The break-in at the Watergate Hotel was the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon. But today on Think, former White House Counsel John W. Dean told Krys Boyd about another planned break-in that would’ve made headlines.
When the Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971, Richard Nixon initially wasn’t all that concerned. But that was before Secretary of State Henry Kissenger complained to the president that the leaks were compromising secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese.
And that could’ve jeopardized Nixon’s re-election.
Dean says this is when Nixon began ordering break-ins. Dean learned about one such plan from an underling who had just come to him from former White House Counsel Chuck Colson’s office.
“And he said, ‘Chuck had asked me to firebomb the Brookings Institute.’"
"I said, ‘What?'"
“He said, ‘He thinks I should firebomb the Brookings Institute. When the fire department is responding it’ll be a diversion. And I’m to send a safecracker in to break into the safe at the Brookings and get out the Pentagon Papers.’”
Dean thought the plan was absurd. And he also knew there was no point arguing with Colson. So he went straight to his superior and top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman.
“He was in San Clemente, I jumped on the next plane, flew out there, told him of this," Dean said. "And he simply picked up the phone, called Chuck Colson, and said, ‘Young Counsel Dean is out here, doesn’t think the Brookings plan is a very good one, Chuck. Cancel it.’ Turned to me and said, ‘Anything else, Counselor?’ I said, ‘No, that’ll handle it.’”
As it turned out, Colson wasn’t the originator of the idea.
“It isn’t until years later when the tapes come out," Dean says, "That I learn the order for the break-in really came from Richard Nixon, who is at one point literally pounding on the desk, saying, ‘I want a break-in! I want it yesterday, nobody’s exercising, nobody’s following through.’”
Dean’s adamant that Nixon didn’t directly order the Watergate break-in. But he also says that outbursts like that made it clear to the staff what was expected.