“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
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?
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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?"
"So the stories you were involved in that war are wrong?"
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.
2. The Regular Spiel
The business of intelligence has its ugly side. The immaculate documents that go to the National Security Council do not come only from satellites and a close reading of Russian technical journals. Presidents have ways of getting their message across which go beyond State Department white papers and speeches in the UN. Secret agents must be not only recruited but controlled. When they go sour they may be betrayed to their enemies. Clients are sometimes led out onto limbs and abandoned there. Allies of convenience are sometimes addicted to nail pliers and electric needles. Friendly intelligence services, trained by the CIA in computerized file-keeping, sometimes use those computers to pull the names of people they intend to kill. Helms spent thirty years in this business and accepted it. "We're not in the Boy Scouts," he often said. "If we'd wanted to be in the Boy Scouts, we'd have joined the Boy Scouts." But the evidence, fragmentary as it is, suggests that the CIA customarily drew the line at what is commonly meant by the word "murder." However, in the late 1950s, the CIA began to get orders to kill people.
Of course talk about killing was a commonplace. In 1952, a West German general had lunch in Washington with Dulles, Helms, and other CIA officials, and suggested that a way be found to assassinate the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht. The proposal was rejected. As early as 1957, some American government officials were talking about "getting rid of" Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. His abuse of human rights was putting the United States in an awkward situation, just as his suppression of political opponents of every stripe was undermining his own government, but he had settled in so deeply that some of the Americans talking about getting rid of him had decided the only way was to get rid of him. Eventually these discussions involved the CIA; Vietnam analysts were asked to suggest a possible replacement. In late 1958, not long before he left the Agency for good, Frank Wisner, head of the DDP, discussed the "Diem problem" with another DDP official, who says neither of them was exactly keen on the idea. Diem with all his faults was an American ally and client. "Is it really our job to do that?" the DDP official asked Wisner.
The answer turned out to be no—for the time being at least—because the only man with a right to issue such an order never gave it. But there was plenty of tough talk all the same. At a State Department meeting to discuss U.S. troubles with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in late 1956 or early 1957, Allen Dulles, suddenly growing angry with a briefer's attempt to explain the situation from Nasser's point of view, turned to him and said, "If that colonel of yours pushes us too far, we will break him in half!"
Later, in the 1960s, a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Robert Murphy, asked why the CIA didn't kill Ho Chi Minh, since he was giving us so much trouble; asked loudly, positively and repeatedly: Ho is the problem, isn't he? Can't you fellows do something to get rid of him? You're supposed to be able to handle things; handle him! Murphy was an important public official and Thomas Karamessines, then head of the DDP, had a hard time with his repeated demands. A CIA officer who often accompanied Karamessines said he'd heard such tough talk before, and that he and other CIA officers responded with "a regular spiel you'd give these people": What good would it do? Ho's successor might be even worse. How were you going to kill Ho Chi Minh secretly? You might be able to fool the New York Times, Robert Murphy was told, but how were you going to deceive the Vietnamese? They'd know what had happened, they'd know who did it, and they'd probably be in a position and mood to retaliate. There is a tacit truce between nations on such matters once you start killing their people, they start killing yours. The CIA simply does not have the assets to kill secretly a well-guarded figure such as Ho Chi Minh in a security-conscious state such as North Vietnam.
Another government figure who got the regular spiel was Livingston Merchant, the undersecretary of state for political affairs at the end of Eisenhower's Administration. Because of his job, Merchant was a regular member of the Special Group to oversee covert operations, and on November 3, 1960, when planning for the Bay of Pigs was well under way, Merchant attended a Special Group meeting where he asked "whether any real planning had been done for taking direct positive action against Fidel, Raul, and Che Guevara." In the sudden absence of all three, Merchant suggested, the Cuban government would be "leaderless and probably brainless."
On this occasion the regular spiel came from General Charles Cabell, the deputy DCI, who "pointed out that action of this kind is uncertain of results and highly dangerous in conception and execution, because the instruments must be Cubans. [Cabell] felt that, particularly because of the necessity of simultaneous action, it should have to be concluded that Mr. Merchant's suggestion is beyond our capabilities." Even through the opacity of official minutes the pattern is apparent: a hardheaded, straightforward question—What about it? If we're trying to get rid of these guys, why don't we get rid of these guys?—is met with a wall of spongy demurrer: It's too tough, won't work, can't predict the consequences, might blow up in our faces, et cetera.
A witness to still another episode of the sort was Armin Meyer, a career diplomat with a long history in the Near East. In July 1958, when the government of Iraq was overthrown in a coup notable for its violence, Meyer was deputy director of the State Department's Office of Near Eastern Affairs. The following year he was promoted to director, and in that capacity was called in whenever the CIA contemplated covert operations in Iraq. The new ruler of the country was an army general named Abdul Karim Kassem, who had murdered his predecessors as well as a number of foreigners who happened to be in Baghdad at the time of his coup. On top of that he immediately restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, later lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist party while suppressing pro-Western parties, and in many other ways invited the hostility of Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. On one occasion during Armin Meyer's tenure as director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs, he attended a meeting in Allen Dulles's office at the CIA to discuss how the United States might remove Kassem. Meyer had attended many such meetings; they were a routine of government; but this one in particular stuck in his mind.
During the meeting one of those present suggested that Kassem himself was the problem, and maybe the best way to get rid of him was to get rid of him. Wait a minute Dulles said. An awful silence followed. Dulles was a man of great personal authority, and his words on this occasion had a cold and deliberate emphasis which Meyer never forgot. Dulles wanted one thing to be understood: it was not in the American character to assassinate opponents; murder was not to be discussed in his office, now or ever again; he did not ever want to hear another such suggestion by a servant of the United States government; that was not the way Americans did things.
Dulles was so clear on this point, and spoke with such evident passion and conviction, that Meyer, later, simply could not understand how Dulles ever could have been party to an assassination plot, no matter who gave the orders. Meyer knew what was in the reports of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (the Church Committee), but he simply did not believe it. Dulles had left no room for doubt: he would not be a party to assassination. The regular spiel. The more one examines the subject, the clearer the pattern becomes. Another example ought to make it unmistakable. On August 10, 1962, during the earliest stages of what would shortly become the Cuban missile crisis, a meeting was held in the office of Secretary of State Dean Rusk to discuss Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy Administration's post-Bay of Pigs plan to get rid of Castro, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a man convinced there is a rational solution to every problem, was probably astonished at the instantaneous reaction to his entirely hypothetical suggestion that perhaps they ought to consider solving the Castro problem by killing him.
Edward R. Murrow, the director of the United States Information Agency, protested that this was entirely out of order. CIA Director John McCone immediately backed him up. The secretary at the meeting, Thomas Parrott, did not so much as include the matter in the minutes. To seal the point, McCone personally phoned McNamara later in the day and protested that talk of assassination was entirely out of order in such a meeting, that he didn't want to hear any more of it, and that he, McCone, a devout Catholic who attended mass every morning, might be faced with nothing short of excommunication if word of such things ever got out.
The message to McNamara ought to have been loud and clear: assassination was too sensitive a matter to be discussed in official meetings or to be recorded in official memos and minutes. What those high officials who received the regular spiel failed to comprehend was the degree of secrecy which necessarily surrounded any matter as explosive as assassination.
In February 1960, while the government was trying to decide what to do about General Kassem, the chief of the DDP's Near East Division, James Critchfield, proposed that Kassem be "incapacitated" with a poisoned handkerchief prepared by the DDP's Technical Services Division. In April the proposal was supported by the DDP's chief of operations, Richard Helms, who endorsed Kassem's incapacitation as "highly desirable." As head of the DDP, Bissell did not act in such matters without Dulles's approval, and Bissell was convinced—he could hardly have made this point any clearer in his later testimony before the Church Committee—that Dulles would not have proceeded without an order from the only man with the authority to okay an attempt on a foreign leader's life.
In this instance the handkerchief was duly dispatched to Kassem, but whether or not it ever reached him, it certainly did not kill him. His countrymen did that on February 8, 1963, by machine-gunning him and three of his aides in his office in Baghdad.
What Livingston Merchant, Armin Meyer, Robert McNamara, and others failed to understand was that official meetings in the office of the director of the CIA, or of the secretary of state, or of the Special Group, were hardly the place to discuss something that was really secret. From the CIA's point of view, the secretary of state's office was about as secure as the floor of Congress with full press galleries. If you were going to plan an assassination in the secretary of state's office, or record the discussion in the minutes, you might as well send a press release to the New York Times. Eisenhower and Kennedy went after two enemies in particular in the years between 1959 and 1963—Lumumba in the Congo and Castro in Cuba—but when they gave the job to the CIA, they expected secrecy, and that is what they got.
3. A Case History: Cuba
The Bay of Pigs marked the beginning, not the end, of John F. Kennedy's determination to get rid of Castro, the moment when Fidel Castro ceased to be merely an enemy inherited from Eisenhower. Kennedy's mandate to General Maxwell Taylor in April 1961 was, not to fix the blame for the failure of the invasion, but to find out why it hadn't worked, so the next plan would.
Knowing of Kennedy's growing obsession with unconventional warfare, Taylor proposed a broad, government-wide effort to combat insurgencies from Vietnam to Latin America. The result, after Taylor joined the White House full time as the military representative of the President on July 4, 1961, was establishment of the Counter-Insurgency (CI) Group, which began to meet on a regular basis with Taylor as chairman early that fall.
The first order of business for the CI Group was Cuba. The CIA was heavily involved in both Laos and Vietnam at the same time, but the covert operations launched against North Vietnam, beginning in the fall of 1961 under the Saigon station chief, William Colby, were on the back burner. Cuba was where the Kennedys wanted immediate results. A second committee, the Special Group Augmented (SGA), was established to oversee Operation Mongoose, run by then Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, a counterinsurgency specialist with experience in both the Philippines and Vietnam, where he had helped Ngo Dinh Diem to consolidate his control over the country. No Kennedy program received less publicity than Mongoose, or more personal attention from the Kennedys, and in particular from Robert.
The importance of the undertaking did not take long to establish. In the early stages of Mongoose, a CIA officer working on the operation, Sam Halpern, asked Lawrence Houston, the CIA's general counsel, if the operation was even legal. He pointed out that the Bay of Pigs landing had been organized outside the United States at least partly in order to avoid violating the Neutrality Acts, which prohibited the launching of attacks on foreign targets from American soil. Now Mongoose was being geared up in Miami; wasn't this against the law? Houston said the answer was no: if the President says it's okay, and if the attorney general says it's okay, then it's okay.
The CIA officers in charge of the Cuban branch set up by Helms were appalled by the magnitude of the task. "With what?" they asked. "We haven't got any assets. We don't even know what's going on in Cuba."
Despite the White House pressure, the SGA and Mongoose proceeded sluggishly. Lansdale's original plan had called for an escalating effort to create an opposition to Castro inside Cuba, followed by insurgency and a general uprising. Lansdale spoke of a march on Havana in October 1962, and he meant march—a triumphal entry like Castro's just three years earlier. But Lansdale's plan was a fantasy. The CIA managed to get agents onto the island and to recruit others in rural areas, but what they told Lansdale was bleak: there would be no general uprising.
After the first few months of covert operations, Mongoose gradually shifted its emphasis from resistance-building to sabotage, paramilitary raids, efforts to disrupt the Cuban economy by contaminating sugar exports, circulating counterfeit money and ration books, and the like. "We want boom and bang on the island," Lansdale said. Robert Kennedy took a particular interest in efforts to sabotage the Matahambre copper mines in western Cuba, on one occasion even calling repeatedly to learn if the agents had left yet Had they landed? Had they reached the mines? Had they destroyed them successfully? Kennedy, like Lansdale, wanted boom and bang, and a number of CIA officers on the operational level grew to know his voice as he called to find out how they were coming along and to press them forward. The Matahambre copper mines were never destroyed, despite the launching of three separate full-scale raids, but other attacks on sugar refineries, oil storage facilities, and the like were more successful. Still, they fell far short of wrecking the Cuban economy, even in its weakened state following the dislocations of revolution, and the paramilitary program held little promise of Castro's overthrow.
There is a certain opaque quality to all of the CIA's plans to eliminate Castro. The invasion force that landed at the Bay of Pigs was too big to hide and too small to defeat Castro's huge army and militia. Mongoose in 1962 never got much beyond an intelligence-gathering effort, and while it succeeded in raising the level of "boom and bang on the island" in 1963, noise was hardly enough to do the job. Lansdale's scenario for a triumphal march into Havana was illusory. Desmond FitzGerald took over in 1963, but a lot of people who worked for FitzGerald never quite grasped how his plans were supposed to work either. FitzGerald was adamant. "You don't know what you're talking about," he told one of them. They were going to get Castro.
But Lee Harvey Oswald got Kennedy first. After the President's murder in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the Cuban operation began to wither away. The last exile groups, boats, and maintenance facilities in Florida were not abandoned until 1965, but Lyndon Johnson never gave his full attention to the Cuban "problem."
In March 1964, Desmond FitzGerald, by then the new Western Hemisphere division chief, visited the CIA station in Buenos Aires. There he told some of his officers, "If Jack Kennedy had lived, I can assure you we would have gotten rid of Castro by last Christmas. Unfortunately, the new President isn't as gung-ho on fighting Castro as Kennedy was.
Christmas, 1963. What could have "gotten rid of Castro" by Christmas of 1963?
There was a lot of talk about language at the meetings of the Church Committee. CIA officers testified that phrases such as "getting rid of Castro" were only figures of speech; they just wanted him out of the way, not dead and buried. It was a kind of shorthand, reflecting the determined spirit of the time. Perhaps they talked about "eliminating" Castro, or even "knocking him off," but they intended only to replace or remove him, not literally get rid of him. A handful of former CIA officials—notably Richard Bissell, William Harvey, Justin O'Donnell, Richard Helms—admitted that talk of getting rid of Castro or Lumumba meant just that in one or two instances, but when they really meant "get rid of," they sometimes used a circumlocution or euphemism instead. In particular, they testified, conversations with high government officials, and especially any that might have occurred with the very highest government official, were deliberately opaque, Allusive, and indirect, using "rather general terms," in Bissell's phrase.
In his Church Committee testimony, Helms took Bissell's line. "I think any of us would have found it very difficult to discuss assassinations with a President of the U.S.," Helms told the committee. "I just think we all had the feeling that we're hired out to keep those things out of the Oval Office." He made this point repeatedly—"Nobody wants to embarrass a President of the United States by discussing the assassination of foreign leaders in his presence"; "I don't see how one would have expected that a thing like killing or murdering or assassinating would become a part of a large group of people sitting around a table in the United States government"; "I don't know whether it was in training, experience, tradition, or exactly what one points to, but I think to go up to a Cabinet officer and say, Am I right in assuming that you want me to assassinate Castro? ... is a question it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask." Bissell and Helms both insisted they had never discussed the assassination plots with either the President or the attorney general, but at the same time they were certain they had all the authority they needed, and were in fact trying to do what the Kennedys in particular wanted done. Helms insisted that Robert Kennedy "would not have been unhappy if he [Castro] had disappeared off the scene by whatever means," and, "I was just doing my best to do what I thought I was supposed to do."
The murkiness of the record raised a certain problem for the committee. Either the CIA had undertaken Castro's murder on its own and was indeed, in Church's words, "a rogue elephant rampaging out of control," or Eisenhower and Kennedy had in fact ordered the CIA to attempt the assassination of foreign leaders, which the associates of both Presidents swore they had never done, and would never do. Robert McNamara said he couldn't help the committee on this crucial point. He testified that he didn't remember suggesting Castro's assassination at an SGA meeting on August 10, 1962, although he did remember McCone's telephone call to protest, and he would have to take the committee's word for it that the CIA did, in fact, try to kill Castro. He didn't know about it.
But McNamara was at the same time meticulous in emphasizing that "the CIA was a highly disciplined organization, fully under the control of senior officials of the government....I know of no major action taken by the CIA during the time I was in the government that was not properly authorized .... I just can't understand how it could have happened .... " The dilemma was gingerly circled again and again. Kennedy Administration officials had nothing but praise for the CIA's discipline; they certainly did not want to blame the CIA for this: they did not even want to blame it on a misunderstanding; and yet they knew the Kennedys would never have countenanced any such thing.
The CIA officials involved did not contradict them exactly, but insisted they had the authority, and yet were vague when they tried to explain where the authority came from. More extraordinary still was the restrained way in which the high officials of the CIA and of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations treated each other. There was no acrimonious exchange of accusation of the sort one might have expected. McNamara, typically, did not want to blame the Agency, and Helms, typically, testified he didn't want "to take refuge in saying that I was instructed to specifically murder Castro .... " The claims of both sides were in soft opposition, and the committee was forced to confess softly in the end that while it had no evidence that the CIA had been a rogue elephant rampaging out of control, it also had no evidence that Eisenhower or Kennedy or anyone speaking in one of their names had ordered the CIA to kill Castro. The only indisputable fact was that the CIA did, in fact, try to do so.
The Church Committee reported that it had discovered at least eight separate plots against Castro of varying seriousness, ranging from an attempt to give him a poisoned wet suit for scuba diving to a more determined effort, through agents recruited by the Mafia, to poison his food.
Some of these plots never survived the first serious discussion, but others were pushed forward over a period of years, and although none of them came close to success, it was not for lack of effort.
According to Bissell, the first discussion of killing Castro occurred in the summer of 1960, when planning for the invasion of Cuba had already been under way for at least five months. The early attempts on Castro's life were assigned to the director of security, Colonel Sheffield Edwards, in August 1960. Edwards and another CIA officer approached Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent who had frequently worked for the CIA in the past, and told him the CIA would be willing to pay $150,000 for Castro's assassination. Maheu recommended a Mafia figure named John Rosselli, who agreed to go ahead with the plan, using other Mafia contacts whose gambling interests in Cuba had been confiscated by Castro in 1959. By October, Rosselli had recruited Sam Giancana and Santo Traficante, who in turn began to recruit Cubans who might do the job.
The Technical Services Division, meanwhile, was working on poisons which might be used for the murder, after Giancana had protested that a gangland-style killing would never work. In a separate but related effort in August 1960, the CIA's Office of Medical Services was given a box of Castro's favorite cigars and told to treat them with a lethal poison. They were ready in October, and delivered to someone in the Agency—it is not known to whom—the following February. The cigars may have been intended for Castro during his trip to the United Nations in September 1960. According to David Wise and Thomas B. Ross in The Espionage Establishment, a CIA officer told Michael J. Murphy of the New York Police Department that the Agency had planned to assassinate Castro with a box of exploding cigars, but then had changed its mind. Perhaps the box of cigars referred to by Murphy was the same one the office of Medical Serviced had treated with botulinus toxin by October 7. Perhaps not. In any event, the Technical Services Division prepared botulinus toxin pills in February 1961, tested them successfully on monkeys, and delivered them to Colonel Edwards, who passed them on to Rosselli in Miami. Late that month or early in March, Rosselli told the CIA that the pills had been given to a man in Castro's entourage, but that he had returned them after he lost his job, and with it his access to Castro. A second attempt in April failed when the agent got "cold feet," and after the collapse of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Maheu-Rosselli operation went into a dormant phase.
Early that fall, however, the Mafia plot to kill Castro was reactivated after Bissell, in a meeting with both Kennedy brothers held in the Cabinet Room, was "chewed out" for "sitting on his ass and not doing anything about getting rid of Castro and the Castro regime." This time Bissell bypassed Colonel Edwards and gave the job to a veteran of clandestine operations, William Harvey. Earlier in 1961, Bissell had asked Harvey to organize a unit within the DDP which might recruit agents to carry out assassinations on call—described with the euphemism "executive action," the very phrase, interestingly, which Allen Dulles later used in his memoirs to describe the "'Murder Inc' branch of the KGB." Harvey organized the group, and on November 16, 1961, he and Bissell discussed the possibility that ZR/RIFLE, the "executive action" group, might be used for killing Castro. Bissell also told Harvey about the Mafia plot, and later Harvey briefed Helms.
In early April 1962, acting on Helms's explicit orders, Harvey asked Colonel Edwards to put him into contact with John Rosselli, and a few days later the two men were introduced in Miami by the man Edwards had assigned as Rosselli's case officer, James O'Connell. Harvey got off on the wrong foot with Rosselli by telling him to break contact on the Castro operation with Robert Maheu and Sam Giancana. Harvey had apparently decided the two men were superfluous and untrustworthy as the result of an episode eighteen months earlier, in October 1960, when the CIA-Mafia plot was first getting under way. At that time, Maheu, as a favor to Giancana, had hired a private detective to tap the Las Vegas phone of one of Giancana's girlfriends in order to discover if she was being unfaithful to him. The tap was discovered by a maid, the detective was arrested by local police, and Maheu was told to square it or else.
Later, in April 1961, with the permission of Colonel Edwards, Maheu told the FBI that the tap was connected to an operation he had undertaken for the CIA, and Edwards confirmed his story. The problem refused to go away, however, and the following year, in 1962, the Las Vegas wiretap episode helped the FBI to learn the rough outlines of the plot to kill Castro. This all struck Harvey as a perfect example of an operation going out of control, and he decided that the first step was to get rid of the clowns, Maheu and Giancana. Rosselli did as Harvey asked, and the two men met again in New York on April 8, 1962. Before the end of he month, Harvey delivered four poison pills to Rosselli in Miami. In May, Rosselli reported that the pills were inside Cuba, and later, in June, that a three-man team had been sent in to kill Castro.
But that was as far as things went. By September 1962, when Rosselli told Harvey another three-man team was to be sent to Cuba, Harvey had concluded that the operation was going nowhere. He had run the operation with extreme security; not even the men who worked for him on Task Force W (the CIA's end of Operation Mongoose) knew what he was up to, or where he was going when he disappeared for a few days every month or two. Bissell had given him the Rosselli operation, Helms told him to give it a shot, Harvey decided on his own it was a will-o'-the-wisp. In February 1963, Harvey told Rosselli the operation was over.
Harvey's replacement by Desmond FitzGerald and the scuttling of the Rosselli operation did not end but only redirected the CIA's attempts to kill Castro. One of FitzGerald's early inspirations was fanciful and impractical, appealing to his temperamental fondness for the clever and the ingenious. It called for the Technical Services Division to rig an exploding seashell, which would be placed on the sea floor in an area where Castro liked to go skin diving. Like many CIA people, in love with the subtle and the artful, FitzGerald was fascinated by gadgets and resented skeptics who dourly suggested they would cost too much or would fail to work or weren't even needed at all. He was downright petulant at times. When Sam Halpern once protested that a fancy new communications device just wasn't going to work, FitzGerald said, "If you don't like it, you don't have to come to meetings anymore."
Halpern protested that the seashell plan was inherently impossible to control. How could they be sure that Castro would be the one to find it? Besides, the best assassinations do not appear to be assassinations at all, while Castro blowing up on the ocean floor would point a finger directly at the United States. Similar protests had been made about the plan to give Castro a box of poisoned cigars. He might hand them all out to a delegation of visiting schoolteachers. If the idea was to kill Castro, they had to find something which would get him and no one else. FitzGerald's ideas weren't turning out any better than the earlier ones, such as the proposal to provide Castro with a poisoned wet suit to be delivered by James B. Donovan, an American lawyer negotiating the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. The Technical Services Division had duly purchased a suit and contaminated the breathing apparatus with tubercle bacilli and the suit itself with fungus spores which would cause a chronic skin disease called Madura foot. Critics of this plan claimed that its authors had neglected the most elementary points: for example, the fact that it was in effect a gift from the United States (the idea was to keep it secret), or Donovan's feeling about being the gift-giver in this plot. If he didn't know, after all, he might try on the suit himself. As it happened, Donovan gave Castro a wet suit entirely on his own, and the CIA's wet suit was destroyed.
But FitzGerald did not abandon the problem. Eventually he came up with a serious effort to use a major in the Cuban army, in contact with the CIA since 1961, named Rolando Cubela. Cubela was on intimate terms with Castro, and often saw and talked to him in his office or at official functions. He and some of his friends bitterly resented the Russian presence in Cuba and felt that Castro had betrayed the revolution. From the CIA's point of view, he was an ideal conspirator, a man with a public reputation as a leader in the fight against Batista, close to Castro, spokesman for a circle of dissidents, and ambitious. On top of that, Cubela had already proved himself as an assassin. In October 1956, he shot and killed the chief of Batista's military intelligence, Blanco Rico, a deed which haunted him thereafter and even resulted in a nervous breakdown. Rico had been picked as a target not because he was ruthless or cruel, but because he was a fair, temperate man; he reflected credit on Batista as a leader. Cubela was convinced that Rico knew why he was being killed, and believed that Rico had smiled at him at the very moment Cubela pulled the trigger.
The CIA was well aware of Cubela's political and mental history, but decided to use him anyway, since he was perfectly situated to engineer the one thing which might actually get rid of Castro—a palace coup. From the beginning, Cubela insisted that a coup had to include Castro's "execution." The word "assassination" disturbed him; he preferred to say he would "eliminate" Castro. At various times he asked the CIA to provide him with exotic assassination devices and more mundane sniper rifles, and the CIA undertook to give him what he wanted. With Helms's approval, FitzGerald personally met with Cubela in Paris on October 29, 1963, despite protests from subordinates who said that no high CIA official should expose himself in such a manner. Cubela had requested a meeting with Robert Kennedy, but FitzGerald satisfied him with the claim that he was Kennedy's personal representative. Not quite a month later, on November 22, 1963, Cubela's case officer gave him a specially prepared "pen" which might indetectably inject a deadly poison into Castro; the CIA recommended Blackleaf 40, a widely available toxin which Cubela was to procure on his own. The Church Committee's assassination report says that Cubela dismissed the poison pen as a toy and insisted the CIA could surely come up with something "more sophisticated."
At the end of the meeting, the CIA case officer learned that Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas. During the ensuing tension and uncertainty, the Cubela plot was allowed to lapse for a matter of months. Christmas, 1963, came and went; nothing happened. Early in 1964, the CIA-Cubela plotting was revived, and two caches of arms—one in March, the second in June—were landed in Cuba for Cubela's use. That fall Cubela requested a sniper rifle, and the CIA told him the United States no longer wanted to have any role in the "first part" of his plan—that is, in Castro's assassination. Why did the CIA change its mind at this late date? The record provides no persuasive reason, but it may have been because Lyndon Johnson was quietly sounded out—so quietly that he may not have known that he was being asked—and he wanted no part of assassination. Clearly, Johnson had not known about the earlier Mafia plots, and Helms did not tell him about the CIA's relationship with Cubela during Johnson's own tenure as President. The important point here is that the CIA's direct involvement in Cubela's assassination plans came to an end at a time when they seemed not to have the President's sanction.
The subject of assassinations was a painful one for CIA people. On no other subject did they fight so hard to keep the secrets, and in particular the secret of presidential authority. On this point the testimony of high-level CIA officials before the Church Committee was elusive in the extreme. Helms in particular remembered next to nothing, and dismissed the rest. He never believed the Mafia plot was going anywhere. He let Harvey proceed only to see if Rosselli really had assets in Cuba. Cubela's plan to "eliminate" Castro was indulged to see if he and his associates could really put together anything in the nature of an honest plot. The committee had obtained the CIA inspector general's report of 1967, but the memories of those involved halted pretty much where the documents came to an end. The Church Committee's report was detailed and lawyerly, proceeding point by point in a logical and yet a confusing manner; discussions of closely related events are sometimes scores of pages apart.
But even when one has reassembled the story in its proper order, the picture one gets is fragmentary, occasionally vivid and complete on minor points, more often bald and out of focus. The primary reason for this is the tendency of CIA officials to suffer memory lapses on all those points, which were very numerous, that had not survived in the files. In addition, of course, Eisenhower, both Kennedys, both Dulleses, General Cabell, and other high officials had died. Livingston Merchant and Admiral Arleigh Burke were too ill to testify. Some of the lower-level officials—William Harvey, Justin O'Donnell, Sidney Gottlieb, and others—testified at length but did not really know who gave the orders or when, and would not have presumed to ask.
The idea of assassination itself did not seem to trouble CIA officials who testified. The wisdom of the undertaking was something else again. It was stupid, foolish, ridiculous, unworkable; worse than a crime, a blunder—the regular spiel. Everyone had his own adjective, none of them flattering. The best they could muster by way of justification was "the climate of the time," the Kennedys' hysteria on the subject of Castro, the eager willingness of the Cubans who were recruited seriatim to do the job. But all the same, they shook their heads in dismay. More than anything else, it seemed to be the sheer difficulty of assassination—that is, of a genuinely secret assassination—that left them wondering.
But on the question of presidential authority, there is no such equanimity. One exception said that no one in the CIA doubted for a minute that Eisenhower and Kennedy "jolly well knew," but others, more closely involved, did more than simply squirm in their chairs. Several different men, in fact, showed dramatic signs of psychological stress in discussing this point.
It is inconceivable that Richard Helms would ever betray himself in so unmistakable a manner. But in his testimony before the Church Committee, Helms more than once revealed an uncharacteristic degree of irritation with the committee's insistent return to the question of authority. He was being as clear as he could: the Kennedys wanted Castro out of there, the CIA did not go off on its own in these matters, the Agency was only trying to do its job. What more could he say? Senator, how can you be so goddamned dumb? This isn't the kind of thing you put in writing.
And despite the Church Committee's diligent search, they never did find anything in writing. The committee did learn, however, of three separate occasions when one or both Kennedys discussed the assassination of Castro in a manner indicating that it lay heavily on their minds. The first occasion occurred in March or early April of 1961, just before the Bay of Pigs invasion, at the height of the first Rosselli effort to poison Castro, when President Kennedy asked his friend Senator George Smathers what he thought the Latin American reaction would be to the assassination of Fidel Castro. Smathers said he told Kennedy the murder would be blamed on the United States and on Kennedy personally, and that he, Smathers, was therefore against it. According to Smathers, Kennedy immediately responded that he was against it too. But in mid-March 1961, before their conversation, the CIA had already given botulinus toxin pills to Rosselli in Miami, and a second batch were to be handed over on April 21.
The elimination of Castro was raised again by the Kennedys—in more ambiguous terms this time—during a meeting with Bissell in September 1961. Bissell later described the meeting to his Cuban desk officer in mid-October. He said he had been called to the White House and "raked stem to stern" by both Kennedys in the Cabinet Room, and by Robert Kennedy in particular. By all accounts, both Kennedys could make a point when they wanted to. McGeorge Bundy, who told the Church Committee that ordering an assassination would have been "contrary to everything I know about their character," also said that when there "was something that they really wanted done they did not leave people in doubt." Larry Houston, who had on May 7, 1962, briefed Robert Kennedy about the early, pre-Bay of Pigs Mafia plot, made the same point: "If you have seen Mr. Kennedy's eyes get steely and his jaw set and his voice get low and precise you get a definite feeling of unhappiness." The Cuba desk officer got a clear impression from Bissell's description of what he'd been told by the Kennedys: they wanted the CIA to get rid of Castro, and they meant get rid of Castro.
Castro continued to be on the Kennedys' mind that fall of 1961. On November 9, the attorney general took Tad Szulc, then a reporter for the New York Times, to meet the President, who asked Szulc, "What would you think if I ordered Castro to be assassinated?" Szulc told the President it wouldn't work, and that the United States should not do such things. Kennedy said he and his brother felt the same way. In Szulc's note of the conversation, made the same day, he wrote "JFK said he raised question because he was under terrific pressure from advisers (think he said intelligence people, but not positive) to okay a Castro murder. Said he was resisting pressures."
Despite all the evidence gathered by the Church Committee, it never found anything like an order to kill Castro in writing, and it never found a witness who would confess explicitly that he had received such an order. The committee's response to the incomplete record was to leave the question of authority hanging. Must we do the same? Lacking a smoking gun in the form of an incriminatory document or personal testimony, we can reach no firm conclusion, but at the same time the available evidence leans heavily toward a finding that the Kennedys did, in fact, authorize the CIA to make an attempt on Castro's life.
The evidence is particularly persuasive on two points. First, President Kennedy's conversations with Senator Smathers and Tad Szulc on the subject of assassination both occurred at times when the CIA was actively trying to kill Castro with the aid of the Mafia. Second, the briefing of Robert Kennedy by Lawrence Houston and Sheffield Edwards elicited a very narrow response from Kennedy. The facts surrounding the briefing, held on May 7, 1962, are extremely complex, but at its heart the episode is a simple one: a case of the dog that didn't bark. Houston told the committee that Kennedy's anger was directed at the CIA's use of the Mafia; He made the same point even more emphatically to me. "Kennedy was mad," he said. "He was mad as hell. But what he objected to was the possibility it would impede prosecution against Giancana and Rosselli. He was not angry about the assassination plot, but about our involvement with the Mafia." Perhaps Kennedy did not know the whole story, Houston conceded, but he added: "All I know is that [Robert] Kennedy knew about one of them [the assassination plots] in very great detail."
The record is clear, then, that Kennedy was thoroughly briefed about the details of an attempt to murder Castro during his brother's presidency. The record is clear that the attempt to kill Castro continued. And the record is clear that, despite his knowledge of the earlier attempt, Robert Kennedy did not protest to the CIA, to its director, John McCone, to Helms, or to anyone else in the Agency about that attempt. He was mad about the use of the Mafia. Period. Would he have kept his mouth shut, and done nothing, if he had discovered that the CIA, answerable to his brother, had tried to murder a foreign leader without his brother's approval? It seems unlikely.
That was the first time the dog didn't bark. The second time occurred during the Church Committee's investigation, when Kennedy Administration officials might have been expected to be publicly furious at the CIA—an executive agency, as Helms often reminded Congress when he was director—for undertaking anything so fundamental as an assassination without the President's explicit approval. Instead, they said that the Kennedys they knew would never have done such a thing, and left it at that. Why were they so complaisant? Well, you can push a man keeping a secret just so far.
4. A Case History: Chile
During the 1960s, Chile received more American aid per capita than just about any other country in the world—Vietnam excepted—and the CIA provided half the money spent in the 1964 election won by the Christian Democratic party candidate, Eduardo Frei.
Frei was the beneficiary, not only of CIA funds given directly to his party (something he did not know), but of a CIA propaganda program intended to scare the living daylights out of Chileans at the prospect of a victory by Salvador Allende, whose Popular Action Front was depicted as nakedly Stalinist. Posters of Russian tanks in the streets of Budapest and of Cubans in front of Castro's firing squads proliferated on Chilean walls in 1964. CIA assets in the Chilean press hammered on the same theme while CIA election experts coached Christian Democratic party workers on American media and get-out-the-vote techniques. A quieter but equally effective CIA disinformation effort helped to divide the left and to keep Allende defending himself against charges which were false or half true or even all true—such as foreign funding of his party—but which were equally true of his principal opponent, Frei.
In the end Frei's victory in 1964 was probably his own, but not its margin: the credit for that must go to the air of crisis that polarized the Chilean electorate, and which had been largely the CIA's doing.
As early as April 15, 1969, Helms warned Henry Kissinger that an early start was necessary if the CIA was to repeat in 1970 its successful role in the 1964 election. Kissinger decided to let the matter ride for the moment. The situation was complicated by a dispute between the CIA and U.S. Ambassador to Chile Edward M. Korry, who favored minimal interference. In Santiago, CIA station chief Henry Heckscher wanted to support the rightist candidate, Jorge Alessandri, directly. Korry balked at that, but Heckscher persuaded him that his hands-off policy was suggesting American indifference to the cause of democracy, and was in effect helping Allende, who was receiving Russian funds. Korry and Heckscher then drafted a joint plan for a general anti-Allende campaign which would continue to bar direct support for any single candidate. At length a proposal for anti-Allende "spoiling operations" was finally approved on March 25, 1970.
At this point the multinational companies intervened. They wanted not a general anti-Allende, scare-the-people campaign, but a more aggressive program of positive financial and technical support for Alessandri, the only candidate in the election who opposed expropriation. On April 10, a group from the Business Council on Latin America met with the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Charles Meyer, to urge a major pro-Alessandri effort. Meyer, a former Sears, Roebuck executive in Latin America who had been given his State Department job through the influence of David Rockefeller, was studiously noncommittal when the chairman of the board of Anaconda, C. Jay Parkinson, said his and other interested American companies were willing to put up $500,000 to block Allende. Another State Department officer present at the meeting, William Stedman, sent Korry a memorandum describing Parkinson's offer, and Korry responded on April 28 with a stinging cable arguing against any such involvement by U.S. business, claiming that Alessandri was a candidate of the rich, who could well afford to pay for their champion's campaign, and repeating again that U.S. support for a rightist was going to backfire against the United States.
Deflected for the moment by Korry's opposition, the multinationals changed their strategy. Instead of proceeding through the State Department, they decided to enlist the aid and expertise of the CIA. In May 1970, John McCone, who had appointed Helms head of the DDP back in 1962, and who was now a member of the board of directors of ITT, approached Helms privately to discuss a CIA-ITT program to support Alessandri. As DCI back in 1964, McCone had refused an ITT offer of funds for the Chilean election, but now he was ready to propose what amounted to the same thing. In July 1970, McCone again contacted Helms, who in turn arranged a Washington meeting between William Broe, chief of the Western Hemisphere Division of the DDP, and Harold Geneen, the head of ITT. Geneen offered Broe and the CIA $1 million in ITT funds for a pro-Alessandri campaign.
The various congressional committees that investigated the Chilean episode cited the ITT offer but never fully explained what it was for. Giving the CIA money, after all, is bringing coals to Newcastle. Why was the offer made? Both Korry and the State Department opposed a pro-Alessandri campaign, and Kissinger duly limited the U.S. effort to an anti-Allende campaign. Rejecting State Department reservations at a 40 Committee (the White House CIA Oversight Committee) meeting on June 27, 1970—"I don't see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible"—Kissinger nevertheless restricted the U.S. effort to spoiling operations and a $500,000 contingency fund, proposed by Korry ten days earlier, to "influence" the final vote of the Chilean Congress, should Allende win the election on September 4. The weakness of Kissinger's strategy, as Helms suggested without emphasis at several meetings on Chile, was the weakness of any political campaign which proposed to beat somebody with nobody. It is hard not to conclude then, that ITT's million-dollar offer, made indirectly through McCone, was actually an attempt to reach a working agreement with the CIA for a pro-Alessandri campaign which was to remain secret from Korry and the State Department, and perhaps—but this is less likely—even from the White House itself.
Did McCone, a former CIA director, have reason to believe that the CIA would lend itself to any such free-lancing scheme? In any event, the CIA cooperated in a modified version of such a scheme, providing ITT with the names of Chileans through whom ITT could support Alessandri on its own. According to several sources, the CIA went further, and provided ITT with local introductions as well. Thus the CIA was, in effect, operationally supporting a policy which had been specifically rejected, so far as the record shows, by the U.S. government. The bald facts of this arrangement were cited by the Church Committee but then more or less ignored, an omission which was to infuriate Korry later.
In the early Summer of 1970, the CIA, over Korry's protest, managed to persuade the State Department to support a pre-election poll in Chile. The result was a CIA prediction that Alessandri, would win with 42 percent of the vote. Korry took issue and reviewed the poll with the help of embassy officers. They cabled the State Department criticizing the CIA for basing its poll on the 1960 Chilean census, and concluding that Alessandri would win 40 percent of the vote at best, and likely a good deal less. The CIA reviewed the review and stuck to its original figures; Alessandri would win with 42 percent.
But Alessandri did not win on September 4, despite a CIA propaganda effort which was a replay of the 1964 scare campaign. The actual results were Allende 36.3 percent, Alessandri 34.9, and Rodomiro Tomis 27.8. The reaction on the right in Chile, among the multinationals, and in the White House was all but identical: alarm verging on panic. Nixon and Kissinger, perhaps lulled by the CIA's poll into a relative low-key intervention, now felt betrayed and desperate: something had to be done to stop Allende. This sentiment was fully shared by the multinationals. The Chilean publisher Agustin Edwards, a longtime ally of the CIA, asked Henry Heckscher to arrange a meeting with Korry at the embassy. There Edward bluntly asked, "Will the U.S. do anything militarily—directly or indirectly?" Korry was as unhappy about Allende's victory as Edwards, but he was dead set against anything in the nature of a coup to keep Allende out of office. He told Edwards that the United States intended to abide by the election results. But Edwards had other avenues to the U.S. government, and he immediately used them. As the owner of a local Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, he knew PepsiCo's chief, Donald Kendall, an old ally and friend of Nixon. Edwards fled Chile, met with Kendall in the United States, and prophesied general disaster if Allende was allowed to take office. Kendall was impressed and arranged for Henry Kissinger and John Mitchell to meet Edwards at a private breakfast on the morning of September 15. 1970. A week earlier, Harold Geneen of ITT, also alarmed, had asked McCone to get in touch with Helms again, but this time Helms delayed his response, waiting to see what the White House wanted to do.
Korry, meanwhile, had picked up wind of a possible military coup as a means of preventing Allende's confirmation by the Chilean Congress in its vote scheduled for October 24. The commander of the Chilean armed forces, General Rene Schneider, was known to be firmly opposed to any unconstitutional attempt to block Allende's confirmation. Since the birth of Chilean independence in 1818, democracy in Chile had been interrupted on only three brief occasions, the last in 1932—a remarkable history in Latin America, and one which Schneider wanted to maintain.
Other military officers, however, were not so punctilious. For nearly eight years, the CIA had been painting a leftist victory in the darkest possible light, and elements of the Chilean military, like Chilean businessmen hurriedly exporting their capital abroad, were afraid that Stalinism was around the corner. One of the early military conspirators was Brigadier General Roberto Viaux, who left the army after an abortive coup called the "Tacnazo" in 1969, and who was an erratic, politically irresponsible man with a beautiful, ambitious wife. Korry had ordered the CIA to refrain from all contact with Viaux and other military conspirators, and he later barred two local ITT men from the embassy, Hal Hendrix and Robert Berrellez, because of their plotting with the Chilean right. On September 12, responding to a Kissinger-40 Committee request for a "cold-blooded assessment" of the situation, Korry cabled that "our own military people [are] unanimous in rejecting possibility of meaningful military intervention .... What we are saying in this 'cold-blooded assessment' is that opportunities for further significant USG action with the Chilean military are non-existent."
Two days later, on September 14, the 40 Committee decided to risk what the CIA referred to as "the Rube Goldberg gambit," an unwieldy scheme to (a) persuade Frei to resign, (b) have his vice president succeed to the presidency, and then (c) "influence"—with a $250,000 CIA contingency fund—the Chilean Congress to vote for Frei, who was otherwise constitutionally ineligible to succeed himself. Korry went along with this improbable scheme on the grounds that it depended on Frei, and thus offered a "Chilean solution." But Heckscher had already warned Korry that nothing of the sort could work, since CIA agents had learned that Tomic and Allende had reached a secret deal to back the leader if either of the two candidates should place first or second in the election. In effect, they were collaborating to beat the right. Such a deal could hardly have been reached without Frei's support as leader of the Christian Democrats, but Korry refused to believe the CIA was right in its report of the deal, and when he learned later that the Agency had been right, he felt something of a fool for ever having approached Frei with the Rube Goldberg gambit.
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.
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.
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.