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09.15.10

Nixon White House Plotted to Kill Columnist

An exclusive excerpt from Poisoning the Press reveals that White House operatives explored the murder of investigative journalist Jack Anderson, who had broken many embarrassing stories.

President Nixon wanted to be rid of his longtime nemesis, columnist Jack Anderson. After all, in just the first three months of 1972, the reporter had exposed many of the administration's most embarrassing scandals: his secret receipt of cash from billionaire Howard Hughes; his fixing of a corporate donor's antitrust case; his clandestine tilt toward Pakistan in its war with India; and his sabotage of Chile's leftist leader, Salvador Allende. But to date, none of the president's efforts to stop Anderson had been successful. Not threats to file criminal charges. Not surveillance or wiretapping. Not even the president's order to smear Anderson as a homosexual. Instead, the muckraker only seemed to grow bolder and more dangerous with his every revelation.

The White House decided to launch a formal campaign against its journalistic bête noire. “To take us off the defensive,” presidential counsel John Dean declared in a memo, the administration must start “impeaching Jack Anderson.” It was not enough just to react to each of his stories one at a time, after the fact, by “discrediting the allegations in his column,” White House Plumber E. Howard Hunt realized; rather, Nixon's men had to become proactive by portraying Anderson as unreliable before his next attack. The goal, Hunt said, was to “diminish his reputation . . . personally and professionally.”

To do so, the White House once again began trying to dig up dirt on the newsman. An informant promised “considerable derogatory information concerning Anderson,” but it proved to be a disappointment—merely pages copied from a five-year-old book. Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman dispatched investigator Jack Caulfield to interview Anderson's family and friends “under a subterfuge,” but the results were equally meager. “Neighbors of the Anderson's [ sic] advised that family was of good repute,” Caulfield wrote in a memo. Another White House private eye, Tony Ulasewicz, began “asking questions about some scam” in which Anderson's troublesome brother Gordon was supposedly involved, but once again, Nixon's men came up empty-handed.

“We examined all of the alternatives and very quickly came to the conclusion [that] the only way you're going to be able to stop him is to kill him.”

The president's men tried to plant derogatory stories about Anderson in the media, but the move backfired when journalists reported not the baseless charges but the heavy-handed government retaliation. The White House “is directing a major effort to discredit columnist Jack Anderson,” The Washington Post reported in a front-page story; the administration's “extensive search for facts” about the muckraker also “includes feeding negative material about Anderson . . . to the press” and using “the resources of the Republican National Committee, the Committee for the Re-election of the President, and the Justice Department. The Post concluded dismissively that the only accurate information provided by the administration “deals with already known and generally uncontroversial details about Anderson” and was nothing more than a “panicky—and exceedingly clumsy—campaign” against him.

Still, Nixon's desire to go after Anderson remained undiminished. “I would like to get him,” the Chief Executive reiterated to his staff, “get Anderson discredited.”

What other forms of retaliation did Nixon's men plan? “I don't know whether my doctor's office was broken into, my phone tapped, my mail intercepted, my file photostatted,” the columnist told one of his reporters, “or what other White House routines were invoked.” He certainly had no idea that Nixon’s men had already come up with a plot to silence him by the one method guaranteed to be permanent: murder.

book-cover---poising-the-press
Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture. By Mark Feldstein. ()

In the middle of March, Charles Colson summoned his top clandestine operative to the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. According to E. Howard Hunt, Colson had apparently “just come from a meeting with President Nixon,” whose hideaway office was next door, and seemed uncharacteristically “nervous” and “agitated” about the message he had to deliver. Colson told Hunt that Nixon “was incensed over Jack Anderson's frequent publication of leaks,” that the “son of a bitch” columnist “had become a great thorn in the side of the president,” and that it was imperative to “stop Anderson at all costs.” Hunt stated that Colson proposed assassinating Anderson in a manner that would appear accidental, perhaps by using a special poison that could not be detected during an autopsy. Colson suggested various specific ways to get rid of Anderson, Hunt said, and “asked me if I could explore the matter with the CIA,” where Hunt had previously worked as a spy. According to Hunt, Colson explained that neutralizing Anderson was “very important” to the White House and Hunt was “authorized to do whatever was necessary” to eliminate the investigative reporter.

The Nixon operative knew exactly who to contact to get the job done. He began with his sidekick G. Gordon Liddy, who had just been transferred to the Nixon campaign's intelligence operation and was “forever volunteering to rub people out,” as Hunt put it. Liddy wasted little time before expounding on the obvious solution to his latest White House assignment: “They charged us with the task: ‘Come up with ways of stopping Anderson.' We examined all of the alternatives and very quickly came to the conclusion [that] the only way you're going to be able to stop him is to kill him.”

To lay the groundwork, Hunt and Liddy conducted physical surveillance of Anderson, tailing the columnist in Liddy's green Jeep as Anderson drove from a parking garage in downtown Washington to his residence in the Maryland suburbs. “The purpose was to locate Anderson’s home and examine it from the outside for vulnerabilities,” Hunt recalled. It turned out to be “just an ordinary house” with “no pits around it,” so “if housebreakers wanted to get in they would have very little difficulty.” Hunt concluded that he and Liddy could easily sneak into Anderson's home and “get rid of the pesky journalist” by putting “a drug- laden pill” in whatever medicine bottles Anderson used.

But what kind of poison should be slipped to the muckraker? This was a question beyond the expertise of the White House operatives. After all, while Hunt had plotted at the CIA to overthrow leftist leaders in Central America, he had no personal hands- on experience in murder; and while Liddy boasted that he “could kill a man with a pencil in a matter of seconds” by jamming it into a victim's neck, he was not an expert in the toxicology of poisons. So Hunt reached out to a former intelligence colleague who had been part of a CIA team that tried to poison Fidel Castro a decade earlier with botulism toxin—a plot, ironically, that had recently been exposed by Jack Anderson.

Hunt turned to the aptly named Dr. Edward Gunn, a CIA physician involved in the conspiracy to murder Castro, who was known as an expert in the “unorthodox application of medical and chemical knowledge”—which, Liddy knew, was “just a euphemism for assassination.” Hunt telephoned Dr. Gunn at his home in suburban Washington and explained that he was now working for President Nixon.

“Oh,” the poison expert responded. “Sure, I'll cooperate.”

Excerpted from Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein. Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Feldstein. Published in September 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Mark Feldstein teaches media and public affairs at George Washington University. He has worked for nearly twenty years as an on-air correspondent at CNN, ABC, and NBC, and is a two-time winner of the George Foster Peabody Award.