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An Interview with Richard Helms

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Chile was central to what I think Harold McMillan once described as "local difficulties" that you experienced. Looking back on those Senate hearings at which you said "No sir," to the question about CIA activities in Chile and so on, if you had your time over again, would you handle it differently?
    
I don't know how I could handle it differently because the dilemma posed at that time has never been resolved. If I was to live up to my oath and fulfill my statutory responsibility to protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure,
 
I could not reveal covert operations to people unauthorized to learn about them and that was the predicament I was in before Senator Church's committee. If I had to do it again tomorrow, I don't see that I would have had any choice. It should be made clear what Congressional committees a Director of Central Intelligence must confide in or to which he must provide operational details. The chairmen of at least eight committees, four in the Senate and four in the House, can summon the Director of Central intelligence and swear him, ask him any questions they want, and force from him any information they want.*
 
There have been suggestions that, when you were called to Camp David and then sent as Ambassador to Iran, you held a pistol of some kind to Nixon's head. Did you, and, if so, what was in it?
    
I certainly did not. Of all the accusations made about me and about my leadership of the Agency and about the Agency itself, I have resented none more than the charge I blackmailed President Nixon. It is nonsense. I did not blackmail him; I threatened him with nothing. When he said that he wanted me to leave, I said fine. It never occurred to me to argue. I was never one of those presidential appointees who thought he had an entitlement to his job. You serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States; when he wants you to leave, this is time for you to leave.
    
And, last but not least, why should I want to blackmail my boss, the President of the United States? I worked for him. The Agency worked for him. What point would there have been to do this?
    
When he asked you to leave, did he also offer you your new appointment? Did you feel you were being fired and then given another appointment or promoted or what?
    
He told me that he wanted me to leave and that he wanted to appoint a new man. There was some conversation about timing and then he asked "Well, would you like to be an ambassador?" We discussed this and I said "I wanted to think it over, because I didn't know." So the two were not put together, no.
    
Was Iran mentioned at that meeting?
    
Yes, it was, because by the time I said that I wanted to think about the idea, he asked "If you would like to be an ambassador, where would you like to go?" I thought for a minute and I said "I thought Iran would be a good post." I never regretted it.
    
Presumably, one of the reasons that you thought the appointment appropriate was that the CIA has enjoyed good relations with Iran ever since it helped restore the Shah to power in 1953.
 
That is the conventional wisdom, and while it may be true that the Shah appreciated the help that both the British and the American governments gave him in 1952, his later feeling about the Agency had a great deal more to do with the quality
 
                          
* The Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980 subsequently established the sole authority of the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence to oversee the Agency and the Intelligence Community.
    
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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:59 AM
Last Updated: May 08, 2007 08:59 AM