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Watergate -- 40 years later, questions endure about CIA's role in the break in

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FILE: The Watergate hotel/office/apartment complex in Washington, D.C.

Forty years ago this Sunday, in the pre-dawn darkness of June 17, 1972, the late Carl Shoffler and two other plainclothes Washington, D.C. police officers, Paul Leeper and John Barrett, were sitting in police cruiser 727, an unmarked vehicle parked at the intersection of 30th and K Streets N.W. At 1:47 a.m., a Metropolitan Police dispatcher issued an urgent call for officers to respond to a burglary in progress at 2600 Virginia Avenue N.W., the Watergate office complex in Foggy Bottom.

Guns drawn, the lawmen started their search on the eighth floor, home to offices of the Federal Reserve, itself the site of a recent break-in. Finding no trouble there, the policemen checked the ninth floor, then meticulously made their way down until they reached the sixth. That entire floor, all 16,000 square feet of office space, was occupied by the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

It remains unsettled as to whether any of the policemen knew in advance what they would find on the sixth floor: the doomed team of five burglars, wearing business suits and rubber gloves, with traceable ties to the Committee to Re-Elect the President and the Central Intelligence Agency. Leeper and Shoffler, for example, had already put in two hours of overtime, and each had forsaken personal obligations to continue working that night. And when the dispatcher’s call rang out, it just happened their car was parked less than four-tenths of a mile from the Watergate – about a minute away.

We do know the cops were not moving about undetected. Observing them from a perch across the street, at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge – and with rising alarm – was an ex-FBI agent named Alfred C. Baldwin III. Portly and unexceptional, Baldwin had been hired by the Watergate burglars to wear headphones ‘round the clock, to monitor the wiretap they had installed, three weeks earlier, in the telephone used by Ida “Maxie” Wells. She was the secretary to an obscure DNC official named R. Spencer Oliver, Jr., whose official title was executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. Another wiretap, installed on the telephone of Fay Abel, the secretary to Lawrence F. O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had never worked properly. The Oliver/Wells office inside the sixth-floor suites was located right on the façade of the Watergate office building, complete with doors that opened up to a balcony overlooking Virginia Avenue. Baldwin’s line of sight – both in monitoring the wiretap transmissions across the three-week surveillance operation, and as he observed the cops’ progress across the street that fateful night – was perfect.

Anniversaries like this tend to trigger a lot of pontification about the “lessons” or “myths” of Watergate, but not much reexamination of, or search for, the facts. Let this, then, be the chief “lesson” of Watergate: that facts matter most of all

He saw two of the officers emerge onto the balcony across the street, shining their flashlights; a third walked into the office directly adjacent. “This is, by the way, Oliver’s secretary’s office,” Baldwin later told the Los Angeles Times. “The entire room lights [up], and [the officer]…is going around behind the desks with a gun.” Determined to help his confederates, whom he had understood to be performing some top-secret national security mission, Baldwin called out on his walkie-talkie: Base to any other unit, do you read me? “What have you got?” replied the burglars’ superior officer, G. Gordon Liddy, the general counsel to the finance arm of the Committee to Re-Elect. Liddy was ensconced in a separate room at the Watergate Hotel with his co-conspirator, White House consultant and former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt. Are our people in suits or dressed casually? Baldwin asked. “Suits,” Liddy answered. “Why?” "We got a problem," Baldwin said. "There is a bunch of guys up here and they have guns." Liddy ordered Baldwin to stay put; Hunt was on his way to Baldwin’s room.

“Now there is all kinds of police activity,” Baldwin recalled later. “We got motorcycles, we got paddy wagons. Guys are jumping out of the cars, running in, uniformed police, bike policemen.” Within seconds, Baldwin could hear, over the walkie-talkie, the sound of someone on the team whispering: They have got us.

While the consequences of that morning’s events would prove historic and profound – Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency; the United States’ measurable loss, towards the end of its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, of global prestige and influence; and the ensuing emasculation of America’s intelligence agencies – precious little investigative or scholarly attention was ever focused on the actual break-in and wiretapping operation that touched off the great scandal.

The final report of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of 1972, better known as the Senate Watergate committee, devoted only four of its 1,250 pages to the break-in. “I think we all know what happened on the early morning of June 17,” the committee’s baldly partisan chief counsel, Samuel Dash, once interjected during an early interrogation of Howard Hunt. But Dash was wrong. After four decades of hearings, trials, investigations, books, films, plays, and documentaries, exploring the details of what happened on June 17, 1972 remains one of the most fruitful areas for further research in the still-nascent field of Nixon and Watergate Studies.

At the time, most of the authorities’ investigative energies were focused, not surprisingly, on the burglars’ ties to the Nixon re-election campaign: 1972 was, after all, an election year, and that seemed, on the face of things, the swiftest route to tying the president or his top aides to the crime. But the burglars’ ties to CIA, which Republicans on the Senate Watergate committee probed with only middling results, warrant continuing scrutiny.

Prior to obtaining his job as chief of security for the Committee to Re-Elect, James W. McCord, the wiretapping expert who had hired Baldwin – and who had personally insisted the break-in move forward that night, even after the burglary team discovered that a Watergate security guard had detected their initial movements – had toiled for years at CIA’s shadowy Office of Security. It was this office, at the height of the Cold War, that spearheaded the U.S. government’s forays into mind control (Projects Bluebird and Artichoke); assassination attempts, with the aid of the Mafia, on a foreign head of state (Fidel Castro); the use of prostitutes to service and compromise, as needed, the state’s assets and enemies; and a vast array of domestic surveillance projects, undisclosed until Watergate, targeting antiwar and radical groups. James Jesus Angleton, the agency’s deputy director of counterintelligence, observed that McCord “was an operator, not merely a technician.” Similarly, an Air Force colonel who participated in CIA’s covert operations recalled in 1973: “McCord was just not somebody’s little wiretapper or debugging man…He’s a pro, he’s a master. [CIA Director] Allen Dulles introduced him to me…and said: ‘This man is the best man we have.’”

That McCord’s loyalties on the night of June 16, 1972 were not aligned with the political well-being of Richard Nixon has long been theorized by Watergate researchers. These suspicions were confirmed by the lengthy, previously unpublished interview that I conducted with Al Baldwin, the wiretap monitor, in September 1995. Having spent many hours in May-June 1972 being instructed in the dark arts of surveillance by his boss, Baldwin got to know the taciturn McCord better than any other member of the break-in team. “There was something about Richard Nixon,” Baldwin told me, summarizing McCord’s view of the president they served, “that Richard Nixon wasn’t a team player, wasn’t an American, wasn’t, you know, ‘one of us.’”

Now, that’s divulging a little of the personal conversations that Jim and I would have…[McCord would say] “You know the people we’re dealing with...” And he wasn’t talking about the Democrats….I mean, it would be phrased in that kind of a terminology…that Richard Nixon was—not that he was a liar, but that was something—that he wasn’t an American.

Such was the attitude of the former CIA man then serving as chief of security for Nixon’s re-election campaign. Questions remain, too, about Howard Hunt. An acerbic and tweedy career CIA officer – and the author, under various pseudonyms, of more than forty spy novels – Hunt had lived a glamorous life of covert adventure. He ran missions behind enemy lines in China for the Office of Strategic Services, CIA’s fabled predecessor in World War II, before serving as chief of station in exotic locales like Mexico City and Uruguay.

Hunt made it a point, while working for the Nixon White House, to keep in regular contact with his old chums at CIA, from which he had ostensibly retired in April 1970. In a sworn affidavit submitted to the House Judiciary Committee when it was investigating Nixon’s proposed impeachment, a career CIA officer who was detailed to the Executive Office Building described how Hunt in those days “frequently transmitted sealed envelopes via our office to the agency.”

According to Rob Roy Ratliff, the officer who signed the affidavit, Hunt’s packages were often addressed to CIA Director Richard Helms and were regularly hand-delivered to agency headquarters until mid-June 1972: when the Watergate arrests occurred. After Hunt’s name surfaced in the scandal, CIA’s receipts for these packages were destroyed. Ratliff claimed the transmitted materials featured “gossip” about members of the Nixon administration. A congressional source confirmed to author Jim Hougan that Hunt’s gossip was “very graphic…almost entirely of a sexual nature,” and that some of it concerned “people who worked in the White House.” Such were the activities of the former CIA man then serving Nixon’s special counsel, the late Charles Colson, as a consultant on national security.

Hunt and McCord insinuated themselves into the Nixon orbit—either the White House or the Committee to Re-Elect—at critical junctures: Hunt, just around the time that the Plumbers were created, in July 1971, to conduct covert investigations and operations aimed at plugging damaging news leaks; McCord, shortly after the Plumbers’ break-in at the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in September 1971, which was carried out by much the same cast of covert characters that was arrested at Watergate, and which had also been organized by Hunt and Liddy. 

There is persuasive evidence that Hunt and McCord, despite their disclaimers, first met each other long before Gordon Liddy supposedly introduced them in the spring of 1972. Enrique “Harry” Ruiz-Williams, a Cuban Bay of Pigs veteran, later recalled having met “dozens” of times with Hunt and McCord, together, in New York and Washington, in the years after the failed 1961 invasion. Despite Ruiz-Williams’s inherent credibility—he even remembered Hunt and McCord accidentally using each other’s aliases, a mistake repeated, but not widely reported, during Watergate—his account remained uncorroborated for nearly two decades.

Previously unpublished testimony taken in executive session by the Senate Watergate committee, and declassified in 2002 pursuant to my Freedom of Information Act request, suggested that Hunt and McCord had indeed traveled in the same circles long before Liddy “introduced” them.

Felipe DiDiego was a Cuban Bay of Pigs veteran who took part in both the Ellsberg and Watergate operations. He was questioned in executive session in June 1973 by committee counsels R. Phillip Haire and Jim Hershman, who asked if he had ever met James McCord prior to 1972. 

DeDIEGO: Yes, sir. Let me explain to you how it was. I did not tell him anything about it. And this is the first time I am going to tell anyone about this. A long time ago, McCord, working for the CIA, did work with a group of Cubans down in Florida. So I saw him at that time. And I did not talk to him, but I recognized his face when I first saw him here in Washington. But I did not tell him anything about that first day. It was a long time ago down in Florida. And he did work with another name, of course, for the CIA, [with] another group of Cubans down in the Keys. 

HAIRE: How long ago was that prior to the date you saw him over at the Watergate? 

DeDIEGO: [I]t probably was in 1962, right after the Bay of Pigs invasion. 

HERSHMAN: What group of Cubans was he working with? 

DeDIEGO: The infiltration group….It was a group of Cubans working for the CIA…I would rather not involve these people…

There is more, much more: the fact, for example, that one of the Cuban-born burglars on the break-in team, Bay of Pigs veteran Eugenio R. Martinez, was still on the CIA payroll, and had been providing to his agency case officer regular updates on the progress of Liddy’s unfolding operation. At the moment the burglars were arrested – at gunpoint – Martinez struggled unsuccessfully to conceal an item on his person; the FBI laboratory later determined it to be a key that fit Ida Wells’s desk. 

Where did Martinez get this key from? What did he expect to find in the DNC secretary’s desk? Why was the telephone used by Wells and her boss, Spencer Oliver, wiretapped in the Watergate mission? Why did Baldwin, testifying years later about the conversations he overheard on the DNC wiretap, say that “eight out of ten” listeners “would have said, ‘That’s a call girl ring. This is a prostitution ring’”? Why did a veteran prosecutor, the assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, testify that he was ordered by his boss, then-U.S. Attorney Harold Titus, to drop an investigation into the DNC’s purported links to a prostitution ring? How could so many ex-CIA men, with such conflicted loyalties, have converged on Gordon Liddy’s rinky-dink covert operation? And how could such experienced operators have wound up so badly “bungling” the mission? Or were their missteps the result of intentional sabotage?

These are important questions, for they conjure, like unwelcome ghosts, the enduring mysteries of the momentous events we lump under the catch-call name of “Watergate.” The deaths of Nixon and many of his top aides in the intervening decades render the pursuit of these questions no less important or urgent; what mattered to a nation of laws in 1972 should matter today, too. And the answers to these questions will not be found in the collected works of Woodward and Bernstein. Neither of their Watergate books – the now-much-discredited "All the President’s Men" (1974) and "The Final Days" (1976) – even mentions Wells or Oliver. The first answers started appearing in Hougan’s landmark of principled revisionism, "Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA" (1984); more evidence surfaced in Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s controversial bestseller "Silent Coup: The Removal of a President" (1991) and my own book, published, after seventeen years of research, in 2008, sought to advance the story further, on several fronts.

Anniversaries like this tend to trigger a lot of pontification about the “lessons” or “myths” of Watergate, but not much reexamination of, or search for, the facts. Let this, then, be the chief “lesson” of Watergate: that facts matter most of all, and that our lone duty to history, as Oscar Wilde once said, is continually to rewrite it.

 

James Rosen is Fox News’ Chief Washington Correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. He will discuss his book and its findings on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program at 9 a.m. ET on Sunday, June 17.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."