Gordon Liddy’s Crazy Intelligence Plan, 50 Years Later - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Gordon Liddy’s Crazy Intelligence Plan, 50 Years Later

This is the second in a series of essays about the key Watergate people and events, as we approach the 50th anniversary of its unfolding.

The first essay described the botched break-in over Labor Day weekend of 1971 into the Beverly Hills offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Fielding. It was not directly connected to Watergate, except it was planned and executed by Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, who later masterminded the break-in into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. One of the main justifications for the Watergate cover-up was protecting White House staff involved in the Fielding break-in. Thus, it planted the seeds that later blossomed into Watergate. You can read that first essay here.

Shortly after the Fielding break-in, President Nixon’s lawyer, John Dean, assumed responsibility for developing a campaign intelligence plan for Nixon’s upcoming reelection effort. Every campaign wants to gather all the information they can regarding their opponent: policy positions, finances, scheduling, and personnel. Today, we call this “Opposition Research,” and there is nothing inherently illegal about the practice. Unfortunately for Dean and for the nation, he recruited Liddy to draft the plan, and Liddy got really carried away. In recruiting him, Dean apparently promised a budget of at least $500,000 — and that was just for starters.

When Liddy showed up at Nixon’s campaign headquarters on December 10, 1971, he started talking about the $1 million he had been promised by Dean for his plan. Acting Director Jeb Magruder volunteered that the only person who could approve an expenditure of that amount was the reelection campaign director John Mitchell, but he was still Nixon’s attorney general. And that is why three key individuals — Dean, Liddy, and Magruder — ended up in Mitchell’s office at the Justice Department on January 28, 1972 — precisely 50 years ago today.

While Liddy’s plan was not approved at this initial meeting, it marks the actual beginning of the Watergate scandal, because when the bugging team was caught red-handed in the DNC on June 17, 1972, these attendees found themselves at real risk of prosecution. All ultimately were convicted for their participation — Liddy for the break-in itself; Dean, Magruder, and Mitchell for the ensuing cover-up of its planning.

What is most intriguing at this point, however, is Liddy’s plan itself. With charts helpfully prepared by the CIA, Liddy described a collection of illegal initiatives under the heading “Gemstone,” with each part a different gemstone. They are lovingly described in Liddy’s later book, Will: The Autobiography of Gordon Liddy (1980).

There were explicit proposals for mugging, bugging, kidnapping, and prostitution. Demonstrations were expected for at the 1972 RNC convention, then planned for San Diego. Liddy’s idea was to mug the leaders and take them deep into Mexico. By the time they got back across the border, the convention would be long over. Bugging and wire-tapping targets would include Democrat contenders, and prostitutes would be used in houseboats positioned off the DNC convention in Miami, where bugging devices might record DNC campaign secrets disclosed during “pillow talk.”

You would think Nixon’s lawyer and his campaign manager would have been appalled by Liddy’s proposals, but the campaign was just getting started; there was a division of authority between staffers arriving from the White House and those from the Department of Justice. Mitchell had not yet assumed formal authority — and the three other meeting participants had all come from the Nixon White House staff. They assured Mitchell the plan had been prepared in response to the specific request of Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff. Mitchell’s only response was to puff on his pipe and say, “That’s not quite what we have in mind.” 

On the way back to campaign headquarters, Liddy berated his colleagues for not speaking up in support of his many ideas. Their only response was to urge him to cut the budget to $500,000 and, for heaven’s sake, to destroy his explicit charts. Once he had done so, this same group returned for a second meeting with Mitchell on February 4.  Proposals for mugging, kidnapping, and prostitutes were out, but specific bugging targets were identified. Liddy’s plan was not approved at this second meeting either — that wouldn’t come for another two months. Magruder’s diary, however, contained notice of both meetings and presented a major threat to the participants.

Dean originally urged that his name be erased, but Magruder worried the FBI would catch them, so the excuse they hit upon was for him to testify that the meeting’s purpose was to discuss changes and challenges from various state election laws — and that there was only one meeting, since the first had been postponed to the later date. Dean even helped Magruder prepare for his grand jury appearances by posing possible questions that might be asked.

Regardless, by January 28, plans had been presented and discussed, but not specifically approved. One could argue that no actual laws had been broken, but a conspiracy had been hatched, and all it was going to take was an action by one or more of the co-conspirators in furtherance of that conspiracy to set the scandal into motion. If not before, that would be dramatically accomplished when the burglars were caught red-handed in the DNC offices on June 17.

Geoff Shepard joined President Nixon’s White House staff upon graduation from Harvard Law School in 1969 and served for five years, including acting as deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. He has written several books about Watergate, including The Nixon Conspiracy, which was released last October. Learn more on his website at www.ShepardOnWatergate.com.

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