Case #525.0

The Two Oaths of Richard Helms

Publication Date: January 01, 1983
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In 1973, former CIA director Richard Helms was called to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a follow-up to hearings confirming his nomination as ambassador to Iran. However, the primary issue of these sessions became the CIA's involvement, under Helms' leadership, in the 1970 Chilean presidential election, when the US spent over $800,000 in covert operations, primarily on anti-Allende propaganda. The questions about Chile presented Helms with an unforeseen dilemma: by his CIA oath of secrecy Helms was forbidden to disclose information on covert operations without authorization, but his testimony before the committee was also under an oath, this one to answer questions presented to him. Which oath took precedence? If he did not answer truthfully, then he risked being convicted of perjury. If he answered openly, he would violate his oath and his loyalty to the CIA, and could endanger CIA individuals in Chile. When Helms had served as director of the CIA, the public had generally not been concerned with CIA covert operations, and Helms had been accountable only to a joint subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees. But public opinion regarding covert operations had changed, and Helms found himself expected to answer to a new authority. This case raises the issue of both the committee's and Helms' authority and changes in their authorizing environments.

Learning Objective:
This case raises the issue of the conflict of interest that can exist in the transparency sought by the U.S. legal system and the need for nondisclosure in intelligence agencies such as the CIA. This case presents how the justice system dealt with this ethical problem facing former CIA director under a confirmation hearing and its attempt to find a middle ground.

Other Details

Case Author:
Mark Lilla, Mark Moore
Faculty Lead:
Mark Moore
Pages (incl. exhibits):
Chile, United States