The Last Watergate Mystery
By Robert Parry
June 25, 2005
Now that former FBI official Mark Felt has been identified as the Washington Posts Deep Throat source, there remains only one major unsolved Watergate mystery: What were the Republican burglars seeking when they bugged the Democratic headquarters and what, if anything, did they do with that information?
One might have thought that investigators would have nailed down something as central to any crime as the motive, but the mystery surrounding the famous break-ins in May and June 1972 quickly turned to two other questions that went up the chain of Richard Nixon's command: Who authorized the operation and who organized the cover-up?
So, the Watergate motive was never nailed down. Nor was the related question: Did the Republicans make any use of the information they got from the one bug which worked between the date of the first break-in in May and the second break-in on June 17, when five burglars were arrested.
One reason for these lingering questions was the illegality of the wiretaps themselves. Federal anti-wiretap laws strictly prohibit the distribution of information obtained by illegal bugging for reasons that include a desire to protect the privacy of the victims.
Also, R. Spencer Oliver, whose phone was the only one with a wiretap device that worked, has shied away from publicizing his role as the guy whose phone was bugged in Watergate.
In 1972, Oliver ran an association of state Democratic chairmen and later went on to a career as chief counsel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now secretary-general for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europes parliamentary assembly, located in Copenhagen, Denmark.
For my book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, Oliver granted his first extensive interview on his analysis of what Nixons men were after and what they might have done with it. Oliver has concluded that Nixons spying may have been more successful than anyone knew.
The following article adapted from Secrecy & Privilege starts with the background of Nixons growing anger against his perceived enemies who were challenging his Vietnam War policies as he was beginning to turn to his reelection campaign.
Nixons obsession with his Vietnam War critics and his insecurities about possible electoral defeat merged as Campaign 1972 grew near. Nixon searched for new ways to destroy his adversaries, the likes of former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War.
After the Pentagon Papers were published, revealing the deceptions used to lead the United States into war, Nixon demanded a more aggressive strategy to stop leaks.
On July 1, 1971, Nixon lectured chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger about the need to do whatever it takes, including break-ins at sites such as the Brookings Institution where Nixon suspected incriminating information might be found about Ellsberg.
Were up against an enemy, a conspiracy, Nixon fumed. Theyre using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else responsible.
Now, how do you fight this [Ellsberg case]? Nixon continued. You cant fight this with gentlemanly gloves Well kill these sons of bitches.
One of Nixons schemes for discrediting the Pentagon Papers release was to transform it into a spy scandal, like the Alger Hiss case of the 1940s where Nixon made his national reputation. He saw a role for the successor to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the House subcommittee on internal security.
Dont you see what a marvelous opportunity for the committee, Nixon said on July 2, 1971. They can really take this and go. And make speeches about the spy ring. But you know whats going to charge up an audience. Jesus Christ, theyll be hanging from the rafters Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you.
Under Nixons supervision, a Plumbers unit was recruited, drawing from the ranks of former CIA officers and operatives. Looking for derogatory information on Ellsberg, the Plumbers broke into the office of Ellsbergs psychiatrist.
The secret Plumbers unit that was used to crank down on leaks soon merged with Nixons reelection strategy. The Plumbers were reassigned from national security break-ins to searching for the inside dope on the latest Democratic strategies and other intelligence that could be exploited.
Three times in late May 1972, burglars working for Richard Nixons reelection committee tried to enter the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex, an elegant new building with curved exterior lines situated along the Potomac River.
For the Watergate burglars, the third try was the charm. Armed with an array of burglary tools, two of the Cuban-Americans on the team Virgilio Gonzalez and Frank Sturgis entered the building through the B-2 garage level. Reaching the sixth floor where the DNC offices were located, Gonzalez made quick work of the door lock and the burglars were finally inside.
The horse is in the house, they reported over a walkie-talkie back to team leaders across Virginia Avenue at a Howard Johnsons hotel. The leaders included G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who had devised the spying plan called Gemstone, and E. Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer and part-time spy novel writer.
At word that the break-in had finally succeeded, Liddy and Hunt embraced. From a balcony at the Howard Johnsons, James McCord, another former CIA officer and the security chief for the Committee to Reelect the President known as CREEP, could see the burglars pencil flashlights darting around the darkened offices.
McCord, an electronics specialist, made his way over to the Watergate and was let in by one of the Cuban burglars. Upon reaching the DNC offices, McCord placed one tap on the phone of a secretary of Democratic National Chairman Larry OBrien and a second on the phone of R. Spencer Oliver, a 34-year-old Democratic operative who was executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen.
While some of the burglars rifled through DNC files and photographed documents, McCord tested the bugs on the two phones. His little pocket receiver showed that they worked.
The choice of the two phones has never been fully explained. OBriens might seem obvious since he was party chairman, but Oliver, although an important insider in Democratic politics, didnt have a high profile outside of those circles.
Some aficionados of the Watergate mystery have speculated that Olivers phone was chosen because his father worked with Robert R. Mullen, whose Washington-based public relations firm had employed Hunt. The firm also served as a CIA front in the 1960s and early 1970s, and did work for industrialist Howard Hughes, who, in turn, had questionable financial ties to Nixons brother, Donald.
Because Spencer Olivers father also represented Hughes, one theory held that Nixons team wanted to know what derogatory information the Democrats might possess about money to Nixons brother from Hughes, evidence that might be sprung during the fall campaign.
Glow of Success
After returning to the Howard Johnsons from the Watergate, the burglary teams glow of success faded fast. The Gemstone team discovered that their receivers only could pick up conversations on one of the phones, the tap in Olivers office.
Though upset about the limited information that might flow from that single tap, the Gemstone team began transcribing the mix of personal and professional calls by Oliver and other members of his staff who used his phone when he wasnt there.
One of the Gemstone operatives, Alfred Baldwin, said he transcribed about 200 calls, including some dealing with political strategy, passing the transcripts on to McCord, who gave them to Liddy. The intercepts then went to Jeb Stuart Magruder, CREEPs deputy chairman who said he passed the material to reelection chairman John Mitchell, who had quit as Nixons attorney general to run CREEP.
Whatever other mysteries might surround the Watergate operation, one Gemstone goal was clear: to pick up intelligence on Democratic strategies as part of the larger plan to ensure that a weakened Democratic Party led by the least appealing candidate would face President Nixon in November 1972.
How useful the material turned out to be is another point in historical dispute. Since the intercepts violated strict federal wiretapping statutes, the contents were never fully disclosed and the recipients of the intercepts had both legal and political reasons to insist that they either hadnt seen the material or that it wasnt very useful.
Magruder said Mitchell personally chastised Liddy over the limited political value of the information. Some of the material was little more than gossip or personal details about the break-up of Olivers marriage.
This stuff isnt worth the paper its printed on, Mitchell told Liddy, according to Magruder. Mitchell, however, called Magruders account a palpable, damnable lie.
Oliver has his own theory about what insights the wiretap on his phone could have given the Republicans: a window into the end game of the Democratic nomination.
As it turned out, Oliver was in the middle of the last-ditch effort by Democratic state chairmen to head off the nomination of liberal South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.
The California primary was the first week of June, Oliver recalled in an interview with me 22 years later. The state chairs were very concerned about the McGovern candidacy, foreseeing the likelihood of an electoral debacle.
So they commissioned a hard count of delegates to see whether McGoverns nomination could be headed off, even if the anti-Vietnam War senator secured Californias bounty of delegates with a victory in the states winner-take-all primary.
In the preceding months, other Democratic campaigns had failed to catch fire or blew up. Secretly, Nixons reelection team had targeted former front-runner, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, with dirty tricks like stink bombs exploded at Muskie events, bogus pizza orders, and fake mailings that spread dissension between Muskie and other Democrats.
Though knocked from contention in the early primaries, Muskie still had some delegates in early June as did former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Washington Sen. Henry Scoop Jackson and some lesser candidates. Scores of other delegates were uncommitted or tied to favorite sons.
Oliver was hoping that his personal favorite, Duke University President Terry Sanford, might emerge from a deadlocked convention as a unity candidate.
McGovern was having a hard time getting a majority, Oliver said. The state chairmen wanted to know whether or not, if he won the California primary, he would have the nomination wrapped up or whether there was still a chance he could be stopped.
The best way to find out was through the state chairmen because in those days not all primaries were binding and not all delegates were bound. We called every state chairman or party executive director to find out where their uncommitted delegates would go. We had the best count in the country it was all coordinated through my telephone.
So, while Nixons political espionage team listened in, Oliver and his associates canvassed state party leaders to figure out how the Democratic delegates planned to vote.
We determined on that phone that McGovern could still be stopped even if he won the California primary, Oliver said. It would be very close whether he could ever get a majority.
After McGovern did win the California primary, the stop-McGovern battle focused on Texas and its Democratic convention scheduled for June 13. The one place he could be stopped was at the Texas State Democratic Convention, Oliver said.
A Texan himself, Oliver knew the Democratic Party there to be a bitterly divided organization, with many conservative Democrats sympathetic to Nixon and hostile to McGovern and his anti-Vietnam War positions.
One of the best known Texas Democrats, former Gov. John Connally, had joined the Nixon administration in 1970 as Treasury Secretary and was helping the Nixon campaign in 1972. Many other Texas Democrats were loyal to former President Lyndon Johnson who had battled anti-war activists before deciding against a reelection bid in 1968.
Between the strength of the conservative Democratic machine and the history of hardball Texas politics, the Texas convention looked to Oliver like the perfect place to push through a solid anti-McGovern slate, even though nearly one-third of the state delegates listed McGovern as their first choice.
Since there was no requirement for proportional representation, whoever controlled a majority at the state convention could take all the presidential delegates or divide them up among other candidates, Oliver said.
At Sanfords suggestion, Oliver decided to fly to Texas. When he reached the Texas convention in San Antonio, Oliver said he was stunned by what he found. The conservative Johnson-Connally wing of the party appeared uncharacteristically generous to the McGovern campaign.
Also arriving from Washington was one of Connallys Democratic protégés, the partys national treasurer Bob Strauss.
I was really surprised to see him and he makes a bee-line straight for me, Oliver said. He says, Spencer, how you doing? I say, Bob, what are you doing here? He says, Im a Texan, youre a Texan. Here we are. Who would miss one of these state conventions? Maybe we ought to have lunch. He was never that friendly to me before.
Oliver was curious about Strausss sudden appearance because Strauss had never been a major figure in Texas Democratic politics. He was a Connally guy and had no background in politics except his personal ties to Connally, Oliver said.
Known as a smooth-talking lawyer, Strauss had made his first major foray into politics as a principal fund-raiser for Connallys first gubernatorial race in 1962. Connally then put Strauss on the Democratic National Committee in 1968. Two years later, Connally agreed to join the Nixon administration.
I wouldnt say that Connally and Strauss are close, one critic famously told the New York Times, but when Connally eats watermelon, Strauss spits seeds. [NYT, Dec. 12, 1972]
Other Connally guys held other key positions at the state convention, including state chairman Will Davis. So, presumably the liberal, anti-war McGovern would have looked to be in a tight spot, opposed not only by Davis but also by much of the conservative state Democratic leadership and organized labor.
It was clear that 70 percent of the delegates were anti-McGovern, so they very easily could have coalesced, struck a deal and blocked McGovern, Oliver said. That probably would have blocked him from the nomination.
But thats not what happened. Connallys old machine chose to give McGovern his fair share of the delegates. That was the most astonishing thing I had heard in all my years of Texas politics, Oliver told me. Theres never been any quarter given or any asked in this sort of thing.
News articles at the time described a convention dominated by an unusual alliance between Democrats loyal to liberal George McGovern and populist George Wallace, though the alliance nearly fell apart when Wallace delegates took to the floor with Confederate flags. After a 17-hour final session, the convention gave 42 national delegates to Wallace and 34 to McGovern, with Hubert Humphrey getting 21 and 33 listed as uncommitted.
After failing at his Texas mission, Oliver returned to Washington, where he discussed the delegate situation by telephone with some Democratic state chairmen before traveling to his fathers summer home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
In mid-June, back in Washington, the Gemstone team began planning a return to the DNCs Watergate office to install new eavesdropping equipment.
G. Gordon Liddy was under pressure from higher-ups to get more information, Howard Hunt said later. When Hunt suggested to Liddy that targeting the Miami hotels to be used during the upcoming Democratic National Convention made more sense, Liddy checked with his principals and reported that they were adamant about sending the team back into the Watergate.
One person in the White House who was demanding continued vigilance over the Democrats was Richard Nixon. Though its never been established that Nixon had prior knowledge about the Watergate break-in, the President was continuing to demand that his political operatives keep collecting whatever information they could about the Democrats.
That business of the McGovern watch, it just has to be it has to be now around the clock, Nixon told presidential aide Charles Colson on June 13, according to a White House taped conversation. You never know what youre going to find.
Facing demands from the principals, Hunt contacted the Cuban-Americans in Miami on June 14. The burglars reassembled in Washington two days later.
For this entry, James McCord taped six or eight doors between the corridors and the stairwells on the upper floors and three more in the sub-basement. But McCord applied the tape horizontally instead of vertically, leaving pieces of tape showing when the doors were closed.
Around midnight, security guard Frank Wills came on duty. An African-American high school dropout, Wills was new to the job. About 45 minutes after starting work, he began his first round of checking the building. He discovered a piece of tape over a door latch at the garage level.
Thinking that the tape was probably left behind by a building engineer earlier in the day, Wills removed it and went about his business. A few minutes after Wills passed by, Gonzalez, one of the Cuban-American burglars, reached the now-locked door. He managed to open it by picking the lock. He then re-taped the latch so others could follow him in. The team then moved to the sixth floor, entered the DNC offices and got to work installing the additional equipment.
Shortly before 2 a.m., Wills was making his second round of checks at the building when he spotted the re-taped door. His suspicions aroused, the security man called the Washington Metropolitan Police. A dispatcher reached a nearby plainclothes unit, which pulled up in front of the Watergate.
After telling Wills to wait in the lobby, the police officers began a search of the building, starting with the eighth floor and working their way down to the sixth. The hapless burglars tried to hide behind desks in the DNCs office, but the police officers spotted them and called out, Hold it!
McCord and four other burglars surrendered. Hunt, Liddy and other members of the Gemstone crew still across the street at the Howard Johnsons hurriedly stashed their equipment and papers into suitcases and fled.
Oliver was at his fathers cottage on North Carolinas Outer Banks when the news broke that five burglars had been caught inside the Democratic national headquarters in Washington.
I heard about it on the television news, Oliver said. I thought that was strange, why would anybody break into the Democratic National Committee? I mean we dont have any money; the conventions coming up and everybodys moved to Miami; the delegates have been picked and the primaries are over. So why would anybody be in there? I didnt think anything of it.
After returning to Washington, Oliver like other Democratic staffers was asked some routine questions by the police and the FBI, but the whole episode remained a mystery.
In July, along with other Democratic officials, Oliver went to the national convention in Miami, where McGovern managed to secure a slim majority of delegates to win the nomination.
After the victory, McGovern loyalists were installed at the DNC in the Watergate offices. Jean Westwood replaced Larry OBrien as national chairman and focused on unifying the party, which remained deeply divided between the McGovernites and party regulars.
At a meeting of the Democratic executive committee in early September at the Watergate, Oliver was to give a report about cooperation on voter registration between the McGovern campaign and state party organizations.
Someone brought me a note that Larry OBrien called and wants you to call him, Oliver said. I put the note in my pocket. The meeting went on. They brought a second note and said, Larry OBrien wants you to call.
At the lunch break, I went upstairs to call OBrien a little after 12 oclock. I asked to speak to Larry. Stan Gregg, his deputy, came on the line: Spencer, Larrys at lunch, but he wanted me to tell you that hes going to have a press conference at 2 oclock and hes going to announce that the burglars that they caught in the Watergate were not in there for the first time. They had been in there before, in May.
I was saying to myself, Whys he telling me all this? He said, and they put taps on at least two phones. One of the phones was Larrys and one was yours. I said, What? And he said, the tap on Larrys didnt work. Hes going to announce all this at 2 oclock.
After digesting the news of the May break-in, Oliver called Gregg back, telling him, Stan, take my name out of that press release. I dont know why they tapped my phone, but I dont want my name involved in it. Let Larry say, there were two taps involved and one was on his. But I dont want to become embroiled in this. He said, its too late. The press releases have already gone out.
Oliver suddenly found himself at the center of a political maelstrom as the DNC moved to file a civil lawsuit accusing the Republicans of violating the federal wiretap statute. The wording of the wiretap statute made Oliver a legally significant player, since only the bug on his phone worked and his conversations were the ones intercepted.
After the Democratic lawsuit was filed, lawyers for CREEP immediately took Olivers deposition. Some of the questions were trolling for any derogatory information that might be used against him, Oliver recalled: CREEP asked if I was a member of the Communist Party, Weather Underground, were you ever arrested?
But some questions reflected facts that would have been contained in Gemstone memos, Oliver said, such as Who was Terry Sanford?
The FBI also launched a full field investigation of Oliver. They tried to tie me to radical groups and asked questions of my neighbors and my friends about whether I had ever done anything wrong, whether I drank too much, whether I was an alcoholic, whether I had a broken marriage, whether I had had any affairs, Oliver said. It was a very intrusive and obnoxious thing.
Initially, Nixons Justice Department denied that the bug on Olivers phone had been installed by the Watergate burglars, implying that the Democrats may have tampered with the crime scene by installing the wiretap themselves to create a bigger scandal.
In a television interview, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst said the device on Olivers phone must have been put on after June 17 because FBI agents had found nothing during a thorough sweep of the office. Somebody put something on that telephone since the FBI was there, Kleindienst said. [NYT, Sept. 22, 1972]
In October 1972, Oliver wrote a memo to Sen. Sam Ervin, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina, recommending an independent congressional investigation as the only way to get to the bottom of Watergate, a task Ervin couldnt undertake until the next year.
In the meantime, Nixons Watergate cover-up held. The White House successfully tagged the incident as a third-rate burglary that didnt implicate the President or his top aides. On Election Day, Nixon rolled to a record victory over George McGovern, who only won one state, Massachusetts.
The McGovern debacle had immediate repercussions inside the Democratic National Committee, where the party regulars moved to purge McGoverns people in early December 1972.
We had a bruising battle for the chairmanship. It ended up being between George Mitchell [of Maine] and Bob Strauss, Oliver recalled.
The Strauss candidacy was strange to some Democrats, given his close ties to John Connally, who had led Nixons drive to get Democrats to cross party lines and vote Republican.
Two Texas labor leaders, Roy Evans and Roy Bullock, urged the DNC to reject Strauss because his most consistent use of his talents has been to advance the political fortune and career of his life-long friend, John B. Connally. [NYT, Dec. 7, 1972]
Another Texan, former Sen. Ralph Yarborough, said anyone who thinks Strauss could act independently of Connally ought to be bored for the hollow horn, a farm hands expression for being crazy. [NYT, Dec. 11, 1972]
For his part, Connally offered to do what he could to help his best friend Strauss. Connally said he would endorse him or denounce him, whichever would help more. Strauss displays in my judgment the reasonableness that the [Democratic] party has to have, Connally said.
After a terribly hard-fought battle, Strauss won, Oliver recalled. Strauss came to the national committee the next week.
Strausss immediate priority was to give the Democratic Party a new direction as it tried to traverse the political landscape reshaped by the Nixon landslide. Strausss strategy called for putting the Watergate scandal into the past both by moving the DNC out of the Watergate complex and by trying to settle the Watergate civil lawsuit.
Within a few days of his being there, I was called and told he wanted to see me, Oliver said. He said, Spencer, ... theres something I want you to do. I want to get rid of this Watergate thing. I want you to drop that lawsuit. I said, What? I didnt think he knew what he was talking about. I said, But, Bob, you know thats the only avenue we have for discovery. Why would we want to get out of the lawsuit? He replied, I dont want that Watergate stuff anymore. I want you to drop that lawsuit.
Oliver refused to go along, soon finding himself cut adrift by the DNCs lawyers who said they had to follow Strausss orders and back off the Watergate case. Oliver began a search for a new attorney willing to take on the powerful White House, eventually settling on a personal injury lawyer named Joe Koonz, who offered to take the case on a contingency basis.
Olivers success in keeping the civil suit alive represented a direct challenge to Strauss, who continued to seek an end to the DNCs legal challenge to the Republicans over Watergate. While Oliver didnt directly work for Strauss, the national chairman could force Oliver off the payroll, which is what happened.
Nixon & Bush
While Democratic leaders were debating whether to fold their hand on Watergate, Nixon was reshuffling his personnel deck for a second term. Nixon concluded that George H.W. Bush would be the best choice to head the Republican National Committee and fend off the spreading Watergate suspicions.
Bushs genial demeanor helped in negotiations with Strauss, a fellow Texan whom Bush also counted as a friend. By mid-April 1973, Strauss appeared on the verge of achieving his goal of putting the Watergate civil lawsuit into the past.
Im driving into work one day and I hear that Strauss and George Bush were holding a press conference at the National Press Club to announce that they were settling the Watergate case, putting it behind them, Oliver said. I said he cant settle that suit without me.
On April 17, 1973, Strauss disclosed that CREEP had offered $525,000 to settle the case. There has been some serious discussion for many months between Democratic and CREEP lawyers, Strauss said.
Strauss explained his interest in a settlement partly because the Democratic Party was saddled with a $3.5 million debt and could not afford to devote enough legal resources to the case. [NYT, April 18.1973]
But two days later, Strauss backed off the settlement talks because Oliver and Common Cause, another organization involved in the civil case, balked. [NYT, April 20, 1973]
Though in retrospect, the idea of leading Democrats shying away from the Watergate scandal may seem odd, the major breaks in the cover-up had yet to occur. At the time, the prospect that the scandal might lead to Nixons removal from office appeared remote. (As late as April 1974, Strauss would chastise Democratic governors for calling for Nixons resignation. [NYT, April 23, 1974])
Oliver said it was not until spring 1973 that he began putting the pieces of the Watergate puzzle together, leading him to believe that the events around the Texas convention were not simply coincidental but rather the consequence of Republican eavesdropping on his telephone.
If that were true, Oliver suspected, Strauss may have been collaborating with his old mentor Connally both in arranging a Texas outcome that would ensure McGoverns nomination and later in trying to head off the Watergate civil lawsuit. That would not mean that Connally and Strauss knew about the bugging, only that they had been used by Republicans who had access to the Gemstone information, Oliver said.
In my opinion, they [Nixons Gemstone operatives] were listening to me on that phone do a vote count and theyre listening to us start a project to block McGoverns nomination, Oliver said. They were scared to death that it would be Scoop Jackson or Terry Sanford.
McGovern got his share of the Texas delegates after a marathon session that ended on June 14, 1972. That same day, according to Hunt, Liddy was told by his principals that the burglars must return to the Democratic offices at the Watergate to install more eavesdropping equipment.
Once they were caught, they [Nixon and his men] had to cut off our avenue of discovery, which of course was the civil suit, Oliver said. I think Strauss may have run for national chairman for that purpose.
Strauss did not respond to my requests for an interview for Secrecy & Privilege.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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