Richard Helms, 89; CIA Chief, Career Spy

Times Staff Writer

Former CIA Director Richard Helms, who ran afoul of Congress for failing to fully disclose the agency’s questionable activities at home and abroad, has died. He was 89.

Helms, the first career intelligence officer to head the CIA, died Tuesday night at his Washington, D.C.-area home, the agency announced Wednesday. It did not report the cause of death, but Helms had been in failing health for some time.

Helms, who was present at the creation of the agency in 1947 during the Cold War, was an important operations man in the agency for two decades. He was a firm believer in the importance of the espionage game. To the lean, dapper and detached Helms that meant maintaining the rules of the game -- silence and loyalty.

“Espionage,” he once remarked, “is not played by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, and the only sin in espionage is getting caught.”


“Let’s face it,” he said on another occasion, “the American people want an effective, strong intelligence operation. They just don’t want to hear too much about it.”

When times changed and Congress demanded to know about CIA spying on American citizens, or efforts to kill Cuba’s Fidel Castro or to overthrow the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile, Helms felt no obligation to fully assist panels investigating those matters. He worked for the president and answered only to him.

“I felt obliged to keep some of this stuff ... in other words, not volunteer a good deal of information,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1975.

Two years later, he pleaded no contest to failing to testify fully before the committee. He was given a suspended jail sentence and fined $2,000.

Versed in Languages

Helms was born in St. Davids, Pa., the son of an Alcoa executive and grandson of a leading international banker. He grew up in South Orange, N.J., and was schooled in Europe, where he became versed in languages and fluent in French and German.

He attended Williams College, where he was president of his class, editor of the campus newspaper and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

With the goal of eventually owning a small newspaper, he set off after graduation for a career in journalism. He went to London and became a European correspondent for United Press. He covered the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and interviewed a number of the leading figures of the day, including skater Sonja Henie. A year later, he was among a group of journalists who interviewed Adolf Hitler.

Helms returned to the United States in 1938 and took a job on the business side at the Indianapolis Times. He rose quickly and became national advertising director within a year.

In the early days of World War II, Helms was commissioned in the Navy with the rank of lieutenant. But within a year he was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence forerunner of the CIA, largely based on his keen knowledge of foreign languages.

Initially, he held desk jobs in Washington and New York but later served in Britain and the European theater. He was assigned to Berlin at the end of the war and worked for Allen Dulles, who would later become head of the CIA himself.

After the war, Helms stayed in intelligence work, giving up his plans in the newspaper business. When the CIA was established, Helms was one of the architects of the new organization.

His role in those early years, authorities on the history of the agency say, was running covert operations.

Working through Berlin, he planned and executed successful eavesdropping operations on the Soviet Union.

Through most of the 1950s, he was a leading recruiter and trainer of intelligence agents working in the Eastern Bloc. He also reportedly had a hand in U.S. intelligence activities in Africa, specifically the Congo, including a scheme to assassinate Patrice Lumumba.

Although passed over for promotion in the late 1950s, Helms resurfaced in the early ‘60s when questions arose about intelligence gathering in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba.

Helms, who consistently opposed that plan to oust Castro, was named head of the plans division, the third highest position in the agency. He was responsible for espionage, intelligence gathering, special undercover operations and the political propaganda section.

Passed Over

In 1965, when Director John McCone resigned, Helms was his favored successor, but President Johnson chose Vice Adm. William F. Raborn instead. Helms became deputy director.

The next year, Raborn -- who had little experience in foreign affairs or intelligence gathering -- resigned. Helms was named director, a post he would hold for six years.

Through much of his tenure, Helms -- with his solid background in the agency during the Cold War -- was well-regarded by congressional oversight panels and the news media. But during this time, the agency was also conducting operations that would change public perceptions of the role of intelligence gathering.

Under Johnson and then President Nixon, Helms headed Operation Chaos, which spied on American citizens linked to the increasingly powerful antiwar movement, looking for ties to foreign governments. Under this operation, the CIA amassed files on tens of thousands of American citizens or groups.

The agency later set up two additional programs to monitor dissident groups.

CIA officials knew that these activities were in violation of the agency’s charter and, in a February 1969 letter to Henry Kissinger, then national security advisor, Helms urged that Chaos reports be kept top secret.

In the early 1970s, the agency was further compromised when several of its employees were arrested in the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.

But although it later came to light that Helms destroyed documents that may have been helpful to the investigation of Watergate, he ignored Nixon’s request to bring the CIA in to block the FBI probe of the break-in.

Forced to Resign

In 1973, Nixon forced him to resign as head of the CIA. Helms was given the post of ambassador to Iran, which he held until 1977.

Over the years, speculation has grown that Helms was the famous source known as Deep Throat, who helped guide Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the Watergate scandal. But asked Wednesday about the speculation, Woodward -- now an assistant managing editor at the Post -- said Deep Throat wasn’t Helms.

In his biography, “The Man Who Kept the Secrets,” Thomas Powers wrote that Helms’ “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.”

Through the 1970s, Helms was repeatedly called to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about CIA activities that may have violated the agency’s charter. He was accused by the panel of failing to notify senior administration officials of efforts to assassinate Castro.

Another Senate panel, the Foreign Relations Committee, found that Helms had lied when he insisted the CIA had not tried to overthrow Allende or offer financial support to the socialist leader’s political opponents. Allende was killed in 1973 when a right-wing coup overthrew his government.

Helms was convicted on only federal misdemeanor charges of misleading Congress after the Justice Department, in a rare move, sought a plea agreement to avoid a public trial in which top-secret information might be disclosed.

Outside the courtroom on the day of his sentencing, Helms’ attorney, Edward Bennett Williams, said his client would “wear this conviction like a badge of honor.” To the end, Helms believed deeply in the mission of the CIA.

“I believed in the importance to the nation of the function that the agency served. I still do -- without regrets, without qualms, without apology,” he told the Rockefeller Commission, which in 1975 investigated allegations of unlawful CIA activities in the United States.

In the early 1980s, attempts were made to restore Helms’ reputation. President Reagan awarded him the National Security Medal in a White House ceremony.

Helms was also named to a panel to study counterintelligence breaches and later a presidential review board on security problems at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Agents often turned to him in times of trouble, Powers wrote of Helms.

“During Iran-Contra, a lot of CIA people suddenly found themselves on the wrong end of an investigation. Helms would call up those people, invite them to dinner or lunch and he would more or less tell them how you live through this, and believe me, they were grateful,” Powers said.

Helms’ first marriage to Julia Bretzman Shields ended in divorce. He later married Cynthia McKelvie, who survives him. He is also survived by a son, Dennis, from his first marriage.

He will be buried at Arlington National Ceremony on Nov. 20.