The Gentlemanly Planner of Assassinations
The nasty career of CIA Director Richard Helms.
Over the years, Helms stoutly denied that the CIA intended Schneider to die, but a congressionally mandated investigation in September 2000 revealed a telling epilogue. A few weeks after Schneider's death, one of his assailants made contact with the CIA. The agency responded by sending him $35,000—"to maintain the good will of the group." In September 2001, Schneider's two sons filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Helms and Kissinger in Washington court. Helms' passing excused him from the indignity of having to defend his actions in court.
When President Nixon was struggling to cover up the White House role in the Watergate burglary in 1972, he sought Helms' help. "We protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things," Nixon said. But Helms refused to play ball, and Nixon forced him out as CIA director in January 1973.
Helms was soon back in the news for less savory reasons. In 1975, congressional investigators uncovered the Castro assassination plots. Testifying under oath, he told incredulous senators that the Cubela operation was not an assassination plot, a thesis refuted by the agency's own documents. Congress forbade the agency from engaging in assassination.
The agency's reputation has never recovered from the legacy of Helms' tenure. The revelations about Mafiosos and poison pens became etched so deeply in the American mind that stories involving rogue assassins and cynical CIA officials are now a Hollywood genre, impervious to refutation.
In 1977, Helms pleaded no contest in a federal court to misdemeanor charges of failing to testify fully before Congress about the CIA operations in Chile. "I found myself in a position of conflict," Helms said. "I had sworn my oath to protect certain secrets." As the New York Times noted, "For a man who considered himself a genuine patriot, it was a bleak note on which to end his professional career."
Yet in retirement Helms managed to rehabilitate himself. He defended his actions, saying accurately that he had merely carried out the wishes of the president. He worked the Washington social circuit, "lunching with influential media figures," as his Washington Post obituary discreetly noted. He made himself available to reporters and held court at agency events. He returned to respectability.
Since Sept. 11, pundits and politicians have urged Congress to lift its ban on CIA assassination of foreign leaders. But as the career of Dick Helms indicates, assassination rarely, if ever, advanced the interests of U.S. foreign policy or the security of the American people. Rather, assassination, even in the hands of a most accomplished spook, served mostly to encourage cynicism about the American government.
Jefferson Morley is a Washington writer.
Photograph of Richard Helms by Wally McNamee/Corbis.