Richard Helms

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See also: Director of Central Intelligence

Richard McGarrah Helms (1913-2002) was a career intelligence professional who rose to be the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from 1966 to 1973.[1] Helms was an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) veteran, and the first DCI to have served at a lower level in the CIA, not only the OSS. He was the first DCI to rise from the ranks of the United States intelligence community (IC) rather than being appointed from outside. Helms was also the only DCI that was convicted for irregularities in office, although there were other DCIs that either died before a criminal process could be completed, or, more commonly, a judgment call was made that prosecution was impractical.

Early life

Born in Philadelphia, he spent his high school years in Europe, developing native fluency in French and German. He then attended Williams College, majoring majored in literature and history, graduating in 1935 and becoming a journalist for United Press International, working in Germany. [2]

In 1942, Helms joined the US Navy Reserve, received a commission as a lieutenant, and worked in the Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters in New York City, plotting the locations of German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. A former wire service colleague, "my former boss in the United Press in Berlin, Frederick Oechsner" [3] approached him about working for the new Office of Strategic Services in its Morale Operations Branch, which produced “black” propaganda. [1] He was surprised by orders transferring him to the OSS. A friend of his aunt's wanted someone from the office of public relations of the U.S. Navy to be assigned to his planning staff of the OSS. After being rejected, he drew up a set of requirements for the desired office, and sent that to the Naval personnel office. Helms was the only available officer who met the qualifications. In 1943, he was first assigned to Morale Operations, the psychological warfare branch.

He was then assigned to the OSS Secret Intelligence division (i.e., espionage), targeted against Germany Early in 1945, Helms got his first overseas assignment, in the London office of OSS’s espionage branch. Working under (and sharing a Grosvenor Street apartment with) William Casey, Helms organized infiltrations of agents behind German lines to spy and set up resistance networks. Late in the war he was “forward deployed” to Paris. Then, after V-E Day, he moved on to Luxembourg and Germany, where he was made deputy chief of the espionage element in Wiesbaden. In August 1945, he was transferred to a similar job in Berlin under Allen Dulles. From there he tracked down Nazi sympathizers and war criminals, collected information on stolen goods, traced German scientists, and monitored the Soviet military. [1]


After the Second World War, Helms became Director of the Office of Special Operations (OSO), a pre-CIA espionage organization. In 1952, after the insistence of DCI Walter Bedell Smith that there had to be a single chain of command for field operations, the OSO merged with the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), the post-OSS, pre-CIA covert action organization to form the Directorate of Plans (DDP). Frank G. Wisner, the head of the OPC, became head of the DDP, with Helms as his deputy. When Wisner left the post, DCI Allen Dulles made Richard Bissell, not Helms, the new DDP.

Helms became Director of Plans, or head of the CIA field operations directorate, after the CIA's disastrous role in the attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961.

Kennedy and Johnson years

After falling out with the Kennedys, he was sent off to Vietnam where he oversaw the coup to overthrow President Ngo Dinh Diem. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Helms was made Deputy Director under Admiral William Raborn. A year later, in 1966, he was appointed Director.

In 1967, much of the Agency's covert political action capability collapsed with the disclosure, by Ramparts magazine, that the CIA had been secretly funding the mainstream National Student Association. This disclosure led to the exposure of a wide range of funding activities, front (proprietary) companies, and supported international organizations.


The ease of Helms's role under President Lyndon Johnson changed with the arrival of President Richard Nixon and Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger. After the debacle of Watergate, from which Helms succeeded in distancing the CIA as far as possible, the Agency came under much tighter Congressional control. Nixon, however, considered Helms to be disloyal, and fired him as DCI in 1973. Helms was the only DCI convicted for irregularities in office; his autobiography describes his reactions to the charges[4]

In the early 1970s, partially as a result of the Watergate break-ins under Nixon, the United States Congress took a more active role in intelligence agencies, as did independent commissions such as the 1975 United States President's Commission on CIA activities within the United States, also called the Rockefeller Commission after its chairman. Revelations about past CIA activities, such as assassinations and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, illegal domestic spying on U.S. citizens, drew considerable Congressional oversight that had not been previousy exercised. It was determined, by several investigating committees, that the CIA had given inappropriate assistance to persons affiliated with the White House and the 1972 Nixon reelection campaign. Certain of the individuals involved in the Watergate breakins had worked, in the past, for the CIA. In an audio tape provoking President Nixon's resignation, Nixon ordered his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to tell the CIA that further investigation of Watergate would "open the whole can of worms" about the Bay of Pigs of Cuba, and, therefore, that the CIA should tell the FBI to cease investigating the Watergate burglary, due to reasons of "national security".[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 David S. Robarge (2002), Studies in Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency 46 (4)
  2. J. Kenneth McDonald (29 September 1982), Interview with Richard Helms, pp. 17-18
  3. Oral history, pp. 21-22
  4. Helms, Richard (2003). A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency. Random House. 
  5. Transcript of a recording of a meeting between President Richard Nixon and H. R. Haldeman in the oval office. (1972-06-23). Retrieved on 2007-04-15.