Longtime CIA Director Richard Helms dead at age 89

WASHINGTON — Richard Helms, the quintessential intelligence and espionage officer who joined the Central Intelligence Agency at its founding in 1947 and rose through the ranks to lead it for more than six years, died Tuesday night at his home. He was 89.

The CIA announced Mr. Helms' death yesterday. No immediate cause of death was reported.

"The United States has lost a great patriot," CIA Director George Tenet said in a statement yesterday. "The men and women of American intelligence have lost a great teacher and a true friend.

"To the very end of his life, Ambassador Helms shared his time and wisdom with those who followed him in the calling of intelligence in defense of liberty. His enthusiasm for this vital work, and his concern for those who conducted it, never faltered."

Mr. Helms was the first career intelligence professional to serve as the nation's top spymaster, and he was among the last of the remaining survivors of the CIA's organizing cadre, operatives who earned their espionage stripes as young men during World War II.

His years at the agency covered a period in which CIA service was honored widely as a noble and romantic calling in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. At his retirement in 1973, though, Helms left an organization viewed with suspicion by many and about to undergo intense scrutiny from an unfriendly Congress for activities ranging from assassination plots against foreign leaders to spying on U.S. citizens.

As a veteran of the craft of espionage, he always had followed a code that stressed maximum trust and loyalty to his agency and colleagues; maximum silence where outsiders were concerned. "The Man Who Kept the Secrets" was the title chosen by author Thomas Powers for his biography of Mr. Helms.

In the judgment of Richard Helms, the CIA worked only for the president. He did not welcome congressional inquiry or oversight. He pleaded no contest in 1977 to federal charges of failing to testify fully before Congress about the CIA role in the covert supply of money to Chilean anti-Marxists in 1970 in an effort to influence a presidential election. "I found myself in a position of conflict," Mr. Helms said. "I had sworn my oath to protect certain secrets."

He received a suspended two-year prison sentence and a $2,000 fine, which was paid in full by retired CIA agents. Helms received the National Security Medal from President Reagan six years later for "exceptionally meritorious service." Mr. Helms said he considered this award "an exoneration."

His career at the CIA covered periods of searching for Communists in the U.S. government and the red-scare tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the ill-fated CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and plots against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It included the rending of the American social fabric and the war protests of the Vietnam era, and it ended during the Watergate crisis that ultimately ended the presidency of Richard Nixon.

The relationship between Mr. Helms and Nixon was never smooth. In November 1972, shortly after he had been elected to his second term, the president summoned his CIA chief to a meeting at Camp David and asked him to resign. Nixon's reasons never were made public, but Powers said in his biography that Mr. Helms was convinced "that Nixon fired him for one reason only — because he had refused wholeheartedly to join the Watergate cover-up."

On leaving the CIA, Mr. Helms served three years as ambassador to Iran before ending his government service in 1976.

As one of its ranking officers for most of the CIA's first 25 years, Mr. Helms helped form and shape the agency, and he recruited, trained, assigned and supervised many of its top agents. By 1958, he was second in command of covert operations when he was passed over for the directorship of that activity in favor of Richard Bissell Jr., who in 1961 would plan and direct the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba. The fiasco proved to be Bissell's undoing, and Mr. Helms replaced him in 1962.

Mr. Helms in 1965 was named to the No. 2 job, deputy director of Central Intelligence. Retiring CIA chief John McCone had campaigned to have Mr. Helms succeed him, but President Lyndon Johnson instead chose Navy Vice Adm. William Raborn, who lasted 14 months. The president named Mr. Helms CIA director in 1966. He would serve longer as director than anyone except Allen Dulles, the legendary spymaster who led the CIA from 1953 to 1961.

Richard McGarrah Helms was born in St. Davids, Pa., to a family of financial means. His father was an Alcoa executive and his maternal grandfather a leading international banker. He grew up in South Orange, N.J., and attended high school in Switzerland for two years. While there he became proficient in French and German.

In 1935 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College.

His life's ambition on leaving college was to own and operate a daily newspaper, and he worked for a time as a journalist. But he joined the Navy during World War II and in 1943 was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. wartime espionage agency that antedated the CIA.

Discharged from military service in 1946, he continued doing intelligence work as a civilian. When the U.S. wartime intelligence forces merged into the CIA in 1947, Mr. Helms became one of the architects of the new organization.

He married Julia Bretzman Shields of Indianapolis in 1939. They separated in 1967 and divorced in 1968. They had one son, Dennis.

He married Cynthia McKelvie in 1968.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.