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Posts Tagged ‘Nixon’

Nixon In the Jungle

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

“Did Richard Nixon—then Citizen Nixon—jump-start the Vietnam War on a secret mission to Saigon in 1964? The following piece suggests that he may have. The following story originally appeared in the anthology, Nixon: An Oliver Stone Film, edited by Eric Hamburg (Hyperion, New York, 1995).”

Richard M. Nixon 37th President of the United States

It is one of the most mysterious incidents in the Vietnam War, and I can’t get it out of my mind.

It was the spring of 1964, and the former Vice President of the United States, who was also the next President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, was standing in a jungle clearing northwest of Saigon, negotiating with a man who, to all appearances, was a Vietcong lieutenant. Wearing battle fatigues “with no identification,” Nixon was flanked by military bodyguards whose mission was so secret that, when they returned to Saigon, their clothing was burned. [“Secret Nixon Vietnam Trip Reported,” New York Times, Feb. 17, 1985.]

At the time, Nixon had been out of public office (though not out of politics) for more than three years. After losing the Presidential election in 1960 and the California gubernatorial race in 1962, he’d gone into private practice as an attorney with the Mudge, Rose law firm, subsiding into what amounted to an enforced retirement from the world’s stage. It’s all the more surprising, then, to find this political castoff on a secret mission in the Orient – only a few months after the Kennedy and Diem assassinations.

Not that Nixon was a stranger to intrigue. On the contrary, his political career might easily be graphed as a parabola of Cold War conspiracies. As a Red-baiting congressman in the forties, he’d made the most of a lovely “photo opportunity” by uncovering stolen State Department secrets – in a Maryland pumpkin field. In the fifties, while Vice President, he’d run a stable of spooks – actually run them – in an off-the-books operation to destroy the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. [Jim Hougan, Spooks (New York: Morrow, 1978), pp. 286-306. Onassis was targeted because of an agreement he’d reached with the Saudi government, monopolizing the export of oil from Saudi Arabia] In that operation, Nixon acted as a case officer to Robert Maheu (himself a linkman between the CIA and the Mafia) [Hougan, Spooks, pp. 286-300, and Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, Empire (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 282-285.] and a former Washington Post reporter named John Gerrity. Gerrity later recalled that “Nixon more or less invented the Mission Impossible speech, and he gave it to us right there, in the White House. You know the spiel, the one that begins, ‘Your assignment, gentlemen, should you choose to accept it. . . .” [Hougan’s interview with Gerrity.] Years afterward, when the Eisenhower Administration was drawing to a close, then Vice President Nixon served as the de facto focal point officer for the Administration’s plans to overthrow Fidel Castro. In that role, he was in regular contact with the CIA and with some of the darker precincts of the Pentagon.

It’s fair to say, then, that Richard M. Nixon knew what he was doing when it came to covert operations – but what was he doing in the jungle in 1964?

The story surfaced, briefly, some 20 years later, when the New York Times reported that Nixon, “while on a private trip to Vietnam in 1964, met secretly with the Vietcong and ransomed five American prisoners of war for bars of gold. : . .” [“Secret Nixon Vietnam Trip Reported,” p. 3.] In reporting this, the Times relied upon a report published in the catalog of a Massachusetts autograph dealer. The dealer was selling a handwritten note that Nixon had given to one of his bodyguards. The note read, “To Hollis Kimmons with appreciation for his protection for my helicopter ride in Vietnam, from Richard Nixon.”

The value of the note was increased by the circumstances that generated it, circumstances that Sergeant Kimmons described in the catalog:

When Nixon arrived at Ton Son Nhut Airport in Saigon, Sergeant Kimmons was assigned to security detail and was accompanying Nixon on all excursions away from the 145th Aviation Battalion where Nixon was staying. On the second day, Nixon dressed in Army fatigues with no identification and climbed aboard a helicopter with Sergeant Kimmons and a crew of four. [Fatigues typically have the owner’s last name sewn on a plaquet on the breast.]

Base Ops sign at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, 1967.

They proceeded to Phuoc Binh, a village northwest of Saigon, where they met with Father Wa, a go-between that arranged the exchange of the gold for U. S. prisoners. The following day, Nixon and his party departed for An Loc, a village south of Phuoc Binh, where in a clearing somewhere in this area Nixon met with a Vietcong lieutenant who established a price for the return of five U.S. prisoners.

A location for the exchange was arranged and the crew departed for Saigon. Later the same day, the crew, this time without Nixon because of the extreme danger, departed for Phumi Kriek, a village across the border in Cambodia. A box loaded with gold bars so heavy it took three men to lift it on the helicopter accompanied the crew.

At the exchange point, five U.S. servicemen were rustled out of the jungle accompanied by several armed soldiers. The box of gold was unloaded and checked by the Vietcong lieutenant and the exchange was made without incident. The crew and rescued prisoners immediately departed for Saigon, and they were sent to the hospital upon their arrival.

Sergeant Kimmons’s mission was secret, and there were no written orders for his duty during this period. His clothes were destroyed as well as the film in his camera, and he signed an agreement not to reveal this incident for 20 years. Nixon’s note to him was hurriedly written at the conclusion of his assignment to guard Nixon on the following day.  [The Times article quotes from a catalog printed by Templeton, Massachusetts, autograph dealer Paul C. Richards.]

That Nixon traveled to Vietnam in 1964 is a matter of fact. He departed the United States in late March on a round-the-world trip that took him, first, to Beirut, and then to Karachi, Calcutta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Saigon. There, he dined with the American Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, who had been his running mate in the 1960 Presidential race. In the days that followed, Nixon helicoptered into the countryside, [New York Times, Apr. 3, 1964] and then continued on to Hong Kong, Manila, Taiwan, and Tokyo before returning home. [RN: The Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon (New York, Touchstone, 1990), pp. 256-258, and article sin the following editions of the New York Times, covering his trip: March 23-28, 1964; March 30-31, 1964; April 2-10, 1964; and April 16, 1964.] Nixon later wrote that the purpose of the trip was to meet with Mudge, Rose clients and foreign leaders. Contemporary reports make it obvious, however, that the real purpose of the trip was to drum up international support for what was about to become America’s massive intervention in Vietnam. [Ibid.]

There is nothing in the Times’ account to suggest that the exchange of gold on April 3 was in any way relevant to the impending escalation of the war, but the possibility is an intriguing one. The Times’ article is anything but conclusive. On the contrary, it simply parrots the cover story that Sergeant Kimmons had been given, while at the same time neglecting to identify the mission’s middleman, the so-called “Father Wa.”

According to the Pentagon, which kept meticulous records of American prisoners of war, the POW release that Sergeant Kimmons described could not have occurred. The few Americans in captivity in 1964 were all accounted for in 1965—and most of them were still in cages. (Even so, we needn’t rely on the Pentagon to give the lie to Nixon’s cover story. Whatever else may be said about Richard Nixon, he was a consummate politician and, if he’d risked his life to rescue American prisoners of war, we’d have heard about it – if not in 1964, then most definitely in 1968.) As for the identity of “Father Wa,” Sergeant Kimmons (and the Times) fell victim to phonetics. Far more than an anonymous interpreter, the Rev. Nguyen Loc Hoa was a legendary figure in Vietnam. A bespectacled Catholic priest whose black cassock was usually cinched with a web ammo belt and a pair of holstered .45s, he was the symbol of militant anti-Communism in the south. [Cecil Currey, Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p.220. ] Twenty years before, he’d fought a successful guerrilla war against the Japanese in China. Soon afterward, and as a colonel in the Chinese Nationalist Army, he’d battled Mao Tse Tung’s Communist insurgency. Driven from China, he and two thousand followers lived for a while in Cambodia before moving to a mangrove swamp in the Mekong Delta—where they set up a village and went to war against the Vietcong.

Father Hoa’s story was told in an article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, a few months after President Kennedy took office. Entitled “The Report the President Wanted Published,” the piece was published under peculiar circumstances. Authored by “An American Officer” whose identity could not be made public “for professional reasons,” [An American Officer, “The Report the President Wanted Published,” Saturday Evening Post, May 20, 1961, p. 31.] the article was in fact written by Gen. Edward Lansdale, an Air Force-CIA officer whose counterinsurgency theories and practice had inspired at least two books (The Ugly American and The Quiet American). [Currey, Edward Lansdale, p. 225.] According to. Lansdale, President Kennedy personally telephoned him to ask that he arrange for publication of what, until then, had been a secret report.

The article, and a follow-up piece that came out a year later, were blatant propaganda. [Don Schanche, “Father Hoa’s Little War,” Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 17, 1962. ] In sentimentalizing Father Hoa’s ferocious anti-Communism while demonizing the Vietcong, the articles did much to prepare the American public for the larger war to come.

Whatever President Kennedy’s motives may have been in pushing General Lansdale to publish his secret report, Nixon’s visit to the jungle is even more mysterious. Why should a former Vice President of the United States, accompanied by a legendary guerrilla fighter with excellent ties to the CIA, dress up in battle fatigues and adopt a cover story to facilitate a journey into the Vietnamese bush? The answer, obviously, is to make a very secret deal. But if, as we’ve discovered, Nixon was engaged in something other than ransoming prisoners, what was he buying with so much gold-and who were those guys that came out of the jungle near Phumi Kriek?

Recently declassified reports of the top-secret Military Assistance Command/Studies and Observations Group (MACSOG) raise the possibility that Nixon’s mission may have had to do with OPLAN 34-A. This was a covert operation to undermine the North Vietnamese by inserting “specially trained” Vietnamese commandos behind enemy lines. [“Once Commandos for U.S., Vietnamese Are Now Barred,” New York Times, Apr. 14, 1995, p.1.] The operation was run by the CIA from 1961 to 1963, and by the Pentagon from 1964 to 1967. We’re told that the activity was paid for with money the CIA had received from the U.S. Navy and then laundered offshore. [Ibid.]

Since Nixon’s mission had nothing to do with prisoners of war, it seems likely indeed that the Americans who dashed from the jungle at Phumi Kriek were CIA operatives or paramilitaries. This likelihood, coupled with the large amount of untraceable gold, suggests a mission of surpassing sensitivity – which, in turn, suggests OPLAN 34-A.

But what makes the incident at Phumi Kriek seem important, however, is not just the secrecy that surrounded it, or even the large amount of gold that was involved. It is, instead, the presence of Richard Nixon. Why him? What could such an outre politician have possibly brought to a covert operation in Vietnam?

The answer, of course, is nothing – except his face. Which is to say, the unmistakable face of American political authority. With Richard Milhouse Nixon present at the negotiations, and with the fabled Father Hoa as his interpreter, the supposed “Vietcong lieutenant” (himself, perhaps, a MACSOG operative) would never have questioned the legitimacy of the mission on which he was being sent. He would have known that, no matter how improbable, the mission was sanctioned by the highest echelons of the American government.

But what can that mission have been?

With Nixon, Hoa, and Kimmons dead, one can only speculate. But it’s worth noting that four months after the meeting at Phumi Kriek, OPLAN 34-A commando raids were carried out against the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, an American destroyer, the Maddox, was attacked in the Gulf by North Vietnamese patrol boats – which led, almost instantly, to American air raids on North Vietnam and the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, escalating America’s involvement in the war.
In his recent mea culpa, [Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), p. 133.] former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara writes that the attack on the Maddox was “so irrational” that “some believed the 34-A operations had played a role in triggering North Vietnam’s actions.” Though McNamara does not say so, his implication is clear: OPLAN 34-A operatives deliberately provoked the North Vietnamese and, in so doing, transformed “a small, out-of-the-way conflict into a full-bore war.” [“Once Commandos for the U.S. . . . ,” p. 1.]

If that is what happened, it’s understandable that OPLAN 34-A operations should be so secret that their very existence was omitted from the Pentagon Papers. [This, according to Sedwick Tourison, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst, who called OPLAN 34-A operations “the secret” of the Vietnam War (“Once Commandos for the U.S….,” p. 1). ] What’s less clear is whether or not Richard M. Nixon was directly involved in the secret funding of operations that may well have jump-started the Vietnam War.


Hougan, Liddy, the Post and Watergate

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011


G. Gordon Liddy

Nearly 30 years after the Watergate arrests, an astonishing editorial appeared in the Washington Post, attacking a Baltimore jury for having the temerity to think for itself.  While the Post did not urge that the guilty parties should be burned at the stake, it was clear from the newspaper’s tenor that a bonfire would not be entirely out of order.

At issue was the jury’s 7-2 decision in a defamation case brought by a woman named Ida “Maxie” Wells.  Instigated by John Dean’s attorneys in a related matter, the suit accused former White House spy G. Gordon Liddy of slandering Wells during the Q-and-A portion of a speech he’d given at James Madison University.  In the judgment of the jurors, Liddy’s revisionist view of the Watergate break-in, substantially informed by a book that I’d written, was sufficiently plausible as to deserve the protections given to free speech.  The judge agreed with the jury’s decision, dismissing the suit with the assertion that “no ‘reasonable jury’ could have found in favor of the plaintiff,” Maxie Wells.[Civil Case No. JFM-97-946, “Memorandum” by District Judge J. Frederick Motz, March 19, 2001, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.]Aghast at the decision, the Post thundered that:

Courts are a capricious venue for arguments about history [The editorial appeared in the Post on Feb. 4, 2001.]. Sometimes, as when a British court last year resoundingly rejected the Holocaust denial of “historian” David Irving, litigation can help protect established history from those who would maliciously rewrite it.  But conspiracy theorizing generally is better addressed in the public arena by rigorous confrontation with facts.  That’s true both out of respect for freedom of speech—even wrong-headed speech—and because historical truth does not always fare so well in court.  A jury in Tennessee in 1999 embraced the looniest of conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  And this week, in a federal court in Baltimore, the commonly understood and well-founded history of the Watergate scandal took a hit as well.

The forum was the defamation case of G. Gordon Liddy…  Mr. Liddy has argued that the burglary was not an attempt to collect political intelligence on President Nixon’s enemies, but an effort masterminded by then-White House counsel John Dean to steal pictures of prostitutes—including Mr. Dean’s then-girlfriend and current wife—from the desk of a secretary at the Democratic headquarters.  The secretary…is now a community college teacher in Louisiana and was understandably offended by the implication that she was somehow involved in a call-girl ring.  She sued Mr. Liddy, and the battle has dragged on for four years.

The jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict, but it split overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. Liddy; the majority of jurors felt that Ms. Wells’s lawyers had failed to prove his theory wrong.  They found this in spite of the fact that Mr. Liddy relies, for his theory, on a disbarred attorney with a history of mental illness.  The call-girl theory “is possible,” one juror (said)…  “It sure makes me more curious.”  “We’ll never know” what happened, said another.

The danger of such outcomes as this one is that this sort of thinking spreads.  For whether or not Mr. Liddy’s comments legally defamed Ms. Wells, we do know what happened at Watergate—and it had nothing to do with prostitutes.

Jim Hougan's, 'Secret Agenda' is available at Amazon.

The Post‘s alarm at “this sort of thinking” was compounded more than a year later, when the verdict was overturned on appeal.  A new trial was ordered.

In Wells v. Liddy redux, Wells sought to bolster her case with the testimony of Sam Dash, chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities in 1973. [Headed by Sen. Sam Ervin, the committee was informally known as "the Watergate committee."] Having led the Senate’s investigation of the Watergate affair, Dash ought to have been an impressive witness.  But under cross-examination from Liddy’s attorneys, John Williams and Kerrie Hook, Dash seemed pompous and strangely unprepared—characteristics he shared with Wells’s own attorney, David Dorsen (himself a former deputy of Dash’s).  After listening to the witnesses for both sides, the jury again returned a verdict in Liddy’s behalf.  This time, it was unanimous.

There were no further appeals, and no more editorials.  The Post buried the story on an inside-page of the Metro section, and turned its attention to other matters.

But the “established history” of the Watergate affair had suffered a grievous blow.  And this, because one jury after another did what the Post prescribed, but which the Post itself has never done in 30 years: they confronted the facts in a rigorous way.

One of the more crucial facts that the jury was asked to consider was a key that one of the arresting officers, Carl Shoffler, took from Eugenio Martinez, one of the Watergate burglars.  As physical evidence obtained at the scene, it was literally “the key to the break-in.”  And, as the FBI determined, it unlocked the desk of Maxie Wells.

James McCord mug shot

The issue—why did they pick the DNC as a target?—has been debated for decades, though one might not know it by reading the Washington Post.  Most accounts of the affair suppose that the break-ins (burglars gained access to the DNC on two occasions, once at the end of May, and again on June 17th) were mounted to obtain “political intelligence.”  James McCord, the former CIA officer who led “the Cubans” into the Watergate office building, told the Senate that DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien was the target.  That’s why he, McCord installed a room-bug in O’Brien’s office.  At least, that’s what McCord said.

But Howard Hunt and his Cuban cohort offered an entirely different reason for the break-in.  According to them, they were sent into the DNC to find evidence of illegal campaign contributions from Fidel Castro.

In reality, neither explanation is supported by the evidence.  If the burglars were looking for financial data, they certainly chose some strange places to search.  DNC Treasurer Robert Strauss’s office was untouched, as were the offices of the DNC’s Comptroller.  As for the bug in Larry O’Brien’s office, none was ever found—despite repeated and rather desperate searches by the FBI and the telephone company.

Not that the bug would have worked, in any case.  O’Brien’s office was part of an interior suite at the DNC and, as such, it was shielded from McCord’s “listening post” in the motel across the street from the Watergate.  Moreover, and as Liddy himself pointed out, the supposed subject of the surveillance – Larry O’Brien – wasn’t even in Washington.  Nor was he expected to return anytime soon.  More than a month before the break-in, the DNC’s chairman had moved to Florida, where the Democratic Convention was to be held.

Richard M. Nixon 37th President of the United States

Not that anyone cared.  In 1973, the burglars’ motives weren’t of much interest to anyone.  They’d pleaded guilty, and their trial was over.  The story had moved on.  Now, the task of the Senate Watergate Committee was to establish responsibility for the break-ins, and to deconstruct the cover-up.  Or to put it another way, with the burglars convicted, it was now time to put the Administration on trial.  Accordingly, the Committee’s attention was focused on higher-ups in the Nixon White House and, in particular, the Oval Office.  Everything else – like the purpose of the break-in – was made to seem irrelevant.

Things might have been different, of course, had Maxie Wells been more candid in her executive session testimony before the Watergate committee.  Instead, she neglected to mention that the FBI had questioned her about the key to her desk, and the circumstances under which the key had been found.  According to Howard Liebengood, who served as the committee’s minority counsel, the Committee’s investigation might have taken a dramatic turn if the Committee had he learned of the key’s existence, and of Wells’s interview with the FBI.

But it did not.[The Watergate Committee lacked direct access to the FBI's investigative files, and so knew nothing about such topics as the key to Maxie Wells's desk or the Bureau's inability to find any bugging devices inside the DNC.  The exception to this was the single day that Sam Dash was permitted to look at the files.  Years after the hearings had ended, the FBI's Watergate file was made public by this author.  Using the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to obtain the release of more than 30,000 pages of investigative files, memoranda and air-tels that Senator Ervin's committee had never seen.]

The issue of the burglary’s purpose was even raised in Blind Ambition, the John Dean memoir ghost-written by the well-regarded historian, Taylor Branch.  In that book, we’re told that Dean raised the issue with Charles Colson in 1974, when both of them were doing time in federal prison.

Chuck, why do you figure Liddy bugged the DNC instead of the Democratic candidates?  It doesn’t make much sense.  I sat in (Atty. Gen. John) Mitchell’s office when Liddy gave us his show, and he only mentioned Larry O’Brien in passing as a target…’

“It looks suspicious to me,’” Dean continues.  “‘(I)t’s incredible.  Millions of dollars have been spent investigating Watergate.  A President has been forced out of office.  Dozens of lives have been ruined.  We’re sitting in the can.  And still nobody can explain why they bugged the place to begin with. [John Dean, Blind Ambition, Simon & Schuster (1976), pp. 388-91.]

Though Dean subsequently repudiated his own memoir, [Blind Ambition was written in 1975, while Gordon Liddy was in prison, refusing to talk about Watergate.  When Liddy published his own memoir, and when other books began to appear, Dean's inconsistencies and "errors" became as glaring as they were numerous.  Accordingly, Dean dismissed the book he had once embraced with pride, claiming that he hadn't actually read it before it was published, while insisting that much of the book was "made up out of whole cloth by Taylor Branch."  A Pulitzer Prize-winner, Branch calls the allegation a lie.] the anecdote makes a good point.  The Watergate affair can only remain a mystery so long as its purpose remains hidden.

Eugenio Martinez mug shot

Fortunately, we know today what the Senate Watergate Committee did not: that Detective Shoffler wrested the key from one of the burglars.  (According to Shoffler, Eugenio Martinez was so determined that the key should not be found, he attempted to get rid of it and may even have tried to swallow it.)  As much as a confession, that key is prima facie evidence of the break-in’s purpose.  Clearly, the burglars were after the contents of whatever it was that the key unlocked.

The FBI seems to have understood this because the Bureau’s agents went from office to office after the arrests, trying the key on every desk until they found the one that it fit.  This was Maxie Wells’s desk, and Shoffler, for one, wasn’t surprised.  When he took the key from Martinez, Shoffler said, photographic equipment was clamped to the top of that same desk.

But what was in it?  What did the burglars hope to find?

It was precisely this question that was so embarrassing to Wells.  In her suit against Liddy, she sought to suppress discussion of the key because, she insisted, it unfairly implicated her in allegations about a call-girl ring.

A call-girl ring?

Well, yes.  Although the Post prefers to ignore any and all evidence on the matter, links between call-girls and the DNC—and, therefore, between call-girls and the Watergate affair—have been rumored or alleged for years.  The connection first surfaced in a book by a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter, J. Anthony Lukas.  According to Lukas, secretaries at the DNC used a telephone in the office of Wells’s boss, Spencer Oliver, Jr., to make private calls.  They did this because Oliver’s office was often empty—he traveled a lot—and his telephone was thought to be among the most private in the Democrats’ headquarters.[J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare, Viking (1976), p. 201.] (In fact, Oliver had two phones, one of which was a private line that did not go through the DNC switchboard.)

“They would say, ‘We can talk; I’m on Spencer Oliver’s phone,’” Lukas wrote.  Quoting Alfred Baldwin, who eavesdropped on these conversations at the direction of James McCord, Lukas reported that “Some of the conversations were ‘explicitly intimate.’”  Baldwin was even more specific in a deposition that he later gave.  According to the former FBI agent, many of the telephone conversations involved dinner arrangements with “sex to follow.”  And while he never heard “prices” being discussed, Baldwin testified, he guessed that “eight out of ten” people would have thought the calls involved prostitution.

But he himself did not.  As former FBI agent, Baldwin knew that for prostitution to occur, there has to be a promise of money.  But money was never discussed, he said, or at least not in his hearing.  And since McCord told him that he was eavesdropping on telephone conversations emanating from the DNC, Baldwin assumed that the women must be amateurs.  As incredible as it seems, it did not occur to him that McCord might have lied to him about the bug’s location.  To Baldwin, it was entirely plausible, or at least possible, that one secretary after another would go to a private telephone to engage her boyfriend in a conversation that was “extremely personal, intimate, and potentially embarrassing.”[Nomination of Earl J. Silbert to be United States Attorney, Hearings before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 93d Cong., 2d sess., Part I, April-May, 1974, p. 52.] The more sophisticated Anthony Lukas was skeptical of the idea.  As he reported, “So spicy were some of the conversations on the phone that they have given rise to unconfirmed reports that the telephone was being used for some sort of call-girl service catering to congressmen and other prominent Washingtonians.” [Lukas, Nightmare, p. 201.]

The same rumors were overheard by others, including the DNC’s Robert Strauss.  In a 1996 deposition, Strauss testified that he recalled stories about “some of the state chairmen (who) would come into (Oliver’s) office and use the phone to make dates…”  Strauss added that “in connection with the use of the telephones, some of the calls…could have been embarrassing to some of the people who made them.”

The DNC’s Treasurer was even more specific in an interview with Fox News correspondent, James Rosen.  As Rosen has testified, Strauss told him that “Democrats in from out of town for a night would want to be entertained…  ‘It wasn’t any organized thing, ‘but I could have made the call, that lady could have made the call’—the reference was to Maxie Wells—’and these people were willing to pay for sex.’  Those were his exact words.”[Testimony of Rosen in the first Wells v. Liddy trial.]

In an interview with Liddy’s attorneys, DNC secretary Barbara Kennedy Rhoden acknowledged that she, too, overheard such rumors.    Asked if Rhoden had said “it was likely that Spencer Oliver and Maxie Wells were running a call-girl operation,” Rhoden replied: “I might have said that…”  But, she added, “I have no knowledge that they were.”[Testimony of Barbara Kennedy Rhoden in the first Wells v. Liddy trial.]

That a relationship may have existed between a call-girl service and the DNC was dissed and dismissed by Wells and her attorneys, and by Spencer Oliver and his attorneys—just as it was by the Washington Post.  According to them, the only evidence of such a relationship was the testimony of Phillip Bailley, a disbarred lawyer with a history of mental illness.

But that wasn’t true.  One man who knew a lot about the relationship between call-girls and the DNC was a private-eye named Lou Russell.  A former FBI agent, Russell had gone on to become chief investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  That was in the early 1950s.  Fired for soliciting “loans” from witnesses, he had turned into a hard-drinking private-eye—a noirish tough-guy who knew a lot about electronic eavesdropping.  And even more about whores.

In the months leading up to the Watergate break-ins, Russell was working for James McCord, and moonlighting for the late Bud Fensterwald, a Washington lawyer who’d founded the Committee to Investigate Assassinations.  In the evenings, Russell hung out with call-girls at the Columbia Plaza Apartments, barely a block from the Watergate.  And according to Fensterwald and two of his employees, Russell told them he was tape-recording telephone conversations between the prostitutes and their clients at the DNC.  The women didn’t mind, and the taping was a source of amusement to Russell, who seems to have regaled anyone who’d listen with anecdotes about the calls.[Jim Hougan, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (Random House, 1984), p. 118.]


Not that Democrats were the only ones to avail themselves of the pleasures to be taken at the Columbia Plaza.  Nixon biographer Anthony Summers quotes a longtime Nixon aide who said that Nick Ruwe, then Deputy Chief of the Office of Protocol, “was always using those call girls at the place next to the DNC.”[The Office of Protocol makes arrangements for White House social events, and for the visits of foreign dignitaries to the nation's capital.] Ron Walker, Nixon’s top advance man, was a second source.  According to Walker, he knew of the brothel next to the DNC because “I had colleagues that used call girl rings.”[Anthony Summers, The Arrogance of Power (Viking, 2000), p. 422.]

In April, 1972 the seamy side of Washington was rocked when FBI agents raided the office and home of the Phil Bailley, a Washington defense attorney whose clientele included prostitutes.  Coded address-books, photographs and sexual paraphernalia were seized, and what began as a simple violation of the Mann Act, became a grand jury investigation with ramifications throughout the capital.

Asst. U.S. Atty. John Rudy was placed in charge of the investigation.  Soon, Rudy found himself looking into the Columbia Plaza call-girl ring and its connections to the DNC—where a secretary was said to have “arranged for liaisons.”

Watergate Complex

It was at about this time that Lou Russell appeared in Rudy’s office.  According to Rudy, Russell tried to divert his attention from the Columbia Plaza to another operatioon that serviced lawyers and judges on the other side of town.

But it didn’t work.  On June 9th, Bailley was indicted on 22 felony counts, including charges of blackmail, racketeering, procuring and pandering.  That same afternoon, the Washington Star published a front-page story, headlined “Capitol Hill Call-Girl Ring.”  According to the article:

The FBI here has uncovered a high-priced call girl ring allegedly headed by a Washington attorney and staffed by secretaries and office workers from Capitol Hill and involving at least one White House secretary, sources said today.

The article did not go unnoticed on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Within an hour of its publication, Bailley’s prosecutor received a telephone call from the President’s counsel John Dean, ordering him to the White House.  “He wanted me to bring ‘all’ the evidence but, mostly, what I brought were Bailley’s address books,” Rudy recalled.  “Dean said he wanted to check the names of the people involved, to see if any of them worked for the President.”[Hougan, pp. 172-3.]

It was, after all, a presidential election year, and the names in Bailley’s address-books included the secretaries and wives of some of Washington’s most prominent men—as well as the names of the johns they serviced.

At first, Dean wanted Rudy to leave the address-books with him, but Rudy demurred, pointing out that the books were evidence.  As a compromise, Dean’s secretary was permitted to copy the books, while Rudy and Dean discussed the case.  When the secretary returned, Dean went through the copies page by page, circling names with a Parker pen. [Ibid.]

It wasn’t the first time that Dean had shown an interest in such matters.  Months before, he’d dispatched a White House investigator to New York to look into a call-girl ring run by a madame named Xaviera Hollander.[Hollander subsequently wrote a book with Robin Moore, The Happy Hooker.]Like the Bailley case, the Hollander investigation was generating headlines.  One, in the New York Times, blared:


The story began:

At least two high-ranking officials in the Nixon administration are among the people the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office intends to question about the possibility that they were blackmailed because of their association with an East Side brothel.

Dean’s meeting with John Rudy occurred on a Friday.  On the following Monday, Jeb Magruder summoned Liddy to his office, and told him that he had to break into the DNC a second time.  The bugging device that James McCord had supposedly placed on Larry O’Brien’s telephone had yet to work, and a second bug (apparently the one being monitored by Alfred Baldwin) was generating little or nothing of political value.

Magruder told Liddy that he wanted the bug in O’Brien’s office repaired, and even more importantly, he wanted to know if O’Brien was sitting on information that could damage the Nixon re-election campaign.  It wasn’t put in so many words, but that was Liddy’s understanding of the brief that he’d been given.

If the purpose of the break-in was somewhat vague, the provenance of the order was even more so.  Since Magruder was Mitchell’s deputy, Liddy assumed that he was conveying an order from Mitchell.  But Mitchell always denied that, and Magruder—himself convicted of perjury—has given conflicting accounts.  At first, young Jeb claimed that Liddy had acted on his own. [John Ehrlichman, Witness to Power, Simon & Schuster (1982), p. 380.] Later, he insisted that the order was Mitchell’s.  More recently, he told an interviewer (on tape) that it was none other than John Dean who ordered the break-in. [This was said to Len Colodny, co-author (with Robert Gettlin) of Silent Coup, St. Martin's Press (1991), p. 148.]

Whatever its purpose, the burglary took place in the early morning hours of June 17th.  McCord and four of his accomplices had not been inside the DNC for more than a few minutes, when the police arrested them.  Baldwin watched the arrests unfold from his seventh floor aerie in the motel across the street, while Hunt and Liddy packed their bags and fled from the Watergate Hotel.

In the weeks that followed, John Rudy had second thoughts.  After the Watergate arrests, his investigation of a link between the Columbia Plaza call-girl ring and the DNC might appear to be politically-motivated.  Worried about that perception, he asked his boss, U.S. Atty. Harold Titus, what he should do.  And the advice came back: Chill it (sic).

And so he did.

Bailley was remanded to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to undergo psychiatric tests.  This was an unwelcome and surprising development, inasmuch as he had been practicing law before that same court only a few weeks earlier.  Eventually, he was certified sane, and encouraged to plead guilty to a single felony.  When he did, he was bundled off to a federal prison in Connecticut where, ironically, he served on the Inmates Committee with Howard Hunt and other Watergaters.  The case-file, thick with interviews and evidence, was sealed and, soon afterwards, it became “lost.”

Which was unfortunate because, a few doors down the hall,  others in the U.S. Attorney’s office were putting together a case in which sexual blackmail was said to be the central motive in the Watergate break-in.  Asst. U.S. Atty. Earl Silbert was convinced that “Hunt was trying to blackmail Spencer (Oliver).” [Op cit., Nomination of Earl J. Silbert to be United States Attorney, p. 52.] The same point was made by Charles Morgan, who represented Wells and Oliver at the burglars’ trial in early 1973.  Determined to block any testimony about the contents of the conversations that Baldwin overheard, Morgan said Silbert told him over lunch in December, 1972, that “Hunt was trying to blackmail Spencer, and I’m going to prove it.” ["A Report to the Special Prosecutor on Certain Aspects of the Watergate Affair, June 18, 1973 (published in Hearings before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary [concerning Earl J. Silbert's nomination to be United States Attorney], 93d Cong., 2d sess., Part I, April-May, 1974, pp. 42, 53).] Morgan was skeptical.  Taking a page (or at least a metaphor) from John Dean’s book, Morgan railed that “Mr. Silbert’s blackmail motive had been woven from whole cloth.” [Ibid., p. 42.] Accordingly, he asked the court to bar any testimony about the conversations Baldwin overheard.

The court complied.

But what of Bailley?  When I interviewed him in the early 1980s, he seemed normal enough: well-dressed, articulate and intelligent, if bitter about the events that led to his downfall.  In particular, he was curious to know what I knew about Watergate and how it related to him.  I insisted he “go first,” and so he did.

Bailley told me that he was having an affair with a call-girl at the Columbia Plaza Apartments, a woman who used the alias “Cathy Dieter.”  She prevailed upon him to establish a liaison arrangement with the DNC.  A hard-partying young Dem who knew a number of workers at the DNC, Bailley told me that one of his acquaintances was a secretary in Spencer Oliver’s office.  With the her help, he said, the liaison arrangement was established.  Here’s how it worked:

According to Bailley, if a visitor to the DNC wanted companionship for the evening, the secretary would show him a photograph or photographs that she kept in her desk.  If the man was interested, Bailley continued, he’d be sent into Spencer Oliver’s office to await a telephone call.  When the phone rang for the first time, he was not to answer it.  A minute later, it would ring again and, on this occasion, he was to answer it.  The caller would be the woman (or one of the women) whose picture the visitor had just seen.  Knowing that the woman was a call-girl, the visitor would make whatever arrangements he pleased.

As I testified in the Wells v Liddy trial, Bailley told me that the secretary was Maxie Wells.  Ms. Wells denies that,  just as she denies keeping pictures of call-girls in her desk.

But what about “Cathy Dieter”?  Who was she?  According to Gordon Liddy, Dieter’s real name was Heidi Rikan.  Liddy testified that he learned this from a seemingly authoritative source: Walter “Buster” Riggin, a sometime pimp and associate of Joe Nesline, himself an organized crime figure in the Washington area.

Formerly a stripper at a seedy Washington nightclub called the Blue Mirror, the late Erica “Heidi” Rikan was a friend of Nesline’s and, more to the point, of John Dean and his then-fiancee, later wife, Maureen.  Indeed, Rikan’s photograph appears in the memoir that “Mo” wrote about Watergate.[Maureen Dean (with Hays Gorey) Mo: A Woman's View of Watergate, Simon & Schuster (1975).]

While admitting their friendship with Rikan, the Deans deny that she ran a call-girl ring, or that she used “Cathy Dieter” as an alias.  Beyond Buster Riggin’s assertion to Liddy, evidence on the issue is slim or ambiguous.  One writer who attempted to verify the identification is Anthony Summers.  As the Irish investigative reporter wrote in his massive biography of President Nixon:

Before her death in 1990, Rikan said in a conversation with her maid that she had once been a call girl.  Explaining that a call girl was ‘a lady that meets men, and men pay them’—the maid had grown up in the country and knew nothing of big-city sins—she added, tantalizingly: ‘I was a call girl at the White House.”[Summers, p. 422.]

This would appear to confirm assertions that Rikan was a prostitute.  But Summers undercuts the confirmation by reporting in that same book—strangely, and in a footnote—that he “found no evidence” of Rikan working as a call-girl. [Summers, p. 530.]

In the litigation with John Dean and Maxie Wells, Liddy took the position that a secret agenda was at work in the break-ins, and that this agenda was unknown to him at the time that the break-ins occurred.  Here’s how the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals summarized the issue:

Liddy stated that the burglars’ objective during the Watergate break-in was to determine whether the Democrats possessed information embarrassing to John Dean.  More specifically, Liddy asserted that the burglars were seeking a compromising photograph of Dean’s fiance that was located in Wells’s desk among several photographs that were used to offer prostitution services to out-of-town guests.[Ida Maxwell Wells v. G. Gordon Liddy, No. 98-1962, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, decided July 28, 1999.]

Dean and his wife challenged Liddy’s account, which was first reported in Silent Coup—whose authors (among many others) the Deans sued.[Dean brought suit against Liddy, St. Martin's Press, Len Colodney, Robert Gettlin, myself and more than 100 others, charging a conspiracy to defame him and his wife.  In particular, the Deans accused the defendants of malice for suggesting that he was "guilty of criminal conduct in planning, aiding, abetting and directing the Watergate break-ins, and gave perjured testimony...with catastrophic consequences to alleged innocent persons, was a traitor to his nation as was Benedict Arnold, and that all...historical writings by John Dean...have been and are a self serving, ongoing historical fraud."  After years of legal wrangling, the case was settled out of court among the Deans, the authors and their publisher.  Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.  Both sides claimed victory.  (This writer was dismissed from the case soon after it was filed.)  For his part, Liddy refused to back down, wishing to take the case to court so that he could get Dean on the witness-stand.  In that, Liddy was unsuccessful.  The case against him was dismissed.]While this writer does not find John Dean’s account of his own role in the affair to be credible, neither does he think it likely that anyone would break into the DNC to retrieve a picture of someone’s girlfriend, assuming that such a picture existed and that it was somehow “compromising.”  What would—what could—anyone do with such a photograph?

One question leads to another.  If the instigator of the break-in (whether Dean, Magruder or someone else) was not after pictures in Maxie Wells’s desk, what was he after?  The matter is necessarily speculative, but it seems useful to point out that men who make dates with call-girls seldom use their real names.  Instead, they use handles like “Candyman,” or resort to aliases like “George Washington.”  (One john at the Columbia Plaza—almost certainly a Democrat—used “Richard Nixon” as a nom de guerre.)[A copy of a trick-book from one of the call-girl operations at the Columbia Plaza was given to this writer by Detective Shoffler.] For that reason, the only person in a position to know who was dating whom was the person facilitating the liaisons.  Whether that person kept a record of such contacts is unknown.  But the instigator of the break-in may have suspected that she did.  It seems reasonable, then, to suppose that the burglars may have been looking for a kind of calendar, or log, rather than a handful of dirty pictures that would be of little use to anyone.[According to Bailley, the photographs in question were in no way obscene, but were, instead, discrete pictures of attractive women---no more and no less.]

The key to Maxie Wells’s desk, therefore, is obviously central to any “rigorous consideration” of the facts pertaining to Watergate.  But it isn’t the only important fact that the Washington Post and other media have done their best to ignore.  A second and equally fundamental one is this: The only bugging device ever recovered from the headquarters of the DNC was a broken “toy” that the FBI believed had been planted in order that it might be found.  And it was found, but not until nearly three months after the Watergate arrests, and not until Alfred Baldwin had gone public with his testimony about eavesdropping on the DNC.

But what did it all mean?  Did James McCord lie about bugging Larry O’Brien and Spencer Oliver?  And if he did, why did he?  And if Alfred Baldwin wasn’t listening to telephone conversations being broadcast by a transmitter inside the DNC, what was he listening to?

These were the questions on Earl Silbert’s lips as he prepared his case against the burglars in the Summer of 1972.  They were questions of which the public knew nothing.  In secret correspondence with the Justice Department and the FBI, Silbert railed against the Bureau’s inability to locate a listening device inside the DNC.  The Bureau replied, coolly, that while it recognized the difficulties this presented for Silbert’s case, it was a matter of fact.  The DNC was clean.

Because the burglars ultimately pleaded guilty, obviating a need for a trial at which the evidence would be presented and contested, the discrepancy never came to the public’s attention.  Indeed, Wells’s own attorney (who had also represented Dean) seemed stunned by the information when it came out on cross-examination in Liddy’s trial.  If this was true, David Dorsen asked, what did it mean?  Who, then, was bugged?

From the witness-stand, I suggested that there were only two possibilities: either the bugs were removed from the DNC prior to the break-in on June 17—or Baldwin was listening to telephone conversations emanating from a bugging device at another location.

Another location? what location? Dorsen wondered.

The most likely place, I replied, was the call-girls’ apartment in the Columbia Plaza, a block from the Watergate and in line-of-sight of Baldwin’s motel room.

This testimony was so discombobulating to Wells’s attorney that we did not get into the question of McCord’s motives.  Why would the veteran CIA agent lie about bugging Oliver and O’Brien?

It is an interesting and important question, but it was not one that the jury was obliged to answer.  Neither was it asked to decide if Liddy (or I) are correct in our belief that John Dean ordered the June 17 break-in because, we suspect, he’d learned of the relationship between the Columbia Plaza call-girl ring and the DNC.  Instead, the jury was asked to decide if these issues, and their corollaries, are sufficiently plausible that fair-minded people can disagree about them.  So, too, with Wells.  Was she involved in facilitating arrangements between visitors to the DNC and call-girls at the Columbia Plaza, as Phil Bailley claimed?  The evidence persuades me that she was but, once again, it is a matter of opinion.  In ruling for Liddy, the courts did not decide that the “alternative theory” of Watergate (as articulated by Hougan and Liddy) is correct.  Rather, they seem to be saying that the received version of the Watergate affair, as promulgated by John Dean and the Washington Post, is open to question, and that there is enough evidence in support of the alternative theory that it can (and perhaps should) be freely discussed.

The real issue, which in the end may be even more important than the who-shot-who of Watergate, concerns the arrogance of media such as the Washington Post, which pretend to an infallibility they do not have.  For decades, the Post and its cousins have refused to tolerate (much less undertake) a re-examination of the Watergate affair—or any other major story in which they may be said to have a stake.

Watergate, after all, was journalism’s finest hour.  Courageous editors and intrepid young reporters risked everything in a brave effort to save America from a White House ruled by Sauron and the hordes of Mordor.  To question the received version of the story is, therefore, a kind of heresy.  And so the Post becomes the Inquisition, labeling its critics “conspiracy theorists” while warning the public against the “danger” of such thinking.  Clearly, the Post would rather its readers let the newspaper do their thinking for them.

If there wasn’t so much blood on the floor, it would be funny.