Richard Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger sounded the alarm in the early ‘70s, denouncing military analyst Daniel Ellsberg as "the most dangerous man in America”.
Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers, the explosive documents that revealed multiple US governments had deceived America about the unwinnable Vietnam War. Nixon wanted a trial-by-media before the case even landed in court: “Let’s get that son-of-a-bit** in jail,” he told Kissinger as the Oval Office tape recorders rolled.
White House staff called in the Plumbers, their in-house black ops team, so-named because they stopped intelligence ‘leaks’. The freshly appointed squad from Room 16 would soon prove to be among the most inept spies in history - not only landing in jail for the Watergate break-in but bringing down the President they’d sworn to serve. First, however, they set out to smear that son-of-a-bit** Ellsberg.
G. Gordon Liddy, an ex-FBI Agent and senior Plumber, consulted his Nazi-themed ‘dirty tricks’ wish list. E. Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer who knew a thing-or-two about break-ins, was his partner in crime. Together, they decided to steal Ellsberg’s medical file from a Beverly Hills psychiatrist's office to damage Ellsberg's heroic image. They’d need disguises and fake ID for the black bag job though, so Hunt tapped the CIA.
When spies go rogue: prepping a break-in
The FBI supplied reports that indicated Ellsberg and his first wife experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, that Ellsberg had numerous mistresses, and that his sex life could be fairly described as ‘bizarre’. The Plumbers also knew Ellsberg regularly phoned his Beverly Hills’ psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, Hunt recalled in his autobiography Undercover. The Ellsberg break-in and an operation budget were both approved.
With Liddy and Room 16 busy rifling through the FBI reports, a White House limousine driver chauffeured Howard Hunt to CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia, where he was escorted to the seventh floor via a private elevator used by the Agency’s Director and Deputy Director, General Robert Cushman.
Safely ensconced in Cushman’s office, Hunt requested two things: flash alias documentation and a physical disguise for a one-time op, ‘in and out’. In other words, Hunt wanted a disguise, a fake driving license to buy plane tickets and check into a hotel, and he wanted ‘pocket litter’ - branded hotel matches or other pocket-sized materials that backed up his fake ID. They agreed Hunt would meet a CIA officer at a safe house the next day.
Cushman recorded the entire meeting.
The Plumbers on the move
Liddy also had fake ID and wore an oversized black wig and a ‘heel-lift’ to make him limp (a device so painful, Liddy threw it away in Beverly Hills and mocked it in CIA jibes forever after.) Hunt packed his own 35mm camera, while Liddy carried a CIA spy camera disguised as a tobacco pouch. The reconnaissance mission allowed the men to photograph the psychiatrist's medical building and Dr. Fielding’s office interior, and also snap the license plates of his Volvo and the exterior of his home.
The reconnaissance was accomplished without any major issues - although Liddy’s camera was faulty and he cursed the black wig, swearing that a seven-foot-tall male suitor had cruised him in a park because of his luxurious hair. On return to the White House, Liddy and Hunt were told they would not be permitted near the target premises again. Instead, they’d need a three-man ‘entry team’ for the break-in.
Hunt knew just the men for the job, three spies he’d worked with during a CIA-backed Bay of Pigs op when they tried (and disastrously failed) to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Bernie ‘Macho’ Barker was a Havana-born operative who’d survived 18 months in a Nazi prison camp. Cuban-American Eugenio Rolando ‘Musculito’ Martinez was a veteran of CIA off-the-books operations. Felipe De Diego, a handsome businessman and undercover operative, rounded out the team.
The three men had never worked together as an entry team but the break-in was scheduled for September 3, 1971, Labor Day weekend, so they’d have plenty of time. What could possibly go wrong?