CIA director misled FBI about how agency spied on Pentagon Papers leaker

Ray Locker

WASHINGTON — CIA Director Richard Helms misled the FBI in June 1972 to cover up his agency's role in helping to smear the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked a secret history of the Vietnam War to the press, a newly released CIA document shows.

Former CIA director Richard Helms.

In a June 28, 1972, memo to his deputy, Vernon Walters, Helms wrote that he asked the FBI to "desist from expanding this investigation into other areas which may well, eventually, run afoul of our operations." Those details are included in the 155-page CIA inspector general's report that was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the conservative legal watchdog Judicial Watch and released Tuesday. Other elements of the document were first reported Tuesday by Fox News.

Helms' misdirection enabled the CIA's role in the Pentagon Papers case to go undiscovered for 11 months amid a growing political scandal that would eventually force President Richard Nixon from office and lead to an extensive investigation into abuses by the CIA and other parts of the U.S. Intelligence community.

The FBI was investigating the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington. Five burglars with ties to the CIA were arrested inside the DNC offices; one, James McCord, was a retired CIA official and the current head of security for Nixon's reelection committee. Two other team members, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were monitoring the break-in attempt from a nearby hotel.

The CIA report was produced by the agency's inspector general in 1974 to examine the agency's ties to the break-in and whether CIA officials were involved in the operation's planning and execution.

Hunt, the group's leader, was a former CIA agent and member of a secret White House investigative team known as the Plumbers. FBI investigators recovered a phone book of Hunt's that included the names of two CIA officials, John Caswell and Karl Wagner, whom the bureau wanted to interview.

Helms told acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray on June 28 that Caswell and Wagner were active CIA agents who should not be interviewed. Agents had already talked to Caswell, who told them little, but Gray ordered the FBI not to interview Wagner, records show.

Who was Karl Wagner?

However, Wagner was the CIA official who coordinated the agency's extensive assistance to Hunt, who obtained disguises, fake identification, special cameras, psychological evaluations and the use of a safe house as part of the White House-led campaign to investigate Ellsberg.

At the time of the CIA's assistance to Hunt in the summer and fall of 1971, Wagner was the executive assistant to deputy CIA director Robert Cushman. It has long been known that Cushman, who worked for Nixon when he was vice president, had helped Hunt get CIA assets. It was Wagner, who facilitated most of the agency's assistance of Hunt, and it is that role that is illuminated in great detail in the CIA report.

Wagner also recorded a July 22, 1971, meeting between Cushman and Hunt in which they discussed the agency's help for Hunt. When Cushman left the CIA in December 1971 to become the commandant of the Marine Corps, Cushman's secretary and Wagner "had gone through all his files and records, including room and telephone transcripts, destroying some, sending others to archives and in a few cases retaining items which they felt had continuing relevance," the CIA report said. Wagner kept the Cushman-Hunt transcript in his safe but could not find it when the post-Watergate break-in investigation started.

Later, on July 22, 1971, the CIA report said, "Wagner was asked by Hunt not to identify him to other personnel or to indicate it was a sensitive matter requested by the White House."

Gray complied with Helms' request to not interview Wagner, but he eventually concluded that the White House was trying to hinder the FBI investigation into Watergate. In a 2008 book written with his son Ed, Gray said he also realized later that Helms had lied when he asked him not to interview Wagner.

"In our telephone call, and again later in the investigation when he held back physical evidence, Helms committed obstruction of justice," Gray wrote in his memoir, In Nixon's Web.

The Pentagon Papers

Ellsberg, a former contractor for the Pentagon who was working for a think tank, had stolen the Pentagon's secret history of the U.S. role in Vietnam and given it to The New York Times, which first published details in June 1971. The history, soon dubbed the Pentagon Papers, showed how U.S. officials from the 1950s through 1968 had lied about American policy in Vietnam and how the nation steadily drifted into a war that would cost more than 58,000 U.S. servicemembers their lives.

Although Nixon was not mentioned in the papers, which were compiled before he took office in January 1969, he was concerned that other documents concerning his sabotage of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks could leak. He asked the FBI, then led by director J. Edgar Hoover, to investigate, but Hoover refused. Nixon then authorized the creation of a special investigations unit at the White House, which soon became called the Plumbers, to investigate and to smear Ellsberg's reputation in the press.

Daniel Ellsberg in 1973.

The Plumbers included Hunt, Liddy, former National Security Council aide David Young and White House aide Egil Krogh, who was the group's nominal leader. They reported to Nixon through John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser and one of his closest aides.

The CIA, the report said, had grave concerns about the Pentagon Papers. "The collective totality of Agency material in the Pentagon Papers would tell any sophisticated or professional outsider a very great deal about how the Agency goes about doing its business," the report said. "This would constitute a major windfall for any hostile intelligence service and greatly facilitate future denigration operations, including the preparation of fabricated documents, forgeries or other types of tailored disinformation.

"It is against this backdrop that the Administration's concern and efforts against Ellsberg must be viewed," the report continued. "Not only did they feel that an example must be made of Ellsberg to forestall future leaks, but also they felt that if he were in touch with the Soviets, as had been rumored, it was of vital importance to identify his contacts. The concern was legitimate, the means to achieve their ends was, to say the least, questionable."

Two attempts to prosecute Ellsberg for stealing the Pentagon Papers would fail. A federal judge threw out the government's case in May 1973 in part because of the CIA's role in attacking Ellsberg.

Ellsberg's psychiatrist

Hunt knew from his time in the CIA that the agency often conducted psychological reviews of world figures, and he wanted the agency to provide one on Ellsberg in the hopes they could leak details to the press and claim Ellsberg was mentally unstable. In the end, two such evaluations were provided to the Plumbers after special pleading to Helms by Young, the CIA report said.

"I have seen the two papers which [name redacted] prepared for you," Helms wrote Young on Nov. 9, 1971. "We are, of course," glad to be of assistance. I do wish to underline the point that our involvement in this matter should not be revealed in any context, formal or informal. I am sure you appreciate our concern."

Hunt and his colleagues, however, were not satisfied with the CIA evaluations. They had also learned that Ellsberg had seen a Beverly Hills, Calif., psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, in 1969 and 1970. They believed Ellsberg's file in Fielding's office contained potentially damaging revelations about Ellsberg's mental health.

E. Howard Hunt in 1973.

Using CIA-provided aliases, disguises, cameras and electronics gear, Hunt and Liddy led two break-ins into Fielding's office in September 1971. They and the rest of their team of CIA-connected exiles from Cuba trashed the office in what was believed to be an unsuccessful attempt to find anything damaging about Ellsberg. Those break-ins would become part of one of the two articles of impeachment approved against Nixon in July 1974. Ehrlichman would go to prison for his involvement in the Fielding case.

"The adverse publicity for the Agency that resulted when the burglary of Dr. Fielding's office surfaced in April 1973 confirm that the anxiety and concern over this matter, by the Doctors and other Agency officials, was well founded," the CIA report concluded.

The CIA stops its help

After Hunt left the CIA in April 1970, the agency helped him land a job at a Washington public relations firm, Mullen and Company, that was considered a CIA front operation. The CIA report said that Robert Bennett, who helped run the company, was believed to have lied to federal prosecutors about his ties with the CIA. Bennett was later a Republican U.S. senator from Utah from 1993 to 2011.

Hunt had extensive contacts with his former associates at the CIA during much of the summer and fall of 1971, the CIA report said. He met with Cushman and Thomas Karamessines, the agency's head of covert operations. He met with Caswell, the executive officer of the Europe division, about leaks of government information in France.

But Hunt went too far when he invited Liddy to accompany him to a meeting with an agency official providing them with fake identification.

G. Gordon Liddy (right), handcuffed and in the custody of a U.S. Marshal, arrives at the Criminal Courts building in Los Angeles on Sept. 25, 1973.

"I see two problems," Wagner wrote Cushman in an Aug. 27, 1971, memorandum included in the CIA report. "1) Hunt has brought a stranger into the picture who is now privy to [the Technical Services Division's] role in this affair. The White House should have cleared this with us and we must be told who the fellow is. He could embarrass us later. 2) Hunt's use of unique clandestine equipment in domestic activity of an uncertain nature also has potential for trouble. The Agency could suffer it its clandestine gear were discovered to be used in domestic security operations."

By Aug. 27, 1971, Wagner had called an official and "instructed him that CIA was to furnish no additional help to Hunt, that TSD should not accept any more requests from Hunt, and that Hunt should be asked to return sensitive materials from TSD," the CIA report said.

That, agency officials believed, ended their association with Hunt. They would learn otherwise on June 17, 1972, when the arrest of the Watergate burglars started a cascade of revelations, cover-ups and prosecutions that ended the Nixon presidency.

Ray Locker is the Washington enterprise editor of USA TODAY and author of Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration.