I think there are a few people in Washington who have gone out of their way to make things difficult for me,” says former CIA Director Richard Helms, “and I don’t intend to forget that.” If those sound like words of warning to Idaho Senator Frank Church, whose repeated questioning led Helms to lie under oath before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1973, the exsuperspy insists he is not bitter. Fined $2,000 and given a two-year suspended sentence for falsely denying that the CIA tried to prevent the election of Chilean President Salvador Allende, the 64-year-old Helms is also decidedly unrepentant. “I simply did the job I was paid to do,” he says with a shrug.
Helms, who headed the CIA from 1966 to 1973 after joining the agency at its founding in 1947, blames his prosecution on the changed mood of the country after Watergate and on congressional zeal to ferret out secrets. It was just after his resignation from the CIA, while awaiting confirmation as ambassador to Iran, that Helms was first summoned to talk about Chile. “I was doing my best to skate through the testimony without actually lying,” admits Helms, “but if I had told the whole story about our covert operations, it would have adversely affected our foreign relations, and I can only assume there would have been a loss of lives.” But was it necessary to mislead Congress deliberately? “The final hearing occurred the day before I was getting on the plane to Tehran,” he says. “Mrs. Helms had had an operation, and it could be that I didn’t handle the meeting as ably as I might have.”
Hours after his recent sentencing, Helms turned up at a luncheon of CIA retirees and was greeted with thunderous applause and two wastebaskets full of money to help pay his fine. Also weighing in on his side were such pillars of the Washington establishment as Averell Harriman and Henry Kissinger. “I’ve been surprised at how loyal my friends have been,” says Helms. “I’ve not been treated like a pariah, nor in any sense made to feel I committed a heinous crime.” His wife, Cynthia (“an absolute tower of strength”), and their five children “did not pick on me and were very staunch and sensible.” Of their ordeal, Cynthia Helms says only, “It’s been character-building.”
Despite his retirement from government last January, Helms remains outspoken about the future of America’s intelligence gathering. “A great deal of damage has been done,” he says. “Intelligence agencies overseas wonder what in the world the U.S. is doing to itself, and whether they are ever going to be able to trust us again to keep any secrets.” Recently Helms watched the TV serial Washington: Behind Closed Doors (in which his fictional CIA counterpart, played by Cliff Robertson, emerged as a comparatively admirable character). Helms was dismayed by its melodramatic distortions. “I didn’t like it,” he says of the thinly disguised roman à clef about the Nixon years. “It’s against the public interest to make all the top officials look as though they were a sleazy, evil, cheating, conniving, whoring group of individuals, which they certainly are not. In 34 years of service I may have met some schnooks, but not very many in a very large government.”
For a while Helms toyed with the idea of writing a book but has abandoned the project, at least for the time being. Now a private consultant to companies dealing with Persian Gulf nations, Helms insists, “We’ve got a great country, warts and all, and I understand how our system is supposed to work. My problem was just one of those things that happens, like breaking your leg slipping on a banana peel.” After the fall, Helms is introspective. “Nobody would have thought my career would end this way. This would have made a bad novel, wouldn’t it? A novel with this kind of ending? Morbid.”