“The one duty we owe to history,” said Oscar Wilde, “is to rewrite it.” By this admirable standard, no non-fiction writer of the 20th century fulfilled his duty to history – to the record of our times – more fully, more brilliantly, than Jim Hougan.
When Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA was first published by Random House in November 1984 – more than a decade after the resignation and pardon of Richard Nixon – it presented such a large volume of new and revelatory information about a subject so widely considered exhausted that the book was greeted with the staggered astonishment typically reserved for apparitions.
“If even half of this is true,” wrote J. Anthony Lukas in the New York Times Book Review, “Secret Agenda will add an important new dimension to our understanding of Watergate.” Lukas’ was an important voice. A Pulitzer Prize-winner, he had covered Watergate for the New York Times Magazine and wrote Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years in 1976. This critically acclaimed book was the first comprehensive account of Watergate. “But,” Lukas added, “it may be months before reporters can sort through this material, check Mr. Hougan’s sources and decide which of these revelations is solid gold, which dross.”
Now, 40 years after Secret Agenda appeared, the verdict is in. While some of Hougan’s analytic conclusions have come under challenge – including by me, an avowed acolyte of the author – the wealth of new facts and documentation he presented has stood the test of time. Where once it seemed impossible to reckon with the contribution Secret Agenda made to Watergate, it is now impossible to reckon with Watergate, even after the release of thousands more tapes and documents, without reference to Hougan.
Introducing his findings, Hougan described Secret Agenda as “an attempt to correct the record … and to suggest avenues of further investigation.” Several authors over the ensuing decades, including me, took him up on that challenge, and a couple of epic lawsuits unfolded, with the result that the book’s central thrusts were only strengthened.
Reckoning with Secret Agenda is hardly an academic matter. If Hougan and the other Watergate revisionists are correct, then the scandal that toppled Richard Nixon from power was about much more than a third-rate burglary attempt, the wiretapping of the opposing party, or even a series of covert crimes ordered by a paranoid president. Secret Agenda and its progeny force us, instead, to conceive of Watergate as a Cold War-era power struggle between a duly elected president and the national security state, with Nixon as much a victim in the affair as he was a perpetrator. In a time when legions of Americans believe in the existence of a “deep state,” getting the history of Watergate right takes on new urgency.
Unmasking the Conspirators
Hougan’s opening chapter, “Of Hunt and McCord,” marked the first in-depth examination of E. Howard Hunt and James McCord and their pre-Watergate histories. Hougan advanced the unheard-of idea that the two men had known each other long before G. Gordon Liddy, the ostensible ringleader of the Watergate operation, “introduced” them in April 1972.
To support this claim, Hougan cited previously unpublished interviews, by the FBI and himself, with two credible witnesses. The first was Miriam Furbershaw, a retired intelligence officer who told federal investigators she had rented a Chevy Chase apartment to the married McCord, and identified Hunt as one of his visitors, “two or three years before” the Watergate arrests – and that McCord had outfitted the apartment with “bugging equipment.”
The second was Enrique Ruiz-Williams, a Cuban geologist and Bay of Pigs veteran. In 1963, Ruiz-Williams had helped the Kennedy administration resettle and retrain anti-Castro soldiers captured during the abortive invasion and deported to the United States. Hougan wrote:
According to Ruiz-Williams, Hunt and McCord were his handlers during the time that he worked as a contract CIA agent with the Second Naval Guerilla operation [a Kennedy-era program targeting the Castro regime]. Hunt was Ruiz-Williams’s liaison to CIA headquarters, while McCord performed the same function with respect to the [Bay of Pigs] veterans at Fort Jackson. “I was confused,” the Cuban recalls, “[because] both of them said to call [them] Don Eduardo. Both Hunt and McCord.” There were, Ruiz-Williams told his interviewers, “dozens of meetings and countless telephone discussions” between himself and the two CIA men.…
These accounts held far-reaching implications. If Hunt and McCord worked with each other in the post-Bay of Pigs period, one ready inference is that Gordon Liddy was a dupe in the DNC mission he was ostensibly managing. Moreover, if the Hunt-McCord alliance predated the break-in, our understanding of how Watergate fit into the Nixon presidency would require substantial revision – as Secret Agenda maintained. Hougan highlighted the fact that Hunt and McCord had used the same alias with Ruiz-Williams: a lapse of protocol the two co-conspirators repeated, but which was not widely reported, a decade later in Watergate.
So was Ruiz-Williams correct – had James McCord played some role in the CIA’s resettlement of the Bay of Pigs exiles? In 2002, during my research for The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, I secured from the Library of Congress the release of 5,000 pages of executive-session testimony taken by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of 1972, better known as the Senate Watergate committee. These were depositions taken by committee counsel in closed-door session in advance of the witnesses’ testimony before the full committee. The depositions revealed how McCord, Jeb Magruder, and other witnesses were frequently coached to change their testimony, to be made more incriminating to Nixon and his top aides, between the dry run of executive session and the televised hearings. These documents also included testimony from figures never summoned to the Senate Caucus Room for public testimony.
Among this latter group was Felipe De Diego, the Cuban operative who participated in the September 1971 break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and in the first Watergate break-in, in May 1972. Space constraints prevented the inclusion of De Diego’s unsealed testimony in The Strong Man; the contents of his deposition are published here for the first time.
Questioned by Senate lawyers R. Phillip Haire and Jim Hershman in June 1973, De Diego was asked if he had ever met James McCord prior to 1972. “Yes, sir,” the witness answered. “Let me explain to you how it was.”
De DIEGO: I did not tell [McCord] anything about it. And this is the first time I am going to tell anyone about this. A long time ago, McCord, working for the CIA, did work with a group of Cubans down in Florida. So I saw him at that time. And I did not talk to him, but I recognized his face when I first saw him here in Washington. But I did not tell him anything about that first day. It was a long time ago down in Florida. And he [had used] another name, of course, for the CIA, [with] another group of Cubans down in the Keys.
HAIRE: How long ago was that prior to the date you saw him over at the Watergate?
De DIEGO: [I]t was probably in 1962, right after the Bay of Pigs invasion.
HERSHMAN: What group of Cubans was he working with?
De DIEGO: The infiltration group … It was a group of Cubans working for the CIA … I would rather not involve these people.
Still more evidence emerged in CIA documents released in November 2017, in one of the final rounds of declassification mandated under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. The long-suppressed “JFK Files,” as the news media dubbed them, included several hundred pages from Howard Hunt’s CIA personnel file, all previously unreported until now.
In July 1969, the records revealed, nine months before Hunt officially retired from the CIA, he was reprimanded by superiors for an “Open Safe security violation” that occurred earlier that month – his second such offense in less than a year.
“I am sure you are aware of the seriousness of this matter,” Hunt was told, along with being “warned of possible consequences of future violations.”
It was the CIA’s Office of Security – specifically the office’s Physical Security Division – that conducted the internal investigation into Hunt’s security breach. Hunt, his secretary, and the security officer who discovered the open safe were all interviewed, generating a flurry of notes, reports, forwarding documents, and stamped routing slips. On July 25, Hunt’s supervisor, one of the highest-ranking CIA officers in Europe, received a stern summary of the episode, and a demand to be apprised of any disciplinary action enforced, from the chief of the Physical Security Division: James W. McCord Jr.
No disciplinary action was taken. But a few months after the open-safe incident, the Hunt personnel records revealed, the agency’s leaders had new reason to be concerned about his compliance with security procedure. In January 1970 they received a tip that two years earlier, Hunt – under the pseudonym “Edward J. Hamilton,” an alias almost identical to one he later employed in Watergate – had circulated, without agency clearance, a manuscript about his Bay of Pigs experiences. The recipients included conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., a close friend to Hunt and godfather to his children, and two publishers: Arlington House and John Wiley & Sons.
The matter was seen as a violation of the secrecy oaths Hunt had periodically been made to sign, as a clandestine officer, and was brought to the attention of CIA Director Richard Helms. When confronted, Hunt initially denied any knowledge of such a manuscript. But when his interlocutors reminded him of the title – Give Us This Day, the very book Hunt would publish with Arlington House in 1973 under his own name, following his imprisonment in Watergate – the spook’s memory suddenly recovered; now he insisted the project was only meant as a historical account, to be published in 15 or 20 years, circulated to WFB and the publishers for constructive criticism.
Unconvinced, Helms and his senior officers launched another internal investigation that winter. A CIA document, dated Feb. 17, 1970, and kept sealed for nearly five decades, stated:
Mr. Gaynor [head of CIA’s Office of Security] discussed his meeting with T.K. [Thomas Karamessines, deputy director of plans] and subject [Hunt]. Jim McCord to meet Wiley today and will find out more details of how Wiley and the Ms. [manuscript] came together.
The JFK files, then, established that in the two years prior to Watergate, James McCord had not only known Howard Hunt but had investigated him twice.
Last, but not least, was my eight-hour interview with Alfred C. Baldwin III, the ex-FBI agent hired by McCord to monitor the wiretaps installed in the Democratic National Committee offices at Watergate. After plainclothes police arrested the burglars on the morning of June 17, 1972, it was Hunt who scrambled over to the surveillance post, Room 723 in the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge across the street from the DNC offices, to instruct the panicked Baldwin to clear the scene.
Baldwin had observed these men, Hunt and McCord, closely – and our marathon interview, conducted at Baldwin’s home near East Haven, Connecticut on Sept. 9, 1995, marked his longest and most in-depth with any interrogator since 1972. “They were not strangers,” he told me. “They knew each other prior to this whole operation in May and June. You could see the way McCord would look at Hunt, or Hunt would look at McCord, that they knew each other.”
CIA Target: The Plumbers
This multiple-source confirmation of Jim Hougan’s critically important conclusion about an existing relationship between Hunt and McCord, building on the impressive documentation the author himself had uncovered, represents only one area in which the ground-breaking research in Secret Agenda has been shown to be “solid gold” and not “dross.” The fact is that virtually all of Hougan’s most important work was substantiated by the investigations, official and journalistic, that followed his groundbreaking book.
No credible historian now questions that both Hunt and McCord – though each officially retired from the CIA when they joined the Nixon White House and Committee to Re-elect the President, respectively – maintained direct contact with the agency’s senior echelons, in ways that called their allegiances, and agendas, into question. Consequently, the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in Watergate is now widely understood as deeper – more entrenched, controlling, and malign – than was known in 1974.
Likewise, it now stands beyond dispute, as Hougan was first to assert, that the Ellsberg break-in was not a failure but instead resulted in the location and photography of the files sought – and, as Hougan reported, the diversion of the undeveloped film from the hands of the Plumbers to CIA headquarters.
It was to the agency that Hunt had turned for much of the technical support he and Liddy required: electronic gadgetry, aliases, disguises, the preparation of “pocket litter” and charts. For the break-in at the Los Angeles office of Dr. Lewis J. Fielding, it can now be reported, Langley provided Hunt with a camera designed to deprive the Nixon White House of access to the intelligence.
“The camera was constructed in such a way that it was pre-loaded by CIA technicians,” Hunt disclosed in executive-session testimony on June 12, 1973, previously unpublished. “We had no way of entering it to take out a cassette of film. The entire object had to be returned to the CIA. We never saw it again.”
Subsequent scholarship has similarly affirmed the focus Secret Agenda placed on the theretofore-overlooked role of Eugenio Rolando Martinez: the most mysterious of the Cubans recruited by Hunt. As Hougan was the first to disclose, the sinewy Bay of Pigs veteran, nicknamed “Muscolito,” was the one member of the Liddy-Hunt-McCord team actively on the CIA payroll at the time of the DNC operation. Among the documentary treasures of Secret Agenda was the rich record of interactions between Martinez and his CIA case officers.
Hougan also broke new ground in reporting that during the Watergate arrests, the Metropolitan Police had wrestled from Martinez’s possession – at gunpoint, and after a scuffle – a key taped to a small spiral notebook. The FBI swiftly matched this key to the desk of DNC secretary Ida “Maxie” Wells. In the spring of 1972, she was the secretary to an obscure DNC official named R. Spencer Oliver Jr., the executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. In a fact often overlooked in Watergate studies, the telephone used by Oliver and Wells was the installation site of the lone working wiretap monitored by McCord and Baldwin across the three-week lifespan of the DNC surveillance operation. That central fact made the Oliver-Wells line the true target of the Watergate operation.
Eugenio Martinez never disclosed how, or from whom, he obtained the key to Maxie Wells’ desk. As Hougan reported, the FBI also determined that the only two known copies of the key, held by Wells and a fellow secretary, Barbara Kennedy, were produced by the women when investigating agents asked to see them. This remains one of several Watergate mysteries for the next generation of scholars to pursue.
However, a lengthy CIA document declassified in August 2017 – released in response to litigation filed by Judicial Watch, the conservative legal advocacy group, and first reported by me – demonstrated how determined the agency was to conceal Martinez’s work as a CIA informant during his service to Hunt and Liddy.
A draft “working paper” entitled “CIA Watergate History,” a 155-page internal review of agency involvement in the scandal written by John C. Richards of the Office of Inspector General, recounted how lawyers for the Watergate Special Prosecution Force learned of the clandestine relationship and requested access to Martinez’s personnel file. Specifically, the prosecutors demanded “a copy of COS/Miami’s Rybat report,” an agency cryptogram referring to a sensitive document prepared by the chief of station in Miami, and “a copy of Martinez’s roundup of his discussions with Hunt on April 5, 1972.” At a tense meeting between CIA General Counsel John S. Warner and WSPF staff attorneys Nick Akerman and Gerald Goldman, held on Oct. 12, 1973, the agency, according to the inspector general’s report, refused to turn over the materials to the prosecutors:
Warner explained why such a request was difficult for the Agency – the breaching of trust of an agent. Warner stated that under no circumstances would the Agency give up all records relating to the Agency’s relationship with Martinez … and would resist to the utmost compliance with a subpoena.
The extreme sensitivity of the CIA’s employment of Martinez was reflected in still another previously unpublished document, generated at the Department of State. In December 1973, Richard Helms, who was by then serving as U.S. ambassador to Iran, sent his former colleagues at the CIA a classified cable from Tehran, relating an anecdote that had occurred five days earlier, on Nov. 28.
On that date, Helms had met with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In their meeting, Kissinger related that Alexander Haig – Kissinger’s former deputy at the National Security Council, by then serving as Nixon’s final chief of staff – had made what Kissinger considered a shocking proposal: Sen. Howard Baker, ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee, should be enlisted to charge publicly that “the Agency knew about the Watergate burglary 30 minutes before it occurred.”
Kissinger assured Ambassador Helms he had poured cold water on the idea, purportedly telling Haig: “To do this would be wildly irresponsible.” On Dec. 3, Helms cabled Langley to express his own alarm, adding that it was unclear to him whether Haig “would have been basing his allegation on information from Martinez or just what” (emphasis added).
These revelations – that CIA officials considered Eugenio Martinez “an agent” during his work for the Plumbers; that Langley was prepared to fight to the death to withhold the reports Martinez filed, and those of his case officers, even from the hands of the Watergate special prosecutors; and that no less a figure than Richard Helms immediately thought of Martinez when the subject turned to possible CIA foreknowledge of the break-in – only substantiated the evidence and conclusions that Secret Agenda had presented about “Muscolito,” the agency he served, and the broader and deeper dimensions of Watergate.
The journalistic triumphs of Secret Agenda belonged to only a few distinct categories. First, and most obvious, was the author’s success in obtaining documents that had somehow eluded the armies of investigators that preceded him to the subject. This was highlighted in an exchange with Bryant Gumbel of NBC News during the author’s appearance on the “Today” show to promote Secret Agenda, on Nov. 11, 1984:
GUMBEL: Why do you think that with so many people who have rooted about Watergate’s origins in the past, only you have come up with – with what really happened?
HOUGAN: Well, I know why: I had access under the Freedom of Information Act to some 10,000 pages of FBI documents that have been kept secret for more than a decade.
Here, Hougan was inexplicably modest; in fact, his contemporaneous correspondence with the FBI recorded that in visits to the FBI Reading Room in 1978 and 1980, the author and his intrepid researchers, Robert Fink and Jeffrey Goldberg, reviewed over 30,000 pages declassified in response to Hougan’s FOIA request. As the author stated accurately in the introduction to Secret Agenda: “I was the first outsider, then, to get an inside look at the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”
All subsequent scholars have readily acknowledged that Hougan’s use of FOIA – probably the most skillful and historically significant of any researcher since the enactment of the law in 1966 – enabled Secret Agenda to present the most detailed account of the Watergate break-ins and surveillance operation ever published. Even Stanley Kutler, the dogged anti-Nixon historian at the University of Wisconsin (Hougan’s alma mater) who spent the last quarter-century of his life inveighing against the Watergate revisionism Secret Agenda had pioneered, conceded in 1990: “Hougan has established the most thorough reconstruction of the crime.”
As the Washington editor for Harper’s, where his articles appeared alongside the work of Tom Wolfe, Seymour Hersh, Norman Mailer, and other major journalistic and literary figures, Hougan was a savvy reporter who knew that where close examination of the DNC operation was concerned, he had the playing field pretty much to himself: The final report of the Senate Watergate committee, for example, some 1,250 pages long, had devoted only four pages to the DNC mission.
This was in part because the panel’s chief counsel, Sam Dash – an avowed antagonist of the Nixon administration who had been filing activist lawsuits against Attorney General John Mitchell, a key witness before the committee, even before the break-in – was only given a few hours to review the FBI’s investigative file. The bureau was determined to hide its skeletons.
Moreover, as Secret Agenda noted, the Democrats and the Washington press corps harbored little interest in peering too deeply into the details of the operation, into what the burglars and wiretappers, in their repeated assaults on the DNC, were after. Rather, what mattered most to the inquisitors in the great scandal was how to exploit the political dimensions of the crime, with the ultimate objectives being the removal of the president and the incarceration of his aides. “I think we all know,” Dash said contemptuously in executive-session interrogation of Hunt in June 1973, previously unpublished, “what happened in the early morning hours of June 17.”
But did they?
A close reading of Secret Agenda today reveals how the author exhibited his gift, his genius, for documentary discovery. Hougan also obtained two entire sections of the minority report of the Senate Watergate committee that had been excised. The existence of these deleted sections had never been reported previously; nor had the many CIA records quoted therein. Hougan’s footnotes – where much of the exciting action in Secret Agenda unfolded – also boasted of having reviewed CIA documents that “remain classified.”
Hougan also gained access to the shift logs maintained by General Security Services, the firm that employed the security guards at the Watergate; to intelligence reports prepared by Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, which identified the Watergate complex as “a prime source of business” for district prostitutes; and to the executive-session testimony before the Senate provided by Maxie Wells. In terms of documentary production, no other writer on Watergate remotely approaches Hougan’s record.
Getting Them Talking
Equally impressive was Hougan’s prowess as an interviewer. This was a man who knew how to find and contact people: some famous and walled-off, others obscure, even criminal, none too eager to revisit the catastrophe of Watergate.
That Hougan persuaded so many sources to talk – a gift shared by Fink and Goldberg – was critical to the editorial achievement of Secret Agenda. And he questioned them skillfully: alternating between gentility and aggressiveness, concealing and revealing as warranted what he already knew, all in service to the greater goal of obtaining the information, or denials, sought.
Although Secret Agenda lacked a list of interviewees, references to the interviews conducted for the book, in the main text and footnotes, displayed an astonishing range: from John Mitchell and Richard Helms to policemen and prosecutors, pimps and prostitutes; from DNC secretaries and GOP Hill staffers to the born-again and down-and-out.
Among the most remarkable – and, oddly, the least remarked-upon, in all the reviews and references to Secret Agenda – was Hougan’s interview with a former Secret Service officer named William McMahon, who disclosed that the CIA had detailed employees from the Office of Security, James McCord’s employer, to the Secret Service unit that maintained the White House taping system.
This revelation carried with it the implication, as Hougan noted, that the CIA had enjoyed “unrivaled access to the president’s private conversations and thoughts” for the two years (1971-73) the taping system was operational. This is another area of Watergate scholarship ripe for new research.
It bears remarking here that Hougan’s years of toil on Secret Agenda, 1978-1984 – an outgrowth of his work on Spooks – The Haunting of America: The Private Use of Secret Agents (William Morrow, 1978), the first major exposé of corporate espionage – long preceded the advent of the Internet. Hougan collected his tens of thousands of documents in paper form and organized them for tactile use. With equal avidity, he collected the dozens of volumes of hearings and exhibits that were published by the House and Senate Watergate committees, the Nedzi and Church committees, and the Rockefeller commission. And he kept up with the growing library of memoirs published by the Watergate conspirators and prosecutors and other players. Of these, the most important was Gordon Liddy’s Will (St. Martins, 1980), which ended the author’s long silence and sharply contradicted the accounts of his co-conspirators: a road map for Hougan’s investigation.
Likewise, Hougan found his human sources the old-fashioned way: letting his fingers do the walking through telephone directories, current and outdated, in libraries and offices; shoe-leather pounding of the streets of Washington; working existing contacts to introduce him to new ones. Documents alone, after all, do not a book, nor a thesis, make. As author Walter Isaacson once said, “memories plus memoranda” are the necessary ingredients for a great work of non-fiction, and Hougan had both in abundance.
To these strengths must be added Hougan’s literary ability. Secret Agenda read like no other book about Watergate. Its narrative of the scandal unspooled like a spy novel: with flair, wit, alternating shifts in point-of-view from chapter to chapter, even the odd French phrase (indeed, it was from Secret Agenda that I learned the term au courant, applied to Mrs. Furbershaw). The reader encountered Hunt, Liddy, and McCord as characters, not just proper nouns from yellowing newspaper articles.
The author’s probing style relied on keenly observed physical description and layered introduction of evidence. His serial deconstruction of the myths and lies propounded by the scandal’s many unreliable narrators was so devastating as to border on the comic. Whether exposing the secrets of Official Washington or exploring the district’s seamier precincts, whether the subject was Henry Kissinger and the Joint Chiefs or Cathy Dieter and the vice squad, the Hougan spell transfixed.
His refined prose – discernibly superior to the pedestrian style of Woodward and Bernstein, Sy Hersh, the conspirators, or anyone else then writing about Watergate – reflected Hougan’s years of immersion in the world of Spooks. An admirer of thriller maestros Eric Ambler, Frederick Forsyth, and, yes, John le Carré, Hougan treated Watergate for what it was: a series of break-ins and a surveillance operation, a complex and well-funded spy mission, populated by veteran and amateur spooks, that went horribly awry.
Secret Agenda treated its readers not as students in civics class but as mature adults, sophisticated consumers of information capable of moving beyond the elemental question of whether wiretapping the Democratic National Committee was right or wrong to consideration of why the tradecraft employed, despite the presence of so many highly-experienced operators, was so poor, so consistently – to the point of being suspicious in its own right.
Hougan also recognized, and reminded his readers, that the entire cast of Watergate was staffed with liars – asserted, proven, convicted – and that making sense of the conflicts between their accounts, sometimes within their accounts, occasionally required the author to engage in deduction or informed speculation, or to acknowledge that “some issues of importance to the scandal cannot be resolved”: the arrival, as he put it, at a cul-de-sac.
“As to what happened next,” Hougan wrote at one point, sounding a lot like the bestselling spy novelist he later became, “there is massive confusion, the sort of confusion that occurs when people have reason to lie but have not had time to get their stories straight.”
Challenging the Mythos
What ultimately made Hougan Hougan, though, what enabled him, more than anything else, to make his singular contribution to American history, was a personal attribute, present in all great reporters: fearlessness. In sufficient measure, it gives rise to honesty.
Secret Agenda did not become a bestseller: Most Americans, including some journalists who think they know the Watergate story, have never heard of it. The book had some deficiencies. The publisher’s marketing efforts were desultory; the book lacked blurbs; and the cover art was uninspired. But I am convinced the real problem was the author’s fearless calling out of those powerful establishment forces whose fortunes and reputations rested on the history of Watergate remaining unchanged.
The appearance of Secret Agenda marked a David-and-Goliath moment: the lone researcher, accomplished and well credentialed but clearly not a member of the Beltway club, taking on all of established journalism. Hougan’s was a quixotic quest, a decade after the fact, to correct the record of the greatest, most voluminous exercise of political power, the criminal justice system, and news media influence yet witnessed in the Information Age.
That he had the evidence on his side – tens of thousands of pages of irrefutable evidence – ultimately, and sadly, mattered little at the time. The cherished narrative Hougan proposed to upend belonged not to just any public event but to the quintessential public event: a saturation-coverage mythos embedded as deeply in the Western cultural imagination as the Civil War or the Beatles. And the lesson Hougan challenged most directly was the central one, the scandal’s supposed saving grace: The system worked.
“So many elements of the Watergate story have been repeated so often,” he wrote in Secret Agenda, “that they are taken on faith by the public, which has the impression that every aspect of the affair was thoroughly investigated. That impression is entirely mistaken.”
Virtually no investigation was made of the attempted break-ins [at the DNC] over the Memorial Day weekend. Neither was the June 17 break-in much investigated because, after all, the burglars were caught red-handed.… Nixon’s enemies wished to make a morality play of the affair. Necessarily this entailed a simple story with the president at its center. Close scrutiny of the burglars (and of the burglaries themselves) was to be avoided because such scrutiny raised questions about their loyalty to President Nixon. This, in turn, obscured the issue of presidential guilt and, in doing so, threatened Nixon’s ouster. In a sense, therefore, the Democrats and the press were as much opponents of a full investigation of the Watergate affair as was the White House itself.… The scandal was a potential embarrassment to both parties.
This was heretical stuff in 1984. No wonder Bob Woodward privately enlisted Sy Hersh to contact the editor of Secret Agenda, ahead of publication, and convey the skepticism the Watergate legend harbored about Hougan’s reliability.
“What Woodward did was totally scurrilous,” Hougan told reporter Robert Gettlin in May 1985. “He was trying to sabotage the project before he’d read it.” Elsewhere, Woodward claimed Hougan never contacted him, despite the fact that Hougan’s interview of Woodward, testy when challenged, made for one of the book’s most memorable passages.
Secret Agenda thus marked the first, but hardly the last, piercing of the Watergate armor of Woodward and the Washington Post. Most recent, and devastating, was Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee (2012), by Jeff Himmelman. A former Woodward researcher, Himmelman exposed numerous instances where All the President’s Men misled its readers and uncovered earlier remarks in which Bradlee, the legendary Post editor, stated of Woodward’s fabled rendezvous with Deep Throat: “One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings [there were] in the garage.… There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”
It took an outsider to offer the paper’s only clear-eyed assessment of Secret Agenda. In his review of the book for the Post, Anthony Marro, managing editor of Newsday, presented numerous criticisms while conceding: “What [Hougan] offers up is not so much a totally revisionist history as a history with a significant new dimension and perspective.”
Hougan has attacked the official record of Watergate with persistence and considerable skill, pointing up scores of questions, flaws, contradictions and holes.… He has added an enormous amount of raw data and information to the record, and his book should lead to a reexamination and reassessment of important parts of the story.
Central to Hougan’s challenge to the Established Order were the two discoveries that represented, amid all the incredible sleuthing he accomplished, his twin masterstrokes: the evidence that the Democratic National Committee in the spring of 1972 was, like the Nixon White House and the Committee to Re-elect the President, engaged in criminal conduct.
It took courage for Hougan to declare nothing less than that all the armies of investigators had missed the heart of the Watergate scandal – that Woodward and Bernstein and the rest of the national news media had gotten it wrong. Nowhere in the official Woodward and Bernstein canon – All the President’s Men (1974), The Final Days (1976), and The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat (2005) – do the names Spencer Oliver or Maxie Wells even appear. The key Eugenio Martinez struggled to conceal was, as Secret Agenda put it, “quite literally the key to the break-in”: its presence on “Muscolito” pointed to the critical role played by the CIA in the operation and to the mission’s true target.
No less startling was Hougan’s unveiling of the official correspondence between Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert and the FBI laboratory. With painstaking methodology, the bureau’s lab technicians presented unassailable evidence to buttress their conclusion that the Democrats themselves had planted the crude and inoperative bugging device they “discovered” on Oliver’s telephone, and announced to the press, in September 1972 – three months after the arrests.
“No one seems to have asked the obvious,” Hougan wrote at a separate point in Secret Agenda – yet nowhere else in the Watergate saga was this observation more apt than with respect to the September Bug. Here were the top officials of the Democratic National Committee, in an election year, announcing their discovery of a bugging device in their headquarters three months after the bugging suspects had been arrested on the premises, and after the FBI had made three exhaustive sweeps of the DNC telephones and found no devices installed.
That this planting of evidence, this obstruction of justice, didn’t blow the Watergate scandal wide open, didn’t trigger the dismissal of the charges against the burglars, Hunt and Liddy, was only because federal prosecutors wrongly withheld the September Bug correspondence – exculpatory evidence in any bugging case – from the defendants’ attorneys.
Not until Hougan published the FBI files in Secret Agenda did the news media offer anything like a critical eye on the September Bug. On Nov. 6, 1984, the week the book was published, the New York Times carried an article about Hougan’s archival discovery by reporter Philip Taubman:
’72 DATA SHOW F.B.I. QUESTIONED IF BURGLARS BUGGED THE WATERGATE
Two events subsequent to the publication of Secret Agenda forced a re-examination of the issues Hougan had raised.
The first was the publication by St. Martin’s Press, in 1991, of the book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. A kind of successor to Secret Agenda, this book was treated to some of the same suppression tactics by the self-appointed guardians of the publishing industry. Nonetheless, Silent Coup became a bestseller.
The main text alternated between two areas of avowed revisionism: the Watergate break-ins and cover-up; and the military spying of the Moorer-Radford affair. (This latter scandal disappeared from public view amid the daily revelations of Watergate; but it was appalling in its own right. It concerned Yeoman Charles Radford, a Navy-trained stenographer and courier, who was detailed to Henry Kissinger’s NSC staff and was later found to have passed some 5,000 classified documents up the chain of command to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Thomas Moorer.)
Over seven years of research, the authors of Silent Coup conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with key players and secured access to several important, previously unpublished documents. Where Secret Agenda had established a link between the Columbia Plaza call-girl ring and the Democratic National Committee, Silent Coup went a step further and asserted a link between Columbia Plaza and White House Counsel John Dean, a central figure in Watergate. The book alleged that the name Maureen Biner, Dean’s girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife, appeared in the Columbia Plaza “trick books.” In 1984, Hougan had been the first to report John Dean’s interest when news of the call-girl ring hit the newspapers on June 9, 1972, shortly before the final Watergate break-in. As Secret Agenda revealed, Dean summoned the federal prosecutors in the case to his office and instructed them to bring all the evidence with them to the White House. There Dean circled names in the trick books with a Parker pen.
Silent Coup alleged that Dean’s observation of his own girlfriend’s name in those pages gave the impetus to the second, doomed Watergate break-in of June 16-17.
Silent Coup established that the ring’s madam, Heidi Rikan – referred to in Secret Agenda as “Tess,” a pseudonym created by Hougan – was in fact Mo Dean’s close friend and occasional roommate. A photograph of Rikan appeared in the photographs section of Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate (1975); in 1967, the same woman appeared arm-in-arm in a photograph with Joseph Nesline, one of Washington’s top organized crime figures. The federal prosecutor who investigated Columbia Plaza identified Rikan as the ring’s madam. On the basis of this and much other evidence, including arrest records, Colodny and Gettlin made what many considered a persuasive case: that John Dean ordered the first Watergate break-in to exploit his knowledge of the DNC-Columbia Plaza nexus, and then ordered the second break-in, after the existence of the Columbia Plaza ring was publicly reported, to conceal his girlfriend’s connection to it.
Hougan spoke well of Silent Coup. When Hays Gorey of Time magazine, the coauthor of Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate, contacted Hougan to denounce the Colodny-Gettlin book as “garbage,” Hougan spent three days reading Silent Coup before responding on July 22, 1991:
I think it’s a good book. Colodney [sic] and Gettlin … have added considerably to our knowledge of the Watergate affair.… We may wonder, of course, why John Dean was so concerned about a Washington call-girl operation being run by his fiancee’s best friend … I think it’s time for the press to begin asking the Deans some hard questions… As Mo’s biographer, it is understandable that you should be upset at your subject’s having concealed what was obviously a very interesting (and politically significant) chapter in her life. To attack Silent Coup for shedding light upon that chapter, though, would be nothing more than an exercise in bad faith.
When Gorey faxed in a scathing reply, denouncing Hougan as a “conspiracy theorist,” the latter responded again on July 24:
I’m astonished by the vituperative tone of your fax—what’s your problem, dude? And what’s this bit about my being a “conspiracy theorist”? Is it your position that Watergate was something other than a conspiracy, perhaps the work of a “lone-burglar”? I don’t like to be the one to break the news, Hays, but conspiracy is precisely the crime for which McCord and the others were indicted.
John and Maureen Dean have always strenuously denied involvement in prostitution activity. Their determination to discredit the Watergate revisionism of the 1980s and 1990s created the second major event in the post-publication life of Secret Agenda.
The Courts Weigh In
In 1992, the Deans filed a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against Jim Hougan, Gordon Liddy, the authors of Silent Coup, and various publishing companies. Hougan was swiftly dropped as a defendant. But the epic struggle that ensued between the Deans on one side, and Liddy and Colodny on the other, would be to Watergate what M*A*S*H was to the Korean War: the chronicle of an event that lasts three times as long as the event itself. As a result, the Watergate scandal – a phenomenon of the early 1970s, the era of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers – became the subject of testimony and court rulings in the 21st century, with surviving figures tracked down and returned to the witness stand.
Dean v. St. Martin’s Press never went to trial but was settled out of court after a decade of discovery. Not one word of Silent Coup was retracted. On the other hand, across eight days of grinding deposition testimony in 1995, John Dean disavowed his own Watergate memoir, Blind Ambition (1976), as an unreliable account, woven in part from “whole cloth.” The case also produced sworn testimony linking Maureen Biner to the Columbia Plaza ring, despite her denials.
Midway through those proceedings in 1997, Maxie Wells, the former DNC secretary – using the same attorney as Dean, a former staff lawyer on the Senate Watergate committee – filed a $5.1 million defamation suit against Liddy for a series of speeches in the mid-1990s in which he endorsed the thesis of Silent Coup and linked Wells to the DNC prostitution activity she denied knowing anything about. (Likewise, Spencer Oliver has always maintained he knew nothing about any prostitution activity.)
Wells v. Liddy went to trial in federal court in Baltimore not once but twice in 2001-02. Among those placed under oath were Liddy himself – who had never testified during the hearings and trials of the early 1970s – Oliver and Wells, Alfred Baldwin, Jim Hougan (on whose work Liddy claimed to have relied when making the contested statements), and me (the only reporter ever to have interviewed Wells at length).
In April 1998, J. Frederick Motz, chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, dismissed Wells’ lawsuit on summary judgment, ruling that no “reasonable jury” would find in her favor. Drawing on Watergate evidence produced by Liddy’s defense team and citing entries from the revisionist literature – including Secret Agenda, Silent Coup, and my own work in National Review – Judge Motz found “sufficient pieces of evidence … that can arguably be viewed as corroborating … that Wells provided a connection for [the Columbia Plaza ring] at the DNC.”
Wells appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned Motz’s dismissal and remanded the case for trial. In doing so, the higher court improved Wells’ odds considerably by declaring that she was not a public figure. This meant that to prevail in establishing that Liddy had defamed her, Wells had only to prove that Liddy had acted negligently, not with actual “malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth, the higher standard established by the Supreme Court that public figures must meet when proving defamation.
The trial was held in January 2001. After two weeks of testimony and eight hours of deliberation, the jury notified Motz it could not arrive at a verdict; noting that seven of nine jurors polled for Liddy, Motz dismissed the case a second time, as a matter of law. He found “a reasonable person … would think that one of the purposes [of the Watergate operation] was to get embarrassing sexual information about the Democrats.” Finally, Motz’s ruling remarked on the credibility, as writer and witness, of Jim Hougan: “His testimony dispelled any inference that he is a fanatical conspiracy theorist … A former Washington editor for Harper’s, Hougan brought to his study of Watergate a perspective” the judge found valuable.
Wells appealed to the Fourth Circuit again, and once again, in February 2002, the case was remanded back to Maryland for a second trial. This time, however, the opinion of the higher court included a statement of huge significance for the history of Watergate: Reeling off a litany of data points critical to the case – including Eugenio Martinez’s possession of the key to Wells’ desk, Hougan’s legacy – the Fourth Circuit found “this evidence tends to corroborate the call-girl theory generally.” Here was an extraordinary moment: a rare stamp of approval on Watergate revisionism from one of the nation’s federal appellate courts, one rung below the Supreme Court. And here, too, the bench took note of Hougan, “a well-known author.”
Wells v. Liddy II was held in the courtroom of Frederic N. Smalkin, the successor to Motz as Maryland’s chief district judge. On July 3, 2002, the jury found in Liddy’s favor. The re-litigation of Watergate – a remarkable court test of academic debate over the quintessential public event, powered by compulsory document production and sworn testimony from the surviving players – was finally over. The revisionists had prevailed: The texts of Secret Agenda and Silent Coup stood unchanged.
Moreover, the bulk of the evidence generated in this final burst of Watergate court activity proved highly damaging to the Deans, Oliver and Wells, and the DNC. John F. Rudy II, the former federal prosecutor who had tackled the Columbia Plaza ring, and who was one of the government lawyers summoned to Dean’s office on June 9, 1972, delivered a bombshell. Rudy testified that his team had developed credible evidence showing that “employees [at the DNC] were assisting in getting the Democrats connected with the prostitutes at the Columbia Plaza.” But, he added, the probe was “shut down” in the summer of 1972 by the district’s U.S. attorney, the late Harold Titus, who felt “the DNC should not be pursued, that it was a political time bomb.”
Alfred Baldwin testified that eight out of 10 lay people, if exposed to the same conversations he had monitored at the DNC, “would have said, ‘That’s a call-girl ring. This is a prostitution ring.’”
And in Wells v. Liddy I, it was the plaintiff herself who, under direct examination, answered questions that her attorney, David Dorsen, hadn’t posed, but which were central to the litigation, to the history of Watergate:
What was in Wells’ desk that might have interested the burglars? And why did Eugenio Martinez, the CIA’s “agent” on the break-in team, carry a key to her desk?
The specific question Dorsen posed to Wells was whether she had grown “concerned” when she learned, in the summer of 1972, that the grand jury investigating the Watergate break-in intended to issue a subpoena for her testimony. “I didn’t know enough to be concerned,” Wells replied at first, consistent with her claims of innocence. But, she continued,
Spencer [Oliver] called me at one point and said that – pointed out that Republican prosecutors were doing the prosecuting and he had somehow gotten wind of the fact that the Republican prosecutor was going to try to dig up, you know, moral dirt, immoral dirt, on the Democrats to embarrass them.
And that if, you know, they had all this [sic] sensational headlines about the Democratic Committee, that it would, you know, that the dirt that had been covered there through the phone books and you know, I guess anything they got at the burglary. I didn’t know about the documents and stuff they got at the burglary. But Spencer’s idea was that the Republican prosecutor was going to really put that all over the papers and embarrass the Democrats and take the heat off the White House.
Appearing 122 pages into the 5,000-page trial transcript of Wells v. Liddy I, this stunning moment marked the proceedings’ first mention of “phone books.” The instant the words escaped Wells’ lips, she went into damage-control mode, blurring the nature of the materials the burglars might have obtained in the break-in. Within a few seconds she went from speaking, unsolicited, about “the dirt that had been covered through the phone books” to “anything they got” to random “documents and stuff”; finally she pleaded she “didn’t know” what the burglars were after and moved on.
But the damage had been done. Wells locked her desk with a key not to protect scissors, hand lotion, or personal notes but – phone books! And not just any phone books but ones that contained – as Wells put it – dirt! And that was why Eugenio Martinez, the CIA’s “agent” on the Plumbers team, possessed a copy of that key.
Wells’ mention of these dirty phone books came just after she had spoken of Republicans using the Watergate grand jury to embarrass Democrats on “moral” grounds. It was the same “crisis” Wells had cited three decades earlier, in September 1972, when she had composed a panicked handwritten letter to her friend Joann – known forever-after as “the Joann Letter,” first surfaced in the Liddy litigation – in which young Maxie had fretted about the “good scandal” the Republicans had on “moral grounds” in her case, and in which she had mysteriously assured her friend “the other records will be private.” So damning was the Joann Letter that Judge Motz, in his second dismissal of Well’s litigation, ruled that “a reasonable person, simply reading the language of that letter, could … conclude that Ms. Wells had been involved in activities … embarrassing [to] the Democratic Party.”
Hougan followed these developments closely and did not miss the significance of the outcome. “The ‘established history’ of the Watergate affair,” he later wrote about the Dean-Wells litigation, in a rare but justified exercise in triumphalism, “had suffered a grievous blow.”
Some unfinished business remained, however.
The appearance in Secret Agenda of the correspondence between Earl Silbert and the FBI laboratory – so revelatory the New York Times felt compelled to cover it as a news story before the book was even reviewed – left unresolved an outstanding, and centrally important, question:
What was the location of the wiretap that McCord and Baldwin had monitored for three weeks?
Consider: If the FBI found no bugs or taps in three successive “sweeps” of the DNC offices, conducted June 17, June 29-30, and July 5, 1972; if the lone wiretap discovered on the telephone of Spencer Oliver was retrieved under dubious circumstances, three months after the arrests, on Sept. 13; and if that wiretap, the September Bug, was subsequently assessed by FBI technicians to have been a crude, inoperative device, entirely different in manufacture from the devices seized from the burglars and most likely planted on Oliver’s phone by the Democrats themselves; then what wiretap were McCord and Baldwin monitoring?
Hougan’s answer, at once logical and fantastic, was that the surveillance emanated from the Columbia Plaza call-girl ring, which had done brisk telephonic business with the Oliver-Wells-DNC line, and would have produced the sexually-graphic content that all those familiar with the contents of the intercepted conversations testified that they heard. Hougan had moreover established that one of McCord’s employees – Lou Russell, a key figure in Secret Agenda – had been wiretapping the Columbia Plaza prostitutes, whom Russell knew, dated, and patronized.
Among the most forceful and fair criticisms of Secret Agenda at the time of publication was made by reviewers who noted that Hougan, the master of documentary evidence, had provided none on this point. His conclusion was based more on the absence of taps discovered at the DNC. Indeed, Secret Agenda specified no physical location for the tap, either at the Columbia Plaza apartment complex or elsewhere, and identified no beginning or end date to the surveillance.
For 20 years or so, this has been the subject of collegial disagreement between Hougan and me. That Baldwin was monitoring Spencer Oliver’s telephone – or one used frequently by Oliver and Wells – was confirmed by numerous contemporaneous sources. One was Sally Harmony, Liddy’s secretary who typed up the intelligence and who told the Senate she recalled seeing only “the name of Spencer Oliver and another name given as Maxie.” We can talk, the discussants were overheard to say, I’m on Spencer Oliver’s phone. DNC employees, by many accounts, knew Oliver traveled frequently and sought out his office telephone for privacy.
Finally: Alfred Baldwin, the first member of the break-in team to cooperate with authorities, positively identified Oliver’s phone. “I told them where the phones were,” he said in previously unpublished Senate testimony, taken in executive session, in November 1973. “I physically described looking out the window [of the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge] where the phones were, what offices were being used [inside the DNC].”
Revisiting these issues recently, I wrote again to my idol:
If the device were really installed on the Columbia Plaza ring (installed where? Which phone in which room in which building? The burden is on you to answer such questions), Spencer and Maxie would be expected to account for a fraction of the conversants; but from Baldwin to Sally Harmony to Magruder to Ehrlichman [heard on the Nixon tapes telling the president, in April 1973, “What they were getting was mostly this fellow Oliver phoning his girlfriends all over the country, lining up assignations”], the only names anyone ever remembered hearing/typing/seeing were: Spencer and Maxie. It is counterintuitive, when faced with the recurring prevalence of those two names in everything we know about the intercepted conversations, to imagine that some phone other than theirs was being surveilled.
The Master replied:
While I am not (officially) surrendering, I grudgingly agree that as of 11:05 a.m. on 5-24-21, you may be right about … the whereabouts of the transmitter.
This was progress. But one cul-de-sac we continue to wander, not so much lost as at a loss: If the Oliver/Wells line was indeed what Baldwin was monitoring, then why did the FBI find no wiretaps in their sweeps of the DNC? Here it is I who must acknowledge the absence of physical proof; but the only other logical answer is that the wiretap was indeed placed on Oliver’s phone and removed prior to the MPD arrests and FBI sweeps.
This, too, remains an area for future scholarship. Such research will likely train fresh scrutiny on the mysterious tour of the DNC that Baldwin secured for himself on June 12, 1972, during which he has acknowledged that he sought out Wells, and Wells has acknowledged that she left Baldwin alone, in Oliver’s office, for several minutes.
Hougan as Hero
“I read the DNC chapter while recumbent beneath a palapa, sipping piña coladas on the beach in Zihuatanejo last week,” came the Master’s email on Feb. 11, 2005. “Azure sky, temperatures in the 80s, white sails luffing beyond the surf. And now I’m home. Where it’s freezing, and I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
It was pure Hougan, gritty and cosmopolitan, keenly observed and well-traveled: the stuff, as ever, of Ambler, Forsyth, and le Carré. Following that came eight pages of line-by-line criticism of an early draft of the “DNC” chapter from The Strong Man, still three years away from publication.
Since our first meeting in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan in 1992, when I was 24, Hougan has always been there for me: an email or phone call away, armed with ready answers and an inexhaustible supply of documents anytime I had a question; with suggestions of research avenues and sources in the intelligence community I could contact, using his name; with words of encouragement and support when I needed them, professionally and otherwise. A more loyal friend has never existed.
I regret that I never met Jim Hougan’s late wife, Carolyn, nor their two children, Matt and Daisy. From their student days at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1960s to their collaboration on the bestselling spy novels they co-authored in the early 21st century under the pseudonym John Case, the Hougans shared a special love that hardly ended with Carolyn’s untimely death, from cancer, in 2007.
It will be both a historical and literary event when, as propriety demands, an enterprising doctoral student undertakes someday to write a good biography of Jim Hougan. In the hands of this ambitious scholar, Hougan will at last find himself subjected to Houganian diligence, the tracing of his life story, in memories + memoranda, to produce the definitive answer, or at least informed speculation, as to how he did it: How Jim Hougan came to write the most important book on Watergate, the quintessential public event, already the subject of hundreds of books when he embarked on the project.
What little I know about this I learned over a liquid lunch in May 2018 – convened at, yes, the Watergate: an accommodation of my fiendish fandom the Master made, ever so kindly, on more than one occasion – and it boiled down to this: He hadn’t had it easy. It made his accomplishments all the more impressive.
Hougan’s biological father, Stephen Buel Edwards, enlisted in the Army in March 1942, seven months before Jim was born. A descendant of the founder of the New York Stock Exchange, Edwards fought in the Battle of the Bulge and parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. His marriage didn’t last, however, and the ensuing string of unhappy relationships for Dolores Daly Edwards Hougan inflicted on her son, in his postwar Brooklyn childhood, a series of emotional upheavals and, curiously, name changes. In an email he sent me the day after our lunch, my companion referenced “my denominative transition from George James Edwards to James Richard Edwards and, finally, to James Richard Hougan (aka Jim Hougan and John Case).”
Maybe it was this circumstance, wedded to unrivaled journalistic brilliance, that made the author of Secret Agenda so effective, so at home, in a world of aliases?
James Rosen is the chief White House correspondent for Newsmax and the author, among other books, of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (Doubleday, 2008).