Whenever a new administration takes over in Washington, especially that of the other party, there is a vast change in the Executive Branch because of policy needs, the demands of favor, and the needs of individuals. The new President will need a group of like-minded specialists to satisfy the demands of current administration and future policy changes, the needs and expectations of party enthusiasts who have invested so much of their time and resources in his election, and those who burned themselves out at various posts while trying to keep his predecessor in office. The shakeup in the White House is so chaotic that it is almost impossible to satisfy basic security concerns while the transformation is taking place.
Given this situation, the replacements of administrative personnel are usually seen as normal and most predictable. Consequently, when Dr. Alexander H. Flax resigned as director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in March 1969, it was hardly even mentioned, much less raising any eyebrows. Flax had been director for 3 1/2 years demanding years - ones in which the NRO finally completed the objective of the Apollo program of sending men to the moon, and safely returning them to earth just before Christmas 1968 - just when the new Nixon administration has organizing itself to take power the next month. The public would hardly have been surprised if Flax took advantage of the Pentagon's revolving door with its industrial complex, and opted for a cushy position in the private sector.
From the very outset when Richard Nixon was elected President in November 1968, though, his administration was ideally suited to take advantage of all the capabilities of the NRO. 'Tricky Dick' seemed just the man to want the services of an agency officially unknown, and whose abilities were only really known by a most small circle. It was not until five years later - in the middle of the Watergate scandal - that the media finally discovered its very
existence, and it took another generation before officialdom - when it wanted to clean up its
image - formally acknowledged its existence. The Nixon administration appeared to offer opportunities that Flax could hardly afford to turn down despite its stated intentions of ending America's war in Vietnam.
And Flax did not offer his resignation, only to learn almost immediately that it was dejá vue all over again. Instead of using the NRO to help achieve peace - what the voters expected from
Nixon since the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, had promised to continue LBJ's
camaign to a successful conclusion - the Republican administration, thanks to input by the new National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, and his military assistant, Colonel Alexander Haig, opted to snatch victory from defeat by launching a massive aerial bombardment of the whole area to destroy the ability of the North Vietnamese and their alleged surrogates, the Viet Cong, to continue fighting.
Of course, they have maintained most false claims about what was afoot, once the gambit ended in total failure. Kissinger wrote in 1979: "The Nixon Administration entered office determined to end our involvement in Vietnam." (Quoted from Robert J. McMahon, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, p. 425.) According to Kissinger, the reason why it didn't do so successfully was because the American public and Washington's commitments further afield did not permit the time and effort that General deGaulle had been allowed to
withdraw from Algeria. Haig, in Inner Circles, played dumb about the whole matter, acting as if he were merely a White House errand boy who prepared the daily intelligence briefing, merely alluding to a paper he prepared for the President which Kissinger was enthusiastic about, and Nixon "...ordered us to put it into effect." (p. 196)
Nixon's first chief of staff, in his amended, published The Haldeman Diaries, described a most secret meeting held in Brussels during Nixon's first visit to Europe on February 24, 1969: "At the meeting K, his deputy, Al Haig, and a Pentagon planning officer worked out guidelines for a proposed plan for bombing North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. P had decided on the plane to Belgium to order the bombing as a response to the North Vietnamese countrywide offensive that they launched the day before we left." (p. 33) The plan included the items that Haig and Lt. Col. Dewitt Smith had recommended to Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson five years earlier, but had been rejected at the time because they were too risky. (See Haig, pp. 137-9.)
While implementing the plan was postponed for three weeks in order to override State Department opposition, Operation Breakfast - the codename apparently fitting Haig's morning intelligence duties - was kicked off on March 16th, a Sunday, after a dutiful church service. Two days later, Haldeman reported, "K's 'Operation Breakfast' a great success. He came beaming in with a report, very productive. A lot more secondaries than had been expected. Confirmed early intelligence. Probably no reaction for a few days, if ever." (p. 41) The next phase of the secret war, Operation Lunch, the military incursion into Cambodia, followed in due course, but one would never know from reading Haig's account.
Of course, Haldeman was referring to a North Vietnamese reaction, but there had already been a response. Flax tendered his resignation just then, knowing that the Nixon administration had the tiger again by the tail, and he wanted no longer to be a part of it. Haldeman, along with other administration leaders, also did not anticipate the increasingly hostile press coverage of the accelerating operation, thanks to leaks to the media about it. Soon Washington Post and New York Times reporters, especially William Beecher, were barred from the White House, and Haig, who was now regularly consulting with Nixon in the Old Executive Office Building where they both had offices, was busily involved in determining their source.
To implement the secret Kissinger-Haig plan, the White House created a "backchannel" with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thereby circumventing not only SOD Melvin Laird, Secretary of State William Rogers, and the Cabinet but also NSA and the CIA. "Using special codes, teletypes, and secure terminals located at the Pentagon and in the White House Situation Room," Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin wrote in Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, "the president and his national security adviser could send and receive messages to selected American officials and members of foreign governments around the world without alerting the rest of the United States government." (p. 8)
Of course, the secret war needed the NRO to collect the aerial intelligence, and to provide the necessary communications for the successful completion of what the agenda called for - disrupting the transmission of men and materiel along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the ousting of the North Vietnamese from their Cambodian sanctuary, pursuing those who fled into Laos, the mining of Haiphong Harbor, etc. - and a second set of false reports about results in order to keep others in the dark about what was going on. Haig, in characteristic style, explained the campaign as the result of the North Koreans shooting down a US Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane on April 14th (p. 204ff.), a month after the bombing of Cambodia had started.
For all intents and purposes, Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson - the top assistant to Admiral Thomas H. Moorer - the CNO who would soon become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs - was the NRO's deputy director under the new arrangements. While Robinson was said to be running, later along with Yeoman Chuck Radford, a liaison office, connecting the JCS with the NSC - he was actually seeing to the implementation of what had been agreed to by Kissinger and Haig regarding the secret war. Robinson may well have been the Pentagon planner present at Brussels at its inception. The Admiral was a go-for-broke type who would stop at nothing to win the war in Vietnam
As Admiral Robert O.Welander - Robinson's replacement to the White House when the operation had to be closed down - explained to John D. Ehrlichman, the President's Assistant on Domestic Affairs, and David R. Young, an aide to Kissinger, on December 23, 1971, his joint-position had existed for about ten years, and he took over from Admiral Robert Ginsburg who had held the position in the LBJ administration: "I'm a two-way avenue of communications. I try and explain things to the (NSC) staff. I mean some of the formal military positions, things of that sort. I'm an in-house military expert; if they need some things done quickly. I can go ahead and punch into the organization over there much more quickly and hopefully effectively, than if we go down through the formal mechanism." (Quoted from Colodny and Gettlin, p. 447.)
While Robinson was responding to NSC commands with NRO missions, Haig was increasingly trying to determine the source of the growning number of leaks, especially because his former boss, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, had commissioned a study of why policy-making had gone so badly in Vietnam - a work Haig had been asked to join but had declined, unlike many former colleagues in the process, especially Daniel Ellsberg. When the FBI finally declined to investigate more suspected leakers after having bugged 17 persons, most of them members of the NSC, over an 18-month period without any postive results, Haig saw to the hiring of The Plumbers aka Special Investigations Unit, and their installation in the Executive Office Building to continue the work.
The troubles with the Kissinger-Haig-NRO secret war were manifold. The North Vietnamese and the Viet-Cong were unwilling to negotiate anything more than the cessation of hostilities, and the withdrawal of American forces, as their unwillingness to let the Soviets negotiate some kind of lesser settlement indicated. Washington only added to these problems by opening the door to Red China, and talking to Moscow about a treaty to limit nuclear weapons, thinking falsely that these efforts would undermine their assistance of the Vietnamese. And American losses continued to mount, as the media indicated - the NYT even publishing the photographs of service men killed since the Nixon administration had taken office. Then NSA Kissinger was growing increasingly pessimistic about what the secret war was achieving.
These developments, especially the negotiations with the communist powers, drove the JCS to start using the "backchannel" to spy on what Kissinger and Haig were up to, especially as the secret war wound down. Admiral Welander and Yeoman Radford instead of being conduits to the NRO became spies for Admiral Moorer, chairman of the JCS. "Military officers sensed that they were merely being used as instruments," Colodny and Gettlin wrote, "to further Nixon's own ends; their belief that this was the case was furthered by the events of ensuing months, during which they saw themselves being ignored, cut out, and circumvented on all the important issues - the conduct of the war, troop withdrawals, the peace neogatiation, and SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), just to name the most important ones." (p. 10)
This spying - which started for real in October 1970 - was discussed by Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman at meeting at the White House on December 21, 1971 where they interviewed Welander's assistant, as James Rosen recounted in "Nixon and the Chiefs," on KeepMedia on April 1, 2002: " 'Under the implied approval of his supervisor,' Ehrlichman said at another point in the conversation, Radford 'has systematically stolen documents out of Henry's briefcase, Haig's briefcase, people's desks - anyplace and every place in the NSC apparatus, that he could get his hands on - and then duplicated them and turned them over to the Joint Chiefs, through his boss'." While the President was interested in seeking a prosecution of those thought responsible, especially Haig, the Attorney General talked him out of doing so for fear of disastrous blowback.
Instead, the liaison office was immediately closed, and the files Welander had were handed over to Haig who understandably handed those relating to the spying to Ehrlichman while keeping the rest himself. Welander was transferred to a sea command as far away from Washington as could be found, and Radford was reassigned to Oregon's Naval Reserve Trining Center. Admiral Robinson, while revealing nothing about his being a NRO conduit during the secret war when he was interviewed, was conveniently killed in a helicopter crash in the Tonkin Gulf in May 1972, leaving Haig in the confident position of denying in an uncharacteristic footnote Silent Coup's claims only about him: "...I do so now by stating categorically that any suggestion that this officer committed any act of disloyality whatsoever to the United States or his Commander in Chief while serving in the White House is totally false." (p. 245)
Officially, during this time, the NRO was busily occupied positioning its new generation of satellites, Rhyolites, constructed in TRW's M-4 facility in Redondo Beach, California, and making arrangements around the globe for the secure retrieval of their take. The satellites - the size of a minibus, and equiped with a solar-powered, dish-shaped antenna aimed towards the earth - were designed to pick up microwave and satellite communications on a continual basis - what the Soviets were increasingly relying upon in communicating across their vast country - and down-loading what they recorded without any encryption to avoid any additional weight in securing their positioning in space. In order for the satellites to work continuously, they had to be placed in geosynchronous orbit - 22,380 miles above the equator, and at a longitude where a secure place existed below.
Flax's replacement, Dr. John L. McLucas, was the ideal director for the job, as he had spent his previous, relevant career in the private sector, and, consequently, knew nothing about the NRO's on-going operations, especially its secret war in Southeast Asia. McLucas, the former CEO and President of MITRE Corp., had been involved in developing communication systems for national air security, and McLucas, in becoming Air Force underscretary too, just thought
his function was to smooth relations between the public and private providers of satellites, as he explained to researchers for the Defense Acquisition History Project shortly before he died: "So I saw it as mainly dealing with hardware and with the people who were necessary to procure and upgrade the hardware."
McLucas left the positioning of the new satellites to subordinates, and their real challenge was to find a place where they could conveniently and securely download their take in the far Pacific. Australia offered the best sites possible, and as long as it was governed by politicians friendly to America's venture in Vietnam, it was no problem. The site selected was at Pine Gap, near Ayers Rock, smack-dab in the middle of the continent. "Like a vacuum cleaner," Helen Caldicott wrote in Missile Envy, "they suck up a wide spectrum of Soviet and Chinese military communications and radar emissions and beam them back to Pine Gap." (p. 127) Pine Gap also received photographs and electronic transmissions from the latest satellites in the KH series, KH-8, and 9 (BIG BIRD).
For the purposes of this article, though, the most relevant program at Pine Gap was the CIA's Pyramider project, about which Dr. Caldicott wrote: "It communicated with foreign agents using sensing mechanisms placed in strategic locations around the world, and backup communications for overseas systems. The Pyramider program was supposed to ensure 'maximum undetectability'." (ibid.) Pyramider was part of the program that DCI Richard Helms was using to ferret out alleged spies among the anti-war ranks worldwide, and to pave the way for the secret operations by rogue agent William King Harvey et al. Of course, no system ensures undetectability, especially if someone in it decides to talk. What, for example, would have been the protection against Dr. Flax himself telling tales - and well he might, given his unexpected, abrupt resignation - and who really were the leakers that Colonel Haig was now so worried about?
To complement what was going on at Pine Gap, DCI Helms created the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (NURO). The joint CIA-Navy project was organized much like the NRO, with the Navy taking the place of the Air Force, and its management being directed in the Agency's direction. The impetus behind the NURO's creation was the Navy's attack sub Halibut finding a stricken Soviet Golf attack submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor - loaded with nuclear weapons, "crypto-codes", and its communication systems - and the CIA was going all-out to build a vessel to retrieve it.
In 1970, the Halibut was given the assignment to tap the Soviet cable in the Sea of Okhotsk to its port on the Kamchatka Peninusla, Petropavlovsk. To facilitate such operations, the Navy built three stations to transmit very-low-frequency (VLF) messages to the probing subs: the biggest one on the Northwest Cape of Western Australia, a second one at Jim Creek, Washington, and a third at Cutler, Maine.
To insure the security of the new NURO's operations, its CIA-led leadership carried out Operation Kittyhawk - a disinformation one to persuade Moscow falsely that it had SIGINT operations by the Americans under control. In June 1966, KGB agent Igor Kochnov made himself available to the Agency as a continuing agent in place by offering his services to CI chief James Angleton over the phone. To help settle disputes, and coordinate operations between the Bureau and the Agency, he was recruited, and allowed to handle a Soviet defector, former Red Banner fleet officer Nicholas Shadrin aka Nikolai Artamonov codenamed LARK, who was working for the Office of Naval Intelligence.
While Shadrin helped settle their disputes over another defector, Yuri Nosenko, Mark Riebling wrote in Wedge, "Shadrin also began to pass doctored naval secrets to the Soviets." (p. 232) The kind of doctored information he was supplying was the difficulty the Halibut was having in finding the cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, the worries the Americans had about her being discovered in Soviet waters, the infrared guidance system that Soviet cruise missiles had which were so threatening to American carriers, etc. (For just how hopeless The Sword and The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB is as a source, note that Mitrokhim has no information about Kochnov, and Shadrin 's contribution is limited to his false claim that he could discover Nosenko's whereabouts! (p. 387)
As with the NRO's secrets about SIGINT operations during the Vietnam war, NURO's secret operations against Soviet SIGINT were betrayed in late 1967 by Chief Warrant Officer John Walker, a communications watch officer on the staff of the commander of the Atlantic Fleet's
submarines who walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington to offer his services shortly after fellow spy Robert Lipka has left NSA. "He had access to reports on submarine operations, technical manuals, and daily key lists," Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew wrote in Blind Man's Bluff, "that were used to unscramble all the messages sent through the military's most widely used coding machines." (p. 351) As expected, the Mitrokin Archive has nothing to say about what the eighteen years of spying by him, his recruit Jerry Whitworth, and three members of his family contributed to Soviet security.
The success of the Walker spy ring was well demonstrated when the Halibut finally went on its first NURO mission to tap the cable in Sea of Okhotsk in October 1971 just when the SALT talks with Moscow were entering their most difficult stages. The Soviets knew that the submarine would be looking for a sign along the coast somewhere, warning mariners not to anchor because a cable lay underneath - what Captain James Bradley, the Navy's top underwater spy, was convinced existed because of his experience on ships as a youth on the Mississippi.
After more than a week's search, low and behold, the Halibut discovered a sign, stating in Russian: "Do Not Anchor. Cable Here." In placing the tap on the cable - what enabled Washington periodically to read the routine communications between Moscow and its submarines in the Pacific - submariners discovered a mass of destroyed cruise missiles, small pieces of which they carefully recovered in the hope of coming up with a complete homing device of the cruise missiles. While the Navy's Department of Energy lab reconstructed a missile, its engineers were never able to put together the homing device. In sum, despite the NURO's massive efforts, it really never came up with anything important because of the spying by the Walkers.
When Nixon was nearing the end of his life, former DCI Helms told Cambirdge history Christopher Andrew in an interview in April 1992 his side of the story in dealing with the former President's White House. (See his For the President's Eyes Only, p. 350ff., and notes.) Of course, Helms wanted readers to believe that Nixon was the guiding hand behind Operation Chaos, claiming that the only way the Agency could prove to the President that domestic dissent was not inspired by foreign communist powers was by investigating all anti-war persons, and all contacts they had had with any foreign person. In putting all the onus of the program on the President, though, Helms never expressed any real opposition to it nor threatened to resign because it was completely swamping his agency.
Then Helms was worried about the legacy Harvey had left in immobilizing other agencies while he had carried out the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Agents of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) had repeatedly had their drug-trafficking
investigations, particularly those of James Earl Ray and his courier Charlie Stein, stopped
because of NRO wiretapping which showed that CIA agents were involved. These concerns became a crisis when Nixon ordered on June 5, 1970 Vice Admiral Noel Gayler, NSA's director, "...to program for coverage the communications of U. S. citizens using international facilities." ("James Bamford Statement on NSA Surveillance," February 3, 2006, cryptome, org) Same as now, NSA needed neither a warrant nor probably cause for the wire-tapping in Operation Minaret.
This presidential directive set off alarm bells at CIA, and it moved immediately to limit any damage from new wire-tapping, especially those of sources working with the BNDD. Of
course, the Agency and Bureau both had been supportive of the program when it was started back in 1967 - only to be closed down a month later when the FBI was unable to find any connection between the Vietnam Veterans against the War and the Communist Party - only to be resumed in 1968 after MLK and RFK had conveniently departed the political scene. The CIA was worried about investigators learning about the hiatus and wondering why, especially since February 1970 when Director Hoover broke off all contact with Langley - what would show that the Agency was using the BNDD as a cover for Harvey activities, and a firewall against dangerous blowback.
Two weeks after Nixon had ordered warrantless eavesdropping on foreign communications of Americans by NSA, BNDD agents carried out the biggest drug-bust in history - Operation Eagle during which 150 suspects were rounded up from cities around the country. "As many as 70 percent of those arrested had once belonged to the Bay of Pigs invasion force," Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall wrote in Cocaine Politics, "unleased by the CIA against Cuba in April 1961." (p. 26) The others were connected to the Mafia, especially the crime families of Santos Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, and Sam 'Momo' Giancana. Of course, their arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment not only took them out of circulation but also rendered their terrorist activities for the Agency a dead letter.
Of particular concern to Langley was the activities of the Florida-based financial conglomerate, the World Finance Corporation (WFC). Headed by Guillermo Hernández Cartaya, a member of the Operation 40 group which planned to take over Cuba in the wake of Castro's demise, the WFC was riddled with CIA agents, noticeably Juan Restoy, Ricardo Morales, and Mario Escandar, and Agency fronts. The arrests and indictments were an effective diversion from what were their primary responsibilites - murders, decoy operations, terrorist bombings and underworld enforcement - and after the crisis had passed, they largely escaped prison on legal technicalities. Of course, the CIA leader of all these anti-Castro Cubans was E. Howard Hunt, the eccentric writer who was now an employee of the Mullen Company, and back then thought that domestic dissent in Cuba, triggered into action by a small invasion force, could easily lead to his ouster.
The arrest of some Agency assets and the transfer of others had been just in time as the disarray of Washington's intelligence services had reached a new low in cooperation. At the same time that Nixon ordered the warrantless eavesdropping by the NSA, it seemed that the FBI, CIA, NSA, and DIA had agreed to a new level of cooperation in meeting the unprecedented domestic unrest by agreeing to the Huston Plan - what the President's liaison with the agencies Tom Charles Huston had proposed - but Director Hoover refused to go along with the program which would leave him responsible for any illegal activities, and broke off not only all liaison with them but also with the Secret Service, the IRS, and the individual armed services intelligence services. "By cutting off liaison," Curt Gentry wrote in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, "Hoover hoped to distance the FBI, and his own reputation, from the inevitable holocaust." (p. 655)
Hardly a week later, the fat was in the fire when the New York Times announced that the Pentagon study of the conduct of the Vietnam war had been leaked to the press. While Nixon first thought that it would be a boon to his re-election since it showed the doubledealing of JFK and LBJ, he soon changed his mind when State Department memoranda showed the deep involvement of Henry Cabot Lodge and the Agency's Lt. Col. Lucien Conein in Diem's overthrow. Then the effort to get leaker Daniel Ellsberg by criminal due process was completely frustrated by the FBI taps that had been ordered to discover the leaker of the Nixon-Kissinger-Haig secret war - the JOD could not use them without showing that they had earlier been trying to get his friends, especially Morton Halperin.
Charles Colson, Nixon's special counsel, was ultimately obliged to hire the Plumbers, headed by the CIA's E. Howard Hunt, of all people - setting off a process which dragged into White House operations just those people the Agency was trying to distance itself from. Hunt -thought to have been the "mastermind" of the Bay of Pigs Operation - turned out to be the leader of Cartaya's group, the people who had just been arrested by the BNDD. More important, Hunt promised to provide "the right resources", as Fred Emery explained in Watergate, to turn Ellsberg's betrayal into a political triumph. Then Hunt was consulting with Conein, another operative involved, along with Ted Shackley and Harvey, in Operation Phoenix, on how to make it look as if JFK was more involved in Diem's overthrow.
From the NRO's point of view, the most damaging aspect of the Plumbers' work was Hunt's forging cables to prove the the Kennedys had personally conspired in the assassination of South Vietnam's President Diem - what President Nixon not only demanded, but deliberately referred to in his September 16th news conference, taking the initiative way from opponents using the release of The Pnetagon Papers against the administration.
Thanks to input from Conein, and help from Plumber secretary Kathleen Chenow, Hunt was able to put together forged cables - the Gemstone Papers - which falsely claimed that the US Embassy had asked for instructions about possible asylum for Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, if they were overthrown. More important, as Fred Emery wrote in Watergate, a forged cable back to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon declared: "At highest level meeting today decision reluctantly made that neither you nor General Harkins should intervene in behalf of Diem or Nhu in event they seek asylum." (Quoted from p. 72.)
While Hunt was unable to publish an article, based upon his forgeries, in the last issue of Life magazine, Conein took advantage of them when he appeared in December on the NBC-TV program "White Paper: Vietnam HIndsight" - what led NYT reporter Neil Sheehan, who had leaked The Pentagon Papers, to Daniel Ellsberg, to conclude that Conein's statements left no doublt about the extent of the Kennedy administration's involvement in the assassination of the South Vietnamese leaders. And there was no denial from any former JFK officials or former Ambassador Lodge about having either said or seen any of the material claimed, and neither the NSA nor the NRO have raised any questions or complaints since about their alleged existence.
Little wonder that when the Agency learned early in 1972 that disgruntled agent Victor Marchetti, a former assistant to the DDCI who regularly attended planning and intelligence meetings attended by DCI Helms, was writing an article and a book about the Agency's corruption, independence and incompetence in conducting foreign operations, its leadership pushed the panic button to stop them. After having stolen the material from the office of a New York publisher, and placed Marchetti under surveillance, the Agency went successfully to court to get an injunction against the book's publication, claiming that he was bound to secrecy, and obliging him to permit prepublication censorship before it appeared.
After a series of court hearings about what had to be removed, and two years later, the book, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, finally appeared, with only the Agency's claim to secrecy for 27 items regarding SIGINT satellite intelligence, as Angus Mackenzie concluded in Secrets: The CIA's War at Home, standing up in court. The NRO's work was still the Republic's deepest secrets.