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A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency Hardcover – April 8, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Director of Central Intelligence from 1966 to 1973, and with an intelligence career spanning three decades, Helms offers an insider's defense-and occasionally critique-of the frequently maligned agency's performance during the turbulent 1950s, '60s and early '70s. He argues that criticisms of the CIA are misdirected because the agency made no policy and had no agenda of its own-it merely did the president's bidding. Helms doesn't sensationalize. Instead, he describes how the CIA successfully influenced geopolitical developments in ways that benefited the U.S. The strength of the book is in the breadth of history it encompasses. Helms's career spanned WWII, the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S role in the ouster of Chile's President Allende, Vietnam, numerous Middle East meltdowns and much of the Cold War. Along the way he battled with the Pentagon about the relative troop strength of the Vietcong and with the Department of Defense over the nuclear capability of the USSR. Helms's impressions of the men of his times, from Hitler to Reagan, makes for sometimes surprising reading. For example, President Johnson is sympathetically treated, while Sen. Frank Church, who headed Senate hearings into the CIA, is depicted as an ambitious political opportunist. Although it is only by implication, Helms raises provocative questions about the proper scope of congressional oversight of the CIA that are especially relevant in the post-September 11 world. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Helms was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1966 to 1973. "This is a memoir I never expected to write," he says in the preface to the memoir we're glad he did write, for in looking over his 30 years in the intelligence field, he presents a book as compelling as a good thriller. (Perhaps a lot of credit for the fluidity of the prose should go to his coauthor, but, ultimately, that's an unimportant issue.) In terms of a profession, Helms was involved first in journalism--in Germany during the Third Reich--but during the war and postwar years, circumstances drew him into intelligence gathering. He was high in the CIA during such bruising times for this country as the Vietnam War and Watergate; his character insights into Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are gut-real. Helms has a point of view, of course; readers would be naive to think otherwise. For instance, he insists that when it comes to the government's need to gather intelligence, "Americans will never believe that secrecy is essential." We learn spy talk here--such as what "counterintelligence" is and does. Particularly in the post-September 11 climate, inside information on the CIA is bound to generate considerable reader interest. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037550012X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375500121
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Richard Helms is, after Allen Dulles, arguably the most significant US spymaster and intelligence manager in history. It is a fortunate circumstance that he overcame his reluctance to publish anything at all, and worked with the trusted William Hood, whose own books are remarkable, to put before the public a most useful memoire.

Below are a few of the gems that I find worth noting, and for which I recommend the book as a unique record:

1) Puts forward elegant argument for permissive & necessary secrecy in the best interests of the public
2) Defends the CIA culture as highly disciplined--he is persuasive in stating that only Presidents can order covert actions, and that CIA does only the President's direct bidding.
3) Makes it clear in passing, not intentionally, that his experience as both a journalist and businessman were essential to his ultimate success as a spymaster and manager of complex intelligence endeavors--this suggests that one reason there is "no bench" at CIA today is because all the senior managers have been raised as cattle destined to be veal: as young entry on duty people, brought up within the bureaucracy, not knowing how to scrounge sources or meet payroll...
4) Compellingly discusses the fact that intelligence without counterintelligence is almost irrelevant if not counterproductive, but then glosses over some of the most glaring counterintelligence failures in the history of the CIA--interestingly, he defends James Angleton and places the blame for mistreating Nosenko squarterly on the Soviet Division leadership in the Directorate of Operations.
5) Points out that it was Human Intelligence (HUMINT), not Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), that first found the Soviet missiles in Cuba.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bruce P. Barten on February 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is not afraid to look at fundamental problems in the area of intelligence, which America today is finding amazingly similar to the problems that Richard Helms observed in Germany immediately after World War Two. Helms was uniquely qualified to see the big picture, having been a newspaper reporter who had lunch with Adolf Hitler (Chapter 2 is called `Lunch with Adolf') the day of a big rally in Nuremberg in 1936, a privilege that Americans willing to spend a thousand dollars a plate to attend a fundraiser with American presidents more recently might be jealous of, if being a millionaire is not enough to make them happy. Henry Kissinger was happy to report in the Foreword that Helms was even invited to lunch with President Nixon after an early NSC meeting. (p. xi). There is even a picture of the famous Tuesday lunch group with LBJ, Rusk, Clark Clifford, General Wheeler, Walt Rostow, George Cushman and Walt Johnson. There is even a picture of a lunch with Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush with the caption, "At lunch in the Vice President's office. Aside from George Washington, the elder George Bush is the only President who had firsthand knowledge of the intelligence world."
The Preface reports that February 2, 1973, was the day James Schlesinger was sworn in as head of CIA and Richard Helms lost the position which was his main claim to fame. Richard Nixon had something to do with it, and Chapter 1, `A Smoking Gun' reports enough about the Watergate break-in to give the CIA perspective from the top, and ends with "Five months later, and a few days after his reelection, President Nixon called me to Camp David. It was the last time we spoke while he was in office." (p. 13).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By R. Marten on February 26, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Helms seems to be very detailed in his history of CIA from WW2, Truman administration thru Nixon/Ford administrations. Of course, as most reviewers note, how much is believable depends on readers preconceived opinions. Some of the book drags because he describes so many different personalities in the CIA and the world that he had to deal with, along with so much red tape. This book has SO much more information that was ignored by Allen Dulles' book (published in the mid '60's).

I like how he didn't shy away from explaining U2 flights as much as he could, addressing Cuba/Castro interactions, Vietnam, and JFK assassination. One of the reasons I find that Helms is believable is that he admits that Vietnam history was unknown or ignored by everybody, Vietnam was not like Korea-they had been fighting for independence for 2000 years. Hindsight told him that Vietnam would NEVER had surrendered. I do find his support for J. Edgar Hoover disturbing, even maintaining that Hoover wasn't homosexual (homosexuality was Hoover's least important flaw). In Helms' defense, he probably didn't have to deal with Hoover much since CIA is responsible for everything outside of FBI's jurisdiction.

I believe his main purpose in writing this book is to absolutely stress how the CIA is a tool of the administration; President and at least some in Congress are aware and dictate everything that CIA attempts to do. There has been too much discussion on how the CIA does everything secretly on their own without any rules - he's trying to set the record straight in that the Agency has always followed the orders of the current administration.

I think that he is convincing with his details, some failures and some successes during his tenure.
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