Sunday, 31 March 2019 22:14

The Mysterious Life and Death of James W. McCord Featured

The death of James McCord, of Watergate renown, was entirely kept out of the press. Jim DiEugenio looks at McCord's life and activities in order to suggest why.

Usually when a high profile person in the field of entertainment, politics or news passes away, it is noted with almost lighting-like immediacy. We live in the Internet world, one with a 24/7 news cycle. That cycle does not sleep. It doesn’t even nap.

For some reason it did in June of 2017.

On June 15, 2017, James W. McCord of Watergate fame passed away. That’s correct. He passed on nearly two years ago. (here is one confirmation; here is another) If one can believe it, you will not find an obituary for him on the web. If one checks, say Wikipedia, he is still alive. You will only find a date of death through Ancestry or Find a Grave.

Corroboration comes from Shane O’Sullivan’s book, Dirty Tricks. According to the author, McCord’s family wanted to keep his passing quiet. (O’Sullivan, p. 405) They succeeded to a remarkable, in some ways, an unprecedented degree. The logical question, which I am not sure O’Sullivan asked, is this: What was the purpose behind all the secrecy? Since today, nearly no one knows he is dead, no one can ask his family that question. But with help from genealogist Rob Couteau, and on the ground investigation in Pennsylvania by Steve Jones and Jerry Policoff, Kennedys And King can confirm that O’Sullivan is correct. McCord passed on nearly two years ago—in mystifying silence. This is therefore the first obituary anyone will read about him. Which is startling considering the impact James Walter McCord had on modern American history.

Owing to Couteau’s work, we know that McCord’s family originated in Scotland. His great-grandfather served in the Tennessee militia during the War of 1812. McCord’s grandfather, James Allen McCord, was from Alabama and served in the Confederate army. Both his mother and father hailed from Texas. His father was a public school teacher. Although some entries place his date of birth in June, McCord was born in Waurika, Oklahoma on January 26, 1924. He attended public schools there. In 1943 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in Miami, Florida. When that split off from the army to create the Air Force, he eventually attained Lt. Colonel status in the U. S. Air Force Reserve. After World War II, he attended Baylor before graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1949. He began his professional career by working briefly for the FBI. He was then employed for nineteen years by the CIA. He allegedly retired and went to work for the Committee to Reelect the President, commonly knows as CREEP, in late 1971. The man who hired him to work on the Richard Nixon campaign was Jack Caufield.

Ambrose McCord, 
James’s great-grandfather,
served in the Tennessee militia
McCord’s mother

McCord’ high-school yearbook

McCord’s selective service card

McCord’s wife Sarah's tombstone

Caufield was a former New York City police detective. He was invited by John Ehrlichman to set up a private security agency to provide intelligence on Nixon’s political opponents. It was Caufield who first suggested forming Operation Sandwedge: illegal electronic surveillance of Nixon’s political opponents focusing on their sex lives, drinking habits, tax records and marital problems. (The Telegraph, July 11, 2012) Later on, when the so-called Plumbers Unit was formed, McCord migrated there and joined Howard Hunt for their break-ins of the Democratic National Committee. It was called the Plumbers Unit because it was partly designed to plug leaks, like the Pentagon Papers. In fact, one of the first missions the unit executed was a raid on the Los Angeles office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the NY Times and Washington Post. The objective was to dig up dirt on him and smear his character in the press.

To say that McCord was a secretive and odd person understates both his character and career. He was one of the several personages who were involved in both the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Watergate caper: two seismic shocks to the system that occurred within a decade of each other. They were both so colossal in their impact that complex and multi level cover-ups ensued afterwards to conceal their true natures. In the JFK case, it took about three years to fully expose the official Warren Report as a cover-up.

With Watergate, where McCord’s role was much more front-and-center, it took quite a bit longer. Most analysts of that expansive and complicated phenomenon would date the beginning of its true elucidation to 1984, ten years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. That was the year Jim Hougan published Secret Agenda, his watershed book on Watergate. Secret Agenda is now recognized as a classic in the field. Some would go even further and deem it as one of the finest pieces of investigative political reporting in the last 40 years. No objective observer can read the book without feeling the official story handed to them on Watergate was, to say the least, both faulty and incomplete.

What was that official story composed of? It was a combination of two factors. First, the coverage by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the WashingtonPost. This was largely supervised by editor Ben Bradlee. It was made world famous by Robert Redford in his film of their bestselling book, All the President’s Men. The second element of this official story was then adduced by the Senate Watergate Committee. In the summer of 1973 that committee’s hearings were probably viewed proportionately by as many spectators as the 1954 Army/McCarthy hearings. Led by Senator Sam Ervin, the committee pretty much followed the story that had been laid out by the Washington Post. It was this unrelenting and massive media glare that paved the way for Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974.

One of the worst things about Watergate was that the praise and fame heaped upon Ervin, Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein left the impression that the system had worked. Through the political and journalistic process a grievous crime had been self-corrected. We all felt good. The system had purified itself.

A few years later, Jim Hougan walked into the FBI research library and made a request. When his documents were delivered he quickly realized that someone had made a mistake. He was getting papers that were still classified. Realizing the error would be discovered, he immediately began copying hundreds of pages from the original FBI Watergate investigation, documents that had not seen the light of day. Stuffing them into his briefcase before they were recalled, he managed to take them home. They confirmed his suspicions about what had really happened.

Hougan opens his book with an unforgettable chapter entitled “Of Hunt and McCord”. (pp. 3-26) It is clear from these pages that Hunt and McCord lied before the Ervin Committee when they said they did not know each other prior to going to work for the Plumbers. Hougan also pointed out that when Howard Hunt retired from the CIA in 1970, that was the third time he had done so. (Hougan, p. 6) At the recommendation of Director Richard Helms, he then went to work for a CIA associated PR group called the Mullen Company. That company would then be sold by Mr. Mullen to another CIA asset, Robert Bennett. Bennett and Hunt then badgered Nixon’s hatchet man at the White House, Charles Colson, into giving Hunt a job. (Hougan, p. 33) From there, Hunt went on to perform a series of alleged intelligence assignments that were so poorly conceived and badly executed that one has to wonder if they were just Keystone Kops hijinks or something worse. Yet even though Hunt was now supposedly retired and working for the White House, the CIA continued to technically support his efforts. In fact, the Agency reviewed and extended Hunt’s Top Secret security clearance prior to his retirement. (Hougan, p. 7) His security clearance was now the same one Clay Shaw had in New Orleans. (William Davy, Let Justice be Done, p. 196)

Four months after Hunt joined the Mullen Company, James McCord decided to retire from the Agency after 19 years of service. Although he was later billed as a technician, he worked out of the Office of Security’s secretive Security Research Staff program (SRS). (Hougan, p. 9) As John Newman later discovered, it was here where McCord teamed up with David Phillips to supervise the Agency’s anti-Fair Play for Cuba Committee campaign, of which Lee Harvey Oswald had all the earmarks of being a component. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, p. 158)

Hunt reportedly worked with McCord on Manuel Artime’s “Second Naval Guerilla” operation out of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. This was attested to by Cuban exile Harry Williams to author William Turner. (Hougan, p. 10) But Hougan dug up evidence that the pair worked together even earlier than that, back in the fifties on the Asian mainland. (p. 19) He then showed that the two men had also worked together in a domestic surveillance operation in 1969. We should add one other point. When McCord arrived at CREEP, he did not have a picture of Nixon in his office. He had a photo of Richard Helms on the wall. It was inscribed, “To Jim, With deep appreciation”. The emphasis was in the original. (Hougan, p. 22. We will reveal later a possible reason for that “deep appreciation.”)

So just from the little noted above, the questions come rapid-fire. Why did Hunt and McCord lie about not knowing each other prior to 1972? Why did the Agency let the lie stand? Were Hunt and McCord really retired when they eventually joined, respectively, the White House and CREEP? Why was Robert Bennett so eager to get Hunt into the White House? Why was McCord working for Nixon while his allegiance appears to be to Helms? But beyond that, why did it take ten years for anyone to ask these questions?

It is not completely accurate to write that no one investigated this aspect of the caper until Jim Hougan. There actually were two inquiries that attempted to explore the role of the CIA in Watergate. The first was the minority report of the Ervin Committee. The Republicans, led by Tennessee’s Senator Howard Baker and Minority Counsel Fred Thompson, did try to inquire into things like the role of the Mullen Company and the true goal of the burglary at the Watergate complex. Thompson and Baker theorized that the burglars’ real goal was not political intelligence for the 1972 election. It may have been surveillance of Democratic Chairman Lawrence O’Brien’s representation of Howard Hughes. Nixon’s association with Hughes, and his past attempts to bribe the president, were fairly well known at the time. The White House may have feared that O’Brien had more evidence of the same. In fact, John Meier, who worked for Hughes, told Nixon’s brother Donald that he was thinking of turning over everything that he had on Hughes. This included his knowledge of a million dollar secret donation from Hughes to Nixon. According to Age of Secrets, Don then informed his brother of this. (Probe Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 9, 11, 15)

Besides Baker and Thompson, the other committee that explored the CIA angle was the House Committee on Intelligence. This was led by Representative Lucien Nedzi, until he controversially resigned his chairmanship. (“House Supports Nedzi”, Washington Post, June 17, 1975) This committee did produce a report that Hougan sourced several times in his book.

But the fact was that very, very few people knew anything about these two investigations. This overall ignorance continued even when Fred Thompson published his 1975 book based on the Baker inquiry entitled, At That Point in Time. The fact that this book was all but ignored bears witness to the enormous torque created by the Washington Post, the Woodward/Bernstein best seller, and the Academy-Award-winning hit film. A veritable whirlpool was constructed, one which carried the entire MSM along with it.

As Jim Hougan later told me, he just never thought very much of Woodward’s reporting skills. One of the most revealing sections of Secret Agenda is in Appendix V. There the author publishes documents describing Robert Bennett’s communications with his CIA case officer. It is revealed that Bennett was actively spinning reporters like Sandy Smith and Woodward away from the Agency’s association with the Mullen Company, and selling them on the angle that his newly purchased PR company was actually “clean”. For this “information”, Woodward had agreed that these stories would not be attributed to Bennett. Bennett also had access to Senator Ervin and he had been assured that the senator would conceal the Mullen Company’s overseas role in placing agents for the CIA. (Hougan, pp. 332-335)

To put it mildly, that memorandum raised issues about Woodward’s independence and honesty. Hougan then raised questions about the Post’s major secret source. This was the man Woodward labeled “Deep Throat” in his book. Hougan specifically raised questions about the signaling system the duo would use when Deep Throat would request a nightly meeting in a parking garage. (Hougan, pp. 291-93) Hougan and others have also explored Woodward’s military background and his high-level security clearances as part of the national security state. This has led some to believe that one reason the reporter was so keen to assault Nixon was that, unlike Bernstein, Woodward was politically to the right of the president.

Because of this enormous propaganda apparatus, both the public and press were diverted from an alternative view of James W. McCord. Far from being a mere put-upon technician, McCord may have been a central operator. Consider just two major instances in the two-year Watergate episode. After the discovery of the break-in, the case had reached an impasse at the trial of the burglars. If they all kept silent, the conspiracy would likely be limited to them only—it would not reach into the White House. But in March of 1973, McCord radically raised the stakes. He wrote a letter to Judge John Sirica stating that perjury had been committed in his courtroom and pressure had been brought to bear for the seven burglars to remain quiet. When Sirica read McCord’s letter in court, it created pandemonium. It seemed to affirm all the stories that Woodward and Bernstein had been writing, and Bradlee publishing, in the Post.

But, in retrospect, the question should have been: If not for James McCord, would there have been a trial at all? As most analysts of the June 17, 1972 final break-in have noted, there was something odd about the way the burglars were caught. McCord had taped the locks on numerous doors to keep them open during the break-in. The security guard, Frank Wills, had found these doors and removed the tape. (Hougan, p. 196) When the burglars entered the building at about 1:10 AM, they found a previously taped door that was now stripped. McCord then conferred with higher-ups Hunt and Liddy. According to everyone but McCord, it was he who insisted on not aborting the mission. (Hougan, pp. 197-98) The door was retaped. But after McCord entered the building, he told his low-level cohorts that he himself had removed the tape on the doors. This was not true. (Probe, Vol. 3 No. 2, p. 14)

But that is not all that McCord had done. On the previous break-in—there were four attempts in all—it appears that McCord also switched the informational photos that had been taken inside the DNC, which were supposed to be of papers inside O’Brien’s desk, to a set of innocuous ones taken inside a Howard Johnson’s hotel room. (Hougan, pp. 153, 157) He also placed a faulty bug inside O’Brien’s office. (pp 162, 166) This from a man who when he was arraigned said—truthfully—that he had been a security consultant for the CIA. These alleged faux pas made another break-in necessary.

Wills discovered the new tape on the same door. It was almost impossible to miss it since McCord taped as many as eight doors that night—he even taped doors on floors that would never be used, like a floor above the DNC. (Hougan, p. 207) At 1:47 AM, Frank Wills called the Washington Police Department. Just a few minutes later, the police arrived at the scene. Reinforcements soon arrived. McCord, along with four Cubans recruited by Hunt, were arrested. They were Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis. Things then got worse. Surprisingly, Barker and the others had been allowed to keep their hotel keys with them. And further, neither McCord nor Hunt had sterilized the hotel rooms. Therefore, when the police entered the rooms, they discovered a treasure trove of evidence. This included their notebooks with Hunt’s name and phone number, which included the abbreviation W. House next to it. (Probe Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 14-15) Hunt was traced to the White House. Liddy was linked to CREEP.

But the circus even went beyond that. Hunt had paid off the burglars in sequentially numbered hundred dollar bills. The money trail would lead from Miami, to Mexico City and back to CREEP. (Probe 3.2: 14-15) And that would lead to the chairman of that body, former Attorney General John Mitchell. The notebooks with Hunt’s name and phone in them would lead to Charles Colson who ran the Plumbers Unit at the White House.

Once apprehended—as was the case with Bennett—McCord did all he could to keep the spotlight off the CIA and on the White House. His first lawyer, Gerald Alch, had proposed an Agency cover defense. (O’Sullivan, p. 268) He was later jettisoned and replaced by Bud Fensterwald. Fensterwald wasted little time in announcing, “We’re going after the president.” (Hougan, p. 307)

When Alch first suggested his CIA defense, McCord began to write Paul Gaynor, chief of the SRS division at CIA. He advised Gaynor to pre-empt this attempt with multiple and effective leaks to the press before the CIA defense could gain traction. Meanwhile, he would keep Gaynor informed of the legal tactics planned by the defendants. (O’Sullivan, pp. 269-70) A few days later, McCord wrote Jack Caufield at the White House. McCord stated that if Watergate was dumped off on the CIA and Richard Helms was fired,

… every tree in the forest will fall. It will be a scorched desert. The whole matter is at the precipice right now. Just pass the message that if they want it to blow, they are on exactly the right course. (Letter of December 28, 1972)

In spite of this warning, Helms was terminated about a month later on February 2, 1973. Around six weeks after, Caufield met with McCord. He offered him money, a job and executive clemency if he would plead guilty and remain silent. Caufield said this offer came from the highest levels of the White House. (NY Times, June 23, 2012, article by Douglas Martin.) McCord refused the deal. His allegiance was to Helms and the CIA. Shortly after, he wrote the letter to Sirica about pressure being brought to bear and perjury in his courtroom. For all intents and purposes, that is what blew the case wide open.

Because, as McCord had warned, the Nixon White house could easily be turned into a scorched desert. And it was. Through a steady stream of disclosures by people like McCord and White House counsel John Dean, the seamy underside of the Nixon White House was placed on public display. As McCord warned, it was not a pretty sight. The secret bombing of Cambodia, the August 1971 break in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, Nixon’s attempt to form a super intelligence group to counter student protests (commonly called the Huston Plan), the proposed fire-bombing of the Brookings Institute, etc. And, in this author’s opinion, the worst went undiscovered, because this last caper, the fire bombing of the Brookings Institute, was first thought to be part of Nixon’s war against the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. As the late journalist Robert Parry discovered, such was not the case. That proposal was really designed to find out if the evidence of Nixon sabotaging President Johnson’s Vietnam peace plan was located at Brookings. Candidate Nixon had arranged for Saigon not to cooperate with President Lyndon Johnson in his attempt to arrange a truce in Indochina before he left office. This tilted the election to Nixon and extended the war. Once in office, Nixon was worried that this evidence, like the Pentagon Papers, could be leaked to the press.

By the summer of 1973, Nixon seemed to realize what had really happened. He called up H. R. Haldeman at four in the morning, and asked him some pointed questions:

  • “Do you know anything about the Bennett PR firm, the Mullen Company?”
  • “Did you ever employ them at the White House? Were they ever retained by us for any purpose?”
  • “Did you know they were a CIA front?”
  • “Did you know that Helms ordered Bennett to hire Howard Hunt?”
  • “Did you know that Hunt was on the payroll at the Bennett firm at the same time that he was on the White House payroll?” (Probe, Vol. 3 No. 2, p. 32)

It was too late.

Because of his willingness to cooperate with the court and the Ervin Committee, McCord served by far the briefest prison time of the seven men directly involved with the break in: four months. Hunt served almost ten times that long. Gordon Liddy was in prison for almost five years before being pardoned by President Carter.

Forty-five years later, the conventional view of Watergate still largely reigns in the MSM. This is partly due to Woodward’s occasional attempts to prop up that version. For instance, when FBI officer Mark Felt was close to dying, Woodward wrote a book saying that Felt was Deep Throat. In 2017, Mr. Hollywood Mythology, Tom Hanks, then had a hand in making a truly mediocre film based on an even more mediocre book about Felt.

But, in 2009, Ed Gray, son of L. Patrick Gray, had published an interesting book about Watergate titled In Nixon’s Web. Patrick Gray had been appointed interim director of the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover died. He supervised the initial FBI inquiry into Watergate until he resigned. He passed away before he could finish the book. It was then completed by his son. In the epilogue to that volume, Ed Gray demonstrates that Deep Throat was a composite character. And he does it with Woodward’s own notes. He also proves that Mark Felt was leaking stories to the press that sunk Gray’s nomination. The reason was Felt’s own personal ambition: he wanted the Director’s position. Again, because of the MSM censorship on Watergate, very few people know these important facts.

The idea promulgated by Hougan, that Watergate was really a trap set for Nixon, was also a part of John Meier’s book Age of Secrets. (Co-authored by Gerald Bellett) As Bellett wrote in the introduction to the Meier book:

Watergate was a set-up, a classic ploy as old as espionage itself. In its favor it had simplicity of execution, an irresistible bait and a spy on the inside. It was flawless. So completely were the anti-Nixon conspirators in control, that they knew an intrusion into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters was being plotted, yet did nothing to prevent it. (Bellett, p. viii)

That last sentence refers to the fact that Lawrence O’Brien was actually tipped off in advance that the Democratic National Committee was under surveillance. He was warned of this by a prominent Democrat and newspaper publisher by the name of William Haddad. (Hougan, p. 79) Haddad was apprised of this from a private investigator named A. J. Woolston Smith. Smith apparently gained the information from an agency called the November Group. This was a set of advertising executives working on Nixon’s campaign. Liddy was the agency’s incorporator and secretary. McCord was in charge of the November Group’s security. Haddad actually told a DNC representative in advance that they would be bugged and burglarized. And that McCord and Liddy were somehow involved in the effort. Further, that other operators would be recruited from Little Havana in Miami. (p. 79)

One of the chief investigators for the FBI on the Watergate case was Angelo Lano. O’Sullivan quotes Lano from a previous interview where he stated that he always thought the caper was a set-up. He noted that the neat arrangement of the evidence the burglars left behind at the hotel felt planted—”everything was arranged like somebody knew it was gonna happen.” And Lano could not ignore the tape:

You’ve got a guy who’s expert in key entry, burglary [Virgilio Gonzalez]. Why did they have to put the tape back on? You put the tape on one door; it wasn’t necessary to put it on six doors. There’s always been a question in my mind [about] the response of the police department—2:30 in the morning—the placement of the items in the hotel room, the tape. To this day I still think that one of those guys tipped off the police department and it was either Hunt or McCord. (O’Sullivan, pp. 404-5)

In 2012, Max Holland published a book about Watergate called Leak. It largely focused on the FBI inquiry. Predictably, he could not find enough space to include Lano’s insightful quote.

As more than one person said later, James McCord was not just a technician. He was an operator. But it’s something he tried to conceal. For instance, after he moved to Pennsylvania, a reader of this site got in contact with him. He asked him about his service with David Phillips and their campaign against the FPCC. McCord said he was not a part of that; it was the FBI’s function. Since the ARRB had released those documents, I said he should question him again with the papers in hand.

But beyond that, when Lisa Pease and I were publishing Probe magazine in the nineties, we met up with former CIA pilot Carl McNabb. He said that prior to the Bay of Pigs, he had been briefed at the Miami CIA station, since he was part of the aerial facet. He noticed that McCord was in the room and he was struck by how taciturn he was. Afterward, he asked the briefer who he was. He told him his name. He then added that he was Helms’ Zap Man. McNabb later showed me the very old notes with this information recorded on it. I asked him what the term meant. He replied McCord was his liquidator.

Which may tie in with a quite interesting piece of information in O’Sullivan’s book. Alfred Baldwin was a former FBI agent who was recruited by McCord for the Watergate operation. He was supposed to make a log of the surveillance coming out of the Democratic National Committee. O’Sullivan found out through James Rosen that McCord told Baldwin he was in Dallas on the day of the Kennedy assassination. (O’Sullivan, p. 405) If this is true, and I am not saying it is, then it makes a quite intriguing list of CIA associated personages in that city either on the day Kennedy was killed, or a few weeks prior:

  1. Allen Dulles (James Srodes, Allen Dulles: Master of Spies, pp. 554-66)
  2. William Harvey (David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard, p. 477)
  3. David Phillips (Dick Russell, The Man Who Knew too Much, 2003 edition, p. 272)
  4. Howard Hunt (Mark Lane, Plausible Denial, p. 152)
  5. James McCord (Shane O’Sullivan, Dirty Tricks, p. 405)
  6. Sergio Arcacha Smith (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, second edition, p. 329)
  7. Bernardo DeTorres (Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation, p. 238)

What makes the list rather striking, as I have arranged it, is that it goes from the top of the hierarchy, through the middle, down to the lower ranks, men who would act as foot-soldiers or mechanics. Does the above explain why the McCord family wished to keep the death of James McCord so quiet?

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