R.Spencer Oliver

R.Spencer Oliver

R. Spencer Oliver was born in 1938. His father, Spencer Oliver, was a lawyer who worked with Robert F. Bennett, the head of the Robert Mullen & Co, a small public relations company in Washington that employed E. Howard Hunt. He also represented Howard Hughes.

Oliver was an active member of the Democratic Party and in 1972 became executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. Later that year James W. McCord was appointed as security director for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Later that year Gordon Liddy presented Nixon's attorney general, John N. Mitchell, with an action plan called Operation Gemstone. Liddy wanted a $1 million budget to carry out a series of black ops activities against Nixon's political enemies. Mitchell decided that the budget for the operation was too large. Instead he gave him $250,000 to launch a scaled-down version of the plan.

One of Liddy's first tasks was to place electronic devices in the Democratic Party campaign offices in an apartment block called Watergate. Liddy wanted to wiretap the conversations of Larry O'Brien, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Liddy recruited McCord to help him with this. On 28th May, 1972, McCord and his team broke into the DNC's offices and placed bugs on the telephones of O'Brien and Oliver.

It became the job of Alfred Baldwin to eavesdrop the phone conversations. Over the next 20 days Baldwin listened to over 200 phone calls. These were not recorded. Baldwin made notes and typed up summaries. Nor did Baldwin listen to all phone calls coming in. For example, he took his meals outside his room. Any phone calls taking place at this time would have been missed.

Some historians have been puzzled by the decision to place bugs on Oliver's telephone. In an interview with Robert Parry, the author of Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq (2004) Oliver suggested that the wiretap was connected to his attempts to head off the nomination of George McGovern. Oliver was concerned that McGovern would be easily defeated by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. He was therefore involved in a plot to replace McGovern with Terry Sanford.

Oliver believes that Nixon wanted to gain information about his plans so that he could undermine the plot to stop McGovern's candidacy. According to Oliver, John Connally and Robert Strauss, were using their influence behind the scenes to get McGovern the nomination. He points out that McGovern got his share of the Texas delegates on 14th June, 1972. Later that day, Gordon Liddy told the burglars that they needed to return to the Democratic offices at Watergate. Three days later, James W. McCord, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez and Bernard L. Barker were arrested while breaking into the Watergate offices.

The phone number of E. Howard Hunt was found in address books of the burglars. Reporters were now able to link the break-in to the White House. Bob Woodward, a reporter working for the Washington Post was told by a friend who was employed by the government, that senior aides of President Richard Nixon, had paid the burglars to obtain information about its political opponents.

Frederick LaRue now decided that it would be necessary to pay the large sums of money to secure their silence. LaRue raised $300,000 in hush money. Tony Ulasewicz, a former New York policeman, was given the task of arranging the payments.

On 21st December, 1972, McCord wrote a letter to Jack Caulfield: " Sorry to have to write you this letter but felt you had to know. if Helms goes, and if the WG (Watergate) operation is laid at the CIA's feet, where it does not belong, 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. I'm sorry that you will get hurt in the fallout.”

Caulfield was unable to persuade Richard Nixon to leave the CIA alone. On 30th January, 1973, James W. McCord, Gordon Liddy, Frank Sturgis, E. Howard Hunt, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Bernard L. Barker were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. On 19th March, 1973, McCord wrote a letter to Judge John J. Sirica claiming that the defendants had pleaded guilty under pressure (from John Dean and John N. Mitchell) and that perjury had been committed. Sirica decided to publish the contents of this letter.

Nixon continued to insist that he knew nothing about the case or the payment of "hush-money" to the burglars. However, in April 1973, Nixon forced two of his principal advisers H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, to resign. A third adviser, John Dean, refused to go and was sacked. On 20th April, Dean issued a statement making it clear that he was unwilling to be a "scapegoat in the Watergate case".

Spencer Oliver was convinced that the full story was not being revealed about Watergate. He therefore started a lawsuit against those involved in placing a wiretap on his phone. As he pointed out: "I realized that anybody who received the contents of the intercepted telephone conversation and passed them on, in other words, the fruits of the criminal act, was also guilty of a felony. So that meant that if someone listened to my phone, wrote a memo like McCord had done and sent it to the White House or to CREEP, everybody who got those memos and either read them or passed them on was a felon."

Robert Strauss, who was now Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tried to persuade Oliver to drop the lawsuit. When he refused, Strauss cut off his pay as executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. Strauss also worked behind the scenes in order to arrange a negotiated settlement with the Republican Party.

At a press conference in April, 1973, Oliver declared: "I am appalled at the idea of ending the civil suit in the Watergate case through a secretly negotiated settlement and thereby destroying what may be an important forum through which the truth about those responsible may become known. I do not know what motivated Robert Strauss to even contemplate such a step."

Robert Parry (Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq) has pointed out that "Oliver said it was not until spring 1973 that he began putting the pieces of the Watergate mystery together, leading him to believe that the events around the Texas convention were not simply coincidental but rather the consequence of Republican eavesdropping on his telephone. If that was true, Oliver suspected, Strauss may have been collaborating with his old mentor Connally both in arranging a Texas outcome that would ensure McGovern's nomination and later in trying to head off the Watergate civil lawsuit."

Alexander P. Butterfield was drawn into the Watergate Scandal after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had interviewed Hugh Sloan. During the interview Sloan admitted that Butterfield had been in charge of "internal security". Woodward passed this information to a member of the Senate Committee headed by Sam Ervin.

On 18th May, 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, with unprecedented authority and independence to investigate the alleged Watergate cover-up and illegal activity in the 1972 presidential campaign.

The following month John Dean testified that at a meeting with Richard Nixon on 15th April, the president had remarked that he had probably been foolish to have discussed his attempts to get clemency for E. Howard Hunt with Charles Colson. Dean concluded from this that Nixon's office might be bugged. On Friday, 13th July, Alexander P. Butterfield appeared before the committee and was asked about if he knew whether Nixon was recording meetings he was having in the White House. Butterfield reluctantly admitted details of the tape system which monitored Nixon's conversations.

Alexander P. Butterfield also said that he knew "it was probably the one thing that the President would not want revealed". This information did indeed interest Archibald Cox and he demanded that Richard Nixon hand over the White House tapes. Nixon refused and so Cox appealed to the Supreme Court.

On 20th October, 1973, Nixon ordered his Attorney-General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered the deputy Attorney-General, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused and he was sacked. Eventually, Robert Bork, the Solicitor-General, fired Cox.

An estimated 450,000 telegrams went sent to Richard Nixon protesting against his decision to remove Cox. The heads of 17 law colleges now called for Nixon's impeachment. Nixon was unable to resist the pressure and on 23rd October he agreed to comply with the subpoena and began releasing some of the tapes. The following month a gap of over 18 minutes was discovered on the tape of the conversation between Nixon and H. R. Haldeman on June 20, 1972. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, denied deliberately erasing the tape. It was now clear that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up and members of the Senate began to call for his impeachment.

Peter Rodino, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, presided over the impeachment proceedings against Nixon. The hearings opened in May 1974. The committee had to vote on five articles of impeachment and it was thought that members would split on party lines. However, on the three main charges - obstructing justice, abuse of power and withholding evidence, the majority of Republicans voted with the Democrats.

Two weeks later three senior Republican congressmen, Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, John Rhodes visited Richard Nixon to tell him that they were going to vote for his impeachment. Nixon, convinced that he will lose the vote, decided to resign as president of the United States.

On 9th August, 1974, Richard Nixon became the first President of the United States to resign from office. Nixon was granted a pardon but several members of his staff involved in the cover-up were imprisoned. This included: H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, John Dean, John N. Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Herbert W. Kalmbach, Egil Krogh, Frederick LaRue, Robert Mardian and Dwight L. Chapin.

In 1976 Spencer Oliver was appointed as Chief Counsel of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives and during the Iran-Contra Scandal he instigated an investigation of CIA director, William Casey. He also served as Chief of Staff of the US Helsinki Commission (1976-1985).

Oliver also took an interest in the October Surprise affair. When he praised the arms dealer, Dirk Stoffberg, for testifying about the case, he was bitterly attacked by the Republicans for attempting to smear Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Oliver was defended by his boss, Dante Fascell of Florida, who argued that Oliver's actions were carried out "under my direction". As a result of this debate, the House of Representatives voted 217 - 192 to create a special Task Force to examine the October Surprise issue.

In 1992 Oliver called for an investigation into the secret foreign policies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. This included the support of the Reagan administration for Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Later that year Oliver was appointed as Secretary General of the International Secretariat of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The Standing Committee of Heads of Delegations decided in 1995 to provide for a five year term for the Secretary General. Oliver was unanimously re-elected and was subsequently re-elected twice for five year terms.

Primary Sources

(1) John Dean, Blind Ambition (1976)

"Chuck, why do you figure Liddy bugged the DNC instead of the Democratic candidates? It doesn't make much sense. I sat in Mitchell's office when Liddy gave us his show, and he only mentioned Larry O'Brien in passing as a target. I confess that Magruder once told me you were pushing for information on O'Brien because of the ITT case, and I..."

"Magruder's full of shit," Chuck interrupted. "That bastard tests my Christian patience to the breaking point. I have to say special prayers to temper my feelings about that asshole. I'd like to hear him say that to my face."

"Why don't we ask Jeb to come over?" I suggested. "And I'll ask him why the hell Liddy went after O'Brien. What do you think?"

"I think it's a capital idea," Chuck replied.... I went down to Jeb's room....

"Jeb, (Dean asked) we've been trying to put some pieces together about why we're here," I began, "and one of the questions we can't answer is why Larry O'Brien was targeted. I guess you and Mitchell agreed to that in Florida. But why O'Brien?"

Jeb froze. His pallid face flushed crimson. He tried to find words, but only stuttered. The question had more than caught him off guard. It had overwhelmed him. "Why do you want to know?" he asked haltingly.

"Just curiosity," Chuck said.

"Well, it just seemed like a good idea," Jeb said evasively.

"Well then, why was Spencer Oliver's phone bugged?" Chuck pressed....

Jeb looked at me. Then at Colson. "Why? Who wants to know?" he asked as his confusion turned to suspicion and headed toward anger. "I don't think we ought to talk about that stuff," he said sharply. Jeb turned on his heel and walked out, leaving Chuck and me staring at each other in dismay.

(2) Jim Hougan, Secret Agenda (1984)

The first Washington Post reporter to explicitly identify the Mullen Company as a CIA cover, however, was neither Woodward nor Bernstein but the late Laurence Stern. In a July 2, 1974, article about Senator Baker's dissent to the Ervin committee's Final Report, Stern acknowledged the Mullen Company's CIA involvement, and made reference to the memoranda written by the CIA's Martin Lukoskie and Eric Eisenstadt. Nowhere in Stern's brief article, however, is Woodward mentioned, and neither he nor the Post's executive editor, Benjamin Bradlee, was asked to comment about the CIA's suggestion that its agent had manipulated the Post's reportage and planted stories in the press. Obviously, the Post was frightened of the subject.

Even so, Robert F. Bennett must have been a valuable source. Aside from his connections to the intelligence agency, he was the employer of both Howard Hunt and Spencer Oliver, Sr. He had lobbied the White House on behalf of Hunt's consultancy there, and working with Liddy, he had helped to establish a battery of dummy committed Liddy in the wake of the Watergate arrests; as the Lukoskie memo makes clear, he continued to share confidences with Hunt and others who were privy to the operation's secret details (Bennett, for example, knew when others did not that the DNC had been broken into during May). All in all, Bennett's record is astonishing for someone who figures only peripherally in the Post's reports and the Senate's investigation.

(3) Jim Hougan, Secret Agenda (1984)

The received version of that scandal, the version propounded over and over again in the courts, the Congress and the press, tells us that it was Spencer Oliver's telephone that James McCord bugged. As to why Oliver was allegedly singled out, the record is anything but clear. Reporters have speculated that it had to do with the fact that Oliver's father was an employee of the Robert R. Mullen Company and a rival of Howard Hunt's. But that was just speculation, as, indeed, was Oliver's own theory: that he was singled out because of his frequent contact with Democratic state leaders. As for the burglars themselves, they are by turns mum and self-contradictory on the subject of Spencer Oliver and his telephone.

In reality, what made Oliver's DNC telephone uniquely sensitive was its relationship to a complex of prostitution activities located in the nearby Columbia Plaza Apartments. These are a group of luxury residential buildings that form a line-of-sight triangle with the Howard Johnson's motel and the Watergate office building, each of which is within a short walk from the others and each of which would play an important part in the bugging activities that would soon send McCord and his colleagues to jail. The prostitutes working at the Columbia Plaza were many. They included "a lush blonde" (this is Bailley's description) whom we may call Tess. There were at least two madams, Lil Lori and Helen Henderson, who used the apartments at the Columbia Plaza and, farther away, the Woodner Hotel.' One of the apartments used for assignations was in the Columbia Plaza building at 2440 Virginia Avenue, directly behind the apartment in which Tess resided. Like Tess's rendezvous, the one rented by Lori faced the Watergate and, because it was in a taller building, was also in line of sight with the Howard Johnson's motel.

Besides their location at the Columbia Plaza Apartments, the prostitutes had at least two things in common. The first was the homogeneity of their clients. With few exceptions, they were professional men-lobbyists, lawyers, stockbrokers, physicians, congressional aides and real estate developers. They were among the movers and shakers of the capital, and included at least one U.S. senator, an astronaut, a Saudi prince, a clutch of U.S. and KCIA intelligence agents and a host of prominent Democrats.

(4) Robert Parry, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq John Dean (2004)

Though knocked from contention in the early primaries, Muskie still had a bloc of delegates in early June as did former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Scores of other delegates were uncommitted or tied to favorite sons. Oliver hoped that his personal favorite, Duke University President Terry Sanford, might emerge from a deadlocked convention as a unity candidate.

"Muskie had some votes though he had been finished off early," Oliver said. "Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson had a lot of votes. Terry had nearly 100 votes scattered over 22 states and including some influential delegates. McGovern was having a hard time getting a majority. The state chairmen wanted to know whether or not, if he won the California primary, he would have the nomination wrapped up or whether there was still a chance he could be stopped."

"The best way to find out was through the state chairmen because in those days not all primaries were binding and not all delegates were bound," Oliver said. "Don Fowler, the state chairman in South Carolina, took the lead in trying to use the state chairmen's network to get an accurate assessment. Most of the information was gathered by me and Margaret Bethea, a member of Fowler's staff. We called every state chairman or party executive director to find out where their uncommitted delegates would go. We were doing a real hard count. We knew better than anybody else how many delegates could be influenced, who were really anti-McGovern. We had the best count in the country and it was all coordinated through my telephone."

So, while Nixon's political espionage team listened in, Oliver and his little team canvassed state party leaders to figure out how the Democratic delegates planned to vote. "We determined on that phone that McGovern could still be stopped even if he won the California primary," Oliver said. "It would be very close whether he could ever get a majority."

After McGovern did win the California primary, the stop-McGovern battle focused on Texas and its Democratic convention, scheduled for June 13. "The one place he could be stopped was at the Texas State Democratic Convention," Oliver said.

A Texan himself, Oliver knew the Democratic Party there to be a bitterly divided organization, with many conservative Democrats sympathetic to Nixon and hostile to McGovern and his anti-Vietnam War positions. One of the best known Texas Democrats, former Governor John Connally, had joined the Nixon administration in 1970 as Treasury Secretary and was helping the Nixon campaign in 1972. Many other Texas Democrats were loyal to former President Lyndon Johnson who had battled anti-war activists before deciding against a reelection bid in 1968.

"There had been a major fight in Texas between the Left and the Right, between the liberals and the conservatives," Oliver said. "They hated each other. It was one of these lifetime things." Between the strength of the conservative Democratic machine and the history of hardball Texas politics, the Texas convention looked to Oliver like the perfect place to push through a solid anti-McGovern slate, even though nearly one-third of the state delegates listed McGovern as their first choice. Since there was no requirement for proportional representation, whoever controlled a majority at the state convention could take all the presidential delegates or divide them up among other candidates, Oliver said.

At Sanford's suggestion, Oliver decided to fly to Texas. When he reached the Texas convention in San Antonio, Oliver said he was stunned by what he found. The Johnson-Connally wing of the party appeared uncharacteristically generous to the McGovern campaign. Also arriving from Washington was one of Connally's Democratic proteges, the party's national treasurer Bob Strauss.

"I'm in the hotel and I'm standing in the lobby the day before the convention," Oliver said. "The elevator opens and there's Bob Strauss. I was really surprised to see him and he makes a bee-line straight for me. He says, 'Spencer, how you doing?' I say, 'Bob, what are you doing here?' He says, 'I'm a Texan, you're a Texan. Here we are. Who would miss one of these state conventions? Maybe we ought to have lunch.' He was never that friendly to me before."

Oliver was curious about Strauss's sudden appearance because Strauss had never been a major figure in Texas Democratic politics. "He was a Connally guy and had no background in politics except his personal ties to Connally," Oliver said. "He hadn't been active in state politics except as Connally's fund-raiser. He wasn't a delegate to the state convention." Plus, Strauss's chief mentor, Connally, was a member of Nixon's Cabinet and was planning to head up Democrats for Nixon in the fall campaign.

Known as a smooth-talking lawyer, Strauss had made his first major foray into politics as a principal fund-raiser for Connally's first gubernatorial race in 1962. Connally then put Strauss on the Democratic National Committee in 1968. Two years later, Connally agreed to join the Nixon administration. "I wouldn't say that Connally and Strauss are close," one critic famously told The New York Times, "but when Connally eats watermelon, Strauss spits seeds.

Other Connally guys held other key positions at the state convention, including state chairman Will Davis. So, presumably the liberal, anti-war McGovern would have looked to be in a tight spot, opposed not only by Davis but also by much of the conservative state Democratic leadership and organized labor. "It was clear that 70 percent of the delegates were anti-McGovern, so they very easily could have coalesced, struck a deal and blocked McGovern," Oliver said. "That probably would have blocked him from the nomination."

Oliver told some political allies at the convention, including party activists R.C. "Bob" Slagle III and Dwayne Holman, about the plan that had been hatched in Washington to shut McGovern out of Texas delegates. "They thought it might work and agreed to promote it with the state Democratic leadership," Oliver said. 'Bob went to lay out this plan to stop McGovern and I waited for him. (After he emerged from the meeting,) we went around the corner, and he said, `It's not going to work.' He said, 'Will Davis thinks we ought to give McGovern his share of the delegates.' I said, `What? Will Davis, John Connally's guy? Does he know that this will give McGovern the nomination?' He [Davis] said, 'We shouldn't have a big fight. We should all agree that everyone gets the percentage they had in the preference. We'll just let it go."'

Oliver said, "That was the most astonishing thing I had heard in all my years of Texas politics. There's never been any quarter given or any asked in this sort of thing. Seventy percent of the delegates were against McGovern. Why did those die-hard conservatives and organized labor want to give him 30 percent of the votes? I was stunned."

News articles at the time described a convention dominated by an unusual alliance between Democrats loyal to liberal George McGovern and others backing populist George Wallace, though the alliance nearly fell apart when Wallace delegates took to the floor with Confederate flags. After a 17hour final session, the convention gave 42 national delegates to Wallace and 34 to McGovern, with Hubert Humphrey getting 21 and 33 listed as uncommitted. According to The New York Times, the Texas results put McGovern about two-thirds of the way toward 1,509 needed for a first-round nomination.