Inside the Department of Dirty Tricks

"We're not in the Boy Scouts," Richard Helms was fond of saying when he ran the Central Intelligence Agency. He was correct, of course. Boy Scouts do not ordinarily bribe foreign politicians, invade other countries with secret armies, spread lies, conduct medical experiments, build stocks of poison, pass machine guns to people who plan to turn them on their leaders, or plot to kill men such as Lumumba or Castro or others who displeased Washington. The CIA did these things, and more, over a long span of years. On whose orders? This is a question a Pulitzer prizewinning writer addresses in an adaptation from his forthcoming book about Helms and the Agency, The Man Who Kept the Secrets.

1. An Isolated Man

castro pictureRICHARD Helms, as lean as a long-distance runner and looking just about as restless, dressed in a suit and tie, greeted a visitor at nine o'clock on a sunny morning on his front doorstep. He would not have been dressed any differently if he'd been on his way to present an annual report to the board of directors, but in the spring of 1977 he was not going anywhere. The reason was not that he was looking forward to a chance at last to read the collected novels of Balzac, or that he wanted to stay home to work on his stamp collection, or that he welcomed the freedom to watch a whole season of baseball on television. The reason was that his whole life was hanging fire while he waited to learn if a special grand jury in the District of Columbia would vote to indict him for certain acts committed shortly after he ceased to be director of central intelligence (DCI) of the CIA.

Indicted for what? Helms would ask in his own defense. Helms is a man with an oddly appealing grin. His lower jaw juts out a trace, giving his otherwise ordinarily handsome face a singularity. His grin, lower jaw out, eyes wide, hands up, has about it an ironic, incredulous air; he can be amused, bewildered, and angry at the same time. For what?

He knew perfectly well for what, but intended to convey his contention that he had never done anything he was not asked, ordered, expected, or required to do by the nature of his job. In particular, the director of central intelligence had a responsibility not to answer every idle question put to him. He was charged under the National Security Act of 1947 with protection of the CIA's sources and methods. No one has ever spelled out what powers are thereby granted to the DCI. Helms had to protect the CIA's secrets by himself. It was his job and he did it. Indicted for what?

The narrow answer was for perjury before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 7, 1973, when Helms answered a question put by Senator Stuart Symington—"Did you try in the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the government in Chile?"—with an unequivocal "No, sir."

"Did you have any money passed to the opponents of Allende?"

"No, sir."

"So the stories you were involved in that war are wrong?"

"Yes, sir."

Helms's problems added up to a general mess of a sort unthinkable in previous years. But the dimensions and possible consequences of the mess had not yet halted the investigation, despite quiet appeals to the Justice Department by distinguished Washington figures who thought Helms was getting a raw deal. Taken together, these facts explained why Helms, who ought to have encountered little difficulty in finding a job, was not free to write his memoirs or accept employment or do much of anything except play tennis, dine with friends, and wait for his lawyer to straighten things out.

Helms was an isolated man. It was not that he lacked friends and allies in Washington, where he had spent nearly thirty years in the practice of intelligence. He was both liked and respected there, on his chosen ground; he was taken to be an honest man, a dedicated public servant who deserved honorable retirement after a long career working his way up through the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency. Not many people knew what Helms had been doing in the CIA, but those who did formed a circle of unusual power and influence—former Presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other high officials, congressmen, and leading journalists. But this phalanx of support, personally gratifying as it must have been, only emphasized his isolation. Outside Washington, the word "intelligence" had acquired a new and sinister shade of meaning. Four years of official investigations had cast the CIA in a dark light, and the name of Richard Helms had turned up on a great many embarrassing documents about Watergate intrigue, assassination plots, the testing of drugs on unwitting victims, attempts to foment coups in democratic countries. The Washington circle that excused these things, explaining them away as the prosaic facts of international life, was a decidedly small one, and Helms was trapped at its very heart.

Helms did not understand how this had happened. He certainly knew the details of recent history better than most. He had watched the awful progress of events from Watergate to a major investigation of the CIA by a Senate select committee, and he had resisted the process of exposure at every step of the way. Helms had feared two consequences from the hemorrhage of Agency secrets which was still continuing: the demoralization of the CIA, unaccustomed to public scrutiny and a field day for hostile intelligence services rummaging through the Senate committee's voluminous reports. In Helms's view both had occurred, just as predicted. He was not a believer in catharsis. He was neither embarrassed nor repentant. Men of the world knew that the business of intelligence was more than a simple matter of spy and counterspy. What Helms did not understand was the relentless harping—especially on the part of certain Senate liberals and the pressmen—on the "crimes" of the CIA. Of course Helms read the papers; he knew there was a large public that did not like the Agency and what it was taken to represent—the secret expedients of power, and the failures of American Presidents who had tried to bull their way in the world. The wreckage of Vietnam was proof enough that something had gone terribly wrong. But in Helms's view, the hostility focused on the Agency, and indirectly on him, was the result of a refusal to accept the reality of an anarchic international system, in which vigilance, power, and strength of will were a nation's best, indeed only, defense. Destruction of the CIA through exposure and recrimination was like spiking the guns.

In the spring of 1977, out of a job for the first time in nearly forty years, Helms had plenty of time on his hands; his lawyer had told him to keep out of the public eye. But it went against the grain. Temperament and years of habit had accustomed him to days of busy executive routine: office by 8:30, meetings throughout the day, the review of endless pieces of paper, departure regularly at 6:30. CIA people like to tell stories about the Agency's great days and the adventurous men who ran its operations before everything fell apart, but they do not tell anecdotes about Helms: there aren't any. He is remembered as an administrator, impatient with delay, excuses, self-seeking, and the sour air of office politics. Asked for an example of Helms's characteristic utterance, three of his old friends came up with the same dry phrase: "Let's get on with it." He had hired out to do a job, he did today what had to be done today, he left his desk clean at night.

Of course every desk at the CIA was clean at night. The security people roamed the building after the close of work and handed out demerits for unlocked safes, full trash baskets, classified documents left in desk drawer. Even the desk of a man such as Richard Bissell, Helms's predecessor as head of the CIA's Deputy Directorate for Plans (DDP), had been clean at night before he left the Agency in disgrace after the collapse of his plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It would be hard to imagine two men more unlike than Richard Helms and Richard Bissell. Helms had been pretty unhappy when Bissell got the job Helms wanted back in 1958, but it wasn't solely personal disappointment that distressed him. Bissell was loquacious, inventive, the most open-minded of men; there was literally nothing one might propose to him that he would not turn this way and that in his logical mind, judging it strictly on its practical merits. A plan to invade Cuba, a poisoned handkerchief for an Arab general—he was ready to entertain them all. But Bissell's logical clarity was illusory. He sometimes fatally misjudged men. He worked out schemes for management and then broke his own rules. His desk was chaos. One look at it (and Helms did not get many; Bissell did not invite Helms's advice) and one might despair for the country. But even Richard Bissell's desk, straightened up by his secretary, was clean at the end of the day.

No branch of the American government was in better order at night than the CIA, in its huge headquarters in the middle of a woods in Langley, Virginia. It was the biggest thing of its kind in the world, much larger and more modern than the headquarters of the Committee for State Security—the KGB—in Moscow. The nation's secrets were each in their appointed place and one might have thought, if one had made the rounds with the security officers checking for violations, that the country must be in good order, that everyone knew his job, and accepted the ground rules, and agreed on the importance and purpose of the business at hand. An illusion, as Richard Bissell abruptly discovered in April 1961.

Helms had not been much surprised by Bissell's failure at the time. But he cannot have imagined, as he picked up the pieces in Bissell's wake, that his own gifts as an administrator, his long experience in managing secret operations, his devotion to their secrecy, his caution and cool judgment, would all fail too. Indeed, before his government was through with him, Helms would have reason to envy Bissell's quiet departure. The problem was not the way Helms or Bissell or anyone else in the CIA had been going about his job, but the job itself. The problem was what they did. The meticulous routine and order of the Agency, the tables of organization, the well-established and accepted dealings with the other branches of government, the procedures for internal and external control, the apparent consensus of official Washington on the importance of the CIA's work, were all illusory. The structure was jerry-built. The agreement was mostly confined to a small circle in Washington.

The arrangement had worked so well for so long that it was hard to see how fragile it was. The foreign policy establishment in Washington trusted the CIA, and still trusts it, for that matter; but beyond governing circles the political foundation of the CIA rested on nothing more substantial than a popular fascination with espionage and a conviction that we are the good guys. The American public, in short, had been taught a kind of child's history of the world, sanitized of the rougher facts of international life. A Victorian political morality obtained. Presidents, congressional leaders, the Pentagon, and the State Department all found it convenient to let the public assume that only the Other Side did things like that. We did not bribe foreign politicians. We did not undermine other governments. We did not invade other countries with secret armies. We did not spread lies, conduct medical experiments, put prisoners in padded rooms for years on end, build stocks of poison, sabotage factories, contaminate foodstuffs, pass machine guns to men who planned to turn them on their national leaders. Above all, we did not plot to kill men for nothing more than displeasing Washington. To discover ourselves the victims of so many illusions, all at once, was disorienting. The result has been a profound shift in public attitudes and deep confusion in Washington, where simultaneous efforts are under way to make sure the Victorian morality really obtains this time; to deny that it was ever seriously breached; and to get the CIA back on the job.

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