The [Redacted] The truth about the CIA [Redacted] Role in Watergate
Asked about the CIA’s role in the Watergate affair, Senator Howard Baker said, “There are animals crashing in the forest. I can hear them but I can’t see them. As co-chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, Baker filed an appendix to the panel’s final report raising what he said were unanswered questions about the actions of CIA Director Richard Helms. The Agency, Baker suggested, knew more about the burglars than Helms had ever admitted.
While writing a book about the complex relationship between the two ruthless Richards, Nixon and Helms, I found much to support Baker’s suspicions. Helms was much closer to burglar Howard Hunt than he admitted on oath. He and Hunt were lifelong friends who dined three to six times a year, sharing personal and professional secrets. Hunt gave Helms a wedding gift in 1968. Helms returned the favor by promoting Hunt’s spy novels to powerful Hollywood friends as possible film material. And there is compelling, if not conclusive, testimony from two CIA officers that Hunt passed intelligence reports to Helms while working for the White House.
But I also discovered that all history is forbidden to the American people. Key details of the CIA’s relationship with three of the Watergate burglars are still shrouded in official secrecy, even on the 50th anniversary of the break-in that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.
A memo from October 1970 shows that the agency’s first statement about the burglars was false. After five burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Committee offices in the early morning of June 17, 1972, the agency claimed the men were former employees “with whom we have had no dealings since their retirement.” But the partially declassified memo shows that the agency’s Office of Security approved a request to “use” Hunt for a name-redacted project. The note was written six months after Hunt’s supposed retirement from the Agency and 20 months before the botched burglary.
At the time, Hunt was working at the Mullen Company, a Washington public relations firm, in a position he got through a letter of recommendation from Helms. Mullen’s company was “used by the Agency for commercial cover,” according to another redacted CIA memo. “In July 1971, Hunt informed the Agency that he had been assigned to White House staff but continued to devote a portion of his time to Mullen Company work,” the memo reads. The next four lines of the document are redacted.
This memo also explained the CIA dealings of Robert Bennett, owner of the Mullen company, but censored the details. A paragraph about Hunt’s employment read, “Approval was issued March 19, 1971, for use by Mr. Bennett,” followed by a one-line redaction.
In context, the deleted passages lend credence to the idea that Hunt might have worked on CIA covert operations while working for the Nixon White House, something the agency has always denied. The redactions, of course, also make it impossible to determine the truth.
A redacted FBI memo from May 1973 hides details of Hunt’s role in breaking into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Department of Defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The memo was addressed to Acting FBI Director Mark Felt, who served as a confidential source, known as Deep Throat, for Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.
Ten lines about “CIA involvement in the Ellsberg case” are redacted, including information about Hunt’s grand jury testimony, which is not usually made public. The redactions make it difficult to draw conclusions about the CIA’s involvement with Hunt, other than the government is determined to cover it up well into the 21st century.
Details of the CIA’s post-retirement support for burglar James McCord, a former senior security officer, also remain classified. Helms told the Senate Watergate committee he had met McCord “a few times”, giving the impression he barely knew the man. In fact, Helms wrote McCord a congratulatory letter on his retirement, and McCord posted a signed photo of Helms in his office that read “with Deep appreciation, dick. [Underscore in original].
A redacted CIA memo lists the many undercover agents who interviewed for jobs at a private security firm McCord set up in 1970. Twelve lines about an undercover operations officer who knew both McCord and Hunt are still hidden from the public.
“CIA Animals Crashed Watergate Forest Long Ago But We’re Still Not Allowed To See Government Records That Document What They Were Doing”
In May 1973, investigators learned that McCord had sent Helms four letters after his arrest outlining his plans to defend himself at trial. The Agency has not shared the letters with the FBI, despite their obvious relevance to the Watergate investigation. Three senior CIA officials were called by the House Armed Services Committee to explain the Agency’s action. In a draft history of the Watergate affair, obtained in 2019 by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, five lines of commentary on their testimony are redacted. The nature of McCord’s return communications with Helms is still too sensitive for the agency to disclose.
The agency eventually admitted that one of the burglars, Eugenio Rolando Martinez, was on his payroll at the time of the burglary. As a full-time contract employee of the CIA from 1961 to 1969, Martinez had served as a boat captain in hundreds of sabotage and terrorist operations against Cuban targets. The names of the two officers in charge of the case to whom he reported at the time of his arrest are redacted in the draft history.
In 2005, Martinez sat down for an oral history with Timothy Naftali, then director of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. Martinez’s interview is captured on two compact discs found in the library. One of the two discs is fully classified.
Thus, Howard Baker’s suspicions of the hidden hand of the CIA cannot be dismissed even today. CIA animals crash-landed in Watergate Forest a long time ago, but we’re still not allowed to see the government documents that document what they were doing – thanks to a regime of official secrecy that prioritizes CIA interests in relation to the historical record of the greatest political scandal in American history.
Jefferson Morley is the author of the forthcoming book Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster and Watergate (St. Martin’s Press).