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New Evidence Confirms Pentagon Stole and Leaked Top Secret Documents from Nixon White House

Consequence of Pentagon's Isolation from Decision-Making in Vietnam, China, Detente

According to Secret Confession, Documents were Stolen with Help of White House Insider

Washington, D.C. is a city that runs on leaks. Information equals power, and power equals influence. President Nixon and Admiral Thomas MoorerThe highest levels of the American government are outraged when leaked information appears in the press, yet many authorized leaks come from the same government figures. Leaks both cripple and enable the policymaking process.

A December 14, 1971 column by Jack Anderson, entitled "U.S. Tilts to Pakistan", drew particular outrage from the Nixon administration. The column detailed the Nixon administration's secret preference for Pakistan in the then ongoing war between Pakistan and India which ultimately created the new nation of Bangladesh. Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 as a result of his coverage of the war. However, it was the fact that Anderson's columns were based on leaked highly sensitive classified documents stolen with the help of a White House insider that came as the real blow to President Nixon.

Following publication of Anderson's column, top White House aides sought to determine the source of the leak. John Ehrlichman led the internal investigation, which scrutinized the flow of information between the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the White House. Polygraphs were ordered for those suspected of stealing documents or providing them to Anderson. That process convinced Ehrlichman that the source of the leaks was the Joints Chiefs of Staff liaison office to the National Security Council. The JCS liaison position was created during the Eisenhower administration and had an office in the Executive Office Building. Its function was to act as a special high-level communications channel between the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the NSC. During the Nixon administration, it was staffed primarily by Admiral Robert O. Welander and his assistant, Yeoman Charles Radford.

 

Yeoman Radford stole from Henry Kissinger's briefcase on secret trip to China

I didn't know he screened through the thing, but I knew he did carry 'em to me and I just returned from San Clemente and I had been told every damn thing that was in there...I gave the things back to [Alexander] Haig.

Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

John Ehrlichman's investigation discovered that Anderson's column quoted directly from the typed verbatim minutes taken at two NSC Washington Special Action Group (WSAG) meetings, held December 4 and 6, 1971. According to Ehrlichman aide David R. Young, in a memorandum sent to President Nixon declassified on June 23, 2009, "the only person that has access to these sources, in addition to Admiral Welander, is his aide, Charles Radford." While this memorandum became available only in 2009, the most sensitive records from Ehrlichman's investigation remain closed indefinitely. However, nixontapes.org acquired a portion of these records, and they are presented here for the first time.

The investigation was swift and efficient. While Anderson continued to publish subsequent columns based on stolen documents, Welander and Radford were interviewed and polygraphed on December 16 and 17. Radford, who "d[id] not fair well under the polygraph" according to his interrogator, "confesse[d] to purloining sensitive papers from the NSC without authority and pass[ed] them to his military superiors." Radford gave the papers to Admiral Welander and Admiral Rembrandt Robinson (Welander's predecessor), who passed them on to Admiral Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Apparently, Admiral Elmo Zumalt also saw the stolen papers. Radford was put on immediate suspension, but never prosecuted, and he and Welander were later transferred to another duty station. While Welander and Moorer are now deceased, Radford remains in the U.S. military with an active security clearance. 

John Ehrlichman presented the findings of his investigation to President Nixon and Attorney General John N. Mitchell in the Oval Office on December 21, 1971, a week after the publication of Anderson's column (see table below for complete conversation audio and summary).

 

Conversation

Date

Time Participants Audio

Summary

OVAL 639-030a 12/21/1971 6:07 -  6:59 pm P, JNM, HRH, JDE mp3 (2.6m)  pdf (34k)
OVAL 639-030b       mp3 (48.1m)  

Ehrlichman explained the methodology behind his investigation. "Within an hour" of Anderson's columns, he determined which documents Anderson had quoted from, and then determined who had access to them. "There was really only one place in the whole federal government where all of those documents were available. And that was here, in the Joint Chiefs of Staff liaison office of the National Security Council. And there were only two men in that office, and one's an admiral, and one's a yeoman," (0:19, 301k) Ehrlichman reported. Nixon responded, "How in the name of God do we have a yeoman having access to documents of that type?" (0:04, 70k) Nixon then learned that Yeoman Radford had traveled with Haig and Kissinger, and was responsible for preparing memoranda of conversation on those trips.

Ehrlichman continued. "In the course of the polygraph, he [Radford] was asked whether or not he had ever stolen any of the documents." (0:07, 114k) That turned out to be the key question in the investigation. "They [the interrogator] got a big flip on the polygraph, so then they doubled back," (0:04. 77k) Ehrlichman revealed. "The interrogator then doubled back, and said, 'now, you've got a bad reading on your polygraph'...and the guy broke down and cried. And then he said, 'I came into that question without permission of Admiral Welander. He called the admiral, and he said, 'I'm going to talk to this fellow, and I want you to tell him everything he knows. So the admiral got on the phone with the guy. So then it all came out." (0:30, 480k) "He has, under the express directions of Admiral Robinson, and under the implied approval of his successor, the Admiral [Welander], he has systematically stolen documents from Henry's briefcase, Haig's briefcase, people's desks, any place and every place in the NSC apparatus that he can lay his hands on, and has duplicated them, and turned them over to the Joint Chiefs, through his boss, and this has been going on now for about 13 months," (0:31, 500k) Ehrlichman reported.

Then the investigation turned to whether any White House insiders had collaborated with the theft. In particular, Nixon wanted to know about Haig, since he was a high ranking military official also serving at a high level in the White House. "Is Haig aware of this?" Nixon asked. "I don't know," (0:01, 29k) Ehrlichman answered, but then continued. "I suspect he may be aware of it, on a back channel basis. Because after this came out, and it was reduced to writing by the interrogator, Young was advised by the interrogator that he was going to be in some trouble with his superiors, and that he was going to have to excise his report to leave that material out." (0:22, 350k) "This sailor is a veritable storehouse of information of all kinds. Because he reads and contains everything that comes to him. He testified that he knew about Henry's secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese, for instance. It came up in a response to a question," (0:22, 358k) Ehrlichman summarized.

Nixon weighed the possible courses of action, including prosecution and court martial proceedings. However, Attorney General John Mitchell was the voice of caution. "We have to take it from there as to what this would lead to if you pursued it by way of prosecution, or even a public confrontation. You would have the Joints Chiefs allied on that side, directly against you. What has been done has been done. I think the important thing is to paper this thing over," (0:27, 434k) Mitchell reasoned. Nixon then turned to the possibility of prosecuting only Radford, without getting into a bigger confrontation with the Joint Chiefs. "You wouldn't do anything about him?" Nixon asked. "You can't, without breaking the story. Because when the pressure gets on him, it's going go right up through the channels," Mitchell responded. Ehrlichman agreed: "I have lost more sleep than anything on what to do with this guy. I have finally come to the conclusion that you can't touch him. And probably you can't touch him", then Nixon interrupted, "because it would hurt the Joint Chiefs." (0:23, 368k) However, Nixon left firm instructions as to the future handling of the investigation.

 

Excerpt from December 21, 1971 (mp3, 1:10, 1.1m)

Nixon: You can just say there is a federal offense of the highest order here. And, you have reported it to the president. The president says he can't discuss it. And the Attorney General is handling it. Period. I wouldn't worry.
Mitchell: What about further interrogation of Welander on this thing?
Nixon: What's that?
Mitchell: Further interrogation of Welander on this thing?
Nixon: Well
Ehrlichman: I don't think that's indicated. 
Haldeman: What about telling Henry that Welander has refused to cooperate on the grounds of his personal relationship with Henry and that Henry is to call Welander and dissolve that relationship which will free Welander to testify?
Mitchell: That's it exactly.
Nixon: Why don't you tell Henry that?
Haldeman: I don't think Henry seems to think that Welander
Mitchell: Tell Henry just that much directly. 
Nixon: Now.
Mitchell: Yeah. And then
Haldeman: Because they know you're investigating, so just say there's a block in the investigation.
Nixon: I don't want Henry to know...yet. Don't you agree? You see what I mean?
Haldeman: Yeah, I just think he might find out about Moorer.
Ehrlichman: I am sure Haig has told Henry that much.
Nixon: Does Haig know all this? That's my point.
Ehrlichman: Not the polygraph.

Instead of prosecution, Mitchell argued that the JCS liaison office be closed immediately, and that those involved in the theft be transferred. That, Mitchell said, would be a de facto admission of guilt on the part of the Pentagon. "The important thing, in my way of thinking, is to stop this Joint Chiefs of Staff operation, and the fuck-up of security over here. And if Moorer has to order Welander off to Kokomo or wherever it iswhat to do with Robinson I don't knowthen they have taken recognition of this. And they, in effect, are admitting to this operation," (0:23, 369k) Mitchell said. Nixon agreed: "Let the poor bastards stew over Christmas, and then crack 'em." (0:03, 58k) 

On the one hand, the theft of highly classified national security records from briefcases and burn bags was truly a "federal offense of the highest order." This was an unprecedented situation. However, whether or not Alexander Haig was involved changed the whole nature of the investigation. Journalist Joseph Kraft also probed Haig's complicity in the theft in his September 17, 1974 Washington Post column, "Questioning Haig's Role." Nixon agreed that Ehrlichman should conduct a second interview with Welander to obtain additional information about the theft that Welander refused to disclose during his polygraph. "I'll get Welander in tomorrow," Ehrlichman said. "Good," Nixon responded. (0:02, 44k)

For Nixon, the possibility that a White House insider helped to facilitate the theft was damaging enough. However, accusations that someone as senior in the White House as Haig was involved meant that had Nixon decided to prosecute, it would have been a disaster for the Nixon White House. After all, 1971 was also the same year in which the Pentagon Papers were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg and subsequently published by The New York Times beginning in June. Additionally, less than a year before a presidential election, Nixon would have appeared weak and no longer in control of his top aides.

Nixon also knew that following a hypothetical prosecution, those likely replace the prosecuted would take charge in an extremely adversarial climate, which would only further contribute to the tension between the Pentagon and the White House. Therefore, Nixon decided to do what he considered to be making the best of a bad situation: he did not pursue prosecution. Instead, he ordered the immediate closing of the JCS liaison office to the NSC. Nixon believed that those impugned by Ehrlichman's investigation would be sufficiently weakened to the point where they would have no choice but to be more cooperative with the White House in the future.

This story could not have been told in this level of detail until June 23, 2009, upon the declassification and release of related records from the Nixon Presidential Library. However, the most sensitive records remain closed, in the Papers of David R. Young, Jr., Box 18. These include an audio recording made by John Ehrlichman of Admiral Welander's confession, records from the polygraph interrogations, and additional details of how the thefts took place, who received the stolen records, and whether there was a White House insider who facilitated the theft. In the same box, there is also a heavily annotated transcript of the recorded confession that Ehrlichman extracted from Welander.

Nixon Presidential Library confirms existence of unreleased audio recording and transcript of Admiral Welander's confession in the Papers of David R. Young, Jr.:

In box 18 we have both the transcript and the recording withdrawn for "A" (release would violate a Federal statute or agency policy), "D" (release would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy or libel of a living person") and "F" (release would disclose investigatory information compiled for law enforcement purposes).

Archivist, Nixon Presidential Library

Fortunately, nixontapes.org has obtained a copy of the heavily annotated transcript of Admiral Welander's confession from the afternoon of December 22, which was originally taken by John Ehrlichman from the Nixon Presidential Materials Project in 1986. The complete, 31-page document can be accessed by clicking on the first page, to the left. The annotations are David R. Young, Jr.'s handwriting.

Earlier in the day, on December 22, Young sent Ehrlichman a talking points memorandum, entitled "Meeting with Admiral Welander RE Anderson Leak of December 14 and Subsequent Investigation", to prepare him for his attempt to extract a confession from Welander. Young noted, "We want to consider the possibility of getting a handle on Radford by threatening him with a Court Martial arising out of these particular actions." In other words, Young and Ehrlichman were still thinking in terms of securing a successful prosecution, even though Nixon ended such discussion the day before in the Oval Office. Or, Ehrlichman and Young wanted Welander to think Nixon was still considering prosecution in order to obtain the most detailed confession possible. Finally, Young and Ehrlichman also wanted to find out more about Haig's role in the theft: "To what extent is General Haig aware of Radford's activities?"

The confession transcript is one of the most sensitive documents created during the Nixon administration. It details the entire process of how the documents were stolen from Kissinger's briefcase and burn bags, including to whom they were circulated and how long the theft had been going on. In addition, without directly accusing Haig of facilitating the theft, the document certainly raises additional questions about his role. Welander states Haig "cut us in", which obviously does not vindicate Haig in any way.

Finally, nixontapes.org also obtained an even more sensitive document, an interview with an eyewitness to the theft. This is the first time the existence of this document has been made public. This document was obtained on deep background and is too sensitive to release. All that can be shown here, to the left, is a distorted, redacted first page of a four page document. The document is an interview with an eyewitness to the theft, as it was observed within the walls of the White House.

Between the transcript of the Welander confession, above, this interview, to the left, and the Oval Office conversation, above, the following conclusions can be drawn, according to the documents: 1) the theft had been going on for over a year, 2) apart from those directly involved (Moorer, Robinson, Welander, Radford, Zumwalt), only one other person had close knowledge of it, 3) Al Haig "cut us in", or facilitated, the theft, according to Welander, 4) Henry Kissinger was wary of acting upon knowledge of the theft because of his uneasy relationship with Al Haig, and 5) Nixon knew about the theft but chose not to prosecute because he did not want to worsen White House-Pentagon relations that were already tense.

While the contours of this theft have been detailed by a few journalists and books, most recently Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman's The Forty Years War, with the help of these documents this story can now be told in greater detail than ever before. When, or if, the remaining relevant records from the papers of David R. Young, Jr. are declassified and released by the Nixon Presidential Library, historians will know that this theft was indeed a "federal offense of the highest order."

 

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