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Context of 'March 15-17, 1969: Nixon Launches Cambodian Air Strikes'

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Map showing the 115,273 targets bombed by US airstrikes between October 1965 and August 1973.Map showing the 115,273 targets bombed by US airstrikes between October 1965 and August 1973. [Source: Taylor Owen / History News Network]President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, discuss North Vietnamese sanctuaries and supply routes in the neutral border country of Cambodia. General Creighton Abrams, the US military commander in South Vietnam, wants those sites bombed, regardless of the fact that military strikes against locations in a neutral country would be flagrant violations of international laws and treaties. Abrams has assured the White House that no Cambodian civilians live in those areas—a false assertion. Nixon orders Kissinger to come up with a plan for bombing Cambodia. Kissinger, his military aide Alexander Haig, and Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman develop the basic plan in two days. The first wave of bombings will begin three weeks later (see March 15-17, 1969). Nixon’s secret bombings of Cambodia—dubbed “Operation Menu”—will trigger a wave of global denunciations, further energize the antiwar movement, and help precipitate the leak of the “Pentagon Papers” (see March 1971). [Reeves, 2001, pp. 48-49]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Henry A. Kissinger, ’Operation Menu’, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., H.R. Haldeman, Creighton Abrams

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Nixon makes the final decision to launch “Operation Menu”—secret air strikes against Cambodia (see February 23-24, 1969). He meets with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers, ostensibly to discuss the decision of whether “to bomb or not,” but unbeknownst to the two officials, Nixon has already issued the order and begun a system of phony telephone records put in place to disguise the bombings. Congress is not informed of the bombings. The first stage of the bombing, “Operation Breakfast,” is productive enough to lead Nixon to predict the war in Vietnam will be over by 1970. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 58-59]

Entity Tags: ’Operation Menu’, Melvin Laird, William P. Rogers, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Former New York Police Department detective Jack Caulfield begins his new job as a White House aide. Caulfield was added to the White House by Nixon aide John Ehrlichman after President Nixon’s decision to use private, secretly held funds for political intelligence operations (see January 30, 1969). Caulfield is to conduct various political intelligence operations without being noticed by the CIA, the FBI, or the Republican National Committee. Originally, the idea was to pay Caulfield out of unspent campaign funds from the 1968 elections (see November 5, 1968), but Caufield insisted on being given a White House position. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 67]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard M. Nixon, John Ehrlichman, John J. ‘Jack’ Caulfield

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The New York Times reveals the secret bombings of Cambodia, dubbed “Operation Menu” (see February 23-24, 1969 and March 15-17, 1969). National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger is apoplectic in his anger: shouting to President Nixon, “We must do something! We must crush those people! We must destroy them!” Kissinger is not only referring to the Times, but Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers, whom he believes leaked the information to the Times in order to discredit him. (Nixon has an unproductive phone conversation with Laird before his meeting with Kissinger; Nixon opened the phone call by calling Laird a “son of a b_tch,” and Laird hung up on the president.) Nixon suggests Kissinger’s own staff may be the source of the leaks. He is most suspicious of Kissinger’s aide Morton Halperin. By lunch, Kissinger has talked to the FBI about wiretapping suspected leakers. By dinner, Halperin’s phone is tapped. The next day, Kissinger’s military aide Alexander Haig has the FBI tap three more men “just for a few days,” warning the FBI not to keep any records of the wiretaps. The three targets are Kissinger’s aides Helmut Sonnenfeldt and Daniel Davidson, and Laird’s military assistant, Robert Pursley (who will again be wiretapped several months later—see May 2, 1970). At the same time, White House aide Jack Caulfield (see April 2, 1969) arranges for a wiretap on a private citizen, syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft. While the FBI wiretaps are legally questionable, Caulfield’s tap is unquestionably illegal. Caulfield has the director of security for the Republican National Committee, former FBI agent John Ragan, personally install the wiretap in Kraft’s home. The tap on Kraft produces nothing except the conversations of housekeepers, as Kraft and his wife are in Paris. Nixon has the French authorities wiretap Kraft’s Paris hotel room. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 75-76]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, William P. Rogers, Robert Pursley, Republican National Committee, Morton H. Halperin, Melvin Laird, Daniel Davidson, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., ’Operation Menu’, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Henry A. Kissinger, John J. ‘Jack’ Caulfield, John Ragan, Joseph Kraft, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

May 2, 1970: Haig Orders Four More Wiretaps

When the press reports the secret US-led invasion of Cambodia (see April 24-30, 1970) and the subsequent massive air strikes in that country, Alexander Haig, the military aide to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, notes that New York Times reporter William Beecher has been asking some suspiciously well-informed questions about the operation. Beecher’s latest story also alerts Defense Secretary Melvin Laird to the bombings (Laird, whom Kissinger considers a hated rival, has been kept out of the loop on the bombings). Haig tells the FBI he suspects a “serious security violation” has taken place, and receives four new wiretaps: on Beecher; Laird’s assistant Robert Pursley; Secretary of State William Rogers’s assistant Richard Pederson; and Rogers’s deputy, William Sullivan. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 212]

Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Henry A. Kissinger, William Sullivan, Richard Pederson, William P. Rogers, William Beecher, Robert Pursley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

Book cover of the Pentagon Papers.Book cover of the Pentagon Papers. [Source: Daniel Ellsberg]The New York Times receives a huge amount of secret Defense Department documents and memos that document the covert military and intelligence operations waged by previous administrations in Vietnam (see January 15, 1969). The documents are leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official who worked in counterintelligence and later for the RAND Corporation while remaining an active consultant to the government on Vietnam. Ellsberg, a former aide to Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and a member of the task force that produced the Defense Department documents, has, over his tenure as a senior government official, become increasingly disillusioned with the actions of the US in Vietnam. [Herda, 1994] The documents are given to Times reporter Neil Sheehan by Ellsberg (see May 1969). [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 313]
Ellsberg Tried to Interest Senators - After he and his friend Anthony Russo had copied the documents (see September 29, 1969), Ellsberg had spent months attempting to persuade several antiwar senators, including William Fulbright (D-AR), Charles Mathias Jr (R-MD), George McGovern (D-SD), and Paul “Pete” McCloskey (R-CA), to enter the study into the public record, all to no avail. But McGovern suggested that Ellsberg provide copies of the documents either to the New York Times or the Washington Post. Ellsberg knew Sheehan in Vietnam, and decided that the Times reporter was his best chance for making the documents public. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 333; Moran, 2007] Ellsberg originally gave copies of the documents—later dubbed the “Pentagon Papers”—to Phil Geyelin of the Washington Post, but the Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee decided not to publish any of the documents. Ellsberg then gave a copy to Sheehan.
Documents Prove White House Deceptions - The documents include information that showed former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made a secret commitment to help the French defeat the insurgents in Vietnam. They also show that Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, had used a secret “provocation strategy” to escalate the US’s presence into a full-blown war that eventually led to the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident. The documents also show that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had planned from the outset of his presidency to expand the war [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] , and show how Johnson secretly paved the way for combat troops to be sent to Vietnam, how he had refused to consult Congress before committing both ground and air forces to war, and how he had secretly, and illegally, shifted government funds from other areas to fund the war. Finally, the documents prove that all three presidents had broken Constitutional law in bypassing Congress and sending troops to wage war in Vietnam on their own authority. [Herda, 1994]
Times Publishes Against Legal Advice - The Times will begin publishing them in mid-June 1971 (see June 13, 1971) after putting Sheehan and several other reporters up in the New York Hilton to sift through the mountain of photocopies and the senior editors, publishers, and lawyers argued whether or not to publish such a highly classified set of documents. The management will decide, against the advice of its lawyers, to publish articles based on the documents as well as excerpts from the documents themselves. [Moran, 2007]

Entity Tags: Paul McCloskey, Washington Post, Phil Geyelin, RAND Corporation, New York Times, Johnson administration, Kennedy administration, Charles Mathias, Jr, Ben Bradlee, Anthony Russo, Neil Sheehan, Daniel Ellsberg, Henry A. Kissinger, George S. McGovern, Katharine Graham, J. William Fulbright, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Bo Burlingame, a former member of the radical antiwar group the Weather Underground, interviews former Nixon White House aide Tom Charles Huston, the author of the notorious, unconstitutional “Huston Plan” (see July 14, 1970). Huston is just coming off a speech to a conservative audience in which he said that his plan, and Nixon’s attempt to seize executive power at the expense of Congress and the Constitution, was excessive and mistaken (see Late 1973). Huston, a lawyer, a former Army intelligence officer, and an early leader of the Indiana chapter of the conservative extremist group Young Americans for Freedom, tells Burlingame that he found an interesting parallel between his group of right-wing extremists and Burlingame’s left-wing extremists: “I was interested to learn that you people were frustrated because nobody was listening to you. You know, we felt the same thing at the White House. It seemed as if a momentous crisis was at hand, and nobody was aware of it or cared.”
Coup d'Etat Begins with Creation of Fear in Populace - Huston is contemptuous and dismissive of many of his former White House colleagues, particularly Richard Nixon. “Frankly, I wouldn’t put anything past him and those damn technocrats,” he says of Nixon and his senior aides. “[Y]ou can’t begin to compete with the professional Nixonites when it comes to deception.… If Nixon told them to nationalize the railroads, they’d have nationalized the railroads. If he’d told them to exterminate the Jews, they’d have exterminated the Jews.” He took a position with the White House in January 1969 “believing that things were finally going to be set straight.”
Disillusioned - Huston became increasingly disillusioned with the lack of idealism in the Nixon White House, and left after deciding that Nixon and his top officials were less interested in implementing true conservative reforms and more interested in merely accumulating power. The Nixon team was an apolitical, power-hungry bunch “whose intellectual tradition is rooted in the philosophy of [marketing and advertising guru] J. Walter Thompson.… This administration has done more to debauch conservative values than anything else in recent history.”
Fear and Repression - Considering his plan to abrogate the fundamental rights of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Huston seems quite supportive of those rights even in the face of national danger. “The real threat to national security is repression,” he had told a New York Times interviewer not long before the Burlingame interview. “A handful of people can’t frontally overthrow the government. But if they can engender enough fear, they can generate an atmosphere that will bring out every repressive demagogue in the country.”
Explaining the Huston Plan - Huston explains the rationale behind his radically repressive plan, telling Burlingame that the country was on the brink of mass insurrection and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was not doing nearly enough to combat the civil rights and antiwar protesters, particularly groups like the Black Panthers and Burlingame’s Weather Underground. By early 1970, many in the White House were ready to ease Hoover out of power; when, shortly thereafter, the mass protests against the Cambodia bombings (see February 23-24, 1969 and April 24-30, 1970) and the Jackson State and Kent State shootings (see May 4-5, 1970) occurred, Huston and others at the White House thought there was a far more organized and systematic underground, left-wing revolution going on than they had evidence to document. “We just didn’t believe we were getting the whole story,” he says.
Removing Hoover - Getting rid of Hoover and replacing him with someone more amenable to the White House’s agenda was the first goal, Huston says. The June 1970 “Interagency Committee on Intelligence” (see June 5, 1970) was designed to maneuver around Hoover and have him implicitly authorize counter-insurrection methods that he had always opposed, including “surreptitious entry” and “covert mail coverage.” The committee was the genesis of the Huston Plan. But Hoover stops the plan in its tracks by going through Attorney General John Mitchell. Whatever he said to Mitchell is not known, but Mitchell chewed out Huston and saw to it that the plan was terminated. Huston says that the unit of illegal campaign operatives later known as the “Plumbers” (see July 20, 1971) stems in part from the White House’s inability to force Hoover from power. Had Hoover made the FBI available to conduct the illegal burglaries and surveillances that Nixon wanted done—had Nixon supported the Huston Plan—the Plumbers would have never come into existence. “I find that totally indefensible,” Huston observes.
Ethical Confusion - Burlingame is bemused by Huston’s apparent ethical schizophrenia—on the one hand, Huston has come out strongly for constitutional freedoms, and on the other hand is now saying that his plan, which he himself has long admitted was blatantly illegal, would have avoided the entire Watergate contretemps and would have worked to bring the country into line. In fact, Huston asserts, he believed at the time that the Watergate conspiracy was completely legal. “I took the view that in internal security matters the president had the right to infringe on what would, in other circumstances, be constitutional rights, but that decision encompassed a decision that you forfeit the right to prosecute.” This view is why he left the Justice Department entirely out of the loop on his plan, he says.
Deliberately Keeping outside the Framework of the Law - The entire Huston plan would have never been used for anything except intelligence-gathering, he says. It was necessary for the plan to be exercised outside the structure of US law, he says. “[Y]ou don’t want a constitutional or legal mandate,” he says. “You don’t want to institutionalize the excesses required to meet extraordinary threats. The law just can’t anticipate all the contingencies.” He now thinks that he went too far with pushing for extraordinary powers; that if Hoover could have been eased out of power, the FBI could have done what needed doing without breaking the law. Burlingame writes that he cannot help but think that Huston is employing “tortured legalisms” to “cover his flank,” and questions Huston’s portrait of himself as an increasingly marginalized conservative idealist who became so disillusioned with the amoral power-mad bureaucrats of the Nixon administration that he walked out rather than further jeopardize his own principles. [Harper's, 10/1974]

Entity Tags: John Mitchell, Bo Burlingame, Black Panthers, ’Plumbers’, Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Walter Thompson, Young Americans for Freedom, J. Edgar Hoover, Tom Charles Huston, US Department of Justice, Weather Underground, Nixon administration, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The US has been conducting airstrikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen, but denying responsibility for them, according to cables provided by the whistleblower organization Wikileaks to the British daily The Guardian. The bombings are being attributed to local forces rather than the US in an attempt not to rile Arab public opinion. The Guardian breaks the story based on a number of cables provided by Wikileaks, which contain damning quotes. In a September 2009 cable Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh told US President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, “I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible.” Following a strike that killed multiple civilians carried out by the US, but attributed to Yemenis in December 2009, US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche cabled Washington to say: “Yemen insisted it must ‘maintain the status quo’ regarding the official denial of US involvement. Saleh wanted operations to continue ‘non-stop until we eradicate this disease.’” Just over a week later, Saleh told General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” This prompted the deputy prime minister, Rashad al-Alimi, who was also at the meeting, to joke that he had just “lied” by telling parliament the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa (the alleged al-Qaeda strongholds) were American-made but deployed by Yemen. In addition to the secret bombings, the Yemen-related cables published by The Guardian on this day deal with Yemeni reluctance to meet some US demands, the inaccuracy of some US weapons, large payments to be made by the US to Yemen, the Saudi Arabian reaction to the strikes, poor counterterrorism training for staff at Yemeni airports, Yemen’s unwillingness to share information about Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, alleged to be an al-Qaeda bomb-maker, and poor counterterrorist infrastructure in Yemen. [Guardian, 12/3/2010] Before the “war on terror,” the last time the US bombed a country in secret was during the Vietnam War, when the US bombed Cambodia (see March 15-17, 1969). It was a New York Times report on the bombing that was one of the spurs behind President Richard Nixon’s formation of the later-infamous “plumbers” unit (see May 9-10, 1969).

Entity Tags: WikiLeaks, John O. Brennan, Rashad al-Alimi, Ali Abdallah Saleh, David Petraeus, The Guardian, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, Stephen Seche

Timeline Tags: US International Relations, Misc Entries, Domestic Propaganda

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