Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

The plumbers’ first attempt to get into the DNC headquarters was through an elaborate ruse in which they staged a dinner within the Watergate building, which, they figured, would provide them a way to get into the DNC offices later. But the burglars ended up spending the night locked in a closet. On the second attempt they got as far as the DNC office, but they’d failed to bring the right equipment to break the lock on the door. So one of the burglars had to return to Miami to obtain the proper tools for their mission. The burglars did succeed in getting into the DNC offices on the third try, on Memorial Day weekend of 1972—but they made a hash of the job. (The bug on O’Brien’s phone didn’t work, and the documents they photographed were barely readable.) A highly dissatisfied John Mitchell ordered the burglars to go back to the DNC’s Watergate offices and get it right. But they got a bit careless with tape.

It was clear from a conversation Nixon had with Haldeman in the White House three days later, after he returned from a vacation in Key Biscayne, that he was worried that the capture of the burglars would lead to Colson and the number of things the plumbers—whom Nixon kept referring to as “the Cubans”—had done. In particular, he feared that the arrest would uncover the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Field- ing, in Los Angeles, on September 19, 1971, nearly a year before. This raid was a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment. It’s also clear that the cover-up had more to do with the raid on Fielding’s office than it did with the Watergate break-in. Ehrlichman said later that Nixon had known about the raid on the psychiatrist’s office beforehand. The purpose of this break-in was to get hold of Ellsberg’s file in order to see if there was anything in his talks with his psychiatrist that they could smear him with (imagine!). Such material might also be useful in swaying the jury in Ellsberg’s trial.

Haldeman, a little blind to the details, said to Nixon, “They’ve been doing other things very well, apparently.” He and Nixon discussed the relationship of the various Cubans and their leaders to the White House; Haldeman suggested their line of defense for having broken into the Watergate: “We went in there to get this because we’re scared to death that this crazy man [McGovern] is going to become President and sell the US out to the co munists.” In this and a meeting the next day, it became clear that Nixon and his aides were especially concerned about the arrest of Howard Hunt: “He’s done a lot of things,” the President said. The swashbuckling Hunt, who directed most of the plumbers’ operations, was the hyper-belligerent Colson’s man. And they became apprehensive, fatally so, about what the FBI might learn. The President asked his aides, “Can you get a little better protection for the White House on that?”

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