In early August 1971, I attended a secret meeting in Room 16, a hideaway office in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. Huddled around the table were G. Gordon Liddy, a former F.B.I. agent; E. Howard Hunt, a former C.I.A. agent; and David R. Young Jr., a member of the National Security Council staff. I was deputy assistant to the president.
Two months earlier, The New York Times had published the classified Pentagon Papers, which had been provided by Daniel Ellsberg. President Nixon had told me he viewed the leak as a matter of critical importance to national security. He ordered me and the others, a group that would come to be called the “plumbers,” to find out how the leak had happened and keep it from happening again.
Mr. Hunt urged us to carry out a “covert operation” to get a “mother lode” of information about Mr. Ellsberg’s mental state, to discredit him, by breaking into the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. Mr. Liddy told us the F.B.I. had frequently carried out such covert operations -- a euphemism for burglaries -- in national security investigations, that he had even done some himself.
I listened intently. At no time did I or anyone else there question whether the operation was necessary, legal or moral. Convinced that we were responding legitimately to a national security crisis, we focused instead on the operational details: who would do what, when and where.
For you younger kids who don’t remember, the Pentagon Papers was a top secret Dept. of Defense report on America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1971. It was filled with a lot of embarassing revelations, like how America had expanded its military activities with attacks on Laos and North Vietnman at a time when President Johnson was publicly promising not to expand the war. Their publication helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.
Then we have all the president’s men, set out to publicly discredit an administration critic by trying to obtain embarassing personal information--this time by breaking into the man’s psychiatric records. They are so wrapped up in what they are doing that they’ve convinced themselves this vendetta is in the interest of “national security,” not Richard Nixon’s ego.
Again, sound familiar?
The premise of our action was the strongly held view within certain precincts of the White House that the president and those functioning on his behalf could carry out illegal acts with impunity if they were convinced that the nation’s security demanded it. As President Nixon himself said to David Frost during an interview six years later, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” To this day the implications of this statement are staggering.
I finally realized that what had gone wrong in the Nixon White House was a meltdown in personal integrity. Without it, we failed to understand the constitutional limits on presidential power and comply with statutory law.
In early 2001, after President Bush was inaugurated, I sent the new White House staff a memo explaining the importance of never losing their personal integrity. In a section addressed specifically to the White House lawyers, I said that integrity required them to constantly ask, is it legal? And I recommended that they rely on well-established legal precedent and not some hazy, loose notion of what phrases like “national security” and “commander in chief” could be tortured into meaning. I wonder if they received my message.
I think we know the answer to that question.