The Nation: Helms Makes a Deal

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Ex-CIA chiefs conviction shows shift in attitudes about spying

One of the touchiest problems inherited by the Carter Administration was the case of former CIA Director Richard M. Helms. It brought into play questions of national security, loyalty, perjury and, in some ways, the future of the intelligence agency and its directors. Last week the case was settled in a manner that did not completely satisfy anybody but seemed a thoroughly reasonable compromise.

Helms' difficulties date back to 1973, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was weighing his nomination as U.S. Ambassador to Iran. Twice the committee quizzed him in closed sessions about covert U.S. efforts to prevent Salvador Allende Gossens from becoming President of Chile in 1970. Twice Helms in effect lied.

Jimmy Carter's Justice Department could have chosen not to prosecute the now retired ambassador at all or, at the opposite extreme, to charge him with two felony counts of perjury, each carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence and a $2,000 fine. The department took a middle course, charging the 64-year-old Helms with two misdemeanor counts of failing to answer senatorial questions "fully, completely and accurately." The penalty on each count is 30 days to a year in jail and a fine of $100 to $1,000.

Carter and Attorney General Griffin Bell hit on that solution after months of bargaining with Helms and his attorney, the celebrated Edward Bennett Williams.

Helms' lawyer maintained that if his client went to trial on more serious charges, an adequate defense would require that national secrets be divulged. This was an ironic shift: throughout his long career Helms had taken many risks—even putting his life on the line when he had been a covert agent—to protect the nation's secrets.

Bell took the threat seriously. He told Williams that if Helms would plead nolo contendere (no contest)—in reality an admission of guilt—to the misdemeanors, the Justice Department would support Helms' insistence that his accumulated federal pension rights be protected, and would recommend that he not be imprisoned. This bargain was intended to ensure that no national secrets would be endangered at a trial. At the same time, it would demonstrate that the Carter Administration is in accord with Congress that even CIA chiefs are accountable to both the public and the law.

After Helms agreed to cop the plea and all details were worked out, the Justice Department whisked him into the federal courtroom of Judge Barrington D. Parker in Washington without notice. Assistant Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti presented a three-page "statement of facts" to which Helms had agreed.

In essence it said that when Helms testified on Feb. 7, 1973, and March 6, 1973, he was fully aware that the CIA in 1970 had secretly funded anti-Allende propaganda, financed groups opposed to Allende, applied economic pressure on Chilean military forces to thwart Allende's selection, and discussed with the International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. the support of candidates opposing Allende. The actions had been approved by the 40 Committee of the National Security Council under President Richard Nixon. But Helms had testified that the CIA had not tried to influence the election. All the efforts failed in any event, as Allende won narrowly in September 1970.

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