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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)
Nixon aide John Ehrlichman passes on the president’s recommendations to the heads of the “Plumbers,” Egil Krogh and David Young (see July 20, 1971), regarding “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see Late June-July 1971): “Tell Keogh he should do whatever he considers necessary to get to the bottom of this matter—to learn what Ellsberg’s motives and potential further harmful action might be.” Within days, Keogh and Young will give Ehrlichman a memo detailing the results of investigations into Ellsberg and a dozen of Ellsberg’s friends, family members, and colleagues. The memo also says that the CIA’s psychological profile of Ellsberg is “superficial.” Keogh and Young recommend a covert operation be undertaken to examine the medical files held by Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding (see September 9, 1971). Ehrlichman approves the idea, with the caveat, “If done under your assurance that it is not traceable.” They also suggest that MI5 (British intelligence) wiretaps on Soviet KGB personnel in England in 1952 and 1953, the years when Ellsberg attended Cambridge University, be examined for any mention of Ellsberg. Ehrlichman approves this also. (Reeves 2001, pp. 352-353)
Nixon aide John Ehrlichman gives a progress report on the activities of the “Plumbers” to the president. “Plumbers” head Egil Krogh has “been spending most of his time on the Ellsberg declassification,” Ehrlichman reports, referring to the probe into “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see Late June-July 1971). “We had one little operation. It’s been aborted out in Los Angeles, which, I think, is better that you don’t know about. But we’ve got some dirty tricks underway. It may pay off.” The “little” Los Angeles project—designated “Hunt/Liddy Special Project No.1” in Ehrlichman’s notes—is the burglary of the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding (see September 9, 1971). The “aborted” mission refers to Ehrlichman’s refusal to countenance a second break-in, this time of Fielding’s home. (Reeves 2001, pp. 368-369)
President Nixon’s “Plumbers” unit, tasked to plug media leaks from administration officials and outsiders to the media, burglarizes the Los Angeles office of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding to find damaging information on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst and patient of Fielding who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the media. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007) Ellsberg is a former Marine captain in Vietnam and protege of Henry Kissinger who had a change of heart over the war; he then leaked a secret set of Pentagon documents to the New York Times detailing how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had secretly escalated the war in Vietnam (see June 13, 1971).
Watergate Connection - One of the burglars is Eugenio Martinez, who later is arrested as one of the five Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Martinez and two others—Felipe de Diego and the mission leader, E. Howard Hunt, who will supervise the Watergate burglary—are all old “CIA hands” heavily involved in anti-Castro activities. Martinez is still active in the CIA, as is Hunt, whom he often refers to by his old CIA code name of “Eduardo.” Another Watergate burglar, CIA agent Bernard Barker, is also involved in the Ellsberg burglary.
Martinez: Burglary a Near-Disaster - Hunt tells Martinez and Diego that they are to burglarize the offices of a “traitor” who is spying for the Soviet Union, and that the mission was ordered by the White House, where Hunt is now an aide. Barker tells the Cubans, “We have to find some papers of a great traitor to the United States, who is a son of a b_tch .” The men will become a unit outside the normal law enforcement and intelligence channels, operating within but not part of the CIA, FBI, and “all the agencies,” Martinez will later recall. They buy photographic equipment at Sears, and Hunt and Diego use disguises—wigs, fake glasses, false identification, and voice-altering devices. “Barker recognized the name on Hunt’s false identification—Edward J. Hamilton—as the same cover name Eduardo had used during the Bay of Pigs,” Martinez will recall. The planning, Martinez will recall, is far looser and less meticulous than “anything I was used to in the [CIA].” A disguised Hunt and Diego, masquerading as delivery men, deliver the photographic equipment to the office; later that night, they and Martinez break in and rifle the office. Martinez will write that Hunt and de Diego looked “kind of queerish” in their disguises, with their “Peter Lorre-type glasses, and the funny Dita Beard wigs” (see February 22, 1972). Before the break-in, Barker, who does not enter, whispers to Martinez, “Hey, remember this name—Ellsberg.” Martinez does not recognize the name. (Martinez and Barker 10/1974; Reeves 2001, pp. 369)
Comedy of Errors - The burglars wait for hours until the cleaning lady leaves for the night, and find the door to the building locked. At that point, a fifth man, “George,” whom Martinez learns is G. Gordon Liddy, another of the Watergate burglars also involved in the Ellsberg planning, appears and tells them to break in through a window. (Martinez and Barker 10/1974) Three burglars—Bernard Barker, Felipe de Diego, and Eugenio Martinez—perform the actual break-in, while Hunt and Liddy act as lookouts. (Reeves 2001, pp. 369) The burglary is quickly turning into a comedy of errors, Martinez will recall. “This was nothing new. It’s what the Company did in the Bay of Pigs when they gave us old ships, old planes, old weapons. They explained that if you were caught in one of those operations with commercial weapons that you could buy anywhere, you could be said to be on your own. They teach you that they are going to disavow you. The Company teaches you to accept those things as the efficient way to work. And we were grateful. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had any help at all. In this operation it seemed obvious—they didn’t want it to be traced back to the White House. Eduardo told us that if we were caught, we should say we were addicts looking for drugs.” Martinez finds nothing concerning Ellsberg in the office except for Fielding’s telephone book, which Martinez photographs. Before leaving, Martinez spills some pills from Fielding’s briefcase—“vitamin C, I think”—over the floor to make it seem as if the burglars had broken in looking for drugs. As they leave the office, Martinez spots a police car trailing them, but they are not stopped. “I thought to myself that the police car was protecting us. That is the feeling you have when you are doing operations for the government. You think that every step has been taken to protect you.”
Failure; Training for Bigger Mission? - Martinez feels that the burglary is a failure, but Hunt insists that they celebrate anyway. Martinez tells Diego that the break-in must either be a training exercise for a more important mission to come, or it was a cover operation for something else. “I thought to myself that maybe these people already had the papers of Ellsberg. Maybe Dr. Fielding had given them out and for ethical reasons he needed to be covered. It seemed that these people already had what we were looking for because no one invites you to have champagne and is happy when you fail,” he will write. Martinez’s CIA supervisor is strangely uninterested in the incident. “I was certain then that the Company knew about his activities,” Martinez will write. “But once again my CO did not pursue the subject.” (Martinez and Barker 10/1974) Hunt telephones Plumbers supervisor Egil Krogh at 4 a.m. to report that the burglary was a success but they found no files on Ellsberg. (Reeves 2001, pp. 369)
Egil “Bud” Krogh, the former White House aide who helped coordinate the “Plumbers” (see March 20, 1971), pleads guilty to violating the civil rights of Dr. Lewis Fielding. The “Plumbers” broke into Fielding’s office to try to find incriminating evidence against one of Fielding’s clients, Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971). Krogh will serve six months in jail of an original two-to-six-year sentence. (O.T. Jacobson 7/5/1974 ) Krogh said during the trial, “I now feel that the sincerity of my motivation cannot justify what was done, and that I cannot in conscience assert national security as a defense.” (Harper's 10/1974)
Former White House aides John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy, and three Cuban-Americans, including two of the convicted Watergate burglars (see January 8-11, 1973), Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez, are charged with planning and executing the burglary of the offices of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (see September 9, 1971). Colson will quickly reach a plea-bargain agreement, promise to cooperate with the prosecution, plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, and serve approximately seven months in prison. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 335; Billy Graham Center 12/8/2004) He will also be disbarred. In the guilty plea agreement, Colson admits to having devised “a scheme to obtain derogatory information about Daniel Ellsberg,” who himself was facing criminal charges relating to the Pentagon Papers leak. Colson wanted to smear Ellsberg’s reputation in the media, in essence having Ellsberg “tried in the newspapers” even though this would have an “adverse effect on his right to a fair trial.” Colson also admits to having written a “scurrilous and libelous memorandum” about one of Ellsberg’s attorneys. He does not admit to actually taking part in the planning of the Fielding burglary. (Time 6/17/1974) In 2006, White House counsel John Dean will write that Colson’s promise of cooperation is virtually worthless: “[I]n the end he proved to be utterly useless as a government witness, since the government could not vouch for his honesty.” (Dean 2006, pp. xxiii)
G. Gordon Liddy, one of the “Plumbers,” is convicted of an array of crimes related to the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971), and is sentenced from six to twenty years in prison. He faces concurrent charges of violating the civil rights of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding (see March 7, 1974). (O.T. Jacobson 7/5/1974 )
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