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A Look over My Shoulder By Richard Helms with William Hood (Random House, 496 pages, $35) At a time when the Bush administration is hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Congress wants to know what the Central Intelligence Agency told the president about those weapons before the war, A Look over My Shoulder by former CIA Director Richard Helms is a must-read. Helms, who died in November 2002, intended this book primarily as a memoir of his 31 years in intelligence. However, he also wanted to set the record straight about the circumstances that led him to plead nolo contendere to a charge of lying to Congress. And it is in this regard that an otherwise fascinating book about the past speaks to the present about truth and the role of a secret intelligence agency in a democracy. Helms was a bureaucrat rather than a spy in the James Bond mold. (One of his successors at the CIA, William Colby, was a real spy. He parachuted into both Nazi-occupied France and Norway during World War II, but more about him later.) Still, Helms had a Bond-like bearing and résumé. He was born on the tony Philadelphia Main Line in 1913. He attended private schools in the United States until his family moved to Switzerland and enrolled him in Le Rosey preparatory school. Williams College in Massachusetts was next. After that, he had his choice between Harvard Law School and a European assignment with United Press International. Helms picked journalism. As luck would have it, he was the only UPI reporter at the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1936. After covering Adolph Hitler’s speech at a giant outdoor rally there, Helms was invited to join a handful of other reporters for lunch with the Führer. A year later, in an ironic career change, Helms was selling advertising for The Indianapolis Times to chicken merchants and funeral homes. The outbreak of World War II put Helms back on track. He finally went to Harvard, but to the Naval Training School there rather than the law school. Given his knowledge of German and Germany, Helms was soon transferred to intelligence. It would remain his career until 1973, when President Richard Nixon eased Helms out of the CIA by naming him ambassador to Iran. A Look over My Shoulder is both an autobiography and a history of the CIA. On the personal level, Helms writes of his colleagues, such as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and cooking guru Julia Child, with whom he worked in London during World War II. Yet he also tells how the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, organized to win the war and how, after the war, the OSS was quickly retargeted at the Soviet Union. Helms has laced the book with stories of spying and spycraft, as though he had been a James Bond. He writes about the night at an airfield in England during the war where an agent was about to board a plane for a parachute mission into Germany: “[T]he webbed straps of the parachute were carefully adjusted. It may have been a myth, but we worked on the assumption that if the agent were apprehended and fortunate enough to be held for interrogation, it was important that there be no bruises about the shoulders or on the thighs that might indicate a parachute harness.” He tells of how the CIA tunneled into East Berlin to tap into telephone lines at the height of the Cold War. After a night of light snow, CIA employees in West Berlin were appalled to see that heat from the underground tunnel had melted its perfect outline in the snow. And he writes of Pytor Semyonovich Popov, a Soviet army intelligence officer who announced his interest in becoming a CIA spy by dropping his letter of introduction in an American diplomat’s car in Vienna. Popov was eventually discovered by the Soviets and executed. Yet Helms is guarded in saying too much about some things. For example, he doesn’t share with the reader how his own encounter with Hitler in 1936 may have influenced his notions in later years about the assassination of foreign leaders. His silence is a pity. Moreover, not until the last page of the book does Helms tell the reader that his manuscript was submitted to the CIA for security clearance before publication — and presumably edited for security reasons. For most of his career, Helms was at a desk in Washington, managing the operations of a far-flung and always growing CIA and learning the political ropes of the spy business. In the early 1960s, he supervised the creation of a major CIA operation in Florida, an agency within The Agency, to respond to demands from President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy that the CIA get Fidel Castro out of Cuba. Later in the same decade, Helms oversaw the CIA support for 15,000 Hmong guerillas in a “secret war” in Laos. And while there are sufficient stories of real derring-do in this book, it is the CIA’s relationship with presidents and Congress that provides the drama, and tragedy. Helms obviously respected Kennedy and writes with genuine affection and sympathy for President Lyndon Johnson. Helms mentions how Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia looked out for CIA interests in Congress and how Sens. Stuart Symington of Missouri and William Fulbright of Arkansas were allies for most of Helms’ career. His relationship with Nixon was markedly different. Helms begins the book with a story from the twilight of his career in intelligence. He was called to a meeting at the White House with Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff. Haldeman wanted the CIA’s help in blocking the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of the Watergate break-in. Haldeman said he wanted the CIA to tell FBI Director Pat Gray that “further investigation in Mexico could lead to exposure of certain Agency assets and channels for handling money.” Helms, who was CIA director at the time, rejected the suggestion, reminding Haldeman that the agency was not involved in the Watergate break-in. For the reader’s benefit, Helms caustically adds, “it seemed unlikely that Haldeman could possibly know more about CIA equities and funding channels than I did.” A Look over My Shoulder ends with Helms’ professional tragedy. On the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1970, he sat in the Oval Office with Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. The subject was the upcoming election in Chile where, Nixon feared, Salvador Allende would win and bring in a “Socialist-Communist government.” Helms’ notes of the meeting recorded Nixon’s orders: “One [in] 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile, worth spending . . . $10,000,000 available, more if necessary . . . best men we have . . . make the economy scream.” Try as it might, the CIA failed to prevent Allende from winning the election. Thereafter, the United States followed a so-called two-track strategy toward Chile. Track 1 was a policy of open opposition to the Allende regime. Track 2 was a highly secret plan to overthrow him in a military coup. In 1973, Allende was killed in a coup led by Chilean General Augusto Pinochet. The CIA has denied having a role in the assassination. By this time, Nixon had asked Helms to resign from the CIA and had nominated him to be ambassador to Iran. In the course of Senate confirmation hearings, Helms’ former ally, Sen. Symington asked, “Did you try . . . to overthrow the government of Chile? Did you have any money passed to opponents of Allende?” Helms answered “no” to both questions. He gave the same answer to questions from Sen. Frank Church of Idaho in hearings before a different committee. As a result, on Nov. 4, 1977, Helms stood before Judge Barrington Parker of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia with lawyer Edward Bennett Williams at his side for sentencing on charges of lying to Congress. Judge Parker imposed a $2,000 fine and a two-year suspended prison term and lectured Helms: “You considered yourself bound to protect the agency whose affairs you had administered and to dishonor your solemn oath to tell the truth before the Committee. . . . [P]ublic officials at every level, whatever their position, like any other person, must respect and honor the Constitution and the laws of the United States. There is no exception or qualification to this principle.” Helms and many at the agency were bitter. After the sentencing hearing, Helms went to a luncheon of retired CIA officers who took up a collection to pay the $2,000 fine. Helms felt he had only been doing Nixon’s bidding in fomenting a coup in Chile and in keeping that fact a secret. He felt betrayed by Symington and his other friends on the Hill who, he argues, knew that he couldn’t tell the truth at a public hearing. He also felt betrayed by CIA Director William Colby, the man who was parachuting into Nazi-occupied territory while Helms worked in London. Colby followed a policy of full disclosure of past agency misdeeds to Sen. Church’s Intelligence Committee. Among the documents given the committee were Helms’ incriminating notes from the meeting with Nixon, Mitchell, and Kissinger about the election in Chile. I was on the staff of the committee but was not involved in this matter. What Helms writes may be the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth. The Church Committee, in a report that I did help write, criticized the CIA for failing to disclose important information to the Warren Commission’s investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. The asssassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was interested in Castro and in going to Cuba. He shot Kennedy with a classic assassination weapon, a rifle with telescopic sight. The Church Committee report faulted the CIA for not telling the Warren Commission that a Cuban, code-named AMLASH, was meeting with the CIA throughout the fall of 1963 to gain Kennedy’s support for a coup that included the assassination of Castro. The last meeting occurred at the same time that Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963. Helms devotes a short chapter of his book to these events. He relates facts already disclosed in the Senate report but provides this paradoxical description of the AMLASH operation: “AMLASH did not plan to assassinate Castro, but he repeatedly made it clear that any coup would likely fail unless, in the process, Castro and the strongest of his followers were, as he put it, ‘taken out.’ . . . This meeting [on November 22] did not involve any plan to assassinate Castro.” Helms does not mention that at the meeting the CIA promised to airdrop assassination weapons — i.e., rifles with telescopic sights — to AMLASH. Thus, a book planned as a look back at a career in intelligence serves as a case study in the current debate about what the CIA should share with Congress and the public. In its salad days, the CIA had a kind of gentlemen’s agreement with a handful of powerful committee chairmen in Congress. The CIA would tell them what they wanted to know — and would not tell them what they didn’t want to know. In exchange for being privy to the secrets, these congressional sages would fund and protect the agency, right or wrong. The whole truth and nothing but the truth should, according to Helms, be told only to the president. Of course, this view led Helms to his bizarre, professional tragedy. He was disgraced for lying to congressional committees in order to cover up imperious orders from a president that he didn’t like and who didn’t care for him or his CIA. The last chapters of the book seem more like the film “A Few Good Men” than “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Helms defends himself with arguments that are reminiscent of what Marine Col. Nathan Jessup (played by actor Jack Nicholson) said in response to questions about whether he was telling the truth: “You can’t handle the truth. Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. . . . You don’t want the truth because, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” Helms served his country for 31 years on his own kind of wall. He was CIA director under two presidents, Johnson and Nixon. He was keenly aware of their faults. Nixon liked secrets but hated the CIA. Johnson liked both. In August 1968, the CIA prepared a report for Johnson assessing the consequences to U.S. foreign policy of pulling out of Vietnam. The report rejected the so-called domino theory, that a Communist takeover of Vietnam would spread, and concluded that the risks of a pullout were “limited and controllable.” Helms thought the report was “politically explosive.” Johnson apparently thought so too; he never showed it to anyone. A Look over My Shoulder is much more than the title suggests. These stories and ruminations by a man who was at the center of American intelligence throughout the Cold War informs the continuing debate about the tensions between secret agencies and democracies and about truth. Helms’ own views fail to recognize that democracy works only if voters have the truth, whether they want it or not. Giving even good intelligence to the president and, in some instances, to a small club of senators, has sadly proved not to be enough. D.C. lawyer James H. Johnston is a frequent contributor to Legal Times. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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