John N. Mitchell

John N. Mitchell

John Newton Mitchell was born in Detroit on 15th November, 1913. He played semi-professional hockey in the 1930s. He studied law at Fordam University before serving in the US Navy as a torpedo boat commander during the Second World War.

After the war Mitchell became a lawyer and eventually became a partner in the law firm, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander and Mitchell. In 1962 Richard Nixon joined the law firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin and Todd. In 1967 these two law firms merged.

Mitchell became a key Nixon adviser and helped manage his successful 1968 presidential campaign. Mitchell was rewarded by being appointed as Nixon's attorney general.

In early 1972 Mitchell resigned as attorney general to become director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Later that year Gordon Liddy presented 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 Operation Gemstone was too large. Instead he gave him $250,000 to launch a scaled-down version of the plan. On 20th March, Liddy and Frederick LaRue attended a meeting of the committee where it was agreed to spend $250,000 "intelligence gathering" operation against the Democratic Party.

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. This was not successful and on 3rd July, 1972, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard L. Barker and James W. McCord returned to O'Brien's office. However, this time they were caught by the police.

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.

In 1972 Nixon was once again selected as the Republican presidential candidate. On 7th November, Nixon easily won the the election with 61 per cent of the popular vote. Soon after the election reports by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, began to claim that some of Nixon's top officials were involved in organizing the Watergate break-in.

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. Hugh Sloan, testified that LaRue told him that he would have to commit perjury in order to protect the conspirators.

Mitchell resigned from CREEP on 1st July, 1972, saying that he had been spending too much time away from his wife and daughter. Rumours began to circulate that Mitchell had resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. In September, 1972, the Washington Post published a story claiming that while attorney general, Mitchell "personally controlled a secret Republican fund used to gather information about the Democrats."

In January, 1973, Frank Sturgis, E. Howard Hunt, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard L. Barker, Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping.

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.

Mitchell and Maurice Stans were accused of obstructing an investigation of Robert Vesco after he made a $200,000 contribution to the Nixon campaign.. In April 1974 both men were acquitted in a New York federal court.

The following year Mitchell appeared in court over his role in the Watergate Scandal. On 21st February, 1975, Mitchell was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He served 19 months at the minimum-security institution at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama before being released for medical reasons.

After his release, Mitchell lived quietly in Georgetown with longtime companion Mary Gore Dean. In 1981, Simon and Schuster sued Mitchell after he failed to deliver a promised autobiography. Unlike most of the conspirators, Mitchell never published a book about Watergate.

John Newton Mitchell died after suffering a heart attack in Washington on 9th November, 1988. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Primary Sources

(1) Carl Oglesby, The Yankee and Cowboy War (1976)

Mitchell was ultimately reached, and he reached for Dean. Mitchell told Dean to use some White House cash to get the Hunt situation settled down. Haldeman came into the picture and told his staff assistant Gordon Strachan to deliver a certain amount, either $40,000 or $70,000. LaRue cranked up his mill and soon got the money on its way through Kalmbach to Ulasewicz to Bittman. There may have been a relaxed moment before information came rippling back from Hunt to Bittman to Ulasewicz to Kalmbach to Mitchell to LaRue to Dean to Haldeman and to Nixon that, even so, the blackmailers were still not satisfied.

Haldeman finally told Strachan to deliver all of $350,000 to CREEP but to get a receipt for it from LaRue. LaRue accepted the money but refused to write a receipt. LaRue testified to the Watergate committee the following May that paid out a total of about $250,000 to buy Hunt's silence.

(2) Richard Nixon, Memoirs (1978)

In our conversation on Wednesday morning, June 21, Haldeman told me that Gordon Liddy was "the guy who did this." I asked who Liddy was, and Haldeman said he was the counsel for the finance committee at CRP.. When I said I thought McCord was the man responsible for the break-in, Haldeman said no, it was Liddy; we didn't know what McCord's position was, but everyone seemed to think he would hang tight.

Ehrlichman had come up with the idea of having Liddy confess; he would say he did it because he wanted to be a hero at the CRP. This would have several advantages: it would cut off the Democrats' civil suit and minimize their ability to go on fishing expeditions in the depositions connected with it; it would divert some of the press and political attacks by establishing guilt at a low level instead of letting it be imputed to a high one; and finally, since all the arrested men felt that Liddy had been in charge, once Liddy admitted guilt it wouldn't matter what else they thought because everything would tie back to Liddy. Then, Haldeman said, our people would make an appeal for compassion on the basis that Liddy was a poor misguided kid who read too many spy stories.

I said that after all this was not a hell of a lot of crime and in fact if someone asked me about Ziegler's statement that it was a "third-rate burglary," I was going to say no, it was only a"third-rate attempt at burglary." Haldeman said the lawyers all felt that if Liddy and the arrested men entered a guilty plea they would get only fines and suspended sentences since apparently they were all first offenders.

I said I was for Ehrlichman's plan. We had to assume the truth would come out sooner or later, so if Liddy was the man responsible, he should step up and shoulder the blame. My only reservation, I said, would be if this would involve John Mitchell-in that case I didn't think we could do it. A day earlier Haldeman seemed certain Mitchell was not involved. Now he was not so reassuring. He had already told me that Mitchell was concerned about how far the FBI's investigation was going and thought that someone should go directly to the FBI and get it turned off. Haldeman said, too, that Ehrlichman was afraid that Mitchell might be involved. When Haldeman had all but put the question directly to Mitchell when they had talked earlier that morning, he had received no answer; so he could not be sure whether Mitchell was involved or not. He indicated that Mitchell had seemed a little apprehensive about Ehrlichman's plan because of Liddy's instability and what might happen when Liddy was really put under pressure. In any case, he said, Ehrlichman had just developed the plan that morning, and everyone was going to think about it before anything was done.

I still believed that Mitchell was innocent; I was sure he would never have ordered anything like this. He was just too smart and, besides, he had always disdained campaign intelligence-gathering. But there were two nagging possibilities: I might be wrong and Mitchell might have had some involvement; and even if he had not actually been involved, if we weren't careful he might become so circumstantially entangled that neither he nor we would ever be able to explain the truth. Either way, I hoped that Liddy would not draw him in. I said that taking a rap was done quite often. Haldeman said that we could take care of Liddy and I agreed that we could help him; I was willing to help with money for someone who had thought he was helping me win the election.

I never personally confronted Mitchell with the direct question of whether he had been involved in or had known about the planning of the Watergate break-in. He was one of my closest friends, and he had issued a public denial. I would never challenge what he had said; I felt that if there were something he thought I should know, he would have told me. And I suppose there was something else, too, something I expressed rhetorically months later: "Suppose you call Mitchell ... and Mitchell says, 'Yes, I did it,' " I said to Haldeman. "Then what do we say?"

(3) Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, Silent Coup: The Removal of Richard Nixon (1991)

Shortly after assuming his position, John Dean began thinking about expanding his domain, and hired former Army officer Fred F. Fielding as an assistant lawyer in the counsel's office. They became close friends. In Dean's 1976 memoir, Blind Ambition, he recounted how he explained to his new associate the way in which their careers could quickly rise: "Fred, I think we have to look at our office as a small law firm.... We have to build our practice like any other law firm. Our principal client, of course, is the president. But to convince the president we're not just the only law office in town, but the best, we've got to convince a lot of other people first." Especially Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

But how to convince them? As Dean tried to assess the situation at the White House, events soon showed him that intelligence gathering was the key to power in the Nixon White House. One of Dean's first assignments from Haldeman was to look over a startling proposal to revamp the government's domestic intelligence operations in order to neutralize radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.

The scheme had been the work of another of the White House's bright young stalwarts, Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston. The impetus was a meeting chaired by Nixon in the Oval Office on June 5, 1970, attended by J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Helms, and the chiefs of the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The various agencies were almost at war with one another; just a few months earlier, for instance, Hoover had cut all FBI communication with the CIA. Nixon wanted the agencies to work together against the threat from the "New Left." In the aftermath of Nixon's decision in May 1970 to invade Cambodia, and the killings of several students at Kent State University, colleges all over the country were again being rocked by riots and demonstrations as they had been in the last year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, and for the same reason-young people were objecting to the president's war policies. In Nixon's view, the threat was grave and must be attacked; therefore the agencies must find some way to bury their differences and concentrate on the true enemy. Huston was assigned to help Hoover and the intelligence chiefs clear obstacles to their working jointly on these matters.

In early July, Huston sent a long analysis to the president, endorsed by Hoover and the other intelligence agency directors, on how to enhance cooperation. To this memo Huston added his own secret one that became known as the "Huston Plan." It called for six activities, some of which were clearly illegal. They included electronic surveillance of persons and groups "who pose a major threat to internal security"; monitoring of American citizens by international communications facilities; the relaxation of restrictions on the covert opening of mail by federal agents; surreptitious entries and burglaries to gain information on the groups; the recruitment of more campus informants; and, to ensure that the objectives were carried out and that intelligence continued to be gathered, the formation of a new interagency group consisting of the agencies at the June 5 meeting and military counter-intelligence agencies. Nixon endorsed these measures in the Huston Plan on July 14, 1970, because, as he put it in his memoir, "I felt they were necessary and justified by the violence we faced."

The secret plan angered J. Edgar Hoover, not because he objected to coming down hard on dissidents, but, rather, because he felt that any new interagency group would encroach on the turf of the FBI and because he was concerned about the negative public reaction should any of the activities be exposed. On July 27, the day Dean began work at the White House, Hoover took the unusual step of venturing out of his own domain to visit his nominal superior, Attorney General John Mitchell. As Hoover learned, Mitchell did not know anything about the Huston Plan at the time. "I was kept in the dark until I found out about it from Hoover," Mitchell later told us. But as soon as he was apprised of the plan, Mitchell agreed with Hoover that it must be stopped-not for Hoover's reasons, but because it contained clearly unconstitutional elements-and immediately visited Nixon and told him it could not go forward. In testament to Mitchell's arguments and good sense, Nixon canceled the plan shortly thereafter and Huston was relieved of his responsibilities in the area of domestic intelligence.

Coordination of official domestic intelligence from various federal agencies concerning anti-war activists and other "radicals" was then handed to the new White House counsel, John Dean, along with a copy of the rejected Huston Plan. But it seemed that the president was still not satisfied with the quality of domestic intelligence, because in August and September Haldeman pushed Dean to try and find a way around the Hoover road-block. In pursuit of a solution, on September 17, 1970, Dean went to see his old boss, John Mitchell. Hours earlier, Mitchell had lunched with Director Helms and other senior CIA officials who had all agreed that the FBI wasn't doing a very good job of collecting domestic intelligence.

Dean and Mitchell spoke, and the next day Dean prepared a memo to Mitchell with several suggestions: "There should be a new committee set up, an interagency group to evaluate the government's domestic intelligence product, and it should have "operational" responsibilities as well. Both men, Dean's memo said, had agreed that "it would be inappropriate to have any blanket removal of restrictions" such as had been proposed in the Huston Plan; instead, Dean suggested that "The most appropriate procedure would be to decide on the type of intelligence we need, based on an assessment of the recommendations of this unit, and then to proceed to remove the restraints as necessary to obtain such intelligence."

Dean's plan languished and was never put into operation. Years later, in the spring of 1973, when Dean was talking to federal prosecutors and preparing to appear before the Senate committee investigating Watergate, he gave a copy of the Huston Plan to Federal Judge John J. Sirica, who turned it over to the Senate committee. Dean's action helped to establish his bona fides as the accuser of the president and was the cause of much alarm. In his testimony and writings thereafter, Dean suggested that he had always been nervous about the Huston Plan and that he had tried to get around it, and as a last resort had gotten John Mitchell to kill the revised version. In an interview, Dean told us, "I looked at that goddamn Tom Huston report," went to Mitchell and said, "General, I find it pretty spooky." But as the September 18, 1970, memo to Mitchell shows, Dean actually embraced rather than rejected the removal of "restraints as necessary to obtain" intelligence.

A small matter? A minor divergence between two versions of the same incident? As will become clear as this inquiry continues, Dean's attempt to gloss over the actual disposition of the Huston Plan was a first sign of the construction of a grand edifice of deceit.

(4) Taped conversation between Richard Nixon and John Dean (28th February, 1973)

John Dean: Kalmbach raised some cash.

Richard Nixon: They put that under the cover of a Cuban committee, I suppose?

John Dean: Well, they had a Cuban committee and they - had-some of it was given to Hunt's lawyer, who in turn passed it out. You know, when Hunt's wife was flying to Chicago with $10,000 she was actually, I understand after the fact now, was going to pass that money to one of the Cubans - to meet him in Chicago and pass it to, somebody there.... You've got then, an awful lot of the principals involved who know. Some people's wives know. Mrs. Hunt was the savviest woman in the world. She had the whole picture together.

Richard Nixon: Did she?

John Dean: Yes. Apparently, she was the pillar of strength in that family before the death.

Richard Nixon: Great sadness. As a matter of fact there was discussion with somebody about Hunt's problem on account of his wife and I said, of course commutation could be considered on the basis of his wife's death, and that is the only conversation I ever had in that light.

John Dean: Right. So that is it. That is the extent of the knowledge.

(5) Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President's Men (1974)

Mitchell, grayer and thinner, left the grand-jury room shortly after three o'clock and met outside the federal courthouse with reporters. For the first time, he publicly acknowledged attending meetings at which plans to bug the Democrats were discussed when he was Attorney General. "I have heard discussion of such plans. They've always been cut off by me at all times, and I would like to know who it was that kept bringing them back and back.... The electronic surveillance was turned down, and turned down, and that was disposed of." He had approved "an entire intelligence-gathering program" aimed at obtaining "every bit of information that you could about the opposing candidates and their operations." Through wiretapping? he was asked again. "No, no, no, no. Wiretapping is illegal, as you know, and we certainly were not authorizing any illegal activities."

Woodward called another Mitchell associate whom he knew to be reliable. The man said Mitchell had told the grand jury that he approved paying the seven original Watergate conspirators with CRP funds. But he had insisted under oath that the money was intended to pay the conspirators' legal fees, not to buy their silence. He had testified that he vetoed the bugging proposal for the third and final time during a meeting with Magruder in Key Biscayne. He believed Magruder had gone over his head and obtained approval for the Watergate operation from somebody at the White House.

(6) Bob Woodward memo to Ben Bradlee (16th May, 1973)

Dean talked with Senator Baker after Watergate committee formed and Baker is in the bag completely, reporting back directly to White House...

President threatened Dean personally and said if he ever revealed the national security activities that President would insure he went to jail.

Mitchell started doing covert national and international things early and then involved everyone else. The list is longer than anyone could imagine.

Caulfield met McCord and said that the President "knows that we are meeting and he offers you executive clemency and you'll only have to spend about 11 months in jail."

Caulfield threatened McCord and said "your life is no good in this country if you don't cooperate..."

The covert activities involve the whole U.S. intelligence community and are incredible. Deep Throat refused to give specifics because it is against the law.

The cover-up had little to do with the Watergate, but was mainly to protect the covert operations.

The President himself has been blackmailed. When Hunt became involved, he decided that the conspirators could get some money for this. Hunt started an "extortion" racket of the rankest kind.

Cover-up cost to be about $1 million. Everyone is involved - Haldeman, Ehrlichman, the President, Dean, Mardian, Caulfield and Mitchell. They all had a problem getting the money and couldn't trust anyone, so they started raising money on the outside and chipping in their own personal funds. Mitchell couldn't meet his quota and... they cut Mitchell loose. ...

CIA people can testify that Haldeman and Ehrlichman said that the President orders you to carry this out, meaning the Watergate cover-up... Walters and Helms and maybe others.

Apparently though this is not clear, these guys in the White House were out to make money and a few of them went wild trying.

Dean acted as go-between between Haldeman-Ehrlichman and Mitchell-LaRue.

The documents that Dean has are much more than anyone has imagined and they are quite detailed.

Liddy told Dean that they could shoot him and/or that he would shoot himself, but that he would never talk and always be a good soldier.

Hunt was key to much of the crazy stuff and he used the Watergate arrests to get money... first $100,000 and then kept going back for more...

Unreal atmosphere around the White House - realizing it is curtains on one hand and on the other trying to laugh it off and go on with business. President has had fits of "dangerous" depression.

(7) Lawrence Meyer, John N. Mitchell, Principal in Watergate, Dies at 75, Washington Post (10th November, 1988)

John N. Mitchell, the only United States attorney general to serve a prison sentence, died here yesterday after suffering a heart attack. He was 75.

Mitchell, a friend, confidant and law partner of Richard M. Nixon, became a familiar face on television screens across America in the summer of 1973 as he sparred with members and staff of the Senate Watergate Committee probing his role - and Nixon's - in the Watergate scandal.

But the dour, pipe-smoking Mitchell, who dead-panned his way through three days of testimony on television, gave away very little. Other former White House aides and Nixon administration officials decided to avoid the ordeal of a trial after indictment and plea-bargained with the Watergate special prosecutor. Mitchell, however, was indicted, stood trial and was convicted along with three other defendants in the Watergate cover-up trial.

William G. Hundley, one of Mitchell's lawyers, said, "John never really wanted to come to Washington, never really wanted be attorney general or head Nixon's (1968 presidential) campaign. He was content to be a successful bond lawyer in New York... But he obviously had great loyalty, admiration and respect for Nixon. I'm not sure it was always returned, but... I never knew from him how he felt."

Magruder, a Nixon re-election committee official who served eight months in prison in connection with Watergate crimes, recalled Mitchell last night as "a mentor, almost like a father."

"He was a wonderful man to work for, very warm, easy to be with," said Magruder, who is now a minister at the First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio. "He was much different than the image the public and press had of him."

"When you work in the White House, the hours are long, and you're just expected to perform, no matter what," said Magruder in an interview last night. "But with John, it was different. One of my children was once injured in a football game, and when he heard about it he said, 'Just take off, go home, take care of your son."

Magruder said that, although he has talked to Mitchell in recent years, his relationship with him ended after he became a witness for the prosecution.

"Mitchell was the true Nixon loyalist, and never broke ranks with his president," said Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, whose reporting with Carl Bernstein helped uncover the Watergate scandal. "Accordingly, what few secrets of the Nixon administration that may still remain went with him."

Former President Nixon could not be reached for comment...

Despite Mitchell's tough public image, people who knew him privately described him as a crack golfer and charming in social settings. He could also be gracious in his most adverse moments. When the Watergate cover-up jury convicted him and three of his codefendants - but acquitted Parkinson - pandemonium broke out in the court room. One defendant all but collapsed on the defense table. Wives and children were in tears. Mitchell, stoic throughout, leaned around someone standing between himself and Parkinson and extended his right hand. "Congratulations," he said quietly to Parkinson, shaking his hand.

Hundley said last night that Mitchell had been "a very easy client. I don't think he had any illusions about what was going to happen to him." When Mitchell's life collapsed, Hundley said, "He took it like a man . . . . He would have been a great guy to sail down the river with."

For his part in the cover-up conspiracy and his failure to tell the truth about it under oath, Mitchell was sentenced to 2 1/2 to 8 years. US District Judge John J. Sirica later reduced Mitchell's sentence to one to four years. Mitchell served 19 months at the minimum-security institution at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and was freed on parole Jan. 20, 1979.

Mitchell was paroled from Maxwell, among other reasons, because his health was failing. On the day he was freed, he told reporters gathered to greet him, "From henceforth, don't call me. I'll call you."

He never called.