And so forty years ago today two members of the White House staff found themselves in California to break in to a shrink's office and steal the file of an American citizen so that the White House could have material to use to smear him in the press.
Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy arrived in California on September 2 with, as Liddy called it, "essentially burglary tools." They met three of the Cuban-Americans that Hunt had recruited: Eugenio Martinez, Felipe de Diego, and Bernard Barker. The plan was to have Barker and de Diego pretend to be delivery men, and that they case filled with the buglary tools was a package for Fielding, and to ask the janitor to let them in to leave it inside. That part worked fine...I'll just let Fred Emery take it from there:
On the way out, they set the latch to unlocked so that they could return once the cleaner had departed.
Alas for such brilliant plans. The cleaner discovered the latch and promptly locked both office and building doors. Finding their way barred and with no Plan B, the Cubans consulted Liddy, who was in the parking area outside. Hunt was keeping an eye on Fielding's apartment to make sure the psychiatrist did not return to his office. Liddy authorized the men to break a ground-floor window hidden behind shrubbery and to go up to the second-floor office [...]
Back at the hotel [later], Barker explained that they had had to force Fielding's supposedly unlocked office door, and with the break-in no longer covert, decided to wreck the offices and scatter a box of vitamin pills to make it look like a druggie's burglary [...].
They had recovered their suitcase of tools...They had photographed the damage. They had taken Polaroid pictures of the filing cabinets' contents so that, in theory, they would know later how to replace the files to make them look undisturbed. This was, of course, pointless since they had had to wrench open the filing cabinets. And they had not found any Ellsberg files.
See too this clip.
Before leaving town, they cased Fielding's apartment (taking pictures again) to bring back to Washington so that they could make a case for a second break-in. On the one hand, at least Ehrlichman turned that down. But as Emery points out, Hunt and Liddy were not fired or in any way discouraged from continuing. And why should they have been? This was clearly exactly the kind of aggressive response that the President of the United States was urging his staff to take.
I should mention: given that practically every third murder on TV shows in the 1970s was covered up by making it look like a robbery, it's sort of shocking that they actually got away with it. For a while. The local cops didn't catch on. Oh, and those photos that were taken? Not just the ones taken the night of the break-in, but the earlier ones that Hunt and Liddy took of themselves on their first trip to plan it all? Those photos, and other physical evidence, stayed in the Plumber's office, in a safe. And everyone in the White House who had participated, authorized it, or even knew about it was already, in September 1971, involved in (at least) a conspiracy to obstruct justice by covering up a crime.