The Horror of Opposition Research Conducted by the Government Itself
Geoff Shepard
by
John Connally, third from left, at the 1971 dedication of the LBJ Library (Wikimedia Commons)

Opposition research conducted by the government? What a terrifying thought. The very idea that those in power would somehow become so sure of themselves and their right to power that they would direct government agents to conduct research against political opponents is horrifying — and clearly illegal.

But those are the allegations that have been bouncing around the air waves for some time — allegations being brought by both sides. Democrats and their friends in the media are working themselves into a frenzy and launching impeachment inquiries over allegations that President Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine in an effort to convince them to launch an investigation against his likely 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Their hopes and expectations are to develop this case through Adam Schiff’s House Intelligence Committee impeachment investigation, and they are proceeding full speed ahead.

For their part, Republicans seem more and more convinced that FBI and CIA officials in the Obama administration first undertook investigations into Donald Trump, his family, and his presidential campaign while he was still emerging as a candidate. Their hopes and expectations are that their suspicions will be confirmed as a result of concurrent investigations by the Department of Justice, both by its inspector general, Michael Horowitz, and by its U.S. attorney, John Durham.

It seems well known and understood that every campaign has its own opposition research arm whose objectives include analyzing their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, their policy proposals, and — perhaps most importantly — their potential negatives, both policy-related and personal. It’s not pretty, but since negative campaigning is so effective, it’s become universal. In theory, Fusion GPS could undertake any investigation on its own, just not one with help and input from government agencies. That’s when a very bright red line is crossed.

I’m big on comparisons, so I pose the question: What was done in earlier eras? One example is the “perfectly legitimate campaign intelligence plan” requested of Counsel to the President John Dean, which somehow morphed into the million-dollar undertaking proposed by Watergate burglar Gordon Liddy. This plan included proposals for mugging, bugging, kidnapping, and prostitution. The fallout may have cost Nixon his presidency, but at least it was not planned to be executed by government entities.

What campaigns themselves do, however, is clearly distinguishable from any involvement by government institutions. That has been, is, and remains a bright line. If it can be shown to have happened, it portends real troubles ahead, including possible criminal indictments or, in Trump’s case, allegations of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Such illegal government undertakings are not, however, as rare or unique as people would have you believe. What seems to happen is that folks appointed to positions of power really never lose their political leanings and can be tempted into providing campaign assistance that they later wish they could take back.

As readers have come to expect, this includes abuses of power by members of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF), the top 17 lawyers for which all had worked together in the Kennedy-Johnson Department of Justice (DOJ). Somehow, while supposedly investigating the Watergate scandal, they found time to launch investigations into each and every expected GOP presidential candidate for the upcoming 1976 election: Texas Gov. and Nixon’s Treasury Secretary John Connally, President Gerald Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Vice Presidential candidate Bob Dole, and even California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Remember, WSPF prosecutors exercised all of DOJ’s investigative and prosecutorial powers but with total and unreviewed independence from any DOJ supervision — or even any requirement that they adhere to its policies and procedures. As with most of my other assertions of the abuse of prosecutorial powers by this specially recruited and highly partisan unit, their own internal documents on file at the National Archives leave quite a disturbing paper trail.

Remember also that, while the police must have probable cause to initiate an arrest, prosecutors operate under no such requirement before launching an investigation. The usual phrase is “prosecutorial discretion,” but there are absolutely no statutory limits on its use. If you can convince your supervisor to let you run, you’re good to go.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at the handiwork of WSPF’s Campaign Task Force — which apparently operated without supervisory restraint at all.

John Connally: Easily the earliest and most prominent opponent to be taken out was John Connally. Before Nixon resigned and Ford became president, “Big John” Connally, the former Democratic governor of Texas, was the most likely Republican candidate to run for president in 1976. He had been JFK’s Secretary of the Navy before returning to Texas to win the governorship in 1962 (and then serving three terms). He and his wife were in the front seat of the president’s car in Dallas — and he was seriously wounded — when JFK was assassinated. Losing faith as his own Democratic Party moved to the left under Kennedy influence, he became Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury in 1971 and formally joined the Republican Party in 1973. Many believe he was Nixon’s choice to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president, both on the ticket in 1972 and then when Agnew resigned in 1973. He was passed over in the first instance because of opposition from the conservative Republican base with whom Agnew was so popular and in the second because of the anticipated Kennedy-led opposition in a Senate confirmation battle.

Any Connally candidacy in 1976 was effectively aborted by a WSPF indictment charging him with accepting an illegal payment, perjury, obstruction of justice, and two charges of making false statements to the grand jury — all in connection with contributions made by the Associated Milk Producers. Materials concerning this case had been among those purloined by John Dean when he left the White House and which he subsequently shared with career prosecutors in his unsuccessful negotiations for personal immunity.

Connally chose to stand trial and was acquitted on all charges. But he was ruined personally and politically in the process. Theodore H. White’s description in America in Search of Itself is the most vivid and telling about how it ended Connally’s political career:

Finally, he was tainted by his association with “Watergate.” In the public mind, Watergate had blurred within a cloud that includes break-ins, wiretaps, laundered money, shakedowns — and also the so-called milk scandal. In 1974, John Connally had been indicted by a federal grand jury for having taken ten thousand dollars from the Associated Milk Producers, Inc. in exchange for persuading President Nixon to support a hike in milk price support. The trial, in 1975, lasted eleven days but was meaningless; the jury cleared him after five and a half hours of deliberation. But the smear stuck.

The WSPF Campaign Task Force then apparently decided to play its own small part in an untoward and undemocratic exercise. How else to explain what I discovered in 2006 upon gaining access to their files in the National Archives? Here are prominent Republicans having no known connection with Watergate whatsoever — but expected to be involved in presidential politics — each of whom featured prominently in WSPF investigatory files.

Needless to say, material from each of these investigations somehow found itself featured in news stories about these GOP candidates. One wonders if they did far more damage in the 1976 election than any supposed Russian interference in an election 40 years later.

Gerald Ford: Ford had no connection with Watergate, but there are indications that portions of the raw files from his full-field FBI investigation — done in connection with his confirmation hearings before both the Senate and the House of Representatives — somehow ended up in WSPF files. This kind of unedited and unevaluated material can be political dynamite in the wrong hands. WSPF prosecutors had no conceivable right to these FBI files, but they still had them.

A separate campaign finance investigation regarding President Ford was launched by the WSPF in July 1976, in the middle of the presidential campaign. The issue involved the possibility of prior campaign finance violations in connection with contributions from the Maritime Union (which already had endorsed Ford’s opponent Jimmy Carter and was working hard in support of his campaign). There was considerable press speculation about the issues involved. Ford’s response required detailed financial reconstructions from his earlier campaign — which was both time-consuming and distracting from his own campaign. It took three months — until less than a month before the election — for the WSPF to announce that there was not sufficient information on which to base a prosecution. Their October 14, 1976, press release announcing that no case would be brought was typically understated in announcing no prosecution, but it did contain enough background information for a news article dated October 23 helpfully to list of all the charges that had been lodged against the president.

The Ford files also contain the October 3, 1976, transcript of a Dan Rather segment on 60 Minutes that raised questions about Ford’s past support of maritime unions. Perhaps the Task Force was maintaining a clipping service for future reference, but there was absolutely no justification for WSPF prosecutors’ interest in Ford except as a potential presidential candidate.

There’s also a letter dated October 29, 1976, disclaiming any WSPF responsibility for the unfortunate leak of President Ford’s 10-year tax audit, which had been generated in connection with his confirmation hearings. As I recall, the issue was that Ford’s bank records contained no checks made out to “cash,” so he must have somehow been getting money on the side. At least that was the allegation.

Nelson Rockefeller: Rockefeller was the former governor of New York before being named vice president by Gerald Ford after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 created another VP vacancy.

As with Ford, an all-out full-field investigation of his entire political career was undertaken by the FBI — but this time with a twist. A newspaper column claimed that Roy Sheppard (a mysteriously ubiquitous delivery van owner, who had also come into possession of Howard Hunt’s files shortly after the Watergate burglars were arrested) was said to have bragged to someone in a bar that he had information secured in a safety deposit box that could confirm rumors that Rockefeller had secretly contributed money to George McGovern’s fledgling campaign. The WSPF’s very top echelon swung into immediate action. A full week of frenzied investigatory activity followed, with the FBI interviewing several Sheppard family members — with some of the interviews so urgent that they were conducted after 10 p.m. at night. Two safety deposit boxes were identified, and search warrants were obtained. There are pages and pages of references to FBI reports in WSPF’s Rockefeller file. Nothing was found relevant to Rockefeller or any WSPF investigation in either of the boxes, but not for lack of effort on prosecutors’ part.

The WSPF Rockefeller files also contain references to a series of FBI reports on the soon-to-be vice president himself. As with all of these WSPF files, however, the actual FBI reports have been retrieved by the bureau, so the full extent of their involvement cannot be determined.

Bob Dole: Rockefeller withdrew from consideration as Gerald Ford’s vice-presidential running mate in the fall of 1975, and Ford settled on Kansas Sen. Robert Dole. Not surprisingly, WSPF files indicate an uptick of interest in Dole right about this same time.

In early February 1976 — just weeks prior to the New Hampshire primary — the WSPF interviewed Dole in his Senate office. Their ostensible concern involved some questionable corporate contributions from Gulf Oil’s Washington lobbyist to some senators. The question, which appears to have become important only with the prospect of Bob Dole becoming Gerald Ford’s vice president, was whether or not Dole had ever knowingly received any of this illegal corporate cash.

To no one’s real surprise, news of WSPF interest in Dole leaked to the media, inspired considerable speculation, and generated many articles questioning Dole’s honesty.

Unlike with President Ford’s case, there was no press release or other public resolution of these amorphous suspicions about Bob Dole. They just faded into the background, and the extent to which they adversely affected his campaign and the fate of the Ford–Dole ticket can never be determined.

The only further entry in the Dole file is a rather bitter letter he sent on May 26, 1977, some six months following their 1976 election loss, to then–Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff. In it, he asked that he be “advised what disposition will be made of the investigation” and complained that their supposed confidential investigation had somehow become public. Ruff kindly replied the next day that Dole was not then the subject of any investigation, and denied any WSPF responsibility for any media leaks concerning their investigation.

Ronald Reagan: How, you might well wonder, could California’s Gov. Reagan — then 3,000 miles away in Sacramento — possibly be connected to Watergate? The answer is that he wasn’t — but it was not for lack of trying on the part of the WSPF. He was, after all, among the leading Republicans assessing his chances in the 1976 presidential race, which, in fact, he eventually entered.

Unlike the dozens of pages of documentation contained in WSPF files about John Connally, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, and Bob Dole, no formally identified WSPF file can be found on Ronald Reagan. Perhaps that file was somehow misplaced, but the Reagan investigation is the central focus of William McBride’s one-page transmittal memo of August 19, 1974, forwarding Ruff’s prosecution recommendations regarding the Townhouse Project. You can read the full memo here, but this is the operative paragraph:

The only other information of any possible consequence relates to Reagan. In 1970, Ross Perot, head of a large Dallas-based computer firm, was solicited by Kalmbach for a contribution to the 1970 mid-term congressional campaigns. He was also solicited for contributions to Reagan’s 1970 gubernatorial campaign. According to Kalmbach, Perot did not ultimately contribute to the congressional races. He may, however, have contributed to the Reagan campaign. In May, 1970, Perot asked Kalmbach to set up meetings with Reagan and with Harry Dent, John Ehrlichman and possibly other administration figures. Perot says the purpose of these meetings was to complain about certain policies and actions of the Social Security Administration in requiring approval of contracts between Medicare insurers and Perot’s computer firm. In the case of Reagan the particular issue was the substitution of one private carrier (with whom Perot had computer contracts) by another (with whom Perot was not a subcontractor) as Medicare carrier in several California counties. Perot did meet with Reagan and later (perhaps through Reagan’s intervention) with HEW Secretary Finch and Undersecretary Veneman. Perot did not get the relief or remedy he sought. We have not, as yet, learned whether Perot did, in fact, contribute to Reagan’s 1970 campaign.

This is a prime example of just how far afield WSPF prosecutors willingly wandered from their supposed Watergate focus. The reasoning was tendentious and tortuous; the connection, which would have been tangential even had it existed, was entirely unproven. There is a concluding observation that anything Kalmbach did would have had to have been cleared by Haldeman or Ehrlichman — sort of a weak stab at an investigation rationale to bring this back into the Nixon White House. But seeking proof wasn’t the purpose here. The purpose was investigating and possibly raising suspicions regarding another potential 1976 opponent.

Although Campaign Contributions Task Force Chief McBride didn’t come right out and say it, it is not hard to conclude that his purpose was to alert Jaworski to their intention to continue their investigation into Reagan’s conduct as governor. Note especially that McBride clearly didn’t think he needed Jaworski’s blessing to launch the investigation of Reagan in the first place. This memo was merely a courtesy report on a lead that was being checked out, something about which perhaps Jaworski had overheard in a hallway conversation.

As with many WSPF investigations, the Reagan line of inquiry appears to have simply faded away. Because any other Reagan files are “missing,” we can’t know how far this was pursued in an attempt to tar yet another potential Republican opponent.

So much for government-sponsored investigations of opposition candidates from some 50 years ago. These records only surfaced in about 2006, and then only in response to my FOIA requests. They were featured in my 2008 book, The Secret Plot to Make Ted Kennedy President, but it was way too late for anyone to really care.

Three further things to keep in mind: First, the surviving WSPF files no longer contain the FBI reports themselves. Apparently, the bureau has been quite thorough in retrieving its own reports, so there are vague notices that investigatory materials have been removed, but no indication whatsoever as to what they covered. As a permanent organization, the bureau is much better than the temporarily hired prosecutors at covering its tracks.

Second, without this information, we can never hope to ascertain the sources of the leaks that affected President Ford’s 1976 campaign. It is entirely possible that these leaks — about Ford, about Rockefeller, and about Dole — contributed to Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter much more than any Russian interference contributed to Trump’s 2016 election. We will just never know.

Third, we can ponder whether or not this sort of abuse of government investigatory power stretches back to even earlier times — such as the 1960s. But that is a topic for another day.

What we can look forward to for now are the pending reports from Michael Horowitz and John Durham.

Geoff Shepard came to Washington, D.C. as a White House Fellow right after graduation from Harvard Law School and spent five years on Nixon’s White House staff, including being deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. See more on his website: www.geoffshepard.com.

Geoff Shepard
Geoff Shepard
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Geoff Shepard came to D.C. as a White House Fellow right after graduation from Harvard Law School and spent five years on Nixon’s White House staff, including being deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. See more on his website: www.geoffshepard.com.
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