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Context of 'Late December 1972: FBI Director Burns Incriminating Nixon Administration Documents'

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White House counsel John Dean orders the opening of a safe belonging to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Dean orders that the contents be turned over (six days later, after Dean and other White House officials have had a chance to peruse them) to the FBI. The documents will soon be given to FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray, who keeps them for six months before burning them (see Late December 1972). Gray will later admit to the incident in his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 28-29, 1973). [Time, 4/2/1973] Dean finds in the safe, among other things, a loaded .25 caliber pistol; the attache case of burglar James McCord, loaded with electronic surveillance equipment and a tear gas canister; CIA psychological profiles of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see March 1971); pages from the Pentagon Papers; memos to and from Nixon aide Charles Colson; two falsified diplomatic cables implicating former President John F. Kennedy in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Diem Dinh; and a dossier on the personal life of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Nixon aide John Ehrlichman advises Dean to throw the contents of the safe into the Potomac River. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 501-502] Shortly thereafter, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, in discussions with a young assistant in White House aide Charles Colson’s office, learns that Hunt has been investigating Kennedy’s checkered past, particularly the Chappaquiddick tragedy of 1969, in which an apparently inebriated Kennedy drove his car into a lake, drowning his companion of the evening, Mary Jo Kopechne. Hunt was apparently looking for political ammunition against Kennedy in preparation for a possible presidential run. According to a former Nixon administration official, Colson and fellow Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman were “absolutely paranoid” about a Kennedy campaign run. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 30-31]

Entity Tags: H.R. Haldeman, E. Howard Hunt, Charles Colson, Carl Bernstein, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, L. Patrick Gray, John Ehrlichman, John F. Kennedy, Ngo Dinh Diem, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne, John Dean

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray burns key documents in the Watergate case. He has had the documents, originally kept in the safe of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, in his possession for about five months. The two Nixon aides who gave him the documents, John Ehrlichman and John Dean, warned Gray that they were “political dynamite” and should never see the light of day. Gray dithers over what to do with the documents for that entire time period before finally burning them with his Christmas trash. The documents include falsified diplomatic cables that implicated former President John F. Kennedy in the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, and a dossier on Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy’s troubled personal life. Gray will later tell investigators that he destroyed the papers because they had no relation to Watergate, and in 2005 will admit that he destroyed them on direct orders from White House officials. He will say that he had no idea “that these guys are trying to sandbag me,” and will add, “I know it’s hard for people to think somebody could be so stupid, but I believed them.” [New York Times, 7/7/2005] Gray will reveal his destruction of evidence during the Watergate investigation (see April 27-30, 1973).

Entity Tags: John Ehrlichman, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, E. Howard Hunt, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John F. Kennedy, John Dean, Nixon administration, Ngo Dinh Diem, L. Patrick Gray

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Attorney General Richard Kleindienst meets with President Nixon to tell him that White House counsel John Dean has testified about the White House’s ordering of the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971). The biggest problem is not the ties to the Watergate burglary, Kleindienst says, but the trial of Daniel Ellsberg now going on in Santa Monica, California (see May 11, 1973). The prosecution must inform the trial judge about the new information, and the judge must decide whether to inform Ellsberg’s lawyers. Nixon tries to claim that the break-in is a matter of national security and must not be divulged, but Kleindienst says it is too late for that, the information will “be out in the street tomorrow or two days from now, a week, and the law clearly dictates that we have to do—it could be another g_ddamn cover-up, you know.… We can’t have another cover-up, Mr. President.” Nixon says, “I don’t want any cover-ups of anything.”
Motive - Dean’s primary motive for divulging this information is his desire for immunity from prosecution, Kleindienst believes. He adds that Deputy Attorney General Henry Peterson has asked about granting Dean immunity: “and he even comes up to the point where a trump card of Dean would be that I’m going to implicate the president—and I told Henry at that point you have to tell Dean to go f_ck himself. You’re not going to blackmail the government of the United States and implicate the president in the Ellsberg matter.” Nixon, depressed and reckless, says that maybe he should just be impeached and removed from office, letting Vice President Spiro Agnew have the presidency. “There’s not going to be anything like that,” Kleindienst assures Nixon.
Details of Testimony - Nixon also grills Peterson about Dean’s testimony, and learns that Dean has divulged his knowledge of the destruction of key evidence by FBI chief L. Patrick Gray (see Late December 1972 and April 27-30, 1973)—Gray denies destroying the evidence, claiming Dean is lying. Nixon says Gray has to resign. Peterson says he will not give in to Dean on any attempt to blackmail his way into an immunity agreement; Nixon agrees, comparing it to the stories of paying Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt “hush money” (see June 20-21, 1972)—“I would never approve the payoff of Hunt,” Nixon assures Peterson. Nixon ends the conversation by asking Peterson for the details of any upcoming case against chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. Peterson agrees to give him that information. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 595-598]

Entity Tags: L. Patrick Gray, E. Howard Hunt, Daniel Ellsberg, Federal Bureau of Investigation, H.R. Haldeman, Richard Kleindienst, Richard M. Nixon, Henry Peterson, John Dean

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The New York Daily News reports that acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray destroyed potentially incriminating evidence taken from the safe of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see Late December 1972). Gray, who testified to this days before to the Watergate grand jury, said that he received the material from White House counsel John Dean. “I said early in the game,” Gray testifies, “that Watergate would be a spreading stain that would tarnish everyone with whom it came in contact—and I’m no exception.” Shortly afterwards, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward learns from his “Deep Throat” source, FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt (see May 31, 2005), that the story is true. Felt informs Woodward that Gray was told by Nixon aides Dean and John Ehrlichman that the files were “political dynamite” that could do more damage to the Nixon administration than Watergate (see June 28, 1972). Woodward realizes that the story means Gray’s career at the FBI is finished. Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein write their own report for April 30; the same day, Gray resigns from the FBI (see April 5, 1973). Instead of Felt being named FBI director, as he had hoped, Nixon appoints the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruckelshaus, to head the bureau. Felt is keenly disappointed. [Time, 8/20/1973; O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file; Woodward, 2005, pp. 96-98] When he learns of Gray’s actions, Post editor Howard Simons muses: “A director of the FBI destroying evidence? I never thought it could happen.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 306-307] The FBI’s 1974 report on its Watergate investigation dates Gray’s resignation as April 27, not April 29 [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file] , a date supported by reports from Time. [Time, 8/20/1973]

Entity Tags: Carl Bernstein, E. Howard Hunt, John Dean, Bob Woodward, John Ehrlichman, Howard Simons, William Ruckelshaus, L. Patrick Gray, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Daily News, W. Mark Felt, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Former acting director of the FBI L. Patrick Gray testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee. He admits to destroying potentially incriminating evidence (see Late December 1972), and testifies that although he improperly cooperated with the White House in providing Nixon aides with FBI files on its Watergate investigation, he never considered himself part of the Watergate conspiracy: “At no time did I feel I was dealing with individuals who were trying to sweep me into the very conspiracy that I was charged with investigating. That’s a madman’s horror.” Gray, a Navy veteran, adds: “In the service of my country, I withstood hours and hours of depth charging, shelling, bombing, but I never expected to run into a Watergate in the service of a president of the United States. And I ran into a buzz saw, obviously.” [New York Times, 7/7/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Nixon administration, L. Patrick Gray

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The Justice Department’s Office of Planning and Evaluation (OPE) submits a report on the role and actions of the FBI in the Watergate investigations. The report finds that, even with the attempts of former Attorneys General John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst, White House aides John Dean and Jeb Magruder, and others to “mislead and thwart the Bureau’s legitimate line of inquiry,” and the “contrived covers” used to direct attention away from the White House, the FBI investigation was “the ultimate key to the solution of not only the Watergate break-in (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) but the cover itself.” The report continues: “There can be no question that the actions of former Attorneys General Mitchell and Kleindienst served to thwart and/or impede the Bureau’s investigative effort. The actions of John W. Dean at the White House and Jeb S. Magruder at the Committee to Re-elect the President were purposefully designed to mislead and thwart the Bureau’s legitimate line of inquiry. At every stage of the investigation there were contrived covers placed in order to mislead the investigators.” The OPE notes the following problems in the investigation, and provides explanations of some:
bullet Providing information concerning ongoing investigations to the White House, and allowing Dean to actually sit in on interviews of White House personnel (see June 22, 1972).
bullet Failing to interview key members of CREEP, the Nixon re-election campaign organization, as well as allowing CREEP attorneys to sit in on interviews of CREEP employees and allowing those attorneys access to FBI investigative materials. The report says that the investigation initially focused on James McCord and E. Howard Hunt, and interviewed CREEP officials tied directly to them. The net was widened later on. However, the report acknowledges that many CREEP employees undoubtedly lied to FBI investigators, “most notably John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Bart Porter, Sally Harmony, and Maurice Stans.” Porter and Magruder in particular “lied most convincingly.” Another CREEP employee, Robert Reisner (Magruder’s assistant), was not interviewed because Reisner successfully hid from FBI investigators. The FBI believes it was Reisner who cleaned out the “Operation Gemstone” files from Magruder’s office (see January 29, 1972 and September 29, 1972). Numerous other financial and other files were also destroyed after being requested by the FBI, most notably Alfred Baldwin’s surveillance tapes and logs from the Democratic offices in the Watergate (see May 29, 1972). Many of these files were destroyed by G. Gordon Liddy. “It is apparent that most [CREEP] people in the summer of 1972 were quite willing to lie and/or tell us considerably less than the full truth,” the report notes.
bullet An untenable delay in searching and securing Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt’s desk in the White House, putting the contents of that desk at risk of being removed, and the “[a]lleged activities by former Acting Director [L. Patrick] Gray to limit, contain, or obstruct FBI investigation of Watergate” (see June 22, 1972). Gray is known to have destroyed materials from Hunt’s desk given to him by Dean, and is known to have extensively interfered with the FBI’s investigation (see June 28-29, 1972 and Late December 1972). The report notes that while it cannot find specific evidence that Gray broke any laws in his attempts to impede the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate conspiracy, it is clear that Gray cooperated with the White House, specifically through Dean, to ensure that the White House was always aware of what avenues of investigation were being pursued. The OPE says that Gray’s destruction of files from Hunt’s safe did not necessarily impede the FBI’s investigation, because it has no way of knowing what was in those files. The report says that it is unfortunate that “many people make no distinction between the FBI’s actions and Mr. Gray’s actions.”
bullet Failure to interview key individuals with knowledge of the suspicious monies found in the burglars’ bank accounts.
bullet Failing to secure and execute search warrants for the burglars’ homes, automobiles, and offices. The OPE says that many of those issuing this criticism “should know better,” and claims that the FBI agents involved did their level best to obtain search warrants within the bounds of the law. The report notes that after the burglary, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Earl Silbert, did not believe there was probable cause to search burglar James McCord’s home or office until after July 10, 1972, when Baldwin told the FBI that he had taken surveillance equipment to McCord’s home (see June 17, 1972). Even then, Silbert decided that because of the amount of time—23 days—that had expired, a search warrant would have been pointless.
bullet Failing to identify and interview a number of people listed in the burglars’ address books. The OPE report notes that the decision to interview far less than half of the names in the books was made by FBI agents in the Miami field office, and due to the “fast moving extensive investigation which was then being conducted,” the decision to only track down a selected few from the books was right and proper. The report notes that subsequent interviews by reporters of some of the people in the address books elicited no new information. The report also notes that Gray refused to countenance interviews of the remaining subjects in the address book while the trial of the seven burglars (see January 8-11, 1973) was underway.
bullet Failing to find and remove a surveillance device from the Democratic National Committee headquarters (see September 13, 1972). The OPE calls this failure “inexplicable.”
bullet Failure to thoroughly investigate CREEP agent Donald Segretti (see June 27, 1971, and Beyond) and other CREEP operatives. The OPE finds that because Segretti was initially uncooperative with FBI investigators, and because an “extensive investigation” turned up nothing to connect Segretti with the Watergate conspiracy, the agents chose not to continue looking into Segretti’s actions. Only after press reports named Segretti as part of a massive, White House-directed attempt to subvert the elections process (see October 7, 1972) did the FBI discuss reopening its investigation into Segretti. After reviewing its information, the FBI decided again not to bother with Segretti. The OPE finds that the decision was valid, because Segretti had not apparently broken any federal laws, and the FBI does not conduct violations of election laws unless specifically requested to do so by the Justice Department. The report also says that politics were a concern: by opening a large, extensive investigation into the Nixon campaign’s “dirty tricks,” that investigation might have impacted the upcoming presidential elections.
bullet Media leaks from within the FBI concerning key details about the investigation (see May 31, 2005). The report finds no evidence to pin the blame for the leaks on any particular individual. The report notes that New York Times reporter John Crewdson seemed to have unwarranted access to FBI documents and files, but says it has turned that matter over to another agency inside the bureau.
bullet Failing to interview, or adequately interview, key White House officials such as H. R. Haldeman, Charles Colson, Dwight Chapin, and others. The report justifies the decision not to interview Haldeman because the FBI had no information that Haldeman had any knowledge of, or involvement in, the burglary itself.
bullet “Alleged attempt on part of Department of Justice officials to limit, contain, or obstruct FBI investigation.” The report is particularly critical of Kleindienst’s concealment of his contact with Liddy about the burglary (see June 17, 1972).
bullet “Alleged attempt by CIA officials to interfere, contain, or impede FBI Watergate investigation.” The report notes that during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, Republican co-chairman Howard Baker (R-TN) tried repeatedly to assert that the CIA was behind the burglary. The report calls Baker’s theory “intriguing” but says no evidence of CIA involvement on any operational level was ever found. The report notes that there is still no explanation for the discussions regarding the CIA paying the burglars (see June 26-29, 1972), or the CIA’s involvement with Hunt before the burglary—loaning him cameras, providing him with materials for a disguise, and helping Hunt get film from the first burglary developed. According to the report, Gray stopped the FBI from pursuing these leads. The FBI report says that the CIA involvement apparently had nothing to do with the Watergate burglary, but was more in support of Hunt’s activities with the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971).
bullet “Alleged activities on part of White House officials to limit, contain, or obstruct FBI Watergate investigation (Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, et cetera).” The report notes, “There is absolutely no question but that the president’s most senior associates at the White House conspired with great success for nine months to obstruct our investigation.” The report says it was “common knowledge” throughout the investigation that the White House was paying only “lip service” to investigators’ requests for honest, complete answers; the report cites Dean as a specific offender. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file]

Former FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, who resigned under fire during the Watergate investigation (see April 27-30, 1973), appears on ABC’s This Week to respond to the recent revelation that his then-deputy, W. Mark Felt, was the notorious informant “Deep Throat” (see May 31, 2005). Thirty years before, Felt had lied to Gray when asked if he had leaked information to the press (see October 19, 1972). Gray, whose health is in serious decline, airs decades’ worth of pent-up grievances against both Felt and the Nixon administration, which he says left him to “twist slowly, slowly in the wind” (Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s words—see Late March, 1973) after he admitted giving information about the Watergate investigation to White House staffers (see June 28, 1972 and July 21, 1972). He felt “anger, anger of the fiercest sort” after hearing Ehrlichman’s words, and adds, “I could not believe that those guys were as rotten as they were turning out to be.” He was justified in burning key White House documents instead of turning them over to the FBI (see Late December 1972), he says, because the documents were unrelated to the Watergate investigation. Learning that Felt, his trusted deputy, was “Deep Throat” was, Gray says, “like [being] hit with a tremendous sledgehammer.” Gray says that if he could, he would ask Felt: “Mark, why? Why didn’t you come to me? Why didn’t we work it out together?” Gray says he now realizes that he could not stop the FBI from leaking information to the press because Felt was in charge of stopping the leaks. “I think he fooled me… by being the perfect example of the FBI agent that he was.… He did his job well, he did it thoroughly, and I trusted him all along, and I was, I can’t begin to tell you how deep was my shock and my grief when I found that it was Mark Felt.” Two weeks after the interview, Gray will die of cancer. [New York Times, 6/26/2005; Roberts, 2008, pp. 151] After Gray’s death, his son Ed Gray will call his father “the only wholly honest” man involved in Watergate. [Associated Press, 7/6/2005]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Ed Gray, ABC News, Federal Bureau of Investigation, L. Patrick Gray, W. Mark Felt, John Ehrlichman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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