The obituary of Richard M. Helms, which appeared Oct. 24, incorrectly reported the ailment that led to his death. He had multiple myeloma. (Published 10/25/02)
Richard M. Helms, 89, the quintessential intelligence and espionage officer who joined the Central Intelligence Agency at its founding in 1947 and rose through the ranks to lead it for more than six years, died in his sleep Oct. 22 at his home in Washington. He had multiple melanoma.
Mr. Helms was the first career intelligence professional to serve as the nation's top spymaster, and he was among the last of the remaining survivors of the CIA's organizing cadre, operatives who earned their espionage stripes as young men during World War II. He left the agency in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon asked for his resignation -- the result, Mr. Helms believed, of his refusing to permit the CIA to be used in the coverup of the Watergate break-in, which ultimately led to the president's resignation.
His years at the agency covered a period in which CIA service was widely honored as a noble and romantic calling in the Cold War. It was said of Mr. Helms that throughout his career and into retirement, he was preoccupied with the Soviet Union and its CIA counterpart, the KGB.
But in the national malaise that accompanied the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, much of the popular mystique that attended CIA service had dissolved. At his retirement in 1973, Mr. Helms left an organization viewed with suspicion by many and about to undergo intense scrutiny from an unfriendly Congress for activities ranging from assassination plots against foreign leaders to spying on U.S. citizens.
As a veteran of the craft of espionage, Mr. Helms "was as good at spying, analysis and politics as anyone who worked in the agency," said Clair George, who ran the CIA's covert operations in the 1980s. "You are born with that kind of skill, and he had it." During his CIA years and after, Mr. Helms followed a code that stressed maximum trust and loyalty to his agency and colleagues, maximum silence where outsiders were concerned. "The Man Who Kept the Secrets" was the title chosen by author Thomas Powers for his biography of Mr. Helms.
In the judgment of Richard Helms, the CIA worked only for the president. He did not welcome congressional inquiry or oversight. In 1977, he pleaded no contest in a federal court to charges of failing to testify fully before Congress about the CIA role in the covert supply of money to Chilean anti-Marxists in 1970 in an effort to influence a presidential election. "I found myself in a position of conflict," Mr. Helms said. "I had sworn my oath to protect certain secrets."
He received a suspended two-year prison sentence and a $2,000 fine, which was paid in full by retired CIA agents. Six years later at a White House ceremony, Mr. Helms received the National Security Medal from President Reagan for "exceptionally meritorious service." Mr. Helms said he considered this award "an exoneration."
His career at the CIA covered the Red Scare tactics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), who searched for communists in the U.S. government, as well as the ill-fated CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and plots against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It included the rending of the American social fabric and the antiwar protests of the Vietnam War era, and it ended during the Watergate crisis.
On leaving the CIA, Mr. Helms served three years as ambassador to Iran, then in 1976 ended his government career. His years in Tehran coincided with the final period of the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, with whom Mr. Helms had a good relationship. He would later represent Iranian interests in Washington.
As one of its ranking officers for most of the CIA's first 25 years, Mr. Helms helped form and shape the agency, and he recruited, trained, assigned and supervised many of its top agents. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he held high positions in the division responsible for clandestine operations.
"He was a kind of middleman between the field and Washington policymakers, approving and even choosing the wording of cables to the field describing 'requirements'; and passing on concrete proposals for operations from the local CIA stations," Powers wrote in his biography of Mr. Helms.
He was second-in-command of covert operations in 1958 when he was passed over for the directorship of that activity in favor of Richard M. Bissell Jr., who in 1961 would plan and direct the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro's Cuba. In that operation, a force of 1,200 CIA-trained and -equipped Cuban exiles attempted to retake the island from Castro. The effort failed, and most of the invaders were killed or captured.
Mr. Helms, who by nature had been cool and skeptical toward covert operations on such a large scale, had kept his distance from the Bay of Pigs. But the fiasco proved to be Bissell's undoing, and he retired. Mr. Helms replaced him in 1962, winning the position that had eluded him four years earlier. He became the CIA's deputy director for plans, the innocuous-sounding title of the chief of covert action. With his new assignment, he inherited a pressure campaign from the White House to get rid of Castro by other means. Over the next several months, the agency would contemplate schemes for Castro's overthrow or assassination, but none ever materialized.
In 1965, Mr. Helms was named to the second-highest job at the agency, deputy director of central intelligence. President Lyndon B. Johnson named him director in 1966. He would serve longer as director of central intelligence than anyone except Allen Dulles, the legendary spymaster who led the CIA from 1953 to 1961.
As America's top spymaster, Powers wrote in his biography, Mr. Helms "is remembered as an administrator, impatient with delay, excuses, self-seeking, 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.' . . . Helm's style was cool by choice and temperament; his instinct was to soften differences, to find a middle ground, to tone down operations that were getting out of hand, to give faltering projects one more chance rather than shut them down altogether, to settle for compromise in the interests of bureaucratic peace." He tended to work regular hours, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and his desk was always cleared when he left the office at night.
Mr. Helms kept a low public profile as director of central intelligence, and he avoided publicity. But he lunched occasionally with influential figures in the media, and he was assiduous in cultivating the congressional support he needed to manage his agency. He made only one public speech during his years as CIA leader, telling the nation's newspaper editors that "the nation must, to a degree, take it on faith that we, too, are honorable men, devoted to her service."
The CIA's current director, George J. Tenet, had made a practice of consulting periodically with Mr. Helms since his appointment in 1997. In a statement yesterday, Tenet described Mr. Helms as "clear in thought, elegant in style . . . the best of his generation and profession. . . . I will miss his priceless counsel and warm friendship."
In his personal life, Mr. Helms was known as an avid tennis player and sports fan, with a dry wit that showed when he was with friends, and, with his wife Cynthia, he was active in the Washington social scene. He was reserved in public.
Richard McGarrah Helms was born in St. Davids, Pa., to a family of financial means. His father was an Alcoa executive and his maternal grandfather a leading international banker. He grew up in South Orange, N.J., and attended high school in Switzerland for two years, where he became proficient in French and German.
In 1935, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College, where in his senior year he was president of his class, editor of the campus newspaper and the yearbook and president of the honor society.
His life's ambition on leaving college was to own and operate a daily newspaper. In pursuit of that goal, he paid his own fare to London, where he became a European reporter for United Press. His assignments included coverage of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The following year, he was one of a group of foreign correspondents to interview Adolf Hitler.
Shortly thereafter, he returned to the United States and took a job with the Indianapolis Times newspaper, where by 1939 he had become national advertising director.
With the entry of the United States into World War II, he joined the Navy, and in 1943 was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. wartime espionage agency. There he had desk jobs in New York and Washington and later in London. At the end of the war, he was posted in Berlin, where he worked for Allen Dulles.
He was discharged from military service in 1946 and continued doing intelligence work as a civilian. When the U.S. wartime intelligence forces merged into the CIA in 1947, Mr. Helms became one of the architects of the new organization.
During the 1950s, Dulles gave him special assignments. At the height of McCarthy's fervid hunts for communists inside the government, Mr. Helms headed a CIA committee to protect the agency against McCarthy's efforts to infiltrate the CIA with his own informers. The committee's job was to monitor reports of covert approaches to CIA officers by McCarthy agents and to plug any leaks.
Over the years, there would be more assignments with domestic political implications. Early in Mr. Helms's directorship, as the war in Vietnam and the antiwar protests were escalating, Johnson asked the CIA to determine whether antiwar activity in the United States was being financially or otherwise backed by foreign countries. In response to this request, the agency in 1967 launched a domestic surveillance program known as "Operation Chaos," which became the focus of intense controversy when it was disclosed publicly by The New York Times in 1975.
With the election of Nixon as president in 1968, White House involvement with the CIA intensified. Even before the 1972 Watergate break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, the White House had demanded and received CIA files on agency plots to assassinate foreign leaders during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Those included Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo.
But the relationship between Mr. Helms and Nixon was never smooth, and in November 1972, shortly after he had been elected to his second term, the president summoned his CIA chief to a meeting at Camp David and asked him to resign. Nixon's reasons were never made public, but Power said in his biography that Mr. Helms was convinced "that Nixon fired him for one reason only -- because he had refused wholeheartedly to join the Watergate coverup."
At the Camp David meeting, the president had asked Mr. Helms if he would like to be an ambassador, and the two men had agreed on Iran. During his three years in Iran, Mr. Helms would make more than a dozen trips back to Washington to testify before Senate committees investigating CIA activities during his directorship.
Links between unsavory Nixon White House activities and the CIA, including the agency's lending of disguises to Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, prompted an internal examination ordered by Mr. Helm's successor at the agency, James R. Schlesinger. That resulted in a 693-page compendium of agency misdeeds, including assassination attempts, burglaries, electronic eavesdropping and LSD testing of people without their knowledge.
William R. Colby, who succeeded Schlesinger as director of central intelligence, quietly briefed House and Senate overseers on the contents of the report, which became known in the agency as "the family jewels." The substance of the briefing did not surface publicly for two years, until a combination of news media accounts, a presidential commission and congressional committees bent on public disclosure made it known. Ultimately, the result was creation of permanent House and Senate oversight committees to monitor the CIA and all other U.S. intelligence agencies.
In 1976, Mr. Helms returned from Tehran, retired from government service and became an international consultant. After his federal retirement he served on a variety of government boards, panels and commissions, especially during the Reagan presidency.
Mr. Helms married Julia Bretzman Shields of Indianapolis in 1939. They divorced in 1968.
He is survived by his wife, the former Cynthia McKelvie, whom he married in 1968; and a son from his first marriage, Dennis Helms.