Wiretaps and Weathermen

How Hoover’s FBI kept its ears open—in the White House and the counterculture alike.

President Richard Nixon FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Nixon bag man Bebe Rebozo.
Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and Bebe Rebozo

Courtesy the National Archives.

This article is excerpted from the book Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner.

Richard Nixon came to power with a soaring vision of world peace. If he succeeded, he thought he could reunite a nation at war with itself. If he failed, he feared the United States itself might fall.

His hopes hinged on secret government in America. His policies and plans, from carpet bombings to the diplomacy of détente, were clandestine, hidden from all but a few trusted aides. But he knew the chances for the absolute secrecy he sought were slim.

“I will warn you now,” President Lyndon B. Johnson had told him at the White House in December 1968, “the leaks can kill you.” He advised Nixon to depend on J. Edgar Hoover, and Hoover alone, to keep his secrets and protect his power: “You will rely on him time and time again to maintain security. He’s the only one you can put your complete trust in.”

Nixon had apocalyptic visions of a revolution in America, his dark thoughts driven deeper by the political assassinations, ghetto riots, and anti-war marches of the ’60s. His inaugural parade on Jan. 20, 1969, ran into a brief but furious hail of rocks, bottles, and beer cans tossed by hundreds of anti-war protesters. On the campaign trail, Nixon’s mantra had been “Bring Us Together.” The people he thought were ripping America apart were screaming curses at his black limousine as it rolled to the White House.

The early days of his presidency were marked by alarming bombings and shootouts: Radicals attacked army-recruiting offices and Reserve Officer Training Corps centers on campus; Puerto Rican nationalists

blew up the draft board in San Juan; black militants aimed sniper attacks at police. Hoover had proclaimed the Black Panther Party and its photogenic leaders the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States. His intelligence chief, Bill Sullivan, had succeeded at placing informers at high levels inside the party, which by 1969 was already starting to fragment. But the FBI did not have a clue about the student movement, and the students were the ones who worried Nixon the most.

Nixon feared that they were a subversive threat as powerful as the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Vietcong. He spoke of the campus uprisings at American universities in one of his first major addresses. “This is the way civilizations begin to die,” he said. He quoted Yeats: “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. None of us has the right to suppose it cannot happen here.”

From his first weeks in office, Nixon learned that LBJ was right: The leaks were killing him. Every secret decision about the war in Vietnam, including the plans to bomb Cambodia, appeared in the press soon after every important meeting of the National Security Council, led by Henry Kissinger. Each leak fueled the fires of the anti-war movement. Nixon demanded secret intelligence on the radicals in the streets and on Kissinger’s aides in the White House, all of whom he suspected of treason.

He called Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell into the Oval Office. His memory of the meeting was succinct. “Hoover informed me that … there was only one way to deal with it… . He had authority to wiretap … Wiretapping being the ultimate weapon.”

“I told Mr. Hoover we would go forward with this program,” Nixon remembered. “I called Dr. Kissinger in and indicated to him that he should take the responsibility of checking his own staff.”

 Kissinger complied. “Here he was in this room with J. Edgar Hoover, John Mitchell, Richard Nixon,” said Kissinger’s aide, Peter Rodman. “They’re saying: ‘Let’s do some taps.’ And J. Edgar Hoover and John Mitchell say: ‘Yeah, we can do that. Bobby Kennedy did this all the time.’ ”

The Kissinger wiretaps were on. “Dr. Kissinger said he appreciated this very much,” Hoover wrote, “and he hoped I would follow it up as far as we can take it and they will destroy whoever did this if we can find him, no matter where he is.”

On May 28, 1969, at 3 p.m., Nixon took a seat beside Hoover in the ceremonial East Room of the White House. Together they presided over the graduation of the 83rd session of the FBI National Academy, a training course for American law enforcement commanders and foreign police chiefs. Minutes before, in the Oval Office, Hoover had personally delivered a set of the Kissinger wiretap summaries to the president. In the East Room, Hoover gave Nixon a gold badge, making him an

honorary member of the FBI, and Nixon spoke about the rule of law.

“Our problem,” the president said, “is to see to it that, all over America, our laws—the written laws— deserve respect of all Americans, and that those who carry out the law—who have that hard, difficult, grueling, sometimes dangerous task of enforcing the law—that they carry out their responsibilities

in a way that deserves respect.”

That same afternoon, in Chicago, a young FBI agent named Bill Dyson was about to be initiated into the rules of a lawless world. He remembered the day with clarity. It was the start of a new life.

Dyson was 28-years-old, on his first tour of duty, barely two years after joining the FBI. His boss told him he was going to be working on a wiretap. He was not exactly sure what a wiretap was, or how they worked, or what laws regulated them. But he followed his supervisor down into a windowless room in the bowels of the Bureau’s office. His superiors sat him down and said: “Here’s your machine.”

They put him on the four-to-midnight shift listening to members of the Students for a Democratic Society.

The SDS formally convened in Chicago three weeks later. One faction declared it would begin an armed struggle against the government of the United States. Over the summer, and into the fall, Dyson listened as the members of the group argued, debated, and plotted. He was witnessing the violent birth of a terrorist gang.

“I watched them become the Weathermen! I was with them when they became the Weathermen!” he said. “It was exciting. I was watching history.”

About 50 years before, in Chicago, in September 1919, J. Edgar Hoover’s agents had spied on the birth of the Communist Party of the United States. Dyson was following in their tradition.

The Weathermen saw themselves as revolutionaries who could overthrow America, a vision fueled in part by doses of LSD. They called themselves Communists, but their tactics were closer to those of the Italian anarchists who had bombed Washington and Wall Street in the days after World War I.

Their leaders were white, good-looking, well-educated; some came from wealthy families. They tried to form armed alliances with the Black Panthers. They traveled to Cuba and met with representatives of the government of North Vietnam. They drilled discipline into one another with a grinding groupthink that Chairman Mao might have admired. They fought one another and slept with one another. And Dyson listened.

“I knew more about these people than they knew about themselves. If you work a wiretap, a good wiretap, you will become that way,” he said. “I lived with these people sometimes twenty- four hours a day, seven days a week.”

But then the Weathermen became the Weather Underground. They began to shift from open rabble-rousing to clandestine bomb making in the fall of 1969. They seemed to vanish. Dyson’s taps went silent. The FBI was caught flat-footed. The wiretappers traced calls to pay telephones; they placed radio transmitters in public phone booths. But the trail went cold. That sent a chill of fear through FBI intelligence chief Bill Sullivan, who had reported on Sep. 8, 1969, that the group had “the potential to be far more damaging to the security of this Nation than the Communist Party ever was, even at the height of its strength in the 1930s.”

Starting from Chicago, clandestine cells of four or more Weathermen spread across the country, from New York to San Francisco. That winter, three key members of the New York faction blew themselves up in an elegant town house on West 11th Street while trying to wire 60 sticks of dynamite in a bomb intended to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. After that deadly fiasco, the movement went deeper underground, but it managed to take credit for a fresh outrage every few months during the Nixon

years, taunting the FBI and the White House with wild-eyed communiqués, planting bombs at will in seemingly impenetrable places.

A group barely 100 strong—with a core of a dozen decision takers and bomb makers—began to drive the government of the United States half-mad with fear as the ’60s became the ’70s.

Dyson, who became the FBI’s lead case agent on the group, took them at their word. He judged the threat as deadly serious, and so did his superiors. The message from the underground, as he read it, was one of murderous intent: If you don’t end the war, we’ll kill your congressmen. We’ll kill your senators. We’ll kill the president.

“They were able to get into the U.S. Capitol, build a bomb into a wall, and blow it up at will,” Dyson said. “They got into the Pentagon… . They were able to call up and say it’s going to go off in exactly five minutes and it would go off in five minutes. They were as good as any terrorist group in the world in terms of their sophistication.”

They carried out 38 bombings. The FBI solved none. “We didn’t know how to investigate terrorism,” Dyson said. “We did not have enough intelligence on these people.”

That presented the FBI with a terrible problem. Its answer was to take the most drastic measures. “There were certain people in the FBI who made the decision: We’ve got to take a step—anything to get rid of these people. Anything!” Dyson said. “Not kill them per se, but anything went. If we suspect somebody’s involved in this, put a wiretap on them. Put a microphone in. Steal his mail. Do anything!”

Dyson had questions about the rule of law: “Can I put an informant in a college classroom? Or even on the campus? Can I penetrate any college organization? What can I do? And nobody had any rules or regulations. There was nothing …”

“This was going to come and destroy us,” he said. “We were going to end up with FBI agents arrested. Not because of what they did was wrong. But because nobody knew what was right or wrong.” Not knowing that difference is a legal definition of insanity.

Dyson’s premonitions of disaster would prove prophetic. In time, the top commanders of the FBI in Washington and New York would face the prospect of prison time for their work against the threat from the left. So would the president’s closest confidants.

Excerpted from the book Enemies: A History of the FBI. Copyright © 2012 by Tim Weiner. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.