Richard Helms, former head of central intelligence, dies

`The Man Who Kept the Secrets' was first career spy to direct CIA

October 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Richard Helms, a former director of central intelligence who defiantly guarded some of the darkest secrets of the Cold War, died yesterday of multiple myeloma. He was 89.

An urbane and dashing spymaster, Mr. Helms began his career with a reputation as a truth-teller and became a favorite of lawmakers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But he ran afoul of congressional investigators who found that he had lied or withheld information about the U.S. role in assassination attempts in Cuba, anti-government activities in Chile and the illegal surveillance of journalists in the United States.

Mr. Helms pleaded no contest in 1977 to two misdemeanor counts of failing to testify fully in 1973 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His conviction, which resulted in a suspended sentence and a $2,000 fine, became a rallying point for critics of the CIA, who accused it of dirty tricks, and for the agency's defenders, who hailed Helms for refusing to compromise sensitive information.

In the title of his 1979 biography of Mr. Helms, Thomas Powers called him "The Man Who Kept the Secrets." Helms' memoir, A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the CIA, is scheduled to be released in the spring by Random House.

After he left the CIA in 1973, Mr. Helms was the U.S. ambassador to Iran until 1977 under Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, who was supported by the United States. He later became an international consultant, specializing in trade with the Middle East.

Born March 30, 1913, in St. Davids, Pa., Richard McGarrah Helms was the son of an Alcoa executive and the grandson of an international banker, Gates McGarrah. He grew up in South Orange, N.J., and studied for two years during high school in Switzerland, becoming conversant in French and German.

At Williams College, Mr. Helms excelled as a student and leader. He was class president, editor of the school newspaper and the yearbook, and was president of the senior honor society. He went to Europe as a reporter for United Press. His biggest scoop, he said, was an exclusive interview with Adolf Hitler.

In 1939, he married Julia Bretzman Shields, and they had a son, Dennis, who became a lawyer. The couple divorced in 1968, and Mr. Helms married Cynthia McKelvie that year. His wife and son survive him

When World War II broke out, Mr. Helms was called into service by the Naval Reserve. Because of his linguistic abilities, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. He worked in New York plotting the positions of German submarines in the western Atlantic.

From the beginning, he worked in the CIA's covert operations, or "plans," division, and by the early 1950s he was deputy to the head of clandestine services, Frank Wisner.

In that capacity, in 1955, Mr. Helms impressed his superiors by supervising the secret digging of a 500-yard tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin to tap the main Soviet telephone lines between Moscow and East Berlin. For more than 11 months, until the tunnel was detected by the Soviet Union, the CIA was able to eavesdrop on Moscow's conversations with officials in East Germany and Poland.

During the next 20 years, Mr. Helms rose through the agency's ranks and in 1966 he became the first career official to head the CIA. Through most of his tenure as CIA chief, Mr. Helms received favorable, occasionally fawning attention from lawmakers and the press.

That reputation grew in 1973, when Mr. Helms clashed with President Richard M. Nixon, who sought his help in thwarting an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in. When Mr. Helms refused, Mr. Powers wrote, Nixon forced him out and sent him to Iran as ambassador.

But Mr. Helms was soon called to account for his actions when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence delved into the agency's efforts to assassinate world leaders or destabilize socialist governments.

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