50 Years Ago Today

The Pentagon Papers, Part 2

In either late 1969 or early 1970, Ellsberg makes his own copy of the RAND Vietnam report, and smuggles it out of the RAND offices. This report, it should be noted, is multi-volume and highly classified. When the completed version is delivered on January 15, 1969 (right in the middle of the transition to the incoming Nixon administration) it goes directly to lame duck Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in the last 5 days he’d serve in that position. Incoming Defense Secretary Melvin Laird would also get a copy. So too would Henry Kissinger and Nixon himself. No one else.

Ellsberg at first tries obliquely to get his report into the hands of some senators who are on the armed services committee, but to no avail. Eventually he throws caution to the wind and directly approaches some senators to try to simply hand them the report. Those senators see “Classified” on the documents and want nothing to do with them.

And so after a year of this, Ellsberg gets tired of trying to publicize the report that way, and makes ANOTHER copy of the report and gives it to NYT reporter Neil Sheehan in February of 1971. If you’ve seen the movie, The Post, you know the rest.

Or maybe you don’t. :)

First episode of HBO’s The Whitehouse Plumbers aired today. I assume anyone following this thread with an HBO sub is watching.

I feel like the goofy self-serious idiocy of G. Gordon Liddy was downplayed for the show, at least in this first episode.

With Telefrog’s post, I realized I’d not updated this thread. Sheesh. We’re at the anniversary of the end of Phase 2 of this thing…

Lemme finish with the Pentagon Papers realquick.

The Sunday Papers

June 13, 1971 should’ve been a pretty good day for Richard Nixon. His daughter Tricia was married in a lavish White House wedding the day before, and it got fawning coverage across all major media. And so the president woke up that morning and turned pretty quickly to the New York Times over breakfast. On one half of the front page was coverage of the wedding.

On the other half was the first installment the Times would publish of the Pentagon Papers – the RAND analysis of Vietnam that Ellsberg had been shopping around to find someone to publicize for him.

If you’re thinking Nixon went into a rage upon reading the Pentagon Papers excerpt, you’d be wrong. Nixon had been given that report when he’d assumed office, and had staffers read the multi-volume report from end to end. The name “Richard Nixon” doesn’t appear even once in the papers. In fact, much of the RAND analysis was given over to brutal critiques of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – with the help of a sympathetic Democratic majority in both the House and Senate – had led America into this foreign policy disaster and the multiple lies that were told to the American voters to keep the war effort subsidized.

So yeah, Nixon was actually sort of bemused by the Papers. And later that morning in talking to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, both advisors noted that this sure seemed like a mess for someone…but not them. “Let this one go by,” Ehrlichman told Nixon. And Nixon was inclined to do just that, even though the idea of a leak like this chafed at him.

But then came a call from Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was apoplectic. He screamed and yelled on the phone about the betrayal of this leak, and how damaging it was for the US. In an executive office meeting that early afternoon, Kissinger went into another rage, pounding on a desk so hard that it nearly bounced someone’s coffee cup off.

Kissinger’s outrage was probably extremely performative. He knew something about the Pentagon Papers that perhaps no one else did at the time: he knew exactly who had leaked them. He had heard that Daniel Ellsberg had been trying to find someone within the government to whistleblow using the papers with. But moreover, he knew Ellsberg personally – the RAND analyst had been something of a protege of Kissinger’s in the mid-1960s. He was one of “Henry’s Boys”.

And for Kissinger, it cannot be stated strongly enough that this was bad. As a German-Jewish immigrant seeking the approval of an anti-semite boss in the White House, Kissinger constantly fretted over losing access and losing his position. Kissinger knew that once Ellsberg was found out (which was inevitable), someone would make the connection to his work under Kissinger and unless ol’ Heinz got out in front of that and fully disowned Ellsberg before the fact, Nixon was likely to wonder about the loyalty of his National Security Advisor. (Nixon was an absolute piece of shit antisemitic asshole, it should be noted. He was constantly questioning the loyalty of anyone in government service of Jewish heritage. In fact, when he learned the leaker of the Pentagon Papers was a guy named “Daniel Ellsberg”, he flew into a raging, bigoted rant about Jews in government…despite the fact that Ellsberg had been raised in the Christian Science faith.)

At any rate, Kissinger knew which buttons to push on Nixon, and it didn’t take long for Nixon to join Kissinger in a foaming rage. By the time the meeting ended, everyone had their marching orders – stop the Times from continuing to publish the Papers. Get the leaker and arrest him and throw him in jail immediately. And most importantly crack down HARD on any future ideas other leakers might have.

That Sunday marked a turning point in the Nixon presidency. It’s possible that they could’ve played off the Pentagon Papers and leveraged it against Democrats running for re-election to the Senate and House in 1972.

But in choosing to go after the Times (and forcing a decision that went against the White House in the Supreme Court), the story went from a possible terrible one for Democrats, to a terrible one for the Nixon White House. And Nixon blamed that outcome on the leaker as well.

Which led to the formation of the secret task force in the White House known as The Plumbers. Initial job: seek out leakers and stop them cold. But when G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt joined the group, things changed.

The OTHER Break-in

The government prosecutors had a pretty good case against Daniel Ellsberg. There was little doubt about what he’d done, and so things were likely to come down to intent…but it sure seemed like the (now former) RAND analyst was going to go to jail for a long time.

Just winning (the case, in this instance) wasn’t good enough for Nixon and the White House – stop me if this sounds familiar. Nixon wanted Ellsberg humiliated and roasted at trial. And eventually the task of trying to dig up dirt and more evidence fell into the laps of Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy.

Those two very stable geniuses had learned that Ellsberg had been seeing a psychoanalyst in California named Dr. Lewis Fielding. And they further learned that Fielding had refused on multiple occasions to talk to the FBI. To Liddy and Hunt, that meant that Dr. Fielding MIGHT be shielding key evidence against Ellsberg from investigators. But since Fielding couldn’t be compelled to testify, they’d need to get that evidence some other way. Like maybe breaking into his office and stealing Ellsberg’s files.

That is very likely a charge-able felony. And it is a felony in which Richard Nixon was fully briefed on BEFORE the break-in occurred, and to which Nixon gave his explicit approval, thus making him part of a felony conspiracy. And then, when Gordon Liddy hilariously submitted a funds request for travel and equipment and the payment of others to assist in the burglary on a standard White House form, Ehrlichman approved on behalf of Nixon on a paper, hard copy form and even noted on the form that the operation was only approved if it could be carried out without being caught. Which hey! Guess who just proved intent for future prosecutors?

The break-in itself was easy, if a bit clumsy – instead of making a clean entrance and exit without Fielding finding out, they instead took a crowbar to his locked filing cabinets, left papers scattered, and generally created a mess with broken door locks when their lockpicking expert wasn’t up to the task. They also got nothing of any use from this escapade. But it’s worth knowing that joining Liddy and Hunt on this little snipe hunt were Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez…both of whom would be among the 5 men arrested in the Watergate Hotel.

And so yeah, you can kind of see why the White House might not want Hunt, Liddy, Barker and Martinez to be doing too much talking about some of the tasks they’d undertaken besides Watergate.

The Center Cannot Hold

OK, so to catch up: on Sunday April 16, Dean tells the three federal Watergate prosecutors that Liddy, Hunt, Barker, Martinez and one other Cuban exile had broken into Dr. Fielding’s offices. The prosecutors are flabbergasted by this, but immediately let Judge Matthew Byrne – who has just heard opening arguments in Ellsberg’s just-begun trial – know what Dean has told them.

And then on April 26, the world learns that the acting FBI Director has destroyed evidence in the Watergate break-in, causing a huge public uproar.

And so on the morning of April 27th, Judge Byrne reconvenes the Ellsberg trial, but reads a letter he’s gotten from prosecutors investigating the Watergate break-in. Those prosecutors, the judge informs a now-hushed courtroom, have informed Judge Byrne that four of the Watergate burglars also planned and participated in the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst to illegally try to obtain evidence against the defendent in Byrne’s court. Byrne puts the court into recess while he and both sides of the aisle are allowed to confront this new development. (A week later, Byrne will give a summary judgment dismissing all charges against Ellsberg, citing the outrageous behavior of the government in prosecuting this case. Another big win for Nixon, huh?)

The news from Judge Byrne’s courtroom hit like another thunderclap on top of the news about FBI Director Patrick Gray destroying evidence, on top of all the other stuff that implicated Mitchell and Dean and Magruder.

Things were moving fast. And falling apart at the White House even faster.

April 27th, 1973 was a Friday. NIxon spent the afternoon into the evening in extended meetings with staffers. None of those staffers worked for Ehrlichman or Haldeman – writing on the wall. The president was having discussions about who might take over what roles on an interim basis.

On the 28th, Nixon went to Camp David to further work out plans with low-level staffers who were in and out of meetings all day. It seems that the President had finally taken to heart a meeting he’d had with Haldeman two weeks before, when the Chief of Staff had told Nixon that the president needed to be prepared for a time when he might need to ask for the resignations of himself, Ehrlichman, and others.

And on Sunday April 29th, phone calls were made. Nixon called Ehrlichman, and Ehrlichman called Haldeman. The two men traveled to Camp David, where an obviously stricken President Nixon informed his two most trusted aides that he would need their resignations in the morning. Haldeman was ready, almost relieved to be out; Ehrlichman pushed back a little, but relented in seeing that Nixon’s position was firm.

Both men submitted their resignations on Monday the 30th. On May 1st, 50 years ago today, Nixon announced the resignations of the two men, as well as the firing of John Dean as White House counsel. (For his part, Dean will happily accept his termination and consider himself free to tell the prosecutors anything they want to know, including anything involving Nixon. He’ll agree to accept a cooperation agreement that will get him a 5-year prison sentence – likely with time served to be no longer than 18-20 months at most – in exchange for his testimony. He also agrees to testify for Sam Dash in front of the Senate Waterge Committee which is due to begin hearings in just a week or two.)

Phase two of Watergate comes to an end. This is where the movie All The President’s Men concludes. It’ll continue with phase three at the start of the Ervin Committe hearings.

A New Ballgame

Things can change sloooooowly, so slowly, in Washington DC most of the time. But then some crazy event comes along and things change on a dime. The first two weeks of May, 1973 are the latter.

Out are:

HR Haldeman, former White House chief of staff and the 2nd most powerful man in the country

John Ehrlichman, White House Domestic Policy advisor, and second to only Haldeman in the power he’s wielded.

John Dean, fired as White House Counsel, now getting real cozy with prosecutors.

Richard Kleindienst, former Attorney General. Kleindienst is mostly clear of any Watergate malfeasance…but if you’re at the conn of the DoJ when that ship hits the iceberg, you are out of a job.

L. Patrick Gray, Interim FBI Director. He’s already been replaced on another interim basis by EPA Director William Ruckelshaus.

Mark Felt…yep, ol’ Deep Throat himself is out of a job by the end of the month. With the Nixon inner circle deciding that Felt can’t burn them any more if they cut him lose, they intentionally leak some nonsense thing to Felt, who dutifully gives it to Woodward and Bernstein. He’s confronted by this and fired.

With all those out-goings, there must be some transfers in. And there are!

Alexander Haig is tipped to be the new Chief of Staff, at least (maybe) on an interim basis. Haig, a West Pointer with a pretty awful academic record, has distinguished himself as a can-do guy who carries out orders and doesn’t ask morality questions within the Department of Defense.

Nixon also has two new attorneys: J. Fred Buzhardt and Leonard Garment. Both are incredibly competent litigators with tons of courtroom and practical experience. In that regard, they’re very much the opposite of John Dean, and they signal that the White House – and Nixon in particular – are girding for a fight.

The two new White House co-counsels couldn’t be any more different personally, however. Buzhardt rose to prominence as a Strom Thurmond attorney, vigorously fighting to preserve segregationist laws in the deep south in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. He’s quiet and unassuming (in addition to being a racist piece of shit, obviously), but is respected and feared by past legal opponents.

Garment, on the other hand, is the most non-Nixon-like lawyer you can imagine. He’s a New York liberal of Jewish heritage (which is like three strikes in the Nixon antisemitic mindspace), but he was also a senior partner with the law firm that Nixon and John Mitchell formed when Nixon had retired from politics after 1962. Garment is outgoing and charismatic, and his effectiveness as an investigator and dealmaker has made him a necessary and valuable presence on the new White House legal team.

In the spirit of 50 Years Ago Today, I started watching HBO’s White House Plumbers last night. I think I made it through the first episode before punting. It’s a bit too campy for my liking, which is a shame, because I think a serious take on the events would be great television.

I’ve enjoyed it so far. Yes, some of the stuff is played a bit too broadly, but a lot of it kind of rings true, too. I don’t think Liddy played Nazi Wehrmacht marches albums for the Hunt family at a dinner party. But they definitely did need to show that Liddy was an open admirer of Hitler, Himmler, et al.

And things go from goofy to…well, horrific eventually. When you know what’s coming (and if you’ve read this thread, you do!) with regards to one of the main characters, when it actually happens it’s honestly just terrifying and kind of traumatizing.

Oh! Also the guy who had more to do (maybe indirectly) with bringing down the Nixon Administration than almost anyone else – Henry Kissinger – turns 100 today! In addition to all the other horrors his existence visited on humanity, it’s at least possible that if Kissinger doesn’t throw an absolute rager over the Pentagon Papers in the NYT, that Nixon serves a full second term.

I’m purposefully not watching it because I enjoy Trig’s play by play and don’t want to ruin his masterful retelling.

I mean, I know how it all turns out: Nixon resigns, then aliens come and take his head away in a jar and he becomes Galactic Overlord - but it’s how he got there that matters!

I’ve gotta say, then, that this thread kind of fully spoils the first four episodes. :D