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.

It was not until January 1975 that Helms was finally cornered and forced to explain his earlier evasions. Helms explained that the CIA hadn't given money directly to Allende's opponents, that the CIA didn't try to fix the vote in the Chilean Congress because investigation had shown it couldn't be arranged, that the CIA didn't try to overthrow the Chilean government because the Agency failed to find anyone who could really do it. If there are explanations which can be called lame, these are cripples. Helms had given Symington the same "explanations" the night before his testimony back in May 1973, and Symington, a friend, had been content with them. But others preferred to describe Helms's testimony by a balder term—lies. Enough people subscribed to this definition to move the whole question to the Justice Department, but the heart of Helms's explanation was more to the point.

AMBASSADOR HELMS: I realize, sir ... that my answer [to a question about the attempt to bribe the Chilean Congress] was narrow, but I would like to say something here. I didn't come into the Multinational Committee [headed by Frank Church, where Helms testified on Chile on March 6, 1973, a few days before leaving for Iran] hearing to mislead you, but I have had as Director ... a lot of problems, and one of the principal problems was who in the Congress [I] was really to divulge all of the details of covert operations to, and I must say this has given me a great deal of difficulty over the years .... If I was less than forthcoming it wasn't because I was being bloody-minded, it was simply because I was trying to stay within what I thought was the congressional guidelines.

That was as close as Helms ever came to saying that his interrogators had no right to honest answers, because they had no right to ask the questions they had. But by that time it was not primarily the senators whom Helms had to satisfy. The nature of his testimony—narrow in the line of duty? so evasive as to pass into the realm of lies?—was no longer academic. The matter had been referred to the Department of Justice, and the man who had hand-delivered the documents in the case was someone Helms had helped to rise in the Agency, someone who might have been considered to a degree in Helms's personal debt for his position as director of central intelligence, William Colby. Helms's fight was not really with the senators by this time—with the possible exception of Church, they had little appetite for Helms's blood—but with Colby's policy of letting out the "bad secrets." The very first result of exposing the "bad secrets"—others, of course, were coming—was a charge of perjury leveled against Richard Helms.

5. Family Jewels

THE men who followed Helms did not share his regard for secrets, for their inviolability. The combination of Watergate and James Schlesinger would crack open the Agency's secret past, and William Colby would finish the job. Schlesinger arrived in December 1972 with a mixture of suspicion and contempt for the "gentlemen's club" that had wielded power in the CIA since the 1940s. Schlesinger had a great many ideas, but at their heart was a plan to gut the clandestine services. "That DDP, that's Helms's Praetorian Guard," Schlesinger told the London chief of station, Rolfe Kingsley, during a trip to England. "I'm going to bust it up."

One of Schlesinger's first acts as director was to hold a meeting of DDP people in the Agency's main auditorium. From now on, he said, intelligence is going to be a twenty-year career. It's time to give way to young blood. Schlesinger was going to clear the place out. The process was brutal, but even many CIA people concede it was long overdue.

Like Helms, Schlesinger held a regular morning meeting with his deputy directors in his office, and every morning he wanted to see numbers. He didn't want excuses; he wanted the names of the people who were going. Ed Proctor, the deputy director for intelligence, was frequently criticized for moving too slowly. Carl Duckett, the deputy director for science and technology, did better; he came in with a list of names every day and the men under him began openly calling him a heartless son of a bitch. William Colby, who had been appointed to replace Thomas Karamessines as head of the Deputy Directorate of Operations (formerly the DDP), came back to his office regularly with an echo of Schlesinger's complaint: "We aren't getting any numbers." He gave the job to Gordon Mason, chief of the DDO's Career Management Group, apparently hoping to insulate himself from the harsh decisions Schlesinger demanded. But Mason refused to let Colby off the hook. He picked his candidates for the ax carefully, but once he had put together a pile of personnel jackets, he brought them to Colby and said, "Here they are, you make the decisions."

Schlesinger did not remain long at the CIA; On May 9, 1973, Nixon appointed him to replace Elliot Richardson at the Department of Defense, who was replacing Richard Kleindienst at the Department of Justice, who was resigning because his old friend John Mitchell was finally facing indictment for his role in the Watergate scandal. But during Schlesinger's brief tenure as DCI, the shortest in the Agency's history, he fired more than a thousand officers throughout the Agency, more than a hundred of them old soldiers in the DDP/DDO.

The firings came in waves: If the pace wasn't brisk enough, he would do the job himself, going down a list of officers and saying, "He's been here twenty years that's long enough, out." It was a crude method, and it got rid of some able CIA officers along with the dead wood, but Schlesinger could not be argued with.

Yet if Schlesinger was resented as an outsider, William Colby came to be disliked by many (not all) CIA people as something even worse, a kind of traitor who betrayed the trust Helms had shown in him, and who severely damaged the Agency during the two and a half years he ran it. Helms had given Colby just about every important job he'd held. But Colby was fundamentally out of sympathy with the sort of intelligence service Helms believed in, a fact which began to emerge as soon as Helms announced his departure. During the following six weeks, Colby established himself as Schlesinger's chief guide and confidant within the CIA. He frequently briefed Schlesinger in his office at the Atomic Energy Commission, persuaded him to drop the position of executive director comptroller, and won the appointment as Karamessines's successor. "Look," Colby told Schlesinger, according to his own memoirs, "where you are going to have your biggest trouble is with the clandestine crowd downstairs. I'm one of them. I grew up with them. Let me go down there and take care of that for you."

Colby' enemies, who were both numerous and vociferous during his last three years with the CIA would later describe his cultivation of Schlesinger as sychophancy pure and simple, the act of an ambitious and cynical man out for himself. This does not do justice to Colby's seriousness: Colby wanted a DDO that was leaner, more dependent on technical intelligence collection, and freer of what he took to be the melodramatics of espionage.

Within a matter of months following Helms's departure from the CIA, then, the Agency's clandestine services which he had done so much to build, had been transformed, and the bulk of his old friends and colleagues were either gone or on their way out. But it took a break in the Watergate case to open the secrets of the past. On April 15, 1973, John Dean told the federal prosecutors about the burglary of Dr. Lewis Fielding's office in Los Angeles engineered by E. Howard Hunt, with the CIA's assistance, and the following day Hunt confirmed the story when he testified before the Grand Jury.

Colby and Vernon Walters, the deputy DCI, had both assured Schlesinger that he knew everything there was to know about the CIA's involvement in Watergate. Now Schlesinger discovered that Hunt had committed a burglary with material aid from the CIA. Schlesinger told Colby he was going to turn the CIA upside down and "fire everyone if necessary," but he intended to learn everything the CIA had done that might blindside him in the future. No more surprises!

Colby had a plan ready to deal with this problem. He suggested that Schlesinger issue a directive to every CIA employee instructing him to come forward with anything the CIA might have done that exceeded the limits of the Agency's charter. Schlesinger thought this a good idea. Colby wrote the order, Schlesinger signed it, and copies were distributed within the CIA on May 9, 1973, the same day on which Nixon moved Schlesinger to the Department of Defense, and appointed Colby as the new director of central intelligence. Reports began to pour in. Technically, the reports were directed to the inspector general, William Broe, who signed the final report, but in fact they proceeded first to Colby's desk.

By May 21, a twenty-six-page preliminary summary of the reports had been prepared by Broe, who forwarded it to Colby under the title "Potential Flap Activities." And so they were. The full report, completed later, came to 693 pages in all, one for each "abuse," and it quickly acquired the nom de scandale of "the Family Jewels." It included just about every serious charge against the CIA of recent years. Operation Chaos, the CIA's infiltration of American radical groups was there, along with a sketchy account of CIA drug-testing programs (the details having disappeared when Helms ordered the files destroyed before he left the CIA), the CIA's role in Nixon's domestic intelligence plan, training programs for local police departments, a program to recruit counter-intelligence agents for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, mail interception, the bugging of American journalists thought to have informants within the CIA, a burglary in Fairfax, Virginia, contacts with the Watergate burglary team. Most dangerous of all was a special annex summarizing the inspector general's report of 1967 on the CIA's involvement in assassination plots against Trujillo, Diem, and Castro.

Colby's response to his discovery of solid evidence of assassination plotting in the Family Jewels indicates that he was of two minds. First, he volunteered what he knew to the chairmen of the four House and Senate committees with oversight authority for the CIA in June 1973, but at the same time he argued that the "excesses" had all been prohibited, and the past ought to be let lie. Three of the four were willing to forget the matter, but the last, Representative Lucien Nedzi, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, insisted on reading the entire report, all 693 pages of it. Colby finally managed to convince Nedzi that the CIA would never do this sort of thing again, its house was clean, the Agency would be wrecked in the Watergate climate of 1973 if the entire contents of the Family Jewels were to be released. After a lot of argument, Nedzi reluctantly went along.

But by this time a kind of momentum had built up, and the inertia of exposure could not be restrained. The public revelation of the CIA's peripheral involvement in Watergate suggested there was more to come. Watergate itself had undermined the authority of the government, and the very fact of Schlesinger's May 9 directive had abrogated the discipline of secrecy within the CIA. It was a season for truth. Besides, once secrets are gathered together, they reach a kind of critical mass and will out.

When Helms was DCI he did not merely keep the secrets; he made sure they were never gathered in one place. Colby's notion that the CIA might be cleansed by a process of quiet intramural confession brought all the secrets together in the 693 pages of the Family Jewels. Later Colby was to be blamed widely in the intelligence community for having released the secrets deliberately. This he did not precisely do. He tried to clean house quietly, and dispose of the detritus in secret, thus allowing the CIA to consume its own smoke as it had always done in the past. The weak point in the process was the number of people let in on the secrets, not just those in the offices of the director and the inspector general who actually took charge of the paper, but the four chairmen of the House and Senate committees briefed by Colby. But even more important were the CIA officers who had stepped sufficiently outside the hermetic mental world of the CIA to report what they took to be illegal acts. One imagines that for many of those officers their abuse reports were not the last but the first steps in rebellion, and that having reported a wrong, they began to wonder if anything would be done about it. At any rate, the very fact of the Family Jewels dispersed the secrets widely, with the inevitable result.

The CIA's role in Watergate had pointed a lot of reporters in the Agency's direction. Sometime during the year and a half between May 1973, and December 1974, Seymour Hersh of the New York Times got wind of the outline—but not the name—of Operation Chaos. On December 20, 1974, he went to see William Colby, who told him that Chaos was not really illegal, it was targeted on the foreign connections of American dissidents, it had been fully authorized by the President, and besides, the whole program had been terminated. In short, Colby confirmed everything Hersh had discovered.

But, according to several sources, Colby did not stop there. The CIA had been guilty of illegal operations, Colby confessed. For example? For example, the interception of first-class mail in New York City over a twenty-year period, a program (now terminated, like others) that had been run by counterintelligence.

Two days after Hersh's interview with Colby, the Times published Hersh's findings under a three-column headline on the front page. With that, the slow leak of CIA secrets became a flood. The White House expected Colby to issue a flat denial, which of course he could not do. Colby had never informed the White House of the Family Jewels, something he later described as simple oversight, but CIA people say that in fact Colby kept the report to himself because he didn't want to arm Nixon with a lot of secrets in mid-1973. The result was that when Hersh's story appeared on December 22, 1974, President Ford did not know how much truth it contained, if any.

The same day Colby called Ford, vacationing in Vail, Colorado, and told him that Hersh had distorted the record, that the "excesses" of the CIA had all ended in 1973 (following Helms's departure), and that he would provide a detailed response to the Times story in writing. When it was finished two days later, in the form of a six-page letter with nine annexes totaling another fifty-eight pages, Colby took it to the White House for Kissinger to read. He also brought the Family Jewels with him that Tuesday evening, and the Secretary of State flipped quickly through its 693 pages of misdeeds until he came to the subject of assassinations. There he slowed down and read carefully. "Well, Bill," he said, according to Colby, "when Hersh's story first came out, I thought you should have flatly denied it as totally wrong, but now I see why your couldn't."

Kissinger took Colby's report, but not the complete Family Jewels, to Vail and briefed Ford. By that time Colby had concluded it would be better to confess everything at once (except the assassination plotting), and he had written his letter to Ford with its fifty-eight pages of annexes as a document which might be released directly to the press. Colby felt the CIA's misdeeds belonged in a category of "bad secrets," which would haunt the Agency until they were revealed for the relatively paltry wrongs he conceived them to be. Letting out the "bad secrets," he felt, would protect the "good secrets"—the names of agents, means of collection, and so on. Ford and Kissinger emphatically did not agree. Back in Washington on January 3, 1975. Ford summoned Colby to the White House for a complete briefing.

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