Friday, August 23rd, 2019

White House aide directed FBI domestic spying program against political opponents


How will I explain this to my children?

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal takes us back to the Lyndon Johnson era when some familiar faces were conducting political intelligence work with the FBI. Here’s a few of the examples:

Only a few weeks before the 1964 election, a powerful presidential assistant, Walter Jenkins, was arrested in a men’s room in Washington. Evidently, the president was concerned that Barry Goldwater would use that against him in the election. Another assistant, Bill Moyers, was tasked to direct Hoover to do an investigation of Goldwater’s staff to find similar evidence of homosexual activity. Mr. Moyers’ memo to the FBI was in one of the files.

When the press reported this, I received a call in my office from Mr. Moyers. Several of my assistants were with me. He was outraged; he claimed that this was another example of the Bureau salting its files with phony CIA memos. I was taken aback. I offered to conduct an investigation, which if his contention was correct, would lead me to publicly exonerate him. There was a pause on the line and then he said, “I was very young. How will I explain this to my children?” And then he rang off. I thought to myself that a number of the Watergate figures, some of whom the department was prosecuting, were very young, too.

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It was not only Republicans that Johnson targeted with the FBI. He must have been obsessed with the Kennedy political threat because he used the bureau to determine whether officials in his administration were too close to Robert Kennedy after Kennedy left the administration. Ironically, one of his White House assistants, whom he inherited from JFK and was a particular subject of this sort of surveillance, is now married to LBJ’s biographer. I refer to Richard Goodwin, the husband of Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Some of Johnson’s suspicions of the Kennedys were rather amusing. He became convinced that the Washington Star was secretly owned by the Kennedy family and that is why he received less favorable coverage from the Star than from the Post. He insisted that Hoover unearth those connections. Hoover plaintively tried to explain that the Star was owned by the Kauffmann family and that they were Republicans.

Silberman suggests that it was Johnson’s relationship with Hoover that may have been (in part) the genesis of the “White House Plumbers” and Watergate:

Hoover’s shenanigans may well be the genesis of Watergate. I noted in the files that he had an early private meeting with the new President Nixon. I surmised that he must have let Nixon know something of what he had done for prior presidents; it would have been too dangerous not to. I further suspect that Nixon, whose ethical standards were quite relative, would have concluded he should have the same services that were available to his predecessors. But he didn’t trust Hoover totally, so he set up his own political intelligence gathering network outside the FBI–the plumbers. During Watergate, Nixon would occasionally mutter that prior presidents were culpable of secret political intelligence investigations. He even suggested that the Justice Department should substantiate that claim. We ignored him, but I am sure he would have seized on the Post’s revelations of the secret files–if they had appeared earlier.

(ht: John McAdams)

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