50 Years Ago Today

The first I’d heard it referenced was in a 40-year anniversary article in the Washington Post, where the cops referenced it – laughing their asses off because if Al Baldwin had been doing his job at all that night instead of watching that movie, they’d have never caught the burglars.

There’s going to be a strain of deeply seeded incompetence that runs through all this.

I’m now picturing a graph where you have “quality of criming” going down with time and “quality of policing” being flat (or jumping around randomly to reflect things like the movie and the on-duty cop getting drunk) and they cross on June 17th.

Holy crap this is fantastic. Thanks @triggercut!

It is hard to believe how stupid and power hungry Nixon and his cronies were. His re-election was a virtual certainty and yet that wasn’t enough.

Nice job with this. I wondered why CNN was running a documentary on this over and over.

Well, hard to believe until 2016, I suppose.

Very true. But Nixon was doing dirty tricks years before the election.

But even he knew to resign rather get kicked out. He knew when he had lost.

I’ll get into the Nixon thing for sure and shortly. But as a preview: Richard Nixon is a really good argument against min/maxing your character stats in RPGs.

👏 The content for which I am here! 👏

That was an awesome write-up, I’ve never seen any of the films or read any of the books sourced, and in fact know startlingly little about this. Partly as it happened four years before I was born, and partly because until I was in my 30’s or so, history was the most boring thing in the world to me. So when I started reading this and realized what it was, it seemed a good opportunity to maybe learn some history, and I did just that - I even paused partway into the first post to get a Diet Pepsi and a small bag of Doritos to enjoy while I read.

However, I have to come clean about something here - I don’t really understand what they “burglers” were actually after? What was their end game? Where they looking to plant evidence or something? And is this an operation Nixon actually ordered, and that’s why it pulled him under?

That’s a good question. One without a definitive answer.

I think it comes down to “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

Gonna try to answer – or at least explain why we have such nonsensical answers – as we go, for sure.

I promise that shorter posts are coming, but a whole lot happens on Saturday the 17th of June in 1972 as the sun comes up over the nation’s capital…

What IS This??

It takes a while to book one guy for a breaking and entering. Booking five different guys for it is even more involved. And thus…the initial processing of the five Watergate burglars was taking a while. And though Sgt. Paul Leeper could have maybe delegated most of this to the other two arresting officers whom he out-ranked, he had a suspicion that this was perhaps not the jewelry theft break-in that he’d initially suspected.

For one thing, all five would-be thieves were dressed well and wore latex gloves. But they also carried all sorts of audio listening and communications stuff that looked pretty sophisticated to Leeper. And there was also the matter of the cash the men carried: $2400, in sequential hundred-dollar denominations. Leeper recalled later a constant thought going through his mind as he and the other two officers booked the suspects: “What IS this??”

If Sgt. Leeper was confused initially, he wasn’t at all prepared for what happened next. Some time between 5:00 AM and 6:00 AM, a desk officer buzzed him. Apparently there were two lawyers who’d just presented themselves as attorneys for the five men in custody.

Leeper went down to see what this was all about, and was taken aback. He wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but what he got wasn’t even on his radar. The two attorneys looked a bit disheveled, as if they’d been woken from a deep sleep, but even so they were both dressed in immaculately tailored suits. Neither man looked like the kind of hard-bitten lawyers who handled routine criminal defense in DC. These guys looked like corporate CEOs.

And so that was puzzling to Leeper. Even more odd: none of the five defendants had been given a chance to call outside yet. How in the world did they already have attorneys present?

Leeper let the two lawyers know that the suspects wouldn’t get bail until they’d been arraigned later that afternoon. Then he fairly sprinted back to his own desk and picked up the phone to call down to the Watergate to get one of the officers charged with securing the crime scene and the hotel rooms they’d discovered rented to the burglars – and also a two-suite of rooms that one of them had a key for. Leeper made himself clear: fully secure all of those areas in the hotel, and don’t let anyone who isn’t a detective get access. Period.

This was going to be something, he had a feeling.

Both Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy had taken separate paths home after fleeing the Watergate after the arrests had been made. Hunt went immediately to the White House, where he was employed and had an office as a consultant working with Nixon aide Chuck Colson.

Hunt had a safe in his office, which was kind of odd for him, as a consultant. That night, into the safe went all the listening gear and electronics that they’d grabbed from their hotel room before fleeing. Out of the safe came $10,000 in cash. Which is kind of edging right on up to some good ol’ crimes. (Having unaccounted for cash in giant sums sitting around in office safes is, in general, going to run afoul of some law or other.)

Hunt then called an attorney and co-worker at his other job at the PR firm of the Robert Mullen Company – Douglas Caddy. It was Caddy and another lawyer who were given instructions by Hunt to go see about bailing out the five Watergate burglars. (The “Robert Mullen Company” was a PR firm with deep ties into the Republican party AND the CIA. They’d worked with the agency to establish “covers” for agents in Easter Europe and the Middle East.)

Hunt then finally headed home to get some sleep, thinking that Caddy would get the burglars bailed out and everything would be fine. If worse came to worst, brand new US Attorney General Richard Kleindienst could maybe be enlisted to simply get the five released.

None of This Makes Any Sense

Mark Felt’s first thought when his bedside phone began ringing at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning was “If this isn’t important, someone’s getting fired.” The voice on the other end of the line that early Saturday morning was a young FBI agent who was charged with monitoring police scanners and calls overnight.

The FBI took special interest in crimes committed in DC. First, because DC isn’t a state, any crime of any moderate severity falls under the jurisdiction of the US Attorney’s office in DC – part of the Department of Justice of which the Bureau was also a part. But also, if politically-based crimes were committed in DC, they were likely to be federal crimes. The hubbub on the scanner about a break-in at DNC headquarters in The Watergate seemed like it could be a big deal to the agent on overnight duty. He’d phoned his immediate superior first, and his boss had told the monitoring agent to alert Felt.

Mark Felt was the Deputy Director of the FBI, and a protege of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover still ran the Bureau in June of 1972, and Felt was his Number Two man who’d taken on more and more responsibility as “Jedgar” had begun to fade into old age. Felt not only wanted to take over for Hoover some day, he also believed that the job of FBI director was his right and privilege for a lifetime of loyal service at the Bureau.

(Felt and his wife Audrey flank J. Edgar Hoover, circa 1967.)

If Felt was angry at first about being roused in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday June 17, once he heard what the monitoring agent had to say he was less perturbed, and more intrigued. A break-in at The Watergate of the DNC offices certainly smelled…funny. Felt decided he’d better head into the office and by 8:30 that morning he’d already arrived there on a Saturday to read any preliminary reports developed by the overnight monitor.

As he read it over, he was completely nonplussed by what he saw. None of it made any sense to him. But something about the reports over the radio of the burglars wearing suits intrigued him. He picked up the phone and called agent Angelo Lano and assigned him to look into this break-in. Lano – who’d worked previous burglaries of penthouse suites and apartments at the Watergate – knew the layout of the place well.

"John Mitchell Told Me to Tell You…"

Hugh Sloan is almost the caricature of what you’d imagine a senior government accountant to look like. Think Calvin’s dad, from Calvin and Hobbes. Sloan had been logging 6-day weeks in the spring and summer of 1972 in his duties as Treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect.

Sloan had gone into work early on Saturday morning the 17th, and was surprised to discover that he wasn’t the first person at the Committee offices in DC. He observed G. Gordon Liddy – whom Sloan knew as a lawyer engaged in gathering intel on the opposition – scurrying back and forth between Liddy’s office and a room with a large, industrial paper shredder.

The two men met in the hall as Sloan went to see if anyone had started coffee yet that morning. Liddy took Sloan aside and told the accountant that an operation had gone badly earlier that morning, and that he (Liddy) was pretty sure he was going to get fired for it. “Do you know when Magruder will be coming in?” Liddy asked.

Sloan informed Liddy that the senior campaign staff – Committee chairman and former Attorney General John Mitchell, his deputy at CREEP, Jeb Magruder, and senior consultants Fred LaRue and Robert Mardian – were all in California for a fundraiser that evening with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Liddy waited until late morning and phoned Magruder in California just as the campaign’s second-in-command was taking breakfast. “Jeb, there’s a missile base near you. I need you to go there and get a secure line and call me back.”

Magruder, like many on the campaign committee, had grown weary of Liddy’s nonsensical “Let’s play spies” idiocy, informed Gordon that he wasn’t going 50 miles to a missile base. He’d call Liddy back shortly, from a pay phone.

When Magruder called Liddy back about 10 minutes later, he heard some truly terrible news, from a truly, monumentally stupid human being. “Jeb, I think I fucked something up.” Liddy confessed to the campaign deputy head that an “operation” had gone badly, and that five of his people had been arrested. “I think we’re fine on four of them. They won’t talk, and they can’t be traced to us.” Magruded exhaled. Whew. That was close.

“But there’s the fifth guy,” Liddy continued. “Jeb, I used someone from CRP on this job.”

Magruder was stunned. “WHAT? Gordon, how many times did we tell you…” his voice trailed off. History doesn’t record it, but you can imagine Magruder face palming or furiously rubbing his temples at this point. “Who is it?”


“Jesus.” Magruder told Liddy he’d call back in 20 minutes.

When Liddy got the call back, Magruder had a plan of action for him. “Gordon, call Kleindienst and tell him to get all five guys released, pronto. If he can’t do all five, at least tell him to get McCord the hell out of there. Make sure he knows that he needs to at least get McCord sprung before he can be traced back to us.”

(In case you missed that, that’s called “Obstruction of Justice.”)

Richard Kleindienst had been the official US Attorney General for all of 7 days, having finally been confirmed by the senate to take over for John Mitchell (for whom he’d been the deputy AG) and having “interim” removed from his title. On Saturday June 17, he’d booked a foursome for golf at the prestigious DC country club where he was a member. While taking in lunch before the tenth hole, he noticed Liddy out in the hallway outside the club cafeteria, frantically motioning for him.

Kleindienst had met Liddy once or twice, and had the same impression of the guy that many did. He thought Liddy was probably an insane, somewhat stupid narcissist. But he couldn’t have the Committee intel gathering lawyer causing a scene at the club, so Kleindienst headed into the hall to talk with him.

Liddy, almost breathless with excitement, told the new AG that an political intelligence gathering op had gone wrong. “John Mitchell told me to tell you to get the five guys who got arrested out of jail, as soon as you can.”

Kleindienst had maybe been born at night, but had not been born the previous night. He knew bullshit when he smelled it, and it was coming off Liddy in waves. “Gordon? John Mitchell knows how to reach me at all times. If he wanted me to do something like that, he’d have called.”

In fact, Kleindienst motioned a waiter and got a phone brought over from the country club and called Henry Peterson, the head of the US Attorney’s office in DC’s criminal investigation unit. Peterson quickly briefed the Attorney General on what was known so far in the Watergate burglary. “Henry,” Kleindienst said, scowling at Liddy, “Make sure those five burglars are treated no differently than any other suspects for a similar crime would be. Do you hear me?” Peterson acknowledged the request.

Kleindienst then dismissed Liddy. “I have a round of golf to finish, Gordon.”

I am enjoying the hell out of this.

"I Threw an Ashtray Across the Room.

Far to the south in Florida at Nixon’s estate at Nixon’s favorite east coast getaway – Key Biscayne – press secretary Ron Ziegler briefed the President that morning as well, by phone. Nixon, Ziegler reported, seemed flabbergasted by it all. “He kept asking why and what was the point,” Ziegler related.

The president would tell aides later that week that he’d been so incensed by the stupidity of anyone who might be associated with his campaign participating in the break-in that he threw an ashtray across the room when Ziegler delivered the news. Nixon was furious over the possibility of negative press from those “bastards” at the New York Times over the burglary.

When Nixon’s chief aide, Chief of Staff HR (“Bob” to friends) Haldeman heard the news, the normally staid and brutally efficient right-hand man to the president could barely suppress a laugh. Breaking in to the DNC offices? What kind of nonsense was that? What on earth of value to the campaign could be found there? Haldeman – like many of the senior staff to the President and senior campaign staff at CREEP, believed this to have been a Chuck Colson operation gone bad. (Colson served as a counsel and advisor to the president and was considered THE guy to pull off a dirty trick as needed.)

The Start of Something Big

Larry O’Brien – the head of the DNC (and later the Commissioner of the NBA; if you’ve seen Winning Time, you’ve seen O’Brien portrayed, alongside his protege and assistant David Stern) – got word of the break-in at 8:00 am , via a phone call from one of the DNC executives detailed to security.

O’Brien was also puzzled by the burglary attempt. What useful information or secrets did he hold? Maybe donor lists? He wasn’t even sure those weren’t already known. But O’Brien figured he’d better make some calls. His first was to the DNC chief counsel, Joseph Califano.

Califano served not only as the lead attorney for the DNC though. He had one other client important to our interests: The Washington Post. Califano got off the phone with O’Brien and immediately called the Post, speaking with Barry Sussman, the city editor at the paper. he briefed Sussman on the break-in and told him “It sure feels like it’s a political thing.”

It was a sleepy Saturday at the paper. Sussman assigned coverage to Al Lewis, who’d been a reporter at the Post since before World War II and who knew every cop in the city by name seemingly, and also a 29-year-old kid reporter who’d just had a major story at the paper. His name was Bob Woodward.

While Lewis went to work his police sources on the burglary, Woodward headed to the city courts building where the five would be arraigned. Inside the courtroom, as depicted in All The Presidents Men, Woodward did indeed ask a few questions of Douglas Caddy – who informed the reporter that he (Caddy) was “Not there” in any official capacity as representing the five men who’d been arrested.

(Also present in the court that afternoon of the 17th, and also the only other media person there was a young reporter for CBS News, and then Bob Woodward’s girlfriend, Lesley Stahl. It was Woodward who would eventually convince Stahl to try to keep CBS on the story when network news executives saw little value with continuing on it.)

When the first four arrestees were presented in front of the judge, they responded to his questions about their names with aliases (none of the five burglars carried any identification). And when the judge asked about their professions, they all said “Anti-communist.”

The fifth man, however, gave his real name: James McCord. The judge asked him his profession, and McCord, his voice barely above an abashed whisper, told the judge he had until recent years worked in security at a government agency.

“Which agency?” the judge demanded.

“Uh…the CIA…” McCord’s voice trailed off as Woodward audibly exclaimed “Jesus!” in the back row of benches. The reporter ran from the courtroom to give this particular piece of information to his newsroom.

The next morning, the first Watergate story in the Washington Post appeared, with Alfred Lewis as the lead reporter, but with credits to Woodward and a number of other city desk reporters – including a young newspaper rate named Carl Bernstein.

(A whole lot happens on the day of the 17th, and I’ve got a few more things that I’ll bleed over into tomorrow, since the 18th is pretty quiet.)

Gotta love the symbolism of Nixon’s men in suits getting arrested by people dressed as hippies.

I can almost guarantee you that Nixon noted that himself.

Great stuff, edge of the seat material even when you know pretty much what happens! Nicely done.

And it sure drives home the ubiquity of hubris, arrogance, and criminality that ensues when people come to believe the lies they tell themselves.

One more thing…

So at this point, it’s worth a quick recap of events.

Eight people are involved directly in breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in DC at the Watergate hotel overnight, between June 16 and 17,. just before and after midnight. Five of those guys get arrested. The two planners and a lookout get away. For now.

Of the five arrested, four have deep associations with Cuba. Despite Bernard Barkers anglicized name, he was actually born in Havana to a Russian-American father and Cuban mother and held dual American/Cuban citizenship. And while Frank Sturgis was an American of non-Cuban descent, as a soldier of fortune he’d worked with both Guevara and Castro AND then switched to working with Batista (after realizing that Castro was going to follow Guevara into full-on communism) during the Cuban revolutionary years.

And by sunset on the 17th, the story of the break-in and arrests is out there, and gaining a little steam (it’ll cool off pretty quickly.) The DC detectives return to the hotel by late afternoon and discover that they’re going to be enlisted by two FBI agents who have also been assigned to the case – Angelo Lano and his partner, Paul Magallanes. The two FBI guys are assigned only because it’s a DC crime, and thus under the purview of the US attorney in DC…and because of the political sensitivity of where the break-in occurred.

For previous burglaries at apartments in The Watergate in which jewelry and such had been stolen, Lano and Magallanes would do a search of the scene, take some notes, do a report, and that was that. Maybe this particular case would be just like those. Or, maybe it wouldn’t be.

(The late Saturday afternoon search of the hotel rooms at The Watergate. DC detective Carl Shoffler – one of the three undercover officers who’d made the original arrests is in the foreground.)

One of the arrestees had indeed been carrying a key to another hotel room – the one belonging to Liddy and Hunt. And when that room was searched, it turned up some interesting treasures.

Now at this point, I want to digress for just a second to talk about how a professional might have chosen to fail-safe and firewall this operation. For instance, the four Cuban-associated burglars would soon have their full names found out. But so what? They’d come back as political soldiers of fortune. They’d make bail. They’d…disappear to some South American country for a few years, receiving cash payments while in exile. No big deal. Nothing connects them to the White House. Nothing.

There are two problems that happen in the reality of things, however, and we’ve touched on one of them already: James McCord’s fingerprints are on file as a government employee. If his CIA fingerprint copies are confidential, he was also fingerprinted when he went to work for CREEP as a security consultant. And those prints will absolutely pop on a Federal Government employee database search.

And McCord knows this, which is why he gave his real name to the judge.

And Gordon Liddy knows this, which is why Liddy is pretty sure he’s going to be joining the other 5 guys in getting arrested pretty soon.

But that’s not the only firewall breach that will present itself on Saturday the 17th…

And now let’s return to the treasures found by Lano and Magallanes in the hotel rooms. In Liddy and Hunt’s room, they find more bugging and sophisticated listening equipment. Lano isn’t an expert, but he’s seen the good stuff that FBI agents use, and he knows that this gear is pretty top-flight. He makes a note of that, and fully dismisses the possibility that this was a jewelry heist.

In the rooms belonging to the burglars, though, they hit the jackpot. They find lots of cryptic notes on legal pads and in notebooks that refer to “EHH” and “TWH”. In context of the notes, one, (EHH) is a person. The other is clearly a thing. And then Magallanes finds an address book. Inside is a listing for “Howard Hunt” and a phone. And inside is also a listing in plain english, with a phone number, for an office at The White House.

The two FBI agents have the field office do a quick search while they wait on the phone. Yep, an E. Howard Hunt appears to have had a low-level security clearance performed a year or so earlier for work at the White House. At the same time, the fingerprint search on James McCord reveals to DC detectives (who share the info with investigators for the US attorney, who share it with the FBI guys) that McCord was an employee/subcontractor for the Committee to Re-elect.