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THE RESOLUTION of the Richard Helms case has furnished new evidence that the "national security" red herring is alive and well in the corridors of Washington these days, the moral of the Watergate parable notwithstanding. Allowing the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director to plead nolo contendre to two misdemeanor counts of failing to testify fully to Congress may have proven the most expeditious way of wrapping up the two-year-old investigation of Helms, but the circumstances surrounding the plea-bargain arrangement and its announcement has raised serious questions about the Justice Department's modus operandi that will ensure a lengthy epilogue to the entire story.
One noted columnist in The New York Times applauded the backroom resolution of the Helms case, trumpeting the Carter administration line that the no contest plea at once placed on the record the former CIA chief's criminality and also protected national security secrets from disclosure in an open federal courtroom. This rationale neglects some of the larger questions attending the Helms case that clearly justified a fullfledged indictment and trial of the one-time Nixon enforcer. An unprecedented trial of Helms would have gone a long way towards completely fleshing out the fragmented story of CIA intervention in Chile during the administration of Salvador Allende. And the prospect of seeing Helms squirming under the rigors of cross-examination would have dramatized the issue of the executive branch's accountability to Congress as no criminal case could, short of bringing his former commander-in-chief from his San Clemente hermitage to the witness stand.
INSTEAD OF THIS AFFIRMATION of the principle that no man stands above the law, the nation witnessed a defiant Richard Helms asserting his belief that the no contest plea represented a "badge of honor" that he would proudly wear in the twilight of his career. The reasons for this personal view seem incomprehensible, outside of a well-honed arrogance for judicial process. Richard Helms committed perjury, and he did so knowing that his oath to protect the nation's intelligence secrets in no way excused this crime. Anything less than a full accounting of such unconscionable behavior by a high-level administration official amounts to a serious disservice to the American people, who do not deserve to be disappointed once more by episodes smacking of a stonewall.
The disclosures on the extent and gravity of CIA covert operations in recent years has underscored the need for effective Congressional surveillance of the nation's intelligence community. To the nation's regret, the final decision on the Helms affair confirms that today's power-wielders in Washington continue to pay little more than lipservice to this legislated principle.
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