REVIEW: A Look Over My Shoulder. A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency

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By Richard Helms, with William Hood. New York, NY: Random House, 2003. 452 pages.

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In the parlance of espionage, the autobiography of America's one-time spymaster, Richard Helms, might best be called a "sleeper agent."

For nearly half of the book's 512 pages, Helms — who died in October — assumes the mild-mannered cover of an uninspired bureaucrat, rehashing his past with all the zest of an organizational flow chart. Not only does he drain the blood from characters and bleach the color from events — even Adolf Hitler seems uninteresting on these early pages — but he also injects frequent doses of literary Novocaine, with phrases such as, "The limited dissemination of high-security intelligence reports and the rigorously compartmented knowledge of sensitive operational activities are essential security precautions."

Then, at almost the halfway mark, just as it seems this drab operative might drone on forever, the narrative voice springs to life, as if activated by a secret command. At the turn of a page, the book assumes the identity of the insider's account the reader has been hoping for. The imposing cast of characters — presidents, despots, heroes, scoundrels and spies — begins to display actual emotion.

Thus does then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy storm onto the page as Helms brings the bad news in October 1962 that the Russians have delivered nuclear missiles to Fidel Castro, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis: "Kennedy got up from the desk and stood for a moment staring out the window. He turned to face me. '[Expletive],' he said loudly, raising both fists to his chest as if he were about to begin shadow boxing. 'Damn it all to hell and..

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