On Being Bugged


Watergate is personal in Washington. Most of the major law firms in town have clients in the manifold hearings and suits generated by the scandal. Scores of local journalists have been bugged or placed on enemy lists or used in the hot contest of leaks and counterleaks. Families, neighbors, colleagues, gossip, and daily living are all involved. So, apart from the big constitutional issues, there is, here, a little world of Watergate.

I entered this world when it became known that our house, in which I make my office, had been the object of a wiretap operation. The precise details have so far not come out, and what I did learn emerged, like so much else in Watergate, in bits and pieces from obscure sources as parts of larger stories. News of the tap was first leaked to the New York Times, and John W. Dean later mentioned it in his testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee. John Ehrlichman during his subsequent testimony added a few details. As the story pieced itself together, the tap was placed in 1969. It yielded very little because I was in Europe with my family at the time. It was decided the tap be removed. The placing and removal were done on orders of Mr. Ehrlichman, who claimed in his testimony to have discussed it with the President. The operation was carried out by a White House security team under John Caulfield. A ladder was placed in a narrow alley alongside our house in Georgetown. Caulfield was so struck by the riskiness of the job that he mentioned it to John Dean, which is how the story happened to come out.

Since there had been widespread reports of wiretapping of journalists I should, perhaps, have been prepared for the news. In fact, precisely because of the currency of the rumors, I was caught off guard. My name had appeared in some stories, and I had checked these accounts with sources in the FBI, who assured me that the Bureau’s master index showed no wiretap on my phone. I was not, so far as I knew, connected with any of the leaks of national security material cited as reason for the wiretaps on journalists. Moreover, I had been on reasonably good terms with the Nixon Administration during its early days. I knew John Ehrlichman, and even Caulfield, as a figure connected with carrying baggage in the 1968 campaign. So I was totally unprepared for the news of the wiretap attempt. As I recounted it to my wife, my mind focused almost entirely on the small points as distinct from the general outline. Her first reaction was: “Oh, so that’s what happened to the ladder.”

Once the fact of the tap was established, I returned for more information to the FBI. The Bureau, under J. Edgar Hoover, had refused to go along with the Administration’s 1970 Huston plan for an expanded operation to check on supposed domestic subversion. The Administration had moved around the under Hoover. But Watergate provided a vehicle for the Bureau to get even. Most of the early stories about the political espionage conducted by the White House emerged in leaks from the Bureau. So did most of the early stories about the Watergate cover-up. I had no trouble in learning more about my own case from the FBI. The master index of wiretaps, I learned, was not exhaustive. There was also a set of files which had been transferred from the FBI to the office of Mr. Ehrlichman by William Sullivan, a senior Bureau official highly critical of J. Edgar Hoover and sympathetic to the Nixon Administration. Those files were retrieved from Ehrlichman’s office by William Ruckelshaus, then acting director of the FBI, after what he himself described as a “bit of a handwrestle” in the White House. According to my FBI source, the additional files brought back by Ruckels haus showed that the effort to keep me under surveillance continued.

Sullivan, apparently in cahoots with Ehrlichman, arranged to have me followed around Washington. He also made a special trip to Paris to check up on me. A microphone was placed in the hotel rooms which my family and I occupied. An effort was made to tap my phone in Paris. The information gleaned through these actions was contained in two folders. One bore my name. The other bore a code name—Cato.

With that added piece of information, I tried to figure out the possible motives for the break-in and bugging. One that came immediately to mind was my association with Henry Kissinger. I had known Kissinger for a score of years before Nixon came to power, and I used to see him regularly at lunch, dinner, and in his office. Almost all the other journalists who had been subjected to wiretapping, not to mention the members of Kissinger’s own staff, had a similar relationship. Within the Justice Department, the records of the taps that had been moved out of the FBI into the White House were generically known as “the Kissinger tapes.”

One guess was that the President and his closest political advisers, not fully trusting Kissinger, had placed taps on the phones of his friends to find out what he might be saying behind their backs. Another was that Kissinger, unsure of himself with the President and his political aides, had tried to allay their suspicions by serving up the phone numbers of his friends. As soon as the existence of the taps was verified, I had written a column asserting that Kissinger had “participated in the arrangements for the taps.” The column enraged him, and in a phone conversation he said some things which, I felt, obliged me not to attend a fiftieth birthday party given for him by old friends at the Colony Club in New York. But subsequently we did get together. Without denying a part in the bugging of his subordinates, Kissinger claimed he had nothing to do with the tapping of the phones of newsmen.

Another possible motive involved two former White House aides, Robert Ellsworth and John Sears. They were early workers in the 1968 Nixon campaign. During that campaign, I had come to like them both. I saw something of them after they went into the White House. Largely for reasons of personal rivalry, however, they quickly fell out of favor with Ehrlichman and Haldeman, and I wrote about this estrangement. It occurred to me that the bugging might have been an effort to spy on them. In trying to verify that theory, I spoke to both Ellsworth, who is now a partner at the banking firm of Lazard Freres, and Sears, who is a Washington lawyer counting among his clients John Caulfield. One discounted the theory. The other said: “Nixon was always suspicious about aides who had good relations with the press. You not only knew Kissinger. You knew us and some others. So it was only natural the President would want to know what his staff was telling you, and that kind of thing.” So natural, in fact, that Sears, it later became known, was one of those White House staff men whose phones were tapped.

A third theory, prompted by the Paris bug, put everything on my connections with the other side in the Vietnam war. I had been regularly interviewing the North Vietnamese representative in Paris, Mai Van Bo. It was possible that the purpose of the bugging was to get more information on the Vietnamese communists. But not probable. For I had made no secret of these meetings. In fact I had written of them repeatedly, and there were many other journalists with similar, if not better, contacts.

There remained the theory that I might be connected with a leak. John Ehrlichman in his testimony said there was a national security reason for the tap. In my mind I went over the ground once again. I remembered the news beat with the most important national security implications that ever came my way. It occurred in August, 1968. I broke, I am pretty certain, the story that President Johnson was on the verge of announcing a summit meeting in Russia only to have his plans wiped out by the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The tip which led to the story came from a source within the Nixon campaign organization. A couple of days after breaking the story, I received in Chicago, where I was covering the Democratic convention, a call from Mr. Nixon himself. He told me how much he liked my story, and then offered me a job in his campaign. In retrospect at least, it seemed to me highly doubtful that Mr. Nixon, who had offered me a reward for a leak in 1968, would as President in 1969 mobilize a titanic security apparatus just because of a couple of leaks.

I was still puzzled about the motive for the tap, the exact timing, and the results of subsequent operations, if any. So I began to search for more information on my own case as I made my regular journalistic rounds.

Like most Washington journalists, I have a lot of lawyers as friends. As soon as the new of the bugging and break-in at our house was out, they came flooding in with recommendations to sue. Some claimed that I had a clear case to collect damages under the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which makes illegal wiretapping a crime. Others asserted that my case if taken to the courts would at least secure the principle that no journalist could be wiretapped without a warrant signed by a judge—a ruling which, they felt, would close a loophole in the existing law. I talked with my own lawyer, but one of his partners was representing a former Assistant Attorney General deeply involved in Watergate and not wholly free of wiretapping connections. For a brief period, until I did find a lawyer, the word was out that I was looking for one, and there was a small army of volunteers.

Among them was a law partner of Charles Colson, a former White House special counsel. The partner let me know through a mutual friend that he thought I had a strong case for damages, and that he would be delighted to represent me. He added that, whatever my choice of attorney, he would like to bring Colson and me together. That offer intrigued me, for Colson and I had developed over the years an up-and-down, not to say roller-coaster, relationship.

I had seen him occasionally in 1969 and 1970 and found him a useful source inside the White House. He often told me how fair I was to the President, citing in particular a series of columns which gave currency to the term Middle America. One day when we were having lunch, Lynn Nofziger—a White House staff aide known for his right-wing associations who later surfaced in the Watergate hearings as a man who dispensed funds to the American Nazi party in order to head off George Wallace—passed our table. On seeing us, he scowled and said something to Colson. “He’ll probably report this lunch to Haldeman,” Colson said. That was the last I saw of Colson until early this year.

On January 30, Colson published on the Op Ed page of the Times an article entitled “The Georgetown Blacking Factory.” The article was an attack on me, James Reston of the Times, John Osborne of the New Republic, and Marvin Kalb and Dan Rather of CBS. It complained that we had concocted out of whole cloth a story that there was a split between the President and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. According to Colson, we had made it seem that while the President favored the carpet bombing of North Vietnam on December, 1972, Kissinger was opposed. In fact, except for Reston, most of us had not assumed this. We had speculated that Nixon, in deference to the Saigon government, had backed away from the October agreement Kissinger had negotiated with Hanoi. But Colson claimed that there was “no Kissinger-Nixon split,” and then went on to stigmatize my writings as “holy writ to the sell-out brigade.”

The nasty tone contrasted so much with our past relationship that I called Colson to arrange an appointment. He received me in his room at the Executive Office Building across from the White House, smiling as though he had just played a particularly delightful prank. When I objected that impugning somebody’s patriotism was not all that funny, he waved his article aside as “rhetoric,” and said it would bring me added attention. I said that whatever he might think, I had not made up my story. He implied that he knew Kissinger himself had been the source for me and Reston and Kalb. In fact, he said, there had been only the slightest disagreement between the President and Kissinger. Kissinger had felt the President should make a speech announcing the reasons for the December bombing and the President had not agreed. Colson felt it was important to set the record straight, since Kissinger would be representing Nixon in future negotiations. My continuing impression was that Kissinger had been prepared to be tougher in dealing with Saigon than the President, but that the difference was now resolved. Colson’s article suggested to me that Kissinger had been restored to the good graces of the White House and was being publicly rehabilitated as a total hawk.

Colson’s partner arranged my next encounter with Colson at lunch at the International Club on June 20. I arrived first and ordered a drink. Colson and his partner arrived late, and seemed in a hurry. Since Colson had chosen the restaurant, I assumed he was a member of the club and suggested he sign the chit for my drink. But he was not a member. Neither was his partner. A third partner in their law firm was; they produced the number of his membership card, put it on the tab, and took me into lunch.

The conversation centered on three main subjects. Colson began with the theme that the true villains in the Nixon White House had been Haldeman and Ehrlichman, whom he called Hans and Fritz. He said they had constantly used him as the cover for their own misdeeds. He cited the so-called Shipley letter—a scurrilous document from the 1970 senatorial campaign—addressed to the Republican Chairman for the District of Columbia, Carl Shipley, which impugned the patriotism of various leading Democratic senators. Colson was generally supposed to have written that letter, and to my knowledge he had never denied this charge. Now he said the true author was Haldeman, and he, Colson, like a good White House soldier, had merely allowed the blame to fall on his head. He also told me that Haldeman had ordered him to cut me after our luncheon. “He called me in,” Colson recalled, “and said: ‘You better stop seeing Kraft. I’ve got stuff on him that would curl your hair.’ He used to do things like that all the time.”

Colson next produced from his coat a couple of photostated documents which were intended to reinforce his point. One was a letter from Ken Clawson, a former reporter for the Washington Post who had gone to work for Colson in what was known as the White House attack group. In the letter Clawson denied a widely publicized charge that he was the author of the famous “Canuck” letter in which Edmund Muskie was falsely accused of having used the term “Canuck” to describe Canadian-Americans. Clawson had written that the Washington Post had trumped up the charge and that he would spend the next four years getting even with the Post. Appended to Clawson’s letter was a memo from Larry Higby, one of Haldeman’s aides, in which Higby seemed to identify Colson as the true author of the Canuck letter. “I never wrote that letter,” Colson said, piling confusion on top of mystery. “They were just setting me up as the author.”

At that point, Colson’s partner said Colson’s great weakness was that he enjoyed being a bad boy. Colson had taken the heat for a great many White House misdeeds which in fact were the work of others. “Of every fifty bad things that you heard Chuck did, you ought to figure that in forty-nine cases, he’s innocent.” At that even Colson drew the line. “Make that,” he said grinning, “forty-five.”

Colson then talked about the innocence of President Nixon. He insisted over and over again that the President knew nothing of the Watergate coverup until March 21 of this year. He and his partner, he said, had played a key role in alerting Mr. Nixon, and their part in the drama would eventually come out.

But why, I asked Colson, if the President knew on March 21, did he call John Dean on Easter Day, April 22, to wish him a happy Easter, and express his personal confidence? Colson said the answer to that question was something known only to about five people. He looked at me and then at his partner. “Even he doesn’t know,” Colson said, “and I’ve only just found out. The fact is that the President called Dean under instructions. The President had been told by the Attorney General that he should call Dean to put him off his guard, and thus uncover the guilt of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.”

I asked Colson about the extraordinary flurry of activity right after the Watergate break-in. Everybody involved had been in touch with everybody else. Some of those directly involved had been in touch with the men on John Mitchell’s staff. They had huddled with Mitchell. Mitchell had talked by phone to the President, according to the White House log, on June 20. What was that all about?

That’s the day,” Colson said, “the President fired Mitchell from the Committee to Re-Elect.”

In retrospect, it is clear to me that I should have pursued the question in detail. But I was fascinated by Colson’s own role, and bewildered by the craziness of the tale he told. Somewhat lamely, I asked him why he hadn’t come forward earlier to warn the President. He was far more experienced in politics than any of the other men around the President, including Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman. He had independent access to Mr. Nixon. He had known about Hunt and Liddy, before Watergate; and had a further hint in August when Hunt had tried to hold him up for money. So why hadn’t he warned the President?

Colson said that he had no reason to be suspicious. He knew there was a thorough FBI investigation under way. He knew the Department of Justice was prosecuting. That was all he knew. If he had gone to the President then, he would have looked crazy.

Wearily, I asked Colson when he first suspected something was wrong. He remembered the date perfectly. It was on January 4. On that date, he had a meeting with William Bittman, the lawyer for Howard Hunt. Bittman’s story had convinced him that something was wrong, and he then initiated the actions that led to his alerting the President on March 21. I asked him exactly what Bittman had said. He would not say. Subsequently, I called Bittman. He confirmed that he had met Colson on January 4, but he refused to disclose the subject of the talk, on the grounds that it trespassed on his lawyer-client relation with Hunt. I asked him if Colson was surprised by whatever it was he told him. Bittman said: “He showed no surprise.”

The third subject that came up was legal representation for me. Colson’s partner indicated several times that if I were disposed to sue, he would be pleased to represent me. As we parted, he intimated he would like, if it suited me, to have Colson help with my case. He said: “I’m going to make Chuck into one helluva civil liberties lawyer.”

In considerable confusion, I next turned to the Senate Watergate committee. Lowell Weicker turned out to be particularly helpful. Alone among the senators he had developed an investigative team of his own. He had regular access to two key Watergate figures from his own state: former FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, and Alfred Clark Baldwin, the free-lance security man who, in return for promises of nonprosecution, gave critical evidence against the original Watergate burglars. In my own case he moved quickly to establish one point. Tony Ulasewicz, the New York policeman who was active in trying to get dirt on Senator Edward Kennedy and then as a pay-off man for the convicted Watergate seven, had been named as one of those who had tapped our house. Weicker put the question directly. Ulasewicz denied the charge point blank and I tend to believe him.

At last I called on Archibald Cox. I had worked for Cox as a speechwriter in the Kennedy campaign of 1960, and so I had no difficulty arranging dinner at a Georgetown restaurant. He was reluctant to discuss Watergate with me, and we mainly talked about inflation. When I at last raised my own case, he looked off into the middle distance, and said: “You should know that there’s a fellow named Archie Cox out there, and he and his people are interested in prosecuting offenses connected with Watergate.”

A few days later, I went in to see one of Cox’s deputy prosecutors who was handling offenses committed prior to the Watergate break-in. He took down all the details I had, and showed considerable interest in the case. Several weeks later I went back to see him, and it was apparent that the Cox office had acquired much information about my case. They knew that the bug had been planted in the month of June, 1969, and that it had picked up very little information. Compared to the big cases pending, our wiretap was obviously small beer, and there was some doubt whether it warranted a prosecution. They were still uncertain who did it and for what reasons. The staff was reading everything I had written about the Nixon Administration before the tap.

I asked precisely what the tap had picked up. By way of reply there came a question. Did we have a maid? The answer was yes. Did she live in the house? Again yes. Was she an American? No, she came from the Argentine. “Oh,” the man from Cox’s office said. “That’s why they picked up a foreign language.”

Shortly before that, when I was away from Washington, a friend told me my phone was out of order. Things being what they were, I called my lawyer in Washington. He called the telephone company, reported the trouble, and asked, since there had been a wiretap history, to have somebody check whether there was a tap on the phone. I called the FBI and made the same request. The phone company moved the way the phone company does these days. Several days went by before anything happened. Then a man came around with instructions to check on a phone being out of order. When I said the phone was working, but that we wanted to check for a tap, he did not know what to do. I called the FBI again. In a couple of hours another man from the phone company came around who made a thorough check of the house and of the surrounding wires and phone poles. My FBI source called me back to tell me the check had showed no tap on any of our phones. “You know,” he said, “a lot of people think that if their phones are being tapped they can tell because the connection is bad or the line gives a click or something like that. Let me tell you that’s wrong. If we had tapped you, you never would’ve known it.”

I’m sure I would not have. After all my efforts to learn the details of my own case, I still do not know in any precise way why, when, and how my phone was tapped. I am highly skeptical of those who claim to know a lot about wire tapping practices. I do not think the lists which have surfaced so far are complete. I believe that what has emerged has come out largely by accident. But even from the evidence we have, it seems clear to me that President Nixon took the country very close to something like a police state, and he nearly got away with it. I think he created an atmosphere of total mistrust. Indeed, when it became known that he had tapped his brother’s telephone, I found I wasn’t surprised at all.