Last week, Record Managing Editor Megan Bantle ’14 and Communications Editor Emily Dugdale ’14 traveled to Washington D.C., to participate in a journalism opportunity that was organized by Bantle and Dennis Helms ’64. Dugdale and Bantle visited the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and interviewed former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) General Michael Hayden along with 10 other undergraduate students from various universities on the East Coast. The interview focused on government surveillance.
The opportunity was initially conceptualized by Dennis Helms in honor of his father, Richard Helms ’35 who served as DCI under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Richard Helms was also an editor-in-chief of the Record during his time at the College. When he graduated, he joined United Press and covered the 1936 Olympics for the Berlin bureau. “During a visit to the Agency [CIA], I remembered that during his time as its director, my father used to allow Williams students to come down and speak with him about controversial issues of the day,” Dennis Helms said. “It occurred to me that it would be a good tradition to continue. The folks at the Agency put me in touch with former director General Michael Hayden. I sent him an e-mail asking if he would participate in such an effort and he responded in 30 minutes in the affirmative.”
When the interview was confirmed this summer, Dennis Helms reached out to Bantle, as the former editor-in-chief of the Record, to help extend the offer to other newspaper editors in regional schools. The two drafted and sent an e-mail explaining the general purpose of the program to editors at a variety of schools. The group in attendance included representatives from Wheaton (Mass.), Yale, Harvard, University of Maryland, Columbia and Catholic.
Beyond honoring Richard Helms, the event was intended to stress the importance of college students and young people’s participation in national conversations. Dennis Helms emphasized that in order for young people to formulate opinions on important topics, they need the opportunity to hear the information directly from the source, an opportunity not often given to them. This was a major motivating factor in trying to continue the tradition of inviting students to D.C. “Students at Williams and other excellent colleges will be the future leaders of our country,” Dennis Helms said. “They are old enough now to ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions without having the information filtered by the media.”
Throughout the fall, Dennis Helms also worked to organize a CIA tour. At the CIA, the group was led through the museum by the museum curator. While there were many fascinating objects on display, the object most relevant to the College was included in the museum on the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which is the precursor to the CIA.
The object is a hand written letter from Richard Helms to his then three-year old son in 1945. The letter is written on Adolf Hitler’s stationary and reads, “The man who might have written on this card once controlled Europe – three short years ago when you were born. Today he is dead, his memory despised, his country in ruins. He had a thirst for power, a low opinion of man as an individual and a fear of intellectual honesty. He was a force for evil in the world. His passing, his defeat – a boon to mankind. But thousands died that it might be so. The price for ridding society of bad is always high. Love, Daddy.” The letter, related to contemporary issues of national security, is quite incredible to see in the presence of Dennis Helms. The letter in the museum is a replica of the actual letter, which is currently on tour with the exhibit, “Spy: The secret world of espionage.”
The tour and interview were both a success for the participants and organizers. “From my point of view it went very well,” Dennis Helms said. “The General was forthright and never condescending. He presented a framework for analyzing the issues that arise from surveillance. He is one of the individuals to whom teaching comes naturally.”
All of the participants are allowed to write articles using the information from the interview. The Record will be running this article on government surveillance in next week’s issue. Looking forward, Dennis Helms and Bantle will be working together to make the event an annual occurrence that will continue to be organized by members of the Record. “What remains is to survey all of the participants and make sure they valued the experience. If so, with the leadership coming from Williams and particularly the Record, we should make plans for next year and seek funding for the enterprise,” Dennis Helms said. “We should also try to collect and save the articles written by the participants.”
Dennis Helms also hopes to make a few changes to the program in the future. “Megan Bantle, who is spearheading this first trip, and I have discussed the need for housing and transportation,” he said. “We succeeded this year thanks to the efforts of the participants to get themselves to Washington D.C., and to the venue where we met. With better organization, we can make it easier to get to Washington D.C., find places to stay and have transportation to the appropriate meeting places without a caravan of cars. We were very fortunate to have the support of the Agency and the General.”
While the program does not have a formal name yet, its working title is “Straight Talk” and will also include a nod to Richard Helms.