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Douglas Caddy

Jim Hougan revisits the Watergate break-ins

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Author Jim Hougan posted the following on Facebook today (July 26, 2017):


Some of you may have missed this, with the result that your lives must seem unnecessarily empty. Here, then, is my reply to Doug Vaughn's recent query. (In essence, what do I think about William Kunstler's take on the Watergate break-ins?)

For the benefit of drive-by readers, the issue is as follows: immediately after the Watergate arrests, and for days afterwards, FBI agents repeatedly searched the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters, looking for eavesdropping devices. None were found. Ever.

Initially, this was not a problem (for the authorities or the reporters). The burglars had been in possession of electronic eavesdropping equipment, and were operating under the command of James McCord, a former high-ranking CIA officer whose most recent day-job was heading up security at Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP). Under the circumstances, it was self-evident that the red-handed burglars were after political intelligence. They had gone into the DNC to photograph documents and plant listening devices, probably on the telephone DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien.

As reasonable as the theory was on its face, it began to fall apart as the summer wore on. Alfred Baldwin, a former FBI agent in the employ of McCord, went to the U.S. Attorney’s office and confessed that there had been previous burglaries at the DNC, and that he had monitored hundreds of DNC telephone calls in the weeks before the arrests. That Baldwin was telling the truth was obvious. But where was the bugging device that transmitted the conversations Baldwin had overheard?

The experts agreed that this was a problem. (In fact, a Big problem.)

The U.S. Attorney’s office secretly complained to the FBI that its failure to find a bug was causing serious difficultiess for the prosecution. The Bureau acknowledged the issue, but did not apologize. Its agents had conducted repeated and targeted physical and electronic searches of the DNC’s premises, and there were simply no bugging devices to be found. With the help of the C&P Telephone Company, the feds had examined every telephone in the Committee’s offices. They’d taken the ceiling tiles down, dismantled radiators and deconstructed light-fixtures. There was nothing to be found.

This, then, is the background to Doug Vaughn’s question. And what Doug wants to know is my view of attorney William Kunstler’s subsequent claim that President Nixon “decided to remove the bugs” from the DNC after being tipped off that the Supreme Court was about to uphold a lower court’s decision that there is no national security exemption to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

The issue is an important one because Kunstler’s theory - which he wrongly presents as fact - purports to explain why the FBI was unable to find any bugging devices inside the DNC. According to Kunstler, McCord and his crew had broken into the Watergate on the night of June 17th...to de-bug the place.

The problem with Kunstler’s theory is not just that it is wrong. It is fatuous and self-serving. It is fatuous because it is entirely speculative, except in those parts where it is factually incorrect. In this connection, it seems worth pointing out that there is no evidence that Nixon knew in advance of either the Supreme Court decision that Kunstler’s cites, or - even more substantively - of the break-ins at the DNC.

Kunstler states that “Bugs were installed on O’Brien’s phone...” But there is no evidence of that. According to Baldwin, most of the conversations he’d overheard were intimate - women making dates with men and discussing what they would do when they went to bed. O’Brien assumed they were DNC secretaries. U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert, on hearing this, declared that the purpose of the Watergate break-ins was “sexua blackmail,” and announced that he could prove it.

As for the DNC’s chairman, Larry O’Brien, he had moved to Florida (where the Democrats would hold their convention) weeks before the first break-in - and he wasn’t coming back. Gordon Liddy and his spies knew this.

According to Gordon Liddy, the ostensible purpose of the June 17th break-in was to repair a bugging device on what he was told was Larry O’Brien’s phone. The device was not working. The conversations that Baldwin was listening in on were apparently - allegedly - emanating from a device on the telephone of a second DNC official, Spencer Oliver.

If the reader that he or she is now deep in the weeds, I can sympathize. If it is any comfort, the reader should know that 45 years after the arrests, there is still no agreement as to who ordered the break-ins, what their purpose was or who was bugged.

Back to Kunstler...

That the Plumbers would break into the DNC to plant a bug that doesn’t work - in an office that’s empty - is surely odd. Even odder, to my way of thinking, is Kunstler’s assertion that those same burglars should then break into the DNC again to remove the device. That they should do so in numbers, bringing with them even more eavesdropping equipment, is even stranger, and prompts a question for which I have no answer: how many spooks does it take to remove a bugging device?

In the end, we’re left with a conundrum. WTF is going on?

The reader may suppose that the answer must be found in tape-recordings that were made of the intercepted conversations. But there were none. No recordings were ever made (contrary to “best practice” procedures. CIA wireman James McCord explains this by saying that he couldn’t find any speaker-wire - so he told Baldwin to make notes of the conversations he managed to overhear. I say “managed” because in the absence of voice-actuated recording equipment, Baldwin basically had to sit beside the telephone, day in and day out, with a yellow legal pad on his lap.)

In conclusion: Kunstler’s self-serving theory of the Watergate story is so thin, erroneous, speculative and jejune that it’s unworthy of discussion. (Not that this has stopped me.)

Here, for example, is Kunstler’s account of that fateful night:

“Frank Willis (sic), a black security guard at the Watergate, saw something suspicious at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, investigated, and found people inside the office attempting to debug O’Brien’s telephone.”

This is what passes for “history.” Oy...

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