The Rise and Fall of Richard Helms
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.
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