With yesterday marking the 41st anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup in Chile, which resulted in the kidnapping, detention, rapes, torture, disappearances, and murders of thousands of innocent people, we would be remiss if we failed to commemorate the criminal conviction of Richard Helms, the Director of the CIA, for lying to Congress about the CIA’s role in trying to effect regime change in Chile prior to the coup.
In Chile’s 1970 presidential election, Salvador Allende won with a plurality of the votes. Under Chile’s constitution, that threw the election into the hands of the Chilean congress. Traditionally, the congress would elect the person who received the largest number of votes, even if he wasn’t of the political party that controlled Congress.
Since Allende was a person who believed in socialism and communism, however, President Richard Nixon decided that the U.S. government would do whatever it could to prevent Allende from becoming president of Chile, notwithstanding the fact that he would have been duly elected president by the Chilean people.
So, Nixon ordered the CIA into action.
The CIA operated on two tracks: One track involved bribing the members of the Chilean congress with enormous amounts of U.S. taxpayer money. The purpose of the bribes was to induce the congressmen to vote against Allende notwithstanding the fact that he had been the leading vote-getter.
The other track involved a military coup, one in which U.S. officials would bribe, cajole, and encourage Chilean military officials to violate their oaths to support and defend the country’s constitution by ousting the Allende from office in a violent military coup should the congress proceed to elect him president.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that U.S. officials had intervened in Chilean political affairs. To prevent Allende from rising within Chile’s political system during the 1960s, the CIA had become one of the biggest, most influential, and powerful political forces in the country by flooding groups, candidates, and newspapers who were opposed to Allende with U.S. taxpayer money.
Needless to say, all of this sordid activity was kept secret from the American people on the basis of, yes, “national security,” the two magic words that have come to be used as shield for wrongdoing by the U.S. national-security state — two magic words that aren’t even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.
In 1972, Helms appeared before Congress for a confirmation hearing and was asked about CIA involvement in Chile. Helms lied, falsely telling Congress under oath that the CIA had done nothing to help Chilean opponents of Allende.
In 1975, the Church Committee discovered the truth about the CIA’s massive covert involvement in Chilean affairs with the intent of preventing Allende’s rise to power. Helms had been caught in flat-out perjury, much as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper would be some 40 years later.
Unlike Clapper, however, Helms was not given a complete pass. He was indicted for perjury.
Helms’ defense goes a long way in explaining the powerful role that the CIA plays in America’s governmental structure and the mindset that guides CIA officials.
Helms said that he had no choice but to lie to Congress because of the oath that he had taken at the CIA to keep CIA matters secret.
But there is obviously something wrong with that picture. If the CIA had wanted to, it could have made its oath subject and subordinate to sworn testimony before Congress. Or when Helms went to work for the CIA, he could have made it clear that when he took the oath, it would be subject to any sworn testimony he might have to give before Congress.
But the way the CIA saw it, its oath of secrecy was superior to sworn testimony before Congress. The CIA’s mindset and oath reveal how the CIA views itself as superior and dominate to Congress, which consists of the American people’s elected representatives.
In the final outcome of the case, Helms was given a partial pass. He was permitted to plead nolo contendere, which enables a defendant to avoid admitting guilt, to a misdemeanor plea and given a suspended sentence and a $2,000 fine. Despite that sweetheart deal, the presiding judge hit the nail on the head:
You considered yourself bound to protect the Agency [and so] to dishonor your solemn oath to tell the truth. … If public officials embark deliberately on a course to disobey and ignore the laws of our land because of some misguided and ill-conceived notion and belief that there are earlier commitments and considerations which they must observe, the future of our country is in jeopardy.
That’s not the way Helms saw it. Immediately after sentencing, his lawyer told the press that Helms would “wear this conviction like a badge of honor, like a banner.”
The judge’s sentiment was also not the way the CIA saw it. According to the Wikipedia entry on Helms, his lawyer’s sentiment was “later seconded by James R. Schlesinger who had followed Helms as DCI in 1973.”
Even more revealing, when Helms walked into CIA headquarters, he was given a standing ovation, and a collection was made to pay his $2,000 fine. It was clear that Helms’ CIA cohorts were proud of what they had done in Chile and considered Helms a hero for lying to Congress by concealing the CIA’s role in bringing about regime change in Chile.
By the time Helms was convicted, the U.S. national-security state had achieved its goal of ousting Allende from power through a violent military coup, an overall process that entailed the kidnapping, rapes, torture, assassination, and murder of two American citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, Chilean Gen. Rene Schneider, and tens of thousands of innocent Chileans — that is Chileans who were guilty of doing nothing worse than believing in socialism or communism or participating in their country’s political process by supporting their duly elected president.
To this day — 41 years after the Chilean coup — the CIA still refuses to release all its files and records relating to the Chilean coup to the American people on grounds of “national security.” Unfortunately, the CIA has grown too powerful within America’s governmental structure for Congress, the federal courts, or the media to do anything about that secrecy.
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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