The Magazine

At the Helm

Richard Helms, a man of honor in an unlikely trade.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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A Look over My Shoulder

A Life in the Central

Intelligence Agency

by Richard Helms

Random House, 512 pp., $35

IN MARCH 1997, when George J. Tenet became the fifth of Bill Clinton's choices to head the Central Intelligence Agency, morale at the agency was poor after the nineteen-month tenure of Tenet's predecessor, former MIT chemistry professor John Deutch, who broke the law by taking home highly classified material in his laptop computer. The youngest director of the agency ever at age forty-four, Tenet had spent most of his career as a congressional staffer and went on the CIA payroll for the first time in 1995 when Clinton named him deputy director.

To gain credibility within the CIA, Tenet turned to Richard Helms. Helms, the first CIA career professional to become director, was a hero to the agency's faceless and nameless workers--and to Tenet as well. So, upon becoming director, Tenet made a symbolic gesture, taking the portrait of Helms out of a hallway at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and putting it in his private office. As director, Tenet conferred regularly with Helms. After Helms died in his sleep at age eighty-nine last October, Tenet eulogized him at the funeral as "the complete American intelligence officer." The CIA's old boys agreed.

Beginning in 1966, Helms served seven years as director (second only to the legendary Allen Dulles's eight years), but his time was not marked by spectacular intelligence triumphs. Vietnam moved toward a Communist victory, a far left Castroite president was elected in Chile, and the table was set for congressional degradation of the CIA. Why then is Helms an intelligence hero? Because, unlike a notorious successor, he did not surrender the agency's "family jewels." He endured federal prosecution and risked a jail sentence to protect those secrets. Journalist Thomas Powers aptly entitled his 1979 biography of Helms, "The Man Who Kept the Secrets."

Helms seems, in fact, the last person likely to have written a memoir of his days in the intelligence business. Helms himself even appears surprised. "This is a memoir that I never expected to write" are the opening words of "A Look over My Shoulder." He apparently wrote it because "some of my former colleagues had been more forthcoming" than he in talking to Powers thirty years ago, and he belatedly wanted to correct the record.

Helms and his collaborator, a former CIA colleague turned novelist named William Hood, were intelligence professionals even in writing the book, and they are careful not to tell too much. Yet this posthumous memoir contains important and fascinating revelations, as in the portrayal of presidents who did not understand the CIA's mission and tried to exploit it for their political interests. This criticism is ironic coming from Helms, who always insisted that the director of the CIA was the servant of whoever happened to be the president. He makes clear he did nothing as director that was not ordered by either of the two presidents he served under, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Senator Frank Church's description of the CIA as a "rogue elephant," damaging to the nation's long-term intelligence capabilities, was unfair and inaccurate.

As president, Kennedy and Johnson appear out of control about their obsessions (Cuba for Kennedy, Vietnam for Johnson). But Nixon was the worst. He unfairly suspected Helms of being partial to the Democrats and became convinced of it when Helms refused to participate in the Watergate coverup. Helms discloses that Nixon, while telling hardly anyone else in the government, "ordered me to instigate a military coup" in Chile--an order that led to the eventual criminal prosecution of Helms.

THE MAN who kept secrets actually began his career as a journalist, a United Press correspondent in Berlin (who, with other reporters, lunched with Adolf Hitler in 1936). His goal of owning his own newspaper was interrupted by World War II--which changed his life forever. As a Naval officer, he was assigned to the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) and began three decades in intelligence.

Tall and elegant, he was an accomplished dancer and a fixture at Washington dinner parties. He was a frequent luncheon companion of such columnists as Joe Alsop (which aroused President Johnson's ire, Helms reports) and Rowland Evans. Helms was a calming element among turbulent and erratic personalities at Langley. Although covert operations undermined his reputation, he makes clear he always emphasized intelligence gathering as the agency's principal mission. He implies some distaste even for the celebrated CIA-induced "revolution" ousting Guatemala's elected leftist government in 1954.