Richard Helms

Gathering Intelligence

VTR Date: December 7, 1983

Guest: Helms, Richard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard Helms
Title: Gathering Intelligence
VTR: 12/7/83

RICHARD HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on “The Open Mind”.

I’m not a journalist, as people who have occasionally watched this program since 1956 well know. I’m not burdened either by a personal compulsion or by the journalist’s professional obligation to dig, dig, dig. Certainly, not beyond where my guests choose to move with me.

Rather, this program is a reflection of my minds open to each of my guests’ intellectual or ideological odyssey, as he or she is willing to share it with us; so that I didn’t invite Richard Helms, the head of our former Central Intelligence Agency to come here to tell me all about the CIA. I’m not that naïve, and he’s not that indiscreet. If he were, he wouldn’t have become head of our intelligence service, or, later, our Ambassador to Iran.

I did invite Mr. Helms to join me here today when I learned that nearly a half century ago, he had met Adolf Hitler, ad written about him as young reporter, just out of Williams College. I want to know more about that experience.

Will you share it with me, Mr. Helms?

RICHARD HELMS: With pleasure.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you, as you look back to then, to that time, feel you’ve learned about contemporary world affairs, in terms of that recollection of Hitler.

HELMS: Well, one of the things that has stayed with me ever since that time is the necessity to see to it that something like the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler doesn’t occur again, because it isn’t all that difficult to have in this world, to have somebody to come to power with the force and the power and motivation that he had, and yet want to dominate everything within his control.

It is clear now, as we look back in history, that he very nearly took the whole of Europe and camped on hit. If he had, for example, in 1940, after in April he took Denmark and Norway; in May he took Holland and Belgium; by the middle of June he was in Paris. Therefore, from the middle of Poland to the Atlantic Coast, he controlled the whole of Europe, along with Mussolini and Franco.

Now, if instead of going against the Soviet Union at that point, he had decided to take over the British Isles, which, I think, it’s unquestionable that he had the capacity to do, how would the Americans later on have tooted him out of Europe. There might have been a dark cloud over Europe for years before anything basically changed.

I’m simply suggesting that history can repeat itself in some form of this kind, some devastating person like Adolf Hitler; and that if the free world does not stand up to its responsibilities, does not take care of the strength that it needs to maintain its position, it may very well go under, it may very well go into a twilight era of the kind we would have had, if Hitler had, as I said, gone against England, rather than going against the Soviet Union.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting that you have say that we have that within our control and that we did, then. But we didn’t exercise that control. It didn’t work out that way that it was luck or that it was Hitler’s mistake, as you suggest.

HELMS: It was Hitler’s mistake. I think there’s not doubt about it, because we let him get way ahead of us. There were Britain and France, and anybody who watched those Churchill movies, or has read Churchill’s books, can see how the German armaments just took off like this, and the British parliament was fighting over the smallest increase in air armaments.

And I’m not trying to be a warmonger here in any sense. I’m simply saying that once you have the weapons and the manpower under your control and the other fellows have less than all of these things, then the world is in trouble, particularly if a person of Adolf Hitler’s objectives and persuasions is the man that is attempting to control you.

HEFFNER: But do you think that democracies are capable of, competent to seize the moment, to recognize what a real threat is posed to them?

HELMS: I hope they are. I sometimes wonder. I’m honest enough to say that I shake my head from time to time at some of the debate I hear abut what the issues are, because the issues are those of democracy and freedom, and freedom of the spirit, and all the things that we stand for, and, on the other side , it’s a different kind of life. It’s fine to say better red than dead. But that begs the question. The question is: How so you live your life, how does a society live its life? And, unfortunately, in the modern world, as well as the world almost just since the beginning of the century, if you aren’t strong enough to stand up for those rights, you’re liable to have somebody impose his will on you.

HEFFNER: But isn’t there a basic contradiction between the capacity of a democratic people, a freedom-loving people, let’s say, a contradiction between their involvement with freedom, their involvement with the kinds of feelings about the nature of human nature, contradiction between that and the capacity simply to grab the bull by the horns and do what has to be done in recognition of the treat before us?

HELMS: Of course there is. There’s a constant conflict. And it goes on and on. And, unfortunately, at times, it becomes worse, it seems to me, during the debate than it definitely ought to be, because in a democratic society, the individual certainly wants his individual freedom but he owes something to the society in which he lives. He has got to cooperate with that society, otherwise he can’t possibly survive, if every individual goes his individual direction. I think that’s clear, or should be clear. And sometimes a debate in our country becomes so divisive and so, in effect, pointless, that one wonders if democracies can survive. And, I think, fortunately, at least, so far in the history of the United States, someone has usually come forward in time to rescue us, if you like, from ourselves.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute. You said, ‘divisive’. Sure. But you also said, ‘pointless’. And it isn’t really pointless. Isn’t there, wouldn’t we recognize the need for that continuing conflict between those who say: Wait, we must not act like the enemy; and those who would take the bull by the horns?

HELMS: Well, I think that’s right; and perhaps ‘pointless’ was an excessive word. I withdraw it if it makes the discussion any easier. I think the reason I used it, though, was that it does strike me that from time to time in the debate in this country, people take positions and pursue them for selfish reasons, or personal reasons, or conviction of an individual which run contrary to what would seem to sensible people to be good for the society as a whole.

HEFFNER: How would you identify such actions now, such attitudes now?

HELMS: Well, I would think that in the present day, a very divisive thing comes in the form of those who feel that if the United States would just disarm, then we wouldn’t have trouble with the Russians, and, therefore, the world would be a better place to live in.

It is this type of argumentation that doesn’t make sense to me, particularly having lived through the period of Adolf Hitler, when I saw the stronger country beat up on the smaller countries, simply by power, and not by persuasion or by any of those attractive qualities that we’d like to thin obtain in a democratic society.

HEFFNER: A nation can be armed, though, heavily armed, perhaps to your satisfaction, armed, and still not quite have the will to make use of its capacity, so that it is in the same position. What would you have us do?

HELMS: That is perfectly true. I think that the will in a democracy, particularly, is a very important item. There is no doubt about it. And that one has a perfect right to say: Do we have the will to do certain things, when it’s incumbent upon us to do it?

There are those who feel that the loss of South Vietnam was due to the fact that the United States did not have the will to win. And there is a good debate on both sides on that point, because we did have the power. We could have exerted the power and we could have gone a lot farther than we did; and undoubtedly would have carried the day militarily, if we had to do it.

But we did not want to do this, for a variety of reasons. And it may have been a lack of national will, because by the time a decision might have been made, let’s say, to invade North Vietnam, the backing of the public in the United States was simply not there for that kind of an operation. Even it you were not concerned about the Chinese or the Russians, or other military powers, what was this army going to do with a populace at home that was tearing away at the war, marching in the streets, and all the rest of it?

So, this is a question of the type of will, I think, to which you’re referring.

HEFFNER: It is incumbent, then, upon national leadership to move and move quickly before that divisiveness can erode the will to war?

HELMS: Well, I would just like to say that if one has the choice, obviously the faster one moves, and the quicker it’s over, the better off you are in a democracy, the less chance there is for the divisive forces to move in. But, unfortunately, in some of these situations, you can’t move that quickly, and you can’t get it over with that fast, and then you maybe find yourself in a pickle, and I simply want to suggest that the operation that was run in Grenada was the sort that you’d find a popular when it’s over, because it was quick, it was surgical, and it was done with.

HEFFNER: If one didn’t use the surgical metaphor, then, but we had just bumbled along and taken out time and debated it, you’re suggesting we would be in a position not as happy as the one we’re in now.

HELMS: I think we probably would still be fussing around with it. In other words – and fussing, I use just that way: I mean fussing and fuming and saying: Yes. We should. No. We shouldn’t. The issues aren’t there. They haven’t made the case. This government doesn’t tell us, really, why it wants to do it. And so forth. I think you’re quite correct. I don’t think it would have ever happened – and might have gotten totally turned off.

HEFFNER: Now, the question is: If that’s the case, what are the obligations of the leader who understands what you’ve just said, but who feels some obligation to present his case to the American People for them to make the horrendous choice between war or no war, even a glorious little war, a glorious little invasion, or note whatsoever. What do you see as the obligation of leadership?

HELMS: The obligation of leadership is to make it clear to the American public what he is doing, what his objectives are, and why he is doing it. There’s no doubt about this. I think it’s necessary. Now, the question that arises, though, it seems to me, is not that anyone would dispute what I’ve just said. It’s a question of the degree to which he has done that. Has he made the case? Has he persuaded the editors of the New York Times that it really is something that it was desirable to do? And, in some of these cases, you might say yes, and in some cases, you might say no. But there’s no question that the leader, the President of the United States has this responsibility.

HEFFNER: Responsibility to interpret?

HELMS: To interpret, to persuade, to convince.

HEFFNER: Before or after?

HELMS: Well, depending on the circumstances. But I think that in this case, if we may use the Grenada case again, he had already presented the American people with that speech sometime before the episode in Grenada, which laid out the concerns about it, its position in the Caribbean, the Soviet and Cuban influence there, and certain other factors about it, so that the company, at least, was not unaware that, at least those who were listening, were not unaware that the Grenada problem existed, so that when he moved, he was obviously in the position, then, to have to justify it after the fact.

HEFFNER: I didn’t know whether literally – I’m not joking – I didn’t know whether you said ‘country’ or ‘company’; and I wondered that, whether, indeed, the President, in your estimation, the question of where do you draw the line always comes up, and you say that yourself, doesn’t it make you somewhat concerned that at a time when so many forces around the world push against our traditional 18th – 19th liberal concept of democracy, that we find ourselves needing to take actions, to take steps that run against the basic assumption of ‘the people shall judge’?

HELMS: Well, I think this is probably true. And I don’t know there’s any neat answer to that question. I mean, the world is messy. It’s a messy place. People don’t have the same standards between countries, or among countries. There’s never a clean-cut way to do anything. I think that Henry Kissinger wrote one time something I think is very true, that very often political leaders have to take decisions of action before all the information is in, before even they have all the information they would like to have had to make this move, because if you wait for all the information, then, very often, the time passes.

HEFFNER: Mr. Helms, wasn’t that a doctrine that was safer to live with and by, before we had weapons of such total destruction?

HELMS: Well, that’s probably true, except that these weapons of total destruction that concern us all are effectively in the hands of two great powers. And both of them have certain approaches to this problem that fits them, I think, to make judgments that they’re not going to use those weapons in almost any case, except a really extraordinary one, and even then, I think that they would both step back.

HEFFNER: You don’t –

HELMS: I don’t happen to share the widespread concern that suddenly somebody is going to, the Russians or the Americans are going to start throwing nuclear bombs about. I just don’t happen to believe that. I think that both of them are persuaded of the destructive power of these weapons, that they would do; and that this is something that simply mustn’t happen to their society or our society, or to the world. And if the Russians have aspirations to take over a lot of the world for communism, they have aspirations to do it without blowing it up, because, otherwise, what is there to get once you’ve got it?

My concern, frankly, in the field of nuclear weapons is much more that someday some terrorist or some small nation is going to sneak one into the United States and blow something up, which wouldn’t be all that difficult to do. That is my concern about nuclear weapons these days – not the exchange between the super-????????????

HEFFNER: Well, I’ve got to find in the massive research that Janice provided me with here – here it is – your review in August 1980 of “The Fifth Horsemen”; and I was very impressed that at the end you quoted George Will, the columnist. He said: “After an international conference on terrorism in Jerusalem, Will ????? wrote: When a government such as that of Libya is involved in terrorism from Ulster to Israel, then only prudential considerations on the part of the nations attacked can weigh against actions to change that government, namely, Libya. This subject comes under the heading of thinking the unthinkable. But the beginning of wisdom in dealing the terrorism is to fact this fact. No act is unthinkable when so many terrible acts are successful.

I’m sure you didn’t quote this without approving it. I’m sure you quoted it because it represented your own –

HELMS: Because I believe it.

HEFFNER: -opinion.


HEFFNER: What would you have us to then in the instance of the terrorist and –

HELMS: There is very little that we can to. That’s why it concerns me so much. If I thought that there was a neat solution to the problem, I would certainly have laid it forth at some time or another. But nobody has a neat solution to this problem of what one does about terrorism, because it comes in so many different guises these days. It has different motivations. It has different financing at different times. And it comes up in the most surprising places.

And just recently, for example, in the attack on the Marines in Beirut, one has seen a kamikaze-type attack, which has even been rare in terrorism up to now. Most of the terrorists figure that they’re going to get away somehow or other. But this, it was clear, the man was – never had any possibility of living through the experience. So that injects an escalation almost into the whole terrorist activity. And if a fellow is prepared to die, then he’s prepared to take a lot of other steps to make this possible. And I don’t know how you protect yourself against that.

HEFFNER: But, you know, reading you, reading about you, following your career, I don’t believe for a moment that Richard Helms is the kind of man who shrugs his shoulders and say, “I don’t know”. Why not take out those who would take us out?

HELMS: Well, it’s a good idea, except that I don’t see opinion in the United States standing behind the kind of an attach that it would require to take out the present Libyan Government, for example; and even if one were to take out the present Libyan government, and you thought that was the seat of terrorism, that really probably is not the seat of terrorism, and therefore, you would have a hue and cry that you could hear all over the world about why did we pick on poor little Khadafy when, after all, he wasn’t necessarily the worst terrorist. Maybe it’s somebody from the PLO, or maybe it’s somebody attached to Moscow, or maybe it’s some Turkish terrorist group, or maybe it’s the Red Japanese.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting we don’t have the capacity to identify and to act?

HELMS: Our intelligence services do the very best they can in this connection. They’re working on it all the time. They’re just as conscious of this as you and I are. But when you ask me if there’s a pat solution to it, I was simply telling you that there is not.

HEFFNER: Well, pat solution –

HELMS: I mean, one keeps fighting it; one keeps working on it, one keeps trying to find out what is that group, why did this group do this, getting penetrations into the groups so you can be told that they’re about to make some move against you; all those things can be done. But I do think that in the field of terrorism, I would be kidding people if I looked at you sand said: Yes. We’ve got this pretty well in hand. Because I don’t think we have it all that well in hand.

HEFFNER: Well, I know, I know from this review that you don’t believe we have it well in hand. But, then, we didn’t have Hitler well in hand, and as we began this program, you were suggesting that without Hitler’s bad judgment, which was our good luck, the world would have been a much sadder place.

HELMS: But our government is aware of this terrorist problem and is working on it. That is the one satisfaction that I have in this whole affair. But I recommend to almost anyone to read “The Fifth Horseman”. It’s available in paperback theses days; and if, to anybody who lives in New York, that is not a sobering book, I’d be very surprised.

HEFFNER: I read it; and though I occasionally escape to the West Coast, it was very sobering to be sure. That’s what led me, when I went back and read the story that you wrote after you had seen Hitler, and been part of the group that had interviewed him, whether you had some guidance, some words of wisdom, and, in a sense, at the very beginning of this program, you were hot on the question of understanding what we face. He had warned us. “Mein Kampf”, and I remember reading “Mein Kampf”, and I remember the sense that here was the master plan. What would you do, if I may ask the question, and you may say, ‘cut it out, Hefner’, what would you do basically that is not being done now?

HELMS: I think that we’re doing rather well these days in the United States. I’m not pessimistic about the state of affairs of the United States, as you thought I was going to say, that I’m optimistic. I tell you that I’m not, because I think that it is ????ing on us that we do have a rather difficult problem, and we are probably not going in the right direction.

But when I think back to Hitler’s time, one of the perplexing things then is still perplexing now, and that is in the ??? of the Britishers, for example, and in the minds of the ???, how do you put the welfare programs, the educational programs and the cultural programs that you want across without having such high taxes that you don’t have anything left for ???? or vice versa.

HEFFNER: Do you have an answer to that question?

HELMS: No. I don’t have any answer to that question, of course, and that’s what the national debate is about. But I am saying that I think in the United States, at least an effort is being made at some sort of compromise. It isn’t pleasing everybody. There are a lot of people it’s not freezing. But I think the 1984 election is going to be about that as much as it’s about anything else.

HEFFNER: Well, fine, all well and good. You’re talking about domestic approach. But now let’s go back a moment to the question of terrorism. You say, as I understand, that we’re aware of the problem, and you feel that we’re taking steps. All the steps that you feel need to be taken?

HELMS: I don’t know, because I’m not in the government anymore, and if I were to say that, it would look as though I’m an insider, and I’m not.

HEFFNER: Okay. Fair enough. I want to ask you, though, about your own sense of the approach that the Israelis take. For instance, when an eye is taken or a tooth is taken, there’s an eye or tooth taken. Do you think that makes sense? Do you think it makes sense only for the Israelis and not for us?

HELMS: Well, it is not something we can do with the same ease that the Israelis do because of the difference in the size of our country and the different geographical location of the two countries. The Israelis feel beleaguered. And they are surrounded by other countries, many of which are hostile to the Israeli state; and, therefore, they feel that they must see to is that none of these people gets the idea that they can push the Israelis’ around.

But as I heard Howard Baker say on a talk show not long ago, the United States has a higher threshold in this matter, and has got to have a higher threshold as a superpower; and, therefore, is not a policy that we could undertake as easily and as clean-cutly as the Israelis seem to have succeeded in doing.

HEFFNER: You mean, we’re not that good a surgery?

HELMS: I think we’d be that good a surgery. I’m not knocking us. I’m simply talking about the moral position of the United States.

HEFFNER: The moral position?

HELMS: In this particular case. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Old Testament. This is not supposed to be an Old Testament country.

HEFFNER: So, that you think that is a moral question, not a question of our capacity to organize the surgical teams that can do the kind of work the Israelis do?

HELMS: I think there’s no doubt that we could organize teams like that without too much difficulty, and they would be very effective.

HEFFNER: We didn’t do it in Iran. We didn’t do it with the prisoners.

HELMS: No. Because we didn’t have the will to do it. We could have done it. We tried something. But it didn’t work, and one of the reasons it didn’t work, if I may so, was because that we didn’t put enough power behind it.

I think that there’s one thing that we ought to be very clear about. Once you venture into the military field, even in the small operation, you want to tear a leaf out of the Israeli book, which is: Never do it without putting in more power than ??? the other fellow’s got, and then double that, and then ???? you’ll get away with it all right.

HEFFNER: Why didn’t we? Moral question?

HELMS: I don’t know why President Carter didn’t to it. ???? if your going to do it, in this case, whish is a little like that old saw about being a little bit pregnant, he got the disaster from it, and none of the benefit. And if he put additional force, and had succeeded, then he probably would have been a hero. He might still be President.

HEFFNER: There are those people who say that it’s not so much a moral question as it is a question, really of military capacity. We just aren’t built, and we don’t build our own military, even, maybe, our intelligence corps.

HELMS: Mr. Heffner, I don’t believe that.


HELMS: I don’t believe that, because in times past, I’ve seen operations organized that were very effectively and very well carried out; we can do them, if we’ve got the determination and the backing to do them.

HEFFNER: Which are the ones that we’ve carried out so well, other than the major wars?

HELMS: Well, I’d rather not get into that, if you don’t mind.

HEFFNER: Okay. No. No. Fair enough. But I know that most people will go back to the Bay of Pigs and say, well, we didn’t do that, we didn’t do it well in Iran.

HELMS: Let us use the Bay of Pigs as another example of where the power that should have been put on Cuba at that particular moment so, was withdrawn at the last moment, and you didn’t to what you set out to do; and this is one of the things that we have a way of doing in our country, of scaling the thing down and getting concerned, and scaling id down, and getting concerned, and scaling it down, and getting it concerned. And this is no way to run a military operation.

There was a lot of joking about Grenada. But it was a success, because it was overpowering power there. One of the concerns about the Marines in Beirut on the part of military people is not that they see anything particularly wrong with the peacekeeping role for the Marines. It is that they look around and see sixteen hundred Marines and right next door forty thousand Syrian troops in Lebanon and then next door to that in Syria a hundred and – five hundred thousand, maybe, or a hundred and fifty thousand, I forget how big the Syrian Army, troops there. In other words, in military terms, this is a silliness.

Well, I’m not criticizing our government, or our approach, but I simply am saying that this is not a military operation in any sense, even though military personnel are involved.

HEFFNER: Mr. Helms, I told you earlier (garbled) come a point at which I have to say we have no more time and thank you very much for joining me today.

HELMS: Thank you, Mr. Heffner.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us here again on “The Open Mind”. Meanwhile, to paraphrase an old friend, goodbye and good luck.


This is Richard Heffner, your host on “The Open Mind”. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions on the subject we just discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of “The Open Mind” at this station.