Watergate’s final mystery

Underneath the media's obsession with the scandal lies the neglected story of the CIA's role

Topics: Watergate, CIA, Editor's Picks,

Watergate's final mysteryRichard Helms and Richard Nixon

Journalists are obsessing over Watergate again. Debate exploded this week over a new biography of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, excerpted in  New York magazine. It suggests the legendary editor privately doubted aspects of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting that helped bring about the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

The story prompted a strong denial from Woodward, a demurral from Bradlee, an online chat at Poynter and a Daily Beast story by independent scholar Max Holland, who argues Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the scandal, “All the President’s Men,” is “a fairly tale, albeit a compelling one.” After hyping the story for a couple of days, Politico then dismissed it as “a storm in a Washington teacup.”

Not quite. As Reuters columnist and Watergate buff Jack Shafer points out, “Watergate is the Ur-journalism story.” It is a true tale that defines the profession’s imagination and its relation to Washington power. But this latest round at the Watergate cooler has been stronger on the Ur- than the journalism, focusing more on the implications of Woodward and Bradlee’s thinking than on the abuses of power that they sought to uncover.

That’s too bad. If Watergate still matters, it is because the story tells us something about the intersection of power and journalism in Washington. The ur-personalities of these veteran newsmen are important but so are new facts, and recent revelations illuminate one aspect of the story that is often overlooked: the role of the CIA.

Woodward acknowledged as much in what is perhaps the single most interesting Watergate revelation of recent years. In June 2007, the CIA released most of the so-called “Family Jewels,” a long-suppressed internal report on the agency’s abuses of power. The newly declassified documents, Woodward wrote in the Post, showed in “telling detail” how the CIA, under the leadership of director Richard Helms, served as “the perfect Watergate enabler.”

The Helms/Nixon relationship lies at the heart of the Watergate story. Nixon, of course, was a paranoid genius, a master of resentment politics at home and geopolitical maneuvering abroad. Helms, his long-serving director of Central Intelligence, was the epitome of a CIA man in the Cold War: correct, discreet and ruthless.

The CIA’s involvement in Watergate, Woodward noted, “is one of the murkiest parts of the story.” He and Bernstein didn’t write about it much in “All the President’s Men,” not because they didn’t have suspicions but because they could not pin the story down. Howard Baker, vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, likened the Agency’s role to  “animals crashing around in the forest — you can hear them but you can’t see them.” And Helms’ role was especially elusive. Said Baker: “Nixon and Helms had so much on each other that neither one of them could breathe.”

Thanks to the release of the “Family Jewels” report and an extraordinary collection of 11 conversations between Helms and Nixon in 1971-73 (first published online in 2009) we can see (and hear) what Nixon and Helms had on each other: knowledge of the other guy’s record of  ”dirty tricks.”

Plenty of people suspected this at the time. The Agency’s fingerprints were evident in the botched burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate apartment complex. It was well known that five of the seven burglars had worked for the CIA. Four were Cuban-Americans from Miami involved in the Bay of Pigs operation. It was less well-known that the two ringleaders, James McCord and Howard Hunt, were career officers who had been personally close to Helms for more than a decade.

In his 2007 Post story, Woodward revealed that McCord had written the CIA director after his arrest in June 1972, seeking assistance. Another senior Agency official told Helms that he “felt strongly” that the letter should be turned over to the FBI, which was supposedly conducting a rigorous investigation of Watergate.

“It was a critical moment in the Watergate probe,” Woodward wrote, “with Nixon seeking reelection that fall and desperate to keep the botched burglary from spoiling his chances.” He went to write:

McCord’s letter to the CIA could have been important evidence; according to later testimony, he was seeking assistance from the CIA, where he had worked for decades, and was on the verge of blowing the whistle about Watergate, as he did months later in a famous March 21, 1973, letter to Judge John J. Sirica.

Instead, Helms told the FBI nothing. Investigators never learned the story and Woodward and Bernstein could never shake Helms’ dubious denials of any connection to the burglars, whom the Agency blandly  portrayed as “retired” employees acting on their own.

In hindsight, Woodward wrote that Helms “was anything but forthcoming.”

“The CIA had no involvement in the break-in. No involvement whatever,” Helms testified to the Senate Watergate committee on Aug. 2, 1973. “The agency had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in,” he added. “And I hope all the newsmen in the room hear me clearly now.”

You get the feeling Woodward felt Helms was personally lecturing him. (I left a message for Woodward requesting comment; he did not respond.)

The question, Woodward wrote in 2007, was, “What could have Helms known?”

One possibility, he said, was that he knew Howard Hunt was carrying out burglaries for the president. Another document made public in 2007 showed that Hunt had sent a memo to the CIA two months before the Watergate burglary seeking to hire a former CIA employee “accomplished at picking locks.” Helms, Woodward suggested, might have gotten wind of what Hunt was doing.

The question of what Helms knew about Watergate still matters because, amazingly enough, after 40 years later, we still don’t know who ordered the burglary or why. As Shafer told the Poynter discussion, “I’ve read all the books, listened to all the lectures, and even eaten dinner in the Watergate and I don’t know why Nixon’s people broke into the DNC twice and bugged it.”

What is certain is that Helms knew Hunt was working for the White House as early as April 1971. In response to Nixon’s pestering, Helms had offered the president two CIA reports on the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 and a report about the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Nixon was looking for facts that  would impugn the reputation of President John F. Kennedy and thus harm the presidential ambitions of the martyred president’s younger brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy who was expected to run for president in 1972.

“Obviously, I’m going to hand this stuff over to the President,” Helms told Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, “but I’d be terribly glad if you would get his backing not to share it with a lot of the staff of there. For example, I know that Howard Hunt has been doing some work. There’s nothing he’d like better than, as an old Agency hand to run around in some of the soiled linen there is around here, in the garbage cans and so forth.”

Here you can almost hear the clench-jawed East Coast mandarin that Helms was — “terribly glad” and “soiled linen” and all that — doing his damnedest to suck up to the president. The Nixon-Helms collaboration deepened in October 1971 when Nixon summoned the CIA director to the White House. Before the meeting, Ehrlichman briefed Nixon why Helms’ was visiting: He had “dirty line” to share. He said the CIA director had told him

that his relationship with past presidents had been such that he would not feel comfortable about releasing some of this very, very dirty linen to anyone without first talking it through with you because he was sure that when you became a former president you would want to feel that whoever was at the Agency was protecting your interest in a similar fashion.

Ehrlichman also reminded Nixon of Helms’ concerns about Howard Hunt, the White House “consultant.”

“Helms is scared to death of this guy Hunt that we got working for us because he knows where a lot of the bodies are buried,” he said.

When Helms arrived in the Oval Office, Nixon wasted no time in assuring him that he would keep the secrets of the CIA, which he called without irony, the “Dirty Tricks Department.” Nixon  said:

“I know what happened in Iran [CIA-sponsored coup in 1953] and I also know what happened in Guatemala [CIA-sponsored coup in 1954] and I totally approve of both. I also know what happened at the Bay of Pigs [the failed invasion to overthrow socialist Fidel Castro  in 1961], which was planned under Eisenhower. I totally approved of it. The problem was not the CIA. …

Nixon wanted it to be known that he could be trusted to defend the agency.

My interest there is solely to know the facts in the event that as time goes on here, things heat up, and this becomes an issue. That is what I want you to understand regarding any information.I need it for a defensive reason … “

Then, in his abrupt, awkward way, Nixon launched into a soliloquy about what political controversies the documents might shed light on:

Who shot John? Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Nixon to blame?

In the context of a negotiation over  sensitive government records from the early 1960s, Nixon’s aside — “Who shot John?” — could only have been a reference to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. But if Nixon was implying that the CIA might have something to hide on the question of who ambushed  the liberal president in Dealey Plaza, he was also assuring Helms he would keep the Agency’s secrets.

“I need to know what is necessary to protect frankly, the intelligence gathering and the Dirty Tricks Department and I will protect it,” Nixon said. “I have done more than my share of protection, and I think it’s totally right to do it.

Helms sensed his opportunity and spoke for the first time. He had an offering.

“Sir, as a matter of fact the reason that I want to speak …” he began. Helms said he had found a previously unknown document about the assassination of Diem in South Vietnam in 1963.

“When I saw this document I thought to myself, ‘This is the kind of document that I would be rather irresponsible if I didn’t go to the president and tell him what this document was,’” Helms explained. “I’ve got it right here. It’s got extracts from State Department cables, Defense Department cables …”

Helms passed the documents to Nixon. Nixon didn’t get anything with “who shot John” but he get a lot of who shot Diem (rival generals) and he might be able to use that against the hated Teddy Kennedy. The meeting ending on a satisfactory note for both men.

Nixon then passed the Diem cables to aide Chuck Colson (whose recent death was another blast from the Watergate past) who gave them to none other than Howard Hunt. A veteran undercover officer and dirty tricks specialist who loathed President Kennedy, Hunt doctored the cables to create the impression that JFK was complicit in the assassination of Diem, a pro-American despot.  The forged documents were then shown to a Life magazine writer in the hopes of creating problems for Ted Kennedy’s expected presidential candidacy. Life magazine turned down the story, perhaps because the animus behind the story was so transparent. Hunt moved on to other missions for the White House. The story of the doctored Diem cables was later uncovered by Watergate investigators but Helms’ supporting role remained obscure.

Helms and Nixon had forged an effective partnership. They spoke at least five more times in the coming months. On June 16, 1972, Nixon called him to tell about certain secret CIA operations involving Mexican President Luis Echeverria, the details of which are still secret. So when Hunt and other former CIA men were arrested at the Watergate the next day, Nixon simply assumed the CIA director would help him stonewall the investigation.

“We’ve protected Helms from a hell of a lot of things,” Nixon told his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972. He wanted to remind Helms that the investigation might lead to Cuba-related revelations that would harm the CIA.

“You open that scab and there’s a hell of a lot of things,”  Nixon went on, “and we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have things go any further. This involves these Cubans, Hunt and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”

Nixon could be sure Helms would know what he was talking about. He had been seeking sensitive CIA reports about the Bay of Pigs operations for more than a year; Hunt was a leading figure in that operation.  In his 1979 memoir, Haldeman speculated that Nixon was tacitly reminding Helms of two extraordinarily sensitive issues:  the CIA’s plots to kill Fidel Castro and the assassination of JFK.  The Oct.  8, 1971, tape lends credence to the notion. If Nixon had offered to protect the Agency’s interests on “who shot John” then surely Helms would cooperate with the White House in smoothing over what his press secretary described as a “third rate burglary.”

Nixon assumed wrong. “This has nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs,” the normally calm Helms shouted at Haldeman, who was surprised as his rage. Helms was a canny bureaucratic operator who was sensitive about Cuba and assassinations. He knew he could not block the FBI’s investigation without risk to his own position and he saw no reason why he should. Hunt was a useful scoundrel whose screw-ups were legendary but whose loyalty to the Agency was assured. Publicly and privately, Helms maintained the fiction that the Agency knew nothing of Hunt’s proclivities — and he kept very quiet about his own back channel to McCord. As Nixon and his aides scrambled to cover up the White House’s “dirty tricks,” the FBI — and the young reporters at the Washington Post — began to unravel the story, albeit without much insight into Helms’ role as enabler.

The secrets that Nixon and Helms shared exerted invisible gravitational force on the unfolding scandal. From his jail cell, Hunt let it be known that he would talk about his knowledge of “highly illegal conspiracies” at the CIA unless he was paid off. To underscore his point, he then published a memoir of the Bay of Pigs operation, “Give Us This Day,” which opened with a denunciation of  President Kennedy for his “shameful” failure to support the Agency’s anti-Castro rebels. His point was blunt and subtly ominous: if JFK had backed the CIA venture, he might not have been killed by an allegedly pro-Castro gunman in Dallas. Hunt was not one to get sentimental about the playboy president’s bloody end in Dallas. Like others in the CIA, he thought JFK was a contemptible weakling who had it coming. The “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was fraught indeed.

Amid such black intrigue, the spymaster proved more agile than the president. Helms avoided talking about what he knew of Hunt’s service to the White House while Nixon succumbed to the burglar’s blackmail, ordering aides to raise money to pay off Hunt for his silence. The CIA man cultivated Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham as a social friend. Nixon enmeshed himself further in the scandal.

Nixon and Helms parted ways in December 1972. Nixon forced the CIA director to resign; Helms extracted an ambassadorship so that his exit from Washington would not be tainted with Watergate or presidential disfavor. Besieged by investigators and the press, Nixon resigned 20 months later. Helms had to plead guilty to charges of lying to Congress about a CIA assassination conspiracy in Chile. But admiring colleagues rallied to his defense and, he was never held accountable for the Agency’s deeply suspicious role in the intelligence failure that culminated in the crime of Dallas. Thanks to the forgiving culture of Washington, both men outlasted their notoriety in the 1970s and lived out their lives as controversial but ultimately respectable statesmen.

The Shakespearean struggle of Richard Nixon and Dick Helms is central to the Watergate story. It speaks a volume about the covert workings of power in Washington and is still shrouded in official secrecy 40 years later. (For example, the JFK Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives contains 366 pages of  CIA documents on Howard Hunt that have never been made public.) But the unfinished story of the CIA and Watergate fits awkwardly in the annals of the scandal. Its implications eluded the best journalists of a generation and its legacy is not reassuring to readers.

Read: “The Keeper of Secrets Earns His Reputation,” by Bob Woodward, Washington Post, June 27, 2007.

Listen: “Who shot John?” Richard Nixon and Dick Helms’ discuss CIA dirty tricks on Oct. 8, 1971; read a summary here. Courtesy of Nixontapes.org.)

Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer for Salon in Washington and author of the forthcoming book, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday).

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