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.