Ford was not an innocent, but he was genuinely shocked by the assassination plotting described by Colby. He decided to form a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to report on the allegations in Hersh's story, but the men he appointed to it could all be depended on for discretion. Ford and Kissinger wanted to quiet the uproar, get the lid back down, and leave the rest of the secrets in the Family Jewels. But Ford himself, brooding over what Colby had told him, was to be responsible for exposing the biggest secret of all.
On January 16, 1975, the President held a luncheon in the White House for the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and some of his top editors, including the managing editors A. M Rosenthal. At the end of an hour or so of general discussion, Rosenthal asked Ford how he expected the Rockefeller Commission to be trusted when its membership was so heavily weighted by conservative figures with a history of hard-line political beliefs and sympathy for the military. Ford explained with unusual candor that the commission's mandate was strictly limited to CIA activities within the United States and he didn't want anybody on it who might stray off the reservation and begin rummaging about in the recesses of CIA history. If they did they might stumble onto things which would blacken the name of the United States and every President since Truman.
"Like what?" asked Rosenthal.
"Like assassinations!" Ford shot back. And then it sank in on him what he had said, and to whom he had said it. "That's off the record!" he quickly added.
CIA people still find Ford's blunder hard to credit. Some of them suspect his indiscretion was in fact deliberate, and that he wanted the assassination story to get out for reasons of his own. What these might be is hard to fathom: the Republican Eisenhower was if anything even more intimately involved than the Democrat Kennedy. But how else is one to explain the fact that a President told the CIA's darkest secret to a newspaper?
The Times searched its conscience and decided it morally bound to sit on the story, but it did not sit very heavily; word of what had happened was not long in slipping loose, and in early February, CBS television news correspondent Daniel Schorr learned of the exchange. He was initially misled, however, by the fact that the Rockefeller Commission was studying domestic activities of the CIA; he thought the assassinations worrying Ford had been committed in the United States. Three weeks of quiet investigation turned up nothing, and he was about to abandon the story when a routine request for an interview with Colby, initiated sometime earlier, came through with an appointment or February 27.
At the end of a general discussion of the CIA's involvement in Watergate, familiar ground for both men, Schorr casually mentioned he'd learned that Ford was worried about CIA involvement in assassinations. Colby fell silent. He could not understand why Ford had raised the subject, and was not sure how far the President had gone.
"Has the CIA ever killed anybody in this country?" Schorr asked.
"Not in this country," said Colby, with neither inflection nor expression. It was an unwisely narrow answer.
"Not in this country!" exclaimed Schorr.
At that point Colby shut up; he would say only that assassination had been formally prohibited in 1973. Why didn't Colby simply say the CIA hadn't killed anybody? Colby's critics in the CIA suspect he was really trying not to kill the story but to get it out. A more likely answer is that Colby wouldn't say what he didn't know to be true. After all, Trujillo and Lumumba had both been assassinated, and in early 1975 Colby was probably unsure of the CIA's exact role in their deaths.
From Colby's limited remarks, Schorr concluded that the "assassinations" worrying Ford had actually taken place, but abroad, not at home. At first, Schorr was unsure what to do with the story because he did not know who had been assassinated, but then it occurred to him that Ford's concern was in itself a story, and the following day, February 28, 1975, Schorr went on the CBS Evening News at seven o'clock to break the biggest CIA story of all:
President Ford has reportedly warned associates that if current investigations go too far, they could uncover several assassinations of foreign officials in which the CIA was involved ....
In Tehran, Helms, who became U.S. ambassador to Iran after he was replaced at the CIA, was furious. It seemed to him that the Agency to which he had devoted his life was falling apart, and that the men who ought to have been its protectors were backing timidly out of the way, saving themselves from the general wreck. President Ford, Helms felt, had not only a constitutional but a moral obligation to shield the CIA, an executive agency, from outside invasion. But Ford was nowhere to be seen; he had turned the Agency over to the Rockefeller Commission and had washed his hands of the whole business. Helms was angry at Colby, too.
The assassination story was the final straw. One of Helms's regular correspondents was former CIA officer James Angleton, who often sent him news clippings or tapes of broadcasts so that he might follow what was going on. Angleton had been fired in December 1974, and Helms considered it completely unjust. He knew about the Family Jewels, believed it to have been Colby's doing, and considered it the worst sort of mistake, inviting CIA officers down the line to blow the whistle on their superiors.
How could an intelligence service operate in such an atmosphere? Colby had not only collected the secrets in one place—a fundamental error! nothing on paper!—but he had passed on charges against Helms personally to the Justice Department without consulting anyone else in the government. In Helms's opinion, Colby was wrecking the CIA by turning it against itself and opening it to outsiders. The Family Jewels led directly to Hersh's story about the CIA's domestic intelligence program. Hersh's story led directly to the Rockefeller Commission and the just-formed Senate Select Committee to be headed by Frank Church, and before their investigations had even fairly begun, the biggest secret of all—the plotting of assassinations—was already out in the open. And finally, Helms was angry at Daniel Schorr. Back in January, when Helms had returned to testify at the opening session of the Rockefeller Commission, Schorr had waited outside his door one morning with a camera crew. Helms thought that a cheap trick. Now he was being called back to Washington yet again, in April 1975, to testify before the Rockefeller Commission on the subject of assassinations, about which Helms knew so much but would say so little, and Daniel Schorr was the man who brought him.
Helms appeared before the Rockefeller Commission staff on April 26, 1975. The next day he testified again, and the day after that he appeared before the full commission, which questioned him for four hours in the office of the Vice President. When Helms emerged at last, he found Daniel Schorr waiting outside with three or four other reporters. Schorr stepped forward, held out his hand, and said, "Welcome back." At that, something in Helms broke.
If there is one trait which may be said to characterize Richard Helms, it is control. He does not reveal himself. Both Lyman Kirkpatrick (CIA inspector general from 1953 to 1962) and Thomas Karamessines—the one a disappointed rival, the other a loyal, frankly admiring subordinate—used almost identical words in describing Helms's instinctive restraint. He was not a man to protest with heat, they said. "You're not going to find out if Helms ever did that," said Kirkpatrick, "unless he tells you himself, because it's not the kind of thing he'd do in front of people." Karamessines made the same point in a discussion about Chile. "If Helms ever protested to a President, he did it very privately, and let me tell you, there'd be no third party to know about it." It might almost be said that Helms managed his own emotional life as he had the CIA, and kept everything within.
But on April 28, 1975, the anger broke out, and it erupted not in private, but directly outside the Vice President's office, with three or four reporters listening. He could hardly have arranged a more public explosion if it had been on television.
"You son of a bitch!" Helms shouted at Daniel Schorr, his face livid with anger. "You killer! You cocksucker! 'Killer Schorr'—that's what they ought to call you."
Schorr was stunned. Helms strode on toward the press room, continuing to shout at Schorr, who followed behind. When Helms got before the cameras, he cooled slightly. "I must say, Mr. Schorr, I didn't like what you had to say on some of your broadcasts on this subject. And I don't think it was fair, and I don't think it was right. As far as I know, the CIA was never responsible for assassinating any foreign leader."
Another reporter asked, "Were there discussions about possible assassinations?"
"I don't know whether I stopped beating my wife," Helms shot back, "or when you stopped beating your wife—talk about discussion in government, there are always discussions about practically everything under the sun."
"Of everything under the sun."
"But you never answered my question," the reporter protested.
"Well, I'm not trying to answer your question," Said Helms, and he terminated the press conference marching from the room.
Schorr pursued Helms down the corridor and explained that it was not he but President Ford who had publicly raised the question of assassinations. At that point in his account of the exchange, Schorr says that Helms cooled and apologized. Helms denies it, still angry. He did not apologize, he never apologized!
He thought Schorr's was a stinking broadcast, maligning the names and reputations of CIA people who had never committed any assassinations. Helms still thinks it was a stinking broadcast, wrong and unfair. Maybe gentlemen apologize, but Helms felt he had nothing to apologize for. He did not apologize.
Helms was right, as far as we know. The CIA has never killed a foreign leader entirely on its own, with its own agents, using its own weapons, for its own purposes. After the Church Committee issued its assassination report on November 20, 1975, Daniel Schorr went on the air and conceded as much. It turned out as Helms said, that no foreign leader was directly killed by the CIA. But it wasn't for want of trying."
FROM one point of view—that of simple truth—the case against Helms was an easy one. The Justice Department would have had no trouble demonstrating that Helms's testimony and the facts were different, and it probably could have convinced a jury that Helms knew and remembered the truth at the time of his allegedly false testimony. But the Justice Department had doubts of a different sort about the case. It was by no means clear that a judge would reject Helms's claim that he was bound by his oath as DCI to keep the secrets, and there was some difference of opinion whether prosecution would be either fair or useful.
In the end, the Justice Department decided to seek a compromise. With the approval of President Carter, Griffin Bell would approach Helms's lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, and propose a deal. If Helms would plead nolo contendere to two misdemeanor counts, Bell would promise a sentence without teeth—neither jail nor fine.
In court Helms explained himself. "I found myself in a position of conflict," he said. "I had sworn my oath to protect certain secrets. I didn't want to lie. I didn't want to mislead the Senate. I was simply trying to find my way through a very difficult situation in which I found myself." He added that he understood "there is to be no jail sentence and I will be able to continue to get my pension from the U.S. government."
"This court does not consider itself bound by that understanding," Judge Barrington D. Parker said. He asked Williams to prepare a background report on Helms and later scheduled sentencing for Friday, November 4, 1977. When Helms reappeared in court that day—this time surrounded by reporters, who watched his jaw set and his hands grip the podium in anger and frustration—Parker read him a stern lecture.
You considered yourself bound to protect the Agency whose affairs you had administered and to dishonor your solemn oath to tell the truth .... If public officials embark deliberately on a course to disobey and ignore the laws of our land because of some misguided and ill-conceived notion and belief that there are earlier commitments and considerations which they must observe, the future of our country is in jeopardy.
There are those employed in the intelligence security community of this country ... who feel that they have a license to operate freely outside the dictates of the law and otherwise to orchestrate as they see fit. Public officials at every level, whatever their position, like any other person, must respect and honor the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
Parker did not concede one iota of Helms's claim of a higher duty. "You now stand before this court in disgrace and shame," he said. And then he imposed his sentence: a $2000 fine—the maximum—and two years in jail, to be suspended.
Outside, Williams vigorously defended Helms to the reporters and television cameras. "He was sworn not to disclose the very things that he was being requested by the committee to disclose. Had he done so, he would have sacrificed American lives, he would have sacrificed friends of ours in Chile, and he would have violated his oath." Then Williams added that Helms would "wear this conviction like a badge of honor."
A reporter asked Helms if he agreed "I do indeed," said Helms. "I don't feel disgraced at all. I think if I had done anything else I would have been disgraced."
After talking with reporters outside the courthouse for a few moments, Helms drove off to Bethesda, Maryland, where he dropped in at a luncheon of 400 retired CIA officers at the Kenwood Country Club. There he was greeted by a standing ovation. Two wastebaskets were put up on a piano and filled with cash and personal checks donated to pay Helms's $2000 fine. The following day, Saturday, November 5, 1977, Richard Helms's picture appeared on the front pages of newspapers for what would probably be the last time. Shortly thereafter he established a one-man consulting firm called the Safeer Company—safeer is the Farsi word for "ambassador"—to help Iranians do business in the United States, and with that he resumed his old Washington life, revolving around lunch and the phone.
The newspaper comment that followed Helms's plea in federal court focused narrowly on the question of whether or not justice had been done. Some writers thought not, dismissed Helms's view of his "dilemma," and described the Justice Department's bargain as one more chapter in the old, old story of soft forgiveness for high officials, however clear the evidence of their crimes. Others said that Helms's $2000 fine, two-year suspended jail sentence, and the legal equivalent of a conviction were punishment enough for having kept the secrets at an unlucky moment, when the arrangements of the past were coming undone.
The debate in the press, which lasted a week or ten days, naturally focused on Helms personally, but a larger point was visible in the background. Whether Helms had got his just deserts did not matter so much (to any but him) as whether the American intelligence community had got the message. The old freewheeling days were over. Congress would no longer turn a blind eye to what the CIA did with the people's money, in the people's name. The President might continue to give the CIA its orders, but the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee was to be in on the secrets.
At its core, the issue involved in Helms's crime was one not of honor but of the Constitution. For nearly thirty years Congress had been content to give the President blank-check authority over the intelligence community, with the result that the CIA became the President's chief instrument for conducting what amounted to a secret foreign policy. The United States had engaged in at least two wars—in Cuba and Indochina—without any real knowledge on the part of, much less the advice and consent of, the Senate. This was not the way the Constitution was supposed to work, and the argument that an international emergency (that is, the struggle against communism) justified an ad hoc approach had worn pretty thin by the time the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence finished its work in mid-1976.
So far, the principal fruits of the Select Committee's work have been a clarification of recent history, substituting for the child's history an account with a bit of the salt of truth, and the establishment of an oversight committee with its own staff and records, something the intelligence community resisted for years. On the surface this amounts to nothing more than a reassertion of constitutional prerogatives, a simple adjustment in the machinery of government, but there was something more behind the Senate's break with the past than a practical desire to get things running smoothly. A year spent immersed in the true history of the Cold War had left the Senate with a feeling of shame. The exercise of American power had been so heavily insulated in secrecy—not always, but too often—that Presidents were encouraged to intervene, and to approve methods they hardly dared name to their closest friends. The CIA might protest its ultimate innocence of murder all it liked; something decidedly unpleasant still lingered about the manufacture of poison dart guns, the stockpiling of lethal toxins, medical experiments on unsuspecting victims, attempts to infect Castro and Lumumba with disease, the funding and technical guidance of police organizations that tortured and killed local opponents, the support (and then abandonment) of out-of-the-way peoples in hidden wars, the injection of corrupting sums of money into the political systems of other nations. The CIA and its defenders might argue that They do it too, They do it first, They do it worse, but these are arguments of last resort.
No official breast-beating accompanied publication of the Senate Select Committee's multivolume report, but it was clear from the committee's conclusions that its members, as a body, felt something had gone seriously wrong. The history revealed was not the work of anything which might plausibly be called the last, best hope of mankind. When the Senate established its Intelligence Oversight Committee, it was not simply asserting its constitutional role, but implying something as well: American Presidents would no longer be allowed to intervene callously and recklessly around the world, with the CIA providing the secret muscle. This attitude was expressed clearly when the Oversight Committee began to draft a new charter for the intelligence community: at its heart was a list of prohibition as literal and specific as the rules tacked to the cabin wall in a Boy Scout camp.
But whether things have really changed is open to question. The habits of power are not so easily broken The worst blunders and most egregious excesses of the past tended to occur when everyone in Washington recognized the same threat, and agreed that something had to be done. The Senate's Intelligence Oversight Committee, after a year or two of skepticism, may simply join an expanded inner circle of policy-makers who determine the American role in the world and keep the secrets of the future as their predecessors did those of the past. The Carter Administration's refusal to drop the case against Richard Helms was a kind of earnest that it would proceed in a different way, but at the same time, in making a deal, it shrank from a new revelation of secrets. The deciding factor may have been the question of fairness to Helms, who was far from having been the prime mover in the events he refused to reveal; or pure caution about pressing a case the government might lose in court; or a deeper solicitude about the demoralized Central Intelligence Agency. Carter would not be the first national leader to find that a secret instrument of power was essential, as soon as it was in his own hands. No one in the government and few outside it, has suggested getting rid of the CIA entirely. Kennedy may have talked about scattering it to the winds, but that only meant giving the job to someone else, with a new title, at the head of an organization with a different name. Intelligence services are as inevitable a part of modern states as armies, telephone and postal services, and a system for collecting taxes. Outsiders might be willing to risk life without a foreign intelligence service, as we did before World War II, but no one in a position to decide is going to accept any such suggestion. That question is closed.
The question that remains is what the CIA will be asked to do, in addition to collecting and protecting the facts, and the spirit in which it will be used. This is not subject to legislation, and a quick answer is unlikely. Learning the truth of how we went about these things took nearly thirty years the last time around, and it may take as long again. That belongs to the future. Helms belongs to the past.