Richard McGarrah Helms believed in secrets. Of course, everyone in the American intelligence community believes in secrets in theory, but Helms really believed in secrets the way Lyman Kirkpatrick believed in secrets. At one point years ago they were rivals in the Central Intelligence Agency. But they had certain things in common and one of them was a belief in secrets. They did not like covert action operations—subsidizing politicians in Brazil, parachuting into Burma, preparing poisoned handkerchiefs for inconvenient Arab colonels, all that sleight of hand and derring-do of World War II vintage which certain veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) brought into the CIA—because covert action operations had a built-in uncertainty factor. They tended to go wrong, and even when they succeeded they tended to get out. Too many people knew about them. You couldn’t keep them secret; not just confidential for the life of the administration, like so many secrets in Washington, but secret, in Lyman Kirkpatrick’s phrase, “from inception to eternity.”
As Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from June 1966 until February 1973, Helms was as close to anonymous as a senior government official can be. In political memoirs of the period Helms is often in the index, but when you check the text he is only a walk-on, one of those names in sentences which begin, “Also at the meeting were. . . .” If it were not for a little . . . bad luck . . . Helms would be as faintly remembered now as Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter or General Hoyt Vandenberg, two early DCIs.
No one tells stories about Richard Helms. He had allies within the CIA, of course, and friends, and there are men who still admire his professional skill in running a traditional intelligence service, and there are even more who learned to respect his bureaucratic talents. He lost some battles within the CIA but he won all the wars and no one who worked with him ever doubted for long that Helms was a formidable opponent when it came to office politics. But Helms did not win people, as Allen Dulles, Frank Wisner, Bissell, Tracey Barnes and Thomas Karamessines all did. His fires were banked; he kept his own counsel and his distance, and even the men who knew him best find themselves hard pressed when they are asked what Richard Helms was like.
The only genuine anecdote I heard about Helms came from a man who did not like him, and he had to think a long time before he could come up with it. Before the Director’s daily meeting, the man said, Helms would read an intelligence brief describing what had come in overnight. The names of all agents, intelligence officers, operations and the like were replaced by code words, of course, but for the Director’s convenience there were little tags attached at the edge of the page providing the true identities. One day there was an item from the Chief of Station (COS) in Frankfurt and the tag beside the code name for the COS said, “Ray Kline.”
Helms allowed himself to smile broadly at this, according to the man who told me the story, because the officer in charge of the brief had misspelled the name of a man who had once been something of a Helms rival, an important CIA official, Ray Cline, with a C. Helms paused, and said, “Poor Ray. How soon they forget, how soon they forget.”
A man has been stepping very lightly indeed, who does not leave deeper tracks than that.
Helms personal background was atypical of the CIA in two ways. He went to school in Europe (Le Rosey in Switzerland, a posh social institution where Mohammed Riza Pahlavi, later shah of Iran, also went) and he had no money of his own. The practical importance of this fact was that Helms, unlike many early CIA people, needed his job. He could not afford to resign if he got mad and he knew it. In all other respects—race, politics and social background—Helms was typical of the Eastern, old family, old money, WASP patricians who ran the great financial institutions, the Wall Street law firms, the Foreign Service and the CIA.
At Williams College, where he was graduated in 1935, Helms was one of those young men, assured beyond their years, who are voted most popular and most likely to succeed. He was Phi Beta Kappa, which meant he knew how to write papers and take exams with effect, but he had none of the intellectual fire and passion which make teachers value students. Helms’ roommate was the son of Hugh Baillie, president of United Press at the time, and after leaving Williams, Helms paid his own way to Europe and went to work for UP in Berlin under Fred Oechsner, a UP journalist who later joined the State Department.
In 1937, after a couple of routine years with UP, Helms left Europe and joined the business staff of the Indianapolis Times. In 1942 he moved to Washington with the U.S. Naval Reserve where he spent some time in a routine office job. By this time Fred Oechsner had joined the OSS and he tried to recruit Helms. Helms said no, he thought not, which did not surprise Oechsner. The Navy, after all, was an established service with plenty of opportunities for an ambitious young man, while the OSS was new and unknown. Later Helms was approached by someone more persuasive—Oechsner thinks it may have been by Dulles himself—and this time Helms said yes.
For the next 30 years, all but four of them in Washington, Helms worked for the OSS and the intelligence services which succeeded it, and he remained a mostly anonymous figure.
If it had not been for Watergate, which opened up the American government like an archaeologist’s trench, Helms would have retired and remained unknown by the general public. Even now he remains an elusive figure, despite dozens of congressional hearings. He does not give interviews, his friends are cautious in discussing him, his enemies found him hard to fathom even when they worked down the hall, and nobody connected with an intelligence agency really believes in letting facts speak for themselves.
This is not to say that Richard Helms was a retiring public servant, one of those gray men who washes his own socks. Far from it. He was personable and good-looking in a dark, brilliantined sort of way, and he got about a good deal socially. He even dated Barbara Howar, and he was never at a loss for a luncheon partner. But lunch was part of the job. The CIA lives on a kind of sufferance and it was Helms’ job to see that the Agency’s fragile charter survived intact. So he often lunched with the kind of men—senators, senior government officials, important journalists—whose good will, whose trust, in fact, gave the Agency the freedom from scrutiny it needed to do its job.
One of the men Helms used to see regularly in this way was C.L. Sulzberger, the diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. They would lunch at Helms’ regular table at the Occidental and talk about Soviet strategic capabilities, Greece and Cyprus (in which Sulzberger took a special interest), why the North Vietnamese failed to stage an offensive during Nixon’s trip to Peking, things like that.
“You know,” Helms told Sulzberger once, “I tell you almost anything.”
Helms’ reputation in official Washington—as opposed to his broader public reputation, which is more recent, more sinister and less precise—is that of an able, honest man, with the emphasis on honesty. The journalists who talked to him and the congressmen he briefed over the years trusted Helms implicitly. Even at the height of the war in Vietnam, when Lyndon Johnson was calling for “progress” reports as a patriotic duty, Helms would go into an executive session with Senator Fulbright’s committee and tell them the bad news. Like Sulzberger, the senators convinced themselves that Helms told them just about anything. They did not grasp the extent to which he answered questions narrowly, or phrased himself exactly, or volunteered nothing.
But not even that covers it. There are some secrets you just flat-out lie to protect, and Helms knew a lot of them. Until he became DCI, Helms’ entire career had been in the Deputy Directorate for Plans. He had lived through every bureaucratic battle in Washington and he knew the details of every operation abroad, not just the routine agent-running but Cold War exotica involving Ukrainian emigres penetrating the “denied areas” of Russia, Polish undergrounds, counterguerrilla operations in Latin America, the acquisition of the Gehlen organization from Nazi Germany at the end of the war. The world looked quite different in the early years of the Cold War, and things that seem demented or criminal now sometimes looked plausible then.
Helms knew every crazy, crack-brained scheme dreamed up over drinks late at night—or meticulously, in committee, where men were sometimes crazier still—and he knew what would happen if those things ever got out. It was bad enough having Jean-Paul Sartre and half of black Africa think the CIA had killed Lumumba. What would happen if the New York Times found out about secret drug testing, links to the Mafia, poison-pen devices …? Helms knew secrets which could wreck the whole CIA and leave the United States with a crippled intelligence agency, or no intelligence agency at all.
There is only one man with a right to ask questions about such things: the president. If the president were to ask, clearly and unmistakably, Dick, what about this story the CIA tried to kill Castro with the help of the Mafia? Is this true?
Helms would have to answer a question like that. But God forbid the president should ever ask. Once you began to look into such matters there was no telling what you would find, or what would follow, or where it would end.
There is no way to rise to the top of a bureaucratic structure like the Central Intelligence Agency without a combination of ability and luck. Helms’ abilities were narrow and conventional; he was a man of lean gifts. He was a first-rate administrator, for example, quite unlike Dulles, who would call for a briefing from one of his top men and then keep him waiting outside his office for an hour while he chatted on his intercom with Robert Amory, the deputy director for intelligence. Helms was also a great manager of men. He always dealt with people with what one colleague called a “perceptive courtesy,” and it is easy to collect stories of Helms’ consideration and regard where personal relations were concerned.
Helms also knew a great deal about running agents, the most delicate work in the field of intelligence and, before the introduction of the U-2 and reconnaissance satellites, potentially the most valuable. But even this talent probably did not have so much to do with Helms’ rise in the CIA as plain luck.
Some of his luck was of the traditional sort—being in the right job at the right time—but occasionally Helms’ luck required something close to an act of God. His rise to the top of the Deputy Directorate for Plans (DDP), for example, required the departure of three men his own age and at least his equal in ability, who could have been expected to remain right where they were.
The first to go was Lyman Kirkpatrick, something of a protege of an early DCI named Walter Bedell Smith. In the summer of 1952 Kirkpatrick, an ambitious man who was then Helms’ immediate superior, came down with infantile paralysis during a trip to the Far East. Eventually he returned to the Agency in a wheelchair, but by that time he was no longer blocking Helms’ path.
The second was Frank Wisner, a charming and intelligent Southerner of independent means who was the first head of the Deputy Directorate for Plans. In the fall of 1956, probably sparked by the Hungarian uprising which he witnessed from Vienna, Wisner suffered a nervous breakdown. Helms was appointed the acting DDP while Wisner was on leave, and then reappointed after Wisner suffered a relapse and permanently left the DDP in late 1958.
Helms was not alone in thinking Dulles would appoint him the next DDP after Wisner’s departure.
He had been Wisner’s deputy since 1952, he was widely considered a protege of Dulles’, and he had a group of CIA friends—one former colleague described Helms as a cardinal surrounded by his bishops—who were backing him for the job.
Dulles appointed Richard Bissell.
Helms was so disappointed that for a while in late ’58 he even thought about leaving the Agency, or perhaps taking a post abroad. The foreign assignments were the most interesting in the CIA but they were off the upward path, away from the centers of bureaucratic power where careers are made and unmade. Helms’ career seemed to have been unmade in late 1958 and if it had not been for some personal troubles (according to one of his colleagues at the time) he probably would have left the country. Instead, he accepted a job as Bissell’s deputy.
The true explanation of Bissell’s promotion was probably not so much Helms’ failings as the fact that Dulles had great respect for Bissell’s brilliance, and that he liked him. Dulles was a talker and storyteller, a man who liked knowing people, and who appreciated flair, energy, wit and imagination. Bissell had worked on the Marshall Plan before joining the CIA at Dulles’ request in 1954, he was well-known on the Hill, he had a wide social acquaintance, and he was a man of ideas.
The first major assignment Dulles gave Bissell when he joined the CIA was to find some way of penetrating the so-called “denied areas” of Eastern Europe and Russia, something Helms and the clandestine foreign intelligence side of the DDP had largely failed to do. Bissell had come up with the U-2, which provided huge quantities of intelligence, and later he developed the satellite reconnaissance program, which produced even more. This was without question the CIA’s greatest single achievement, an intelligence gain which has been directly responsible for the arms-limitation agreement reached with the Soviet Union by Nixon and Kissinger in May 1972. The Russians have always refused on-site inspections, and without satellite reconnaissance such arms agreements would have been impossible, because the sine qua non of trust—exact knowledge that an opponent is in fact keeping his promises—would have been lacking. After an achievement of that magnitude it is only natural that Dulles would have given Bissell the best job available, which turned out to be the one Helms thought he deserved. The result, equally naturally, was that Helms and Bissell did not get along.
One reason for their cool relationship—Bissell cannot remember ever having had a general conversation with Helms—was that Bissell was openly skeptical of the value of traditional intelligence agents. Even with Oleg Penkovskiy, who delivered more than 10,000 pages of documents to Britain’s MI-6 and CIA between April 1961 and August 1962, Bissell was doubtful. “How do you know this guy is on the level?” he would ask John Maury, head of the DDP’s Soviet division at the time. Maury pointed out that no intelligence agency in its right mind would hand over material of that quality solely in order to prove the bona fides of an agent. Later Penkovskiy’s information would be of critical importance during the Cuban missile crisis when it showed, among other things, that the missiles in Cuba could hit every major city in the United States except Seattle. But Bissell was skeptical anyway and Helms resented it.
These and other differences created a little cold war within the DDP. “Take it up with Wonder Boy next door,” Helms would sometimes say in answer to a request. His allies started what amounted to a whispering campaign against Bissell’s professionalism where spies were concerned (he thought a lot of them were a plain waste of time and money) and his administrative ability, which was as erratic as Dulles’. He got results, as the U-2 showed, but his methods caused a lot of confusion along the way. The little war simmered just beneath the DDP’s surface (Helms’ secretary used to say, “Well, we all know Dick really should have been DDP”) until the Bay of Pigs. At that time their differences—expressed bureaucratically, as always—reached a point of such heat that Helms came within a hairsbreadth of being banished from Washington.
The basis of their disagreement was the old one—the distrust of the Foreign Intelligence specialist for covert paramilitary operations that balloon to such a size that the hand behind them can no longer be hidden. The Bay of Pigs was the biggest operation of all, expanding from a proposal for a limited landing of guerrillas to a full-blown invasion force with ships, an air force and well over a thousand fighting men.
Helms knew how to disguise and mute his role, which makes it difficult to reconstruct just exactly what he did to anger Bissell. As assistant DDP he had control of the money, the people and the directives going out to the field, all of which gave him a vantage from which to subtly impede, frustrate and harass the Bay of Pigs planning. One former colleague and rival “imagines” (CIA people often tell you things elliptically) that Helms must have tried to protect his own assets, refused to assign his best people to the project, advised those involved not to back it too strongly. Others say he discussed it quietly with the DDP’s division chiefs, encouraged a consensus of doubt and opposition, argued (but not insistently) with Dulles that experienced operators doubted the CIA’s role could be hidden and so on. He would not have said, “This is foolish and wrong,” but he might have said it was unworkable, impractical, unwieldy, a threat to CIA assets built up over the years, and more properly the work of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It was arguments of this sort, at any rate, which Helms took to Roger Hilsman at the State Department. Early in 1961 he told Hilsman he did not know exactly what was going on, that he disagreed with what he knew, that Bissell was running off on his own without a word of advice from the Office of National Estimates (ONE) or Robert Amory, the Deputy Director of Intelligence (DDI). He told Hilsman he had argued with Bissell and Dulles without effect, and Hilsman, alarmed, “put in my two cents’ worth with Rusk,” also without effect.
Bissell, characteristically, says that to the extent he knew of Helms’ opposition at the time he “probably” resented it. Others say he was angered by Helms’ disloyalty in even raising the issue with CIA people like James Angleton, not to mention outsiders like Hilsman.
Whatever the exact cause of Bissell’s anger, he went to Dulles early in 1961 and said he could no longer work with Helms. Dulles disliked personal conflicts of this sort but finally steeled himself and gave Helms a bleak ultimatum—London Chief of Station or resignation.
Bissell says he does not remember this version of events, which is based on an explicit account by a CIA official who was in a position to know what happened, and that he thinks the story is “probably apocryphal,” although he “believes” his deputy did make some such request of Dulles, and that Dulles “probably” felt Helms would be better off in London.
As things turned out, Helms was not required to make the painful choice Dulles had offered him. On April 15th, 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion was launched, and three days later it ended with the surrender of the entire surviving invasion force. It was not Helms who left Washington or the CIA, but Dulles (in November 1961) and Bissell (the following February). The new director, a conservative Republican businessman named John McCone, appointed Helms DDP.
Helms had reached the CIA’s top level, and had even been mentioned for the first time outside the Agency as a potential Director, Hilsman having suggested to Rusk that Helms be appointed to replace Dulles. The suggestion didn’t get anywhere—Kennedy had political problems on his right, and McCone’s appointment served as a buffer—but Helms, all the same, was on the upward path. He was in charge of the CIA’s most important branch, in a position of real authority for the first time, but he also was, as he learned, in charge of the secrets, and when Dulles and Bissell left the CIA, they left plenty.
The biggest secret, known to only a handful of CIA officials, was assassination. If it were not for a little-noticed Drew Pearson column on March 7th, 1967, the assassination plots might never have been revealed at all. But on that day, or soon after, President Johnson saw the story and two weeks later, in a White House meeting on the evening of March 22nd, Johnson personally asked Richard Helms about it. By that time Johnson had a preliminary FBI report on the matter and he apparently put his questions to Helms with a directness which could not be evaded.
Johnson told Helms he wanted a full report, not only about Castro but about Trujillo and Diem as well. On March 23rd Helms—however reluctantly, after years of resisting just such inquiries—asked CIA Inspector General Gordon Stewart to conduct an investigation.
Helms did not like covert action operations and assassination is the most dangerous of them all. Skeptics may say this was only a deceptive mask, when you consider all the operations with which he was involved, but the available evidence supports his reputation among CIA people as a foreign intelligence man first, last and always. He was skeptical of the underground stay-behind nets organized for Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s; he was happy to turn over the Meo army in Laos and the pacification program in Vietnam to the Pentagon in the late 1960s, and throughout his career he was known as a man who would quietly discourage just about every covert action proposal brought up in his presence.
In a typical instance in the summer of 1964 Helms defused proposals for some sort of dramatic operation to rescue five American officials held by Simba rebels in Stanleyville, a provincial capital of the former Belgian Congo. Fear for the officials was intense since the Simbas were less a revolutionary army than an atavistic mob of bush warriors; after capturing Stanleyville and the foreigners stranded there in August 1964, for example, they killed a group of Italians, butchered them, and hung them up for sale in local shops.
At that time a meeting was held in the office of the DCI, John McCone, to consider a rescue operation. All sorts of ideas were batted around, according to one of those at the meeting—bombing raids, parachute drops, a helicopter assault, sending a paramilitary team in through the jungle. Ray Cline, the Deputy Director for Intelligence, wanted some sort of strong, dramatic action: these were the lowest sort of bush rebels, disorganized, badly led, a rabble. The thing to do was go in like gangbusters.
Helms did not say much, but when he did he quietly attacked every proposal on practical grounds. No one knew where the American officials were being held. They were in Stanleyville, but where? How would a team of rescuers find them? The officials would be in immediate danger as soon as the shooting started; the rescue team would be running about erratically. In the end McCone, who had initially favored some sort of immediate rescue operation, was brought around by Helms’ arguments. Plans for a quick operation were dropped and the officials remained prisoner until a combined parachute assault and ground attack recaptured the city in November.
If Helms was doubtful about the utility of most paramilitary and covert action programs, he was doubly skeptical of assassinations, which were hard to organize, harder to keep secret, and all but impossible to justify or explain away once revealed. But this does not mean that he opposed them in principle or refused to contribute to carrying them out. Either would have been out of character. Helms is often described by CIA people as a “good soldier,” by which they mean someone who will argue with a policy until it is adopted, but not afterward. Assassination plans did not originate with Helms, and he did not encourage or push or support them with energy, but there is no record that he ever opposed one either, and he had been Director of Central Intelligence for five years before he issued an explicit order that assassination was forbidden. Helms’ private policy on assassinations was purely pragmatic, but for a while more effective: he tried only to keep them secret.
There are only three known plots by the CIA to deliberately kill specific foreign leaders—an Iraqi colonel, Patrice Lumumba and Fidel Castro. The first plot did not get very far. The plot against Lumumba was extensive and energetic but superseded by events when Lumumba was abducted by his Congolese enemies and murdered by them, probably on January 17th, 1961, according to a United Nations investigation conducted at the time. The plot, or plots, against Castro were first proposed in late 1959 and were actively pursued from 1960 until 1965 when Lyndon Johnson, preoccupied with the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, called off all covert action operations against Cuba.
The ultimate responsibility for the assassination plots is uncertain. It is hard to imagine that Dulles, DCI during the initiation of all of them, would have acted without at least indirect authority from the president. But Dulles, and the presidents he served, are dead, next to nothing about assassination is mentioned in the minutes of official meetings, and the aides of Eisenhower and Kennedy still swear their men would never stoop to murder.
Richard Bissell told the Senate Select Committee that he assumed Dulles was acting with presidential authority, and that he, Bissell, was certainly acting with Dulles’ authority. While Bissell was DDP Helms remained in the background. A CIA intelligence officer asked by Bissell to take over the faltering Lumumba plot in October 1960 protested vigorously and went to several CIA officials, including Lyman Kirkpatrick, the Inspector General, and Helms. Kirkpatrick went to Dulles and protested that the plan was absolutely crazy. Dulles thanked him for his opinion. Helms simply listened to the intelligence officer’s protest, told him he was “absolutely right,” and did nothing else whatever. He did not protest to Bissell, Dulles or Kirkpatrick, and when he was asked about it by the Senate Select Committee 15 years later he conceded it was “likely” he had discussed the Lumumba plot with the intelligence officer asked to carry it out, that the officer’s version of their conversation was probably correct, but that he did not remember anything else about the plan or what happened to it.
The plots to kill Castro were far more extensive, beginning with a plan in 1960 to retain two Mafia figures, John Rosselli and Sam Giancana, both of whom were later murdered after the assassination story finally got out. Their interests in Cuban resorts and gambling casinos gave them a private motive for killing Castro, not to mention the $150,000 offered them by the CIA. Helms apparently had nothing to do with the early stages of the plots, but after the departure of Dulles and Bissell he inherited Operation Mongoose, an anti-Castro effort which had the strong support of the Kennedy brothers.
Later plots sometimes bordered on the bizarre and included one plan to give Castro a poisoned wet-suit for skin diving, and another to place a gorgeous but booby-trapped seashell on the ocean floor where Castro liked to go diving. When the CIA’s operational officer in charge of the Castro plots came to Helms he routinely approved their plans for contacts with the Mafia or the provision of poisonpen devices and sniper rifles to a dissident member of Castro’s government—whatever, in fact, those in charge of the plots thought they needed—but he does not appear to have believed the plots were going anywhere, and he deliberately avoided telling John McCone, the new DCI, anything about them.
Despite this initial evasion when Helms became DDP he only narrowly managed to keep the facts from McCone three months later, in May 1962, during a complicated wiretap case involving the FBI, the CIA’s liaison with the Mafia, Robert Maheu, and the attorney general. After an initial briefing, Robert Kennedy requested a written memorandum on the CIA’s involvement in the matter and one was submitted on May 14th, 1962. The memorandum, with Helms’ approval, admitted an early CIA-Mafia plot to kill Castro but deliberately left out the fact that the assassination attempts were still going on—Rosselli, in fact, had been given poison pills only a few weeks earlier—and implied that the operation had been terminated “approximately” in May 1961. Despite the involvement of many high CIA officials, Helms again managed to avoid telling McCone anything about it.
Helms dealt with Bobby Kennedy and McCone in the same way. He would tell them nothing about assassination plots if that were possible, and he would minimize them if he had to say something. The last thing he would admit was the fact they were continuing, because that would incriminate him.
Bissell, among others, said that Helms’ characteristic way of dealing with an inherited operation he didn’t like was to cut off its funds, ask skeptical questions, delay its paper work—in effect, to starve it to death quietly. To kill it quickly would only make enemies of its supporters. Helms seems to have treated the ongoing assassination plots in precisely this way, letting them die of their own inertia, and perhaps thinking that if one somehow worked—if some Havana busboy really did manage to slip botulin into Castro’s beans—well, who would object? Whatever the truth, there is no question Helms did everything he could to keep it to himself.
A second close call occurred the following year, in June 1963, when the CIA officer in charge of the Mafia connection was transferred to another job. Before he left, the officer, William Harvey, had a farewell dinner in Miami with Rosselli. The FBI somehow “observed” their meeting and through Sam Papich, the Bureau’s liaison with the CIA, Harvey was warned that Hoover would be told. Harvey asked Papich to tell him if Hoover planned to inform McCone, and then went to Helms. As they had on two earlier occasions, according to Harvey’s testimony, he and Helms agreed not to tell McCone anything about the matter unless it became apparent McCone would learn of it directly from Hoover.
Two months later Helms ran out of luck. On August 16th, 1963, a Chicago Sun Times article stated that “Justice Department sources” reported a claim of CIA involvement by Sam Giancana, although the sources suggested that Giancana had not, in fact, done anything for the CIA. As soon as McCone read the article he asked Helms for an immediate report. Later the same day Helms handed him a laconic memorandum, saying the attached document—of which Helms had been “vaguely aware”—was the only “written” information in the Agency on the Giancana matter.
Helms told McCone orally—nothing on paper!—that the matter referred to in the document was assassination, and McCone gathered as much on his own when he read in the document that Giancana was to have been paid $150,000 for carrying out the operation.
“Well,” said McCone, according to an aide present at the meeting, “this did not happen during my tenure.”
That was McCone’s first knowledge of the Castro assassination plots. He did not know about those still going on—a poison-pen device was to be given to a Cuban agent in Paris later that year, on November 22nd, 1963, to be exact—and he did not learn about them or about other CIA assassination plots until the Senate Select Committee’s investigation 12 years later. The document Helms had given to McCone was a copy—the only copy in the Agency—of the memorandum given to Bobby Kennedy more than a year earlier, a memorandum which Helms knew to have been deliberately incomplete and misleading.
There are many other examples of Helms’ continuing and determined effort to conceal or minimize the CIA’s attempts to carry out assassinations. In 1966 Dean Rusk somehow learned of one of them, but Helms denied it flatly in a memo which he later admitted was “inaccurate.” In 1964 Helms avoided all mention of anti-Castro plots in front of the Warren Commission (as did Allen Dulles, a member of the commission, and J. Edgar Hoover, who had by this time a fairly complete knowledge of the Giancana-Rosselli plot).
But on March 22nd, 1967, Helms was asked a question by President Johnson which he could not evade. He ordered the CIA’s Inspector General to make a full investigation and over the following nine weeks the IG did so. When he first began to receive sections of the IG report on April 24th, 1967, Helms’ reaction must have been one of queasy horror. Everything was there, every plan to shoot Castro or poison him or blow him up; the CIA’s provision of arms to the men who eventually assassinated Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1961; the CIA’s intimate foreknowledge and encouragement of the coup which resulted in Diem’s assassination in 1963; the continuing Castro plots and Helms’ efforts to hide them from John McCone; the fact that the CIA had gone on trying to kill Castro after Johnson became president, and did not finally give up the attempt once and for all—so far as we know—until 1965.
Helms read the report as it came in and then, on the day it was completed, May 23rd, 1967, he ordered Gordon Stewart to destroy every piece of paper connected with the investigation, every last interview and internal memo and working draft. Stewart did as he was ordered. By that time—it is not known exactly when, but it was between April 24th and May 23rd—Helms had already gone to see Johnson to tell him the secrets which he, Helms, had been trying to suppress since the beginning of the decade.
Johnson was apparently shocked by what he learned. He later told a journalist that “we had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” He even concluded that Castro must have arranged Kennedy’s murder in retaliation for the CIA’s plots to kill him. “I’ll tell you something that will rock you,” Johnson said to Howard K. Smith, the television newsman, before leaving the White House 18 months after Helms’ briefing. “Kennedy was trying to get Castro, but Castro got to him first.”
The IG’s report makes no such bald claim, but then again Johnson did not see the report. Helms gave Johnson an oral briefing instead, leaving out a great many details—it is not hard to guess which ones —and halting his account in 1963—the year Johnson took over. Even in extremis as he was, responding to a direct presidential request, Helms managed to keep some of the secr