Richard Helms, director of central intelligence for six and a half years when the war in Vietnam was a White House obsession, had a reputation throughout his decades in the secret intelligence business as a close man with a classified fact, and I am sorry to report that his grip did not weaken with age.
In the memoir he long insisted that he would never write and did not live to see in print, Helms and his co-author, William Hood, add no names to the roster of known spies or CIA officers, reveal no operations not already in the record and betray no confidences of the many foreign intelligence officials whose cooperation with the CIA was often the best, and always the most secret, of the agency's sources and methods.
But Helms perfectly understood the line separating official secrets from the tics of character and defense of turf that drive decisions in a political town, his chosen word for the Washington where he lived and worked from the end of World War II until his death last fall. There was no point in trying to drag a secret out of Helms and little reason to; far more interesting was everything he had to say about the ways of power and the people who occupied and struggled for access to the Oval Office.
His account of the issues and arguments that agitated presidents makes for a book of unusual depth and richness with much to say, all between the lines, about the transformation of the presidency as we enter the second decade of the era of American global supremacy.
The history of the Cold War provides the skeleton of Helms' career, and there is much here about the early postwar "paper mills," which sold worthless intelligence reports with slight variations to Western intelligence services starved for information about Russian "intentions and capabilities"; about the seductions of "covert action," which tempted sober men like President Dwight D. Eisenhower to permit the overthrow of legal governments in Iran and Guatemala; about the early wrangling in the agency between spy runners and covert action enthusiasts; and about the operational skill required to handle Soviet agents like Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, a major in Soviet military intelligence who volunteered his services in Vienna in 1952.
Knowledge of Popov was tightly held; among the supergrades only the director, Allen Dulles, and Helms' immediate boss, Frank Wisner, knew the name of the agency's spy within Soviet military intelligence. Helms, not without pride, writes, "I handled every aspect of the operation in Washington."
For six years Popov delivered "the most valuable intelligence on Soviet military matters of any source," but it became evident in 1958 that his "security had eroded." When did the Russians begin to suspect Popov? What gave the game away? How long did they play him back against the CIA before the KGB rolled up the case in October 1959 by arresting a CIA officer attempting a "brush pass" with Popov in Moscow? The answers to such questions are rarely simple; counterintelligence analysts might spend years chewing over the details, concluding hopefully one day that it was just bad luck but then worrying the next it was proof positive of Soviet moles buried in the heart of the CIA itself: the "recurring nightmare" that haunted Helms decades before the discovery of Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson.