Watergate’s Scorpions: The CIA and White House

New revelations emerge in Jefferson Morley's tale of how the CIA's Richard Helms and Richard Nixon circled each other as mortal enemies—and allies.

by Melissa Graves

Jefferson Morley’s latest book on the intelligence underworld opens with former CIA Director Richard Helms telling Congress under oath that he and his spy Agency had nothing to do with Watergate. But in Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate, Morley adds rich context to Helms’s half-truth, offering new and fascinating details to what he calls a  decades-long “clandestine collaborative” relationship between the two that had its origins in some of the ugliest chapters of Washington’s obsession with Fidel Castro. Coming on the 50th anniversary of the clumsy break-in that eventually toppled Richard Nixon, his welcome book is deeply informed by nine recently released recordings of conversations between the president and Helms that took place between February 1971 and June 1972.  By then, the two had long learned to distrust each other, even as they found the other useful. 

Morley traces Nixon’s initial disdain toward the CIA as an organization to a presidential debate with John F. Kennedy in the lead up to the 1960 election. The then-vice president had been deeply involved in foreign affairs during his eight years as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s understudy. During the heavily watched television event, JFK accused the Eisenhower administration of being soft on Cuba—an outrageous falsehood, as Nixon suspected Kennedy knew. Prior to the debate, Nixon understood Kennedy to have received a clandestine briefing from the Agency about “Operation Zapata,” an ongoing CIA effort to remove Castro from power. Nixon, aghast at Kennedy’s claim, could not defend the Eisenhower administration without divulging the CIA’s furtive operations on live television. From that moment on, Nixon directed his ire towards the CIA, resenting its willingness to arm Kennedy with the Eisenhower administration’s secrets, thereby giving the young Democrat an upper hand. 

Following Kennedy’s win, Nixon  tracked the young president’s control of U.S. relations with Cuba. “Operation Zapata” grew to include U.S. paramilitary support for overthrowing Castro.  CIA agent and future Watergate planner E. Howard Hunt spearheaded the Agency’s training of Cuban guerillas deep in the Guatemalan jungle. When the small army stormed the sands of  Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs, the invasion devolved into chaos. When Kennedy refused to authorize American air strikes to bail out the guerrillas, fearing a larger war that would fully expose Washington’s hand, he earned the everlasting rage of Cuban anticommunists and their hardline CIA supporters. The Bay of Pigs disaster became the Agency’s greatest failure up to that point and a moment of public humiliation for Kennedy. Watching from afar, Nixon reveled in schadenfreude.

Kennedy recovered mightily from the Bay of Pigs failure in 1963 when he demonstrated  skillful statesmanship  in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis with a Soviet retreat.  Still, the Bay of Pigs failure reverberated throughout the CIA in a desperate effort to assassinate Castro, including by forging ties with mafia hitmen.  Morley details then-Deputy CIA Director Helms’s skepticism for these operations, which proved sentient following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, when investigations threatened to unearth the Agency’s clandestine ties with the criminal underworld—and deep knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald’s perigrinations.

Oh, Dallas

 “From the moment he heard the news out of Dallas,” Morley writes of Helms, “he sought to control the historical record as found in the Agency’s files.” Morley  takes note of a 1992 interview that Helms gave to CBS’s 48 Hours. The former DCI recalled that after Kennedy’s death, he perused CIA records to ensure the Agency did not have operatives in Dallas on the day of Kennedy’s death. His search verified that CIA men were not involved in the president’s assassination, he said. 

“Why would you do that?” asked CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger. “Had anyone accused the CIA at that time?”

“Helms was at a rare loss for words,” Morley writes.  In fact, the CIA did have a man in Dallas who had shown interest in Oswald.  

Alleged CIA involvement in the JFK assassination is precarious historical territory, laden with conspiracy theories and scant evidence. Morley navigates the subject cautiously and skillfully. He provides generous citations about what the CIA and FBI had known about Oswald before Dallas. For several years, they opened his mail and traced his whereabouts in Mexico—where he attempted to get a visa from the Cuban and Soviet consulates—and the United States. Yet Helms told the Warren Commission, the official body set up to investigate the assassination, that the Agency possessed only the most minimal information about Oswald.  Morley concludes otherwise, noting that the CIA’s counterintelligence staff collected a total of 42 documents concerning Oswald prior to Kennedy’s death. Here, Morley accentuates Helms’s major omissions to the Warren Commission as an attempt to protect years of CIA misbehavior, largely rooted in assassination attempts against Castro, under his supervision.

Morley describes a complicated relationship between Helms and Nixon, whereby they expressed mutual antagonism while sharing many political beliefs, specifically regarding the war in Vietnam, about which Helms had long been pessimistic but gave Nixon full throated support. 

On a wide range of issues, the president and the CIA director benefited mutually from their relationship. Nixon saw the intelligence community as an apparatus that could give him crucial forewarning in foreign affairs as well as carry out clandestine operations to the benefit of his business friends.  In turn, he offered Helms unbridled support for the CIA’s dubious domestic spying operations. 

Nixon was eager to mobilize the government’s entire intelligence apparatus against the antiwar movement and protest groups. One plan, spearheaded by a young White House attorney, Tom Huston, would authorize CIA activity against domestic radicals. Helms was enthusiastic; he was already conducting illegal intelligence-gathering operations against antiwar, civil rights and other protest groups under Operation CHAOS, but was eager to get formal authorization.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, however, adamant at protecting his own turf, lobbied hard against it, and eventually  Attorney General John Mitchell squashed it in its crib.

Nixon, meanwhile, constantly pressured Helms to turn over controversial CIA internal memos that would impugn the Kennedy brothers by proving their complicity in several CIA operations, including the death of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem during a U.S.-cleared coup. But Helms had much to protect. He refused to provide Nixon with the raw intelligence, offering instead summaries of CIA involvement in  assassination plots against Castro and Diem.

To the White House’s dismay, these memos contained no mention of the Kennedys.  Nixon was irate at his director’s defiance. In a conversation with one of his two top aides, Assistant for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, Nixon remarked, “maybe we should just get rid of Helms.”  From then on, instead of using the CIA to dredge up dirt on the Kennedys, as well as other risky off-the-books domestic operations, Nixon and his aides would create their own unit, the infamous  “plumbers,” so named because they would be hunting down antiwar leakers.

Following the June 17, 1972  Watergate break-in, the public learned that the CIA had provided technical support—bugging devices, surveillance equipment and disguises—to two of its top perps, E. Howard Hunt, the brains of the outfit, who had been a key link to anti-Castro Cubans, and James McCord, a former senior CIA security agent. But the break-in “wasn’t a CIA conspiracy,” Morley writes. “It was opportunistic intelligence collection, which was Helm’s métier.” The supply of equipment gave him a view into what Nixon’s guys were up to, while affording him arms-length distance from the ops. Morley could have explored this theme in a bit more detail, as he leaves the reader wondering about the extent of  these mutual benefits and what exactly Helms gained from them. 

Crisis Mode

In the days and weeks that followed the break in, Helms did everything he could to deflect the FBI’s investigation into CIA connections. Nixon was on that track, too. On June 23, he had a conversation in the Oval Office with his top aide H.R. Haldeman about the Watergate problem. The president’s secret taping system was running.  When the recorded conversation finally surfaced two years later, it would become famous as the “smoking gun.” In it, Nixon told Haldeman he wanted Helms to tell the FBI to “stay the hell out of” the Watergate affair because it involved sensitive CIA ops. 

Helms balked. “The CIA had no connection with Watergate,” he told Haldeman. But then the president’s hatchet man brought up “the whole Bay of Pigs thing,” menacing Helms with a suggestion that further probes of Watergate could open up the whole can of assassination worms—and that he’d better advise the FBI to back off.  

Helms was outraged. The Bay of Pigs had “nothing” to do with Watergate, he shouted at Haldeman. “The director lost his temper in the June 23 meeting,” Morley writes, “because Nixon had found the sorest of spots and squeezed hard.” 

And Helms had to relent, to a degree. He dispatched his deputy director, Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters, a deeply seasoned, polyglot military and diplomatic operative, to see acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. Walters told Gray it would be best to wrap up Watergate with the cases of the five burglars, and then “taper off the matter.” 

Helms had done just enough to appease Nixon, but the FBI kept going. Still, Nixon managed to stave off mortal damage from the bubbling scandal, winning reelection in a landslide in November, after which he would make Helms pay a price for his resistance. Summoning him to Camp David, he told Helms he wanted a new CIA director.  It was punishment, Helms concluded, for refusing to play ball on Watergate. Nixon also went after Gray, withdrawing his support for the distinguished former Navy captain’s permanent appointment after he told Senate investigators about the White House’s involvement in the Bureau’s Watergate investigation. One shudders at the thought of how Nixon would have molded the intelligence agencies to his purpose had he not been dethroned in 1974. 

Loyalty Oaths

Scorpions’ Dance thoughtfully explores the relationship of the presidency to the intelligence community. Nixon and Helms’s relationship demonstrates the struggle that politicization, originating in the office of the president, brings to the intelligence process. Morley underscores the CIA’s challenge of protecting some of its secrets, even from the president, and ponders whether it is ever right to do so. Helms’s tenure at the CIA overlapped the service of five very different presidents. Morley deftly showcases Helms’s struggle to determine what obligation, if any, required him to provide the intelligence secrets of a past president to that of a current one.  Should an intelligence director divulge an agency’s past actions to satisfy a current president’s political  inquiries? Morley grapples with this important question when describing Helms’s diplomatic maneuvering at Nixon’s self-serving probes.

Whatever, Helms could not keep the secrets forever. In the aftermath of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, Helms found himself at the center of a Senate investigation into CIA coups, assassinations and domestic spying, under the aegis of Idaho Democrat Frank Church. A Helms successor, William Colby, had to field the artillery. Colby laid bare the Agency’s darkest secrets, the so-called “family jewels” of Helms’s reign, such as the domestic spying of Operation CHAOS, MKULTRA (a psychological experiment involving LSD and attempts at mind control), and foreign assassinations, both attempted and successful. Under oath on the matter of CIA operations in Chile, however, Helms concealed the true extent of its efforts to prevent the election of socialist Salvador Allende, which earned him two misdemeanor convictions for perjury,  

“I had sworn my oath to preserve certain secrets from unauthorized disclosure,” he said. “I was simply trying to find my way through a very difficult situation in which I found myself.” His attorney, Edward Bennett Williams, said Helms would "wear this conviction like a badge of honor, like a banner.” 

Try as he might, Nixon could not make the same claim. He resigned in utter disgrace. Both he and Helms ended their careers under a cloud, one just darker than the other. 

Were they “scorpions in a bottle,” two deadly creatures fighting for dominance at the risk of their mutual demise? It does seem a fitting metaphor for the dance of Nixon and Helms. Morley’s examination of their years’ long struggle for control, and how they might have contributed to each other’s undoing, is a worthwhile exploration. 

Melissa Graves is a widely published Associate Professor in the Department of Intelligence and Security Studies at The Citadel. She is the author of Nixon’s FBI: Hoover, Watergate, and a Bureau in Crisis, and a co-author of Introduction to Intelligence Studies, 2nd Edition (Taylor and Francis, 2017). On June 9-10, Graves will be co-hosting a two-day conference, The Watergate Break-in: 50 Years Later, featuring key actors in the scandal as well as some of its leading chroniclers, including Jefferson Morley. The event will be livestreamed and recorded. All are welcome to tune in.

Source: SpyTalk