Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan strongly favored a plan of “covert operations” to harass and embarrass Democratic contenders in the heady days at the Nixon White House before the Watergate scandal.
Then a White House speechwriter and enthusiastic member of the Nixon campaign’s “attack group,” Buchanan laid out his ideas in an April 10, 1972, memo looking ahead to that summer’s Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. It was addressed to Attorney General John N. Mitchell and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman.
On the memo’s last page -- one never turned over to Watergate congressional investigators -- Buchanan and his top aide recommended staging counterfeit attacks by one Democrat on another, fouling up scheduled events, arranging demonstrations and spreading rumors to plague the rival party, all the while being careful not to run afoul of the Secret Service.
Buchanan denied in testimony before the Senate Watergate committee in 1973 that he was aware of any “covert operations” that the GOP had sponsored for the Democratic convention.
It is unclear whether the last page of the four-page memo, composed by Buchanan and his chief aide Ken Khachigian, was ever sent. But it shows how the blunt-spoken Buchanan felt about political espionage against the Democrats. It also indicates that he knew that covert operations were being “directed” out of the White House “as they have been in the past.”
Now a contender for the GOP nomination, Buchanan was an aggressive, outspoken defender of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal but was never caught up in it, in contrast to individuals such as Haldeman and Mitchell, who were convicted in the coverup.
In addition to his speechwriting work, Buchanan was in charge of “opposition research” for the Nixon White House and was, as he put it in one memo, a “regular and enthusiastic member of the campaign ‘Attack Group’ “ that met regularly to discuss 1972 political strategy.
A spokesman for Buchanan’s presidential campaign declined to comment Saturday on the April 10, 1972, memo. Buchanan was in Atlanta yesterday with more than seven hours of “downtime” on his schedule, but the spokesman, K.B. Forbes, said he had no intention of disturbing the candidate.
“We’re focusing on a national presidential campaign,” Forbes said. “Pulling out the ‘golden oldies’ from 20 years ago is irrelevant.” He said “downtime” for Buchanan “means he’s untouchable.”
On the campaign trail these days, Buchanan, 57, makes only passing references to his time at the Nixon White House. He joined Nixon in 1966 when the former vice president was planning his comeback and stayed with him until Nixon resigned in August 1974. But Buchanan is rarely asked about the experience as he hops from state to state and he rarely speaks about it.
The 1972 document, as well as others offering a glimpse of Buchanan’s White House work, are in the custody of the National Archives, preserved under a 1974 law designed to protect records of historical significance and to “provide the public with the full truth, at the earliest reasonable date, of the abuses of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term ‘Watergate.’ “
Despite that mandate, many of the Nixon records are still tied up as a result of objections by the late president’s lawyers and many more, including Buchanan’s papers before 1971, have yet to be processed.
His April 10, 1972, memo began by proposing creation of an overt and hard-hitting outpost in Miami Beach to take advantage of “running sores” at the forthcoming Democratic convention there.
It said the outpost -- which Buchanan planned to head -- should be made public and should spend almost all of its time with the national press. “Anyone at the Observation Post should be clean as a hound’s tooth -- and the Observation Post should have no hand in any ‘covert operations’ ongoing in Miami,” it said.
Eventually, in the wake of the Watergate break-in and coverup, the memo was among records subpoenaed by Senate investigators for an inquiry into alleged sabotage and “dirty tricks” during the 1972 campaign. White House counsel told Buchanan not to produce his political memos, but Senate lawyers obtained what they thought was a complete copy of the April 1972 document by serving another subpoena on the Committee to Re-Elect the President, popularly known as CREEP.
Only three pages were produced. The Senate Watergate committee never learned that there was a fourth page. On it, Buchanan and Khachigian proposed:
“COVERT OPERATIONS -- We should have as many of these down there [at Miami Beach] as needed to conduct harassment exercises, and embarrassment exercises for the Democrats. They should have no connection at all with the GOP Observation Post, and should be directed out of here, as they have been in the past.
“They should be able to help put demonstrations together, get leaflets out, start rumors, and generally foul up scheduled events -- and add to the considerable confusion and chaos that will inevitably exist.”
“The preparation of attacks on one Democrat by another -- and ‘endorsements’ of one Democrat by another, which has to be repudiated, are examples of what can be done. Nothing should be done here, incidentally, which can seriously backfire and anything done should be cleared by the highest campaign authority. The Secret Service, it should be noted, will be all over Miami; and any activity will have to take into consideration their capabilities.
“We should guard here against a) anything which enables the Democrats to blame us for the mess which takes place in Miami Beach; b) anything which can be traced back to us and c) anything which is so horrendous as to damage us, if the hand is discovered.”
The memo was labeled “CONFIDENTIAL” and contains typographical errors indicating it was a draft. It was among the Buchanan papers once relegated to the Nixon White House’s “special files unit,” a section that maintained files considered sensitive because of their political content or security classification.
Asked about the three-page version of the memo at a Sept. 26, 1973, Senate Watergate committee hearing, Buchanan said the observation post was never set up at the convention “because, frankly, of the Watergate incident and apprehension on my part” that the Democrats would have accused those manning the post of being spies. He envisioned the post, operating out of the Fontainebleau Hotel, as being headed by two “politically savvy” spokesmen, one of them a “tough cop” to counterattack the Democrats and the other a “nice cop” to praise the president’s record “and to answer, more in sorrow than in anger, the charges being elevated” by the Democrats.
The Watergate break-in at Democratic National Committee offices took place on June 17, 1972. The bitterly contested Democratic convention at Miami Beach, ending with the nomination of Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), was held July 10-13.
In preparation for the convention, G. Gordon Liddy, subsequently convicted of the Watergate burglary, laid out an elaborate covert operations plan, “Operation Gemstone,” at a Jan. 17, 1972, Justice Department meeting with Attorney General and Nixon campaign director Mitchell, White House counsel John Dean and deputy campaign director Jeb S. Magruder.
His proposals included CRYSTAL, an electronic surveillance to be directed at the Democratic convention from an opulent houseboat; SAPPHIRE, a spying caper relying on prostitutes working out of a lush houseboat bedroom, wired for sound [the ceiling was too low for an overhead camera]; and TURQUOISE, a disruption scheme relying on what Liddy called “a commando team of Cubans” to sabotage all of the convention hall’s air-conditioning units.
At the January meeting, Mitchell rejected the scheme as too expensive. But on April 1, Liddy has said, Magruder finally conveyed approval of a $250,000 “Gemstone” budget, including two prostitutes, four spies in the Democratic camps and a series of surreptitious break-ins.
The arrest of five men at the Watergate in the early morning hours of June 17 apparently derailed the rest of “Gemstone” and led instead to a long coverup culminating in Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
The Buchanan-Khachigian memo of April 10, 1972, makes no mention of “Gemstone” or any other code word and, on its face, cautions against anything “so horrendous as to damage us, if the hand is discovered.” It also says that “anything done should be cleared by the highest campaign authority.”
Terry Lenzner, former assistant chief counsel for the Senate Watergate committee, said on learning of the memo last week that it was more reminiscent of the separate program of “dirty tricks” directed against Democratic presidential candidates in the 1972 primaries by individuals such as White House-hired political saboteur Donald H. Segretti.
With funds supplied by Nixon’s personal lawyer, Segretti crisscrossed the country under assumed names, planting spies, disrupting rallies and creating divisiveness among the Democrats with false press releases, bogus letters and fake ads. After plea bargaining, he drew a six-month prison term for fabricating literature in the Florida primary. One was a letter on the campaign stationery of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) accusing Sens. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) of sexual misconduct.
Minor Republican rivals such as then-Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.) were also fair game in Buchanan’s view. His White House papers include a Dec. 15, 1971, memo to Haldeman and Mitchell outlining “an anti-McCloskey campaign in New Hampshire.” One idea, Buchanan said, would be to find a way of getting a gay rights group or the Black Panthers or the radical Students for a Democratic Society at Dartmouth “to contribute a grand or so to the McCloskey campaign” and then alert the highly conservative Manchester Union Leader about the donation.
The three-page version of the April 10, 1972, memo that was given to the Senate Watergate Committee was accompanied by a cover memo, dated April 12, 1972, from Magruder to Mitchell, recommending approval. The attorney general checked “Approve,” added the phrase “subject to comments,” and initialed it.
Buchanan dominated the 1973 Senate hearing, playing, as one commentator put it, “the dirtiest trick a witness can play on televised senators -- he made them look like a bunch of nitpickers. For every supposed political dirty trick they asked him about, he had either an explanation, a denial of involvement or a similar example from the lore of Democratic politics.”
At one point, the committee’s chief counsel, Sam Dash, asked Buchanan: “Were you aware of the covert activities sponsored by the Republican Party for the Democratic National Convention during . . . the convention?”
Buchanan responded: “Was I aware of any? No, I was not aware of any. I would trust we had some intelligence people down at Miami Beach to see how they handled their convention -- that is a gigantic affair -- how they handled their press, how they handled their demonstrations . . . but this was not my function.”
He was asked only briefly about the April 10 memo. “I did recommend a forward observation post,” Buchanan said.
“But you recommended that it be kept clear or clean, away from any covert operations?” Dash said.
“Right,” Buchanan replied. “There were 2,000 press in Miami Beach. I certainly hope we had people down there demonstrating for Richard Nixon. But anything like that should be kept away from the observation post, we should be clean as a hound’s tooth out of apprehension at the allegations made against us so we could say flatly, no, we had nothing to do with X, Y or Z.”
No one asked him about his endorsement of covert operations because no questioner at the hearing knew about page 4 of the memo. Lenzner said he was unaware of its existence until Friday when a reporter asked him about it. “We assumed we were given the entire document,” Lenzner said.
Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.