The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (6 page)

BOOK: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
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As the president attempted to piece together everyone who might have been involved, Haldeman responded, “It’s everybody with any knowledge all the way through. It may be it’s better to plead guilty, saying we were spying on the Democrats. Just let the Cubans say, we are with McCord because we’re with the Republicans. We figured he was a safe guy for us to use.”

“Well, they’ve got to plead guilty and get this stuff behind them, as fast as they can,” the president said, with a tone of frustration. The conversation turned back to Howard Hunt and some of his activities for the White House, such as interviewing Lucien Conein, a former CIA compatriot of his who had been deeply involved in the CIA’s activities in Vietnam and was believed to have knowledge of the assassination of Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.

“How was Hunt directly involved at the Watergate?” the president asked.

“He was in the Howard Johnson Motel with a direct-line-of-sight room,
observing across the street. And that was the room in which they had the receiving equipment for the bugs.”
*

“Well, does Hunt work for McCord, or what?”

“No. Oh, we don’t know. Something I haven’t gotten into is how, apparently, McCord had Hunt working with him, or Hunt had McCord working with him, and with these Cubans. They’re all tied together. Hunt, when he ran the Bay of Pigs thing, was working with this guy Barker, one of the Cubans who was arrested.”

“How does the press know about this?”

“They don’t. Oh, they know Hunt’s involved, because they found his name in the address book of two of the Cubans, Barker’s book and one of the other guy’s books. He’s identified as ‘White House.’ And also because one of the Cubans had a check from Hunt, a check for six dollars and ninety [
sic
]
*
cents, or something like that, which Hunt had given to this Cuban to take back to Miami with him and mail. It was to pay his country club bill. And one of his identities is a Cuban base, or I mean, a Miami base, and he uses. Probably so he can pay nonresident dues at the country club, or something. But anyway, they had that check, so that was another tie.”

Maybe this was not too bad, the president thought aloud: “Well, in a sense, people won’t be surprised by the fact that Hunt’s involved with the Cubans, or McCord’s involved with the Cubans, and so forth, here are the Cuban people [who don’t like McGovern].”

As the conversation wound down, Nixon returned to the subject of Colson, who he did not think should be concerned; they would get someone to defend him in the media. Both felt Colson could take care of himself. “If Colson knew about it, he was not involved with it, I’m sure,” Haldeman said, and Nixon agreed. The only note that Haldeman would make of this discussion is from an inaudible or withdrawn portion of the tape, in which the president ordered: “Colson stay away from [the] press.” It was a telling instruction, and he added: “[D]on’t give P[resident] details.”
14

“My God, the Democratic National Committee isn’t worth bugging, in
my opinion. That’s my public line,” Nixon declared. Haldeman, however, reminded him, “Except for this financial thing. They thought they had something going on that.” Wearily, Nixon conceded this point: “Yeah, I suppose, I suppose.”
*

Haldeman assured the president that his point was well taken, adding, “I’ve asked that question: If we were going to all that trouble, why in the world would we pick the Democratic National Committee to do it to? It’s the least fruitful source.” On this note the conversation ended, and at 5:25
P.M.
Haldeman and the president left the EOB office together, with the president heading for the barber.

At 6:08
P.M.
the president called John Mitchell. The conversation lasted only four minutes, and the recording system was not used. When the president returned to his EOB office after dinner, he phoned Haldeman, at 7:52
P.M.
Inexplicably, all of the conversations he had made on the EOB office telephone on June 20 were inaudible, but the room recording equipment did pick up the president’s report to Haldeman, and Haldeman made notes of this rather significant conversation.
15

“I gave Mitchell a call,” Nixon told him, after asking if he had interrupted Haldeman’s dinner. “Cheered him up a little bit. I told him not to worry, that we might be able to control this Watergate thing. He’s obviously quite chagrined.” Years later Nixon would write that “Mitchell sounded so embarrassed by the whole thing that I was convinced more than ever that it had come as a complete surprise to them. He also sounded completely tired and worn out.”
16

As Haldeman took notes, the president continued, “I had one thought on the Cuban thing, on the Cuban angle, if that’s the way it starts to bounce. I’d give a call to Bebe. The Cuban community down there is very much against McGovern. They could raise money for the purpose of paying these fines, and all, and so forth.” Whatever Haldeman said about such a fund led Nixon to add, “I’m thinking, though, of having it publicized. Not something in private. In other words, making an issue of the fact that, given the politics of these people, there’s real concern in the Cuban community about the importance of this election, which is why they’re doing it. You know, there’s an anti-McGovern attitude in Miami.”

Explaining the logical connection between the Cuban community and
the men arrested at the DNC’s Watergate office, the president explained, “They are all tied in, apparently, with the Bay of Pigs.” Nixon reminded Haldeman that Miami’s anti-Castro community was, as the news accounts of the arrested Cubans had reported, “all anticommunists.”

Haldeman recorded the president’s thoughts and added a note to himself to “talk to E[hrlichman].” Years later Haldeman explained that Nixon had instructed him, “Tell Ehrlichman this whole group of Cubans is tied to the Bay of Pigs.” Haldeman said he had asked for clarification but that Nixon only said, “Ehrlichman will know what I mean” and dropped the subject. Haldeman later wrote that he followed the president’s instructions and told Ehrlichman the following morning after the staff meeting. Ehrlichman took this to mean that the president was referring to a disagreement he was having with CIA director Richard Helms over getting the CIA’s complete records on the Bay of Pigs invasion, a matter in which Ehrlichman wanted no further part.
17

It was now clear to Haldeman that Nixon wanted the White House to think about how to help Mitchell. He also realized that Nixon was thinking in very human ways about the Cuban Americans who had been arrested and that they would need money to survive the ordeal ahead. Haldeman felt there was a touch of political genius as well, typical of Nixon, in the way he saw the opportunity to counterattack when he was in trouble and to effectively “kill two birds with one stone. Get money to the boys to help them, and maybe pick up some points against McGovern on the Cuban angle.”
18

After a brief conversation with Colson and another with Haldeman, the president worked until 11:22
P.M.
, including updating his personal diary, in which he wrote that he felt reassured by Haldeman and Colson that no one at the White House had been involved in the break-in. Watergate, he concluded, was “an annoying problem, but it was still just a minor one among many.”
19

June 21, 1972 (Wednesday)
Creating the Cover-up Scenario

I
n the
New York Times
of June 21 the Watergate story had moved below the fold on the front page. Tad Szulc’s report offered nothing new: E
X
-
G
.
O
.
P
.
A
IDE
R
EBUFFS
F
.
B
.
I
.
Q
UERIES
ON
B
REAK
-
I
N
.
1
The Washington Post
coverage, meanwhile, was escalating, with another front-page headline and story by Bob Woodward: O

B
RIEN
S
UES
GOP
C
AMPAIGN
:
L
AYS
B
LAME
FOR
B
UGGI
NG
ON
W
HITE
H
OUSE
. On page A-7 the
Post
featured the C
AST
OF
C
HARACTERS
I
NVOLVE
D
IN
D
EMOCRATIC
O
FFI
CE
B
UGGING
C
ASE
, which listed Charles Colson (and characterized him as “a specialist in delicate assignments for the President”) after Howard Hunt and the men arrested at the DNC, plus a lawyer, Douglas Caddy, who had shown up to try to bail the burglars out despite the fact that those arrested had made no telephone calls to anyone.
2
(Hunt had retained Caddy and given him this assignment.
3
) Another
Post
story reported E
SPIONAGE
P
OSSIBILITY
P
ROBED IN 2D
B
REAK-IN
AT
W
ATERGATE
, and described an earlier break-in attempt at the complex, noting that the men arrested on June 17 had been registered at the Watergate Hotel on another night when a break-in had been tried at two other offices in the Watergate Hotel. On May 28, 1972, “the police records show someone attempted to unscrew the locks on the offices of the Democratic National Committee [but had been] unable to gain entry, investigators said.”
4
A
Post
editorial titled M
IS
SION
I
NCREDIBLE
opined: “
Mission Impossible
it wasn’t; experts in these matters all agree the job was bungled at almost every stage of the way.
Mission Incredible
it certainly is, both in terms of the execution and, more important, in terms of the motives that could conceivably have prompted so crude an escapade by such a motley crew.” The piece questioned whether the Nixon administration could “bring itself to use every means at its command to prosecute perpetrators of the Watergate raid.”

That day’s presidential news summary contained disquieting information. NBC News had reported that those arrested at the Watergate “may have been involved in [an] earlier DNC break-in (May 28)” and “DNC lawyer Edward Bennett Williams plans to take depositions from [Nixon’s reelection committee] and White House staffers next week.” CBS and ABC quoted Larry O’Brien boldly claiming, “[T]here’s a clear line of direction to the Committee for Re-election and a developing clear line to the White House.”
5

According to the desk diary log kept for Haldeman by his secretary, Mitchell and Ehrlichman returned with him after the 8:15 morning staff session to his office, where they spoke from 8:45
A.M.
to 9:25
A.M.
, when the president buzzed for Haldeman. Although none of the three men could later recall much about it, their meeting that morning was a pivotal one, for it was here that they concocted the first scenario for a Watergate cover story. Haldeman, however, described it in his June 21 diary entry: “The bugging deal at the Democratic headquarters is still the main issue of the day. Mitchell and Ehrlichman and I talked about the whole thing again this morning and Ehrlichman came up with the possible scenario of moving the guilt level up to Liddy. Having him confess and going from there.
*
The problem is apparently we can’t pull that off because Liddy doesn’t have the authority to come up with the amount of money that was involved and that’s now under the campaign spending act requirements. So it would have to go up to Magruder in order to reach a responsible point. And that they, I’m sure, won’t want to do.”
6
Haldeman shared some of this information in his subsequent briefing with the president.

Mitchell, in fact, had totally reversed his opinion regarding the White House and Watergate. He originally urged Haldeman to have nothing to do with the matter. His new position was prompted by what he had learned the preceding evening from his top lieutenants, Bob Mardian and Fred LaRue, who earlier that day had met with Gordon Liddy in LaRue’s Watergate apartment.
7
Liddy had confessed to his participation in the Watergate operation, which they already knew about, but also told them of his involvement with Hunt in the White House–sponsored California break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office during the Ellsberg investigation, and he revealed that two of the men
involved in that operation were now in the DC jail in connection with Watergate. This disclosure stunned Mardian, who, as assistant attorney general in charge of the Internal Security Division of the Justice Department, had been deeply involved in the Ellsberg investigation and prosecution. Mardian undoubtedly understood that this could result in a mistrial for Ellsberg, who was then being tried in federal court in Los Angeles.

To assure them that he would never get caught over Watergate, Liddy told Mardian and LaRue that, unbeknownst to all, he had worked with Hunt in getting Dita Beard out of Washington during the Kleindienst hearings (Hunt had, in turn, interviewed her to see what she knew wearing a disguise), suggesting he was as elusive as Hunt. Liddy also revealed that he had shredded all the new, serialized one-hundred-dollar bills in his possession, as well as all other evidence relating to the Watergate break-ins, including wrappers from the hotel’s soap that he had brought home for his wife. Liddy also claimed he and his men had commitments for bail money, maintenance and legal fees, and told Mardian and LaRue that Hunt felt this was CRP’s responsibility.
*

Mitchell was alarmed by this report, and when later testifying before the Senate Watergate committee would refer to Hunt and Liddy’s activities as the “White House horrors.”
8
Based on my meeting and conversation with Mitchell on the evening of June 19, I had thought he might well step forward and admit to his role in the break-in. But in the days and weeks that followed, after I learned what LaRue and Mardian had told him, I noticed Mitchell’s changed attitude.
9

Mitchell urged Ehrlichman to call L. Patrick “Pat” Gray, the acting director of the FBI, to get him to rein in the FBI’s investigation. He also enlisted Ehrlichman for assistance in devising an appropriate cover-up scenario.

When Haldeman stepped into the Oval Office at 9:30
A.M.
he and the president conducted routine business until Nixon finally asked, “What’s the dope on the Watergate incident? Anything break on that since we talked last night?”
10

“No,” Haldeman said flatly. He explained that Watergate was off the table at the senior staff meeting, which was as he wanted it. Haldeman did, however, tell the president he had additional thoughts on the matter as a result
of his later discussion with Mitchell. “Mitchell’s concern is the FBI, the question of how far they’re going in the process. And he’s pretty concerned that that be turned off, and John’s [Ehrlichman] working on it.”

“My God, if you are talking to Gray, it’s got to be done by Ehrlichman,” the president insisted.

“Well, we were told yesterday in the discussion on this with Mitchell and Kleindienst that we should not go direct to the FBI. Mitchell said today that we’ve got to, and he asked Ehrlichman to talk to Gray. John’s doing it right now,” Haldeman explained.
*
He continued, “The question that Ehrlichman and I raised, both of us have been trying to think one step away from it and look at a strategy. See whether there’s something that we can do other than just sitting here and watching it drop on us bit by bit, as it goes along. And it’s pretty tough to think of anything. Ehrlichman laid out a scenario which would involve this guy Liddy, at the committee, confessing and taking the blame, moving the thing up to that level, with him saying, ‘Yeah, I did it, I did it; I hired these guys, sent them over there, because I thought it would be a good move and build me up in the operation; I’m a little guy, that nobody pays any attention to.’”

“Liddy? Who’s he? He the guy with the detective agency?” Nixon asked, confusing him with McCord.

“No. Liddy is the general counsel for the Re-Election Finance Committee. And he is the guy who did this.”

“Oooh,” the president groaned softly. This new fact prompted him to ask again if John Mitchell knew about the Watergate break-in before the arrests.

“Mitchell? I’m not really sure,” Haldeman replied, even more guarded than earlier. “He obviously knew something. I’m not sure how much. He clearly didn’t know any details.”

“Couldn’t have,” Nixon said, dismissing the possibility. If Mitchell was involved, the whole affair was closer to the president, so he asked: “Isn’t there some way you can get a little better protection of the White House?” Before Haldeman could respond, the president repeated his ongoing concern about Colson, who he felt was “taking a bad rap,” and, of course, “if he’s taking the rap, basically the White House is taking the rap, regarding the White House consultant business.” The president noted rhetorically, “Hell, yes, Hunt worked for Kennedy, he worked for Johnson and he worked for the White House. That’s the whole story about him.”

Haldeman advised Nixon that they had been dealing with this situation as best they could, which satisfied the president, who again raised the subject of Colson. “You’re convinced, though, this is a situation where Colson is not involved, aren’t you?”

“Yup, I’m completely convinced of that as anything. As far as I can determine, it is,” Haldeman assured him. Relieved to hear this, the president said, “I’m not concerned at all, I am just concerned, or I just want to be sure we know what the facts are.”

At this point Haldeman cleared his throat, unconsciously telegraphing that he felt he had a duty to convey important information. While it is not clear how much Haldeman actually knew at this stage about Liddy, Hunt, and the Cubans’ prior activities on behalf of the Nixon White House, he had certainly been told by Ehrlichman that they were a potential time bomb, and accordingly decided he must at minimum warn the president: “The problem is that there are all kinds of other involvements, and if they started a fishing thing on this, they’re going to start picking up threads. That’s what appeals to me about trying to get one jump ahead of them.”

The president interrupted to probe for more information, but Haldeman was not inclined to share more bad news, though Haldeman remained in control of the conversation and tried to diminish the problem by quickly adding, “Hopefully, cut the whole thing off and sink all of it. See, Ehrlichman paints a rather attractive picture on that, in that that gives you the opportunity to cut off the civil suit. The civil suit is potentially the most damaging thing to us, in terms of those depositions.” Haldeman apparently believed the FBI could be controlled.

“You mean you’d have Liddy confess and say he did it un-, or authorized?”

“Unauthorized,” Haldeman clarified. “And then, on the civil suit, we’d
plead whatever it is, and you get a summary judgment or something. I forget what the legal thing is. But Ehrlichman saw that as the way to cut it off, too, and then let it go to trial on the question of damages, and that would eliminate the need for the depositions.”

The president went silent, digesting “other involvements” and the “unauthorized” Liddy, since he knew that Mitchell typically ran tight operations. When he finally spoke after a long pause he asked, “What do you think that they have to show as far as White House involvement is concerned? I am not too concerned about the committee.”

“Well, we’re getting a bad shot to a degree, because it’s one hundred percent by innuendo. The only tie they’ve got to the White House is that this guy’s name was in their address books, Howard Hunt, and that Hunt used to be a consultant—”

“And he worked for the CIA,” the president added. “He worked in the Bay of Pigs. I mean, he’s done a lot of things.” The president wanted to make Hunt’s activity an “isolated instance.”

Again Haldeman sought vaguely to warn him, without volunteering any hard information. “You’ve got to be careful of pushing that very hard, because he was working on a lot of stuff.”

“For Colson, you mean? Well, the declassification, then?” Nixon was using a code word—declassification—referring to a project that Hunt worked on to declassify national security documents embarrassing to the Democrats.

“No. It was that among other things.”

“Well, did he work on that ITT thing, too?” Nixon asked.

“Yes, see, and if they track that down—”

“He didn’t accomplish anything,” the president added, still apparently unclear about Hunt’s “other involvements” and “a lot of stuff.”

“He’s the guy that went out and talked to Dita Beard, in Denver,” Haldeman offered, as an example of one of Howard Hunt’s less offensive but controversial activities.

“I see, I see. Hunt is the Dita Beard contact,” the president said, acknowledging this problem might resurrect the ITT scandal.

“Among other things. They’ve used him for a lot of stuff, apparently,” Haldeman added darkly. After a pause, though, Haldeman made it clear he was not telling Nixon everything. “It’s like all these other things, it’s all fringe bits and pieces that you don’t want to know, that’s why I’ve challenged
this question of Hunt disappearing, and they say there is no question it’s better for Hunt to disappear than for Hunt to be available. And there’s no question that Hunt would be called in this.”

BOOK: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
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