In Memoriam: Richard Helms
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RAY SUAREZ: Richard Helms was director of Central Intelligence during some of the CIA’s most tumultuous years. He was appointed by President Johnson in 1966 as CIA Director, the first career officer to get the top job. Some of the pivotal events of his tenure included plots to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, spying on U.S. citizens who opposed the Vietnam War, and the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government. President Nixon removed Helms as director of the CIA in 1973, reportedly because the agency would not cooperate in the Watergate cover-up. In 1977, Helms pleaded no contest to federal charges he did not fully tell the truth to a Senate committee about the CIA’s activities in Chile and elsewhere.
Joining us to talk more about the life and times of Richard Helms is his biographer, Thomas Powers, the biography is titled The Man Who Kept the Secrets.
And Richard Powers, tell us more about the man who kept the secrets. Was this most of critical times to be director of Central Intelligence in the years after the Second World War?
THOMAS POWERS: That was the beginning of American intelligence. That’s when it was founded, came in existence, and was created. But you know Intelligence services are always around at critical moments and whoever is running it at any given moment has got a lot of stuff on his plate to deal with.
RAY SUAREZ: Did he make the times or was he swept along by events? Was this a man who made the CIA In his own image during these times?
THOMAS POWERS: He was responsive to what Presidents wanted. Whenever you’re talking about a CIA Director and that certainly includes Helms, you’re asking what was the President trying to get out of him, what was the President really interested in? And that sort of sets the tone. When Helms was the DCI, we had an aggressive war in Vietnam and deeply involved in ongoing intelligence on a daily basis about how the war was going and that set the tone while he was actually DCI. Before that it was Kennedy obsession with Cuba that set the tone.
RAY SUAREZ: So Helms had to be the bearer of increasingly bad news to successor Presidents about the war in Southeast Asia.
THOMAS POWERS: He had to bear the bad news, but intelligence agencies learn to narrow the bad news so it doesn’t sound so bad. You can’t fight with the President who is running the show, so you have to give him the news in a way that he will listen and accept it. Helms did that just like every other DCI.
RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Powers, what was Director Helms’ approach to intelligence? What did he think was important and where did he put the money and the manpower?
THOMAS POWERS: He was by nature and by personal history a spy runner, somebody who had started off in the business of running secret operations during World War II in the OSS, and he was always very interested in classic traditional intelligence, which was the gathering and working of information for people in charge — in the case of the United States, always for a President and the President’s policymakers. And he was not a big fan or a champion of covert operations or attempts to run clandestine wars overseas. He was involved in those things because he was in an agency that was trying to do them, but that wasn’t what he really stressed. He was interested in information gathered in a timely way and given in a useful form to somebody who needed it.
RAY SUAREZ: Now was he also not a big fan of using assassination as a tool?
THOMAS POWERS: Well, his view on that was you ran into a lot of trouble when you tried to assassinate somebody. You didn’t know who would be coming along next and you were the hostage in effect of whoever it was that carried out the dirty deed for you, that could blackmail you for the rest of time. So he didn’t think it was a smart thing to do, but in the Kennedy years there was a real strong feeling on the part of both those Kennedy brothers they wanted to get rid of Fidel Castro, and the CIA did its best to do it but failed.
RAY SUAREZ: How did Richard Helms get tripped up by Chile?
THOMAS POWERS: He was asked in a Senate hearing if the CIA had been involved in the efforts to overthrow Salvador Allende, and the true answer to that question was, well, “you bet.” They’ve done everything they could to make that happen. But he was asked in an open forum the kind of question that normally was reserved for executive session. So he did what he thought was necessary; he lied about it and said, “no.”
RAY SUAREZ: And the gentleman’s agreement between Senators who asked those kinds of questions and directors of intelligence who answer them is normally what, that he wouldn’t be asked that in a public forum?
THOMAS POWERS: He would not be asked that in a public forum, but, you know, Watergate changed everything, and that was a kind of cataclysm in American politics in history, and the mood changed. And Senators who in the past were always very accommodating suddenly were much more aggressive. And I think in that particular case they weren’t really paying attention. It would be as if a Senator asked George Tenet, “now, do we have any spies close to Saddam Hussein.” Well, what could Tenet say? I mean, he would have to say “no,” no matter what the answer was.
RAY SUAREZ: So in the aftermath of being found guilty of lying to Congress, did he look at that as a black mark on his career?
THOMAS POWERS: I would say that he did not. Personally, he felt that it was the equivalent of a badge of honor, that he had actually done at personal risk something that mattered to his country, and that he had defended the agency and American policy overseas, which was what he was supposed to do. And it wasn’t easy for him to do that. He didn’t get paid for doing that. And he paid a price, you know, and had to go through a legal ordeal that lasted for a number of years, but I don’t think he ever regretted that.
RAY SUAREZ: When we look back now on the time that Richard Helms was Director of Central Intelligence with the benefit of all the history that’s transpired since, can we say anything he or the CIA did during the 60′s and early 70′s really changed the outcome in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, of the later stages of the Cold war?
THOMAS POWERS: Well, you know, it’s hard to say about the places you mentioned. But it certainly changed the outcome of the Cold War, which was a long intelligence struggle with the Soviet Union that at any time could have turned into a hot war. And information played a very important role there and knowing what the Russians were doing and could do and what kind of military programs they had was absolutely essential to keeping the peace. So that was the big achievement during that period of time. Helms was unusual in the fact that he lived through the entire thing from day one to the last day and then ten years beyond. He saw that all. Nobody in the beginning had any idea how the Cold War would turn out. And we should all be very grateful that it turned out the way it did.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, he started his career in Central Europe. Can you be a director of Central Intelligence in the Helms mold today or has the greater disclosure changed the job beyond all recognition from what it was in the ’60s?
THOMAS POWERS: I think technology has changed the job beyond recognition. We’re now engaged in an intelligence war against Islamic terrorism and it has got to be conducted in covert operational way that Helms found very uncomfortable. You have to go out there in the field and confront them there. And that has changed the job and demands a different kind of leadership.
RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Powers thanks for being with us.
THOMAS POWERS: Thank you.