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BONUS Document Friday: Alexander Haig and the Wiretapping of American Citizens

February 26, 2010

Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig,who died last week at the age of 85, played a variety of roles in the military and the government, including combat duty in Korea and Vietnam, Army Chief of Staff, White House Chief of Staff, and Supreme Allied Commander Europe.  It is worth remembering, however, that when he was military assistant to national security adviser Henry Kissinger and later his deputy, Haig played a central role in a wiretap scandal which was one of the abuses of power that brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.  Indeed, the wiretaps were an element of Article 2 of the articles of impeachment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974.

On May 10, 1969, the day after The New York Times published an article by William Beecher on the secret bombing of Cambodia, known only to a few in Washington, then-Colonel Haig went to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters to order wiretaps of three White House aides and a senior Pentagon official.  William Beecher, “Raids in Cambodia by U.S. Unprotested,” The New York Times, May 9, 1969.  When Haig made the formal request for the wiretaps, he told FBI assistant director William Sullivan that the request was “made on the highest authority” and that the matter was “so sensitive it demands handling on a need-to-know basis, with no record maintained.” [i] That was not the way the FBI did business, especially when White House officials were issuing unprecedented requests to wiretap White House aides, as opposed to espionage suspects or organized crime figures.  Thus, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover provided Attorney General Mitchell with the gist of the conversation with Haig. [ii] When the Times ran Beecher’s story on the Cambodia bombing (known as operation “Menu” to insiders), on May 9, 1969, both Kissinger and Nixon, then in Key Biscayne, Florida, were angry, but Kissinger was especially enraged.  Already worried about leaks, Nixon suspected that some of Kissinger’s aides were disloyal (partly on the basis of anti-Semitic prejudices).  But Kissinger’s reaction to the Times story was particularly intense, not least because he wanted to deflect any suspicions that his office was the source of leaks to the press.  Both he and Nixon agreed that wiretaps were necessary, although Kissinger may have been the prime mover.

That same day, Kissinger called Hoover [iii], apparently asking him to place immediately a wiretap on National Security Council (NSC) staffer Morton Halperin, a former Harvard colleague. Kissinger realized that Halperin did not even know of the Cambodia operation and could not be the leaker, but Nixon viewed Halperin with such suspicion that Kissinger probably saw the wiretap order as a means of self-protection.  Also on May 9, Kissinger persuaded Halperin, who was in Florida with the White House party, to give up his security clearances.  Within a few months, a marginalized Halperin resigned his NSC staff post.

The next day, Haig, sent by Kissinger, went to FBI headquarters to submit a formal request for the Halperin wiretap and for surveillance of three others.  Two were NSC staffers who had been suspected of leaks in the past: Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former State Department official who was married to Marjorie Hecht, a Democratic Party activist, and Daniel Davidson, who had worked closely with Democratic Party foreign sage W. Averell Harriman. The third target was Colonel Robert Pursley, military aide to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, whom Kissinger thought was the leaker.

The wiretap of Pursley ended after a few weeks (although it was restored in 1970), while the wiretaps for Halperin and Sonnenfeldt lasted into 1971.  A number of other State Department and White House officials also became targets, including Kissinger aides, Anthony Lake and Winston Lord and White House speech writer William Safire, as well as several reporters, including Beecher. The wiretaps, eventually totaling 17, never produced any evidence of leaks, but only “gossip and bullshitting,” according to Nixon.   Nevertheless, as Walter Isaacson later observed, “once a precedent had been set for eavesdropping on White House staff and reporters, using an increasingly flimsy pretext of national security, it was just a short step to the formation of a secret White House unit to bug political opponents.”

Until the wiretap program ended in 1971, Haig continued to handle the White House side of the wiretaps, meeting with FBI officials and providing Kissinger with transcripts and summaries.  In May 1973, as the Watergate scandal was starting to break the Nixon administration, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story of the wiretaps, and Henry Kissinger found that he had a lot of explaining to do, especially to Lord and Sonnenfeldt, who were still on his staff.  [iv] Kissinger refused to acknowledge any responsibility and Haig dutifully defended him.

Finally, in 1992 to settle a lawsuit that Morton Halperin had initiated in 1973, Kissinger stated that he had “moral responsibility” for the wiretaps. [v]

[i] Papers of Elliot Richardson, Library of Congress, box 203, Kissinger, Henry A., Nomination as Secretary of State.

[ii] This posting draws heavily on accounts of the wiretap scandal in Walter Isaacson’s  Henry Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1992),  222-226, 497-500, and Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York: Summit Books, 1983), 83-97.

[iii] Kissinger made no records of any of the phone calls relating to the wiretaps, but Hoover took notes of Kissinger’s instructions to “destroy whoever did this if we can find him, no matter where he is.  See Issacson, Kissinger at page 215.

[iv] See Seymour Hersh, “President Linked to Taps on Aides,” The New York Times, May 16, 1973

[v] See Walter Pincus, “20-Year-Old Wiretap Suit Against Kissinger Settled,” The Washington Post, November 13, 1992.

One Comment
  1. raul lanzelotti permalink
    June 7, 2010 6:31 pm

    I remembered a statement from alexander haig saying that stanley kubrick was afraid of cia and president Nixon…about the moon hoax issue(“Dark Side of the Moon” documentary, director was william karel.
    I don`t like these kind of politicians.

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