Taking Issue  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2009

Taking Issue   

The son of the late FBI Director L. Patrick Gray III disputes the notion that his father tried to leak explosive information about Watergate to a journalist two months after the break-in. Online Exclusive posted 5/28/2009 3:41p.m.

By Ed Gray
     


Robert M. Smith begins his AJR article "Before Deep Throat" with this claim about my father, L. Patrick Gray III, with whom I coauthored his Watergate memoir "In Nixon's Web": "The director of the FBI sat across from me over lunch at a French restaurant and told me that the attorney general and the president were involved in a crime."

No, he did not. As Smith's reconstruction of their actual conversation shows, the acting director of the FBI said nothing at all:

"He told me that in Washington, in August of 1972--just two months after the Watergate burglary.

"He told me that in a public place – a restaurant filled with diners, not an underground garage.

"And he told me about a guy who burned his palm, and about Donald Segretti (by name).

"And when he intimated over the entrée that the wrongdoing went further, I leaned back against the wall on my inside banquette and looked at him in frank astonishment. 'The attorney general?' I asked.

"He nodded.

"I paused.

" 'The president?' I asked.

"He looked me in the eye without denial--or any comment. In other words, confirmation."

Wrong. That was not "confirmation." That was "no comment," the same answer my father gave to every reporter who asked him anything at all about Watergate.

Since I was not present at that August 1972 luncheon, I cannot categorically deny all of Smith's account. But little of it rings true to me. Yes, my father may have mentioned Segretti, who really was a bit player not involved in the break-in, but did he accuse the president and the attorney general of complicity? No, he did not. That much I can categorically deny.

The truth is that at the time of this luncheon--as my father testified multiple times under oath--neither he nor anyone else in the FBI had any evidence whatsoever that the president was involved. At that early stage of the FBI's Watergate investigation, the White House's criminal cover-up was still working perfectly. My father was still convinced of the opposite--that Nixon was trying to get to the bottom of it, too.

And as for the attorney general? Here I can even more emphatically deny that my father nodded in answer to that question. The attorney general was Richard Kleindienst, not John Mitchell, and Kleindienst, a very close friend of my father, was never implicated in Watergate at all.

Perhaps Smith asked about Mitchell, Kleindienst's predecessor and then Nixon's campaign manager. If so, he's directly misquoted himself here, leaving us to wonder about the accuracy of the rest of his recollection.

But if Smith had asked about Mitchell, silence--without the nod--would have been my father's only possible answer. August 1972 was way too early for anyone involved in the investigation to know Mitchell was part of the cover-up. No investigators up to and including Kleindienst and my father knew of Mitchell's involvement until White House Counsel John Dean started confessing in April 1973, nearly eight months after this luncheon. In his book, "Justice: The Memoirs of an Attorney General," Kleindienst reported that he first heard of Mitchell's complicity on April 15, 1973. "The John Mitchell I knew--impossible!" he wrote describing his reaction to the news.

My father found it just as hard to believe when he heard details of Dean's confession on the same day. "The shock to me was of horrendous proportions," he wrote in "In Nixon's Web." "Until that moment I had total faith and belief in the government of the United States and in the office of the presidency."

During the many months before that moment of shock, my father gave dozens of on-the-record interviews to many reporters, including Bob Woodward. He talked at length and on the record with other New York Times and Washington Post reporters. He gave interviews to nearly every important Washington bureau reporter, many of whom are still reporting today. In not one of any of those other interviews did L. Patrick Gray pass along anything like what Robert Smith and his then-editor Robert Phelps now claim he passed along to Smith.

Readers will have to judge for themselves why neither the young reporter nor the then-editor can explain why no story was ever written based on the "explosive information" supposedly passed along by Gray on this one occasion and why no record of the supposed revelations exists, either in the files of the Washington bureau of the Times or in the possession of either claimant.

Thirty-seven years is a long time later to serve up a dish like this. A cautious reader will want to take it with more than a grain of salt.

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