MH/CHAOS: the CIA’s Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers
Frank J. Rafalko
Naval Institute Press. 336 pp. $32.95
By Jay Peterzell
It’s true that an unwelcome season of inquiry had settled on the CIA. And true that two months before, on the CBS Evening News, correspondent Schorr had reported President Ford’s concern that the Rockefeller panel might find out about the CIA’s role in assassinations of foreign leaders—a secret Helms did not think should ever be breathed, much less investigated.
Yet these circumstances could hardly suffice to provoke Helms, a former director of Central Intelligence famous for his cool, seemingly unflappable manner. There had to be something more. And there was.
By now the US ambassador to Iran, Helms had made the arduous journey back to Washington once already, in January 1975, to appear before the Rockefeller Commission. While there he had also been obliged to correct his 1973 sworn testimony before a Senate committee that the CIA had not engaged in domestic spying; that he had not formed a unit in the agency to do this; that he couldn’t recall the White House asking him to do it and would not have done it if asked.
But while it’s one thing to make and retract sweeping misrepresentations, it’s quite another to be dragged through them point by point. And that’s what had just happened to Helms now, after being called back from Tehran a second time. The staff and members of the Rockefeller Commission no longer took the ex-director’s word for anything. He would be asked a question, say he couldn’t remember, then be shown a document of unforgettable significance that he had written or one that been addressed to him. He would be asked a question, give his answer, then be shown a document contradicting what he had just said. Is this your signature? Is this your name? Then the whole cycle over again. It’s hard to imagine how unpleasant this must have been.
For two and a half days the sardonic, courtly, resentful Helms kept a grip on his composure. But on the third day, when he emerged from his torment in the vice president’s office and found himself ambushed by Schorr, who with what Helms can only have seen as gloating journalistic insincerity, camera running, extended his hand and said, “Welcome back”—Helms let go.
“You son of a bitch!” he shouted at Schorr. “You killer! You cocksucker! ‘Killer Schorr! Killer Schorr!’—that’s what they should call you.” Still upset, Helms strode to the press room, held a brief exchange with reporters and tried to escape the building, only to find himself once again pursued by Schorr. “Get away from me! Killer!” he said. But Schorr was trying to explain where the assassination story came from. President Ford had blurted it out during a luncheon with editors from The New York Times, then put it off the record, but word had gotten out—
Hearing this, Helms calmed down. He said he admired most of Schorr’s reporting with the exception of one sentence, he wasn’t sure which. He apologized for losing his temper. “We shake hands,” Schorr wrote the following year. “Our conflict is over.”
That’s according to Schorr. But here is Helms, five years later, in Thomas Powers’s The Man Who Kept the Secrets:
Schorr says that Helms cooled and apologized. Helms denies it, still angry. He did not apologize, he never apologized! He thought Schorr’s was a stinking broadcast, maligning the names and reputations of CIA people who had never committed any assassinations. Helms still thinks it was a stinking broadcast, wrong and unfair. Maybe gentlemen apologize, but Helms felt he had nothing to apologize for. He did not apologize.
* * * * *
These old resentments fester, and no one has apparently harbored them longer than Frank Rafalko, a CIA officer who has written a defense of Operation CHAOS, the agency’s intelligence collection program against US political dissidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Rafalko joined the CIA in 1967. In 1969 he was drafted by the counterintelligence staff’s Special Operations Group (SOG), which ran CHAOS, and assigned to the branch dealing with the Black Panther Party. In 1972 he became chief of the computer section that prepared studies of dissidents for other agencies. He left SOG after CHAOS ended in 1974. Except for a year and half abroad, he spent the rest of his career in counterintelligence positions, retiring from the agency in 2000.
So he was there, at the heart of one of the most controversial episodes in the CIA’s history—in fact, the iconic controversial episode, which led the US government for the first time to closely examine the role of secret intelligence in a democracy, and eventually enact oversight provisions and laws that put it on a firmer constitutional basis. Notwithstanding that public airing, Rafalko states he wrote his book because he felt a duty to tell the American people “the entire story.”