The Nation: Helms Makes a Deal

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Walter Pforzheimer, who retired in 1974 as the CIA'S assistant general counsel, notes that from the time the agency was created in 1947, members were not required to answer any questions about operations—unless the questions were posed by the appropriate congressional oversight committee. When "outsiders" on other congressional committees asked troublesome questions, says Pforzheimer, CIA personnel referred them to the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations subcommittees, which had oversight duties. "I have never heard of a case where the director failed to answer the questions of our oversight committees," insists Pforzheimer. "I know Dick lived up to that." John A. McCone, who directed the agency from 1961 to 1965, agrees that Helms' mistake was in consenting to testify on sensitive CIA matters before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was not one of the oversight committees. Some sources suggest that Helms so badly wanted to become Ambassador to Iran that he let ambition cloud his judgment.

Not surprisingly, other former CIA directors were sympathetic to Helms.

George Bush said the case "should have been dismissed." William Colby said that "Mr. Helms was trying to keep a secret as he was supposed to" under presidential direction and was caught in a change in which "American intelligence is going to operate under American law." Energy Secretary James Schlesinger insisted, "It is a shame that Dick Helms should have been in court at all. It would have been a national disgrace had the outcome been more severe. He should treat the episode like a dueling scar—it underscores his service to his country."

The debate is far from over. The law requires that witnesses testify truthfully before congressional committees—but it does not require that Congressmen keep their mouths shut. Even when testifying before the congressional oversight committee, a CIA chief might be uneasy about blowing the cover of a current operation or exposing the methods and personnel of past projects. Despite the Helms case, drawing the line between an ultimate public accounting and a current operational imperative will always remain a difficult task for those who direct clandestine operations abroad.

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