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January 18, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 3
The commies at Watergate?
by Judith Miller
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The major problem with the Watergate trial is that the prosecution has not gotten to the bottom of the sordid affair, because it has refused to go after those at the top. Last Wednesday, in his opening remarks to the jury, U.S. attorney Earl Silbert outlined the web of political intrigue and attempted sabotage, but carefully insulating those closest to President Nixon from further involvement in the trial. Silbert wants a conviction, so the heads scheduled to roll are those, with the exception of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, at the lowest level of the spy operation. Maurice Stans, Charles Colson, H. R. Haldeman, and John Mitchell are not scheduled to testify. In fact, their names were not even mentioned during the prosecutor’s outline of the case.
Nevertheless, the Watergate trial has produced several surprises. For the first time, the government acknowledged that the illicit underground spy operation was directly financed through a revolving, largely unrecorded cash fun maintained by the Committeee for the Re-election of the President. The prosecution presented a surprise witness — Thomas Gregory, a baby-faced, 25-year-old senior at Brigham Young University, who described in detail his role as a Republican informant within the Muskie and McGovern camps, all the while collecting college credit for his volunteer efforts. Last Thursday, Hunt, to whom Gregory reported, stunned the courtroom by pleading guilty to all six counts against him. Finally, on Monday, four of the remaining six defendants changed their pleas, over the objection of their attorney, from not guilty to guilty, leaving only James McCord and Liddy on trial.
The Watergate trial has been splendid drama. The cast of characters is a reporter’s dream. There is E. Howard Hunt, former FBI agent and prolific writer of spy novels. They are the five men found inside Democratic headquarters, wearing surgical gloves, carrying Mace, burglar’s tools, and eavesdropping equipment: Frank (Fiorini) Sturgis, a stocky soldier of fortune whom you wouldn’t’ care to meet in a dark alley; Virgilio Gonzalez, a Cuban-born locksmith; Eugenio Martinez, a Cuban exile and minor CIA functionary; Bernard Barker, a fingernail-biting Miami real estate agent who helped plan the Bay of Pigs invasion, suitable prepping for the Watergate fiasco; and James McCord, former security coordinator of Nixon’s re-election committee and 19-year veteran of the CIA.
Finally, there is the ever dapper G. Gordon Liddy, alleged kingpin of the political spy network, a former pistol-packing Poughkeepsie prosecutor, Treasury aide, FBI agent, and White House consultant. When the seven defendants were first introduced in court, Liddy bounced up, bowed, and waved to spectators and prospective jurors. Throughout the proceedings, Liddy has worn an implacable, enigmatic expression that makes one wonder: why is this man smiling?
It’s difficult to predict the lawyer’s strategies. Henry Rothblatt said before his clients changed their pleas that he did not deny that his clients were inside the Democratic Committee offices, but wanted to prove that they committed their acts with “no evil or criminal intent.” Rothblatt intended to prove that his boys were, as he put it, “poor little soldiers, simply carrying out orders, motivated solely by patriotism.” When the four admitted their roles in the break-in, each said that he was, in fact, just carrying out Barker’s orders, and that they participated in the break-in “to fight communism in Cuba.”
Gerald Alch, McCord’s attorney, has said nothing about how he intends to get McCord’s attorney, has said nothing about how he intends to get McCord off the hook, but there has been some indication that the patriotism theme will figure strongly in his defense also. Early in the trial, prosecutor Silbert called Eric Jaffee, comptroller of the Democratic National Committee, to the stand. Silbert used him solely as a technical witness, since Jaffee helped put together an inside floor plan of the Democratic offices for use during the trial. When Alch cross-examined him, however, he asked Jaffee if he were privy to DNC political planning. Jaffee replied that he was on the business end of the Democratic operation, and knew little about political strategy. Alch then asked him if he had ever heard of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or the National Peace Action Coalition. At that point, Silbert objected to the line of questioning, saying it went beyond the scope of his direct examination. Nevertheless, the incident presented the first hint of Alch’s strategy for the case. Evidently he intends to link the Democratic Party with “left-wing extremist” groups, to convince the mostly working-class jury that McCord, true to his CIA background, felt he was fighting the commies that night when he was apprehended inside Democratic headquarters.
Peter Maroulis, Liddy’s lawyer, has reserved his opening remarks until after the prosecution has fully presented its case, so at this point his defense strategy, like Liddy’s smile, is something of a mystery.
At the beginning of the trial, there was much talk about a “sweetheart prosecution.” The Democrats have even attempted to have Silbert replaced by an independent prosecutor, that is, one who doesn’t work for the Justice Department. Those who know Silbert, however, say he is an honest man, intent on winning his case. Nevertheless, he has consistently kept executive “heavies” out of the case. During his opening remarks, for example, Silbert said that Jeb Stuart Magruder, deputy director of Nixon’s re-election committee, and Herbert Porter, director of Republican campaign scheduling, assigned Liddy to dig up routine political intelligence information, such as security problems for the upcoming Republican National Convention, and safety precautions for candidates standing in for Nixon during state primaries. Silbert implied that Magruder and Porter conceived of Libby’s assignments as legal and legitimate. For these intelligence operations, Liddy was given $235,000 in $100 bills for the secret GOP cash fund by Hugh Sloan, Jr., Nixon re-election committee treasurer, who also, according to Silbert, had no idea that the money would be used to fund some very nasty business.
Prosecutor Silbert went further in his efforts to exonerate those in high places. During his opening presentation, he said that the day after the June 17 break-in, Liddy turned up at the re-election committee offices to use the large paper shredder. While at work, he passed Sloan in the hall, and said to him, “I made a mistake last night; my boys got caught. I’ll probably lose my job.” Silbert then told the jury that Sloan had no idea what Liddy was talking about. Nor did Silbert mention that the safe which financed the illicit underground spy and sabotage operation was kept in the private office of Nixon finance chairman Maurice Stans. John Mitchell, then head of Nixon’s campaign effort, was never mentioned. Nor was reference made to Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson, who allegedly hired Hunt as a White House consultant. Silbert says the motives for the Watergate break-in and bugging were financial, (since the Miami Four all needed money) and political (although he did not elaborate on what he meant by political).
The presiding judge, John Sirica, however, has served notice that he wants the trial to explore the broader issues of the indictment: not only the purpose and financing of the Watergate break-in, but also any possible connection the episode may have to newspaper reports of an alleged wider espionage and sabotage operation undertaken by Republicans against the Democratic Party. Sirica may therefore insist on pushing the prosecution further than it wants to go.
Thus far, Sirica, a life-long Republican, has been fairly tough on the defendants. He denied, for example, Hunt’s original offer, which the prosecution had accepted, to plead guilty to only three of the counts against him, ruling that given the nature of the case, the public interest had to be served not only by the substance, but the appearance of justice. He denied the defense’s request for a change of venue, and denied its request to question each of the prospective jurors individually about pre-trial publicity. On Monday, he also denied Alch’s motion for a mistrial in view of the submission of guilty pleas by four of the defendants.
The trial will probably reveal even less than it might have, had the Miami Four not pleaded guilty. Rothblatt’s defense of his four clients might have pushed the prosecutor further than he wanted to go. For, as Rothblatt argues, his clients were only good soldiers following orders, the higher the source of those orders the better his case would have been. Silbert contends that the orders were given by Liddy, but the jury might have been more convinced of the defendants’ “patriotism” if Rothblatt could have proven that his clients felt their orders were coming from the White House itself.
Even if the Watergate trial remains confined to the two defendants, however, Silbert has indicated that he plans to revive the Watergate grand jury to explore charges of political sabotage against the Democrats further, after the trial is over. In addition, the Watergate affair will be probed in greater depth by the Senate, probably by Senator Sam Ervin.
But in any case, though the Watergate affair is slimy and sordid, unless the spy and sabotage network can be more closely linked to executive cufflinks, it will probably be remembered by most Americans as the Watergate “caper,” the story of seven bad boys who went just a bit too far in their efforts to re-elect the President.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]