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

"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.")

Mitchell calmly steered Nixon away from pursuing prosecution. "I agree with you," he said, "but we have to take it from there as to what this would lead to if you pursued it by way of prosecution of Moorer." Their exchange continued:

MITCHELL: What has been done has been done. I think that the important thing is to paper this thing over.

NIXON: Hmmph!

MITCHELL: This way—first of all, get that liaison office the hell out of NSC and put it back at the Pentagon.

NIXON: Correct.

MITCHELL: Secondly, get a security officer into the NSC.

NIXON: Correct. Well, what about Henry Kissinger?

MITCHELL: Well, I think that whoever goes in there is going to have to ride herd not only on the rest of the staff but on Henry ... With respect to the Joint Chiefs, you have to get, in my opinion, this guy Admiral Welander the hell out of there, by way of a signal. That way you can transfer him to Kokomo, or Indiana, or anywhere we want to have him, along, of course, with this yeoman. And I think the best thing to do is for me—and we'll leave Laird aside for a moment—but for me to sit down with Tom Moorer, and point out what this scene is that's been going on, and it's the end of the road ... This ball game's over with.

Nixon agreed. "I think the strategy you suggested is the one that I would pursue," he said, adding that Mitchell should—"on my behalf"—establish "a direct line to Moorer." He continued, "Don't tell Laird. Laird is liable to screw around, and then one way it will blow."

As for Kissinger, Nixon was dismissive: "Henry is not a good security risk." Nixon said he would brook no "crying" by Kissinger, and added, "I don't want Henry to raise this subject with me here—or he's out." Two days later Nixon told Haldeman, "I will not have Henry in here with his childish antics. I will not discuss it. Just say you're handling this with Mitchell."

During the night of December 21 the President somehow managed to convince himself that Yeoman Radford had acted of his own volition, and not at the behest of higher-ups. In a meeting the following morning Ehrlichman and Mitchell worked swiftly to disabuse Nixon of this fantasy.

NIXON: The important thing is to handle [Radford's superiors] in a way that they do not talk.

EHRLICHMAN: [Inaudible] their career, and I suspect that that's enough leverage—

NIXON: And they're probably loyal fellows.

EHRLICHMAN: I suspect so.

NIXON: They're just doing it for—for the service.

EHRLICHMAN: Right.

NIXON: This fellow—I think they'd be shocked to know what this guy did.

EHRLICHMAN: Well, they know! They're the ones—

NIXON: But do they know about the fact that—

EHRLICHMAN: Absolutely! Oh, absolutely! See, they ... uh, used him!

NIXON: And they knew that he was stealing from Kissinger?

EHRLICHMAN: Oh, they had to! They had to.

NIXON: Jesus Christ!

EHRLICHMAN: I don't, I just don't see any escape from them being included.

NIXON: Well, they—that's the reason they need to be transferred. If they knew he was stealing from Kissinger ...

MITCHELL: This is the only way you're going to have a deterrent on future such operations.

But by this time Nixon viewed a full rupture with the Joint Chiefs as unthinkable, for strategic reasons. "You have to realize," he told Haldeman and Ehrlichman on December 23, "that the channel to the Chiefs is something we cannot lose. Ever." If this meant that Admiral Moorer would escape the affair unpunished, then so be it. It was a prospect that agonized Ehrlichman. "I lost more sleep [over] what to do with this guy," he told Nixon. "And I have finally come to the conclusion that you can't touch him."

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In