The Gentlemanly Planner of Assassinations

The nasty career of CIA Director Richard Helms.

Richard Helms when he was director of the CIA

Richard Helms, who died last week at age 89, was described by his biographer Thomas Powers as a “gentlemanly planner of assassinations.” The epithet captured the essence of the former CIA director’s style: socially correct, bureaucratically adept, operationally nasty. In mid-20th-century Washington, this combination proved effective, if not glamorous. Helms gained the confidence of presidents and the admiration of syndicated columnists. Yet ultimately his faith in political assassination was no small part of his fall from power to disgrace.

At a time when there is revived interest in using assassination as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy to deal with the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Helms’ career offers a cautionary epitaph: The assassination business has a way of ending badly.

Helms professed to be something of a skeptic of assassination. In Powers’ biography, The Man Who Kept the Secrets, Helms is quoted as saying that assassination rarely achieved its expected goals. Yet once he took command of the American clandestine service in 1962, his prudence deserted him. President Kennedy and his successors wanted to use the tool of assassination, and Helms gave them what they wanted.

Leaving aside moral questions, his performance was far from impressive. Helms first turned to his good friend William Harvey, a brilliant, pistol-packing operative, who enlisted some of his friends in the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro. They proved unable to pierce Castro’s security detail. In the summer of 1963, the deputy CIA director made another poor personnel choice. He activated contact with a disgruntled former hero of the Cuban revolution named Rolando Cubela. Known by his CIA cryptonym, “AMLASH,” Cubela was a complex character. While he spoke of killing Castro, he was also loyal to the ideals of the Cuban revolution. Helms’ counterintelligence staff advised caution, but Helms overruled them.

This homicidal conspiracy took on a more sinister aspect on Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. At the very moment Kennedy died, one of Helms’ agents was delivering a poison pen to Cubela in Paris. The revelation of this coincidence in 1975 crystallized a wave of public indignation and revulsion that prompted Congress to slash the agency’s budget and restrict its activities. 

Helms and his defenders bemoaned the conspiratorial bent of the American public, which often implicated the CIA in Kennedy’s death. Yet Helms was hardly in a position to complain about conspiracy-mongering. He himself had been instrumental in the publication of the first JFK assassination conspiracy theory.

CIA files uncovered by a civilian watchdog panel in 1998 revealed what Helms sought to hide. In the summer of 1963, his top psychological warfare specialist in Miami, a dapper, multilingual lawyer named George Joannides, was slipping $25,000 a month to a group of anti-Castro Cuban exile students in Miami. When Kennedy was killed three months later, these same students, using CIA funds from Joannides, published a special edition of their newspaper, proclaiming that accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had acted at Castro’s behest. Dated Nov, 23, 1963, this broadsheet featuring photos of Castro and Oswald was the first concerted effort to articulate a conspiratorial explanation of Kennedy’s death—and it was paid for out Dick Helms’ budget.

Even a loyal CIA insider who worked with Helms concluded that the spymaster’s actions encouraged suspicion of the agency. In 1963, John Whitten was a respected senior staffer whom Helms put in charge of reviewing all CIA files on Oswald. As an investigator, Whitten was appalled that Helms had not disclosed the Cubela/AMLASH plot to members of the Warren Commission, the blue-ribbon panel that probed Kennedy’s death. Helms’ actions, he said, were “morally highly reprehensible.”

But no one knew about Helms’ actions at the time. His ability to keep secrets meant that he was never held accountable. Even Cubela’s arrest and conviction in March 1966, a propaganda bonanza for Castro, did not impede Helms’ ascent in Washington. Three months later, he was named director of Central Intelligence.

Director Helms’ willingness to countenance political murder on behalf of the White House continued to produce dismal results. In 1970, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were disturbed by the emergence of a leftist democracy in Chile led by Salvador Allende. As the Senate Intelligence Committee later determined, the CIA reported that Chilean Gen. Rene Schneider was seen as a linchpin of the fledgling government, a respected military leader whose fidelity to constitutional principles was blocking a right-wing military coup. Helms, while skeptical, dispatched his top operatives to Chile, where they provided money and encouragement to two groups of officers who spoke of their intention to kidnap Schneider. A few days later, the general was mortally wounded during a kidnapping attempt by one of the groups. The next day, Helms commented that “the Chileans have been guided to a point where a military solution is at least open to them.” The coup did not materialize at that time. But Chile’s leftist democracy had been badly wounded.

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.