Senator Jesse Helms conducts a Senate hearing, 1981. Photo Credit: Wally McNamee/CORBIS
By David Kurlander
President Trump’s latest dismissal of an Inspector General, State Department IG Steve Linick, has all the appearances of retaliation. Linick, who Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week was “undermining” the Department, had opened investigations into Pompeo’s decision to have an aide run his personal errands and—perhaps more seriously—that Pompeo was stonewalling an investigation into a Saudi arms deal. The firing, in concert with Trump’s removals of foreign service veterans who dared testify during his impeachment, echoes a strategy that was honed three decades ago by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Helms orchestrated the removal of two successive State Department Inspectors General, and helped cultivate a climate of suspicion around the foreign service that has become embedded in contemporary Republican politics…
Jesse Helms served in the Senate for thirty years, from 1973 to 2003. Although nominally an ally of Reaganites, Helms was a far more openly anti-institutionalist force. He came up in conservative media, purchasing in 1960 part of a Raleigh-based TV station and becoming an early on-air right-wing pundit. Helms, who espoused segregationist views, practically invented the concept of the “fake news media.” When he came under fire in 1963 from the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, Helms suggested his program countered the liberal biases of NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, which he argued had irresponsibly neglected to report that gay March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin had been “arrested on charges of sex perversion.”
Once ensconced in the Senate, Helms expanded his media empire, creating the Congressional Club of North Carolina, a far-right, direct-mail-pioneering Political Action Committee that was the most lucrative GOP fundraising apparatus of the period. Helms’ attacks on the Civil Rights movements and coastal media expanded in the 1970s into crusades against abortion, welfare, and—perhaps most aggressively—the State Department.
Helms supported white rule in South Africa and Rhodesia. Helms also praised the military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil in a 1976 op-ed from far-right British race scientist Roger Pearson’s Journal of Social and Political Affairs, elaborating on his willingness to back repressive and racist regimes: “There are values that are more basic to human dignity than democratic values.” As Helms biographer Ernest Ferguson summarized a decade later, “He reliably seeks out the rightmost faction in any international confrontation.”
Throughout the early 1980s, with these values in mind, Helms orchestrated a shadow foreign policy force. He picked up State Department officials who had been demoted for partisanship, grouped them with far-right columnists, and formed them into a close-knit, remarkably well-funded strategic team. They made battle with Reagan’s comparatively moderate Secretary of State George Schultz, using Helms’ position on the Foreign Relations Committee to delay 28 State Department appointments in 1985 alone.
The next year, Helms zoomed in on the State Department Inspector General, Bill Harrop. Harrop operated under the charter of the Department itself, which had created the internal position two decades before the Watergate-cleanup Inspector General Act of 1978 had established neutral watchdogs across twelve other Departments. Helms argued that Harrop, who had previously served as Ambassador to Guinea and Kenya, would put his loyalty to the State Department above his investigatory independence. This perspective was not all Helms; the General Accounting Office had audited State Department self-investigations in 1982 and had reached a similar conclusion. Helms successfully lobbied for banning Department insiders from holding the Inspector General position in the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986.
Helms made his battles with the State Department personal and dogmatic, referring to the whole foreign service as the “Princeton Club of Foggy Bottom.” Harrop positioned Helms’ vendetta in 1993: “He resents the way in which the Foreign Service thinks of the national interest in a highly pragmatic way, without the beacon of ideology that he has.” Harrop, who Helms further antagonized by delaying his 1987 appointment as Ambassador to Zaire, acknowledged that Helms’ anger at the Department was rooted in an undeniable truth: “Although the term ‘elitist’ is a bad term and ‘politically incorrect’ at the present time, the Foreign Service is, in fact, and has been for generations, an ‘elitist’ or ‘elite’ organization of very carefully selected people.”
Helms ushered in Harrop’s successor, former Department of Commerce Inspector General Sherman Funk. But over the next five years, Helms began to chafe at Funk’s investigations. After Funk conducted a scant examination of a 1990 State Department transfer of $600,000 to exiled Nicaraguan Contras, Helms made common cause with liberal Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd to criticize the Inspector’s report. By this time, the literary and provocative Funk was wading into the taboo investigatory waters of Israeli arms transfers and Pakistani nuclear secrets. He was, per the New York Times, “an Inspector with no shortage of enemies.”
But Helms’ moment of reckoning with Funk was nakedly partisan and glaringly reminiscent of the Ukraine drama of last Fall. In 1992, high-ranking Bush administration officials encouraged Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Elizabeth Tamposi to access presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s passport file to check up on a rumor that he had—during the heady protest days of the Vietnam War—put in a request to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Tamposi told Funk, triggering a front-page investigation that led to the demotion of another State Department official, Steve Berry, who promptly joined Helms’ team.
After Funk’s dramatic report, which humiliated the GOP and implicated beloved Chief of Staff James Baker III, Helms moved to oust Funk, using his Foreign Relations Committee supremacy to insert a firing provision into the 1993 Authorization Bill. Funk, plenty disillusioned, ultimately resigned. Senator John Glenn, who oversaw Inspectors General as Government Affairs Committee Chairman, saw the ugliness of Helms’ maneuvering, saying, “It is an unwise and dangerous precedent to legislate the removal of any IG in the wake of a critical report.”
Truer words have seldom been spoken.
For more on the Trump administration’s Helms-like maneuvers, listen to the recent Stay Tuned episode with The Atlantic staff writer George Packer, in which Packer discusses his article “How to Destroy a Government.” For more on Helms, check out Bryan H. Thrift’s impressive Conservative Bias: How Jesse Helms Pioneered the Rise of Right Wing Media, which was a useful resource for this piece.
The Time Machine Archive
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history offering context to understand our present challenges.