Book Review

Confessions of a Stone Wall

A Look Over My Shoulder:

Thomas Powers titled his 1979 book about Richard Helms The Man Who Kept Secrets. And nothing in Helms’ own memoir, published now posthumously, invalidates the epithet. When Helms, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1966 to 1973, died at age 89 of melanoma—a cancer often induced by exposure—on October 23, 2002, most of his secrets were buried with him. In A Look Over My Shoulder, written with William Hood, a veteran of both the CIA and its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, Helms might be looking back over his shoulder, but the ancient spymaster keeps what he sees close to his vest.

All good writers are spies, though all good spooks are not necessarily writers. Norman Mailer, who spent seven years writing Harlot’s Ghost, a novel about the CIA, titles his new collection of essays on writing The Spooky Art, and he begins the volume by declaring: “I perceived the CIA and its agents as people of high morals and thorough deceit, loyalty and duplicity, passion and ice-cold detachment. So many writers, including myself, have a bit of that in our makeup.” So many writers, including Christopher Marlowe, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré, have a bit of spying in their background. Assignments in intelligence tend to attract employees of intelligence, at least civil servants with multiple degrees, languages, and interests. Helms’s colleagues in the OSS in London during World War II included Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Ellmann, and Julia Child. Helms himself came to the espionage trade thoroughly fluent in French and German. He attended prep schools in Switzerland and Germany and graduated magna cum laude in history and English from Williams College. So readers picking up his account of A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency might expect a work of greater literary grace than an account of, say, A Life in the Small Business Administration. They would be disappointed. A Look Over My Shoulder is written in efficient, undistinguished prose, like a CIA position paper. What it does provide is an exaggerated specimen of that staple of modern fiction: the unreliable narrator. Longer than any other pensioned American, Helms was in the business of acquiring and concealing information and of disseminating disinformation. Written to vindicate a lengthy career in government service that ended in disgrace, A Look Over My Shoulder reads like one of the daily presidential briefing papers whose preparation Helms claims is the most important duty of the director of Central Intelligence. But a reader should be wary of what it says and does not say.

Helms begins at the end of his thirty-year career in intelligence, with an account of his brusque sacking by Richard Nixon in 1973. Of all the presidents he served, Nixon was the one, Helms claims, who arrived most qualified to sit in the Oval Office. Yet Nixon attempted to blame Watergate on the CIA and to use the agency to cover up the break-in. Nixon held the CIA responsible for his defeat in 1960, believing that it had fed the Democrats damaging information about the missile gap with the Soviet Union that had developed under Eisenhower, and he mistrusted the agency as a nest of liberal intellectuals. When Helms, who had violated the CIA charter in order to comply with earlier presidents’ demands, balked at Nixon’s plans, he was abruptly sent packing, to Tehran, as ambassador to Iran. Congressional subpoenas would force him to fly back to Washington sixteen times in less than four years. In a paroxysm of what Helms considers reckless candor, James Schlesinger and William Colby, his successors at the CIA, exposed the company’s files to public scrutiny. The sudden shift to transparency not only endangered agents in the field but also made a casualty of Helms himself. In 1977, the former director pleaded no contest to charges of failing to testify fully before Congress about malefactions in Chile. He was fined $2,000 and given a two-year suspended sentence.

A Look Over My Shoulder is the work of a jilted courtier, a retainer wronged, he feels, by masters he served too well. In a treacherous world, Helms remains convinced that thorough and reliable intelligence is crucial to national security. Pearl Harbor is the paradigm, echoed in 9/11, of a failure to foresee, and hence prevent, catastrophe. He insists that in order to be effective the CIA must remain utterly independent of anyone but the president, whom it serves best by gathering credible information, not trying to pander to political agendas or influence policy.

Helms is especially proud of his role in helping to reorganize the ad hoc OSS into the postwar CIA. He recalls the complicated operational triumph of tapping underground telephone lines in Berlin and Vienna and thereby, for eleven months, until exposed in 1956 by a mole in British intelligence, recording 368,000 Soviet conversations. In 1961, Helms was still deputy to Richard Bissell, the CIA’s deputy director for plans, and out of the loop on Cuba. But after Bissell was fired over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Helms played an active part in a major intelligence success, the discovery, before they could be activated, of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He recounts the cases of Pyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky, Russian colonels who, until unmasked and executed, leaked precious information to American contacts. He claims that, as far as is known, foreign powers never managed to penetrate the CIA on his watch.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, William Raborn—an admiral who was thrust into the directorship without any aptitude for or prior experience in the intelligence field—Helms worked his way up to the top of the agency. “It is not for everybody,” he says of a career in the CIA, “but for me it was the best possible work.” So completely did the work absorb the life that Helms mentions his wife, Julia, only three times, in passing—to record their marriage, in 1939, to note that Julia happened to be off in New York undergoing serious surgery while he was coping with the Cuban missile crisis, and to recount how he requested and obtained permission from his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, to divorce her. His greatest disappointment came from being passed over for promotion, his greatest frustration from struggling to determine whether defector Yuri Nosenko was in truth a KGB plant.

Helms proclaims: “I was, and still am, fascinated by every aspect of intelligence activity.” But of the three principal responsibilities of the CIA, intelligence, counterintelligence, and covert operations, he professes wariness of the third. “At its best,” he says, “covert action should be used like a well-honed scalpel, infrequently, and with discretion lest the blade lose its edge.” The Bay of Pigs was not its best, but neither was it the only use of covert action during Helms’ tenure at the CIA. His avowed distaste for covert action led him, he reports, to oppose the assassination of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba and the recruitment of the Mafia to try to do away with Fidel Castro. But it did not prevent him, as director of Central Intelligence, from orchestrating a secret, undeclared war in Laos. Though the unintended consequences have been enormous and pernicious, Helms expresses satisfaction with the CIA’s covert role in toppling Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. His main complaint about the agency’s contribution to the coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende is that it was made in too much haste. Helms claims that covert CIA operations prevented Communists from winning elections in France and Italy during the 1950s, but he surely would not have countenanced interference by French or Italian agents in American politics.

Though federal law expressly forbids the CIA from conducting actions within the United States, Helms was kept busy overseeing Operation CHAOS, a covert campaign aimed at spying on and disrupting domestic dissidents, and Operation MERRIMAC, a campaign to infiltrate black activists and peace activists based in Washington. Mentioning neither of those campaigns by name, A Look Over My Shoulder merely notes that Helms acceded to Lyndon Johnson’s illicit demand he search for foreign influences in the domestic anti-war movement. “I could not have asked for a more considerate chief and taskmaster than President Johnson,” he declares, though LBJ ignored CIA assessments about the situation in Vietnam. While conceding that he was “very eccentric,” Helms characterizes FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as “the most accomplished American bureaucrat of the twentieth century.” A bureaucrat does not sound nearly as noxious as a bully, but we now know that Hoover used the formidable powers he accumulated to violate the rights of thousands of American citizens. Less well known, and not mentioned at all by Helms, is the fact that the CIA was also engaged in widescale domestic spying. Between 1953 and 1973, the CIA opened more than 200,000 first-class letters sent within the United States. So, despite his memoir’s lack of stylistic distinction, Helms was a man of letters. He deleted disturbing news from his own final missive.

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His most recent book, as editor, is Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (Nebraska).

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST