Watergate-Era FBI Chief L. Patrick Gray III Dies at 88

L. Patrick Gray, 88, the acting director of the FBI who passed its investigative reports on the Watergate scandal to the White House, and who was left to “twist slowly, slowly in the wind” by President Richard M. Nixon, died July 6 at his home in Atlantic Beach, Fla. He had pancreatic cancer.

Eleven days ago, Mr. Gray ended 32 years of silence about his role in Watergate. His trusted deputy director, W. Mark Felt, was revealed to be Deep Throat, the secret source of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

“This was a tremendous surprise to me,” Mr. Gray told George Stephanopoulos on June 26 on ABC’s “This Week” program. “I could not have been more shocked and more disappointed in a man whom I had trusted. . . . It was like I was hit with a tremendous sledgehammer.”

Mr. Gray’s tumultuous 11 months at the FBI began weeks before the June 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. His government career froze after his revelation during congressional confirmation hearings in March 1973 that he had been passing files from the agency’s Watergate investigation to White House counsel John W. Dean III.

White House officials were so enraged that Mr. Gray revealed their roles that domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman suggested to President Nixon that rather than withdraw Mr. Gray’s nomination as FBI chief, he should be left to “twist slowly, slowly in the wind.”

Mr. Gray, a Nixon loyalist often described as a political naif, finally was forced to resign April 27, 1973, after the disclosure that he destroyed papers from the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA operative who organized the Watergate break-in.

Ehrlichman and Dean ordered the papers’ destruction. Dean told Mr. Gray that they “must not see the light of day.” Ehrlichman suggested to Dean that the papers be dropped in the Potomac River, but Mr. Gray said he burned them in the fireplace of his Connecticut home.

Mr. Gray said the papers had nothing to do with Watergate. He asserted until his death that he destroyed the files only after the FBI’s attorney approved it.

“My father understood exactly what his role and responsibility was,” said Edward Emmet Gray of Lyme, N.H. “He had participated at that level of security, this extremely sensitive level, for years. . . . He was operating on the presumption of regularity, those were his words, and he was taken advantage of by John Dean and John Ehrlichman. Those two criminals set him up.”

Mr. Gray, who had a 20-year career as a submariner and saw battle in two wars, reflected during the Senate Watergate hearings in August 1973: “In the service of my country, I withstood hours and hours of depth-charging, shelling, bombing, but I never expected to run into a Watergate in the service of a president of the United States. And I ran into a buzz saw, obviously.”

Ehrlichman, with Nixon’s agreement, ordered Mr. Gray to stop the FBI investigation into Watergate almost from its outset, claiming that the CIA was handling the case. The FBI probe continued, although Mr. Gray provided reports to Dean.

Mr. Gray was never indicted for any Watergate-related crimes, but he was indicted in connection with illegal break-ins of the homes of friends and family of Weather Underground fugitives in the early 1970s. That indictment was dropped in 1980; by then he had returned to his legal practice in Connecticut.

He said at the time that he had “every reason to believe this prosecution was malicious,” and that he viewed the dismissal as a complete vindication. “Today, my name is clear and I walk from this courthouse knowing that my long ordeal is over,” he said outside U.S. District Court.

Ed Gray said his father stopped speaking to the media a generation ago because he believed stories based on every interview he gave were distorted. The son sent out a stack of e-mails to reporters in the past several days, urging “accuracy in reporting.” He singled out the original dust jacket of “All the President’s Men,” by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which included a photo of Mr. Gray among the dozen faces.

“Of the twelve, Pat Gray was the only one not involved in the Watergate conspiracy,” Ed Gray wrote in the e-mail. “The other ten ‘president’s men’ were indicted and either [pleaded] or were found guilty of a federal crime. . . . But the tarnish to his reputation, epitomized by Woodward and Bernstein’s incorrect characterization of him as a Watergate conspirator, continues even to today.”

The elder Mr. Gray kept voluminous files and wrote a manuscript that will “counter many of the flat falsehoods” written about him over the years, his son said. The family plans to publish the book posthumously.

Louis Patrick Gray III was born July 18, 1916, in St. Louis, the son of a railroad worker. He attended what is now Rice University in Houston, which he entered at age 16 after skipping two grades in school. He left Rice in his last year to enter the U.S. Naval Academy, where, as a walk-on, he was a starter on the football team.

After graduating in 1940, he served aboard the battleship Idaho, and two years later, he joined the submarine corps. He participated in five submarine combat patrols against the Japanese until a ruptured appendix forced his hospitalization.

Mr. Gray graduated from George Washington University’s law school in 1949. Back in the Navy, he commanded the submarine Tiru during the Korean War, then served in executive officer and higher level positions until 1958, when he became military assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and special assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He retired from the military in 1960.

He joined the staff of Vice President Richard Nixon, who was then the Republican nominee for president. After Nixon’s defeat by John F. Kennedy, Mr. Gray returned to New London, Conn., where he practiced law and kept in touch with Nixon.

In 1969, after Nixon was elected, Mr. Gray was appointed executive assistant to the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and later was awarded the department’s Distinguished Service Medal. In 1970, he served on a Cabinet committee on desegregation in the South.

In December 1970, Mr. Gray was appointed assistant attorney general of the civil division in the Department of Justice. He was responsible for trying to prevent the Vietnam Veterans Against the War from camping out on the Mall during antiwar demonstrations. The court issued an injunction barring the demonstrators. But when the White House and Justice Department switched signals, deciding not to evict the defiant veterans, Mr. Gray had to make the humiliating request to the court that the injunction be lifted.

He later was in charge of directing court enforcement of Nixon’s wage-and-price freeze.

When the FBI’s legendary director J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, President Nixon appointed Mr. Gray to the position of acting director. His arrival, according to an FBI agent quoted by The Post, was “like letting a typhoon in the front door.” Within weeks, he relaxed the FBI’s formal dress codes and strict weight requirements, welcomed women into the ranks, visited 58 of the bureau’s 59 field offices and forced out some of Hoover’s most trusted lieutenants. But not W. Mark Felt. In fact, Mr. Gray said last month, he resisted five separate demands from the White House to fire Felt.

“He told me time and time again that he was not Deep Throat,” Mr. Gray told Stephanopoulos. Such was his level of trust that he put Felt in charge of tracking down the leaks of information that were showing up in the press.

Mr. Gray said “the gravest mistake of my 88 years” was getting involved with Nixon, and despite the ex-president’s efforts, he shunned contact with him after Watergate, though Nixon “sent me book after book after book” with personalized inscriptions.

At the end of his life, Mr. Gray looked back “with a real interesting combination of disappointment and pride,” Ed Gray said. “He always was extremely patriotic, loyal and loved America in a way most people don’t, even when it cost him as dearly as it did.”

In addition to his son Edward, survivors include his wife, Beatrice Kirk Gray; three other sons, Alan Kirk Gray of City Island, N.Y., Patrick Erwin Gray of Alpharetta, Ga., and Stephen Douglas Gray of Grantham, N.H.; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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