Richard Helms holds the unsavory distinction of being the only director of the CIA ever convicted of lying to Congress. He did so regarding an attempt to prevent Salvador Allende from becoming president of Chile during the country's first successful open elections in 1970.
Now in a new book, his widow Cynthia Helms attempts to explain why.
Richard Helms, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1966 to 1973, carried out the special operation in Chile simply because President Richard Nixon told him to, she writes in "An Intriguing Life: A Memoir of War, Washington and Marriage to An America Spymaster."
But Richard Helms, who died in 2002, lied to Congress because of two competing oaths he'd taken, Cynthia recalls.
After departing the intelligence community in 1973, Nixon named Helms to be ambassador of Iran. During the ex-spymaster's confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was asked about the agency's covert operations in Chile, which remained classified. One questioner wanted to know if Helms had tried to overthrow the Chilean government.
"He did not want to mislead the committee, but he could not disclose secrets," Cynthia Helms writes. And he faced a "moral dilemma," she says, because of his two conflicting oaths: the one he had taken when joining the CIA, and the other he took when he swore to tell the truth to the committee.
He chose the oath to the CIA, and told the questioner "no," she explains in the book.
Four years later, that response would come back to haunt him.
"The suspicion and skepticism triggered by the Watergate affair spread like a virulent infection," writes Cynthia, referencing the political scandal that later led to Nixon's resignation, "poisoning the once cordial relations between the administration and the Hill."
That suspicion soon reached her husband, and the testimony he had given about special operations in Chile. In 1977, he officially become the target of an investigation by the Justice Department.
"Prosecuting a government official for doing his job set a dangerous precedent," Cynthia writes, and yet prosecute her husband they did. In part due to that precedent, Richard Helms expected the court to come to a resolution, and believed he would avoid conviction.
He was wrong.
That year, he was fined $2000 and given a suspended sentence of two years in jail.
According to a Washington Post report of the event, District Judge Barrington D. Parker gave Helms a "severe tongue-lashing" for misleading Congress, and told him: "You stand before this court in disgrace and shame."
Cynthia writes instead the conviction became a badge of honor, and her husband received a standing ovation when he visited a CIA retiree organization in Bethesda shortly after. Six years later, President Ronald Reagan gave Richard Helms the national security medal for distinguished achievement in the field of intelligence. According to Cynthia, her husband also received a letter from Nixon after receiving the award that read: "You suffered a great injustice simply because you were carrying out the assignment which I felt was vitally important."