Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From Another Point of View II

Continuing from John Dean's Blind Ambition:

"We will have a second operational arm," [Liddy] continued, "that could be of even greater preventative use. These teams are experienced in surgical relocation activities. In a word, General, they can kidnap a hostile leader with maximum secrecy and a minimal use of force. If, for example, a prominent radical comes to our San Diego convention to marshal his army of demonstrators, these teams can drug him and take him across the border into Mexico until the convention is over. He would never see the face of a single one of our operatives."

Mitchell stopped rocking. "What the hell good is that going to do?" he asked with some irritation. It was his first interruption.

"Well, sir, by removing their leadership we'd throw them into confusion at a critical moment and lessen their effectiveness against us."

"Maybe," Mitchell mumbled. For a moment no one spoke. There was electricity in the room. Magruder looked at Mitchell's desk, refusing to glance at Liddy. So these were the people Liddy had burned his hand for, I thought. I waited for Mitchell to say something more, but I doubted he would.

Liddy broke the silence. "Would you like me to proceed, General, with another facet of the plan?" His voice betrayed his first sign of nervousness.

"Please," said Mitchell.

Gordon removed the top chart. Now we were into the political-intelligence component. Its code name, as I recall, was Operation Ruby. Gordon said he would incorporate his existing program of "live penetrations" -- currently only a chauffeur-messenger inside Muskie headquarters, code name, Sedan Chair -- into a larger network. Such infiltrations would depend, of course, on the target selected, whether it was Larry O'Brien, Senator Henry M. Jackson, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Senator Muskie or anyone else with an office and a staff. He had anticipated that the Democratic convention in Miami might be a target and had made preliminary studies of the hotels and the convention hall. "As you probably know," said Liddy, "most of the sensitive positions in these hotels are held by Cubans. They are the telephone operators, desk clerks, janitors, maids and union officials there. I have already made extensive contacts in the Cuban community, and I can assure you we can provide a steady flow of information from the hotels.

"Most of that information will be routine, however, and of limited value," he continued. "But this operation contains a completely separate unit that will upgrade our intelligence. I have secured an option to lease a pleasure craft that is docked on the canal directly in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel. It is more than sixty feet long, with several staterooms, and expensively decorated in a Chinese motif. It can also be wired for both sight and sound in complete secrecy. Now, my preliminary soundings convince me that many of the prominent Democratic officials, including senators and representatives, are vulnerable to weakness of the flesh, which seems to overcome them at conventions. We can, without much trouble, compromise these officials through the charms of some ladies I have arranged to have living on the boat. This will enable us to extract the kind of information we want. The operation will blend into the general scene of Miami Beach, and the boat can also serve as the storage headquarters for all our communications equipment -- "

"It won't work, Gordon," I interrupted. This was the Sandwedge "headquarters" nonsense pumped up to Hollywood proportions. It was outright extortion, and it was absurd as well. "How in the world is some whore going to compromise these guys at the convention? They're not that dumb."

Gordon shot an irritated look at me to underscore the fact that he was addressing Mitchell. But he was ready with his answer. "John, these are the finest call girls in the country," he said. "I can tell you from firsthand experience -- " This broke the tension, as everyone laughed except Liddy, who waited impatiently. "They are not dumb broads, but girls who can be trained and programmed. I have spoken with the madam in Baltimore, and we have been assured their services at the convention."

I'm going to break in here to note how fatal the laugh was to Liddy's having any chance to put a spell on John Mitchell. It was also probably fatal to Magruder's and Dean's relationships with Liddy; Gordo could never forgive such a slight. Laughter takes some of the sting out of fascist clowns like Liddy -- they may still kill you, but their malice has no power beyond that sole physical fact. It's difficult to be intimidated by someone you're laughing at, and Gordon Liddy's first-worst recourse in dealing with anyone was to intimidate them (hence his tricks with fire). Wasn't it Dorothy Parker who said that first mistake made in dealing with Hitler was that nobody thought to laugh at him?

As Liddy went on, I caught Mitchell's eye and shrugged my shoulders. He winked and puffed several times on his pipe, and the corners of his mouth turned up into a hint of a smile. It relieved me to see signs that he was not taking the theatrics seriously.

The chart changed again. Operation Crystal. Liddy began telling us that the best intelligence could, of course, be obtained by electronic surveillance. He had consulted experts -- "one of the world's leading experts" -- and solved the problem of finding untraceable equipment. Then he launched into an extremely technical description of microwave telephone communications, speaking of relay stations, routing frequencies and the difficulties of intercepting noncabled signals. His point became clear when he said there was equipment capable of intercepting all communications between an opposing candidate's airplane and the ground. The intercepting equipment was required to be near the airplane, but not within sight, of course. So Liddy proposed hiring a "chase plane" to follow Democratic campaign planes and make transcriptions of all airborne communications. It would be expensive, he said, but he stressed how much of a candidate's time is spent in the air, and how large a volume of sensitive communications went over the air microwaves. Then came the heart of Operation Crystal -- wiretaps. Liddy told us he could intercept any conversation we wanted, if he were given the target.

On he went to another chart, Operation Sapphire, which detailed plans to sabotage the campaigns of our opponents. They ranged from harassment and false demonstrations to far more ambitious schemes. "I have managed to obtain a copy of the architectural design of the Miami Beach Convention Center," he said, "and it includes a detailed diagram of the ducts and electrical switches for the air-conditioning system. It is possible, I believe, to shut down the air-conditioning system alone in an untraceable, nonrepairable fashion at an opportune moment. Imagine all those Democratic delegates sitting there sweating in one hundred degree heat in that hall on national television." He passed on through plans to have his own hippies harass the Democrats, and then flipped up the final chart.

"This diagram shows how all these independent components fit together into one apparatus," he said. "The organization is cellular. Personnel can be moved about at will from one operation to another without risking security, because the men will not need to know anyone but their immediate superiors. They have been trained to work that way. All the cells will be removed and insulated from the Committee. Untraceable. The operatives are all experienced and will not themselves be identified. But even if an error is committed at the operational level, it is still untraceable." Liddy pointed to the operations along the perimeter of the chart, and to the lines connecting them all with one central figure. "These components are designed to function together with only one central control. Here. I have assigned code names to the components after individual gems, and I have called the overall apparatus Gemstone."

Liddy paused. "This type of operation is expensive, of course," he said, driving toward his conclusion. "But I have carefully checked and rechecked the budget to make sure there's no fat in it. All of this can be done for a million dollars."

He took his seat. The show was over. We all waited for Mitchell to react. I knew he was offended by the wilder parts of the act, but I also knew he would not say so to Liddy's face. He disliked confronting people directly. It was a trait I had noticed in myself and felt was a weakness. Mitchell usually had other people express his blunt feelings; it was Kleindienst who had dressed me down about Huston's memo. I waited for an oblique response.

"Well, Gordon, that's all very intriguing, but not quite what I had in mind," he said mildly, looking at the last chart. "Frankly, I'm more concerned about demonstrators and police cooperation than some of the things you've mentioned."

"I understand, General," Liddy answered.

"And we can't spend that kind of money, either. I suggest you go back to your drawing board and see what you can do."

"Yes, sir," said Liddy.

As Jeb helped him hastily disassemble his charts and easel and carry them out, I went over to Mitchell's desk. "Unreal, and a little frightening," I said in a low voice.

Mitchell grinned. "I'd say that's a fair statement."

Liddy, obviously disappointed, asked Jeb and me for our assessment of the meeting. Jeb told him the whole thing was too expensive and would have to be toned way down. I hoped Mitchell would never reconsider the plan, but did not tell Liddy so. I did not know exactly what Mitchell wanted, although I was certain he would reject the carnival tricks and the muggings. In a way, I felt sorry for Liddy. All the tickler's pressure for massive campaign intelligence was now falling on his shoulders, but everyone was reluctant to give him the guidance he clearly needed. Including me. I did not feel he was my responsibility, and, for that matter, I wanted to stay as far away as possible.

"Gordon, you ought to destroy those charts right away," I said finally, which somehow eased my conscience. "I really think you ought to focus on demonstrations. That's our real problem area."

I accepted Jeb's offer of a ride back to the White House in his chauffeur-driven Committee car. No one spoke on the way.

A week later, on February 4, Jeb called and left word that there would be another meeting in Mitchell's office, at four that afternoon. Liddy had revised his plans. I was encouraged by the speed with which he had moved; I hoped it meant that Mitchell had sent a dousing message through Magruder. I wanted to skip the meeting. I didn't want to know what Gordon Liddy was doing, so I let the time for leaving slip past. Then I had second thoughts. If everything turned out as I hoped, I would look foolish for not going. Also, if Liddy stuck to his plans I could be held responsible for not informing the White House. It was still my job to know about intelligence. Reluctantly, I decided to go.

When I arrived the meeting had started. Everybody was hunched over copies of a revised budget that Liddy had prepared. I sat down and listened. They were discussing figures and making cuts. I heard no mention of the expensive and exotic items like the chase plane or the Chinese pleasure yacht, but there was talk of "targets" and "surveillance." I was surprised, and it came to me that Mitchell was perfectly capable of approving a scaled-down version of the Liddy plan. In retrospect, I am grateful to Liddy. If he had brought in a modest, straightforward wiretapping plan, Mitchell might have approved it on the spot and I would not have crossed him. I would have been in the middle of a criminal conspiracy.

As it was, I was worried about the direction of the conference. I studied Mitchell's face for his mood; he did not look happy. He was involved in the conversation, but he was wincing a lot. If he had looked pleased, I would not have seized an opening to protect both him and myself.

"Excuse me for saying this." I cleared my throat. "I don't think this kind of conversation should go on in the Attorney General's office."

All talk immediately ceased. I was surprised that I had the courage to speak out at all and gratified that no one had ignored me. Magruder looked as if he'd been stopped by a policeman, Liddy looked perplexed, and even Mitchell seemed surprised. His blank expression changed to one of deep thought, and then he began nodding his head. I was relieved. My old boss felt he had been protected by a good staff man, I figured. The meeting broke up almost wordlessly, and we all left quickly, like doctors vacating the operating room after a fatal mistake.