This memoir, written by Helms shortly before he passed away last year, takes the reader from his OSS days through his battles with Congress over intelligence abuses and his own misleading testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1970s.
Settling old scores is often a prime motivation for writing one’s memoir, and Helms has a list of btes noires: President Richard M. Nixon, former CIA Director William E. Colby, Sens. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), and Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.), among others. Much of his book is given over to rebutting and defending those who attacked the CIA during his tenure. In this regard, few compare to Nixon, whose animosity toward the CIA was no secret. Nixon considered it an enclave of left-leaning, Ivy League aristocrats who looked down at him and, worse still, secretly aided John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. While there is no truth to the latter allegation, Helms reveals that Nixon dismissed the CIA’s reporting as “worthless,” and the agency in turn seldom sought his advice, even banishing him for a time from meetings of the National Security Council. The president later tried to drag the CIA into the Watergate cover-up but Helms blocked him. Nixon then fired Helms shortly before his mandatory retirement after promising not to do so. Not surprisingly, Helms’s portrayal of Nixon in this book is hardly flattering.
Colby’s sin was cooperating too fully with investigative committees after The New York Times published reports in 1974 about alleged domestic spying and questionable covert action in Chile. Both the Ford administration and Congress established panels of inquiry. As Helms’s successor, Colby faced two options: He could stonewall until investigators ran out of time, money, and patience, or he could cooperate in hopes of winning their goodwill and avoiding a draconian response. Helms instinctually advocated the former approach; Colby chose the latter, believing, according to his memoirs, that lawmakers might otherwise dismantle the agency. In Helms’s memorable phrase, Colby “lost his pucker.” Especially vexing to Helms was Colby’s suggestion to investigators that Helms might have perjured himself in testimony before Congress. Further, Colby gave investigators documents that implicated Helms in various aspects of the scandal.
Helms’s choicest invective, though, is reserved for Church and Pike, who led the subsequent congressional inquiries in 1975. (I served as Church’s assistant during this investigation and have a rather different interpretation of events.) To Helms, the Senate and House inquiries amounted to a “ransacking” of the CIA’s family jewels by publicity-hungry lawmakers. Of course, from my vantage point, the CIA had violated its mandate by spying on American citizens who had only exercised their First Amendment rights to oppose the war in Vietnam or to join the civil rights movement.
Nevertheless, the Church and Pike committees were far from perfect. In hopes of gaining public support for intelligence reform, Church tried to dramatize the hearings and as a result sometimes came across as grandstanding, while Pike lost control of his overzealous staff. Yet the intelligence transgressions could hardly be ignored, and both panels had serious members (including Church and Pike) who labored diligently to restore the CIA and the FBI to their proper roles of protecting American citizens, not spying on them.
When called to testify before the Church committee, Helms suffered a convenient case of amnesia, maintaining that he had signed too many documents during his long tenure at the CIA to remember them all. One of the documents he was asked to explain was the Huston Plan, a master spy plan from 1970 bearing his signature and those of three other intelligence chiefs, including J. Edgar Hoover. Helms again dismissed the document as another forgettable memo that crossed his desk, but given the sweeping nature of this authorization to allow the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence to spy on American citizens, that’s extremely hard to accept. Indeed, a few days after signing the paper, Hoover came to his senses, went to the White House and removed his support, prompting President Nixon to rescind the plan–although the CIA continued its domestic spying.
Another source of trouble for Helms was undoubtedly Sen. Symington and his fellow members of the Foreign Relations Committee. In 1973, they called him to testify publicly about his knowledge of CIA involvement in Chile. Helms denied under oath that the agency had any involvement with efforts to overthrow the Chilean government–a brazen lie. His justification for it was that he had promised Nixon never to reveal the operations against Chile. Moreover, he reasoned, this panel had no official jurisdiction over the CIA; therefore, he did not have to tell these lawmakers the truth. This episode has become a famous case study in intelligence circles. Did Helms make the right choice? A court of law subsequently decided against Helms, convicting him of an embarrassing misdemeanor for failing to tell the full story to the committee–a conviction that he claimed was a “badge of honor” and did indeed make him something of a hero in the eyes of some intelligence officers. The proper response, however, would have been to go into executive (closed) session, where Helms could have discussed the true details about the CIA’s involvement in Chile without publicly revealing the highly classified facts of the operation.
Helms provides a tour d’horizon of key CIA operations from 1947 until his retirement in 1973. Particularly insightful are his recollections of the Johnson administration and its refusal to accept the CIA’s candid and accurate appraisals of the souring war in Vietnam. Yet, Helms adds little to the existing histories of the other crises that engulfed the nation and its intelligence services during this period. Nor does he have much to say about his life as a diplomat in Iran following his departure from the CIA, or why the agency failed to anticipate the Shah’s downfall soon after Helms’s tenure as ambassador ended.
And the occasional attempts at legerdemain are a detraction, as when Helms writes that the “CIA had never assassinated anyone,” without noting that it had tried frequently–especially against Fidel Castro–and failed.
As DCI, Richard Helms could never bring himself to level with Congress. Too often, his memoir suffers from this same guarded quality. After all, when you’re a spy, what’s most important is not to inform congressional overseers or educate the American people about intelligence–it’s to keep your pucker.