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Late June-July 1971: Nixon Authorizes ‘Plumbers,’ Orders Media Leaks to Smear Ellsberg

President Nixon authorizes the creation of a “special investigations unit,” later nicknamed the “Plumbers,” to root out and seal media leaks. The first target is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press (see June 13, 1971); the team will burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, in hopes of securing information that the White House can use to smear Ellsberg’s character and undermine his credibility (see September 9, 1971). Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who supervises the “Plumbers,” will later say that the Ellsberg burglary is “the seminal Watergate episode.” Author Barry Werth will later write, “[L]ike all original sins, it held the complete DNA of subsequent misdeeds.” During the upcoming court battle over the documents, Nixon tells his aide Charles Colson: “We’ve got a countergovernment here and we’ve got to fight it. I don’t give a damn how it’s done. Do whatever has to be done to stop those leaks.… I don’t want to be told why it can’t be done.” Whatever damaging information the “Plumbers” can find on Ellsberg will be itself leaked to the press, Nixon says. “Don’t worry about his trial [referring to Ellsberg’s arrest on conspiracy and espionage charges (see June 28, 1971) ]. Just get everything out. Try him in the press… leak it out.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 84-87] As he is wont to do, Nixon refers to his own success in convicting suspected Communist spy Alger Hiss in 1950. “We won the Hiss case in the papers,” he says. “We did. I had to leak stuff all over the place. Because the Justice Department would not prosecute it.… It was won in the papers…. I leaked out the papers. I leaked everything.… I leaked out the testimony. I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury.” [Kutler, 1997, pp. 10; Reeves, 2001, pp. 337-338] In July 1973, FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt, the notorious “Deep Throat” (see May 31, 2005) will tell reporter Bob Woodward that Nixon created the Plumbers because the FBI would not do his bidding in regards to Ellsberg. Had the FBI agreed to investigate Ellsberg to the extent Nixon wanted, he would not have created the “Plumbers.” “The problem was that we [the FBI] wouldn’t burglarize” (see June 30-July 1, 1971), Felt will say. Ehrlichman will later testify, “Those fellows were going out as substitutes for the FBI.” [Woodward, 2005, pp. 107]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, ’Plumbers’, Alger Hiss, Daniel Ellsberg, Richard M. Nixon, W. Mark Felt, Lewis Fielding, Bob Woodward, John Ehrlichman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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