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Georgetown University Honors Richard Helms

By Dan Pinck
In a superbly-conceived program, titled A Life in Intelligence: A Symposium on Richard Helms, held on April 28, 2008 in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, the intelligence and diplomatic career of  Richard Helms was noted by nine noteworthy speakers. Each person highlighted some of his contributions to our nation. During his service as Director of Central Intelligence and Ambassador to Iran, Richard Helms played a central role in initiating and managing intelligence operations. He did this with flair, imagination and constancy of purpose. Beyond a doubt, in the academic setting of Georgetown, Mr. Helms deserved the generally solid A that each speaker awarded him.

The symposium, moderated by Burton Gerber, a CIA station chief at several hot spots during the Cold War who now teaches at Georgetown, was infused by history that modestly and excitingly melded facts with observations. Most of the speakers worked with Mr. Helms and they knew him and his wife, Cynthia, well. Listening to the speakers, one after another, you soon realized that you were listening to a biography, each person contributing a chapter. Their comments were totally devoid of corn meal mush. I doubt that Mr. Helms would have excised more than a few sentences from the five-hour, living biography. The memories and thoughts of all of the speakers were in imposing condition; and much of what they said was pointed and memorable. I felt as though the speakers were academic progeny of the eminent historian, Edward Hallett Carr. (If you care to pursue this connection, I suggest that you read his book, What Is History?, based on the George Macauley Trevelyan Lectures that he delivered at the University of Cambridge in the winter of 1961.)

You and I have attended many suffocating, cliche-ridden symposia that more often than not have reminded us of what  we have forgotton over the years. We recall that little was said that would have ever caught the interest of Walter Mitty or anyone else who had the slightest experience in any branch of intelligence. From beginning to end, the symposium on Richard Helms captured the wide-awake attention of almost every participant, whose average age was far higher than average. In five hours, I noticed only one person who had nodded off. Six hundred and twenty-five guests were engrossed by the commentaries – minus one guest who slumped in dreamland. That’s remarkable; and no one left until the end of the symposium. Each speaker did his homework.   

Georgetown University Library Associates presented the symposium under the able guidance of Special Collections historian Nicholas Scheetz.   And they trusted us in a way that was notably different from a few other symposia. For example, at a symposium held at the CIA not many years ago, all of guests received in the mail a page titled "Security Information." We were told: “Firearms, explosives, weapons, computers, computer diskettes, cellular phones, tape recorders, and chemicals such as Mace are prohibited on the compound.” Being forewarned, I decided to leave my sidearms and bag of plastic at home.  We were also told to send a check for $15, made out to Lundy’s, to cover the cost of breakfast and lunch. The security advice from Georgetown was simple: “You must have a photo ID with you when you check in. Please be advised for security reasons, NO BAGS (with the exception of small, clutch-sized purses), COMPUTERS OR BRIEF CASES are permitted in Gaston Hall. Food and drinks are also prohibited.” I had a brown, canvas briefcase, with a book, half a tuna fish sandwich, a soft drink I took from the airplane that morning, and a notebook. My bag had a miniature, leather CIA shield on its front. No one looked inside my case and no one stopped me from taking it to my seat. Full disclosure: I took fifteen pages of notes during the symposium.

Ella Fitzgerald. What does this noted jazz singer have to do with the Helms Symposium? Was the symposium a musical? Nope. Her role was to sing The Man I Love over the loud speakers as each of the Honorables walked on stage and found their seats. Henry A. Kissenger, William Hood, Albert Whelon and Brent Scowcroft led the way in the first half of the program. The second wave of the all-star program was led by CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden, followed by panelists in a discussion of historical perspectives. They were David Robarge, Chief Historian of the CIA; Michael R. Beschloss, historian and commentator; and Jennifer E. Sims, Director of Intelligence Studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown.

Henry Kissinger batted first. “Few need introductions less than I,” he said. “And no one likes them more than I.” A few sound bites partly reveal his thoughts: “There’s a gray area between diplomacy and open conflict.” “Totally objective assessments are never totally objective.” “The public doesn’t understand the amount of work that has to be done by the Agency.” “When the SALT negotiations began, I knew more about the Soviet’s weapons than Breznev did, thanks to a briefing by the CIA.” “I can’t remember one instance in which the CIA acted without orders.” Mr. Scowcroft batted second. “Wars are terrible things. But wouldn’t the world be better off if Hitler were killed in 1938?” “Some things have to be kept secret.” William Hood followed with a single. “The great spies in history have all been walk-ins.” “If things go wrong, you can be sure they will.” “What did we do wrong? What did we do right?”

General Michael V. Hayden batted clean-up to lead the second half of the symposium by noting that “Richard Helms was the consummate intelligence professional.” And then he discussed “the possibilities of intelligence and its limits. “God did not give man the gift of prescience: ambiguity and mystery surround us.” “Those of us in the CIA are on our nation’s skirmish line.” He noted that the CIA had received 130,000 applications in the recent past. Regarding diversity, he said: “We should look like Americans” and “We should look like natives of other countries.” “We are doing much better at hiring first-generation Americans. We look for first generation diversity; but we have to work very carefully.” “It’s difficult to pull information out of the ambient background noise. How do you pull from the background noise the essential or most valuable information?” Then (Richard Helms) and now (Michael Hayden), the game is the same. Great leaders can produce commendable results.

The “glorious amateurs” - as Major General William J. Donovan referred to his band of OSS representatives - knew some of the questions if not all of the answers. OSS veterans whom I saw -- I can’t believe I didn’t overlook a few of them -- were William Hood, Major General John K. Singlaub (Ret.), Fisher Howe, Walter Mess, Ambassador Hugh Montgomery, Colonel William H. Pietsch, Jr. (Ret.), Barbara Colby and Arthur Reinhardt.

Mrs. Helms and her son donated Richard Helms’ papers and pertinent memorabilia to the Special Collections Division of the Georgetown University Library. The symposium coincided with the exhibit of papers and items that help to illuminate his career and his personal life. In the historical pamphlet given to each guest at the symposium, is a DVD containing over 800 documents and 4,100 pages of formerly classified material. This is news that stays news. You may be able to get a a copy of the disk by calling 202-687-7444.