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Context of 'June 20, 1972: Investigation Must Not Find Campaign ‘Horrors,’ Nixon, Aides Vow'

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President Nixon, regretting his removal of the secret tape recorders in the White House left behind by former president Lyndon Johnson, orders the installation of a sophisticated, secret taping system in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room, which will, when activated, record every spoken word and telephone conversation in either chamber (see July 13-16, 1973). The Oval Office’s microphones will be voice-activated; the Cabinet Room’s with a switch. Nixon orders his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to see to the installation, and to keep it extremely quiet. Haldeman delegates the installation to aides Lawrence Higby and Alexander Butterfield. Haldeman decides the Army Signal Corps should not install the system because someone in that group might report back to the Pentagon; instead he has the Secret Service’s technical security division install it. The work is done late at night; five microphones are embedded in Nixon’s Oval Office desk, and two more in the wall light fixtures on either side of the fireplace, over the couch and chairs where Nixon often greets visitors. All three phones are wiretapped. By February 16, the system in both chambers is in place. All conversations are recorded on Sony reel-to-reel tape recorders, with Secret Service agents changing the reels every day and storing the tapes in a small, locked room in the Executive Office Building. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 305]

Entity Tags: Lyndon B. Johnson, Alexander Butterfield, Richard M. Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, US Army Signal Corps, US Secret Service

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

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

In an early-morning meeting between Nixon campaign director John Mitchell and White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, the three agree that their first priority in the aftermath of the Watergate burglary (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) is to protect President Nixon. To that end, the Watergate investigations must be stopped before they lead to other unsavory political operations—campaign “horrors,” Mitchell calls them.
PR 'Counter-Attack' Discussed - Later this morning, Nixon and Haldeman discuss the need to keep the FBI’s Watergate investigation on a tight leash. They discuss “counter-attack” and “public relations” offensives to distract the media by attacking the Democrats. The White House needs a “PR offensive to top” Watergate, they say, and they “need to be on the attack—for diversion.” One suggestion is to dismiss the burglary as nothing but a prank. Most White House staffers, including Haldeman, seem to believe that fellow aide Charles Colson concocted the idea of the burglary; Haldeman says that Colson does not seem to know “specifically that this was underway. He seems to take all the blame himself.” Nixon replies, “Good.” Nixon worries that his secret taping system (see February 1971 and July 13-16, 1973) “complicates things all over.” Nixon closes the conversation by saying: “My God, the [Democratic National C]ommittee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion. That’s my public line.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 503-505; Reston, 2007, pp. 33]
Nixon, Colson Plan Delays - Later the same day, Nixon meets with senior aide Charles Colson. Several items from the conversation are damning in their specificity. Nixon tells Colson in regard of the Watergate burglary (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972), “If we didn’t know better, we would have thought it was deliberately botched.” This statement shows that Nixon has some detailed knowledge of the burglary, contrary to his later claims. Colson later says: “Bob [Haldeman] is pulling it all together. Thus far, I think we’ve done the right things.” Colson could well be referring to the White House’s attempts to distance itself from the break-in. Nixon says, referring to the burglars, “Basically, they are pretty hard-line guys,” and Colson interrupts, “You mean Hunt?” referring to the burglars’ leader, E. Howard Hunt. Nixon replies: “Of course, we are just going to leave this where it is, with the Cubans.… At time, uh, I just stonewall it.” Nixon then says, regarding the future of the Watergate investigation: “Oh sure, you know who the hell is going to keep it alive. We’re gonna have a court case and indeed… the difficulty we’ll have ahead, we have got to have lawyers smart enough to have our people delay, avoiding depositions, of course.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 46-47]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Charles Colson, E. Howard Hunt, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000

President Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, are cautiously optimistic that the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglary is being contained (see June 20, 1972). White House counsel John Dean seems to be in control (see June 22, 1972 and July 21, 1972), and so far, no one interviewed by the FBI is giving information about any connections to high-ranking White House officials. Nixon and Haldeman even find some humor in the situation. “What [Watergate burglar E. Howard] Hunt is doing is using all of the g_ddamn permissive crap that the previous Supreme Court has given us for his purposes,” Nixon says, “The same way that murderers and rapists get off.” Haldeman agrees. “The murderers and rapists have gotten off because of publicity, publicity, too much publicity,” Nixon continues. “I never agreed with it, but now that the court has spoken, that’s the law of the land. And if it’s good for a murderer, it’s good for a wiretapper.” Hilarity ensues. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 517-518]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, E. Howard Hunt, Richard M. Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, John Dean

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

’Newsweek’ cover on the revelation of the White House taping system.’Newsweek’ cover on the revelation of the White House taping system. [Source: Ideobook.net]White House aide Alexander Butterfield shocks the Senate Watergate Committee with his revelation of a secret recording system in the White House. Butterfield reveals that since 1971, President Nixon has been recording every conversation and telephone call in the Oval Office. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] Butterfield is actually the aide who, at Nixon’s request, had the taping system installed. [Sussman, 1974] He is now the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Taping System Installed in 1970 at Nixon's Behest - Butterfield says the taping system was installed in the spring or summer of 1970, but corrects his testimony after committee chairman Sam Ervin reads him a letter from Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt stating that the first time the system was used was the spring of 1971; Butterfield then says the system was installed at that time (see February 1971). The system was installed and operated by Secret Service agents. Asked why Nixon would have such a system, Butterfield replies, perhaps ingenuously, “There was no doubt in my mind they were installed to record things for posterity, for the Nixon library.” Committee counsel Samuel Dash says the committee will request selected tapes to hear for themselves. Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox is also expected to request some of the tapes. Dash acknowledges that two other Nixon aides, H. R. Haldeman and Lawrence Higby, were also asked about the existence of the taping system, but both have refused to confirm the existence of the device. [Washington Post, 7/17/1973] Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s deputy, Alexander Haig, also knew of the taping system, but Kissinger himself did not know. Former White House counsel John Dean suspected that such a system existed. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 331]
'Small Fry' - Butterfield is described by one reporter as a “small fry,” the man responsible for keeping Nixon’s schedule and handling paper flow. On July 13, three committee staff members prepare Butterfield for his public testimony of July 16. They ask whether there is a White House recording system, but are not prepared for Butterfield’s answer, or the ramifications of his admission. Butterfield makes the same admission three days later, in open testimony before the committee and the television cameras, and in more detail. [Houston Chronicle, 6/7/1997] Butterfield explains his reluctance to discuss the recording system by saying, “It is very obvious that this could be—I cannot say that any longer—is embarrassing to our government.” [Washington Post, 7/17/1973]
No Longer Dean's Word Against Nixon's - During preparation, when the staff members ask Butterfield how the White House could have such detailed knowledge of the conversations, Butterfield replies: “I was hoping you guys wouldn’t ask me that.… Well, yes, there’s a recording system in the White House.” Nixon had had five voice-activated microphones placed in his desk in the Oval Office and two in wall lamps by the office fireplace, Butterfield reveals. More were in the Cabinet Room, Nixon’s “hideaway” office in the Old Executive Office Building, and even at Camp David, the presidential retreat. Before Butterfield’s testimony, Nixon and his top legal advisers felt they could duck and deny the worst charges against them. They feel that much of the Watergate imbroglio boils down to Nixon’s word against White House whistleblower John Dean (who had informed the committee that he suspected a recording system existed), and as Haig, who succeeded Haldeman as Nixon’s chief of staff, told Nixon: “Nobody in Congress likes [Dean]. We can take the son of a b_tch on.” Few in the White House know of Nixon’s secret and extensive taping system. Although senior Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman had told the few aides who do know of the system to invoke executive privilege and refuse to discuss it, Haig quietly told at least one aide, his former deputy Lawrence Higby, to “tell the truth” if asked under oath. Nixon’s lawyers had effectively rebutted Dean’s earlier testimony when Buzhardt secretly supplied a sympathetic Senate lawyer with highly detailed, nearly verbatim accounts of Nixon and Dean’s private conversations—accounts drawn from the secret tapes. Haig will later claim to be “shocked” at Butterfield’s revelation, saying, “It never occurred to me that anyone in his right mind would install anything so Orwellian as a system that never shut off, that preserved every word, every joke, every curse, every tantrum, every flight of presidential paranoia, every bit of flattery and bad advice and tattling by his advisers.” In reality, Haig had known of the system for months before Butterfield’s testimony, and had advised Nixon to have the tapes destroyed before the Watergate prosecutors could get their hands on them. [Washington Post, 7/17/1973; Werth, 2006, pp. 81-82] “Without the tapes,” reporter Mike Feinsilber will write in 1997, “it was unlikely Nixon would have had to give up the presidency.” [Houston Chronicle, 6/7/1997] Butterfield was considered so unimportant that, had Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein not pressured committee lawyers to interview him, the committee may not have bothered with him. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 330-331]

Entity Tags: H.R. Haldeman, Mike Feinsilber, John Dean, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Lawrence Higby, Alexander Butterfield, Fred Buzhardt, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Richard M. Nixon, Nixon administration

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The research staff for British interviewer David Frost, preparing for his upcoming interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), receive two key documents from Leon Jaworski’s special prosecutor files (see November 1, 1973) that are, in essence, the government’s plan for questioning Nixon if he were to ever take the stand as a criminal defendant in federal court. One document is entitled “RMN [Richard Milhous Nixon] and the Money,” and concentrates on the March 21, 1973, conversation with then-White House counsel John Dean concerning Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt’s demand for “hush money” (see Mid-November, 1972) and the attempts in the following weeks to explain away the payments to Hunt. The document is divided into five parts: Nixon’s statements about the money; Nixon’s knowledge of the payouts before March 21; the nature of the payment itself; the cover-up of Nixon’s role in the payout; and Nixon’s role in developing a defense against possible obstruction of justice charges. The second document cites excerpts from the June 20, 1972, conversations between Nixon and his then-senior aide Charles Colson (see June 20, 1972 and June 20, 1972). [Reston, 2007, pp. 45-47]

Entity Tags: David Frost, Charles Colson, E. Howard Hunt, John Dean, Richard M. Nixon, Leon Jaworski

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

April 13, 1977: Frost Pins Tape Erasure on Nixon

In his first interview session with former President Richard Nixon about Watergate (see April 13-15, 1977), David Frost asks about what then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman knew on June 20, 1972 (see June 20, 1972), when he and Nixon discussed Watergate in the conversation that would later be erased from Nixon’s secret recordings (see November 21, 1973).
Avoiding Questions - Nixon tries to accuse Frost of putting words in his mouth; Frost refuses to be baited. Nixon then uses diversion, addressing not the June 20 conversation, but instead spinning out a discourse focusing on his lack of advance knowledge of the break-in and accusing the media of pinning unwarranted blame on him. Frost lets him speak, then focuses again on the conversation: “So we come back to, what did Haldeman tell you during the eighteen-and-a-half minute gap?” Nixon dodges the known material in that conversation—the suggested “public relations offensive” to evade criticism and investigation of the burglary, and instead says that he and Haldeman were worried that the Democrats had bugged the Executive Office Building.
Questions about Stennis's Hearing - He tries to segue into a digression about charges of Democratic eavesdropping from the 1950s, but Frost pulls him back, and asks why he offered to allow only one senator, Mississippi Democrat John Stennis (see October 19, 1973), to hear the tapes. Stennis was “alas, partially deaf and very old.” Frost notes that the sound quality of the tapes was often poor, and adds, “If you and [Nixon’s personal secretary] Rose Mary Woods could not hear them clearly, Senator Stennis was not an ideal choice.” Nixon tries to turn Frost’s question into a challenge to Stennis’s intellect and even his integrity, but Frost repeats: “His hearing is crucial. You’ve just said so.” Nixon retorts that he has never noticed a problem with Stennis’s hearing, and even if Stennis had hearing problems, “[a]fter all, there’s an invention called hearing aids…” Frost is clearly enjoying Nixon’s marked discomfiture, but is unaware that he is making a gaffe of his own: Stennis has, by all accounts, perfectly good hearing. However, Nixon knows nothing of Frost’s error, and writhes under Frost’s relentless questioning about Stennis’s alleged inability to adequately hear everything on the tapes. (Frost’s gaffe will not be noticed at the time and will first be revealed in James Reston Jr.‘s 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon.)
Who Erased the Tape? - Frost focuses on the question of who exactly erased the June 20 tape. It has been determined that only three people could have possibly erased the tape: Stephen Bull, Nixon’s assistant; Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary; and Nixon himself. No one was ever indicted for the crime of destruction of evidence because Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski was unable to determine who of the three might have actually performed the erasure. Nixon tells Frost that it could have been rogue Secret Service agents who erased the tape, but that charge falls flat under its own weight of implausibility. Bull had offered to take a lie detector test in denying that he erased the tape. And if Woods had erased the tape, it would have undoubtedly been by accident. The tape was subjected to at least five separate manual erasures, making an accidental erasure unlikely at best. That leaves Nixon as the most likely suspect. Nixon refuses to admit to erasing anything, and Frost says, “So you’re asking us to take an awful lot on trust, aren’t you?”
Avoiding Perjury Charges - After further dodging and weaving, Nixon finally falls back on a legal reason why he won’t answer the question: he had already testified under oath to a grand jury that he had not erased the tape; that Woods most likely erased the tape by accident. Being pardoned for his crimes during his presidency by Gerald Ford (see September 8, 1974) wouldn’t cover his lying under oath after his resignation, he says, and he isn’t going to give a jury a chance to charge him with perjury. [Reston, 2007, pp. 118-122]
Interview Airs in May - This interview will air on US television stations on May 4, 1977. [Television News Archive, 5/4/1977]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Stephen Bull, John Stennis, James Reston, Jr, David Frost, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, H.R. Haldeman, Leon Jaworski, Rose Mary Woods

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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