This account of a gap between Helms’ dismissal and his new appointment is consistent with Ehrlichman’s fictionalized blackmail version, but it is inconsistent with the CIA accounts of Helms’ shock and dismay at his dismissal. He liked the job and wanted to be reappointed, he had hopes of serving as DCI longer than Dulles, and if he had been in a position to blackmail Nixon and angry enough to do so, then why not blackmail him for his job as DCI?
The members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a lot on their minds that day in February 1973.
At the beginning of the second session Senator Fulbright said, “I think Mr. Helms, in view of the nature of these questions, it would be appropriate that you be sworn as a witness, which is customary where we have investigative questions. Would you raise your hand and swear. Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Helms raised his hand, “I do, sir,” he said.
On that day, as on so many similar days since, Helms testified truthfully only about matters of small consequence, or about things which had already become known. If he were asked about things which were still secret he would not betray them, not then, not ever, not to anyone.
The Watergate and Church committee investigations uncovered a great deal about Nixon, the CIA and the secret history of the last 20 years before they finally came to a halt, but as far as I know, no one ever learned anything from Helms. He testified on more than 30 separate occasions, sometimes in open hearings, more often in executive session, but the secrets which emerged did not come from him. During his testimony in February 1973, he did not tell the Foreign Relations Committee about the aid to E. Howard Hunt in 1971, or about his meeting with Ehrlichman and Haldeman on June 23rd, 1972, when he was asked to scuttle the FBI’s investigation of Watergate funding. He did not mention the Ellsberg break-in, although he certainly ought to have known of it by that time, and he flatly denied CIA attempts to overthrow Allende even though one of the senators present, Stuart Symington, knew a good deal about it. He did not mention the Huston domestic intelligence plan or Nixon’s request through Ehrlichman for certain CIA files which might discredit the Kennedys—files which Helms finally handed over to Nixon himself with the observation that he worked for only one president at a time. He did not tell them what explanation Nixon gave for his dismissal, if any, or suggest who might have been hired behind the Watergate break-in. Helms was, then as later, the least forthcoming of witnesses.
There are three reasons why Helms kept the secrets. Obviously, the first is that he was at the heart of a lot of them; candor would amount to self-incrimination. Helms was protecting himself.
The second is that the secrets to which Watergate led threatened to wreck the CIA by shattering that complacent trust in the Agency’s honor and good sense, without which it can have no freedom of action. If Congress once insisted on real oversight of the Agency’s operations the secrets would begin to get out and the CIA would be hobbled. Helms was protecting the Agency.
The third reason is harder to explain. The history of the CIA is the secret history of the Cold War. Over the last 30 years one-half of the CIA only answered questions—sometimes rightly, sometimes not—but the other half. . . did things. . . . The things it did were not all as bad as bribery, extortion and murder, etc., but they were all the sort of things which cannot work unless they are secret. If a foreign leader is known to be on the CIA’s payroll he ceases to be a leader. Who would believe in the anticommunism of a newspaper which could not publish without CIA funds? How can it be argued that Allende is a threat to American security when it is known that ITT is a principal advocate of his removal? There is a chasm between what nations say and what nations do, and the CIA—or the KGB, or MI-6, or Chile’s DINA, or Israel’s Shin Bet, as the case may be—is the bridge across the chasm.
The CIA’s belief in secrets is almost metaphysical. Intelligence officers are cynical men in most ways, but they share one unquestioned tenet of faith which reminds me of that old paradox which is as close as most people ever get to epistemology: if a tree falls in the desert, is there any sound?
The CIA would say no. The real is the known; if you can keep the secrets, you can determine the reality. If no one knows we tried to kill Castro, then we didn’t do it. If ITT’s role in Chile is never revealed, then commercial motives had nothing to do with the Allende affair. If no one knows we overthrew Premier Mossadegh, then the Iranians did it all by themselves. If no one knows we tried to poison Lumumba, it didn’t happen. If no one knows how many Free World politicians had to be bribed, then we weren’t friendless.
So it wasn’t just himself and the CIA that Helms was protecting when he kept the secrets. It was the stability of a quarter-century of political “arrangements,” the notion of a Free World, the illusion of American honor. Only Helms would not have admitted it was an illusion, perhaps not even to himself. If no one knows what we did, he would have thought, then we aren’t that sort of country.
During his final week as DCI Richard Helms destroyed his personal records. On January 16th, 1973, Senator Mike Mansfield mailed Helms a letter asking him to preserve all materials relating to Watergate. Helms testified later that he checked everything carefully but one allows oneself to doubt.
It doesn’t take much wit to guess why so secretive a man with so secretive a profession would destroy his records. If it wasn’t Nixon’s curiosity which Helms feared, it was the prying of the Senate, of the Watergate grand jury, of the press and even of history. Like Lyman Kirkpatrick, Helms thought secrets should be secret “from inception to eternity.”
Sometime during his last week as DCI, probably on January 24th, Helms systematically obliterated a huge volume of material including tape transcripts (he had a taping system), memos, reports, notes and so on—everything he had collected as DCI for six and a half years. He also ordered the destruction of the records of a program to test LSD and other drugs which he had initiated during the 1950s, and he may have destroyed other records as well. By that time he remained loyal only to the CIA, and to his oath to keep the secrets.
“Sir,” Helms volunteered at the end of his testimony on February 7th, 1973, “in an effort to sort of close this, about this Watergate business, you have asked all the relevant questions. I have no more information to convey and I know nothing about it. Honestly, I do not.”
“And your people,” Fulbright asked, “other than that one man who was a consultant. . .”
“We had nothing to do with it,” Helms said, “honestly we didn’t.”
But it was too late. A tenuous chain of events was already gathering momentum. Back in 1971 Helms had—reluctantly, as always—agreed to prepare a psychological profile of Daniel Ellsberg for the White House. In April 1973, the break-in of his psychiatrist’s office and the existence of the profile both became public. A lot of people were mad, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which called Helms back again, this time to question him about possible perjury. The committee staff had prepared a list of more than 100 questions, but at the last minute Symington asked Fulbright to conduct the hearing as a public session, which meant the senators, not the well-prepared staff counsel, would be asking the questions. Helms’ explanations were lame even so, and when one senator asked a question which ought to have elicited an answer about a CIA domestic operation called CHAOS, Helms simply ran the risk of a new perjury charge and said the CIA had never done anything of the sort.
The new Director of Central Intelligence, James Schlesinger, was also mad in May 1973. His principal subordinate, William Colby, had already briefed him on “all” CIA-Watergate matters, meaning the relationship with Hunt. The Ellsberg profile and break-in had not been mentioned. Schlesinger asked Colby if there were going to be any more surprises. Colby said he didn’t know; the Ellsberg profile had been unknown to him too. So Schlesinger, on May 8th, 1973, sent a memo to every employee of the CIA asking them to report to the Inspector General whatever they might know concerning CIA programs of doubtful legality. When the IG had compiled the abuse report it contained 693 items. Colby, by then DCI, learned a lot of things he had never known. It was then, for example, that he first saw the IG’s 1967 report on assassinations, of which there was only a single copy.
At that time Seymour Hersh of the New York Times was already at work on a CIA investigation, and in the wake of the abuse report Hersh eventually learned the outline of CHAOS. After his story appeared on December 22nd, 1974, President Ford asked Colby for a report. Colby told him about the material in the abuse report, and he also told him about the IG’s 1967 assassination report. In January Ford met with the editorial board of the New York Times and, incredibly, he told them, off the record, he was quite concerned that a full-scale investigation would turn up some extremely embarrassing material. Such as what? Such as CIA involvement in assassination plots. The president told this to a newspaper. The CIA still finds it hard to believe.
Not long after that Daniel Schorr of CBS News learned of Ford’s off-the-record meeting with the Times but he was unable to prove the CIA had, in fact, been involved in such plots. Then he stopped to consider that Ford’s apprehension alone was a story. On February 28th, 1975, Schorr went on the air and, 16 years after the assassination plots began, they finally became public.
Let us conclude with a footnote, A final small insight into the career and character of Richard Helms. He was the mildest mannered of men. Even under circumstances of stress he retained his composure and his good humor. When Sam Adams told Helms personally, in the fall of 1968, that he was trying to get him fired, Helms never expressed anger or irritation or anything but amused acceptance of Adams’ temerity. Later, of course, he ran bureaucratic circles around Adams’ effort to have him fired. Lyman Kirkpatrick said that as far as he knew Helms never hammered a desk or raised his voice or called anyone a name in anger, not even during the Bay of Pigs struggle when he came so close to derailing his career. “You’re not going to find out if Helms ever did that,” Kirkpatrick said, “unless he tells you himself, because it’s not the kind of thing he’d do in front of people.”
But a time came when he did do such a thing in front of people. Once and once only. It happened on April 28th, 1975, as Helms was leaving an appearance before the Rockefeller commission in which he was asked not about Watergate, on which he had fenced so often by that time, but about assassinations, concerning which he knew so much and would say so little. (Helms’ testimony on this and other matters reads like the puzzled groping of an amnesia victim, which no doubt explains his anger—shared by many other CIA people—at William Colby. They resent and put the worst construction on Colby’s cooperation with the congressional investigating committees. Colby didn’t have to volunteer all those secrets, they say.)
Daniel Schorr was waiting outside the hearing room and approached Helms. Others were standing there, too, not government officials who might be expected to be discreet, but wire-service reporters. No more public encounter could have been arranged, in fact, unless it were on television.
Something in Helms broke. “You son of a bitch,” he yelled at the man who had revealed the biggest secret of all. “You killer! You cocksucker! Killer Schorr! That’s what they should call you!”
But a few minutes later Helms regained himself, and listened to Schorr’s explanation that it had not been he but the president who had revealed the assassination story, and after Schorr’s explanation, Richard Helms apologized for his outburst. But as for Schorr’s questions about assassination, well . . . Helms had nothing to say.