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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)
After years of protracted legal wrangling, selected portions of former President Richard Nixon’s secret White House recordings (see July 13-16, 1973) are made public. In a January 2, 1997 panel discussion on PBS, two former Nixon aides, John Ehrlichman and Monica Crowley, and former New York Times reporter Tom Wicker, discuss the content and dissemination of the tapes. All three have listened to the released portions of the tapes, currently housed at the National Archives.
Context - Ehrlichman complains that the selections lack context: “The archivist has snipped little tiny segments, in some cases six or eight seconds, and you don’t know what was said before or after. And it’s tough on a listener.… I think there could be a lot more context given. What they’ve done is try and select out the things that embodied abuses of government power under their regulations, and that’s what they’re giving you.” Wicker says it is hard to know when Nixon’s “popping off” about this or that supposed enemy was ever acted upon and when his instructions to “get” a particular person were ignored. Crowley says: “I think all presidents say things in the heat of disappointment, frustration, anger, even fatigue, that they never intend to have acted upon. And Nixon’s rantings have become a lightning rod for criticism because we can hear his but we can’t hear those of other presidents.”
Brookings Institution Burglary Halted - Ehrlichman explains why Nixon’s 1972 order to burglarize the Brookings Institution (see June 30-July 1, 1971) was never carried out: “because I shot it down.… I tracked down who had followed up—who was proposing to do this thing and I told ‘em to stop. It sounded ridiculous to me. So that was the end of it.”
Comparison of Ellsberg and Hiss - Ehrlichman says that, listening to the tapes, it seems as if Nixon was comparing Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the notorious “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971), to his “Communist” nemesis of the 1950s, Alger Hiss. Hiss, prosecuted by Nixon for allegedly selling US intelligence to the Soviet Union, helped Nixon vault to national prominence. Ehrlichman now says Nixon seemed to hope that Ellsberg could provide him with another, similar boost to his political stature before the 1972 presidential elections. In general, Ehrlichman says, Nixon was “very sensitive” to press leaks, especially those that he considered a threat to national security, and “his reaction in some cases was pretty extreme.”
Mentions of Jews - Ehrlichman goes on to address Nixon’s well-documented diatribes against Jews (see September 1971), and says that such outbursts were not confined to Jews: another day “it was major Italian donors to the Democrats, and [the next] it would be black contributors.… He broke it down along ethnic lines. He broke it down along socioeconomic lines. I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the fact that he was talking about Jewish people in this particular segment.” Wicker says the tapes largely confirm the public impression of Nixon as a “dark… evil man” because of his blatant orders of criminal behavior and his rampant ethnic slurs. (PBS 1/2/1997)
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