Helms' life in the CIA comes alive, vividly

March 23, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | By Dan Fesperman,Special to the Sun

A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency, by Richard Helms and William Hood, Random House. 512 pages

In the parlance of espionage, the autobiography of America's onetime spymaster, Richard Helms, might best be called a "sleeper agent."

For nearly half of the book's 512 pages, Helms -- who died last October -- assumes the mild-mannered cover of an uninspired bureaucrat, rehashing his past with all the zest of an organizational flow chart. Not only does he drain the blood from characters and bleach the color from events -- even Hitler seems uninteresting on these early pages -- he injects frequent doses of literary novocaine, with such phrases as, "The limited dissemination of high-security intelligence reports and the rigorously compartmented knowledge of sensitive operational activities are essential security precautions."

Then, at almost the halfway mark, just as it seems this drab operative might drone on forever, the narrative voice springs to life, as if activated by a secret command. At the turn of a page, the book assumes the identity of the insider's account the reader has been hoping for. The imposing cast of characters -- presidents, despots, heroes, scoundrels and spies -- begins to display actual emotion.

Thus does then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy storm onto the page as Helms brings the bad news in October 1962 that the Russians have delivered nuclear missiles to Fidel Castro, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis: "Kennedy got up from the desk and stood for a moment staring out the window. He turned to face me. '(Expletive),' he said loudly, raising both fists to his chest as if he were about to begin shadow boxing. 'Damn it all to hell and back.' "

From there, A Look Over My Shoulder briskly forges a path onward to the Vietnam War and up to Watergate, with plenty of coups, scandals and power plays along the way.

One can only wonder why the book takes so long to awaken. Helms certainly wasn't lacking for material, having spent 30 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency and its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. For the last six and a half, he was CIA director under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, until 1973.

Perhaps memory failed him on the more distant events. Maybe he didn't take careful notes until he was high in the chain of command. Whatever the reason, once the pace quickens the reader worries less about staying awake and more about issues of judgment.

If, as he says, the CIA was created mostly to insure that there would be no more Pearl Harbors, then why did the agency fail the country so miserably on Sept. 11, and why did it also fail to warn us away from the quagmire of Vietnam (which was quite predictable, based on available intelligence, Helms says), or the debacle of the Bay of Pigs (ditto).

His best explanation seems to be that the CIA doesn't act of its own accord, but only at the behest of presidents, who ultimately are the ones who must interpret, or misinterpret, CIA findings.

So, one pays special attention to the portraits of his various chief executives, from John F. Kennedy onward. While these images are often vivid, none offer more than we already know: John and Robert Kennedy were quick studies, and fixated on Cuba. LBJ was garrulous, larger than life, and fixated on Vietnam. Nixon was smart and well prepared, but fixated on his enemies.

Simply by occupying an insider's vantage point among this cast through one of the country's most turbulent eras, Helms absorbed the makings of a tale worth telling. Once he finally activates his narrative powers, it also becomes a tale worth reading.

Dan Fesperman, a reporter for The Sun currently on leave, recently completed his second novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, which will be published next year. His first book, Lie in the Dark, won a Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers' Association for the best first novel of 1999.

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