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Context of 'March 19-23, 1973: McCord Letter Indicates Larger Cover-up of Watergate'

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Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police.Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Five burglars (see June 17, 1972) are arrested at 2:30 a.m. while breaking in to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters offices in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex; the DNC occupies the entire sixth floor. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Discovery - They are surprised at gunpoint by three plainclothes officers of the DC Metropolitan Police. Two ceiling panels have been removed from the secretary’s office, which is adjacent to that of DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. It is possible to place a surveillance device above those panels that could monitor O’Brien’s office. The five suspects, all wearing surgical gloves, have among them two sophisticated voice-activated surveillance devices that can monitor conversations and telephone calls alike; lock-picks, door jimmies, and an assortment of burglary tools; and $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills in sequence. They also have a walkie-talkie, a shortwave receiver tuned to the police band, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35mm cameras, and three pen-sized tear gas guns. Near to where the men are captured is a file cabinet with two open drawers; a DNC source speculates that the men might have been preparing to photograph the contents of the file drawers.
Guard Noticed Taped Door - The arrests take place after a Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, notices a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage has been taped so it will not lock; the guard removes the tape, but when he checks ten minutes later and finds the lock taped once again, the guard calls the police. The police find that all of the stairwell doors leading from the basement to the sixth floor have been similarly taped to prevent them from locking. The door leading from the stairwell to the DNC offices had been jimmied. During a search of the offices, one of the burglars leaps from behind a desk and surrenders. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972] The FBI agents responding to the burglary are initially told that the burglars may have been attempting to plant a bomb in the offices. The “bomb” turns out to be surveillance equipment. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file]
Last Mission for Martinez - One of the burglars, Cuban emigre and CIA agent Eugenio Martinez, will recall the burglary. They have already successfully burglarized a psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating material on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971), and successfully bugged the DNC offices less than a month previously (see May 27-28, 1972), but Martinez is increasingly ill at ease over the poor planning and amateurish behavior of his colleagues (see Mid-June 1972). This will be his last operation, he has decided. Team leader E. Howard Hunt, whom Martinez calls by his old code name “Eduardo,” is obviously intrigued by the material secured from the previous burglary, and wants to go through the offices a second time to find more. Martinez is dismayed to find that Hunt has two operations planned for the evening, one for the DNC and one for the campaign offices of Democratic candidate George McGovern. Former CIA agent and current Nixon campaign security official James McCord (see June 19, 1972), the electronics expert of the team, is equally uncomfortable with the rushed, almost impromptu plan. Hunt takes all of the burglars’ identification and puts it in a briefcase. He gives another burglar, Frank Sturgis, his phony “Edward J. Hamilton” ID from his CIA days, and gives each burglar $200 in cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Interestingly, Hunt tells the burglars to keep the keys to their hotel rooms. Martinez later writes: “I don’t know why. Even today, I don’t know. Remember, I was told in advance not to ask about those things.”
Taping the Doors - McCord goes into the Watergage office complex, signs in, and begins taping the doors to the stairwells from the eighth floor all the way to the garage. After waiting for everyone to leave the offices, the team prepares to enter. Gonzalez and Sturgis note that the tape to the basement garage has been removed. Martinez believes the operation will be aborted, but McCord disagrees; he convinces Hunt and the other team leader, White House aide G. Gordon Liddy, to continue. It is McCord’s responsibility to remove the tape once the burglars are inside, but he fails to do so. The team is well into the DNC offices when the police burst in. “There was no way out,” Martinez will recall. “We were caught.” Barker is able to surreptitiously advise Hunt, who is still in the hotel, that they have been discovered. Martinez will later wonder if the entire second burglary might have been “a set-up or something like that because it was so easy the first time. We all had that feeling.” The police quickly find the burglars’ hotel keys and then the briefcase containing their identification. As they are being arrested, McCord, who rarely speaks and then not above a whisper, takes charge of the situation. He orders everyone to keep their mouths shut. “Don’t give your names,” he warns. “Nothing. I know people. Don’t worry, someone will come and everything will be all right. This thing will be solved.” [Harper's, 10/1974; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/7/2007]
'Third-Rate Burglary' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler will respond to allegations that the White House and the Nixon presidential campaign might have been involved in the Watergate burglary by calling it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” and warning that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.” [Washington Post, 5/1/1973] The Washington Post chooses, for the moment, to cover it as a local burglary and nothing more; managing editor Howard Simons says that it could be nothing more than a crime committed by “crazy Cubans.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 19]
CIA Operation? - In the weeks and months to come, speculation will arise as to the role of the CIA in the burglary. The Nixon White House will attempt to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA, an attempt forestalled by McCord (see March 19-23, 1973). In a 1974 book on his involvement in the conspiracy, McCord will write: “The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.” Another author, Carl Oglesby, will claim otherwise, saying that the burglary is a CIA plot against Nixon. Former CIA officer Miles Copeland will claim that McCord led the burglars into a trap. Journalist Andrew St. George will claim that CIA Director Richard Helms knew of the break-in before it occurred, a viewpoint supported by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, who will tell St. George that McCord is a “double agent” whose deliberate blunders led to the arrest of the burglars. No solid evidence of CIA involvement in the Watergate conspiracy has so far been revealed. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Howard Simons, Lawrence O’Brien, James McCord, Martha Mitchell, Richard M. Nixon, Richard Helms, Washington Post, Ron Ziegler, George S. McGovern, Miles Copeland, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, Frank Sturgis, Carl Oglesby, Bob Woodward, Andrew St. George, Central Intelligence Agency, Carl Bernstein, Democratic National Committee, Daniel Ellsberg, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Wills

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000

Accused Watergate burglar James McCord (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) writes a letter to former Nixon aide Jack Caulfield in an attempt to warn the Nixon administration not to try to pin the blame for Watergate on the CIA, as some White House aides have suggested. McCord writes in part: “Sorry to have to write you this letter but felt you had to know. If Helms goes [Richard Helms, the director of the CIA, who was asked to resign by Nixon—see November 20, 1972)], and if the WG [Watergate] operation is laid at the CIA’s feet, where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall. It will be a scorched desert. The whole matter is at the precipice right now. Just pass the message that if they want it to blow, they are on exactly the right course. I’m sorry that you will get hurt in the fallout.” [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: James McCord, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Helms, John J. ‘Jack’ Caulfield, Nixon administration

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

During the trial of the “Watergate Seven” (see January 8-11, 1973), unbeknownst to the press, the prosecution, or Judge John Sirica, Watergate defendant James McCord has been quietly writing anonymous letters to his former supervisors and friends at the CIA. McCord’s letters warn them that the White House intends to blame the agency for the Watergate conspiracy. His last unsigned letter goes to former White House aide Jack Caulfield, now working for the IRS (see December 21, 1972). “If [CIA director Richard] Helms goes and the Watergate operation is laid at CIA’s feet, where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall,” he writes, apparently alluding to his intention to tell what he knows. “Just pass the message that if they want it to blow, they are on exactly the right course.” Caulfield did indeed pass the message to the White House. During the trial, Caulfield met with McCord, representing “the highest level of the White House,” promising money and executive clemency for McCord if he will plead guilty and stay quiet. McCord does not take the deal (see March 19-23, 1973). [Reeves, 2001, pp. 561-562]

Entity Tags: James McCord, Central Intelligence Agency, John J. ‘Jack’ Caulfield, John Sirica, Richard Helms

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

G. Gordon Liddy.G. Gordon Liddy. [Source: Robert Maass / Corbis]Following on the five guilty pleas of their fellow defendants (see January 8-11, 1973), the final two Watergate defendants, G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, are found guilty of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping Democratic headquarters. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] During the trial, the court hears damning testimony from confessed Watergate accomplice Alfred Baldwin (see Mid-January 1973) and former Nixon campaign treasurer Hugh Sloan (see January 23, 1973). As the trial progressed, the stolid solidarity of the defendants began to crack, with Liddy’s lawyer attempting to shift the blame for criminal actions onto E. Howard Hunt, who pled guilty three weeks before. McCord’s lawyer won little sympathy from the jury by attacking Judge John Sirica’s impartiality and competence during the trial. Prosecutor Earl Silbert, calling Liddy “the leader of the conspiracy, the moneyman, the boss,” told the jury in his final statement, “[W]hen people cannot get together for political purposes without fear that their premises will be burglarized, their conversations bugged, their phones tapped… you breed distrust, you breed suspicion, you lost confidence, faith and credibility.” He asked for “a verdict that will help restore the faith in the democratic system that has been so damaged by the conduct of these two defendants and their coconspirators.” The jury takes a mere 90 minutes to return its verdict. Sirica orders the two immediately jailed while he considers bail. [Washington Post, 1/31/1973; Reeves, 2001, pp. 567]

Entity Tags: John Sirica, Alfred Baldwin, James McCord, Earl Silbert, E. Howard Hunt, Hugh Sloan, G. Gordon Liddy

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Sam Ervin.Sam Ervin. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The US Senate votes 77-0 to create the Select Committee on Presidential Activities, which comes to be known as the Senate Watergate Committee. The chairman is Sam Ervin (D-NC), whose carefully cultivated image as a folksy “country lawyer” camouflages a keen legal mind. Ervin’s deputy is Howard Baker (R-TN). [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] Senate Republicans attempt to dilute the effectiveness of the investigative committee with resolutions demanding probes into the 1964 and 1968 elections as well—Hugh Scott (R-PA) says there is “wholesale evidence of wiretapping against the Republicans” in the 1968 campaign, yet refuses to present any evidence—but those resolutions fail in floor votes. After the vote, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward learns that the resolutions were drafted by White House lawyers. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 250-251] Ervin, already chosen to head the committee, told fellow senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who held his own ineffective senatorial investigation, that he knew little more about the Watergate conspiracy than what he read in the papers, but “I know the people around [President] Nixon, and that’s enough. They’re thugs.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 247] Ervin has already contacted Woodward and asked him to help him compile information. Ervin implies that he wants Woodward to convince his unnamed sources to come forward and testify. Woodward demurs, but he and colleague Carl Bernstein write a story reporting Ervin’s intention to call President Nixon’s top aides, including H. R. Haldeman, to testify. [Woodward, 2005, pp. 93-94] Woodward does suggest that Ervin should take a hard look at the secret campaign “slush fund” (see Early 1970 and September 29, 1972), and that everything he and Bernstein have found points to a massive undercover operation led by Haldeman. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 247-249]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, H.R. Haldeman, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Howard Baker, Hugh Scott, Sam Ervin, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Convicted Watergate burglar James McCord (see January 30, 1973) writes a letter to the presiding judge, John Sirica, in response to Sirica’s requests for more information. McCord writes that he is “whipsawed in a variety of legalities”—he may be forced to testify to the Senate (see February 7, 1973), and he may be involved in future civil and other criminal proceedings. He also fears unspecified “retaliatory measures… against me, my family, and my friends should I disclose” his knowledge of the Watergate conspiracy. But McCord wants some leniency from Sirica in sentencing. McCord alleges that the five defendants who pled guilty did so under duress. The defendants committed perjury, McCord continues, and says that others are involved in the burglary. The burglary is definitely not a CIA operation, though “[t]he Cubans may have been misled” into thinking so. McCord writes, “I know for a fact that it was not,” implying inside knowledge of at least some CIA workings. McCord requests to speak with Sirica privately in the judge’s chambers, because he “cannot feel confident in talking with an FBI agent, in testifying before a Grand Jury whose US attorneys work for the Department of Justice, or in talking with other government representatives.” In his discussion with Sirica, he makes the most explosive charge of all: he and his fellow defendants lied at the behest of former Attorney General John Mitchell, now the head of the Nixon re-election campaign, and current White House counsel John Dean. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 275-276; Time, 1/7/1974; James W. McCord, Jr, 7/3/2007; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] It seems that McCord writes his letter to Sirica in retaliation for President Nixon’s firing of CIA director Richard Helms, and the White House’s attempts to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA (see December 21, 1972).

Entity Tags: Richard Helms, James McCord, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, John Dean, John Mitchell, John Sirica, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Virgilio Gonzalez, Frank Sturgis, former attorney Henry Rothblatt, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez, photographed during the trial. Virgilio Gonzalez, Frank Sturgis, former attorney Henry Rothblatt, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez, photographed during the trial. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The Watergate burglars are sentenced to jail. G. Gordon Liddy receives between six years eight months to twenty years in federal prison. The actual burglars—Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis—receive forty years. E. Howard Hunt receives 35 years. Judge John Sirica announces that the prison terms are “provisionary,” depending on whether they cooperate with government prosecutors. Convicted burglar James McCord is to be sentenced, but Sirica delays his sentencing, and reveals that McCord has written a letter to the court (see March 19-23, 1973) about the perjury and concealment that permeated the trial. After news of the letter hits the press, President Nixon writes in his diary that the letter is “a bombshell.” Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert says he will reconvene the grand jury investigating the break-in. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 578-580]

Entity Tags: James McCord, E. Howard Hunt, Bernard Barker, Earl Silbert, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, Richard M. Nixon, John Sirica, G. Gordon Liddy, Virgilio Gonzalez

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Senate Watergate counsel Samuel Dash tells reporters that, following the extraordinary letter from convicted Watergate burglar James McCord that alleged perjury and enforced silence in the trial of the burglars (see March 19-23, 1973), he has twice interviewed McCord. McCord has “named names” and begun “supplying a full and honest account” of the Watergate operation. He refuses to give details, but promises that McCord will soon testify in public Senate hearings. Shortly after the press conference, the Los Angeles Times reports that McCord named White House counsel John Dean and Nixon campaign deputy director Jeb Magruder as two of the Nixon officials involved in planning the Watergate surveillance operation. Dean has not been named as being involved in the Watergate planning until now. The White House denies Dean’s involvement; significantly, its statement does not mention Magruder—the Nixon administration has cut him loose. Three Capitol Hill sources confirm the story; one Republican politician anonymously tells the Post that McCord’s allegations are “convincing, disturbing, and supported by some documentation.” Dean’s lawyer learns of a planned follow-up story by the Washington Post and threatens to sue the Post if it prints the allegations; Post editor Howard Simons orders that the story be published, including the threat from Dean’s lawyer. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 276-277]

Entity Tags: Washington Post, Howard Simons, James McCord, Jeb S. Magruder, Nixon administration, Samuel Dash, John Dean

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

In his Watergate interview with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976 and April 13-15, 1977), David Frost continues from his earlier questioning about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate conspiracy (see April 13, 1977) to the events of March 21, 1973 (see March 21, 1973). Now that Nixon’s status as a co-conspirator from the outset has been established, Frost wants to know why Nixon claims not to have known about the illegal aspects of the cover-up, or about the blackmail demands of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, until this date. Nixon is cautious, claiming only that he learned of Hunt’s blackmail demands on March 21, and refusing to acknowledge that he knew anything about the $400,000 in payouts during the eight months preceding (see June 20-21, 1972).
Springing the Trap - Frost circles back, hoping for a flat confirmation: “So March 21 was the first day you learned about an illegal cover-up?” Nixon carefully says that March 21 was the day he learned of the “full import” of the cover-up, only having heard “smatterings” beforehand and being reassured by then-White House counsel John Dean that no White House personnel were involved. Frost springs his trap: “In that case, why did you say in such strong terms to [White House aide Charles] Colson on February 14, more than a month before, ‘The cover-up is the main ingredient, that’s where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The president’s losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal’” (see February 14, 1973). Nixon’s face betrays his shock. “Why did I say that?” he asks rhetorically, trying to gather himself. He fishes around for excuses, quickly settling on media reports at the time that tossed around charges of conspiracies, “hush money” payouts, and promises of executive clemency. That’s all he was referring to in the February 14 conversation, he says: the cover-up itself had to be avoided at all costs. Frost researcher James Reston, Jr. later writes, “It was an exquisite lie, a superb time warp.”
Error Goes Unnoticed - Only later do Reston and other research team members realize that no such stories had appeared in the media by February 14; in fact, allegations of a cover-up never made it into print until after burglar James McCord wrote his letter to Judge John Sirica on March 19 warning the judge of involvement of “higher-ups” in a conspiracy of silence (see March 19-23, 1973). No one had written publicly of any executive clemency deals until the subject was broached during the Senate Watergate investigative hearings (see February 7, 1973). But few of the millions who will see the interview will have the grasp of the chronology of events necessary to realize the extent of Nixon’s dishonesty.
Second Colson Bombshell - Frost reminds Nixon of his conversation with Colson of February 13 (see February 13, 1973), the day before, when they had discussed which Nixon official will have to take the fall for Watergate. Former campaign director John Mitchell couldn’t do it, the conversation went, but Nixon wants to know about Mitchell’s former deputy, Jeb Magruder. “He’s perjured himself, hasn’t he?” Nixon asked Colson. Frost asks Nixon, “So you knew about Magruder’s perjury as early as February the thirteenth?” Nixon bobs and weaves, talking about events from the year before, how Mitchell and Colson hated each other, how Colson and Ehrlichman hated each other. Frost brings Nixon back on point by reading another quote from the February 13 conversation, where Nixon says that “the problem” will come up if “one of the seven [indicted Watergate burglars] begins to talk…” Frost asks, “Now, in that remark, it seems to be that someone running the cover-up couldn’t have expressed it more clearly than that, could he?” Frost wants to know precisely what the phrase “one of the seven begins to talk” means. Nixon argues, but Frost refuses to be distracted. How can it mean anything else except “some sort of conspiracy to stop Hunt from talking about something damaging?” Frost asks. Nixon retorts, “You could state your conclusion, and I’ve stated my views.”
Nixon's Own Words Prove Knowledge, Complicity - Frost proceeds to pepper Nixon with his own quotes proving his knowledge and complicity, nine of them, a barrage that leaves Nixon nearly breathless. Nixon finally accuses Frost of taking his words out of context. Frost’s final quote is from an April 21 meeting where Nixon told aides John Dean and H. R. Haldeman, “Christ, just turn over any cash we got.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 126-134] After the taping, Nixon asks his aides about the Colson transcripts: “What was that tape? I’m sure I never heard that tape before. Find out about that tape.” [Time, 5/9/1977]

Entity Tags: James Reston, Jr, David Frost, Charles Colson, E. Howard Hunt, James McCord, John Sirica, Richard M. Nixon, John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, Jeb S. Magruder, John Mitchell

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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