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

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."

"I agree," Nixon replied. "We can't touch him, because it hurts the Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs, the military, et cetera—not to be viewed as our enemy. We cannot have it."

Nixon remained focused on Radford, convinced that transferring him was not enough. "One thing that I'd be worried about," he fretted to Mitchell and Ehrlichman on December 22, was that "this guy is a potential [Daniel] Ellsberg." This was a reference to the Defense Department consultant who, six months earlier, had leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of documents relating to America's involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1968. "He knows more than even Ellsberg knows ... Is there any way that we can keep him scared to death, so that he doesn't get off and think, 'Oh, I'm now going to write the book?'" Nixon added, "I think [Radford's] got to be told that a criminal offense hangs over him, that it's going to hang over him ... I'd like to scare the son of a bitch to death!"

Nixon had a habit of viewing scandals that occurred during his presidency through the prism of the Alger Hiss spy case, in which Nixon had first gained national fame, and around which there had long been unsubstantiated whispers that Hiss was a homosexual. The Moorer-Radford affair was no exception. Observing that homosexuality "poisons a lot of these things," Nixon ordered Mitchell to explore whether Radford was sexually involved with the prominent syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. (It was a high-level leak to Anderson, detailing Nixon's covert "tilt" toward Pakistan in its December 1971 war with India, that had first led investigators to Radford. The yeoman and the columnist, both Mormons, acknowledged knowing each other, but both denied that Radford was Anderson's source. Under interrogation, however, Radford surprised everybody by confessing to spying for the Pentagon.)

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.

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