Sunday, June 24, 2012

June 23, 1972

The "smoking gun" conversation.


Bob Haldeman: —on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back in the problem area because the FBI is not under control because [Acting Director L. Patrick] Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them.1 And they have—their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources—the banker himself. And it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. Also, there have been some things, like an informant came in off the street to the FBI in Miami with—who is a photographer or has a friend who’s a photographer, who developed some films through this guy, [Bernard] Barker, and the films had pictures of Democratic National Committee letterhead documents and things. So he’s got . . . there’s things like that that are going to, that are filtering in. [John] Mitchell came up with yesterday, and John Dean analyzed very carefully last night and concludes—concurs now with Mitchell’s recommendation that the only way to solve this—and we’re set up beautifully to do it, in that the only network that paid any attention to it last night was NBC, who did a massive story on the Cuban—

President Nixon: That’s right.

Haldeman: —thing. But the way to handle this now is for us to have [Deputy Director of the CIA Vernon] Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this. This is—there’s some business here we don’t want you going any further on.” That’s not an unusual development.

President Nixon: Mm-hmm.

Haldeman: And that would take care of it.

President Nixon: What’s the matter with Pat Gray. You mean he doesn’t want to?

Haldeman: Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis. He’ll call Mark Felt in, and the two of them—and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because he’s ambitious.

President Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.

Haldeman: He’ll call them in and say, “We’ve gotten a signal from across the river to put the hold on this.” And that’ll fit rather well because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is: [that] this is CIA.

Haldeman: [...]And it does stop if we could, if we take this other step.

President Nixon: All right. Fine.

Haldeman: And they seem to feel the thing to do is to get them to stop.

President Nixon: All right, fine.

Haldeman: And they say the only way to do that is a White House instruction, and that it’s got to be to [CIA Director Richard] Helms and, what’s his name? Walters.

President Nixon: Walters.

Haldeman: And the proposal would be that Ehrlichman [clears throat] and I call them in—

President Nixon: All right, fine.

Haldeman: And say—

President Nixon: How do you call them in? I mean you just—well, we protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things.

Haldeman: That’s what Ehrlichman says.

President Nixon: Of course, this is a—[E. Howard] Hunt will—that will uncover a lot of—he had a lot of [unclear] when you open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and then “we just feel that this would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further, that this involves these Cubans, and Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”

President Nixon: Well, I [unclear] Helms [unclear] get that closely involved.

Haldeman: No, sir. We don’t want you to.

President Nixon: You call him. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we’re going to play it.

Haldeman: OK.


I clipped a few things, mostly the details about the money trail -- including Nixon's suggestion that everyone involved just lie to the FBI, and Haldeman's response, which is only that if they go that route they're starting to rely on too many people.

At any rate, after yet another Nixon-Haldeman meeting (the one excerpted above is 90 minutes long, and covers other topics than just Watergate; the second is just ten minutes), Haldeman and Ehrlichman do sit down with Helms and Walters and make the request, basically following the script that Nixon himself suggests about the possibility that the investigation will stir up the Bay of Pigs and other areas the CIA doesn't want looked at. And it works -- at least for now. Pat Gray gets the call from the CIA, and starts reining in the investigation just as it's about to get to areas that the White House doesn't want.

The notation in Haldeman's diary is perfect:


The Democratic headquarters break-in has gone the other way now. Apparently Dean feels the investigatino is out of control. Gray doesn't know what to do in controlling the Bureau. They traced some of the money to one of our contributors [...] [Dean and others] feel the whole thing is on the brink now. And it'll either open it all up or be closed. The FBI is convinced it's the CIA that's doing this, and Gray's looking for a way out of the investigation. So we talked to Walters and had that worked out.


Also that day: McCord is out on bail, goes to his house, and finds the van still sitting there packed with all the stuff from the bugging; the FBI never searched and found it, and McCord now gets rid of it.

A grand jury is empaneled in Washington as a step towards prosecuting at least those already arrested.

I should mention something else, which comes up a lot that week but I don't think I've included. Woodward and Bernstein had run a story in the post about Hunt's connection to the arrested men, and Colson's connection to Hunt; perhaps for that reason, and perhaps because he was just Chuck Colson, Nixon spends a lot of time at first being worried that Colson was involved, and then relieved that it turned out not to have been a Colson operation. There's also a lot of concern, by Nixon, about exactly how involved Mitchell is.

At least with the tapes running, however -- and remember, only Nixon and Haldeman know about that -- there's nothing at all about what possible problems could be posed for the rest of the White House. Perhaps they were avoiding the tapes (although that seems highly unlikely to me, given what they did say). Perhaps they had already discussed it openly in Florida, and so the only topic remaining to talk about was about who else was vulnerable.Perhaps it's just a bunch of crooks circling each other, even that early. Remember, Haldeman certainly knew that he had authorized the budget for Gemstone, and that he was receiving intelligence from CRP, through Strachan, including material that Strachan (at least) was from bugs placed in the first break-in. And one great bit on the smoking gun tape is this:


Haldeman: No, but [Liddy] was under pressure, apparently, to get more information, and as he got more pressure, he pushed the people harder to move harder on—

President Nixon: Pressure from Mitchell?

Haldeman: Apparently.


Of course, the source of that pressure wasn't Mitchell at all; it was the President of the United States, with his Chief of Staff being the one who transmitted it down the line, including to CRP.


  1. It occurs to me that interested readers who aren't thoroughly familiar with Watergate might wonder why this tape is called the "smoking gun." Here are a couple of brief explanations:

    And here's some further interesting commentary from someone who seems pretty well-informed:

    (I disagree slightly, though, with the point made there about Alexander Hamilton. IIRC, Hamilton praised the constitutional plan for providing "energy" in the executive; he didn't think it made energy something that every president would have to fight for individually because it would be so difficult to maintain. In other words, Hamilton was not Neustadt.)

    1. Thanks Jeff.

      The key thing to know, in terms of why the smoking gun tape was historically important, is because it was the first clear proof that Nixon was involved in obstruction of justice early on -- which contradicted everything he had said publicly.

      The deal was that they didn't really know which conversations to subpoena, so they took educated guesses based on the evidence and testimony they did have. As it turns out, there was far more than enough evidence in the tapes to convict Nixon, but that was the first one they hit on.

  2. I never realized Vernon Walters was involved in this. His government career survived well enough to allow him to eventually become ambassador to the UN.


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