The FBI, Watergate And Deep Throat - What Really Happened When Nixon Fell

Revealed: Why The FBI Took Down Nixon

On May 2, 1972, in the darkness before dawn, J. Edgar Hoover died in his sleep. It rained all day as his closed casket lay on a black catafalque in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. He was buried half a mile from where he was born, alongside his parents. Forty years later, the myths and the legends are still alive.

“Oh, he died at the right time, didn’t he?” Nixon said. “Goddamn, it’d have killed him to lose that office. It would have killed him.”

A few minutes after Hoover’s casket left the Capitol, the acting attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, telephoned his most loyal assistant at the Justice Department, L. Patrick Gray.

“Pat, I am going to appoint you acting director of the FBI,” he said.

“You have to be joking,” Gray replied.

Gray was fifty-five years old, and he had never held an authority greater than the command of a submarine. He still had his navy crew cut. He was a bull-headed man with a jutting jaw, a straight-arrow Nixon acolyte. He had known the president for a quarter of a century, and he revered him. He had one qualification: he would do anything Nixon asked. Now the president was entrusting Hoover’s legacy to him. In a state of awe, Gray came to the White House after Hoover’s burial on May 4. Nixon gave him some sound advice.

“Never, never figure that anyone’s your friend,” the president said. “Never, never, never... You’ve got to be a conspirator. You’ve got to be totally ruthless. You’ve got to appear to be a nice guy. But underneath you need to be steely tough. That, believe me, is the way to run the Bureau.”

Gray lacked steel. He was a malleable man. He was deeply unsure of how to take control of the FBI. He dreaded being seen as “an interloper bent on pushing Hoover into the pages of history and remolding the FBI in my own likeness,” he wrote in a posthumously published memoir. He knew little about the Bureau. He understood nothing of its customs and traditions. He did not comprehend the conduct of the Bureau’s top commanders. He came to learn, as he wrote, that “they lied to each other and conned each other as much as they could.”

Thus began the dark ages of the FBI. In a matter of months, the joint conduct of Pat Gray; his new number-two man at the Bureau, Mark Felt; and his intelligence chief, Ed Miller, would come close to destroying the house that Hoover built. “Once Hoover died,” Miller remembered mournfully, “we were absolutely deluged."

“The delicate question of the President’s power”

Nixon called the Bureau on May 15, 1972, after George Wallace, the racist Alabama governor who had received nearly ten million votes running for president in 1968, was gravely wounded by a deluded gunman on the campaign trail. Mark Felt answered the president’s call.

“Bremer, the assailant, is in good physical shape,” Felt reported. “He’s got some cuts and bruises, and—”

“Good!” said Nixon. “I hope they worked him over a little more than that.”

Felt laughed. “Anyway, the psychiatrist has examined him,” he said, adding: “We’ve got a mental problem here with this guy.”

Nixon wanted one thing understood. “Be sure we don’t go through the thing we went through — the Kennedy assassination, where we didn’t really follow up adequately. You know?” He hammered home the point. “Remember, the FBI is in charge now, and they’re responsible, and I don’t want any slip-ups. Okay?”

“There’s no question about it,” Felt answered crisply. “You’re the one who’s calling the shots here.”

Nixon liked that answer. “Right,” he said.

“Fine. We appreciate your help. Thank you.” The conversation was over.

“Yes, Mr. President,” Felt said. “Bye.” They never spoke again.

Felt was in charge at headquarters for far longer than he had anticipated. Gray had set out across America to visit all of the FBI’s fifty-nine field offices and meet every special agent in charge. The acting director was on the road so often that agents at headquarters started calling him “Three-Day Gray.” On Saturday, June 17, he checked into the fashionable Newporter Inn
south of Los Angeles — as did John Mitchell, now chief of CREEP, the nickname for the Committee to Re-elect the President, and Mitchell’s trusted aide Robert Mardian, the former internal security chief at Justice.

All hell broke loose in Washington that weekend. The District of Columbia police arrested five men inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex. Among them was James McCord, a former FBI agent and CIA officer now working as chief of security for CREEP. The men had burglary tools, electronic devices, and a gadget that the police thought was a bomb disguised as a smoke detector. It was a sophisticated electronic-eavesdropping device. The suspects had crisp hundred-dollar bills and Watergate Hotel keys in their pockets. Their ringleaders were the gung-ho Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent counseling CREEP; and E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer who, the FBI quickly determined, worked for the president of the United States.

Supervisory special agent Daniel Bledsoe was running the major crimes desk at the FBI on the morning of Saturday, June 17, when he picked up the overnight report of the break-in. He recognized Liddy’s name; he had met him at the FBI a decade before. When he heard that the burglars had been caught with eavesdropping equipment, he immediately opened a case under the federal wiretapping statutes. At about four in the afternoon, his secretary answered the phone and told him the White House was calling.

“This is Agent Supervisor Dan Bledsoe,” he said. “Who am I speaking with?”

“You are speaking with John Ehrlichman. Do you know who I am?”

“Yes. You are the chief of staff there at the White House.”

“That’s right. I have a mandate from the President of the United States,” Ehrlichman said. “The FBI is to terminate the investigation of the break-in.”

Bledsoe was silent.

“Did you hear what I said?” Ehrlichman thundered. “Are you going to terminate the investigation?”

“No,” Bledsoe replied. “Under the Constitution, the FBI is obligated to initiate an investigation to determine whether there has been a violation of the illegal interception of communications statute.”

“Do you know that you are saying ‘no’ to the President of the United States?”

“Yes,” the FBI agent replied.

“Bledsoe, your career is doomed,” Ehrlichman said, and hung up.

Bledsoe called Mark Felt at home and recounted the conversation. “He laughed because he knew these people. In his high position, he knew what was occurring in the White House. He just laughed.”

Gray learned in a telephone call from Felt on Monday morning, June 19, that the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in could implicate the White House. The acting director flew back to Washington and convened his first official headquarters meeting on the break-in at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 21.

Mark Felt was at the table, along with Robert G. Kunkel, special agent in charge of the Washington field office, and Charles W. Bates, chief of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. Bates recorded this and many other Watergate meetings in a running memorandum. He wrote: “It was agreed that this was most important, that the FBI’s reputation was at stake, and that the investigation should be completely impartial, thorough and complete.”

Gray instructed his men that the president’s counsel, John Dean, would sit in on all the FBI’s interviews. Gray secretly planned to keep Dean posted about the Bureau’s every move by feeding him daily summaries of the FBI’s investigations and interrogations.
The next day, FBI agents questioned Charles W. Colson, special counsel to the president, with Dean sitting by his side. Colson mentioned that the Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt had an office safe in the White House. Dean lied instinctively to the FBI. Safe? What safe? I don’t know about any safe. Once they had left, he opened it, and saw two sheaves of documents inside. They were evidence of the dirty tricks the Plumbers had played for the president. He started thinking about how to hide them from the FBI. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. on June 23, President Nixon settled on a plan to scuttle the FBI investigation. “The FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them,” Haldeman told the president. They agreed that the newly appointed deputy director of Central Intelligence, Lieutenant General Vernon Walters, a Nixon crony of long standing, would tell Gray to back off. He would raise the flag of national security and secrecy. Gray and Felt would do as they were told, Haldeman predicted confidently.

“Felt wants to cooperate because he’s ambitious,” he said. “And that will fit rather well because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is. This is CIA.”

Nixon liked the idea. “Good deal!” he said. “Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it."

Walters was in Gray’s office by 2:30 p.m. The investigation, he told Gray, could trespass into the CIA’s domain. Gray called Charles Bates the moment that Walters left his office. He made the case for standing down. Bates objected. “I again told him I felt the FBI had no choice but to continue our full investigation and obtain all the details.” Gray agonized until he answered an urgent summons from the White House at 6:30 p.m. on June 28. Inside John Ehrlichman’s office, John Dean handed Gray two white manila envelopes — the documents he had taken from Hunt’s safe.

“These should never see the light of day,” he told Gray.

“Then why give them to me?”

“Because they are such political dynamite their existence can’t even be acknowledged,” Dean said. “I need to be able to say that I gave all Hunt’s files to the FBI. That’s what I’m doing.”

Gray had a red wastebasket in his office, holding a burn bag for destroying secret documents. But he did not know what a burn bag was. Six months later, he set fire to the files in a trash bin in his backyard.

“There is little doubt,” an internal FBI report later concluded, “that Mr. Gray made deplorable decisions of historic proportions."

“No holds barred”

The White House and the FBI had another crisis on their hands that summer. Nixon issued orders to escalate the war on terrorists in America. But the Bureau had lost its license to use its most powerful weapon in that battle.

The Supreme Court had banned the warrantless wiretapping of Americans in a unanimous decision on June 19, 1972 — the Monday after the Watergate break-in. A wild-eyed anarchist on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list was at the center of the case. Pun Plamondon — minister of defense for the White Panthers, whose party platform rested largely on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’
roll — stood accused of planting a bomb at the CIA’s recruiting station near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His lawyers correctly suspected Plamondon had been wiretapped. The federal trial judge had granted a routine defense motion for the disclosure of the government’s evidence. Nixon’s Justice Department refused to comply. The president’s lawyers claimed that the commander in chief had an inherent and unassailable right to wiretap at will.

The government lost. A federal appeals court ruled that even the president had to obey the Fourth Amendment — the passage in the Bill of Rights protecting Americans from warrantless searches and seizures. The Supreme Court had never upheld warrantless wiretapping within the United States. Most of the FBI’s secret surveillance had been carried out in defiance of the Court — at the command of presidents and attorneys general, but sometimes on orders from Hoover and his subordinates — since 1939. The technology of electronic eavesdropping had expanded exponentially since then. Thousands of Americans were targets of government spying under Nixon.

Robert Mardian, as Nixon’s internal security chief, represented the government in oral arguments before the Supreme Court. Justice Byron White had asked him bluntly: if “the President decides it’s necessary to bug John Doe’s phone,” was there “nothing under the sun John Doe can do about it?”

Mardian had said: “The President of the United States may authorize electronic surveillance; and, in those cases, it is legal.” Justice Lewis Powell, newly appointed by President Nixon, wrote the unanimous decision rejecting that argument. “The issue before us is an important one for the people of our country and their Government,” he wrote. “It involves the delicate question of the President’s power, acting through the Attorney General, to authorize electronic surveillance in internal security matters without prior judicial approval. Successive Presidents for more than one-quarter of a century have authorized such surveillance
in varying degrees, without guidance from the Congress or a definitive decision of this Court.”

That authority was now empty.

“Although some added burden will be imposed upon the Attorney General, this inconvenience is justified in a free society to protect constitutional values,” the Court ruled. “By no means of least importance will be the reassurance of the public generally that indiscriminate wiretapping and bugging of law-abiding citizens cannot occur.”

The Court said the government was free to wiretap “foreign powers or their agents” — for instance, Soviet spies — but not American citizens. Not without a warrant.

The FBI had at least six warrantless taps running on the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers on the morning of the Supreme Court’s ruling. They had to come out at once. The Bureau responded by reviving black-bag jobs. Gray called in top agents from around the country in mid-September 1972. President Nixon had ordered the FBI — along with the Pentagon, the
State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Agency — to come up with a national counterterrorism plan.

The world had been transfixed ten days before by the Black September killings at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Eleven Israeli athletes (and eight Palestinian attackers) had died, most of them after a bungled rescue by the West German police. President Nixon had conferred on the counterterrorism problem with his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and his United Nations ambassador, George H. W. Bush. His personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, told the president about the prophecies of a popular psychic named Jeane Dixon; the syndicated clairvoyant predicted a Palestinian attack against a Jewish target, such as Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

“They will kidnap somebody. They may shoot somebody,” Nixon told Kissinger on September 21, citing “this soothsayer, Jeane Dixon” as a source of his fears. “We have got to have a plan. Suppose they kidnap Rabin, Henry, and demand that we release all blacks who are prisoners around the United States, and we didn’t and they shoot him... What the Christ do we do?” Nixon wondered. “We have got to have contingency plans for hijacking, for kidnapping, for all sorts of things.”

On September 25, Nixon issued a secret presidential directive commanding an all-out counterterrorism campaign. The result was the President’s Cabinet Committee on Terrorism — the first full-scale effort by the American government to address the threat. The full committee met once, and only once.

“Everybody at that meeting washed their hands like Pontius Pilate and said, ‘You do it, FBI,’” Gray recounted. Nobody else wanted to take the responsibility. Gray told Mark Felt and Ed Miller, his intelligence chief, that “he had decided to reauthorize surreptitious entries,” Miller said. “Well, I thought that was really good.”

The first targets of the break-ins were hit in October 1972. The Bureau raided Palestinian American groups across the United States. FBI agents burglarized the files of an organization called the Arab Education League in Dallas, stole a membership list from the league’s office safe, identified the group’s leaders, knocked on their doors, and ran them out of the country. Gray wrote years later that the break-ins and burglaries were “clearly illegal.” But he believed that he was following the president’s orders.

FBI black-bag jobs against friends and families of twenty-six Weather Underground fugitives started later that month. Gray was appalled to learn that not one of the fugitives had been caught, despite a nationwide search that had gone on for nearly three years. He ordered them “hunted to exhaustion,” a submariner’s command.

“No holds barred,” he wrote to Felt. At least seven of the burglaries were carried out by Squad 47, the secret unit based in the FBI’s New York office. Under the command of John Kearney, the squad had conducted at least eight hundred black-bag jobs since the 1950s. None of the break-ins ever produced any evidence leading to the arrest of a Weather Underground fugitive. But in time they led to federal grand jury investigations against the commanders of the FBI.

“I knew somebody would break”

The FBI veterans Liddy and McCord had been indicted on September 15, 1972, along with the five other Watergate burglars, for the bugging of the Democratic Party headquarters. But the charges ended there. The Watergate case had hit a stone wall.
Felt and his inner circle at the FBI made a decision to fight the obstruction of justice. They had personal as well as professional motives. They acted on their instincts to dismantle the roadblocks in the path of the FBI’s investigation. They knew that the conspiracy and the cover-up had been orchestrated at the White House. They deeply resented the fact that the president had placed Pat Gray, a man they considered a political stooge, in charge of the FBI.

“It hurt all of us deeply,” said Charles Bolz, the chief of the FBI’s accounting and fraud division. Felt was Hoover’s rightful heir. “Felt was the one that would have been the Director’s first pick. But the Director died. And Mark Felt should have moved up right there and then. And that’s what got him into the act. He was going to find out what was going on in there. And, boy, he really did.”

Felt and his allies began leaking the secrets of Watergate a few weeks before the November 1972 election. Felt became famous thirty-three years later when he confessed that he was the man known as “Deep Throat,” the FBI source who helped The Washington Post confirm the facts for its ground-breaking reports on the Watergate investigation. But he was not the only one.

The notes of Felt’s first documented interview with Bob Woodward of the Post are now public records. “There is a way to untie the Watergate knot,” he said to Woodward on October 9, 1972. “Things got out of hand.” A political warfare operation against the president’s enemies had gone out of control. Gray knew. The attorney general/CREEP chief, John Mitchell, knew. If Mitchell knew, the president knew. And if the facts came out, they would “ruin... I mean ruin” Richard Nixon.

Felt made sure that the facts were revealed by sharing information with four trusted fellow FBI men. Bob Kunkel and Charles Bates stood with Felt at the top of the FBI’s chain of command in the Watergate investigation. Kunkel was in charge of the Washington field office and he briefed Felt daily. Bates kept the running chronology that served as the FBI’s institutional memory of the case. Dick Long and Charles Nuzum, respectively chief and lead agent in the FBI’s white-collar crime section, were masters of Watergate’s paper trail. Bates and Long told a few trusted fellow agents about what they had done, and why. The word started to spread.

“They would meet at the end of the day and discuss what happened, what they knew, in the investigation,” said the FBI’s Paul Daly, an agent in the intelligence division. “They would make a decision, a conscious decision, to leak to the newspapers. They did that because of the White House obstructing the investigation. And they leaked it because it furnished the impetus to continue.”

So street-level FBI agents turned secrets into information, and senior FBI leaders brought that information to reporters, to prosecutors, to federal grand juries, and into the public realm. That was the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Without the FBI, the reporters would have been lost. The Washington Post and Time magazine were the first to suggest that there were wheels within wheels in the Watergate case. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times soon joined in. Not all of their stories were accurate. But the facts within them, taken together, sketched out a series of White House conspiracies to subvert the president’s political enemies with espionage and sabotage.

Richard Nixon, his re-election imminent, took note. “I knew somebody would break,” Nixon said bitterly after the first piercing stories appeared in the press. Ten days after the first big leak, he was certain about the main source.

“We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told the president on October 19.

President Nixon: Is it somebody in the FBI?

Haldeman: Yes, sir... And it’s very high up.

President Nixon: Somebody next to Gray?

Haldeman: Mark Felt.

President Nixon: Now why the hell would he do that?

Haldeman: It’s hard to figure. Then again, you can’t say anything about this, because we’ll screw up our source... Mitchell is the only one that knows this. And he feels very strongly that we should — we’d better not do anything because —

President Nixon: Do anything? Never!

Haldeman: If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI.

President Nixon: Sure.

Haldeman: He has access to absolutely everything... Gray’s scared to death. We’ve got to give him a warning...

President Nixon: What would you do with Felt?... Christ! You know what I’d do with him? Bastard!

The president and the FBI were now engaged in an undeclared war. Attorney General Kleindienst, following orders from the White House, told Gray five times to fire Felt. The acting director could not find the will to do it. For Felt was the more powerful man. He might not have known “everything that’s to be known in the FBI,” but he and his chief investigators knew more than anyone else outside the White House. Their knowledge would give them the power to go after the president himself.

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