas. Notwithstanding, Raborn did not fit well into the institutional complexities at CIA, with its specialized intellectual culture.[379][380]

As DCI, Helms served under President Johnson during the second half of his administration, then continued in this post until 1973 (through President Nixon's first term), "two of the most complex and controversial Presidents in the nation's history".[381] At CIA he was the first Director to 'rise through the ranks'.[382]

Vietnam became the key issue during the Johnson years. Helms reviews the war in his memoirs.[383] The CIA was fully engaged there in political-military affairs, both to get intelligence information and for field operations. CIA, for example, organized an armed force of minority Hmong in Laos, and in Vietnam of rural counterinsurgency forces and of minority Montagnards in the highlands. Further, CIA became actively involved in South Vietnamese politics, especially after Diem. "One of the CIA's jobs was to coax a genuine South Vietnamese government into being."[384][385] Helms traveled to Vietnam twice,[386] and also flew with President Johnson to Guam.[387]

Vietnam: Estimates

In 1966, Helms as the new DCI inherited a CIA "fully engaged in the policy debates surrounding Vietnam." The CIA itself had formed "a view on policy but [was] expected to contribute impartially to the debate all the same."[388] American intelligence agents had a relatively long history in Vietnam, dating back to OSS contacts with the communist-led resistance to Japanese occupation forces during World War II.[389] In 1953 the CIA's first annual National Intelligence Estimate on Vietnam reported that French prospects may "deteriorate very rapidly".[390] After French withdrawal in 1954, CIA agents including Lt. Col. Edward Lansdale assisted the new President Ngo Dinh Diem in his efforts to reconstitute an independent government in the south: the Republic of Viet Nam.[391][392]

Nonetheless, CIA reports did not present an optimistic appraisal of Diem's future. Many of its analysts reluctantly understood that, in the anti-colonialist and nationalist context then prevailing, a favorable outcome was more likely for the new communist regime in the north under its long-term party leader Ho Chi Minh, who was widely admired as a Vietnamese patriot. A 1954 report by CIA qualifiedly stated that if nation-wide elections scheduled for 1956 by the recent Geneva Accords were held, Ho's party "the Viet Minh will almost certainly win."[393][394][395] Yet that election was avoided and, in the cold war context, 1959 CIA reports evidently saw Diem as "the best anticommunist bet" if he undertook reforms, reporting also that Diem consistently avoided reform.[396][397]

As the political situation progressed during the 1960s and American involvement grew, subsequent CIA reports crafted by its careful analysts continued to trend pessimistic regarding the prospects for South Vietnam.[398] "Vietnam may have been a policy failure. It was not an intelligence failure."[399] Yet the Agency itself enventually became sharply divided over the issue. Those active in CIA operations in Vietnam, e.g., Edward Lansdale, Lucien Conein, and William Colby, naturally adopted a robust optimism regarding the outcome of their contentious projects. Teamwork in dangerous circumstances, and social cohesion among such operatives in the field, worked to reinforce and intensify their positive views.[400][401]

"At no time was the institutional dichotomy between the operational and analytic components more stark."[402] Helms later described how he then understood his predicament at CIA.

"From the outset, the intelligence directorate and the Office of National Estimates held a pessimistic view of the military developments. The operations personnel--going full blast... in South Vietnam--remained convinced the war could be won. Without this conviction, the operators could not have continued their difficult face-to-face work with the South Vietnamese, whose lives were often at risk. In Washington, I felt like a circus rider standing astride two horses, each for the best of reasons going its own way."[403][404]

Negative news would prove to be highly unwelcome at the Johnson White House. "After each setback the CIA would gain little by saying 'I told you so' or by continuing to emphasize the futility of the war," author Ranelagh writes.[405] In part it was DCI McCone's worrisome reports and unwelcome views about Vietnam that led to his being excluded from the President Johnson's inner circle; consequently McCone resigned in 1965. Helms remembered that McCone left the CIA because "he was dissatisfied with his relation with President Johnson. He didn't get to see him enough, and he didn't feel that he had any impact... ."[406][407]

Helms' institutional memory evident here probably contested for influence over his own decisions as DCI when he later served under Johnson. According to CIA intelligence officer Ray Cline, "Up to about 1965/66, estimates were not seriously biased in any direction." As American political commitment to Vietnam surged under Johnson, however, "the pressure to give the right answer came along," stated Cline. "I felt increasing pressure to say the war was winnable."[408]

Laos: "secret war"

The "second Geneva Convention" of 1962 settled de jure the neutrality of the Kingdom of Laos, obtaining commitments from both the Soviets and the Americans. Nonetheless, such a neutral status quo in Laos soon became threatened de facto, e.g., by North Vietnamese (NVN) armed support for the communist Pathet Lao. The CIA in 1963 was tasked to mount an armed defense of the "neutrality" of the Kingdom. Helms then served as DDP and thus directed the overall effort. It was a secret war because both NVN and CIA were in violation of Geneva's 1962 terms.[409][410]

Thereafter during the 1960s the CIA accomplished this mission largely by training and arming native tribal forces, primarily those called the Hmong.[412] Helms called it "the war we won". At most several hundred CIA personnel were involved, at a small fraction of the cost of the Vietnam war. Despite prior criticism of CIA abilities due to the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, here the CIA for years successfully managed a large-scale paramilitary operation. At the height of the Vietnam war, much of royal Laos remained functionally neutral, although over its southeast borderlands ran the contested Ho Chi Minh trail. The CIA operation fielded as many as 30,000 Hmong soldiers under their leader Vang Pao, while also supporting 250,000 mostly Hmong people in the hills. Consequently, more than 80,000 NVN troops were "tied down" in Laos.[413][414][415][416]

At the time of Nixon's Vietnamization policy, CIA concern arose over sustaining the covert nature of the secret war. In 1970 Helms decided "to transfer the budgetary allocations for operations in Laos from the CIA to the Defense Department."[417][418] William Colby, then a key American figure in Southeast Asia and later DCI, comments that "a large-scale paramilitary operation does not fit the secret budget and policy procedures of CIA."[419]

About Laos, however, Helms wrote that "I will always call it the war we won."[420] In 1966 the CIA had termed it "an exemplary success story".[421] Colby concurred.[422] Senator Stuart Symington, after a 1967 visit to the CIA chief of station in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, reportedly called it "a sensible way to fight a war."[423] Yet others disagreed, and the 'secret war' would later draw frequent political attack.[424][425] Author Weiner criticizes the imperious insertion of American power, and the ultimate abandonment of America's Hmong allies in 1975.[426][427] Other problems arose because of the Hmong's practive of harvesting poppies.[428][429][430]

Due to political developments, the war ultimately ended badly. Helms acknowledges that after President Nixon through his agent Kissinger treated at Paris to end the Vietnam war in 1973, America failed to continue supporting its allies and "abdicated its role in Southeast Asia." Laos was given up and the Hmong were left in a desperate situation. Helms references that eventually 450,000 Laotians including 200,000 Hmong emigrated to America.[431][432]

As the 'secret war' eventually became public it created a firestorm in Washington. While this Laotian struggle continued on the borderlands of the Vietnam conflict, DCI Helms was blindsided when several Senators began to complain that they had been kept in the dark about "CIA's secret war" in Laos. Helms recalls that three Presidents, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, had each approved the covert operation, the "secret war", and that fifty Senators had been briefed on its progress, e.g., Senator Symington had twice visited Laos.[433][434] Helms elaborates on the turnabout:

"In 1970, it came as a jolt when, with a group of senators, Senator Stuart Symington publicly expressed his 'surprise, shock and anger' at what he and the others claimed was their 'recent discovery' of 'CIA's secret war' in Laos. At the time I could not understand the reason for this about-face. Nor have I since been able to fathom it."[435][436]

Israel: Six Day War

Liaison with Israeli intelligence was managed by James Jesus Angleton of CIA counterintelligence from 1953 to 1974.[437][438] For example, the Israelis had quickly provided CIA with the Russian text of Khrushchev's Secret Speech of 1956 which severely criticized the deceased Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.[439] In August 1966 Mossad had arranged for Israeli acquisition of a Soviet MiG-21 fighter from a disaffected Iraqi pilot. Mossad's Meir Amit later came to Washington to tell DCI Helms that Israel would loan America the plane, with its up-until-now secret technology, to find out how it flew.[440] At a May 1967 NSC meeting Helms voiced praise for Israel's military preparedness, and argued that from the captured MiG-21 the Israelis "had learned their lessons well".[441][442]

In 1967, CIA analysis addressed the possibility of an armed conflict between Israel and neighboring Arab states, predicting that "the Israelis would win a war within a week to ten days."[443][444][445] Israel "could defeat any combination of Arab forces in relatively short order" with the time required depending on "who struck first" and circumstances.[446] Yet CIA's pro-Israel prediction was challenged by Arthur Goldberg, the American ambassador to the United Nations and Johnson loyalist.[447] Although Israel then had requested "additional military aid" Helms opines that here Israel wanted to control international expectations prior to the outbreak of war.[448]

As Arab war threats mounted, President Johnson asked Helms about Israel's chances and Helms stuck with his agency's predictions. At a meeting of his top advisors Johnson then asked who agreed with the CIA estimate and all assented.[449] "The temptation for Helms to hedge his bet must have been enormous".[450] After all, opinions were divided, e.g., Soviet intelligence thought the Arabs would win and were "stunned" at the Israeli victory.[451] Admiral Stansfield Turner (DCI 1977-1981) wrote that "Helms claimed that the high point of his career was the Agency's accurate prediction in 1967." Helms believed it had kept America out of the conflict. Also, it led to his entry within the inner circle of the Johnson administration, the regular 'Tuesday lunch' with the President.[452]

In the event, Israel decisively defeated its neighborhood enemies and prevailed in the determinative Six Day war of June 1967. Four days before the sudden launch of that war, "a senior Israeli official" had privately visited Helms in his office and hinted that such a preemptive decision was immanent. Helms then had passed the information to President Johnson.[453][454][455] The conflict reified America's "emotional sympathy" for Israel. Following the war, America dropped its careful balancing act between the belligerents and moved to a position in support of Israel, eventually supplanting France as Israel's chief military supplier.[456][457]

In the afternoon of the third day of the war, the American Sigint spy ship USS Liberty, outfitted by the NSA, was attacked by Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats in international waters north of Sinai. This U.S. Navy ship was severely damaged with loss of life.[458][459] The Israelis quickly notified the Americans and later explained that they "had mistaken the Liberty (455 feet long) for the Egyptian coastal steamer El Quseir (275 feet long). The US government formally accepted the apology and the explanation."[460] Some continue to accept this position.[461][462] Yet "scholars and military experts," according to author Thomas Powers, state that "the hard question is not whether the attack was deliberate but why the Israelis thought it necessary."[463][464][465] About the Liberty Helms in his memoirs quotes the opinion of his deputy, DDCI Rufus Taylor, and mentions the conclusion of a board of inquiry. Then Helms adds, "I have yet to understand why it was felt necessary to attack this ship or who ordered the attack".[466]

On the morning of the sixth day of the war, President Johnson summoned Helms to the White House Situation Room. The Soviet leader Aleksei Kosygin had called to threaten military intervention if the war continued. Defense Secretary McNamara suggested that the Sixth Fleet be sent east, from the mid Mediterranean to the Levant. Johnson agreed. Helms remembered the "visceral physical reaction" to the strategic tension, similar to the emotions of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. "It was the world's good fortune that hostilities on the Golan Heights ended before the day was out," wrote Helms later.[467][468]

LBJ: Tuesday lunch

As a result of the CIA's accurate prognosis concerning the duration, logistics, and outcome of the Six-Day War of June, 1967, Helms' practical value to the President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, became evident.[469] Recognition of his new status was not long in coming. Helms soon took a place at the table where the president's top advisors discussed foreign policy issues: the regular Tuesday luncheons with LBJ, which Helms unabashedly called "the hottest ticket in town".[470][471][472]

In a 1984 interview with a CIA historian, Helms recalled that following the Six-Day War, he and Johnson had engaged in intense private conversations which addressed foreign policy, including the Soviet Union. Helms went on:

"And I think at that time he'd made up his mind that it would be a good idea to tie intelligence into the inner circle of his policy-making and decision-making process. So starting from that time he began to invite me to the Tuesday lunches, and I remained a member of that group until the end of his administration."[474]

Helms' invitation to lunch occurred about three-and-a-half years into the Johnson's five-year Presidency and a year into Helms' nearly seven-year tenure as DCI. Thereafter in the Johnson administration, Helms functioned proximous to high-level policymaking, with continual access to America's top political leadership. It constituted the pinnacle of Helms' influence and standing in Washington. Helms describes the "usual Tuesday lunch" in his memoirs.

"[W]e gathered for a sherry in the family living room on the second floor of the White House. If the President, who normally kept to a tight schedule, was a few minutes late, he would literally bound into the room, pause long enough to acknowledge our presence, and herd us into the family dining room, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. Seating followed protocol, with the secretary of state (Dean Rusk) at the President's right, and the secretary of defense (Robert McNamara, later Clark Clifford) at his left. General Bus Wheeler (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) sat beside the secretary of defense. I sat beside Dean Rusk. Walt Rostow (the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs), George Christian (the White House Press Secretary), and Tom Johnson (the deputy press secretary) made up the rest of the table."[475]

In CIA interviews long after the war ended, Helms recalled the role his played in policy discussions. He was the neutral party who could come up with facts applicable to the issue at hand. The benefit of such a role was that he could be decisive in "keeping the game honest". Helms comments that many advocates of particular policy positions will almost invariably 'cherry pick' facts supporting their positions, whether consciously or not. Then the voice of a neutral could perform a useful function in helping to steer the conversation on routes within realistic parameters.[476]

The out-sized political personality of Johnson, of course, was the dominating presence at lunch. From his perch Helms marveled at the learned way President Johnson employed the primary contradictions in his personality to direct those around him, and forcefully manage the atmosphere of discourse.[477][478]

Regarding the perennial issues of Vietnam, a country in civil war, Helms led an important institutional player in the political mix of Washington. Yet CIA people were themselves divided on the conflict. As DCI Helms' daily duties involved the difficult task of updating CIA intelligence and reporting on CIA operations to the American executive leadership. Vietnam dominated the news. Notoriously, the American political consensus eventually broke. The public became sharply divided, with the issues being vociferously contested. About the so-called Vietnamese 'quagmire' it seemed confusion reigned within and without. Helms himself strove to best serve his view of America and his forceful superior, the President.[479][480][481]

Viet Cong numbers

Differences and divisions might emerge within the ranks of analysts, across the spectrum of the USG Intelligence Community. Helms as DCI had a statutory mandate giving him responsibility for reconciling the discrepancies in information, or the conflicting views, promoted by the various American intelligence services, e.g., by the large Defense Intelligence Agency or by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at State. While the CIA might agree on its own Estimates, other department reports might disagree, causing difficulties, and making inter-agency concord problematic. The process of reaching the final consensus could become a contintious negotiation.[482][483][484]

In 1965, Johnson substantially escalated the war; he sent large numbers of American combat troops to fight in South Vietnam, and ordered warplanes to bomb the North. Nonetheless, the military put stiff pressure on him to escalate further. In the "paper wars" that followed, Helms at the CIA was regularly asked for intelligence reports on military action, e.g., the political effectiveness of bombing Hanoi. The military resented such review of its actions.[485]

The American strategy had become pursuit of a war of attrition. The objective was to make the Viet Cong enemy suffer more losses than it could timely replace. Accordingly, the number of combatants fielded by the communist insurgency at any one time was a key factor in determining whether the course of the war was favorable or not. The political pressure on the CIA to conform to the military's figures of enemy casualties became intense. Under Helms CIA reports on the Viet Cong order of battle numbers were usually moderate; CIA also questioned whether the strategy employed by the U.S. Army would ever compel Hanoi to negotiate. Helms himself was evidently sceptical, yet Johnson never asked for his personal opinion.[486] This dispute between Army and CIA over the number of Viet Cong combatants became bitter, and eventually common knowledge in the administration.[487][488]

According to one source, CIA Director Richard Helms "used his influence with Lyndon Johnson to warn about the growing dangers of U.S. involvement in Vietnam."[489] On the other hand, Stansfield Turner (DCI 1977-1981) describes Helms in his advisory relationship to Lyndon Johnson as being overly loyal to the office of president. Hence, the CIA staff's honest opinions on Vietnam were sometimes modified before reaching President Johnson.[490] At one point the CIA analysts estimated enemy strength at 500,000, while the military insisted it was only 270,000. No amount of discussion could resolve the difference. Eventually, in September 1967, the CIA under Helms went along with the military's lower number for the combat strength of the Vietnamese Communist forces.[491][492] This led a CIA analyst directly involved in this work to file a formal complaint against the DCI Helms, which was accored due process within the Agency.[493][494]

Vietnam: Phoenix

As a major element in his counterinsurgency policy, Ngo Dinh Diem (President 1954-1963) had earlier introduced the establishment of strategic hamlets in order to contest Viet Cong operations in the countryside.[495][496] In 1965 the controversial Phoenix program was launched,[497] in which various Vietnamese forces (intelligence, military, police, and civilian) were deployed in the field against Viet Cong support networks. The CIA played a key role in its design and leadership,[498][499] and built on practices of Vietnamese like the provincial chief Tran Ngoc Chau.[500][501]

Yet, CIA was not officially in control of Phoenix, CORDS was. DCI Helms, however, in early 1968 had agreed to allow William Colby to take a temporary leave of absence from the CIA in order to lead Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, a position with ambassadorial rank. In doing so, Helms personally felt "thoroughly disgusted"... thinking Robert Komer had "put a fast one over on him". Komer was then in charge of the CORDS pacification program in South Vietnam. Recently Helms had promoted Colby to a top CIA post: head of the Soviet Division (before Colby had been running the CIA's Far East Division, which included Vietnam). Now Colby transferred to CORDS to run Phoenix.[502][503] Many other Americans worked to monitor and manage the Phoenix program including, according to Helms, "a seemingly ever-increasing number of CIA personnel".[504][505][506]

After receiving special Phoenix training, Vietnamese forces in rural areas went head to head against Viet Cong, e.g., they sought to penetrate communist organizations, to arrest and interrogate or slay their cadres.[507][508] The Vietnamese conflict resembled a ferocious civil war; the Viet Cong had already assassinated thousands of Vietnamese village leaders.[509][510] Unfortunately, in its strategy of fighting fire with fire, forces in the Phoenix program used torture, and became entangled in actions involving local and official corruption, resulting in many questionable killings.[511][512] Despite its grave faults, Colby opined that the program did work well enough to stop Viet Cong gains. Colby favorably compared Operation Phoenix with the CIA's relative success in its "secret war" in Laos.[513][514]

Helms notes that the early efforts of Phoenix "were successful, and of serious concern to the NVN [North Vietnamese] leadership". Helms then goes on to recount the Phoenix program's progressive slide into corruption and counterproductive violence, which came to nullify its early success. Accordingly, by the time it was discontinued Phoenix had become useless in the field and a controversial if not a notorious political liability.[515][516][517] Helms in his memoirs presents this situation:

"PHOENIX was directed and staffed by Vietnamese over whom the American advisors and liaison officers did not have command or direct supervision. The American staff did its best to eliminate the abuse of authority--the settling of personal scores, rewarding of friends, summary executions, prisoner mistreatment, false denunciation, illegal property seizure--that became the by-products of the PHOENIX counterinsurgency effort. In the blood-soaked atmosphere created by Viet Cong terrorism, the notion that regulations and directives imposed by foreign liaison officers could be expected to curb revenge and profit-making was unrealistic."[518]

After the war, interviews were conducted with Vietnamese communist leaders and military commanders familiar with the Viet Cong organization, its war-making capacity, and support infrastructure. They said the Phoenix operations were very effective against them, reports Stanley Karnow.[519] Thomas Ricks, in evaluating the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency tactics of the Marine Corps and of the Phoenix program, confirmed their value by reference to "Hanoi's official history of the war".[520][521] If one discounts the corrupt criminality and its political fallout, the Phoenix partisans were perhaps better able tactically to confront the elusive Viet Cong guerrilla bands, and the sea in which the fish swam, than the regular units of the ARVN and the U. S. Army.[522][523] Yet the military lessons of the war in full complexity were being understood by the Army, later insisted Colonel Summers.[524]

Regarding the Phoenix legacy, a sinister controversy haunts it.[525][526] Distancing himself, Helms summarized: "As successful a program as PHOENIX was when guided by energetic local leaders," as a national program it succumbed to political corruption and "failed".[527] Colby admitted serious faults, yet in conclusion found a positive preponderance.[528] "It was not the CIA," writes John Ranelagh, "that was responsible for the excesses of Phoenix (although the agency clearly condoned what was happening)."[529] Author Tim Weiner compares the violent excesses of Phoenix to such associated with the early years of the Second Iraq War.[530][531][532]

Johnson withdraws

In America, what became the Vietnam quagmire lost domestic political support, and seriouslly injured the popularity of the Johnson administration. In the spring of election year 1968, following the unexpected January Tet offensive in Vietnam, the war issue reached a crisis.[533][534] In March Helms arranged yet another special CIA report for the President; he arranged for CIA officer George Carver to present it in person to Johnson. The diminutive Carver was then the CIA's Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs (SAVA).[535]

Helms writes, "In his typically unvarnished manner, George had presented a bleak but accurate view of the situation and again demonstrated that the NVN strength in South Vietnam was far stronger than had been previously reported by MACV." Carver "closed by saying in effect that not even the President could not tell the American voters on one day that the United States planned to get out of Vietnam, and on the next day tell Ho Chi Minh that we will stick it out for twenty years. [¶] With this LBJ rose like a roasted pheasant and bolted from the room." But Johnson soon returned.[536][537][538] Helms described of what happened next.

"The President, who was a foot and a half taller and a hundred pounds heavier than George, struck him a resounding clap on the back and caught his hand in an immense fist. Wrenching George's arm up and down with a pumping motion that might have drawn oil from a dry Texas well, Johnson congratulated him on the briefing, and on his services to the country and its voters. As he released George, he said, 'Anytime you want to talk to me, just pick up the phone and come over.' It was a vintage LBJ performance."[539]

Earlier, a group of foreign policy elders, known as The Wise Men, themselves having first heard from CIA, then confronted Johnson about the difficulty of winning in Vietnam. The President was unprepared to accept their negative findings. "Lyndon Johnson must have considered March 1968 the most difficult month of his political career," wrote Helms later. Eventually this frank advice contributed to Johnson's decision in March to withdraw from the 1968 presidential election.[540][541][542]

Nixon presidency

In the 1968 Presidential election, the Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon triumphed over the Democrat, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Shortly after the election, President Johnson invited President-Elect Nixon to his LBJ Ranch in Texas for a discussion of current events. There he introduced Nixon to a few members of his inner circle: Dean Rusk at State, Clark Clifford at Defense, Gen. Earle Wheeler, and DCI Richard Helms. Later Johnson in private told Helms that he had represented him to Nixon as a political neutral, "a merit appointment", a career federal official who was good at his job.[543][544]

Nixon then invited Helms to his pre-inauguration headquarters in New York City, where Nixon told Helms that he and J. Edgar Hoover at FBI would be retained as "appointments out of the political arena". Helms expressed his assent that the DCI was a non-partisan position. Evidently, already Nixon had made his plans when chief executive to sharply downgrade the importance of the CIA in his administration, in which case Nixon himself would interact very little with his DCI, e.g., at security meetings.[545][546]

Role of Agency

The ease of access to the President that Helms enjoyed in the Johnson Administration changed dramatically and for the worse with the arrival of President Richard Nixon and Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. In order to dominate policy, "Nixon insisted on isolating himself" from the Washington bureaucracy he did not trust. His primary gatekeepers were H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; they screened Nixon from "the face-to-face confrontations he so disliked and dreaded." While thus pushing away even top officials, Nixon started to build policy-making functions inside the White House. From a secure distance he would direct the government and deal with "the outside world, including cabinet members".[547][548] Regarding intelligence matters, Nixon appointed Kissinger and his team to convey his instructions to the CIA and sister services. Accordingly, Nixon and Kissinger understood that "they alone would conceive, command, and control clandestine operations. Covert action and espionage could be tools fitted for their personal use. Nixon used them to build a political fortress at the White House."[549]

In his memoirs, Helms writes of his early meeting with Kissinger. "Henry spoke first, advising me of Nixon's edict that effective immediately all intelligence briefings, oral or otherwise, were to come through Kissinger. All intelligence reports? I asked. Yes."[550] A Senate historian of the CIA observes that "it was Kissinger rather than the DCIs who served as Nixon's senior intelligence advisor. Under Kissinger's direction the NSC became an intelligence and policy staff."[551][552] Under Nixon's initial plan, Helms was to be excluded even from the policy discussions at the National Security Council (NSC) meetings.[553][554][555]

"Very early in the Nixon administration it became clear that the President wanted Henry Kissinger to run intelligence for him and that the National Security Council staff in the White House, under Kissinger, would control the intelligence community. This was the beginning of a shift of power away from the CIA to a new center: the National Security Council staff."[556]

Stansfield Turner (DCI 1977-1981) describes Nixon as basically being hostile to the CIA, questioning its utility and practical value, based on his low evaluation of the quality of its information. Turner, who served under President Carter, opines that Nixon considered the CIA to be full of elite "liberals" and hence contrary to his policy direction.[557][558] Helms agreed regarding Nixon's hostility toward the CIA, also saying in a 1988 interview that "Nixon never trusted anybody."[559][560] Yet Helms later wrote:

"Whatever Nixon's views of the Agency, it was my opinion that he was the best prepared to be President of any of those under whom I served-Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. ...Nixon had the best grasp of foreign affairs and domestic politics. His years as Vice President had served him well."[561]

When Nixon attended NSC meetings, he would often direct his personal animousity and ire directly at Helms, who led an agency Nixon considered overrated, whose proffered intelligence Nixon thought of little use or value, and which had a history of aiding his political enemies, according to Nixon. Helms found it difficult to establish a cordial working relationship to the new President.[562][563][564][565] Ray Cline, former Deputy Director of Intelligence at CIA, wrote how he saw the agency under Helms during the Nixon years:

"Nixon and his principal assistant, Dr. Kissinger, disregarded analytical intelligence except for what was convenient for use by Kissinger's own small personal staff in support of Nixon-Kissinger policies. Incoming intelligence was closely monitored and its distribution controlled by Kissinger's staff to keep it from embarrassing the White House... ." They employed "Helms and the CIA primarilly as an instrument for the execution of White House wishes" and did not seem "to understand or care about the carefully structured functions of central intelligence as a whole. ... I doubt that anyone could have done better than Helms in these circumstances."[566]

Under the changed policies of the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger in effect displaced the DCI and became "the President's chief intelligence officer".[567] Kissinger writes that, in addition, Nixon "felt ill at ease with Helms personally."[568]

Domestic Chaos

Under both Johnson and Nixon, the CIA was tasked with domestic surveillance of protest movements, particularly anti-war activities, which efforts later became called Operation CHAOS. This involved investigations of various American groups on the theory that they were funded and/or influenced by the Soviet Union. The program investigated Ramparts magazine, anti-war groups, and others, eventually building thousands of files on American citizens. These activities, if not illegal, were at the margin of legality as the CIA was forbidden from domestic spying.[569]

With the sudden rise in 1966 of the anti-war movement in America, Johnson became suspicious that foreign communists were supplying money and organizers. When he instructed Helms to investigate, Helms remarked that his agency was not permitted to conduct such surveillance activity within the national borders. The FBI was mentioned. Yet Johnson explained to Helms that the main focus remained foreign. As a prerequisite to the conduct of the foreign espionage, the CIA would first develop leads and contacts domestically, which would also provide its agents some amount of cover for subsequent foreign operations. On that rational, the CIA commenced activity. No substantial foreign sources of money or influence, in fact, were found by the CIA. When Helms reported these findings to the President, the reaction was disbelief. Johnson told Helms to continue the search with increased diligence.[570] [under construction]

Soviet Missiles

The Soviet Union developed a new series of long-range missiles, called the SS-9 (NATO codename Scarp). A question developed concerning the extent of their capability to carry nuclear weapons; at issue was whether the missile were a Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) or not. The CIA information was that these missiles were not 'MIRVed' but Defense intelligence considered that they were of the more potent kind. If so, the Soviet Union was possibly aiming at a first strike nuclear capacity. The Nixon administration, desiring to employ the existence of such Soviet threat to justify a new American antiballistic missile system, publicly endorsed the Defense point of view. Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security advisor, asked Helms to review the CIA's finding, yet Helms initially stood by his analysts at CIA. Eventually, however, Helms compromised.[571][572]

Melvin Laird, Nixon's Secretary of Defense, had told Helms that the CIA was intruding outside its area, with the result that it 'subverted administration policy'. Helms, in part, saw this MIRV conflict as part of bureaucratic maneuvering over extremely difficult-to-determine issues, in which the CIA had to find its strategic location within the new Nixon administration. Helms later remembered:

"I realized that there was no convincing evidence in the Agency or at the Pentagon which would prove either position. Both positions were estimates--speculation--based on identical fragments of data. My decision to remove the contested paragraph was based on the fact that the Agency's estimate--that the USSR was not attempting to create a first-strike capability--as originally stated in the earlier detailed National Estimate would remain the Agency position."[573]

One CIA analyst, Abbott Smith, viewed this flip-flop not only as "a cave-in on a matter of high principle", according to author John Ranelagh, "but also as a public slap in the face from his director, a vote of no confidence in his work." Another analyst at State, however, had reinserted the "contested paragraph" into the intelligence report. When a few years later the nature of the Soviet SS-9 missiles became better understood, the analysts at CIA and at State were vindicated. "The consensus among agency analysts was that Dick Helms had not covered himself with glory this time."[574]


Nixon pursued what he called "peace with honor", or perhaps elusive victory by another name; the policy was called Vietnamization.[575] To end the war favorably he focused on the peace negotiations in Paris. Henry Kissinger played the major role in bargaining with the North Vietnamese. Peace proved difficult; in the meantime, casualties mounted. Although withdrawing great numbers of American troops, Nixon simultaneously escalated the air war. He increased the heavy bombing of Vietnam, also of Laos and Cambodia, and widened the scope of the conflict by invading Cambodia. While these actions sought to gain bargaining power at the conference table, they also drew a "firestorm" of college protests in America.[576][577] Kissinger describes a debate over the mining of Haiphong harbor, in which he criticizes Helms at CIA for his disapproval of the plan. In Kissinger's telling, here Helms' opposition reflected the bias of CIA analysts, "the most liberal school of thought in the government."[578]

When contemplating his administration's inheritance of the Vietnam conflict, Nixon understood it in the context of the cold war. The ongoing Sino-Soviet split presented America with an opportunity to triangulate Soviet Russia by opening relations with the Peoples Republic of China. It might also drive a wedge between two supporters of North Vietnam.[579] While here appreciating CIA reports Helms supplied on China, Nixon nonetheless kept the operation within the White House and under wraps.[580] To prepare for Nixon's 1972 trip to China, Kissinger ordered that CIA covert operations there, including Tibet,[581] come to a halt.[582]

Vietnamization signified American troop withdrawal from Vietnam, while the brunt of the fighting became the charge of South Vietnamese armed forces. This affected all CIA operations across the political-military landscape. DCI Helms wound down many CIA activities, e.g., civic projects and paramilitary operations in Vietnam, and the "secret war" in Laos. Earlier the Phoenix program once under Colby had also been turned over to full Vietnamese control.[583] The 1973 Paris Peace Accords came after Helms had left the CIA.

To sustain the existence of the South Vietnam regime, Nixon massively increased American military aid. Yet the regime's army quickly collapsed when regular army units of the Communist forces attacked. "Moral disintegration alone can explain why an army three times the size and possessing more that five times the equipment of the enemy could be as rapidly defeated as the ARVN was between March 10 and April 30, 1975," commented Joseph Buttinger.[584] American military deaths from the war were over 47,000, with 153,000 wounded. South Vietnamese military losses (using low figures) were about 110,000 killed and 500,000 wounded. Communist Vietnamese military losses were announced: 1,100,000 killed and 600,000 wounded. Hanoi also announced that total civilian deaths from the war, 1954 to 1975, were 2,000,000. According to Spencer C. Tucker, "The number of civilians killed in the war will never be known with any accuracy; estimates vary widely, but the lowest figure given is 415,000."[585]

Chile: Allende

Perhaps Helms's most controversial undertaking as CIA chief concerned subversive activities taken to nullify the socialist program of Salvador Allende of Chile, actions done at President Nixon's behest. The operation was code-named Project Fubelt. Such CIA's tactics jumped into earnest and divisive maneuvers after the 1970 elections, but then markedly declined in intensity, though they continued, following the inauguration of Allende as President of Chile. Three years later the September 11th Chilean coup of 1973 by the military under Augusto Pinochet succeeded in violently overthrowing the then troubled regime of President Allende.[586][587][588]

During the 1970 Chilean presidential election, the USG sent financial and other assistance to the two candidates opposing Allende, who was elected anyway.[591][592] Helms states that on September 15, 1970, he met with President Nixon who ordered the CIA to support an army coup to prevent an already elected Allende from being confirmed as president; it was to be kept secret. "He wanted something done and he didn't care how," Helms later characterized the order.[593][594] The secret, illegal (in Chile) activity ordered by Nixon was termed "track II" to distinguish it from the CIA's covert funding of Chilean "democrats" here called "track I".[595][596][597] Accordingly, the CIA took assorted clandestine steps, including actions to badger a law-abiding Chilean army to seize power. CIA agents were once in communication, but soon broke off such contact, with rogue elements of the country's military who later assassinated the "constitutionally minded" General René Schneider, the Army Commander-in-Chief. Following this criminal violence, the Chilean army's support swung firmly behind Allende, whom the Congress confirmed as President of Chile on November 3, 1970.[598][599] CIA did not intend the killing. "At all times, however, Helms made it plain that assassination was not an option."[600][601]

Thereafter, the CIA funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups, e.g., political parties, the media, and striking truck drivers, in a continuing, long-term effort to destabilize Chile's economy and so subvert the Allende administration. Nixon's initial, memorable phrase for such actions had been "to make the Chilean economy scream".[602] Even so, according to DCI Helms, "In my remaining months in office, Allende continued his determined march to the left, but there was no further effort to instigate a coup in Chile." Helms here appears to parse between providing funds for Allende's political opposition ("track I") versus actually supporting a military overthrow ("track II").[603] Although in policy disagreement with Nixon, Helms assumed the role of the "good soldier" in following his presidential instructions.[604] Helms left office at the CIA on February 2, 1973, seven months before the coup d'etat in Chile.[605]

Another account of CIA activity in Chile, however, states that during this period 1970-1973 the CIA worked diligently to propagandize the military into countenancing a coup, e.g., the CIA supported and cultivated rightists in the formerly "constitutionally minded" army to start thinking 'outside the box', i.e., to consider a coup d'etat. Thus, writes author Tim Weiner, while not per se orchestrating the 1973 coup, the CIA worked for years, employing econmic and other means, to seduce the army into doing so.[606] Allende's actions caused his own relations with his army to become uneasy.[607] The CIA sowed "political and economic chaos in Chile" which set the stage for a successful coup, Weiner concludes.[608] Hence, Helms's careful parsing appears off the mark. Yet views and opinions differ, e.g., Henry Kissinger contests,[609] what William Colby in part acknowledges.[610]

After Helms's early 1973 departure, Nixon continued to work directly against the Allende regime. Although he was elected with 36.3% of the vote (to 34.9% for runner-up in a three-way contest), during Allende's presidency he reportedly ignored the Constitución de 1925 in pursuit of his socialist policies, namely, ineffective projects which proved very unpopular and polarizing.[611][612] Yet the military junta's successful September 1973 coup d'etat was double-down unconstitutional, and very dirty. Apparently 3,200 citizens were killed and tens of thousands were held as political prisoners, many being tortured.[613][614][615][616] This result provoked widespread international censure.[617][618]

RN: Watergate

After first learning of the Watergate scandal on 17 June 1972, Helms developed a general strategy to distance the CIA from it all together, including any third party investigations of Nixon's role in the precipitating break-in.[620][621] The scandal created a flurry of media interest during the 1972 Presidential election, but only reached it full intensity in the following years. Among those initially arrested (the "plumbers") were former CIA employees; there were loose ends with the agency.[622] Yet Helms and DDCI Vernon Walters became convinced that CIA top officials had no culpable role in the break-in. It soon became apparent, however, that it was "impossible to prove anything to an inflamed national press corps already in full cry" while "daily leaks to the press kept pointing at CIA". Only later did Helms conclude that "the leaks were coming directly from the White House" and that "President Nixon was personally manipulating the administration's efforts to contain the scandal".[623][624][625]

Soon after the break-in, Nixon's team (chiefly Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean) asked Helms in effect to assert a phony national security reason for the break-in and, under that rational, to interfere with the ongoing FBI investigation of the Watergate burglaries. Such a course would also involve the CIA in posting bail for the arrested suspects. Initially Helms made some superficial accommodation that stalled for several weeks the FBI's progress. At several meetings attended by Helms and Walters, Nixon's team referred to the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, using it as if a talisman of dark secrets, as an implied threat against the integrity of CIA. Immediately, sharply, Helms turned aside this gambit.[626][627][628][629]

By claiming then a secrecy privilege for national security, Helms could have stopped the FBI investigation cold. Yet soon Helms decisively refused the President's repeated request for cover. Stansfield Turner (DCI under Carter) called this "perhaps the best and most courageous decision of his career". Nixon's fundamental displeasure with Helms and the CIA increased. Yet "CIA professionals remember" that Helms "stood up to the president when asked to employ the CIA in a cover-up."[630][631][632][633][634]

John Dean, Nixon's White House Counsel, reportedly asked for one million dollars to buy the silence of the jailed Watergate burglars. Helms in a 1988 interview stated:

"We could get the money... . We didn't need to launder money--ever." But "the end result would have been the end of the agency. Not only would I have gone to jail if I had gone along with what the White House wanted us to do, but the agency's credibility would have been ruined forever."[635]

For the time being, however, Helms had succeeded in distancing the CIA as far as possible from the scandal.[636] Yet Watergate became a major factor (among others: the Vietnam war) in the great shift of American public opinion about the USG: many voters turned critical, their suspicions aroused. Hence also, the political role of the Central Intelligence Agency became a subject of controversy.[637][638][639]

Helms dismissed

Immediately after Nixon's re-election in 1972, he called for all appointed officials in his administration to resign; Nixon here sought to gain more personal control over the federal government. Helms did not consider his position at CIA to be a political job, which was the traditional view within the Agency, and so did not resign as DCI. Previously, on election day Helms had lunch with General Alexander Haig, a top Nixon security advisor; Haig didn't know Nixon's mind on the future at CIA. Evidently neither did Henry Kissinger, Helms discovered later. On November 20, Helms came to Camp David to an interview with Nixon about what he thought was a "bugetary matter". Nixon's chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman also attended. Helms was then informed by Nixon that his services in the new administration would not be required.[640] On Helms' dismissal William Colby (DCI Sept. 1973 to Jan. 1976) later commented that "Dick Helms paid the price for that 'No' [to the White House over Watergate]."[641][642]

In the course of this discussion, Nixon learned or was reminded that Helms was a career civil servant, not a political appointee. Apparently spontaneously, Nixon then offered him the ambassadorship to the Soviet Union. After shortly considering it, Helms declined, wary of the potential consequences of the offer, considering his career in intelligence. "I'm not sure how the Russians might interpret my being sent across the lines as an ambassador," Helms remembers telling Nixon. Instead Helms proposed being sent to Iran.[643][644] Nixon assented. Among other things Nixon perhaps figured Helms, after managing CIA's long involvement in Iranian affairs, would be capable in addressing issues arising out of Nixon's recent policy decision conferring on the Shah his new role as "policeman of the Gulf".[645][646]

Helms also suggested that since he could retire when he turned 60, he might voluntarilly do so at the end of March. So it was agreed, apparently. But instead the event came without warning as Helms was abruptly dismissed when James R. Schlesinger was named the new DCI on February 2, 1973.[647]

"The timing caught me by surprise. I had barely enough time to get my things out of the office and to assemble as many colleagues of all ranks as possible for a farewell... . [¶] A few days later, I encountered Haldeman. "What happened to our understanding that my exit would be postponed for a few weeks?" I asked. "Oh, I guess we forgot," he said with the faint trace of a smile. [¶] And so it was over."[648]

Ambassador to Iran

After Helms left the leadership of the CIA, he began his service as U.S. ambassador to Iran as designated by President Nixon.[649][650] This had caused the dismissal of the then currant ambassador, Joseph Farland.[651] After being confirmed by the Senate, in April 1973 Helms proceeded to his new residence in Tehran, where he served as the American representative until resigning effective January 1977. During these years, however, his presence was often required in Washington, where he testified before Congress in hearings about past CIA activities, including Watergate. His frequent flights to America lessened somewhat his capacity to attend to being ambasador.[652][653]

"The presentation of ambassadorial credentials to the Shah was a rather formal undertaking," reads a photograph caption in Helms' memoirs, which shows him in formal attire, standing before the Shah who is dressed in military uniform.[654] Yet already Helms enjoyed an elite student experience which he shared with the Shah: in the late 1920s/early 1930s both had attended Le Rosey, a French-language prep school in Switzerland.[655] Not until 1957, however, was Helms introduced to the Shah, by the CIA station chief in Tehran. Helms was then in Iran to negotiate the installation of "intercept equipment" to spy on the Soviets.[656][657]

A "celebrated" story was told in elite circles about Helms' appointment to Tehran. The Soviet ambassador had said with a sneer, to Amir Abbas Hoveyda the Shah's prime minister, "We hear the Americans are sending their Number One spy to Iran." Hoveyda replied, "The Americans are our friends. At least they don't send us their Number Ten spy."[658] Helms, for his part, referred to Hoveyda as "Iran's most consummate politician."[659] For many years, the CIA had operated extensive technical installations in Iran, to monitor Soviet military activity across Iran's northern border. Also the CIA, along with Mossad and USAID, had for decades trained and supported the Iranian intelligence and police agency Savak. Further from 1972 to 1975 the CIA was involved in assisting Iran with its project to support the Kurdish struggle against Iraq. As a result of this background of official familiarity with the government of Iran, Helms figured that as ambassador he could "hit the ground running" when he started in Tehran.[660][661][662]

Long before Helms arrived in country the American embassy, and other western embassies as well, entertained an "almost uncritical approval of the Shah. He was a strong leader, a reformer who appreciated the needs of his people and who had a vision of a developed, pro-Western, anti-Communist, properous Iran." The Shah remained an ally. "Too much had been invested in the Shah--by European nations as well as by the U.S.--for any real changes in policy."[663][664] Helms inspected and adjusted the security provided for the embassy, which was located in the city on 25-acres with high walls. A CIA agent accompanied Helms wherever he went. The usual ambassador's car was "a shabby beige Chevrolet" with armor-plating. There was "the traditional ambassador's big black Cadillac, with the flag flying from the front fender" but Helms used it only once, accompanied by his wife.[665][666]

Most important for his effectiveness would be to establish a good working relationship with the ruler, whose terminal illness was a well-kept secret.[667][668] Helms fortunately was satisfied with his "as much as might be asked for" dealings with the Shah. The monarch was notorious for an "I speak, you listen" approach to dialogue.[669] Yet Helms describes lively conversations with "polite give-and-take" in which the Shah never forgot his majesty; these discussions could end with an agreement to disagree. The Shah allowed that they by happenstance might meet at a social function and then "talk shop". Usually, however, they met in private offices, the two alone, where it was "tête à tête with no note-takers or advisors."[670][671]

British author and journalist William Shawcross several times makes the point that the Shah prohibited foreign governments from any contact with his domestic political opposition. Replying to one such request for access, by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, an 'irritated' Shah had replied, "I will not have any guest of mine waste a moment on these ridiculous people." As with other ambassadors before and during his tenure, Helms was reluctant to cross the Shah on this point, because of fear of "being PNG'ed (made persona non grata)." For any ambassador to do so "would at the very least have jeopardized his country's export opportunities in Iran." Consequently, "American and other diplomats swam in a shallow pool of courtiers, industrialists, lawyers, and others who were somehow benefiting from the material success of the regime. ¶ ...people more or less licensed by the Shah." About the immediate court, however, a U.N. official wrote, "There was an atmosphere of overwhelming nouveau-riche, meretricious chi-chi and sycophancy... ."[672][673] Helms himself circulated widely among the traditional elites, e.g., becoming a "close friend" of the aristocrat Ahmad Goreishi.[674]

The Shah's policy of keeping foreign agents and officials away from his domestic foes applied equally to the CIA. In fact, the Agency remained somewhat uninformed about his foes, but for what information the SAVAK gave it.[675] The CIA evidently did not even closely monitor the Shah's activities. During Helms' last year this situation was being reviewed, but State seemed complacent and willing to rely on the Shah's soliloquies and its own diplomatic queries.[676][677] While Helms' 'notorious' connection to the CIA might have been considered an asset by the Shah and his circle, many Iranians viewed the American embassy and its spy Agency as distressing reminders of active foreign meddling in their country's affairs, and of the CIA's 1953 coup against the civil democrat Mohammad Mossadegh.[656][678][679][680] "[F]ew politically minded Iranians doubted that the American embassy was deeply involved in Iranian domestic politics and in promoting particular individuals or agendas" including actions by "the CIA station chief in Tehran".[681]

During his first year as ambassador, Helms had fielded the American and Iranian reaction to the 1973 Arab oil embargo and consequent price hikes following the Yom Kippur War. Immediately, Helms made requests to the Shah regarding fueling favors for the United States Navy near Bandar Abbas. Subsequently the Shah, flush with increased oil revenue, had placed huge orders for foreign imports and American military hardware, e.g., high performance warplanes. Helms wrote in his memoirs, "Foreign businessmen flooded Tehran. Few had any knowledge of the country; fewer could speak a word of Persian." Tens of thousands of foreign commercial agents, technicians and experts, took up temporary residence. "There is no doubt [the Shah] tried to go too fast. Which led to the ports' congestion and the overheating of the economy," Helms later commented.[682][683][684][685] The 'oil bonanza' followed by the rapid expenditure of 'petrodollars' led to an accelerated corruption involving enormous sums.[686][687]

In March 1975 Helms learned the Shah alone had negotiated a major agreement with Saddam Hussein of Iraq while in Algiers at an OPEC meeting. There the Algerian Boumedienne had translated the Shah's French into Arabic for the negotiation. As part of the deal, the Shah had disowned, quit his support for the Kurdish struggle in Iraq. The resulting treaty was evidently a surprise to the Shah's own ministers, as well as to Helms and the USG.[688][689] As a result the CIA also abandoned the Kurds, whose struggling people became another of those stateless nations who would remember with "regret and bitterness" their dealings with the Agency.[690]

Helms articulated several understandings, derived from his working knowledge and experiences as ambassador in Iran. "He came to realize that he could never understand the Iranians," writes William Shawcross. He quotes Helms, "They have a very different turn of mind. Here would be ladies, dressed in Parisian clothes... . But before they went on trips abroad, they would ship up to Mashhad in chadors to ask for protection." Helms with his wife had visited the pilgrimage site in Mashhad, 'the tomb of the eight Imam'. As to the Shah's statecraft, Helms' May 1976 memo observes, "Iranian government and society are highly structured and authoritarian and all major decisions are made at the top. Often even relatively senior officials are not well informed about policies and plans and have little influence on them."[691] In July 1976 Helms send a message to State which, while confident, again voiced various concerns, e.g., about the "inadequate 'political institutionalization'" of the regime.[692] Professor Abbas Milani comments that in 1975 Helms had "captured the nature of the Shah's vulnerability when he wrote that 'the conflict between rapid economic growth and modernization vis-à-vis a still autocratic rule' was the greatest uncertainty about the Shah's future." Milani, looking ahead after Helms' departure, writes that the election of President Carter in 1976 "forced the Shah to expedite his liberalization plans."[693][694]

During the course of his service as ambassador, Helms had dealt with the 1973 oil crisis and Iran's oil bonanza, and the Shah's 1975 deal with Iraq and abandonment of the Kurds. In 1976 Secretary of State Kissinger visited Iran. He agreed to Helms' plan to resign as ambassador before the Presidential election.[695] Helms submitted his resignation to President Ford in the middle of October. Meanwhile, the grand jury sitting in Washington had "shifted the focus of its investigation" about past activities of the CIA.[696]

Congress, and court

During the 1960s and 1970s there was a dramatic, fundamental shift in American society generally, which profoundly affected public political behavior. Elected officials were compelled to confront new constituents with new attitudes. In particular, for the Central Intelligence Agency, the societal change altered notions of what was considered 'politically acceptable conduct'.[697] In the early cold war period the Agency had been somewhat exempt from normal standards of accountability, so that it could employ its special espionage and covert capacities against what was understood as an amoral communist enemy. At times CIA then operated under a cloak of secrecy, where it met the ideological foe in a gray and black world. In that era, normal Congressional oversight was informally modified to block unwanted public scrutiny, which might be useful to the enemy.[698][699]

The new public attitude, however, no longer deigned to countenance a blanket exception to what-might-be questionable CIA activities. With regard to the application of the Constitution, henceforth all USG agencies were expected to conform explicitly to usual principles of transparency. Unfortunately, Helms had given testimony about prior clandestine CIA actions in Chile, at a time when he considered that the old informal understandings still prevailed in Congress. This testimony was later judged under the new rules, which led to his perjury indictment in a court of law. His advocates thus claimed that Helms was unfairly held to a form of double standard.[700][701]

Helms testifies

Helms had appeared before Congress many times during the course of his long career.[702] After he left the CIA in 1973, however, he entered an extraordinary period in which he frequently was called to testify before Congressional committees. While serving as ambassador to Iran (1973-1977), Helms was required to travel from Tehran to Washington sixteen times, thirteen in order to give testimony "before various official bodies of investigation" including the President's Rockefeller Commission. Among the Congressional committee hearings where Helms appeared were the Senate Watergate, the Senate Church, the Senate Intelligence, the Senate Foreign Relations, the Senate Armed Services, the House Pike, the House Armed Services, and the House Foreign Affairs.[703][704]

An immediate cause of the surge in Congressional oversight activity may be sourced in reaction by national politicians to the American people's loss of confidence in the USG due to the Watergate scandal. Also, the apparent distortions and dishonesty concerning the reported progress of the war in Vietnam gravely eroded the public's previous tendency put its trust in the word of USG officials. Other factors contributed to the political unease, e.g., the prevalence of conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Accordingly, the Central Intelligence Agency, which was tangentially involved in Watergate,[705] and which had been directly engaged in the Vietnam conflict from the beginning,[706] became a subject of Congressional and media interest.[707]

The Senate, in order to investigate charges of political malfeasance in the 1972 presidential election, had created the select Watergate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin. Both the Senate and the House created select committees to investigate intelligence matters. Senator Frank Church headed one, and Representative Otis Pike headed the other. Press inquiry into CIA operations had created national headlines, and the existence of a list of questionable CIA activities surfaced which caught the public's attention. President Gerald Ford created a Commission chaired by the Vice President Nelson Rockefeller whose interest was the CIA's recent foray into domestic intelligence.[708][709]

As a long-time professional practitioner, Helms held strong views concerning the proper functioning of an intelligence agency. Highly valued was the notion of maintaining state security by keeping sensitive state secrets away from an enemy's probing awareness. Secrecy was held as an essential, utilitarian virtue in the conduct of covert information gathering, i.e., espionage, and in the reputed ability to directly influence events through covert operations. Consequently, Helms became utterly dismayed at the various investigations of the USG intelligence agencies when they resulted in the publication or broadcast of classified information that had previously remained secret.[708][709]

Plea, aftermath

An especially thorny issue concerned the interpretation of the secrecy which the CIA had previously enjoyed. According to its agents, the CIA's mandate included not only access to state secrets but also the commission of clandestine acts in furtherance of USG policy, as ordered from time to time by the President. Consequently, the CIA had a primary duty to protect such secrets and to refrain from public discussion of any covert activity. An area of conflict arose when this CIA duty of confidentiality to the President came into direct conflict with the Agency's duty to respond honestly to legislative investigations of the executive branch authorized by the Constitution. Up until then, such potential conflict had been negotiated by quiet understandings between Congress and CIA.[710]

For Helms the potential conflict became manifest with regard to his 1973 testimony about secret CIA activity during 1970 in Chile, as ordered by President Nixon. At some point in time, the recorded facts of Helms' testimony ostensibly moved to territory outside the perimeters of the previously prevailing quiet understandings with Congress, and entered an arena in which new rules applied.[711][712]

In late 1972 Nixon had appointed Helms as Ambassador to Iran. During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, 1973, Helms was questioned concerning the CIA's earlier role in Chile. Because these past operations were then still effectively a state secret, and because the Senate hearings were public events Helms, following past Congressional understandings with CIA, in effect denied that the CIA had earlier aided the Chilean opponents of President-elect Allende.[713] After Nixon's 1974 resignation, information uncovered in 1975 by the Church Committee hearings showed that Helms' February 1973 statements were clearly in error. He had misled Congress. Helms was prosecuted in 1977. Later that year Helms was advised to plead nolo contendere. So convicted of a misdemeanor, he received a two-year suspended sentence and a $2,000 fine.[714][715]

After the plea, at sentencing, Barrington D. Parker the federal Judge delivered a stern lecture. No citizen has "a license to operate freely outside the dictates of the law. ... Public officials must respect and honor the Constitution... ."

"You considered yourself bound to protect the Agency [and so] to dishonor your solemn oath to tell the truth. ... If public officials embark deliberately on a course to disobey and ignore the laws of our land because of some misguided and ill-conceived notion and belief that there are earlier commitments and considerations which they must observe, the future of our country is in jeopardy."[716][717]

Helms nonetheless continued to enjoy the support of many in the CIA, both active agents and retired veterans including James Angleton.[718] "He was sworn not to disclose the very things that he was being requested by the [Senate] Committee to disclose," Edward Bennett Williams, Helms' defense attorney, told the press. Williams added that Helms would "wear this conviction like a badge of honor, like a banner", a sentiment later seconded by James R. Schlesinger who had followed Helms as DCI in 1973.[719][720] After his court appearance and sentencing, Helms drove off to a large gathering of CIA officers in Bethesda, Maryland, where he received a standing ovation. A collection was made, enough to pay his fine.[708][721]

Although Helms then might have appeared as an emblematic upholder of the Agency's work, for years the "memory of his no-contest plea still stung. It was a stain in spite of the widespread support he had received." By 1983, however, "the end of the anti-CIA decade" had arrived. As Helms took the podium to speak, he was given a "returning war hero's welcome" by top USG officials and hundreds of guests at the Grand Ballroom of the Washington Hilton. "I am touched and honored. My reasons can be no mystery to any of you."[722][723]

Later years

Helms had resigned his post in Iran to face allegations brough by Carter's Justice Department that he had earlier misled Congress.[724] Perhaps as a result, Helms allowed the journalist Thomas Powers to interview him over four "long mornings" about his years of service in the CIA. The interview transcript totals about 300 pages.[725] Although not overly pleased, Helms was apparently satisfied with the product: a widely-praised book by Powers,[726] The Man who Kept the Secrets. Richard Helms and the CIA, published in 1979 by Knopf.[727] Helms writes, "In the event, the book's title... seemed to bear out my intention in speaking to Powers."[728]

In the years following his retirement from government service in 1977, Helms was interviewed many times, including the CIA's 1982-1984 sessions conducted by CIA historian Robert M. Hathaway and by Russell Jack Smith (former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence under Helms) for their 1993 CIA book on the former DCI.[729][730] Always guarded Helms had talked with British television personality David Frost in 1978,[731][732] and was queried by many authors and journalists including Bob Woodward,[733] William Shawcross,[734] John Ranelagh,[735] and Edward Jay Epstein.[736]

After returning home from Tehran, Helms in late 1977 started an international consulting company called Safeer. The firm was located in downtown Washington, on K street, in a small office on the fourth floor. Safeer signifies "Ambassador" in Farsi.[737][738] It was "a one-man consulting firm" set up among other reasons "to help Iranians do business in the United States". Helms was back to doing familiar work on the phone. "Within a year, however, Helms' business was reduced to a trickle by the Iranian revolution, which caught him completely by surprise," according then to Powers.[739] The firm then morphed into acting as "consultant to businesses that made investments in other countries."[740]

As a consequence of General Westmoreland's lawsuit for libel against CBS over its 1982 documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, Helms was required to answer questions put by CBS attorneys. CBS insisted on video-taping its deposition of Helms, who then declined. The issue was litigated with Helms prevailing: no video.[741][742]

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan awarded Helms the National Security Medal, given to both civilians and the military. That year Helms also served as a member of the President's Commission on National Security.[743] After Reagan's election in 1980, Helms had evidently been a behind-the-scenes proponent of William Casey for the DCI position. Helms and Casey (DCI 1981-1987) first met while serving in the OSS during World War II.[744][745] Helms in 1983 gave a prepared speech on intelligence issues,[746] before five hundred people gathered at a Washington awards banquet held in his honor, which event also celebrated the OSS.[747][748]

Eventually Helms began work on his memoirs, A Look over my Shoulder. A life in the Central Intelligence Agency, published posthumously in 2003 by Random House.[749] William Hood, formerly of the OSS and CIA (1947-1975), assisted Helms with the book.[750] Henry Kissinger wrote the "Forward".[751]

Richard Helms died at the age of 89, of multiple myeloma on October 23, 2002.[752] He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.


William Colby recognized Helms as a man of honor. Colby served under Helms and himself subsequently became DCI. In his book Honorable Men Colby's title evidently refers to Helms as representative of those officers who followed such an Agency ethic.[753][754] President Richard Nixon, however, could find Helms pedantic and tiresome, because of his dull practice of reading his padded reports and 'news' at NSC meetings.[755] "There was no public servant I trusted more," wrote Henry Kissinger about Helms. "His lodestar was a sense of duty."[756] He did not "misuse his knowledge or his power," Kisssinger earlier had written. "Disciplined, meticulously fair and discreet, Helms performed his duties with the total objectivity essential to an effective intelligence service."[757]

Journalist author Bob Woodward in his book on the CIA reports his meeting with Helms in 1980. Apparently his edginess was not nervous, but indicated an exquisite awareness of his surroundings, wrote the investigative reporter. In 1989 Woodward called Helms "one of the enduring symbols, controversies and legends of the CIA".[758] Kissinger observed that Helms "was tempered by many battles" and "was strong as he was wary." Urbane and tenacious, "his smile did not always include his eyes."[759] Former CIA official Victor Marchetti admired Helms for his office foresight, noting "that not a single piece of paper existed in the agency which linked Helms to... the Bay of Pigs."[760] Slate called Helms "socially correct, bureaucratically adept, operationally nasty." Yet "Helms gained the confidence of presidents and the admiration of syndicated columnists."[761] Intelligence author Keith Melton describes Helms as a professional, always impeccably dressed, with a 'low tolerance for fools'; an elusive man, laconic and reserved. About Helms author Edward Jay Epstein writes, "I found him to be an elegant man with a quiet voice, who could come right to the point."[762]

During the 1950s Helms served in the CIA when the agency was ostensibly perceived as 'liberal'.[763][764][765] When retired, Helms continued his interest in the destiny of the agency, favoring William Casey as DCI during the Reagan administration when the agency took a 'conservative' direction.[766][767] Yet Helms steered an informed course and kept his own counsel concerning the tides of political affairs, according to journalist Woodward.

"Helms had calculated carefully. The danger, the threat to the CIA, came from both the right and the left. Maybe the left had had its way in the 1970s and the investigations, causing their trouble. But the right could do its own mischief."[768]

In 1939 Helms had married Julia Bretzman Shields, a sculptress six years his senior. Julia then had two children James and Judith. Together they had a son Dennis, who as a young man briefly worked at CIA; he latter became a lawyer. His first wife apparently favored the Democratic Party. Helms was, of course, very non-committal politically. He played tennis. This marriage came to an end in 1967.[769][770] Later Helms married Cynthia McKelvie, originally from England. She eventually wrote two books, both of which include her public experiences during their marriage.[771]

Following soon after the close of his CIA career, he and his wife Cynthia visited former President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch. After his dramatic fall from power, the Shah was visited by the former ambassador and his wife at the Shah's hospital room in New York City. In the mid-1980s, the couple hosted a dinner party at their residence near Washington, with special guests President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. Yet first federal security officers arrived to inspect the house, survey the neighborhood, and sample the menu. Twenty-three vehicles came bearing the guests.[772]

Although a reader of 'spy novels' for diversion, as was common in the intelligence field, Helms did not like one well-known novel in particular. The cynicism, violence, betrayal, and despair in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré offended Helms. As a leader of professionals, Helms considered "trust" as essential to intelligence work. So strong was his negative reaction that Helms' son Dennis said he "detested" this novel.[773]

While serving as an OSS intelligence officer in Europe in May 1945, Helms wrote a letter to his son Dennis, then three years old, using stationery he had recovered from Adolf Hitler's office in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. He dated the letter "V-E Day" (May 8, 1945), the day Germany surrendered. Sixty-six years later, Dennis Helms delivered the letter to the CIA; it arrived on May 3, 2011, the day after the death of Osama bin Laden. It now resides at the private museum at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.[774]

He is not related to U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

In the media

  • The character William Martin, portrayed by Cliff Robertson in the 1977 television miniseries Washington Behind Closed Doors (based on John Ehrlichman's novel The Company), was loosely based on Helms. In the series, Martin ends up as ambassador to a Caribbean island, not Iran, as Helms did. He is shown engaged in dogfights with the White House and FBI, and as blackmailing "President Monckton" (obviously based on Nixon) into keeping him on, by playing him secretly recorded tapes of discussions of the Watergate break-in. The writer Ehrlichman had been convicted in the Watergate break-in and coverup.
  • Helms was portrayed by actor Sam Waterston in a memorable scene in the 1995 film Nixon, deleted from the original release but included in the director's cut DVD.
  • The character Richard Hayes, portrayed by actor Lee Pace in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, was loosely based on Helms.

Reference notes



  • Richard Helms with William Hood. A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency. New York: Random House 2003.
  • Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1979.
    • Harold Jackson, "Richard Helms. Director of CIA whose lies about the overthrow of Allende's Chilean government led to his conviction", Oct. 23, 2002, obituary in The Guardian.
    • Chistopher Marquis, "Richard M. Helms Dies at 89; Dashing Ex-Chief of the C.I.A.", Oct. 23, 2002, obituary in The New York Times.
    • Jefferson Morley, "The Gentleman Planner of Assassinations. The nasty career of CIA Director Richard Helms", Nov. 1, 2002, obituary in Slate.
  • Robert M. Hathaway & Russell Jack Smith, Richard Helms as Director of Central Intelligence 1966-1973, edited by J. Kenneth McDonald. Washington: Center for the Study of Intelligence 1993. Written by members of the CIA's History Staff, this 230-page book (as photocopied, with white-outs) was released to the public by the Agency in 2006.
  • David S. Robarge, "Richard Helms: The Intelligence Professional Personified. In memory and appreciation", 2007 CIA article.
  • A Life in Intelligence - The Richard Helms Collection. Documents and literature at CIA website.


  • William Colby and Peter Forbath, Honorable Men. My life in the CIA. New York: Simon and Schuster 1978.
  • Allen Dulles, The Craft of Intelligence. New York: Harper and Row 1963, revised 1965'; reprint: Signet Books, New York, 1965.
  • Stansfield Turner, Burn before Reading. Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence. New York: Hyperion 2005.
  • H. Bradford Westerfield, editor, Inside the CIA's private World. Declassified articles from the Agency's internal journal, 1955-1992. Yale University 1995.


  • Anne Karalekas, "History of the Central Intelligence Agency" in Senate [Church], Final Report, Book IV (1976) at v-vi, 1-107.
  • . Washington: U. S. Govt. Printing Office 1975.
  • . Washington: U. S. Govt. Printing Office 1975.
  • Senate Select Committee (Frank Church, chair), . Washington: U. S. Govt. Printing Office 1976.
  • Senate Select Committee (Frank Church, chair), . Washington: U. S. Govt. Printing Office 1976.


  • Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, The CIA and American Democracy. Yale University 1989.
  • John Ranelagh, The Agency. The rise and decline of the CIA. From Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey. Cambridge Pub. 1986'; NY: Simon & Schuster 1986.
  • Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. New York: Doubleday 2007.
    • Edward Jay Epstein, Deception. The invisible war between the KGB and the CIA. New York: Simon & Schuster 1989.
    • David C. Martin, A Wilderness of Mirros. New York: Harper and Row 1980.
  • Athan Theoharis, editor, The Central Intelligence Agency. Security under scrutiny. Westport: Greenwood Press 2006.


  • Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World was Going our Way. The KGB and the battle for the Third World. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane 2005'; NY: Basic Books 2005.
  • Thomas Powers, Intelligence Wars. American secret history from Hitler to Al-Qaeda. NY: New York Review Books 2002, rev. 2004.
  • Jeffrey T. Richelson, A Century of Spies. Intelligence in the twentieth century. Oxford University 1995.
  • Abram N. Shulsky and Gary J. Schmitt, Silent Warfare. Understanding the world of intelligence. Washington: Potomac Books 1991, [1993], 3d ed. 2002.

External media links

  • The short film ]. After the President's introduction, Helms appears at 7:50 to 8:37 and 8:55 to 9:59, without giving a speech or making a statement.
  • The short film photo-reconnaissance satellite program, at 0:45 to 3:52.
  • Nixon White House Tapes January 1973, Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, released on 23 Jun 2009. Four minute telephone conversation between Nixon and Helms about his recent appointment as ambassador to Iran.
  • At
    • "CIA Company Business 8": Video of Helms testifying before Congress, at 4:27-5:14.
    • "CIA Company Business 9": Video of Helms testifying before Congress, at 0:00-1:00 and 3:58-5:00.
    • "CIA Company Business 10": Video of Helms testifying before Congress, at 2:04-4:34.
    • "Richard M. Helms - Building the Tradecraft": Photo essay with narration of Helms' career at CIA, length 2:22.
    • "Nixon (1995) HQ 'Do you ever think of death, Dick?'": Commercial film by Oliver Stone; outtake of contrived conversation between Nixon and Helms (played by Sam Waterston) at CIA's Langley HQ, length 10:44. The screenplay scrambles facts, e.g., it attributes Angleton's orchid growing to Helms, among other things.

See also

Government offices
Preceded by
Vice Adm. William Raborn
Director of Central Intelligence
June 30, 1966 – February 02, 1973
Succeeded by
James R. Schlesinger

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