Official White House portrait | Photo: Archives
The faintly smoldering embers of the legendary Watergate scandal got a puff of oxygen yesterday with the release of long-sealed files on the four-decades-old political affair, which toppled a president and sent his closest aides to jail.
Yet it's what's not in the approximately 950 pages ordered released by a federal judge that's really interesting, according to Watergate scholars who have never accepted the standard version of events.
It's a name: Larry O'Brien.
Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1972, O'Brien has long been said to be the target of the Nixon White House "plumbers," the off-the-books squad of political dirty-tricksters, break-in artists and wiretappers arrested in the Watergate office building on June 17, 1972.
But O'Brien's name is not on the list of bugging targets released Monday by the National Archives and Records Administration, on order of Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. And that throws a wrench into generally accepted answer to the affair's central question: What were the burglars doing in the Watergate?
"Watergate remains American's greatest political scandal, and greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War," Luke A. Nichter, the Texas A&M history professor whose legal petition led to the release of documents, told SpyTalk. "However, 40 years later, we still do not have answers to the most basic questions: Why did the burglary take place? Who ordered it? What were the burglars looking for?"
According to the standard narrative of the Watergate affair, propounded most prominently by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the plumbers had been dispatched by Nixon officials to bug O'Brien's phone and gather political and financial intelligence on the Democrats and their ticket, headed by Sen. George McGovern (D-SD).
Woodward and Bernstein based their conclusion mainly on the word of Watergate burglar James McCord, who testified about the plumbers to the Senate Watergate Committee.
McCord testified that O'Brien's phone was the target. But later evidence re
|Forty years later, we still asking, Why did the burglary take place? Who ordered it and why?|
vealed that the listening post across the street was out of position to pick up the bug's broadcasts.
A contending theory, proposed by other journalists, including New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winner J. Anthony Lukas, has long posited that neither O'Brien nor the Democrats' political and financial secrets were the plumbers' target: They were after another phone at DNC headquarters, which was allegedly being used to set up dates with prostitutes for visiting out-of-town Democratic officials.
That phone belonged to DNC official R. Spencer Oliver, who was often away on business, according to these accounts. In his absence, they say, it was used by Oliver's secretary Ida Wells to set up dates with hookers for prominent Democrats visiting town.
Tuesday's release revealed that the names of Oliver and Wells were on the bugging target list, compiled by the White House plumbers' wiretapper, Alfred Baldwin, and promptly sealed for 40 years--until now.
But O'Brien's name was not on it.
Lawrence Francis "Larry" O'Brien, Jr. (July 7, 1917 – September 28, 1990) was one of the United States Democratic Party's leading electoral strategists for more than two decades. He served as Postmaster General in the cabinet of President Lyndon Johnson. | Photo: National Archives | LINK
Not only is O'Brien's name not on the list, but the Washington, DC detective who nabbed the burglars in the act, Carl Shoffner, testified in one Watergate proceeding that he had wrested a key from one of the perps that turned out to belong to Ida Wells' desk.
A 1992 book, Silent Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, had alleged that Nixon's White House lawyer, John Dean, had orchestrated the Watergate burglary to find out whether the Democrats knew that his future wife, Maureen, was connected to the madame of the call-girl ring.
The book was ridiculed and denounced by leading publications and reviewers but embraced by Nixon partisans. Dean sued the authors and their publisher and one of their key sources, convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, for defamation and reached an out-of-court settlement that he said "satisfied" him, according to erroneous news reports.
In fact, according to a little-noticed Sept. 27, 1999 judge's order, Dean dropped his suit against Colodny. The author (and the judge) accepted the deal only on condition that the former White House lawyer promise never sue him for defamation again. Colodny's insurance company also paid him $410,000 to make the suit go away.
"I, of course, was satisfied," Colodny said by email Wednesday.
Asked for comment Tuesday, Colodny told SpyTalk, "I think this release makes it clear that Larry O'Brien's phone was not the target of the Watergate break-in."
Author Jim Hougan, who was also sued by Dean but later dropped from the case, pursued similar alternate explanations for the Watergate break-in in a 1984 book, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat, and the CIA.
On Tuesday he cheered the release of the bugging list.
The "newly released documents revealing the identities of those who were eavesdropped upon by the Watergate burglars are clearly at odds with the orthodox narrative put forward by the Washington Post," he said in an email.
"Contrary to what we would expect from the Post's reportage, there is no reference to DNC Chairman Larry O'Brien, and nothing to suggest the burglars had an interest in the Democrats' finances. What the documents do suggest is that the Watergate break-ins were not so much an exercise in political intelligence-gathering as an effort to obtain information about a call-girl operation that had established a working relationship with the Democratic National Committee."
The content of the bugged conversations remains sealed.
"The release of the names alone does not confirm or deny the traditional explanation of why the Watergate break-in occurred, or any of the alternate theories surrounding Watergate," Nichter said. But "the records released provide new grist for the alternate versions [of the Watergate affair], because they reveal that Oliver and Wells were among the individuals overheard by wiretapper Alfred Baldwin. At any rate, the release certainly doesn't disprove any of the alternate versions."
"While they differ on some points," Nichter added by email, "one thing Lukas, Hougan, and Colodny all have in common is that they said the phone used for the sex ring/escort service was R. Spencer Oliver's phone, which was used by Ida Maxine Wells to set up the dates/escorts."
In four decades, Woodward and Bernstein have not altered their version of events.
Baldwin is in fragile heath and could not be reached. "He wants to come out publicly about this, but he wants to get McCord's permission first," Nichter said.
McCord, now "on his deathbed at a military hospital in Pennsylvania" and "refusing to talk," Nichter said, has stuck to his story about O'Brien's phone being the plumbers' target.
But the FBI never did find a bug in O'Brien's phone or desk, Nichter and others point out.
"I do not take sides on this dispute," Nichter said. "My goal is to unseal as many records as possible, in order to fill in gaps in the historical record."