The Break-In Before Watergate

In a recent Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit, Daniel Ellsberg — the Pentagon Papers leaker — reminded readers of what The New York Times has called “The Break-In That History Forgot.”

The episode serves as the point of formation for the White House Plumbers, the group tasked with preventing leaks from the Nixon administration, and through nefarious means when necessary. The Plumbers would go on to serve on Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), and their break-in to the Watergate hotel would  lead to Nixon’s downfall (in case you hadn’t heard).

The story of this break-in is fairly short and sweet, by Nixonian standards. The Plumbers were assembled (PLUMBERS ASSEMBLE!) in 1971, two months after the publication of the Pentagon Papers showed the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had been lying about the potential ramifications of the war in Vietnam.

So in response, the group of Nixon administration folk that included future Watergate superstars John EhrlichmanG. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt plotted to make their first go of burglary. That looked like breaking into the Beverly Hills office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Lewis Fielding, in hopes of finding the type of crazy shit that might discredit the leaker. Burglarize they did, though find anything good they could not. Nixon was told: “We had one little operation. It’s been aborted out in Los Angeles which, I think, is better that you don’t know about.”

The break-in, in addition to other means of illegal surveillance over Ellsberg, were the grounds upon which the government’s case against him was ultimately called a mistrial. (The filing cabinet from the office is now kept in the Smithsonian.) But Ellsberg never heard about the break-in until his trial began, a year after the Watergate break-in had already happened. As he explains it on Reddit:

“My analyst later apologized to me for not telling me about the break-in–which he was sure was aimed at me, by the White House–because his lawyer had advised him not to ‘get involved.’ So I didn’t know about it until it came out in my courtroom, thanks to John Dean’s revelation. All for the best. If he had told me and we had raised it [before Watergate] in the court-room, the plumbers would not have been kept on the White House payroll (via CREEP) and would not have been ordered into the Watergate. Nixon would have stayed in office, and the war would have continued for years.”

Whether Nixon’s programs would have been disbanded or not is probably best left in the realm of alternative historians. While the tale of the Fielding break-in (notwithstanding the Times headline) has been sealed in history, it goes without saying that the other break-in vastly overshadowed it — so it’s fun to entertain the irony Ellsberg suggests.

The Reddit thread also includes rare transcripts showing Nixon’s hopes to tie Ellsberg to Marxist groups. In a classic “ain’t the Internet great” moment, Ellsberg told the user who submitted the documents that they included details about Nixon’s surveillance over him that he had not previously been aware of.

photo credit: treewoman8, Creative Commons/flickr