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.
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In any event, the gambit went nowhere, and while Korry continued to urge Frei to think of something, at the same time he peppered Washington with warnings that only Frei and a "Chilean solution" had any chance at all, and that a military coup by the likes of Viaux would be the height of folly. But coup rumors continued to circulate, and Korry's suspicions were aroused. One day Heckscher—"this normally courteous man," in Korry's words—suddenly blew up in anger at Korry's low-key intervention with Frei, an explosion the more remarkable because the two men were not alone, but accompanied by Korry's deputy chief of mission, Harry Shlaudeman. "Why the hell don't you twist Frei's arm?" Heckscher shouted. "You're telling Washington you're doing it and you're not!" Korry warned Heckscher that he'd be out in twenty-four hours if he did not calm down, and then lectured him that it was up to Frei and the Chileans to block Allende. If they couldn't find a way, the United States couldn't do it for them.

Heckscher later apologized, but Korry began to wonder if the CIA wasn't up to something behind his back. He asked Shlaudeman to look into it, and Shlaudeman reported that he could find no evidence that the CIA was plotting with the military on its own. He told Korry he was being paranoid. Korry was not.

The plot called Track II had begun with a meeting in the Oval Office of the President, Kissinger, John Mitchell, and Helms on September 15, 1970, just one day after Korry had been ordered to pursue the Rube Goldberg gambit with Frei in Santiago. Helms testified later that he thought Nixon's determination to act was the doing of Donald Kendall and Agustin Edwards, who had met Kissinger for breakfast that morning. Helms knew Kendall fairly well, having seen him at Washington meetings perhaps four or five times a year, and he knew that Kendall and Nixon were close, Kendall having given Nixon his first big corporate account after Nixon began practicing law in New York. But more immediately, Helms had been asked by Nixon or Kissinger—he can no longer remember which it was—to meet with Kendall and Edwards at a Washington hotel. The two men made quite an impassioned appeal for CIA help in blocking Allende, and Helms concluded that they must have made the same appeal to Nixon, with some success.

Nixon himself cited a different source for his concern about Allende. He told David Frost that it began with a conversation with an Italian businessman who warned him, "If Allende should win the election in Chile, and then you have Castro in Cuba, what you will in effect have in Latin America is a red sandwich and eventually it will all be red." Whatever the exact source of Nixon's fears, at that September 15 meeting in the Oval Office he made no secret of his determination to stop Allende. He outlined the dangers as he saw them, swore his Administration would not "cave in at the edges," and told Helms to leave no stone unturned in the attempt to block Allende's confirmation. "If I ever carried a marshal's baton in my knapsack out of the Oval Office," Helms told the Church Committee "it was that day." He also carried a single page of handwritten notes which capture the tone of his instructions:

One in 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile! worth spending not concerned risks involved no involvement of embassy $10,000,000 available, more if necessary full-time job—best men we have game plan make the economy scream 48 hours for plan of action

At that point Helms thought a one-in-ten chance for success was optimistic, and nothing happened later to improve the odds. Thomas Karamessines, deputy director of plans, felt the same way, and so did David Phillips, brought back from Brazil to head a special Chile Task Force for the duration of the operation. Henry Heckscher was even more pessimistic, and he peppered Langley with his doubts to such a degree that on October 7 he was ordered to stop protesting and limit his cables to what he did. When Heckscher continued to balk, Karamessines ordered his return to Washington. "Well," Heckscher told a friend at Langley, "I guess I've lost my job." He was not fired, but he was most unmistakably "read the riot act," according to several sources. This was something the CIA had been told to do, Langley was committed to giving it a try, and Heckscher was expected to bite the bullet.

Track II went forward, then, despite the unanimous pessimism of those most closely involved, because Helms had his marching orders from Nixon and Kissinger. "Nobody," said Karamessines, "was going to go into the Oval Office, bang his fist on the table, and say, We won't do it." The only limits Helms imposed on the operation were those demanded by security: he was willing enough to try and fail, not at all ready for the failure to become public. Despite Korry's fear that an attempted coup might become another Bay of Pigs, not a word surfaced for nearly five years, and the operation emerged then only because another branch of the government discovered an outline of the facts and insisted on publishing them.

Secret or not, failure is failure, and Heckscher had no enthusiasm for a project with so little chance of success. The trouble, in his view, was that the CIA had nothing to work with. The local station was heavily dependent on the embassy's defense attache, Colonel Paul Wimert, for its contacts with Generals Roberto Viaux and Camilo Valenzuela and their co-conspirators, largely because Korry had forbidden the CIA to keep in touch with dissident military officers. Not only was the CIA forced to deal indirectly with the conspirators, at least in the beginning, but as assets they weren't exactly formidable. Viaux was an unreliable ally. Heckscher knew, and reported, that Viaux's circle had been infiltrated by the Chilean MIR, an organization of the extreme left, and as time went by it grew increasingly apparent that neither Viaux nor Valenzuela had a plausible plan for taking power. The best they could come up with was a succession of jerry-built schemes to kidnap General Schneider in the hope that Frei, or the rest of the Chilean military establishment, might decide to act in the ensuing crisis. But even that scheme percolated erratically, despite a CIA offer to pay $50,000 for Schneider's successful abduction.

Helms and Karamessines informed Kissinger and his aide, Alexander Haig, of the bleak picture on a regular basis. At the end of September, Helms sent William Broe to ask Edward Gerrity of ITT for help in making the Chilean economy "scream," but now ITT had cold feet and refused. Not long after, Viaux had to be dissuaded from a premature coup attempt which might wreck everything. Kissinger later told the Church Committee that a gloomy Karamessines report on October 15 led him to cancel the whole operation. Karamessines did not remember it quite the same way. The Viaux approach was abandoned, he said, but at the same time Kissinger ordered the CIA to keep the pressure on "every Allende weak spot in sight—now ... and into the future until such time as new marching orders are given." Two days later, according to one source, Karamessines was called in by Nixon and told to find a military alternative to the hopeless Viaux.

On the same day, October 17, in Santiago, a CIA officer told Viaux not to push too fast, while Colonel Wimert met with another group of Chilean military conspirators who asked him for eight to ten tear-gas grenades, three .45-caliber submachine guns, and 500 rounds of ammunition, claiming they were needed for self-protection. Wimert obtained the grenades from the CIA and delivered them to an associate of Valenzuela, who, later the same day, told Wimert that coup plans were now ready, and would begin the next night with the kidnapping of Schneider following a military dinner. The plan came to nothing when Schneider left the dinner in a private car, well guarded by police. Wimert was told another attempt would be made the following night, on October 20, but that too failed, and Heckscher concluded that time had run out.

Nevertheless, Wimert delivered the promised machine guns to Valenzuela's associate at a 2 A.M. meeting on October 22. Five hours later, a group of military conspirators met for final planning of a last attempt to abduct Schneider, and at 8 A.M. they halted the general's car. Schneider attempted to resist, drew his revolver, and was shot and fatally wounded by his would-be abductors. He died three days later, one day after Allende's confirmation.

The Church Committee's description of Schneider's murder was punctiliously factual. Because Schneider was killed with handguns and because the military officers to whom Colonel Wimert gave the machine guns were not present at the 7 A.M. meeting before the botched kidnapping attempt, and because it was General Viaux who was held principally responsible for the fatal attempt by the Chilean courts later, the committee concluded that the CIA was not implicated directly in Schneider's death. The trouble with this highly legalistic arrangement of the facts is that it obscures three points: (1) there was no clear line of division between the Viaux and Valenzuela circles, and the Chilean courts also held the latter responsible, though to a lesser degree; (2) the failed attempts of October 19 and October 20 had been carried out by the same group which fatally wounded Schneider on October 22, although Wimert's discussion of those attempts had been with Valenzuela, a fact which suggests the two generals were acting in close concert; (3) both Viaux and Valenzuela were in regular contact with the CIA, were actively encouraged to proceed with their plan for kidnapping Schneider, were promised a substantial sum of money if successful, and very likely would have done nothing at all without American encouragement to move. If the CIA did not actually shoot General Schneider, it is probably fair to say that he would not have been shot without the CIA.

The day before the Chilean Congress was to vote to confirm the next president, Helms, back from a trip to Vietnam, met in Langley with the Chile Task Force for a discussion which was mildly hopeful that the plan might still work. "It was agreed," a CIA memorandum of the meeting said, "that a maximum effort has been achieved, and that now only the Chileans themselves can manage a successful coup. The Chileans have been guided to a point where a military solution is at least open to them."

But it didn't work out that way, just as Heckscher had predicted in a cable to Langley as early as October 9. The Chilean military rallied behind General Gonzalez Prats, Schneider's successor, and despite the fact that General Valenzuela was appointed commander of Santiago province, there was no coup. Allende was confirmed on October 24.

Nixon and Kissinger were not happy with the events of September and October 1970. Far from being grateful to Helms for having made such a determined effort without so much as a word leaking to the press, they blamed him for Allende's victory. Kissinger personally asked the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to make a special investigation of the Chilean episode, and at the same time word began to spread around town that the Administration was unhappy with the Agency. In December 1970, John McCone paid one of his regular visits to Langley and dropped in to see John Bross, who had handled the CIA's explanations to the PFIAB. McCone said he'd been to see Kissinger. "Everybody's very down on Helms for failing to take drastic action to stop Allende, McCone said.

Bross asked Helms about this and Helms confirmed that the Administration was indeed unhappy, thinking he'd failed to warn them in time of the likelihood of an Allende victory, and then had failed again to block Allende's confirmation after the election. But in Helms's view the failure belonged at least equally to the Administration, for paying no attention when he warned the 40 Committee at least a year ahead of the election that then was the time for the CIA to get involved, and to Ed Korry, for resisting a pro-Alessandri campaign down to the bitter end.

I never got up and pounded the table and said you've got to take drastic action," Helms conceded to Bross. "I don't think that was my role. That's what we're always being criticized for—intervening in policy.

Helms thought it unfair that he should be singled out for blame in the Chilean fiasco, but at the same time he considered the matter as akin to an argument in the family, and whenever it threatened to go outside of the family, he did what he could to keep the whole episode secret. He had thrown Fulbright off the scent back in September 1970, when he evaded Fulbright's question about CIA involvement with Chile, and simply remarked that if the CIA had really put its weight into the election, things might have turned out differently—which was very likely true, but not, as the lawyers say, responsive. He had sidestepped an invitation to testify from Senator Charles Percy on February 5, 1973. He completely misled Senator Symington two days later. When he was called back from Iran, where be was U.S. ambassador, to testify on May 21, 1973, he narrowly escaped a list of 100 questions prepared by the Foreign Relations Committee staff when the hearing was held in public, a maneuver which guaranteed that the senators—not the staff who had been studying the Chilean episode—would be asking the questions.

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