A View From Watergate

The Keeper of Secrets Earned His Reputation

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Mr. Helms instructed me to restrict knowledge of the existence of the letter to an absolute minimum number of people."

So said Howard J. Osborn, the CIA's director of security, in a sworn affidavit that sat for decades in the agency's secret files until it was released yesterday. The Mr. Helms in question was Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence during Watergate and a zealous guardian of his agency -- "the man who kept the secrets," as his biographer, Thomas Powers, called him.

In this case, Osborn reported that James W. McCord Jr., the head of the Watergate burglary team and Osborn's predecessor as the CIA's chief of security, had written a letter in August 1972 to Helms. Osborn, according to his affidavit, said he "felt strongly" that it should be turned over to the FBI, which was supposedly conducting a rigorous investigation of Watergate. It was a critical moment in the Watergate probe, with Nixon seeking reelection that fall and desperate to keep the botched burglary from spoiling his chances.

McCord's letter to the CIA could have been important evidence; according to later testimony, he was seeking assistance from the CIA, where he had worked for decades, and was on the verge of blowing the whistle about Watergate, as he did months later in a famous March 21, 1973, letter to Judge John J. Sirica.

But Nixon would have no preelection problem with the CIA. "Mr. Helms, after some reflection, decided he would like to have a legal opinion on the matter and summoned Mr. Lawrence Huston, general counsel of the agency, to his office and had him read the letter," Osborn recounted. Probably not to the surprise of anyone who knew Helms, after a lengthy discussion "both Mr. Helms and Mr. Huston decided that there was no such obligation and I was told to hold the letter in a secure file in my office and take no further action on it."

This was the Watergate-era CIA, with Helms ever serving the president, ever mindful, as Richard M. Nixon's secret White House tapes later revealed, that the president wanted the full story of Watergate locked away in government safes forever. And the CIA's role in that coverup was always one of the murkiest parts of the story. As Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), the vice chairman of the Senate Watergate committee, famously said at the time, the role of the CIA in the scandal was like "animals crashing around in the forest -- you can hear them but you can't see them."

Baker and many Watergate investigators came away with the sense that senior CIA officials knew more than was ever revealed, even as the agency's culture of concealment and undercover work reflexively generated the kind of response that Osborn's affidavit so accurately captures.

Helms wrote a revealing memoir that was published after his death in 2002, but even in that book he never seemed to have fully acknowledged what he knew about Watergate and when. Certainly at the time, he was anything but forthcoming. "The CIA had no involvement in the break-in. No involvement whatever," Helms testified to the Senate Watergate committee on Aug. 2, 1973. "The agency had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in," he added. "And I hope all the newsmen in the room hear me clearly now."

But the question was, what could have Helms known? As another 1973 document released yesterday by the CIA shows, a month or two before the Watergate burglary, E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA official and then-White House consultant, called the agency's External Employment Assistance Branch to see if a "retiree or resignee who was accomplished at picking locks" could be hired, for tasks unspecified in the memo but surely deeply hinted at.

The CIA of that era was the perfect Watergate enabler, as these new documents suggest in telling detail. The White House wants a lock-picker. McCord threatens to tell all. The CIA keeps mum.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company