By Trowbridge H. Ford
While the Plumbers’ attempted assassination on May 15, 1972 of former Alabama Governor George Wallace assured President Nixon’s re-election in the November poll, it just increased the danger of their conspiracies being discovered during the trial of suspected assassin Arthur Bremer, some conspirator or person in the know turning whistleblower, or the deceased FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – who they had apparently dispatched earlier to clear the way for the killing of the potentially most dangerous third-party candidate – having made some arrangement for their exposure if something like this happened, especially irrefutable evidence from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that it had been recording LBJ’s telephone messages at his Texas ranch about ending the war in Vietnam at the height of the 1968 presidential campaign. The White House and the Plumbers from the NRO, in sum, had to do everything they could to eliminate all suspicion that they had the motive, capability, and opportunity to kill the troublesome Southerner.
The NRO was still officially an even more evanescent agency than its parent, the National Security Agency (NSA) aka No Such Agency. It was only during Robert McNamara’s tenure at the Pentagon that it even got a toe-hold on what it designed, produced, and used for gathering signal intelligence, thanks to the SoD getting a director, like Alexander Flax, he could work with. Until then, as his successor John McLucas told the Defense Acquisition History Project on June 5, 2001, and shortly before he died, there had been such competition between it and the Air Force about how to produce planes and satellites, and such a circulation of leadership between government employment and the military-industrial complex because of congressional limitations on conflict of interest that the NRO was directed operationally by little more than uniformed personnel among its ranks who could order missions that NSA approved of.
The best example of this was when Brigadier Jack Ledford apparently wanted a U-2 surveillance flight over Cuba to see if Castro was establishing a Soviet military presence on the island. .When the new NSA Director, Vice Admiral Lawrence Hugh (Jack) Frost, heard about it, he gave Ledford and other covert operators a dressing down in typical inter-service rivalry fashion which no one else appreciated, as James Bamford has quoted in Body of Secrets: ” ‘I saw him chew out Frank Raven, Bill Ray (senior NSA officials), and some Air Force brigadier general in a briefing,’ said Robert D. Farley, a former NSA historian. ‘Just the finger-on-the-chest bit.’ ” (.p. 96) Frost’s replacement, Air Force Lieutenant General Gordon Blake, learned the lesson all too well, though, when it came for aerial reconnaissance over the island during the Missile Crisis itself and its settlement, as the fate of downed U-2 pilots Major Rudolf Anderson and Captain Joe Glenn Hyde, Jr. indicated.
Little wonder that McNamara replaced Blake at NSA after he had organized a united service effort to take the fight to the North Vietnamese to insure LBJ’s election with Army General Marshall Carter taking his place, and Dr. McLucas becoming the Air Force undersecretary to manage the NRO’s procurement of weapons, and operations..He got the agency to move beyond the cost-plus and fixed contract way of getting them, with suppliers having to pay back whatever they had received if the weapon did not prove capable, and reliable as they had claimed. Then the NRO returned to first building prototypes for the components of the Rhyoline satellites which the aerospace firm TRW was producing for it rather than just dream up something, like the Air Force was doing with a trial-and-error approach, in the hope that they worked. The pains-taking process of building complicated satellites was carried out at its M-4 facility in Redondo Beach, California, and the first one was put in geosynchronous orbit above Borneo, and its take was downloaded to a facility at Australia’s Pine Bluff in 1970. (For more, see Bamford, p. 367ff.)
To persuade Wallace that the White House had had nothing to do with the eavesdropping which almost cost him his life, Nixon arranged for political affairs assistant Harry Dent to visit Wallace in the hospital in Maryland, and Nixon’s personal physician William Lukash to check on his current condition. To make sure that such concern was not considered politically intrusive, Senator Strom Thurmond was contacted to make sure that it was approved, and Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman was instructed to see what Wallace wanted, to ”see if we can make a deal with him.” (The Haldeman Diaries, June 12, 1972, p. 470) Nixon worked on Reverend Billy Graham to make sure that the wounded Wallace stayed within the Democratic Party after its convention, making sure that he did not play the spoiler, and elect Senator McGovern even if it required a $750,000 payoff for his staff.
To seal Wallace’s assurance that he would not run, former Texas Governor and Treasury Secretary John B. Connally paid Wallace a visit still in hospital. Of course, Connally was an ideal choice, having himself been injured as presidential timber when he was almost assassinated when JFK was gunned down in Dallas. To pressure Wallace still further, he contended that he was thinking of mounting a presidential campaign himself, and was desirous of hiring some of Wallace’s staff if he wasn’t. Wallace said to wait until the American Party convention occurred, as some kind of miracle might occur to make him change his mind. “John was convinced that this is the most significant day in the campaign,” Haldeman concluded, “because Wallace is not going to run.” (Ibid., July 25, 1972, p. 486)
Bremer’s trial was expedited because the White House took over the investigation of the crime from Maryland officials, and saw to his prosecution as quickly as possible – before even Wallace’s ultimate state of health was determined. Hours after the attempted assassination, Nixon took the unprecedented step of calling Assistant FBI Director Mark Felt for apparently the only time, softening him up to work the White House’s will by expressing the hope that Bremer had been “worked over pretty good” when he had been apprehended. Then the President told Felt that he didn’t want the murder inquiry extended by any slip-ups, as had occurred in the JFK assassination, and had caused them to become a national preoccupation. “We’ll take care of that,” Felt reassured Nixon, as was reported by the AP in 2005 year, and puts to rest the claim that he was the whistle-blowing “Deep Throat”. (For more on the real “Deep Throat”, see my two articles about Al Haig in my archive.)
And Bremer’s court-appointed counsel, Benjamin Lipsitz, completely compromised his defense by introducing his alleged 137-page diary to help establish his irresponsible “schizophrenic” character, what began with him writing that he was setting out to assassinate either Nixon or Wallace – what rendered the President innocent of anything. With the President off the hook as being behind the attempted murder, the court made short work of the defense, especially since the expert witnesses were evenly divided over Bremer’s mental state, resulting in his being given a 63-year sentence. While it was reduced ten years in an unsuccessful appeal of the verdict, the Bureau belatedly investigated the crime for another eight years – resulting in the 26-volume WalShot file which only added suspicions of a White House conspiracy, and the dying Wallace in 1996 endorsed.
While all this prevented any dangerous blowback from Wallace’s shooting, it did nothing to solve the question of what the Bureau’s deceased Director knew about Plumber operations – what had apparently led to his murder – and what measures he might have taken to guarantee their disclosure in case anything happened to him. After all, most people have a lawyer, even if one is only to make up the terms of a will, and see to its execution after death, and Hoover, being such an important, controversial figure for so long, undoubtedly had one.
Yet, in reading biographies of him, one cannot find the name of any lawyer he could have trusted enough to have made him his own counsel – only the names of ones he hated, and tried to discredit with the help of other lawyers. For example, Hoover used good friend and New York attorney Morris L. Ernst in this capacity to protect his and the Bureau’s reputation against Max Lowenthal’s proposed exposé of the FBI, but he, as Curt Gentry wrote in a footnote in J. Edgar Hoover, “objected, more than once, to Ernst characterizing himself as his ‘personal attorney’.” (p. 233)
Hoover’s personal attorney when he died was apparently Lawrence O’Brien, an employee of the Hughes Tool Company, and now the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) whose offices were in the Watergate. Of course, both Nixon and Hoover had various relationships with the reclusive airplane, and film maker. The President and Felt had to worry that the former Director knew more than just brother Donald Nixon’s dealings with Hughes regarding financial and sexual irregularities, and that Hoover had passed the information to White House “enemies” – what the Assistant Director had superficially covered up. Now the fear allegedly was that the Cuban security service was passing information to the DNC about Nixon’s attempts, with Hughes’s help, to assassinate the Cuban leader – the blowback from which resulted in JFK’s murder, and which LBJ would be in an ideal position to exploit.
Besides, O’Brien, as LBJ’s Postmaster General, had crossed the Director right after the Dallas assassination, as no one else had, in his dealing with former agent and now Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd, exposing the Bureau’s interception of a letter that a disgruntled staff assistant had sent to muckraker Jack Anderson, only for Hoover to find out that Dodd was hoping to replace him at the Bureau. Until then, Hoover had been making sure that the Bureau did nothing to uncover Dodd’s criminal ways. “It was the unpardonable sin,” Gentry concluded. (p. 592) O’Brien, on the other hand, gained the Director’s good graces.
O’Brien had the closest relation possible with the eccentric billionaire and his company. In 1953, Hughes had turned over all his stock in the company to the Hughes Medical Company, a tax-exempt charity registered in Delaware which carried on medical research. In 1968, when Congress was considering ending such exemptions, Hughes political operator Robert Maheu, who knew all about William King Harvey’s assassination plots against Castro and others, hired O’Brien to make sure that this didn’t happen, and O’Brien secured its continued exemption. This was when the Hughes empire was deeply involved in secret programs for the government, especially Senior Vice President at the Aircraft Company Tony Iorillo’s plan to design and build a gyrostat satellite for the NRO (Explorer 50) - lifting their size limitation, complexity and capabilities. (For details, see Bamford, pp. 343-6.)
As Bamford described, despite the satellite’s capability, its messages just at this time from Firebase Sarge in Vietnam were completely ignored by NSA when the North Vietnamese build-up, north of the DMZ, occurred during January and February, 1972. NSA was too busy extending the satellite network that the NRO was constructing over the globe to read what was its take.On March 30th, the North Vietnamese attacked, and staged the biggest victory over American and South Vietnamese forces since the Tet-offensive back in 1968. This Easter offensive left no trace of either the Explorer system, or the defeat on the battlefield with the American public. “The war was over,” Bamford concluded, “and the United States had lost.” (p. 346)
John Mitchell, now chairman of the Campaign to Re-Elect the President, and his chief adviser, Frederick LaRue, were so afraid of O’Brien’s potential to cause trouble in this environment that they ordered a break-in, and bugging of the DNC at the Watergate on March 20, 1972 – what had to be postponed until both Hoover and Wallace were put out of the way, as I have already explained. They were particularly interested in finding out if O’Brien had somehow gotten vital information from Hoover, especially NRO documents about Nixon’s “November Surprise” in the 1968 election, the Plumbers’ composition and operations, the destruction of the Explorer system monitoring the DMZ in Vietnam, and the unexpected presence of the Secret Service agents in Bremer’s apartment when Bureau agents, thanks to Felt’s direction, arrived. It was suspected that O’Brien was still receiving similar information – what could constitute a Democratic “November Surprise” in the upcoming presidential election, resulting in an instruction also to tap his telephone and to bug his office.
The results were two break-ins of the DNC, the first one on Sunday, May 28th, and the second on June 17th, after several, it seems, false starts – what might well have been invented after the burglars were arrested to give the false impression of how unprofessional the operation had been from the outset. (For more on this, see Fred Emery, Watergate, p. 118ff.) The trouble with the first break-in was that its one successful tap was not on a phone being used by O’Brien. Furthermore, the CRP was no longer interested in current party activities but what the DNC, as J. Gordon Liddy later explained, “…had of a derogatory nature about us, not for us to get something on him. (Quoted from Emery, p. 125. Italics Liddy’s)
Of course, the best source of such information would be Hoover’s own files or copies of them - what the Plumbers went back in the hope of photographing three weeks later. ”They want everything in the files,” former CIA security agent James McCord explained to an incredulous Howard Hunt, the mission’s operational chief who had put together the forged documents (code name GEMSTONE), implicating JFK in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem.
While the new mission planned to take pictures of 1,800 documents in files in the office on 50 rolls of film – what required having a key somehow to Secretary to the Director of the State Chairman Ida “Maxie” Wells’ desk where all the necessary file cabinet keys were kept. They were to photograph incriminating evidence the DNC had regarding Nixon – e.g., the Director’s file of infra-red photos that the CIA had engaged MI6 to take in Hong Kong when alleged Red Chinese spy Marianna Liu visited Nixon’s bedroom, the recorded messages of South Vietnam’s “November Surprise” which torpedoed Humphrey’s election, the defeat there which NRO’s Explorer system had recorded, etc.
The Plumber mission was deliberately sabotaged by McCord failing to remove the tapes from doors down to the garage-level entrance he used to re-enter the complex, fearing apparently that a successful operation would so reveal misdoings by the Agency that the White House would be bound to take drastic action against it. Of course, this reason had to be covered up in all accounts by all kinds of bogus claims - Hoover was just protecting disclosure of his homosexuality rather than that at the White House, the Agency was protecting itself for having arranged on its own for Hughes to build the Glomar Explorer to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine (Project Jennifer), the DNC was protecting itself against disclosure of a sex ring John W. Dean’s bride-to-be was helping run from it to blackmail politicians, especially Republicans, etc.
The arrest of the five burglars - followed shortly thereafter by those of Hunt, Liddy and lookout Alfred Baldwin - made what they were trying to photograph hardly a concern at all. The White House was most eager just to dismiss it as an ill-conceived rogue operation, and when it couldn’t, it tried to get the Bureau to just stick to the suspects, and the Agency to provide a national security cover against it being exposed while behind the scenes it attempted to secure the silence in various ways of those accused, and others involved, particularly Plumber secretary Kathleen Chenow. If she started talking to the Bureau, all the White House plots risked being exposed.
Dean, the President’s counsel, was responsible for keeping the cover up under control, especially her. (See Emery, p. 201) The basic details of the cover-ups were contained in the June 20th tape of the conversation between Nixon and Haldeman in the EOB – what became known ultimately as the “181/2 minute gap” and “the smoking gun” when, in fact, the whole discussion had been erased. “The conclusion was,” Nixon’s Chief of Staff wrote in his diaries, “that we’ve got to hope that the FBI doesn’t go beyond what’s necessary in developing evidence and that we can keep a lid on that, as well as keeping all the characters involved from getting carried away with unnecessary testimony.” (p. 473)
For the Oval Office, the immediate problems were to get John Mitchell to give up being CRP Chairman, O’Brien to give up any thoughts of helping torpedo somehow Nixon’s re-election, and Vice President Spiro Agnew to step aside so that former Treasury Secretary John B. Connally could take his place on the Republican ticket – what would render any SIGINT intelligence about them or had by them as benign as possible. Lookout Baldwin had indicated to his lawyers that he was willing to go after Mitchell, and while he didn’t have the evidence to prove his case, it was feared that O’Brien did, especially since he issued a statement stating that the break-in “raised the ugliest question about the integrity of the political process that I have encountered in a quarter century of political activity.” (Quoted from Emery, p. 159.)
To force Mitchell’s resignation, his wife Martha, who was campaigning for the President’s re-election, started speaking out wildly about her husband, claiming Nixon’s henchmen Erlichman and Haldeman had called her husband at the crack of dawn in California to inform him of the arrests. Then she made hysterical calls to the famous UP White House reporter, Helen Thomas, claiming that her husband was involved in Watergate, and that she was going to kick him out of the house “…if John didn’t get out of politics…” – a conversation she terminated by pulling the phone line out of the wall. Bob Woodward paid a visit to her Essex House apartment in NYC to get an exclusive interview in which she stated she was writing a book about the “dirty politics” which were required to get statesmen like Nixon elected. Because of Martha’s erratic behavior – conveniently assumed to be the result of her growing alcoholism - Mitchell resigned at the end of June.
O’Brien, instead of getting the inquiry he demanded about the break-in, was subjected to a wide-ranging criminal investigation, and political attacks while the White House continued to manage its cover-up of Plumber operations.The Justice Department and the IRS started a criminal inquiry into his possible tax evasion on the Howard Hughes yearly retainer - what was serious enough to scare him off from being Senator George McGovern’s Vice Presidential candidate.
Besides, LBJ was unwilling to endorse McGovern because he thought he was all wrong about Vietnam, promising to work behind the scenes to help Nixon’s re-election. Ultimately, the pursuit of O’Brien on unpaid taxes for $190,000 from Hughes would turn out to be a “dry hole”, as Erlichman reported in September - as he was cleared in an IRS audit – but the threat had been good enough to move him out of the picture, as he obviously did not want a detailed scrutiny of his finances.
Getting rid of Agnew was a more difficult matter, as he was Vice President, and the only real successor to Nixon was Connally, though he did not think that he could follow the President by becoming Spiro’s successor. Besides, Agnew was the vital connection to the Mafia, and able to mobilize Democrats for Nixon by his bitter attacks on McGovern, though bringing his own psychological soundness into question in the process. Frank Sinatra, leader of Hollywood’s Rat Pack who had just arranged Mafioso Angelo DeCarlo’s early release from prison and pardon through Agnew by giving John Dean $100,000 in cash as an “unrecorded contribution”, and another $50,000 to the CRP, was most unhappy with having to deal with Connally now in such matters – what was resolved by having the singer lead a celebrity reception at the Residence.
More important, Agnew had been responsible for the appointment of Chalres C. Richey, a Democrat, as a federal judge whose ex-parte statements about the $1,000,000 civil-damage action the DNC had initiated against the CRP’s Maurice Stans for the break-in, and whose pushing for a plea-bargain settlement of a Mann Act prosecution of Phillip Bailley proved most beneficial to the White House. Richey”…told Roemer,” counsel for the RNC, Dean told Nixon,”he thought Maury (Stans) ought to file a counter libel action.” (Quoted from Silent Coup, 226.) The criminal prosecution of Bailley similarly got nowhere when the judge said to the parties that it was in the interest of all to settle the action without further inquiry. The only party whose interest was served by the settlement was John Dean’s as Bailley, as his address book showed, was helping run a prostitution ring out of the DNC to get dirt on its politicians with the help of Dean’s wife-to-be, Maureen Biner.
In sum, nothing was done to get rid of Agnew until the prosecution of the Plumbers, and Nixon’s re-election was successfully negotiated. Of course, the coup de grace to the Democrats had been National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s apparently arranging a successful conclusion to the Vietnam War. The settlement was essentially what LBJ had negotiated back in 1968, though this time there was no trouble, it seemed, from President Thieu after Kissinger went to Saigon to get him to go along. “We’d have everything done by the end of the year,” Kissinger told Nixon, DNSA Haig, and Haldeman on October 12th.
Unfortunately, the NSA did not even reach a settlement, much less its implementation by year’s end – as Thieu was increasingly objecting to what was being proposed - inducing Nixon to appoint Agnew to force him to agree: “He is to convince Thieu as leader of the hawks,” Haldeman wrote in his diaries, “that there will be no support for him unless he goes along.” (p. 553)
To soften up the North Vietnamese to accept the plan too, Nixon authorized B-52 raids on the North, and the reseeding of Haiphong Harbor with mines. After four weeks of devastating raids, reminiscent of Operation Arc Light carried out after the Tonkin Gulf incidents, the North Vietnamese and South Vietnam’s President were forced to settle. Of course, the bombing campaign put the NRO under the greatest strain to gather satellite intelligence of targets through its station at Pine Gap – what risked causing a political rupture with Australia’s government if exposed.
Haldeman put the result of Vice President’s mission this way in the January 23rd entry: ”Thieu had finally capitulated a few days before.” Agnew was so pleased with his negotiating skills that he requested a meeting with the wary Nixon during which he proposed to …”take a trip to Egypt to visit Sadat, and see if he could try and untangle something on the Middle East.” The incredulous President explained it all to Agnew wanting to rebuild his image.
Agnew had given Thieu the same aim when he strong-armed him into accepting the terms of the proposed settlement, as he apparently did try to improve his image in America in a way the White House least expected - telling LBJ how he had been persuaded by the current Vice President not to take the terms Johnson was proposing four years earlier. Dean had already called for hard evidence to prove that LBJ had ordered the FBI to bug Nixon’s plane during the 1968 campaign to counter the fallout from the Watergate convictions, and when the former President heard that the Bureau’s former executive Cartha ‘Deke’ De Loach was looking into the matter, ”…LBJ got very hot, and called Deke, and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release (deleted material – national security), saying that our side was asking that certain things be done.” (Haldeman, January 12, 1973, p. 567) De Loach, Haldeman added, took this as a direct threat.
While De Loach indicated that LBJ had called for bugging Nixon’s plane – a request he claimed the Bureau declined – and a check of Mrs. Anna Chennault phone calls, and a tap put on her phone, LBJ obviously had other ideas, and planned to come to Washington to make his case among disgruntled Democrats. ”Mitchell,” Haldeman added, “also said he was meeting with O’Brien today, and will make reference to this whole thing in that meeting and see what he can smoke out.”
Undoubtedly, the former Attorney General was looking for confirmation that LBJ had the NRO’s goods on Nixon’s meddling - his “November Surprise” back in 1968 - and had confided documents and Thieu’s testimony in the DNC Chairman about it all. It was all shaping as a most unprecedented inaugural for Nixon. (For more on this, see the January 11, 1973 tape of the conversation in the Oval Office between Nixon and Haldeman in Stanley I. Kutler, ed. Abuse of Power, pp. 202-4 - noting in passing that it is not followed by another taped recording for three weeks, the biggest gap of all.)
Former President Johnson died on the plane while making his way back from Washington on January 22nd, apparently victim of a heart attack, reminiscent of how Hoover had died. Of course, he could have died from the angina he was suffering from, popping nitroglycerin pills often to keep the pain manageable, though the trip itself – what he felt impelled to make to rebuild his reputation – killed him. The actual cause of death we will never know, as there was no autopsy, as in Hoover’s case.
There is still alarming evidence that he did not die a natural death. Johnson’s trip back to Texas had been supervised by White House Dr. Walter Tkasch, a physician noted for giving the patient what he wanted, and a good friend of the Agency’s Dr. Sidney Gottlieb who was currently running its ORD program, the successor to MK-ULTRA. (For more on this, see the article about DCI Richard Helms.) In 1968, ORD people set up a joint program with the Army Chemical Corps (Project OFTEN) to study the effects of various drugs on living creatures.It hoped to discover, John Marks quoted a researcher saying in The Search for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’, “a compound that could simulate a heart attack or a stroke in the targeted individual.” (p. 227)
Was LBJ that targeted individual? Marks certainly made it sound so when he added this about the just sacked DCI because of his failure to provide Agency cover for the Watergate: “In January 1973, just as Richard Helms was leaving the Agency and James Schlesinger was coming in, Project OFTEN was abruptly canceled.”
Some other unlikely changes, or just coincidences, included Laird - the elected official best known for stating the politicians have to live longer with their consciences than with their constituents - resigned hurriedly just a week about LBJ died. Laird had joined Nixon in getting Thieu to reject his intended surprise to help Humphrey win the November 1968 presidential election, and he knew that Johnson’s survivors had the goods on his dirty work, so his sudden departure from the Washington scene reduced the need of exposing it.
To replace him, Nixon quickly got Elliot Richardson – the Secretary of Health, Education, and Environment, and who went on to become Attorney General just four months later when the Watergate scandal was really heating up – in the Pentagon office, and the move seemed like another convenient means of a cover up. Richardson, as we shall see, was involved in seeing if dilantin, a pill that Nixon was taking for his depression, could be approved for general public consumption for almost anything by the department.
Then when Schlesinger moved from the Agency to the Pentagon for more house cleaning, he made McLucus Secretary of the Air Force, the first undersecretary to be so advanced, so that he could explain whatever the NRO had been doing which required some public explaining.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind are the tapes it had amassed about the details of the former President’s sudden death when he was taken back to his Texas ranch on Air Force One, and arranging a cover up there with Lady Bird about what had happened – one so successful that the public still believes that he died while having a long sojourn there!