the Washington Post Missed the Biggest Watergate Story of All
scandal may have been rooted in Richard Nixon’s alleged efforts to
sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks, but this story has never fully been
told – partly because the Washington Post remained silent on it,
explains Garrick Alder.
Postis still running in theaters, lauding theWashington
Post, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee as fearless exposers of
official secrets about government wrongdoing. But previously overlooked
evidence now reveals for the first time how theWashington
Postmissed the most serious leak in newspaper
history, and as a result history itself took a serious wrong turn.
Consequently, this is a story that was also missed by Spielberg, and
missed by Alan Pakula in his 1976 film aboutThe
Washington Post’s role in Watergate,All
The President’s Men.
behind the bar aboard Air Force One, President Richard Nixon speaks
with military and civilian leaders while flying from Bangkok to Saigon
for a short visit with commanders and troops stationed in Vietnam.
film tells the story of the “Pentagon Papers” affair of 1971, in which a
huge number of Defense Department documents were leaked by RAND
Corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg, whose conscience would not allow
him to stay silent about the carnage in Vietnam. TheWashington
Posttook on Richard Nixon and won – a victory
for press freedom that has been enshrined in the mythos of the mass
media. But in fact, theWashington
Posthad inadvertently let Nixon off the hook.
had been told by an unbeatable source – one might almost say, an
“unimpeachable” source – that the president had committed treason
against America in time of war and had then conspired to destroy the
damning evidence of his own crime. It is no exaggeration to say that if
Posthad printed what it had been told,
simmering domestic discontent over the Vietnam War would have become an
incendiary mix with national disgust over Nixon’s conduct in office.
At the height of
the Watergate scandal, in summer 1974, Secretary of State Henry
Kissinger tried to tell the world about Nixon’s sabotage of the 1968
Paris peace talks, talks which – had they succeeded – could have spared
the nation six more years of futile slaughter. Nixon would have gone
down with the blame for Vietnam squarely on his shoulders – ultimately,
perhaps, providing America with much-needed catharsis. Kissinger leaked
his knowledge of Nixon’s treason toWashington
Postreporter Bob Woodward. Woodward fumbled
the pass and no story ever appeared.
The first trace
of desperation is recorded on the White House tape of June 17, 1971,
just four days after the first newspaper story about the Pentagon Papers
York Times). Nixon is heard telling White House chief of staff HR
Haldeman: “God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and
get them.” Nixon’s aides were used to occasionally turning a deaf ear to
their boss’s more outrageous orders.
fortnight later (June 30, 1971) Nixon had to hammer home his demands
once more: “I want Brookings … just break in, break in, and take it out.
Do you understand? You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and
bring them in.” Twenty-four hours later, Nixon issued the same demand
even more emphatically: “Did they get the Brookings Institute raided
last night? No? Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings
Institute safe cleaned out.” What was in the safe at the Brookings
In a July 24,
1974 memorandum, Woodward set out what he could recall of an interview
with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, in which the Brookings break-in was
direction E[hrlichman] said he talked to Brookings and about secrecy
there; did it several times; right after Pentagon Papers. Also about
Brookings a meeting in San Clemente about 12 July 71 ‘undoubtedly
discussed it’ (w/ Dean) the discussions were an effort to get the
so-called “bombing halt” papers back.
halt papers” were what Nixon told his cronies he wanted to retrieve –
evidence that his predecessor Lyndon Johnson had stopped bombing in
Vietnam in a last-minute attempt to swing the 1968 election to the
Democratic Party. But this was just another Nixon lie to conceal his
true motivations, and Ehrlichman essentially admitted as much to Bob
Woodward during the same interview, when describing his attempts to
access the Brookings Institute’s Vietnam records via official
bureaucratic channels: “Buzhardt decided what we not get to see [sic] So
it was admittedly a hit and miss process. … in terms of ? what he got to
see; not the whole story; butthe
Brookings matter was not necessarily what he was looking for.Wouldn’t
elaborate on that.” (emphasis added)
Filed in the
Woodward-Bernstein collection at the University of Texas, among the July
24, 1974 Ehrlichman interview notes, is a second typed memorandum from
Woodward, addressed to his colleague Carl Bernstein. Its significance
has been overlooked for nearly 45 years. The memo is undated, but,
from part of its contents, its creation can be pinned down to a period
of approximately 35 days at the height of the Watergate scandal,
immediately prior to July 24, 1974 when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon
to hand over the White House tapes.
begins: “First and most important, my source said that the President
personally ordered the break-in at Brookings.” This was correct,
although the tapes of Nixon’s orders were at this stage still in the
sole possession of the White House.
source knew what he was talking about. After some discussion about how
Charles Colson had reacted to the President’s order to burgle the
Brookings Institute, when other aides had just ignored what they
regarded as another of Nixon’s impetuous outbursts, Woodward got to the
point of his source’s information:
“I quizzed him
for a while, and while I don’t remember exactly what he answered in each
instance, the impression left was that these papers related tosecret
U.S. negotiations with Hanoi, Russia and China.The
‘Other stuff,’ my source said, really provided the impetus for the
administration’s panic reaction to the Pentagon Papers,not the
Pentagon Papers themselves.” (emphases added)
As can be seen,
the exact information passed on by Woodward’s source was already a
fading memory by the time this memo was typed up. Even so, the import is
clear. Woodward’s source knew exactly why Nixon wanted a break-in at the
Brookings Institute, and which documents Nixon wanted to seize.
state that his source told him “several times that the picture the
public had of [Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel] Ellsberg was still
distorted … all he would hint at was that Ellsberg’s activities were
mentioned to Woodward the supposed existence of “material that the
[Nixon] administration had gathered about Ellsberg’s behavior while in
Vietnam.” This corresponds closely with claims that had been made in the
White House soon after Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers had
In his 2000
Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, Anthony
Summers wrote: “Kissinger, who knew Ellsberg, fed the president’s spleen
with a torrent of allegations. Ellsberg may have been ‘the brightest
student I ever had,’ he told Nixon, but he was ‘a little unbalanced.’ He
supposedly ‘had weird sexual habits, used drugs,’ and, in Vietnam, had
‘enjoyed helicopter flights in which he would take potshots at the
Vietnamese below.’ Ellsberg had married a millionaire’s daughter and –
Kissinger threw in for good measure – had sex with her in front of their
information known to Woodward’s source included the existence of “a
document – he gave the number as NSSCM 113 on declassification. We did
not get further than that.” It is somewhat surprising that Woodward was
able to recall the number of this document so exactly, when his
recollection of the nature of the papers Nixon wanted from Brookings was
so hazy. The document Woodward’s source was directing him toward was
NSSM 113 (just one letter different; NSSM standing for “National
Security Study Memorandum”). Dated January 15, 1971, NSSM 113 was titled
“Procedures for Declassification and Release of Official Documents” and
was written by Henry Kissinger.
Woodward mentions that “My source also confirmed that Kissinger was for
a unit to plug security leaks” (i.e., that Kissinger had supported the
formation of Nixon’s “plumbers” team).
reliability of Woodward’s information concerning the Brookings break-in
plan, the following factors are known. Woodward’s source repeated
rumours about Ellsberg that Kissinger was circulating in the White
House; like Kissinger, Woodward’s source claimed to have knowledge about
Ellsberg’s private life; Woodward’s source knew the document number and
nature of a (then undisclosed) memorandum concerning national security
that had been written by Kissinger; and the source was able to give
solid information about Kissinger’s private attitude toward Nixon’s
creation of the plumbers.
There could only
be a very small number of White House figures privy to this precise set
of information in mid-1974, and perhaps only one. Woodward’s source was
Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Henry
Kissinger. Still alive in 2018, Kissinger has maintained public silence
about his knowledge of Nixon’s Vietnam treason for half a century.
incomprehensible that neither Woodward nor Bernstein appeared to
understand the information they were being told by Kissinger: the
allegations against Nixon had swirled ever since he won the Presidency.
On January 12, 1969, theWashington
Postitself had carried a profile of Nixon’s
go-between, Anna Chennault, which stated: “She reportedly encouraged
Saigon to ‘delay’ in joining the Paris peace talks in hopes of getting a
better deal if the Republicans won the White House.” Chennault was
reported as making no comment on the allegations, which were entirely
Bernstein had been handed the skeleton key that would have unlocked the
entire Watergate affair. The reporters had been told – by no less a
figure than Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger – about
the real motive behind Nixon’s plan to burgle the Brookings Institute.
It was to destroy the evidence that Nixon had conspired to prolong a war
with an official enemy of the United States in order to win the
presidency in 1968; after which he deliberately prolonged – even
escalated – the Vietnam War. And – for reasons that might never be known
– Woodward and Bernstein stayed silent.
Bob Woodward and
Henry Kissinger were contacted for comment on the specific disclosures
made in this article. Neither of them replied.
is an abridgement of an article first published by Lobster Magazine (www.lobster-magazine.co.uk). Republished
with permission. All rights reserved by the author.