Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agencyby Richard Helms
A Look over My Shoulder begins with President Nixon’s attempt to embroil the Central Intelligence Agency, of which Richard Helms was then the director, in the Watergate cover-up. Helms then recalls his education in Switzerland and Germany and at Williams College; his early career as a foreign correspondent in Berlin, during which he once lunched with Hitler; and his return to newspaper work in the United States. Helms served on the German desk at OSS headquarters in London; subsequently, he was assigned to Allen Dulles’s Berlin office in postwar Germany.
On his return to Washington, Helms assumed responsibility for the OSS carryover operations in Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe. He remained in this post until the Central Intelligence Agency was formed in 1947. At CIA, Helms served in many positions, ultimately becoming the organization’s director from 1966 to 1973. He was appointed ambassador to Iran later that year and retired from government service in January 1977. It was often thought that Richard Helms, who served longer in the Central Intelligence Agency than anyone else, would never tell his story, but here it is–revealing, news-making, and with candid assessments of the controversies and triumphs of a remarkable career.
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Read an Excerpt
A Smoking Gun
The telephone call that set in motion the events that would eventually end my intelligence career came as I was preparing for bed, Saturday, June 17, 1972.
"Dick, are you still up?"
"Yes, Howard." It was a familiar voice. At this time of night, Howard Osborn, the CIA chief of security, did not need to identify himself.
"I've just learned that the District police have picked up five men in a break-in at the Democratic Party National Headquarters at the Watergate."
"Yes." Osborn was not given to idle chatter. He obviously had a brick to drop.
"Four Cubans and Jim McCord."
"McCord? Retired out of your shop?"
Osborn drew a deep breath. "Two years ago."
I remembered James McCord as a serious, straitlaced staff security and counter-audio specialist. He had retired with a good record. I was baffled. "What about the Cubans-Miami or Havana?"
"Miami," Osborn said quickly. "Florida . . . exiles, they've been in this country for some time now."
"Do we know them?"
"As of now, I can't say."
"Get hold of the operations people, first thing. Have them get on to Miami. Check every record here and in Miami."
"Okay, first thing tomorrow."
"Is that all of it?"
"No, not half," Osborn said heavily. "Howard Hunt also seems to be involved in some way."
It was my turn for a deep breath. I knew that Hunt, a former CIA officer, was also retired. Marine Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, my deputy, had mentioned a year or so previously that he'd been told Hunt was employed at the White House as a security consultant, and involved with the Special Investigations group responsible for looking into security leaks. This was the outfit thatbecame known as the "Plumbers." While with CIA, Hunt had worked in Latin America, Mexico, and Europe. Before his retirement, he served with the task force responsible for the Bay of Pigs operation.
"What in hell were they doing in the Democratic Party offices?"
Osborn paused, almost as if he couldn't quite believe what he was about to say. "I'm not sure what they were doing, but as of now it looks as if they might have been trying to tap the phones and bug the place."
It was a moment before I could say, "Is there any indication that we could be involved in this?"
"None whatsoever," Osborn replied.
"Stay on top of it," I said, "and see me before the staff meeting Monday morning." Despite occasional taunts from congressional members and the press, CIA was a highly disciplined organization. Before Admiral Rufus Taylor gave up his assignment as CIA deputy director to return to the Navy, he remarked that the Agency was "the most disciplined organization" in which he had ever served, "including the U.S. Navy." The notion that the Agency or anyone in it would undertake a caper as bizarre as the break-in and attempted bugging of a national political party was quite simply preposterous.
Still sitting on the edge of the bed, I decided to telephone Patrick Gray, who was acting FBI director while waiting for Senate approval. He'd not had time to gain much knowledge of the internal White House workings, and I wanted to be sure he was in the picture. It took a few more minutes than usual for the ever-efficient White House switchboard to locate Gray in a Los Angeles hotel room.
Gray said that he had been informed of the break-in, but had no details. I filled him in as much as I could and assured him that, despite the background of the apparent perpetrators, CIA had nothing to do with the break-in. I added that I couldn't imagine what anyone could hope to gain by breaking into those offices. Gray listened politely but had little to say.
"You might want to look into the relationship of John Ehrlichman, the President's domestic policy advisor, with McCord and Hunt," I said. "He'll be familiar with the circumstances in which Howard Hunt was hired for work at the White House and with McCord's job on the Committee to Re-elect the President as well." Gray remained unresponsive. After repeating my assurance that CIA was not involved with any of the break-in group, I put the phone down.
When I first heard that Hunt was working as a security consultant at the White House, it struck me as peculiar that no one there had called to verify with me or the Agency his career and reputation. As a matter of common practice, someone would have checked with us-officially or quietly-before hiring any former employee for a sensitive White House job.
The first time the Agency heard from Hunt in his new job was in July 1971 when Ehrlichman telephoned my deputy, General Cushman, to tell him that Hunt would be coming to see him for assistance. Hunt arrived a few days later and asked the general to supply some operational gear-a disguise wig, a voice-altering device, and false personal-identification documents. Cushman did so, and requested that the gear be returned after use.
The decision to supply the equipment might be interpreted as falling within the deputy director of Central Intelligence's area of responsibility, but it was a very close call. As Bob later remarked, he wished he had at the outset left the baby at my doorstep. By the time the break-in scandal was in full flower, it was too late for any Monday-morning quarterbacking on my part.
The gear was not returned, and Hunt's requests for operational material continued to escalate until he asked that his former secretary be detached from her job in Paris to work in his White House office. At this point General Cushman informed me of Hunt's various demands. The petition for a secretary was, of course, refused, as were subsequent requests for telephone answering services, cover for notional offices, and such. Now, after almost a year of silence, we thought we had heard the last of Hunt.
By the time of my Monday-morning staff meeting, the Washington media were aboil with the news of the break-in. It was confirmed that McCord had been arrested at the scene, but neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times mentioned Hunt. It was all too clear that although the problem apparently rested with the White House, the arrest of a retired Agency officer, the possible involvement of another, and the ties the Cuban-Americans had to the Agency would have an explosive impact on the press.
After a general discussion, I went around the conference table asking each of the senior officers if he knew of any possible CIA involvement in the Watergate break-in. None did, and it seemed obvious to us all that the most CIA could do was quickly to establish rock-solid proof that despite its previous relations with the burglars, the Agency had nothing to do with the break-in, and then to distance itself from the incident.
My instructions in effect were, "Keep cool, do not get lured into any speculation, don't volunteer any information, and just stay the hell away from the whole damned mess." It was not long before the notion of "distancing" became a lame joke. Our exhaustive records search confirmed that the Cuban-Americans arrested at the Watergate had formerly been listed as Agency contacts in the Miami area, and that one was still on a $100-a-month retainer. Press reports that Hunt was deeply involved spread quickly across the front pages and TV screens. A check signed by Hunt was found in the hotel room used as a makeshift observation point, and notebooks with his name and telephone number were taken from the burglars' pockets. Hunt's bizarre involvement was a major embarrassment.
In most circumstances it is difficult enough to prove a negative; it is all but out of the question to do so in secret operations. We were soon to learn that it is impossible to prove anything to an inflamed national press corps already in full cry.
Although we repeatedly denied the accusations, what seemed to be daily leaks to the press kept pointing at CIA. This was not the first time the Agency had been pilloried by self-serving Washington sources. But these incidents had been short-lived, and our denials were accepted by other agencies and in time by well-informed reporters. In this instance, we got no support from the administration or Congress, and the leaks continued relentlessly.
CIA cooperation with the FBI was correct, but seemed unavailing. One question arose repeatedly: were the leaks coming from the FBI? In J. Edgar Hoover's day this would not have been the case. But what about the new Bureau administration? Was discipline as strong as it had been? We did not know.
Today, after the hours of sworn testimony-the FBI file is said to contain 16,000 pages-publication of thousands of pages of memoirs, and the raw evidence exposed in the White House tapes, it seems incredible that at the time the probability that the leaks were coming directly from the White House did not occur to me or to anyone on my staff. Later, when evidence began to emerge showing clearly that the most senior members of the White House staff were involved in this featherbrained crime, none of us realized that from the moment the news of the arrests reached the White House, President Nixon was personally manipulating the administration's effort to contain the scandal.
The day after the first newsbreak, I went to the Capitol for routine testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As I entered the hearing room, the committee chairman, Senator William Fulbright, took me to one side and in a low voice asked, "Have you read about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee?"
"Oh, yes," I said. "Yes, indeed."
"What on earth could they have been trying to find?"
"I've no idea," I answered, shaking my head. "It's as nutty an episode as I can recall." I waited a moment before saying, "There's one thing I can tell you, Mr. Chairman."
Senator Fulbright moved a bit closer.
"Despite all the allegations, we didn't have a damned thing to do with it."
"It doesn't read like one of your operations," he said. "But you understand I felt I had to ask." He smiled and took my arm as we moved to take our places. This was the only time the break-in was mentioned at the hearing.
Press reports soon indicated that Hunt and McCord and their confederates were attempting to photograph files, bug the telephones, and arrange electronic monitoring of the Democratic Committee. I could not understand why anyone would think there was anything to be gained from such a half-baked and technically difficult operation that would possibly warrant the risks involved.
On June 23, General Vernon "Dick" Walters (who had replaced General Cushman), with seven weeks on the job, and I were summoned to the White House for a meeting with John Ehrlichman. This was the only time I can recall having been directed to bring my deputy with me to a White House meeting. Because the tone was that of a command rather than an invitation, I suggested that General Walters and I have lunch in a downtown hotel and arrive at the meeting together. It did not take a great gift of imagination to guess what the meeting would be about, and it seemed unfair to risk letting any of the White House heavy hitters catch Dick Walters alone. He agreed with alacrity.
To my knowledge, General Walters's military history is unique. Not only did he rise from private to retire as a lieutenant general, but his entire career as an officer was spent in intelligence-related assignments. Dick Walters was heavyset, with a genial manner, a hearty laugh, and the ability to speak rapidly and eloquently in actual sentences-something of a rarity in the bureaucracy. He was a gifted raconteur, and apparently never forgot a good story. When he repeated an anecdote, it was always in exactly the same manner and in the identical words. I often wondered if this trick of memory contributed to his extraordinary linguistic ability. Walters was fluent in a number of languages, and I suspect could make his way in a great many more. As an interpreter, he had the admirable knack of conveying not only the words he was translating, but also the sense of the message. When Walters came into the Agency, Averell Harriman, former ambassador to the USSR and governor of New York, told me that although their political views were quite different, he had found Walters thoroughly reliable in carrying out instructions.
At the time of Ehrlichman's summons, the Agency's line into the White House was through Henry Kissinger, who was then Nixon's national security advisor. In Kissinger's absence, we worked with his deputy, Alexander Haig, and had had very little contact with any other White House staffers.
A graduate student might write a dissertation on the geography and decor of the rabbit warren of White House offices, and how the frequent reallocation of space and redecoration mark the changing fortunes of the staff. Proximity to the President's offices is the ultimate goal of every ambitious-that is to say every-White House aide. Close on the heels of proximity as a mark of favor come the size and aspect of the office space. The bigger the better; a view of anything not a wall or parking lot is next best. But if a visitor has not been around for a couple of months, and if a crisis has intervened, everything is likely to have changed. Office space will have been reallocated, and temporary partitions shifted.
We parked in the visitors' lot beside the West Wing and made our way through a basement entrance to an elevator the size of a telephone booth. On the second floor, we were escorted to what looked like an anteroom, but turned out to be John Ehrlichman's conference chamber.
I am tall; even in those days, Dick Walters had a certain bulk; and Ehrlichman's mere presence took up some space. We had scarcely wedged ourselves onto the straight-backed chairs around the conference table when H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, marched into the room and took over the meeting.
After a few general observations about the serious nature of the allegations involving important people in the President's election campaign, he turned to me and asked very formally what connection CIA might have with the Watergate break-in.
"The CIA had no connection whatever with Watergate," I said.
Haldeman ignored this, and went on to say that the FBI investigation of certain Mexican leads might jeopardize Agency activity there. His tone stiffened as he added, "It has been decided to have General Walters go to see Pat Gray and tell him that further investigation in Mexico could lead to the exposure of certain Agency assets and channels for handling money."
"Just yesterday," I said, "I told Pat Gray again that the Agency was not involved and that none of the suspects had worked for us in the past two years." It seemed unlikely that Haldeman could possibly know more about CIA equities and funding channels than I did, but I decided to wait and hear what else he had in mind.
Meet the Author
After his retirement, Richard Helms lived in Washington, D.C. He died in October 2002.
William Hood was born in Maine and entered the military in 1942. After serving in the Armored Force and military intelligence, he volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services; he was at the London headquarters of OSS until 1945, when he joined Allen Dulles in Switzerland. He remained in OSS carryover units until CIA was formed. He served abroad and as chief of station, with responsibilities involving Eastern Europe, the USSR, and Latin America, and was executive officer of the Counterintelligence Staff when he retired from CIA. He has published three novels and a nonfiction book, Mole. He divides his time among New York City, Maine, and East Hampton, New York.
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