THE PENTAGONISTS -- AN INSIDER'S VIEW OF WASTE, MISMANAGEMENT, AND FRAUD IN DEFENSE SPENDING
3. "Let Him Bleed"
ONE EVENING in the fall of 1969, after I had received my notice of termination, I was at a party at the home of Jim Free of the Birmingham News. There I was introduced to Clark Mollenhoff, now Nixon's ombudsman. He listened to the story of my recent adventures in the Pentagon and a little later confided to my wife, "He'll be all right as long as he's telling the truth." It seemed to be an implied promise that he'd try to do something for me. (At the time I didn't know that Nixon himself was involved in my firing.) Mollenhoff's coming down on my side was not so surprising. He was an old-fashioned fiscal conservative whose political heroes were the two cheapest men in Congress: Senator John Williams of Delaware and Representative H. R. Gross, the abominable no-man from Iowa.
Mollenhoff didn't forget my case. Shortly thereafter he enlisted the help of Pat Buchanan, who was already becoming a power on the White House staff. Buchanan's roots were in the conservative, anti-Communist, Catholic middle class, which tended to see criticism of the military as a hidden thrust against our war in Southeast Asia. But these people also favored fiscal frugality in government; they didn't like crooks and wasters. What I saw in Buchanan, and a great many Republicans like him, was a transition from a belief in financial prudence as an overall principle to a belief that prudence shouldn't apply to the military. (Buchanan later crossed that bridge easily and became an ardent supporter of the biggest spender of all time, Ronald Reagan.)
Nixon had a lot of admiration for the abilities of this young, combative right-winger, who had worked for him since 1966. A fierce counterattacker against congressional probes, Buchanan was one of the movers in the new "get tough" policy. (He later routed the Watergate committee much as Oliver North routed the Iran-Contra committee.) But in my case, Buchanan made a determined effort on behalf of the truth. In fact, I might venture to suggest that he was in the same camp as Senator Proxmire and his committee.
Mollenhoff's first attempts to talk to Nixon about my case were blocked by Robert Haldeman. When Dwight Chapin tried again, Haldeman wrote him, ''I'll handle. Just drop this one." So Mollenhoff enlisted Buchanan. One of Buchanan's duties was to prepare the President's Briefing Book, with sample questions and answers, before press conferences. Whenever possible, Nixon's press aides would plant questions with favorable reporters or with one who was working on a particular issue.
A presidential press conference was scheduled for December 8, 1969. On December 4 Buchanan wrote a memorandum to Nixon noting that one of the issues would probably be "Ernest Fitzgerald and the C-5A," and he wrote John Ehrlichman to ask "our position on this fellow we fired who is filing suit against the President's decision to oust him." The last six words are most revealing. The world at large did not know that the president had ousted me, but obviously it was common knowledge among the White House staff.
The questioners persisted. Buchanan wrote to Bill Baroody, Melvin Laird's assistant, saying, "We urgently need a QA on the question of Mr. Fitzgerald, the C-5A man." Mollenhoff got Bud Krogh (later famous for his role as head of the White House plumbers' unit, to write to Kissinger's assistant, Al Haig, that "it will be interpreted as if we fired Mr. Fitzgerald for telling the truth about the C-5A." The answers were, predictably, not very helpful. A Colonel Knight in Melvin Laird's office sent Mollenhoff a paper prepared by Seamans and okayed by Packard. The paper was the standard Air Force defense of my firing, and it implied that Mollenhoff should stop bothering them.
On December 5 the Pentagon sent Buchanan the sample question and answer for the upcoming press conference. They proposed that Nixon simply brush off any question about my firing by saying that he had utter confidence in Laird and Seamans and had left the decision up to them.
Buchanan, not impressed, wrote another memorandum to the president:
Pat Buchanan was so confident he had sold his argument to Nixon that be brought the proposed Q and A to Haldeman with a slip reading, "Fitzgerald reinstated." Buchanan told my lawyers at his deposition that he recognized the handwriting on the slip as Nixon's.
But Buchanan underestimated the resources of Bryce Harlow, who was concealing a lot. In a later deposition Mollenhoff said, "(Harlow) not only told me nothing of any pre-termination communication he had had with the Air Force on the subject, but he stated expressedly that he had no prior knowledge of the termination decision and knew only what he had heard on the Hill." About three years after this conversation, the Oval Office taping system recorded Nixon saying, "Bryce was all for canning him (Fitzgerald)."
Instead of revealing any of this, Harlow told Mollenhoff that there were stories "floating around the Hill" that Fitzgerald was a "bad man in essence, and that he was someone the administration should get rid of." But, he said, if Mollenhoff could show there was nothing to such rumors, he would give Nixon the memo recommending reversal of the firing.
There is no evidence that he ever did.
Now the Pentagon decided to drop its biggest bomb on its worst gadfly. Its biggest bomb, in more ways than one, was David Packard. He called Bryce Harlow on December 6 "to register a vehement protest against any move in the White House area to require continued use of Mr. Fitzgerald." Harlow recorded this in a December 8 memo to Haldeman, adding, "He (Packard) said he would talk with you about this." That did it. Packard, the richest and one of the most prestigious of all Nixon's appointees, delivered a big bang in the administration.
My reinstatement was killed before it got off the ground.
At the press conference on December 8, Sarah McClendon delivered the expected Fitzgerald question. A veteran White House correspondent representing a string of small Texas newspapers, McClendon had been the scourge of presidents since the 1950s. Most of the other reporters considered her too aggressive, not deferential enough to our elected rulers. I thought she was terrific.
When her turn came, Sarah lectured Nixon on the injustice done me and asked if he was going to do anything about it. The assembled press corps laughed, and Nixon chuckled along with them. It was a great opportunity to defuse the issue. Instead of hauling out the pompous Pentagon script about his great confidence in Laird, etcetera, he said, "Well, Sarah, after the way you put it, I guess I'd better."
Mollenhoff, unaware that my firing had been agreed on by the Pentagon and the president months before, for years believed that it was McClendon's snapping at his heels that allowed Nixon to brush off the matter as a joke. But Mollenhoff didn't shelve the affair. The next day he got a note from Haldeman stating, "The P. (president) has asked Mayo to bring Fitzgerald into the Budget Bureau to work in non-defense areas."
When Nixon later made a deposition on all this, he correctly stated that he had been in a tug of war between the Mollenhoff-Buchanan side (apparently he never knew that Jeb Stuart Magruder concurred) and the opposition, made up of the Pentagon heavyweights and Bryce Harlow.
In retrospect, it is clear that the administration thought it was arguing over a public relations question. They completely missed the point. In the large sense, Ernest Fitzgerald was important only as a man who represented a thesis vital to the well-being of the United States of America. If any high officer had understood that the real issue was protecting the treasury against the military-industrial combine, he might have advocated replacing me with someone even tougher. The decision to fire me was bound to send a powerful signal throughout the government and the contractor community: the guard dog has been removed because he growled.
On December 17 Nixon scheduled a what-to-do-with-Fitzgerald meeting and called in Robert Mayo, James Schlesinger of the Bureau of the Budget (BoB), Ehrlichman, and (according to Ehrlichman's notes) Kissinger. The meeting log shows that the P's compromise was ratified: "Schlesinger -- Put Fitzgerald in Budget on non-defense problems." Nixon's idea of a compromise -- "to make the President appear to be a just man," in Buchanan's words -- was meaningless. It assumed that I could be buried in the bowels of the BoB, where I could exercise my cost-cutting passions on school lunch programs and the pensions of disabled veterans.
Even the Budget Bureau had a distaste for the idea. At that time I had friends and supporters in the bureau and a record of inciting my colleagues to protect the taxpayers' interests. That would never do. Mayo, the director, and Schlesinger, his deputy, undoubtedly wanted no "maverick in their midst" any more than the Pentagon did. In a much later deposition to my lawyers, Schlesinger stated, "Given Mr. Fitzgerald's reputation as a source of information to Capitol Hill and to Senator Proxmire, specifically, I thought he would be a disruptive factor in the operations of the Bureau of the Budget." When asked where he got his impression of my reputation, the good doctor, bringing to bear all his scholarly principles of valid proof and objectivity, answered, "Well, I think that was acquired generally through the press and probably by chitchat that may have gone along." (His other source was Robert Seamans.) And naturally Schlesinger saw the danger as being "the leaks that have occurred ... and the detrimental effect (they) might have directly on requests to the Congress regarding defense appropriations."
In the end Schlesinger prevailed upon Mayo to meet with Nixon on December 23 and plead that he had no room for me in the BoB. Nixon's small resolve crumbled. Mayo testified afterward in his deposition that the president said, "Bob, you are absolutely right that I don't think there really is a place for Mr. Fitzgerald in your organization." Packard to Seamans to Schlesinger to Mayo to Nixon -- a superb infield single-play combination.
About a week later Ehrlichman told Mollenhoff the news. But Mollenhoff, knowing nothing of the high-level meeting, plunged on in his attempts to help me. While the president could easily swat a Sarah McClendon, Mollenhoff wrote to Ehrlichman, Senator Proxmire and his investigators were another order of menace, "particularly since they have allies in the liberal press and a few allies in the conservative press ... (and) it is obvious that Senator Proxmire does not intend to drop this matter."
Proxmire didn't drop the matter but, unfortunately, he made a tactical error in pursuing it. Because my firing was on its face a violation of Title 18, Section 1505, of the U.S. Criminal Code, which makes it a serious crime to interfere with the work of a congressional committee or to retaliate against one of its witnesses, he turned the matter over to the Justice Department, along with the evidence he had gathered, and asked that the attorney general "apprehend the felons in the Pentagon" who had fired me. Ah, what an age of innocence that was! But, to be fair, neither Proxmire nor any of the rest knew that Attorney General John Mitchell would end up in prison a few years hence.
When Justice got Proxmire's request, it promptly turned the assignment over to the accused: it asked the Air Force to investigate itself. The Air Force lawyers, as was later revealed, put together a sheaf of neatly chosen evidence to show that no crime had been committed. As succinctly summarized by Air Force Assistant General Counsel Hugh Gilmore in a memo of November 25, 1969, to Colonel Simokaitis of Seamans's office, the Air Force lawyers were "assembling the necessary documentation to show that there were no violations of law."
Mollenhoff, for his part, kept the pot boiling. He was able to do so, not because the White House had such respect for an ombudsman, but simply because they feared him. Mollenhoff, an honest cop at heart, with a rare capacity for sustained outrage, had a long record of exposing waste, fraud, and corruption. And because he had a wide circle of political and media connections, the White House staff handled him gingerly. Quite a few people went through quite a few empty motions to keep him from booming. To give a hint of the general White House IQ in those days, on January 3, 1970, Haldeman wrote to his gofer, Larry Higby, asking him "to please find out the status of Fitzpatrick (sic), the guy they fired at the Defense Department." Haldeman added that "after I get this report, you should remind me that the President wants Ziegler to call in Sarah McLyndon (sic. Haldeman also referred to her as "the big broad") and tell her what we have done with Fitzpatrick."
On January 5 Fitzpatrick or Fitzgerald, whatever his name was, packed his briefcase, wrote "time wounds all heels" on his office blackboard, climbed into his old Rambler, and drove away from the Pentagon thinking he would never return.
My more extensive parting comments appeared in the Washington Post the next day. Among the most incensed was Alexander Butterfield, Haldeman's deputy. He addressed his remarks to Higby on January 6. The next day Higby conveyed Butterfield's views to Haldeman in a memo:
That's not exactly what I said, but I wish I had. Butterfield went on to say that it would be "an admission of error" to bring me back into the government.
In his January 7 memo, Higby answered Haldeman's request to "find out the status of Fitzpatrick," relaying the two-week-old news about the meeting with Nixon and the president's decision to keep me out of the BoB.
It was time to hear from "the world's greatest newspaper," as the Chicago Tribune describes itself. That may be more than a little hyperbole, but the paper is very good, especially when it comes to exposing crookedness and duplicity in government. Mollenhoff and Buchanan were friends with Willard Edwards, a conservative journalist on the paper, who on December 10 had reported that the president had decided to give me a nondefense job in the BoB. When it was apparent that the double-cross was in, the Tribune delivered itself on a powerful editorial. As Pat Buchanan recapitulated it in the president's daily news summary:
The coupling of my name with that of Otto Otepka spelled big trouble for me with the liberal establishment. Otepka, a State Department security specialist in the Kennedy administration, had had custody of certain "personnel security files." Like the derogatory dirt files of General Cappucci and "Crazy Billy" Sullivan, Otepka's files contained false charges, gossip, and innuendo. When Otepka was called on to deliver his files to Senator John McClellan's investigations subcommittee, he complied. For this he was fired.
The liberals, outraged, argued that delivering the dirt files to the Senate meant that the subjects of the files suffered disgraceful exposure without any chance to confront their accusers. They missed the point: the wrong was the existence of the dirt files in the first place; Otepka was merely obeying the law and doing his duty. To be consistent, the liberals should have demanded that all government dirt files (except those that were part of an active criminal investigation) be returned to their subjects and the victims of false charges and slander be given free rein to sue their accusers for damages in a civil action. But the liberals were not consistent.
Conservatives, on the other hand, had thundered in Otepka's defense, and Nixon had promised, if elected, to make him whole. But once in office, Nixon choked. Instead of restoring Otepka to the bosom of the State Department, he gave him a luxurious and meaningless job on the impotent Subversive Activities Control Board. The Tribune's parallel between Otepka and Fitzgerald was enough to pull Nixon's chain, so he marked the "treatment of Fitzgerald" passage and noted in the margin, "H (Haldeman) -- I wonder if we fumbled this one -- check it out again -- "
So once again the staff went through the tired motions of checking out nothing. Haldeman bucked the problem to the staff secretary, who bucked it to Kissinger on January 16, who bucked it in a "Secret, Eyes Only" memo to Laird on the nineteenth.
Mollenhoff was tireless, though. He egged Edwards on to do another column titled "Fitzgerald Is Now Nixon's Otepka," and he hectored Laird to reverse the firing decision. This combination of events made the anti-Fitzgeraldians jittery; with another press conference coming in a few days, they worried that the P might backslide again and decide to restore the maverick.
Butterfield was incensed once more. On January 20 he put on his spurs, loaded his horse pistol, and delivered to Haldeman another memorandum on my disloyalty. He cited the infamous National Democratic Coalition dinner, but this time he got the name of the service in question correct: he said I'd planned to blow the whistle on the Air Force, not the Navy. Never let it be said that White House functionaries are incapable of learning. (Appendix A is Butterfield's entire screed, to give readers a sample of a certain brand of military ethics.) Butterfield sent copies of this diatribe to Ehrlichman, Kissinger, Klein, Colson, Nofziger, Magruder, and Ziegler. But he made one serious mistake: Magruder gave his copy to Senator Daniel Inouye, who later brought out the "let him bleed" memo at the Watergate hearings.
It was Magruder, ironically, who on January 21 wrote the administration's official line on the Fitzgerald matter:
This masterpiece of hypocrisy, which we later uncovered in legal discovery, was sent to Kissinger by White House staffer William Watts; in the checkoff space labeled "approve as is" were Kissinger's initials. Three days later Watts wrote a "cover-your-ass" memo for the record, noting that he'd told Magruder of Kissinger's approval.
Conveniently for my lawyers and me, Higby bundled up a lot of memorandums on the Fitzgerald problem and sent them all to presidential counsel Fred Fielding with the handwritten notation, "Eyes Only!" The whole package came to us in legal discovery some years later.
Kissinger finally disposed of his "review" of my case on February 2 with this reply to Nixon: "Jeb Magruder's report on Mr. Fitzgerald is attached at tab G. Dr. Kissinger feels no further action is necessary." Recall that Magruder's memo said there was "no reason to retaliate" against Fitzgerald and there was "no connection" between my testimony and the decision to abolish my job. And compare that with Kissinger's ultimate remark on the matter in his book The White House Years: "Former Air Force analyst A. Ernest Fitzgerald who had been fired for denouncing C-5A cost overruns ..." (page 113, emphasis added). Which goes to prove, I guess, that some politicians who lie in office will tell the truth in their memoirs. I'd prefer it the other way around.
In Mel Laird's final word (a memo of February 19 to Kissinger and Haig), he noted, "Stories such as the 10 January editorial in The Chicago Tribune appear to emanate from other White House staff offices. It would be helpful if you could stop such stories at the source."
He meant Mollenhoff. Not surprisingly, his days as an ombudsman were numbered. The presidential log for May 25, 1970, has a handwritten note: "Had Mollenhoff in -- he's quitting to go back to Des Moines Register as Bureau Chief. Good break both ways. Z (Ziegler) especially delighted."
Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary, Nixon's flack, had good reason to be delighted. Mollenhoff had never made secret his contempt for the flack's intelligence and character. His acid test for a words-of-one-syllable explanation was, "Make it so even Ron Ziegler can understand." But what outraged Mollenhoff most were the public statements Ziegler pumped out daily with their remarkably high fraud content.
What had broken Mollenhoff's ombudsman spirit was a March 8 memo from Haldeman saying, "No member of the White House staff -- and this very specifically includes you -- is to have any communication with or make any statement or provide any information to any member of the press without prior consultation with Ron Ziegler."
The Nixon administration, with all its crimes, is often thought of as an anomaly, but in a great many ways, it was not much different from either its predecessors or its successors. People such as Harold Brown, James Schlesinger, and Henry Kissinger are indispensable front men and mouthpieces for the great, interlocked Pentagon-corporation complex that traffics in the greater part of our federal funds. A large part of their onstage role is to produce threats from abroad (real, half-real, or imagined) and phony economic justification for a corrupt and wasteful spending program.
These men are the Praetorian Guard commanders. But the people I offended originally were the centurions, the permanent Pentagon cadre, a powerful brotherhood. Many, though not all, of them are procurement people who go on steadily year after year, fronting for the big corporations, systematically wasting money, and in the end providing the armed forces of the United States with inferior equipment and weaponry.
On July 9, 1973, several years after I was fired, a Nixon White House lawyer, Dudley Chapman, wrote in a memorandum to his boss, Leonard Garment, that there was "a clear public impression" that I had "an independent, acerbic personality unacceptable to the career military brass and that both Democratic and Republican appointees deferred to that view." I agree to take that as one man's comment. But it is a comment on style, not substance. What was -- and is -- woefully wrong is a matter of substance.