Nixon and the Chiefs

In the last days of 1971 President Richard Nixon and his closest aides met to discuss the astonishing discovery that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been spying on the White House. Transcripts of Nixon's secret tapes of these meetings, published here for the first time, offer a case study in Nixon's paranoid style of governing—and his surprisingly successful efforts to salvage advantage from misfortune

The strategy clearly worked—Nixon gained an increased measure of control over the Joint Chiefs (in particular over Moorer, whom he reappointed Chairman six months later) and kept his various back channels in place; when the Moorer-Radford story broke, in January of 1974, a scandal-weary nation scarcely noticed. In 1986, recalling Nixon's handling of the affair, John Mitchell summed the matter up succinctly: "Richard Nixon was smarter than hell to sit on this thing."

Or was he? In burying the scandal, some historians have written, Nixon and his men perhaps sealed his subsequent fate as President. By allowing a cast of characters he distrusted, and who distrusted him, to remain in place in the White House and in the Pentagon, Nixon virtually ensured that the culture of secrecy and paranoia that infused his first term would persist until the Watergate scandal prematurely ended his presidency.

"Can I ask how in the name of God do we have a yeoman having access to documents of that type?" Nixon demanded of his aides at that initial meeting on the evening of December 21.

"Well, he's the key man," Ehrlichman answered. "He's the fellow that typed all the memcons—the memoranda, the conversations." Ehrlichman went on to say that Radford had kept the Joint Chiefs informed about "contingency plans, political agreements, troop movements, behind-the-scenes politics, security conferences between our government and foreign governments, et cetera." He added, "This sailor is a veritable storehouse of information of all kinds, as he reads and retains everything that comes through. He testified that he knew about Henry's secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese." He later said, "This guy was trained. He can tell you exactly the sequence in which he Xeroxed things, he moved to this room, to that room ... and he just has total recall."

"Under the implied approval of his supervisor, the admiral," Ehrlichman said at another point in the conversation, Radford "has systematically stolen documents out of Henry's briefcase, Haig's briefcase, people's desks—anyplace and everyplace in the NSC apparatus that he could get his hands on—and has duplicated them and turned them over to the Joint Chiefs, through his boss." He added, "This has been going on now for about thirteen months."

In a meeting on December 23 Ehrlichman explained to Nixon the motivation for espionage. "The Joint Chiefs had Henry's talking papers for meetings ahead of time," he said. "This yeoman could be sent into ... the NSC paper mill to pull out what the staff was recommending to Henry on decision papers that were coming to you, in advance of the decisions ... So that in fact the Joint Chiefs were getting advances on where weaknesses were in their case in a decision that was coming to you, ahead of it ever getting here."

Even in the initial Moorer-Radford meeting, on December 21, Nixon had already begun to develop suspicions about the complicity of some of his staff in the espionage. He asked Ehrlichman what Haig, in particular, might have known.

"I don't know," Ehrlichman said. "I suspect Haig may be aware, but by back-channel basis ... If this thing runs true to form, undoubtedly his radar has picked this up by now."

Throughout the meeting Nixon kept returning to Haig. "I'm afraid that Haig must have known about this operation," he said at one point. "It seems unlikely he wouldn't have known." At another point he asked, "Is Haig wiretapped?"

"Why not?" Haldeman replied, taking Nixon's question as a suggestion.

"It's not going to hurt anyone at all," Mitchell added.

But Nixon never ordered a wiretap on Haig. Although he clearly believed that Haig had condoned Radford's treachery, Nixon could not believe that Haig had sanctioned its most brazen manifestation. "Taking stuff out of Henry's briefcase!" Nixon said to his men. "I mean, Haig would never approve that." The others agreed.

But Nixon was not thinking about Haig simply on a personal level; he was also thinking about him in tactical terms. By December 23 Nixon had apparently decided that Haig's value as a bridge to the Pentagon, and as a counterbalancing force for reining in the notoriously mercurial Kissinger, outweighed any need to probe further into the general's role in the spying operation. "We are going to continue to handle the Chiefs ... through Haig," Nixon told Haldeman and Ehrlichman. "But we'll let them know what they're supposed to know."

After Ehrlichman's briefing on December 21, Mitchell weighed in. "Mr. President," he said, "I'd like to point out that this thing goes right into the Joint Chiefs of Staff ... The important thing in my way of thinking is to stop this Joint Chiefs of Staff operation, and to buck up the security over here." The Attorney General described the case in distinctly criminal terms.

NIXON: [Welander] had to know he was getting stuff from Kissinger's and Haig's briefcases. That is wrong! Understand? I'm just saying that's wrong. Do you agree?

MITCHELL: No question about it, that the whole concept of having this yeoman get into this affair and start to get this stuff back to the Joint Chiefs of Staff is just like coming in and robbing your desk.

NIXON: Yes it is.

Infuriated, Nixon had earlier reminded Mitchell that "prosecuting is a possibility for the Joint Chiefs." (In a meeting the next day Nixon revealed that he had more in mind than damage control, the prosecution of the wrongdoers, or even personal revenge. He was already thinking about how to manipulate the situation to his advantage. He told his advisers, "We ought to ... use this as a device, of course, to clean out the Joint Chiefs operation.")

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James Rosen is Fox News' chief Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. His article "Nixon and the Chiefs," about the Joint Chiefs' espionage ring targeting Nixon and Kissinger, appeared in the April 2002 edition of The Atlantic.

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