Authors: Tim Weiner
I need somebody around here as counsel.
And Attorney General.
I need a Director of the FBI.
Gray confessed his role in the destruction of Watergate evidence to Attorney General Kleindienst on April 26. The attorney general called the president immediately. “
This is stupidity of an unbelievable degree,” Nixon said. “He’ll have to resign.”
Gray had served 361 days as the acting director of the FBI. His future was bleak. He faced years of criminal investigation. He contemplated killing himself. He suffered in the deepest shame for the rest of his life.
Mark Felt was certain he would be chosen to lead the FBI. He was fooling himself. He served as the acting director for three hours. Nixon instead
chose a Republican factotum named William D. Ruckelshaus, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the newly created agency in charge of America’s natural resources. His decision seemed inexplicable to all concerned, including the nominee. But Nixon urged the job on him with an increasing ferocity over the course of an hour.
I had never seen the President so agitated,” Ruckelshaus remembered. “I was worried about his stability.”
They finally struck a deal: he would serve a short time as the acting director until Nixon found the right man to fill Hoover’s shoes. If his job interview had been difficult, the first day of work was worse. On his desk—Hoover’s desk—was a letter to the president signed by Mark Felt and every one of his top aides, protesting his appointment. It wasn’t personal, Ruckelshaus said. “They just felt it was inappropriate to have a bird watcher as Hoover’s successor.” Then Ruckelshaus went to a hastily called staff meeting in the attorney general’s office. “Dick Kleindienst emotionally announced his resignation,” Ruckelshaus said. “He was extremely bitter.”
Felt’s fate was sealed a few days later.
Nixon had determined beyond doubt that Felt was the source of a devastating story, printed on page 18 of
The New York Times
on the morning of Friday, May 11, detailing the Kissinger wiretaps that Nixon had ordered placed on presidential aides and prominent newsmen starting in 1969.
Felt—everybody’s to know that he’s a goddamn traitor, and just watch him damn carefully,” Nixon said to his new chief of staff, General Al Haig, the next day. “He has to go, of course … the son-of-a-bitch.” Ruckelshaus, at the president’s command, ordered Felt to leave the FBI. His resignation imminent, Felt donned the cloak of Deep Throat for a clandestine meeting with Bob Woodward of
The Washington Post
. He said the president himself was the key conspirator in the Watergate case.
The FBI set off on a frantic hunt to find the summaries and the transcripts of the Kissinger wiretaps, which Bill Sullivan had smuggled out of headquarters. By the evening of May 11, FBI agents had interrogated Sullivan, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. Mitchell lied to the FBI, saying he had never approved any of the wiretaps. But he confided that he knew about them.
They were part of “
a dangerous game we were playing,” he confessed. He told the FBI where to look for the records. The FBI’s investigators were inside the White House the next day.
“The records were found two weeks into my tenure, on a Saturday, in the
safe of John Ehrlichman,” Ruckelshaus recalled. “An FBI agent, sent by me to the White House to guard those records and others in Ehrlichman’s office, was badly shaken when the President of the United States seized his lapels and asked him what he was doing there.”
The tug-of-war for control of the government was ferocious. The Watergate hearings convened by the Senate wrung damning testimony out of Nixon’s foot soldiers. Pivotal stories in the press laid out the facts. But the information, almost all of it, had its source in the work of the FBI. And the information had a gathering strength, each rivulet flowing together into a mighty river, the force that lets water cut through solid rock. Backed by federal grand juries and the prosecutors who led them, the FBI’s investigators preserved the rule of law against the obstruction of justice. And under law, the agents were accomplishing an act of creative destruction that the radicals of the Left could only dream of achieving.
They were bringing down the president of the United States.
VERY CLOSE CALL
For the third time, and the last, Nixon chose a candidate to succeed J. Edgar Hoover.
On July 9, 1973, Clarence M. Kelley was sworn in as the second director of the FBI. He had spent a third of his life working for Hoover’s Bureau, from 1940 to 1961. He had served ever since as the capable chief of police in Kansas City. Kelley was affable and sincere, a thickset meat-and-potatoes Middle American. The Senate had confirmed him quickly and unanimously.
I don’t think a cop should run the Bureau,” the president once had said. “Policemen are too narrow.” He had been compelled to go against his instincts. The FBI needed law and order.
Nixon flew out to Kansas City to swear Kelley into office. It was his first public appearance in a month. “
I was shocked by the wounds of Watergate that were visible on the president’s face,” Kelley wrote later. Nixon was a haunted man. He had just proclaimed that he would not cooperate with the Senate investigation. His impeachment was the subject of serious discussion in the Congress. He was under investigation by a newly appointed special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was demanding that Nixon turn over his presidential documents and files. The revelation of the existence of
the secret White House tapes was a week away. Cox instantly subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon defied him and fired him in October. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy Bill Ruckelshaus fell under Nixon’s fusillade in the upheaval that instantly became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
“I recall those days as being almost more than I could handle,” Kelley wrote. Among the most difficult problems he confronted was a pithy two-page report that Ruckelshaus had handed him on the day he took office, listing the most pressing problems that faced the FBI. At the top of the list were the legal and moral issues raised by the FBI’s secret intelligence operations, including the wiretapping, surveillance, and harassment of the American Left.
Kelley was an innocent in matters of secret intelligence. He had never handled a black-bag job, never wiretapped a suspected spy. He had never even heard of COINTELPRO. “The methodologies of these programs were unknown to me,” he wrote. “It was quite an eye-opening experience.” Once he started to learn about the FBI’s most secret operations, he knew he had to bring them under control. “It was a delicate and sensitive matter, this pulling back,” he recounted. But pull back he did.
On December 5, 1973, he sent a written warning to every one of the Bureau’s 8,767 agents. He ordered them to refrain from “investigative activity that could abridge in any way the rights guaranteed citizens by the Constitution.” He began to dismantle the architecture of national security that Hoover had created. By the time he was done, the FBI had eliminated 94 percent of its domestic intelligence investigations, erased more than nine thousand open cases from its books, transferred the roles and functions of national security cases to the Criminal Investigative Division, and reassigned at least 645 agents from chasing radicals to tracking common criminals.
Kelley abolished the all-pervasive powers of the Intelligence Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They would not be renewed in full until the turn of the twenty-first century. For years to come, the FBI agents who hunted terrorists in America wandered in a legal wilderness, looking for signs to guide them through an uncharted land.
HOUSE OF CARDS
HE COLLAPSE OF
the Nixon White House set off aftershocks that cracked the walls of the FBI. Nixon had feared that the FBI might not survive the exposure of its secrets. He was prophetic.
The FBI fought in federal court to keep its COINTELPRO files sealed from the public. But when a single sheaf fell into the hands of an old enemy, and the secrets started seeping out, “the house of cards came crashing down,” said Homer Boynton, who served as the FBI liaison to the White House, Congress, and the CIA.
The foe was the Socialist Workers Party, a leftist coalition with barely two thousand members. The party had worked within the American political system, albeit at its fringe. Its presidential candidates had never won more than one-tenth of one percent of the vote. The FBI’s investigation of the socialists had led directly to the conviction of the party’s leaders for political sedition in 1941. The FBI had penetrated the party to its core during the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds of party members, including local and national leaders, were FBI informants. But none ever gave evidence that the party was engaged in espionage, subversion, violence, conspiracy, or any other violation of federal law. No member had ever been prosecuted—or suspected—of a terrorist act.
The first legal disclosure of the Bureau’s records under the Freedom of Information Act came on December 7, 1973. The documents held a clue that the FBI had done more than infiltrate the party’s ranks. The socialists soon discovered that they had been a target of a major COINTELPRO operation.
They sued the government of the United States for violating their constitutional guarantees of free speech and political assembly. The judge given charge of the case, Thomas P. Griesa, a young Republican recently
appointed by President Nixon, took the suit seriously. So did the lead defendant—the new attorney general, William B. Saxbe. He had taken office on January 4, 1974, after Nixon fired the top men at Justice in his desperate attempt to keep his White House tapes under seal.
The FBI formally answered the suit a month later. It informed Judge Griesa that its COINTELPRO operations had served simply “to alert the public to the nature and activities of the Socialist Workers Party.” The Bureau said its actions had been entirely lawful. It denied any part in black-bag jobs and break-ins. The files in the Bureau’s New York office were filled with evidence to the contrary. The FBI was lying to a federal judge and to its superiors in the Justice Department. It wasn’t the crime, as Nixon had said, it was the cover-up.
“A truthful answer,” Judge Griesa later wrote, “would require disclosure of these facts. The FBI sought to avoid such disclosure.”
The facts were secured in the office safe of the special agent in charge in New York, John Malone, who been burglarizing Communists since the Truman administration. Malone ran the New York office for thirteen years, from 1962 until his retirement in 1975. He was the face of the old-fashioned FBI—dead set against change. His underlings called him Cement Head.
Malone’s safe held the records of 193 bag jobs against the socialists’ party headquarters and offices in Manhattan during the 1950s and ’60s, along with evidence gleaned by warrantless wiretaps and bugs, and copies of poison-pen letters with the aim of sparking political and racial frictions among them, destroying their reputations, their careers, and their lives.
The FBI engaged in a prolonged series of tactics to conceal the bag jobs,” Judge Griesa found. “In late 1973 or early 1974, an FBI agent in Washington dealing with the matter told the FBI case agent in New York not to advise the U.S. Attorney’s office of the bag jobs. At one meeting between the FBI and the assistant U.S. attorney, the FBI representatives used the term ‘confidential investigative techniques,’ knowing that this reference included bag jobs. The Assistant asked for an explanation of what the term covered. The reply did not include bag jobs.”
The judge concluded: “These answers were grossly deceptive.”
Like the White House, the Bureau could not countenance the public revelation of its secrets. As President Nixon fell from power in the summer of 1974, demands for the disclosure of the FBI’s files began building in Congress and the federal courts. Attorney General Saxbe ordered the beleaguered
FBI director, Clarence Kelley, to review the Bureau’s records for evidence that Hoover’s agents had violated the letter and the spirit of American law.
The dirty tricks were over, the attorney general said. His proclamation was premature.
Senior FBI agents concealed crucial chapters of the Bureau’s history from the Justice Department, from Congress, and from director Clarence Kelley himself. One special agent burned thousands of pages of files to prevent the secrets from leaking, said Kelley’s aide, Homer Boynton. He thought it was a pity that FBI headquarters did not have a bonfire of its own.
Agents in New York and Washington made extraordinary efforts to hide the existence of five major undisclosed COINTELPRO programs from the director and the attorney general. One was aimed at a small but lethal gang of terrorists whose cause was Puerto Rican independence.