Richard Helms was born in St Davids, Philadelphia, on 30th March, 1913. After graduating from Williams College, Massachusetts, he joined the United Press news agency and in 1936 was sent to Nazi Germany to cover the Berlin Olympic Games. On his return to the United States he joined the advertising department of the Indianapolis Times. Two years later he became national advertising manager.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor Helms joined the United States Navy. In August, 1943, he was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that had made established by William Donovan. The OSS had responsibility for collecting and analyzing information about countries at war with the United States. It also helped to organize guerrilla fighting, sabotage and espionage.
After the surrender of Germany in 1945, Helms helped interview suspected Nazi war criminals. Helms remained in the OSS and in 1946 was put in charge of intelligence and counter-intelligence activities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The following year Helms joined the recently formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His first task was to mount a mount a massive convert campaign against the Communist Party during the Italian General Election. This was highly successful and this encouraged President Harry S. Truman to establish the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), an organization instructed to conduct covert anti-Communist operations around the world. In August, 1952, OPC and the Office of Special Operations (the espionage division) were merged to form the Directorate of Plans (DPP).
Frank Wisner was appointed head of the DPP and he appointed Helms as his chief of operations. In December, 1956, Wisner suffered a mental breakdown and was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression. During his absence Wisner's job was covered by Helms. The CIA sent Wisner to the Sheppard-Pratt Institute, a psychiatric hospital near Baltimore. He was prescribed psychoanalysis and shock therapy (electroconvulsive treatment). It was not successful and still suffering from depression, he was released from hospital in 1958.
Wisner was too ill to return to his post as head of the DDP. Allen W. Dulles therefore sent him to London to be CIA chief of station in England. Dulles decided that Richard Bissell rather than Helms should become the new head of the DPP. Helms was named as his deputy. Together they became responsible for what became known as the CIA's Black Operations. This involved a policy that was later to become known as Executive Action (a plan to remove unfriendly foreign leaders from power). This including a coup d'état that overthrew the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 after he introduced land reforms and nationalized the United Fruit Company.
Other political leaders deposed by Executive Action included Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, General Abd al-Karim Kassem of Iraq and Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of South Vietnam. However, his main target was Fidel Castro who had established a socialist government in Cuba.
In March I960, President Dwight Eisenhower of the United States approved a CIA plan to overthrow Castro. The plan involved a budget of $13 million to train "a paramilitary force outside Cuba for guerrilla action." The strategy was organised by Bissell and Helms. An estimated 400 CIA officers were employed full-time to carry out what became known as Operation Mongoose.
Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA Technical Services Division was asked to come up with proposals that would undermine Castro's popularity with the Cuban people. Plans included a scheme to spray a television studio in which he was about to appear with an hallucinogenic drug and contaminating his shoes with thallium which they believed would cause the hair in his beard to fall out.
These schemes were rejected and instead Bissell and Helms decided to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro. In September 1960, Bissell and Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initiated talks with two leading figures of the Mafia, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Later, other crime bosses such as Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky became involved in this plot against Castro.
Robert Maheu, a veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, was instructed to offer the Mafia $150,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation had to be brought into this plan as part of the deal involved protection against investigations against the Mafia in the United States. Castro was later to complain that there were twenty ClA-sponsered attempts on his life. Eventually Johnny Roselli and his friends became convinced that the Cuban revolution could not be reversed by simply removing its leader. However, they continued to play along with this CIA plot in order to prevent them being prosecuted for criminal offences committed in the United States.
When John F. Kennedy replaced Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States he was told about the CIA plan to invade Cuba. Kennedy had doubts about the venture but he was afraid he would be seen as soft on communism if he refused permission for it to go ahead. Kennedy's advisers convinced him that Fidel Castro was an unpopular leader and that once the invasion started the Cuban people would support the ClA-trained forces.
On April 14, 1961, B-26 planes began bombing Cuba's airfields. After the raids Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots. Two days later five merchant ships carrying 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs. The attack was a total failure. Two of the ships were sunk, including the ship that was carrying most of the supplies. Two of the planes that were attempting to give air-cover were also shot down. Within seventy-two hours all the invading troops had been killed, wounded or had surrendered.
After the CIA's internal inquiry into this fiasco, Allen W. Dulles was sacked by President John F. Kennedy and Richard Bissell was forced to resign. Helms now took over the Directorate for Plans. His deputy was Thomas H. Karamessines. Helms now introduced a campaign that involved covert attacks on the Cuban economy.
In 1962 Helms became increasingly involved in the Vietnam War. By this time President John F. Kennedy was convinced that Ngo Dinh Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Several attempts had already been made to overthrow Diem but Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect him. Eventually, in order to obtain a more popular leader of South Vietnam, Kennedy agreed that the role of the CIA should change. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem. At the beginning of November, 1963, President Diem was overthrown by a military coup. The generals had promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country they changed their mind and killed him.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Helms was given the responsibility of investigating Lee Harvey Oswald and the CIA. Helms initially appointed John M. Whitten to undertake the agency's in-house investigation. After talking to Winston Scott, the CIA station chief in Mexico City, Whitten discovered that Oswald had been photographed at the Cuban consulate in early October, 1963. Nor had Scott told Whitten, his boss, that Oswald had also visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico. In fact, Whitten had not been informed of the existence of Oswald, even though there was a 201 pre-assassination file on him that had been maintained by the Counterintelligence/Special Investigative Group.
John M. Whitten and his staff of 30 officers, were sent a large amount of information from the FBI. According to Gerald D. McKnight "the FBI deluged his branch with thousands of reports containing bits and fragments of witness testimony that required laborious and time-consuming name checks." Whitten later described most of this FBI material as "weirdo stuff". As a result of this initial investigation, Whitten told Richard Helms that he believed that Oswald had acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
On 6th December, Nicholas Katzenbach invited John M. Whitten and Birch O'Neal, Angleton's trusted deputy and senior Special Investigative Group (SIG) officer to read Commission Document 1 (CD1), the report that the FBI had written on Lee Harvey Oswald. Whitten now realized that the FBI had been withholding important information on Oswald from him. He also discovered that Richard Helms had not been providing him all of the agency's available files on Oswald. This included Oswald's political activities in the months preceding the assassination.
Whitten had a meeting where he argued that Oswald's pro-Castro political activities needed closer examination, especially his attempt to shoot the right-wing General Edwin Walker, his relationship with anti-Castro exiles in New Orleans, and his public support for the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Whitten added that has he had been denied this information, his initial conclusions on the assassination were "completely irrelevant."
Helms responded by taking Whitten off the case. James Jesus Angleton, chief of the CIA's Counterintelligence Branch, was now put in charge of the investigation. According to Gerald McKnight (Breach of Trust) Angleton "wrested the CIA's in-house investigation away from John Whitten because he either was convinced or pretended to believe that the purpose of Oswald's trip to Mexico City had been to meet with his KGB handlers to finalize plans to assassinate Kennedy."
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Admiral William Raborn, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Helms became Raborn's deputy but became increasingly influential over decisions being made in Vietnam. This included the covert action in neighbouring Laos and the formation of South Vietnamese counter-terror teams.
The following year Johnson promoted Helms to become head of the CIA. He was the first director of the organization to have worked his way up from the ranks. His standing with Johnson improved when he successfully predicted a quick victory for Israel during the Six Day War in June, 1967. However, Helms information about the size of enemy forces in Vietnam was less accurate. Johnson was told in November, 1967, that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had fallen to 248,000. In reality the true figure was close to 500,000 and United States troops were totally unprepared for the Tet Offensive.
Under President Richard Nixon, Helms agreed to implement what became known as the Huston Plan. This was a proposal for all the country's security services to combine in a massive internal surveillance operation. In doing so, Helms became involved in a secret conspiracy as it was illegal for the Central Intelligence Agency to operate within the United States.
In 1970 it seemed that Salvador Allende and his Socialist Workers' Party would win the general election in Chile. Various multinational companies, including International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), feared what would happen if Allende gained control of the country. Helms agreed to use funds supplied by these companies to help the right-wing party gain power. When this strategy ended in failure, Nixon ordered Helms to help the Chilean armed forces to overthrow Allende. On 11th September, 1973, a military coup removed Allende's government from power. Allende died in the fighting in the presidential palace in Santiago and General Augusto Pinochet replaced him as president.
During the Watergate Scandal President Richard Nixon became concerned about the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. Three of those involved in the burglary, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez and James W. McCord had close links with the CIA. Nixon and his aides attempted to force the CIA director, Richard Helms, and his deputy, Vernon Walters, to pay hush-money to Hunt, who was attempting to blackmail the government. Although it seemed Walters was willing to do this, Helms refused. In February, 1973, Nixon sacked Helms. His deputy, Thomas H. Karamessines, resigned in protest. The following month Helms became U.S. Ambassador to Iran.
James Schlesinger now became the new director of the CIA. Schlesinger was heard to say: The clandestine service was Helmss Praetorian Guard. It had too much influence in the Agency and was too powerful within the government. I am going to cut it down to size. This he did and over the next three months over 7 per cent of CIA officers lost their jobs.
On 9th May, 1973, James Schlesinger issued a directive to all CIA employees: I have ordered all senior operating officials of this Agency to report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or might have gone on in the past, which might be considered to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency. I hereby direct every person presently employed by CIA to report to me on any such activities of which he has knowledge. I invite all ex-employees to do the same. Anyone who has such information should call my secretary and say that he wishes to talk to me about activities outside the CIAs charter.
There were several employees who had been trying to complain about the illegal CIA activities for some time. As Cord Meyer pointed out, this directive was a hunting license for the resentful subordinate to dig back into the records of the past in order to come up with evidence that might destroy the career of a superior whom he long hated.
In 1975 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began investigating the CIA. Senator Stuart Symington asked Richard Helms if the agency had been involved in the removal of Salvador Allende. Helms replied no. He also insisted that he had not passed money to opponents of Allende.
Investigations by the CIA's Inspector General and by Frank Church and his Select Committee on Intelligence Activities showed that Helms had lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They also discovered that Helms had been involved in illegal domestic surveillance and the murders of Patrice Lumumba, General Abd al-Karim Kassem and Ngo Dinh Diem. Helms was eventually found guilty of lying to Congress and received a suspended two-year prison sentence.
In its final report, issued in April 1976, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities concluded: Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the Constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association and privacy. It has done so primarily because the Constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied. The committee also revealed details for the first time of what the CIA called Operation Mockingbird.
The committee also reported that the Central Intelligence Agency had withheld from the Warren Commission, during its investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, information about plots by the Government of the United States against Fidel Castro of Cuba; and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had conducted a counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) against Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
On 16th May, 1978, John M. Whitten appeared before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). He criticised Richard Helms for not making a full disclosure about the Rolando Cubela plot to the Warren Commission. He added " I think that was a morally highly reprehensible act, which he cannot possibly justify under his oath of office or any other standard of professional service."
Whitten also said that if he had been allowed to continue with the investigation he would have sought out what was going on at JM/WAVE. This would have involved the questioning of Ted Shackley, David Sanchez Morales, Carl E. Jenkins, Rip Robertson, George Joannides, Gordon Campbell and Thomas G. Clines. As Jefferson Morley has pointed out in The Good Spy: "Had Whitten been permitted to follow these leads to their logical conclusions, and had that information been included in the Warren Commission report, that report would have enjoyed more credibility with the public. Instead, Whitten's secret testimony strengthened the HSCA's scathing critique of the C.I.A.'s half-hearted investigation of Oswald. The HSCA concluded that Kennedy had been killed by Oswald and unidentifiable co-conspirators."
John M. Whitten also told the HSCA that James Jesus Angleton involvement in the investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was "improper". Although he was placed in charge of the investigation by Richard Helms, Angleton "immediately went into action to do all the investigating". When Whitten complained to Helms about this he refused to act.
Whitten believes that Angleton's attempts to sabotage the investigation was linked to his relationship with the Mafia. Whitten claims that Angleton also prevented a CIA plan to trace mob money to numbered accounts in Panama. Angleton told Whitten that this investigation should be left to the FBI. When Whitten mentioned this to a senior CIA official, he replied: "Well, that's Angleton's excuse. The real reason is that Angleton himself has ties to the Mafia and he would not want to double-cross them."
Whitten also pointed out that as soon as Angleton took control of the investigation he concluded that Cuba was unimportant and focused his internal investigation on Oswald's life in the Soviet Union. If Whitten had remained in charge he would have "concentrated his attention on CIA's JM/WAVE station in Miami, Florida, to uncover what George Joannides, the station chief, and operatives from the SIG and SAS knew about Oswald."
When he appeared before the HSCA Whitten revealed that he had been unaware of the CIA's Executive Action program. He added that he thought it possible that Lee Harvey Oswald might have been involved in this assassination operation.
Richard Helms died on 22nd October, 2002. As one commentator pointed out at the time: "Helms had gone to his grave with the sole knowledge of what Congress did not manage to uncover." His autobiography, A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the CIA, was published in 2003.