Sunday, February 26, 2012

Palace Intrigue in the Nixon White House

Richard Nixon is often portrayed as a schemer, a man whose official duties were sometimes a footnote to his political machinations. This simplification does not do justice to the overly wrought schemes he hatched to further his political aims as details surrounding the Moorer espionage against the White House indicate.

Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, in their book Silent Coup, detail a spy ring in the White House operated from 1970 – 1971 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), notably chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer (1912 – 2004) and his direct reports Rear Admiral Rembrandt Robinson (1924 – 1972), Yeoman Charles Radford (b. 1944), and later Robinson’s replacement Rear Admiral Robert Welander (1924 - 2005).

 The authors set the context by describing how Nixon’s untrusting and recessive perceptions led him to establish a byzantine configuration of reporting relationships which in turn fostered paranoia among his senior staff in major governmental departments and agencies, most notably the CIA, defense and state departments.

Nixon sought to establish a back channel for he and Henry Kissinger (b. 1923) to communicate with government persons without the CIA eavesdropping. This communication network was established and maintained by the JCS, a network which allowed him to bypass CIA channels. Nixon had developed deep suspicions of the CIA, especially following his loss to Kennedy in 1960, which he blamed on the agency in releasing classified information to Kennedy which he used to his advantage in the debates which many analysts cite as a signal event in the vice president's loss at the polls that November.

Nixon also harbored deeper suspicion about the CIA in connection with the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy assassination which Nixon’s former chief of staff Bob Haldeman (1926 - 1993) said Nixon referenced with the imprecise phrase, “the bay of pigs thing” – not to be confused with George Bush’s “vision thing.” This curiosity, we believe, ultimately killed the cat.

Nixon had his reasons for this secrecy, not the least of which was to protect sensitive negotiations with the USSR and the Peoples’ Republic of China both of which countries were long standing protagonists in the artificial Cold War. But these Kremlinesque maneuvers backfired in a bad way by compelling Nixon's key cabinet and military leaders to pursue alternate means of obtaining information.

Kissinger, who was despised by the military brass as a meddling, officious, academic bureaucrat, abetted their fears by cultivating their communications directly with the president rather than with the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (b. 1922) who was frequently ignored entirely by Nixon in key decisions.

Likewise, Nixon bypassed  Secretary of State William Rogers (1913 - 2001) in his major policy initiatives with the USSR and Communist China. Thus with each of his major policy agenda including détente, SALT, Vietnamization, troop withdrawals, and the Vietnam peace accord, Nixon circumvented the leading cabinet officers who should have been focal points in these advances. In their places was Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor, attempting to control foreign policy through the NSC.

The back channel communications were sent through the National Security Council (NSC) which had lain largely dormant during the Kennedy and Johnson years. Through the NSC, Nixon and Kissinger could control major actions which might ordinarily be conducted through cabinet members.

The incendiary event which exposed the Moorer spy operation was started by a leak to columnist Jack Anderson about Nixon’s “tilt” from India toward Pakistan in the Pakistani civil war which resulted in the creation of the state of Bangladesh. Heretofore, the administration had claimed neutrality.

The White House was furious with the leak but the JCS were equally furious that Nixon had sent on December 10, 1971 Naval Task Group 74 to the Indian Ocean in support of Pakistan against India, a deployment done without consultation with Laird, senior naval officials, NSC, or the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG). In their fury and frustration, it is quite likely that the JCS leaked the memos documenting the policy shift and troop movements, which in the minds of the JCS exposed the US quite unnecessarily to Soviet naval forces operating in the Indian Ocean.

The glue among Nixon, Kissinger, NSC and JCS was Alexander Haig (1924 – 2010), the man who would be instrumental in Nixon’s removal from power in the Watergate affair. Haig enjoyed a meteoric rise from the bottom quarter of his West Point class to Colonel, then Brigadier and Major General during Nixon’s presidency. He was brought to politics in 1963 by Joseph Califano, a man with CIA ties and former Secretary of the Army during the Johnson administration.

Yeoman Radford was a highly eager to please young man with a young family who readily engaged, on orders of his superiors, in theft of highly classified documents, including Eyes Only memos exchanged between Kissinger and Nixon. Radford rifled through Kissinger’s and Haig’s brief cases, burn bags, White House in and out boxes, personal contacts, and anywhere else he could find documents of relevance to the JCS. Very little was deemed irrelevant for pilfering purposes including office gossip for which daily briefings were held. Radner even managed to steal the ultra secret correspondence between Kissinger and Nixon about the opening to China and the peace negotiations between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho.

With Kissinger fuming over the breach in confidentiality, investigations and phone taps were installed against possible suspects including Radford. The investigation yielded a treasure trove of true confessions from Radford and Welander with less expressive admissions from Robinson and Moorer.

When John Ehrlichman (1925 – 1999), Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor, presented the findings to his boss, the President demurred about taking retributive action. In fact he took it rather stoically, figuring aloud how this affair could be either advantageous or detrimental to his larger goals. The president decided to bury the entire affair for at least one reason and probably two. Ehrlichman was strongly in favor of firing the admiral but obviously did not prevail with the president.

Nixon decided that a compromised admiral was of more use to him than a new unknown replacement, knowing that Moorer would henceforth owe everything to him when he reappointed him as chairman of the JCS rather than fire him or prosecute him in a court martial for spying.

The other reason Nixon buried the scandal – even possibly treason – was related to his vanity and insecurity. He feared that exposure of the spy ring would reflect poorly upon him as an administrator, leader, and manager – a man who inspires contempt and disloyalty from his subordinates. He also supposed that the spy ring could be used as fodder for his political opponents.

A more practical reason for covering for Moorer was Nixon’s need to maintain the secret back channel which the JCS had established under the sitting chairman. Thus, Moorer was a pawn in Nixon’s larger intrigues to play off and circumvent the various government bureaucracies.

The investigators did not find any culpability of Radford for leaking to Anderson despite a many months’ long wire tapping of his home ordered by Kissinger of the FBI. However, this did not stop journalism professor Mark Feldstein from reporting otherwise, which we believe was a blatant attempt to prevaricate on the subject in order to salvage the reputations of the admirals.

We believe that the refusal to discipline Moorer to avoid the recriminations which may have redounded negatively to the president was also the reasoning Nixon used to pursue a cover-up of the Watergate break in of which he was completely innocent – exposure of which created far more political casualties than a complete burial would engender.

Nixon’s direct command to the Naval Task Group may explain Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger’s (b. 1929) worldwide command to all military forces to refuse any orders from Nixon, an action of highly treasonous nature because the allegations of Nixon’s mental instability were without warrant and Schlesinger defied the oath he took to uphold the Consitution and execute the orders of the Commander-in-Chief.

Nixon’s isolation from his key staff and cabinet officers, stemming from his paranoia about them, engendered an equal and opposite reaction which resulted in this indefensible spying operation. Clearly the JCS were more concerned about bureaucratic politics than about the welfare or defense of the nation.

More dangerous to Nixon than Moorer was Alexander Haig who appeared in the background of all the critical points of the spying operation and its aftermath. Colodny and Gettlin surmise that Haig took Radford on a trip to Southeast Asia as his aide, and later assigned him as an aide to Kissinger, knowing full well that Radford would take documents from both of them in order to supply his comrades in the Pentagon with highly classified intelligence.

Admiral Moorer claimed at the time that he already knew of the China opening before illicitly receiving the Eyes Only communiqué from Kissinger to Nixon declaring a victory with Peking in 1971. If we take his word at face value – something which must be done with caution given his possible treason – we must then assume that Haig was the man supplying the information as he was the only other person besides Nixon and Kissinger privy to the negotiations stateside.

This betrayal of his boss, who was flawed in his own ways, clearly indicated on which side of the political divide Haig stood – it was with the military which, along with the CIA, had been planning Nixon’s ouster even before Watergate, proving again that military and civiilian government do not mix well for the sake of rule by law.

Family Secret, Russ Baker
Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin
Nixon plot against newspaper columnist detailed [sic],

Copyright 2010-12 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

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