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Bannon contempt of Congress trial echoes Nixon burglar Liddy’s

Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy is seen in Washington on Jan. 16, 1973, during a break in his trial. (William A. Smith/AP)

White House aide G. Gordon Liddy sat in a parked car behind an office building with his hunting knife unfolded. “Use it I would, if I’d had to,” Liddy later wrote. “I have given my men word that I would protect them.”

Inside the building, three men — two wearing CIA-provided disguises — had broken into a psychiatrist’s office in Beverly Hills, Calif., and were rifling through file cabinets. They were looking for dirt on Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which had exposed government lies about the Vietnam War. But the burglars couldn’t find Ellsberg’s file. So they trashed the office, throwing files and pills around to make the break-in look like a drug crime.

It was the night of Sept. 3, 1971. Nine months later, in June 1972, Liddy and some of the same men conspired to commit a more famous burglary, at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex.

In 1973, Liddy was convicted of his role in the Watergate burglary but refused to testify about it to a grand jury, protecting the high-ranking Nixon aides who had approved it. A judge found him in contempt of court.

Liddy also refused to testify before a House intelligence subcommittee investigating the CIA’s links to the psychiatrist’s office break-in. As a result, Liddy was convicted in March 1974 of a rarely charged crime: contempt of Congress.

That conviction has striking echoes today. Stephen K. Bannon, former strategist for President Donald Trump, is scheduled to go on trial next Monday, charged with two counts of the same crime, for his refusal to testify before the House Jan. 6 committee about his possible involvement in plans for that day. Bannon, who has cited executive privilege — even though he hadn’t worked at the White House since 2017 — faces up to two years in jail if convicted.

Judge rejects Bannon’s bid to delay trial, executive-privilege claim

As with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, Liddy’s contempt for Congress reflected a contempt for democratic institutions. His 1980 autobiography, “Will,” justified breaking the law as a rough-justice response to the radical left and the “thought, spirit, life-style, and ideas of the ’60s movement.” Liddy wrote, “I knew exactly what had to be done and why, and I was under no illusion about its legality.”

Nixon biographer John A. Farrell described the mustachioed Liddy as “a right-wing zealot, with a fixation for Nazi regalia and a kinky kind of Nietzschean philosophy, [who] peppered his conversation with German idioms and organized a White House screening of the Nazi propaganda film ‘Triumph of the Will.’ ” Liddy told fellow Nixon administration trickster Egil “Bud” Krogh, “Bud, if you want anyone killed, just let me know.” Another Nixon aide, Gordon Strachan, summed him up this way: “Liddy’s a Hitler, but at least he’s our Hitler.”

An Army veteran and former FBI agent, Liddy had worked on Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign and in the Treasury Department. He joined the White House staff in June 1971, the day after the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers. He soon became part of the Nixon White House’s Special Investigative Unit, nicknamed the “plumbers” for their task of combating leaks.

The plumbers’ first task was to discredit Ellsberg, a defense analyst who was charged with violating the Espionage Act. Though the Pentagon Papers’ authenticity wasn’t in question, Nixon, enraged by the leak, grew determined to ruin Ellsberg. “Don’t worry about his trial,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. “Just get everything out. Try him in the press.”

Reading Ellsberg’s FBI file, the plumbers saw that Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, had refused agents’ requests for an interview. So Liddy and fellow plumber E. Howard Hunt decided to break into Fielding’s office to get Fielding’s file on Ellsberg.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic adviser, approved the break-in and asked the CIA’s deputy director to help Hunt. A CIA technician gave Liddy and Hunt a spy camera built into a tobacco pouch and two disguises, which they wore while casing Fielding’s office. Liddy’s disguise included glasses, a dark brown wig, a Kansas driver’s license (name: George F. Leonard) and a device to stick in his shoe to change his gait.

For the break-in itself, Liddy and Hunt handed the disguises to two of the three men Hunt hired for the job: Cuban exiles Bernard Barker, Felipe De Diego and Eugenio Martinez. The three men smashed a window to get into Fielding’s office and ransacked it — but came out empty-handed. They celebrated with Liddy and Hunt over champagne anyway.

Ehrlichman gave Nixon a vague account of the failed burglary the next day. “We had one little operation,” he said. “It’s been aborted, out in Los Angeles, which, I think, it is better that you don’t know about.” He added, “But we’ve got some [other] dirty tricks underway.”

Those tricks later included the Watergate break-in of June 1972, in which Barker and Martinez were among the five men arrested. Liddy and Hunt, working for Nixon’s reelection committee, oversaw the break-in via radio from a hotel room. They were all indicted and found guilty of burglary, conspiracy and illegal wiretapping in January 1973. Sentenced to 80 months to 20 years in prison, Liddy refused to testify to implicate higher-ups.

As with Cassidy Hutchinson, Nixon tried to control Watergate witnesses

In spring 1973, Watergate prosecutors learned about the Ellsberg burglary. They disclosed it to the judge in Ellsberg’s Espionage Act case, who made it public and later dismissed the charges against Ellsberg, citing government misconduct. The CIA’s aid to the burglars came out in the press, and a House intelligence subcommittee launched an investigation.

Liddy, called before the subcommittee in July 1973, rose and raised his right hand, but then told the judge, “I respectfully decline to take the oath as a witness.” The subcommittee immediately voted to cite him for contempt, and the full House voted to do the same in September. In March 1974, the Justice Department charged Liddy with two counts of contempt of Congress — the same day he, Ehrlichman and the three Cuban burglars were charged with conspiracy to violate Fielding’s civil rights.

In a two-hour trial on May 10, 1974, Liddy cited dubious national security grounds for refusing to answer the subcommittee’s questions. The judge found Liddy guilty and gave him a suspended jail sentence and a year’s probation — “indicating that the penalty was light because of Mr. Liddy’s other sentences,” the New York Times reported. (In a weird twist, Liddy protested that his probation ordered him not to associate with felons, a command he couldn’t follow because he was in jail. The judge later reduced his probation to one hour.)

Watergate 50th anniversary: Complete coverage

Much as the Jan. 6 committee has unearthed major revelations despite top Trump associates’ refusal to testify, the House intelligence subcommittee completed its work despite Liddy’s stonewalling. Its report, issued Oct. 30, 1973, found that CIA officials “had no support in reason or law” when they aided Liddy and Hunt and were “the unwitting dupes for purely domestic White House staff endeavors.”

Liddy served four years in prison for the Watergate burglary and was released in 1977 after President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence. He pursued a career as an author, radio talk-show host and occasional character actor, playing villains. He died in 2021. “Liddy never seemed to doubt,” writes Garrett M. Graff in “Watergate: A New History,” “that fighting the nation’s enemies meant fighting Nixon’s enemies.” That is, Liddy — like many Jan. 6 participants — chose loyalty to a president over loyalty to democracy.

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