Two Agents, Two Paths: How the CIA Became a Vital Operation


Day by day, the visceral memory of September 11 is fading, but the tectonic reorganization of the federal government continues. In April, the Bush administration asked Congress to expand the powers of the Central Intelligence Agency. Specifically, the administration wants the CIA to have the authority to issue "national security letters" demanding access to a wide range of personal records held in the United States, including those kept by banks and on-line service providers. These de facto subpoenas would not require court approval.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the administration's proposal was how little controversy it generated. True, Democrats in a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee succeeded in temporarily delaying a vote on the measure. But its very introduction shows how significantly the parameters of government have altered in the past year and a half. During the 1990s, the national security state appeared to be slowly eroding. Now, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the expanding powers of the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Pentagon, that trend has reversed.

If you had said 25 years ago that one day the CIA would be authorized to undertake operations inside the United States, you would have been laughed at or savaged. The Watergate scandal led to allegations that the CIA had become an unaccountable and thuggish arm of government. After the revelations of the Rockefeller Commission and of the 1975 congressional committees led by Senator Frank Church and Representative Otis Pike, the CIA was widely thought of as "a rogue elephant" that had engaged in illegal and immoral activities throughout the world and had helped create the ugly morass of Vietnam.

As director of central intelligence (DCI), William Colby admitted to Congress that the CIA had planned assassinations of foreign leaders and, contrary to its charter and the law, had spied on U.S. citizens within the United States. Another of the agency's former directors, Richard Helms (who served as DCI from 1966 till 1973), was charged with perjury for failing to reveal to Congress the full extent of the CIA's involvement in the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile. In the 1980s, the agency's reputation was again tarnished by its part in the Iran-contra affair, and in the 1990s, it suffered another blow when it was revealed that CIA officer Aldrich Ames had been a long-time spy for the Russians.

Yet today the agency has assumed a lead role in the struggle against terrorism, and its star is ascending. Helms could not have known that his posthumously published autobiography would appear in the midst of this transformation, but his defense of the CIA's role in protecting the United States could not be more timely. Equally suited to the moment is John Prados' comprehensive (although often dry) account of the strange career of Colby.

Helms and Colby are suitable proxies for the contemporary debate over how much latitude government agencies should have to preserve the nation's security. For most of their overlapping careers, the two men would have given a similar answer: a lot. But then their paths diverged. In the cultural maelstrom of the 1970s, Colby became a critic of the national security state, while Helms remained its vigorous defender. Colby became a hero to those who believed government bureaucracies had crossed a dangerous line and a villain to those who thought he had fatally undermined the capacity of the United States to defend itself. Depending on one's point of view, Helms played the villain to Colby's hero or the hero to his villain.

Judging from these two books, Helms had the more compelling persona of the two. Both men were consummate spies and consummate bureaucrats. Although bureaucracy demands conformity, narrative demands drama, individuality, and sudden shifts in plot. Colby provided drama when he revealed some of the more sordid aspects of the CIA, but much of his life and personality remain veiled, and Prados -- one of the true experts on the history of the agency -- does not succeed in fleshing out his personality. Helms, however, was blessed with a brilliant earlier biographer in Thomas Powers. A strong desire to rebut Powers may have been one reason why Helms felt compelled to write his own account of his life and career. As evidenced by his rage at Colby, Helms could give as good as he got, and although much of his memoir is a breezy potted history of the agency, the flashes of anger, pride, and high dudgeon make Helms' Helms more intriguing than Prados' Colby.


Until the late 1960s, few Americans understood the workings of the intelligence world -- the so-called secret government. The CIA, the Defense Department, and the National Security Council all were created by the National Security Act of 1947, and for most of the next two decades, the functions of the first were only dimly comprehended. It was understood that the CIA provided the president with intelligence about potential and actual U.S. adversaries, but there was little public awareness of how that intelligence was obtained. Even less was known about the other component of the CIA: its Directorate of Operations, also known as the Directorate of Plans, which was responsible for covert action.

To some extent, there was a wink-and-nod quality to public knowledge in this era. People knew that the CIA was partly about spying, and they had vague, romantic notions about spies borrowed from Ian Fleming and Graham Greene novels. But as long as the Soviet Union and international communism seemed to threaten the security of the United States, most Americans did not care to look too closely at the nitty-gritty of what the agency actually did.

Both Helms and Colby cut their covert teeth as officers of the Office of Strategic Services, an outfit formed on the fly during World War II. They both joined its successor, the CIA, in 1947, working with Frank Wisner, Sr. (who helped create the clandestine culture of the agency), and the debonair gentleman spy Allen Dulles (who, as director of the agency from 1953 till 1961, made it a formidable bureaucratic player).

The emergence of a powerful, independent intelligence agency in the United States was not inevitable. Dulles recognized that as initially constituted, the CIA was dependent on the White House for funding and for direction. He wanted the agency to be an independent force, and that meant expanding the scope of its operations. As he told Helms in 1953, "Intelligence collection has its place -- no question, no doubt about it. ... [But] no matter how important collection is, in the short and even the long run, it just doesn't cost very much." To win a bigger budget and gain a stronger voice, the CIA had to take the lead on covert action. "If there's no real money involved," Dulles concluded, Congress would think that the agency wasn't important, "and they just won't pay much attention to us." Covert action was already becoming a larger part of the Cold War, and some government body was going to be responsible for its implementation; Dulles made sure that it was the CIA.

Helms relates this story in the same matter-of-fact tone that characterizes his entire memoir. He believed till his dying day that the CIA had made a vital contribution to the security of the United States and that whatever unsavory actions it may have taken were done at the behest of the president. The fact that there was calculation involved in the expansion of the agency's autonomy is neither here nor there; if anything, Helms believed that the CIA did the job of gathering intelligence and implementing covert action about as well as could have been expected.


Helms does not gloss over the problems that the agency encountered, but with few exceptions, he places blame for whatever went wrong squarely on the White House, on the congressional committees, and on Colby. On the first two counts, his argument is hard to refute.

During the 1950s, the CIA organized coups against several Third World governments, including those in Iran, Guatemala, and Cuba. At the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the last of these plans went awry and failed spectacularly. The fiasco was a notable embarrassment for the agency, and its failure led to the forced resignation of both its director, Allen Dulles, and its director of operations, Richard Bissell. Helms was Bissell's deputy at the time but escaped censure because Bissell had left him almost in the dark. Although Helms writes about the affair with sadness rather than animus, he spares neither Bissell nor Dulles blame for the miscalculations. From Helms' perspective, they only tried to implement the desires of the Eisenhower and then the Kennedy White House to remove Fidel Castro. In the end, Helms felt, it was Kennedy who failed the CIA (by refusing to support the operation more enthusiastically) rather than the other way around.

If the Bay of Pigs was a black eye for the agency, Vietnam was a turning point. By the late 1960s, as public opinion began to shift against the war, the CIA came under even greater fire. As Helms and Prados both note, some of the criticism was misdirected. Many assumed, for example, that the controversial and brutal Phoenix program -- designed to "pacify" the Vietcong in South Vietnam -- was a CIA operation, when in fact it was not. It was indeed overseen by Colby, but technically it was really the South Vietnamese themselves, rather than the CIA, who were responsible for its most egregious and violent aspects. Whereas Helms and to some extent Prados are disingenuous in letting the CIA off the hook, they are correct in saying that the agency was only one of several responsible parties and an easy scapegoat.

What emerges from both Helms' memoir and Prados' biography is how the culture of secrecy shrouding the CIA cut two ways. It kept the agency insulated, but it also made it possible for successive presidents to evade accountability. In the 1970s, a hypocritical and opportunistic Congress made the CIA the fall guy for the mistakes of an entire era because that was easier and safer than untangling the true web of responsibility that included both a domineering White House and a passive legislature. Helms was too loyal a cold warrior to attack the White House directly at the time of the investigations, but two decades later, he uses his memoir to argue that the agency and its officers were just following orders.

The one person who receives Helms' unsparing scorn is Colby. In the introduction to his memoir, Helms refers to the culture of the CIA and "one former DCI's expressed determination to destroy it." Colby did not just testify before the Church and Pike committees; he provided them with incriminating documents. Helms believed that these disclosures "effectively smashed the existing system of checks and balances protecting the national intelligence service." Helms had both professional and personal reasons to be resentful. He blamed Colby not just for airing the agency's dirty laundry but for initiating a chain of events that led to Helms' 1977 nolo contendere conviction for misleading Congress.

Helms and Colby have come to stand, in stark terms, for the two faces of the CIA. One, represented by Helms, reflects an agency of anonymous patriots protecting America against invisible enemies and deflecting attention away from the White House. The other, represented by Colby, reflects an agency that ran off the rails in its attempts to satisfy the unreasonable demands of the White House and the public. In truth, both men were loyal soldiers, and as Prados adeptly shows, Colby confessed just enough to prevent Congress from dismantling the agency altogether. Helms' personal animosity unfortunately clouded his ability to recognize that had someone other than Colby been DCI in 1975, the CIA probably would not have survived.


The subsequent history of the agency has hardly been cause for celebration. Its most notable operation, countering the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, supported radical Islamist forces that eventually turned their sights on the United States itself. And although the Church and Pike committees led to greater congressional oversight of the CIA, the result was not, as Helms feared, a limitation on the CIA's powers. Instead, Congress as well as the White House became accountable for what the CIA did, something that helped insulate the agency from greater criticism in the wake of September 11.

As Congress and the White House prepare to expand the agency's powers today, it is remarkable how rarely the CIA's controversial history gets mentioned. That may be because few remember it. When Prados first mentions the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration, for example, he writes, "The Watergate affair was named for the Washington building that Nixon administration political operatives broke into in June 1972 to plant electronic bugs in the offices of the Democratic National Committee." Even as recently as a decade ago, no author would have felt the need to explain to readers what Watergate was. Now, however, the event is fading from memory, as are revelations of government malfeasance that dominated the headlines a few years later. Much as the debates over slavery in the 1850s no longer stir collective passions, stories of assassination plots in Congo, Cuba, and Chile, as well as allegations of shadowy links between Watergate burglars and the denizens of Langley, Virginia, have lost their power to shock and awe.

At the same time, we are now more aware than ever of covert action. The war against terrorism has been explicitly described as a secret one, with victories that will remain hidden, but with failures that will be known to all. Even the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were described as a new type of warfare that relied as much on special forces, psychological warfare, and covert action as on conventional force. In this environment, the CIA has solidified its position as a lead provider of secret intelligence and one of several government agencies responsible for covert action. It now plays precisely the role that Helms wanted it to play. Ironically, it may not have been able to play that role had Colby not bent with the prevailing winds in the 1970s.

To a degree that neither man would have been comfortable admitting, today's agency and today's war on terrorism are the products of both -- the silent soldier and the whistle blower. Their legacy, and the history of the agency, suggests that there is a self-correcting mechanism in the U.S. government, one that does not prevent abuses from occurring but that does keep them from becoming endemic. As a result, Americans may not always get what they want, but they may end up getting what they need.