50 years ago today, in the wee hours of that Saturday morning, Frank Wills was doing his rounds as a security guard at the Watergate Office Building when he noticed a door leading into the building from the underground parking garage had tape over the latch, preventing the lock from engaging. Wills simply removed the tape and thought nothing of it. However, some time later when Wills came around again, the tape had been put back. His suspicions now sufficiently aroused, Wills called the police, triggering the biggest political scandal in US history. When all was said and done, 48 people would be convicted, and Richard Nixon would resign as President.
Three officers responded and when searching the DNC’s offices on the sixth floor, they discovered five men: James McCord, Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez and Eugenio Martínez. Unbeknownst at the time, watching this unfold from a hotel room across the street was Alfred Baldwin, a former FBI agent. Baldwin was the lookout but failed to notice the police arrive or that they were searching the DNC offices until it was too late.
The story that appeared in the Sunday Washington Post the next day about this seeming act of political hijinks described what they were carrying.
All wearing rubber surgical gloves, the five suspects were captured inside a small office within the committee’s headquarters suite.
Police said the men had with them at least two sophisticated devices capable of picking up and transmitting all talk, including telephone conversations. In addition, police found lock-picks and door jimmies, almost $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence.
The men also had with them one walkie-talkie, a short wave receiver that could pick up police calls, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35 millimeter cameras and three pen-sized tear gas guns.
This was actually a second break-in. The first had occurred May 28. This second attempt has made to repair some faulty equipment placed in the first break-in. The first thread to unravel was not so much what the burglars were doing in the DNC offices, but rather who they were, and who they knew.
The genesis of the break-ins was a few months earlier in January 1972 at a meeting with Liddy, Mitchell, Magruder and John Dean, the White House counsel. Liddy presented an extensive plan to gather intelligence for the campaign. Magruder had been hired by H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff. Magruder had wanted Dean at this meeting for cover from the White House.
James McCord was the security coordinator for the Committee to Re-elect the President, for my money the worst bit of political branding in history. This fundraising branch of the 1972 Nixon campaign for President became known as CREEP as the scandal unfolded. Watergate was born within the CRP, and many of its officers figurd prominently in the scandal. G. Gordon Liddy was finance counsel. Jeb Stuart Magruder was the deputy director. John Mitchell was still Attorney General at the time of this January meeting, but would retire two months later to become the director of the CRP. Other CRP names that won’t arise until later in our look back at Watergate are Herb Kalmbach, Fred LaRue, Don Segretti, Hugh Sloan and Maurice Stans.
Maybe of the people involved with Watergate wrote books about their experiences. In his book Blind Ambition, John Dean described Mitchell’s reaction to Liddy’s wild-eyed plan this way.
Liddy took his seat. The show was over. We all waited for Mitchell to react. I knew he was offended by the wilder parts of the act, but I also knew he would not say so to Liddy’s face. He disliked confronting people directly. It was a trait I had noticed in myself and felt was a weakness. Mitchell usually had other people express his blunt feelings.
Mitchell did not approve of Liddy’s plans. In his book An American Life, Magruder described Liddy’s presentation this way.
None of us were prepared for the nature of the plan that Liddy was outlining with such self-assurance. It was, as John Dean said later, mind boggling. It included mugging squads, kidnapping, sabotage, the use of prostitutes for political blackmail, break-ins to obtain and photograph documents, and various forms of electronic surveillance and wiretappings.
Yet Mitchell did not reject the entire plan, for we all felt there was a need for intelligence-gathering, and we were interested in the wiretapping aspects of the plan. Mitchell ended the meeting by telling Liddy he should come back with a less expensive plan that focused on intelligence-gathering and countering demonstrations.
Liddy worked with E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer, to put together the wiretapping operations. Hunt was a consultant for Chuck Colson, director of Nixon’s Office of Public Liaison. As others later surmised, if Hunt was involved, the White House was implicated. Hunt had been suggested to Liddy by Dick Howard, another Colson aide.
In a rather shocking breach of OpSec, Hunt’s name was in Barker and Martínez’s address books. On the 18th, Liddy called Magruder to inform him of the break-in. Magruder described the conversation this way.
‘Liddy, what the hell was McCord doing inside the Watergate?’ I demaned. ‘You were supposed to keep this operation removed from us. Have you lost your mind?’
‘I had to have somebody on the inside to handle the electrons,’ Liddy said. ‘McCord was the only one I could get. You didn’t give me enough time.’
I couldn’t believe it – Liddy was blaming his fiasco on me. But there was no point arguing with Liddy so I calmed down and asked him to give me all the facts he had. He explained that the four men arrested with McCord were Cuban freedom fighters whom Hunt had recruited in Miami. He said all five men had given false names when arrested, but we had to assume their true identities would be discovered.
Later that Saturday morning, Bob Woodward at the Washington Post got a call from the city editor about the break-in. The story linked to above was under the byline of Alfred Lewis, and in All the President’s Men, Woodward describes Lewis this way.
The first details of the story had been phoned from inside the Watergate by Alfred Lewis, a veteran of 35 years of police reporting for the Post. Lewis was something of a legend in Washington journalism – half cop, half reporter, a man who often dressed in a Metropolitan Police sweater buttoned at the bottom over a brass Star-of-David buckle.
Lewis told Woodward the men arrested were going to appear in court that afternoon at a prelimnary hearing. Woodward attended, and at the hearing McCord told Judge Belsen he worked in government for the CIA. Woodward uttered an expletive, and helped contribute to the Lewis story that appeared on the front page.
Next week we’ll take a look at other conversations that took place over the subsequent weekend, and how the scandal was seemingly contained.