Saturday, September 3, 2016

This Day in Presidential History (Nixon ‘Plumbers’ Dig for Ellsberg Dirt)

Sept. 3, 1971—Angered by release of the Pentagon Papers, the so-called “Plumbers” unit hired by the Nixon Administration broke into the office of the psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg in an attempt to discredit the leaker of the secret history of the Vietnam War.

The two principal members of the unit, ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI special agent, would be indicted less than a year later for the bungled burglary at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate hotel that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon.

The move against Ellsberg had been precipitated by the New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. Though the story of the war covered its escalation under Democratic, not Republican, Presidents, Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger believed that its publication would inflame the anti-war agitation that was roiling against their administration.

Before long, the role of Ellsberg in releasing the materials came to light. A former Marine Corps officer, he worked for the State Department in the mid-1960s in Vietnam. Once home, as a consultant for the Rand Corp., he became so disturbed by what he saw while working on the 7 the Pentagon Papers that he photocopied and distributed its 7,000 pages to The New York Times, the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.

By the end of June, in what he called “probably the most important Cabinet meeting this year, and perhaps through next year,” Nixon made plain his feelings about leaks: as summarized by Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and published in The Haldeman Diaries:If we are going to have order in government, there must be a process for making decisions so we can get the best possible advice without being compromised by it being publicized.”

Egged on by Kissinger, who was calling Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” Nixon likened the whistleblower to Cold War spies Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as people who claimed justification for disclosing government secrets “for the sake of the country.” “We’re going to go forward on Ellsberg and prosecute him,” the President said—and, in short order, Ellsberg and Rand colleague Anthony Russo were charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917—the first people ever indicted for a leak of classified information.

J. Edgar Hoover, normally keen on investigating dissidents, had assigned only a “very low priority” to getting information on Ellsberg, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman recalled later. Frustrated, Nixon appointed Egil “Bud” Krogh, Jr. and Kissinger aide David Young, Jr. to head a special investigations unit (nicknamed “the plumbers,” referring to their aim of stopping the leaks) to obtain evidence to discredit Ellsberg. In turn, Krogh and Young hired Liddy and Hunt, who proposed a covert option: to raid psychoanalyst Lewis Fielding’s office in Los Angeles. Ehrlichman wrote back, approving the operation, in writing, on one condition: that it not be “traceable.”

With disguises provided by the CIA, Hunt and Liddy broke into Fielding’s office and crowbarred open the four-drawer filing cabinet. Before leaving, they trashed they office to give the impression of a drug theft.

Hunt and Liddy found nothing with which to smear Ellsberg, but they did find in his file a paper he had written for the American Political Science Association called “Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine,” in which he alluded to classified information he had seen, implicitly confirming his access to the Pentagon Papers.

The trial of Ellsberg and Russo on 12 felony counts did not begin until January 1973. But hearings and trials connected with Watergate began that same month, and the revelations from these would affect the fate of Ellsberg, who faced 115 possible years in prison:

*Ehrlichman met twice with the judge presiding over the Ellsberg trial, William Matthew Byrne, and, despite being told that the judge could not consider anything while in charge of the case, offered him the post of FBI Director.

*Byrne learned, via the Watergate trials, that Hunt and Liddy had burglarized Fielding’s office.

*It was revealed in court that the FBI had wiretapped and taped conversations between Ellsberg and Kissinger aide Morton Halperin, who had supervised the Pentagon Papers.

By May 1973, Byrne had had enough. “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice," Byrne told the court. "The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case."  Upon his dismissal of the case because of government misconduct, the court erupted in applause.

In July 1974, Ehrlichman, Liddy, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez were convicted of conspiring to violate the civil rights of Fielding.

The term “Watergate” came to mean an entire web of political scandals and misdeeds—not just the burglary at the hotel that brought it into the open, but also domestic surveillance, campaign-finance fraud, dirty tricks against Democratic opponents, and even Nixon’s income taxes. But the Ellsberg operation had at its heart the same principal operatives who were involved in the June 1972 attempt by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (with the appropriate acronym CREEP) to infiltrate Democratic headquarters. 

If Nixon had only shut down the Plumbers immediately after the Ellsberg break-in, he might never have had to endure impeachment proceedings and the resignation under pressure that resulted from this.

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