A MAN CALLED MACHO
by Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas
Miami is a modern city, boasting state-of-the-art commercial, educational, and medical institutions as well as an efficient workforce. Everything is available without much effort, ranging from clothing and electronics to rare books. Someone looking for information or connections to any national or foreign business can hire a consultant for the right price, and find the answers that he seeks. English and Spanish are spoken fluently, so speakers of both languages feel at home. To the casual observer Miami is a big place that is colorful and informal.
It is a city where addresses and points of references are easy to find. Someone searching for less general information, especially regarding on political issues, will also find many sources. The most difficult to track down are the hard and verifiable facts required to close a chapter of history and gain an understanding of past political events.
Because of its senior citizen population, Miami functions as a vast a memory bank of nearly forgotten events. This information might be stored in the minds of these seniors. Among the senior citizens that stroll through the streets of Miami are many former members of national and foreign government agencies carrying their treasures of untold stories of yet unknown history and missing pieces of national and international mysteries. Some may carry these stories to their graves, because they have been too painful to tell or because none has asked. For this reason, if these stories are to be told it must be now, even though in this fast-paced world people are overwhelmed by the present and care less about the past.
I suspect that it is a rare retired veteran who feels driven to write about his or her role in history. After all, what did one person do in a complex situation that might warrant putting pen to paper, and who would be interested? On the other hand, "oral history" projects to record the words of W.W.II veterans have had considerable successes. From a collection of many views, vivid human accounts have been developed of wartime events.
Slowly, the remaining veterans have scattered. Some have died and others have moved away. However, some of these retired "players" are now willing to help historians in their attempts to clarify recent history. I call them "lions at rest." They are not searching for fame or riches. Nor are they concerned with palace intrigue or which leader from the next generation of princes will succeed. These veteran "lions" are proud of their past and aware of their mistakes. Their reward comes from the pleasure of contributing to the record and the hope that something can be learned to avoid the repetition of past errors.
In some cases these seniors want to pay tribute to a colleague who has passed on, a comrade in arms who is an unknown hero in the history of our country. To make this mark in the historical record is to carry out a duty of honor, before the hour of departure.
In Miami lives a man that was a key player in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon. Will he agree to talk? Well, let's see what happens tonight . . . He looked much younger than I expected, given that more than twenty years had past since our last conversation. He stood in front of me smiling, the picture of a loving grandfather. We did not talk of the developments in our lives in the last two decades. He knew that I wanted him to take me on a visit through his memory lane. He was neither evasive nor defensive, and agreed to talk openly in front of a tape recorder. I couldn't resist the temptation to test his mood by saying, "You really look great! What do you burglars eat for breakfast?"
In the past, the word burglar would have been considered an insult by all. He responded casually, "The word burglar doesn't bother me anymore, now I wear it as a badge of honor. I don't regret what I did, I was aware of the risks involved, after all they are just part of the life of an intelligence agent."
The man I was talking to was Bernard Barker (a.k.a.) one of the Watergate Burglars and this conversation was taking place in Miami at his spacious and neat home. Judging from the objects and photographs in this comfortable home, Barker is a devout catholic, a passionate fisherman and a loving father.
However, one part of his life which is not reflected is his old profession, there are no communications gadgets or firearms which often decorate the living quarters of retired spies; nor are there any autographed pictures of military men, politicians and other personalities encountered during his eighty-two years. The only pictures were those of his pretty daughter, Maria Elena and one of him wearing his American World War II aviator uniform. He carries the memorabilia from his other life in his mind.
He begins the story of that fateful time in our nation's history known as the "Watergate burglary." His account is filled with humor, nostalgia and includes a critical look at his own mistakes.
While listening to him relate the inside story of "the Watergate incident," I realize that Barker is an idealist with a profound love for the United States and its institutions. His recollections are devoid of hatred. He is still loyal to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which to him represents more than a government agency or an ordinary job. It was a way of life that he has loved and remembers with nostalgia.
Bernard Barker first became known to the public in 1972 because of his role at the stormy center of the Watergate scandal. Barker was one of the five burglars who broke into the now famous Washington apartment and office complex called, The Watergate. (1)
To this day little is known about the lives and motivations of these five men. Published histories of Watergate tend to classify the" burglars" as third-rate spies and actors in the drama. Others see them as an incidental appendage to a political story. While a few in the world of intelligence, see Barker and his colleagues as role-models of how to behave when caught. They went to jail, faced poverty and humiliation while refusing to reveal what they knew. Barker is aware that given today's confessional mood, he could have made a great deal of money and become a celebrity by talking.
Who is this mysterious man and where did he come from? His full name is Bernard Leon Barker Terry. He was born on March 17, 1917, in Havana. His father, Bernard L. Barker (a descendant of Russian immigrants), was born in Tennessee and moved to Cuba in his youth. Bernard's paternal grandfather was in business supplying food to Teddy Roosevelt's troops. Bernard's mother was Alicia Terry, a Cuban woman from a prestigious family in the colonial city of Cienfuegos. Alicia was of Irish extraction, a descendant of one of the founders of Cienfuegos and a member of the old Cuban aristocracy. She was also a legend in her own right: beautiful, witty, strong-willed, fearless and possessing a volcanic temper.
Bernard and his older sister, Alicia spent a pleasant childhood in the seaside town of Mariel. Mariel (now known for the infamous influx of Cuban refugees to Miami in 1980) is about 20 miles west of Havana, on the northern coast of Cuba. Not surprisingly given their roots, the Barker home was bilingual. Since early childhood Bernard was called by the nickname, "Macho."
His first adventure with political danger took place in 1933, during his early high school years. At that time young Macho joined the ABC, a revolutionary group opposed to then president Gerardo Machado Morales. One day, an army sergeant from a nearby garrison came to the Barker home to warn his father that because of his involvement in the ABC, Macho was in serious trouble and could get killed.
The sergeant's visit had the desired impact on the elder Barker and he lectured the 16-year-old about the dangers of a revolution. His concern for his son led him to visit the American Embassy in Havana looking for help. As a result, officials at the American Embassy intervened with the Cuban government on behalf of young Macho and got him out of trouble by assisting his parents in sending him to the U.S. Bernard soon found himself in Long Island, New York completing his high school. Two years later, at 18, Bernard had to make a decision about his dual citizenship. At that time, it was much safer to be a foreigner, than a national, in Cuba, Thus Bernard opted for his American citizenship, becoming a foreigner in his country of birth. After high school, Bernard moved to Baltimore to work in a steel mill until his father called him back to Cuba. Back home, he found that he had to take additional high school courses in order to enter the University of Havana, but was ultimately admitted.
When Macho was a 24-year-old second year engineering student at the University of Havana, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Early on the morning of December 8, 1942 he knocked at the door of the American Embassy and became the first Cuban-American to volunteer in the American armed forces. From Cuba he traveled to Tampa for basic training, and then on to an air base in Houston where he became an aviation cadet.
Upon graduation as a second lieutenant, he flew patrol missions over the Gulf of Mexico along the U.S. and Mexican coasts. He then trained for two months as a bombardier, and in October 1943 shipped out on the Queen Mary for England via Scotland.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
Upon his arrival in London the city was suffering from the intense bombing raids by the German Air Force. Bernard Barker was assigned to the 94th Bombardment Group of the 331st squadron, 8th Air Force and was based at Bury St. Edmunds. He served as a bombardier on board a B-17 Flying Fortress named "Good Time Cholly."
A BOMBARDIER'S VIEW
The crew was made up of ten proud men, who were tired of flying almost round-the-clock over the heartland of Germany. Every mission had a different target but the drill was always a repetition of the previous one. As each mission began, the crew could see the British coast gently disappear over the departing horizon and the emptiness of the sea begin. Soon the gray land mass of the European continent would come into view. In front of the plane and to the sides, Bernard could see the other planes of the flock with the same objective. Above the bombers flew their guardian angels, the fighters P-38's and P-47's that would clear the skies of enemy attackers.
Barker related that upon entering the European continent the crew would always remain silent for a moment. They felt as if their hearts beat as one, and one sensed a collective prayer on the lips of all ten men. Each member of the crew felt like a brother. Bakers leather jacket was embroidered with his name, Bernard B. Terry. The Spanish tradition being that one uses a first name, then the last name of the father followed by the last name of the mother. Ironically, this caused his American last name of Barker to be abbreviated to a single"B," while Terry, his Cuban mothers last name, appeared prominently on the uniform.
Bernard relates, "It always seemed to me that the arrival over Europe lasted forever. In those brief minutes you could see your entire life on a parade before you and you would pray for a safe return. The realization that you were over enemy territory came when small clouds of smoke appeared in the sky and your plane started to move up and down in reaction to the shock waves of the anti-aircraft fire. The radio would occasionally interrupt the tension and bark orders. The squadron leader would direct you to get ready to open your bomb bay doors and drop your payload."
"The return from a mission was always a happy and sad event. You could see the British coastline and feel happy to have survived. But you were always afraid of the final count. There were familiar names that did not answer the call of the squadron leader. Those were the missing in action. The best that you could hope for them was that they had time to exit the plane and parachute to some safe place."
Usually, two hours later Macho and his buddies could be seen laughing and drinking their fears and sorrows away in a pub close to the base. There they would ask for another beer and invite a young woman to share their joy at being alive. That was England in 1944!
"I did not consider myself a hero, just a regular American guy doing the best I could to fulfill my duty. Even though I was not born in the U.S. I always considered myself very American and love my country." I asked him why he had such strong feelings toward this country? Barker paused for a while, and answered. "For me, Cuba and the United States were part of an indivisible, sacred and loving whole. I was raised to love and respect my two countries. I consider that I had the privilege of knowing and of being part of the best of two worlds. Fifty five years later, my love and devotion toward both countries have grown, not diminished. It is a matter of values and upbringing, in my home, the concepts of duty to one's country and family were always present and revered.
On February 2, 1944, Bernard Barker took off on his 12th mission. They were met by heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Germans and the plane was hit. Initially, confusion and fear raced through the aircraft as they were ordered to bail out. His parachute opened with a jerk, the air was filled with smoke and gunpowder. To this day, the emptiness and dead silence of the sky were unforgettable. All noise ceased, silence became absolute. Bernard could see the flashes of the anti-aircraft projectiles from above and from below the explosions of the falling bombs.
Barker then tells of seeing the nose of a German fighter plane and waiting to hear the hammer of machine guns, but nothing happened. The plane passed by apparently photographing his kill. He saw the pilot of the plane salute him and he returned the gesture. All this happened high over the Ruhr Valley on a cold Wednesday at about 11.00 in the morning.
Barker landed in the middle of some German farmers who were waiting for the fallen airman. After being captured he was first shipped to a military base for interrogation. He was then sent to a concentration camp called "Stalag Luft 1". Recalling the camp Barkers says, "My captors took me to the interrogation room. It was rough, not physically violent but psychologically ruthless. Something surprising was that the Germans had a very accurate file on me, including my address in Cuba. A through interrogation followed with most of the questions relating to technical aspects of our missions. My answers, most of the time, were limited to I don't know, or to recite my name, rank and serial number: O747944. Sixteen months later, I was liberated by Russian troops."
Soon after the end of the war, Barker was discharged with the rank of captain. He returned to Cuba and joined the National Police. He worked as an assistant to the Chief of Police with the rank of sergeant. At the same time, he was recruited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and began to work for them. Later, he transferred to the newly-established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Beginning a fateful association with "the agency." MIAMI
When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Macho then forty-two, was a seasoned CIA agent. He became very useful to the CIA because of his knowledge of Cuban society. However, he was also an American citizen with strong connections to his Embassy. Consequently, he was ordered by his superiors to relocate with his family to Miami where he would be more useful working among Cuban exiles. He and his family moved to Miami in January 1960.
The first groups of exiles were mostly members of the deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista, followed later by people who had believed in the revolution and were betrayed, their property confiscated and their lives in danger. Due to the explosion in unrest throughout, not only Cuba, but also the rest of Central and South America at that time, the CIA's "Miami Operations Base" had hundreds of agents, all under the command of a" Mr. B", whose code name was Frank Bender.
One of Mr. B's associates was Eduardo Hamilton, the code name used by E. Howard Hunt. Bender and Hunt were veterans of the OSS and the CIA and were experienced cold warriors. In 19600 Barker was assigned to work under Hunt, to recruit and organize men for what would become a Cuban Exile invasion force training to liberate Cuba from Castro. The group was then known as the "2506 Brigade." In reality far from being a Cuban led and organized effort, these training activities were in accordance with an official plan to implement the CIA's "A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime" which was approved by President Eisenhower on March 17, 1960. (2)
In order to accomplish his mission Barker had to organize this revolutionary force, with the help of others, from scratch, introducing most recruits to a new and secret way of life. On the other hand, he also had to educate the trainers and other American agents in the Cuban culture and the current political environment in Miami and in Cuba. It was not easy to reconcile these two cultures, with their different ways of thinking, into one cohesive plan of action. Barker described his task as the need to make soldiers out of civilians and to maintain high morale and discipline in a changing political world. A world that was shaped on a daily basis by the events of the times.
There was also a constant struggle between the bureaucratic and "Anglo" Washington and the emotional, task-oriented, American and Cuban, leaders of this clandestine operation. Barker came to learn that priorities were dictated more by the political environment of Washington, than by the tactical realities of the Cuban scenario.
The most difficult and frustrating task was to explain to the officers and leaders of the invading force that political and operational changes were ordered by Washington. "I was an operations officer, not a policy maker," Barker said. " Sometimes the orders did not make sense, but I did not want to second-guess my superiors, I obeyed the orders."
In the bright bronze light of a Florida afternoon, I remarked to Barker that thirty-seven years had now passed since the disaster of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Before he responded, I could see the resignation mixed with pain on his face, as he remembered those days. "It is easy to blame us (the CIA) for the failure of the invasion, but the original plan called for strong air support from the U.S. armed forces, that was not provided. We "dumped" them on the beach, with no chance to win. I wonder if today, with my experience I would have followed orders that seemed so wrong?"
Barker continued speaking in a pensive mood, "An intelligence officer is a person of one thousand bleeding scars who cannot afford to complain or to mourn along the way. Sometimes people think that we leave our hearts in a locker when we go to work. Many people died anonymously for the cause of Cuban freedom. Many young men died in front of firing squads shouting"Long live Christ the King." Close to here, in this neighborhood there are four streets by the names of Leo F. Baker, Wade C. Gray, Thomas W. Ray and Riley W. Shamburger. Do you know who those people are?", he asked me. "They were the four American pilots, all CIA men, who honored the promise that had been made to the invaders by John F. Kennedy and their trainers. That the sky would be theirs, implying air cover that never materialized for ground troops. Those four men died on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs among the men they had trained." Bernard continues,"That gesture in a certain way, redeemed America at the operational level of the failed invasion."
AND "DUMPED," THEY WERE
Given his nature and his training, Barker is not inclined to question or blame his superiors for possible errors. But his comment about"dumping" the Brigade in Cuba are confirmed by others. A book by Grayston L. Lynch, an American participant in the landing at the Bay of Pigs, describes the invasion in bitter detail in "decision for disaster, betrayal at the bay of pigs"
April 1961 started with dual and antagonistic expectations. In Washington, the White House was full of doubts, hesitant and with a President talking about "the disposal problem" if the invasion was canceled. He was obsessed with the thought that the United States should not appear involved in this adventure. On the other hand, in the training camps of Guatemala, the would-be invaders, military and political leaders and CIA field personnel were all kept in the dark about the approaching disaster.
Could the United States deny its involvement in the operation? The answer is a categorical no. Major Washington and New York news organization were aware of the preparations in Guatemala. In Miami people talked about it in bars and office of exile organizations. There was no way that the recruitment, training and supply of weapons for 1,400 Cuban men could be organized without the United States participation and control.
President Kennedy saw just two options: To cancel the invasion or to go ahead with it. Cancellation implied a "disposal problem," what to do with the invaders? To keep them in Guatemala and announce that the invasion had been postponed or canceled was an invitation to a riot and a possible war between the frustrated invaders and the Guatemalan armed forces. To disband the force and ship the men the United States was a political and military risk that nobody wanted to face. The other option was to go ahead with the invasion and be sure it was a winning card. It is easier to justify a victory than a defeat. The White House selected the option to invade but not with the resolution and will to win at all costs. It was an expeditionary force sent to the battlefield to "melt" and disappeared in the jungle: they did not land they were "dumped" into a swamp. This unexplainable act of political suicide coined a phrase: the Bay of Pigs "fiasco."
This act of political and military absurdity has been explained many times as treason of the CIA, ineptitude of the Pentagon, and similar excuses. But up to now very few have explained that it was foreign policy at his most disastrous state carried out by cold, cynical and incompetent presidential aides whose main task was to protect the political capital of the boss (John F. Kennedy) not the prestige of the country or the lives of the persons participating in the invasion.
There is also persuasive support for the "dumping thesis" in "A Thousand Days," the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger paints a vivid account of President Kennedy's indecision on the matter of how much and when to provide support for the Brigade. He also documents the obsession within the White House to avoid any hint of US involvement in the Bay of Pigs affair. According to his journal, Schlesinger became closely involved with planning for the invasion early in March 1961. (3)
While the 1,400 invading force was still in the training camps in Guatemala two groups were working in Washington against its success. One faction was led by the President and some of its advisors that were more concern to hide American involvement in the expedition than to invest in its success. The second group was made up of "magicians of the impossible," like Richard Bissell, CIA Director of Covert Operations, that in spite all the changes and cuts in the original plans accepted them and still certified the operation as viable. Bissell though that he would be appointed Director of Intelligence, coming July, replacing the ailing Allan Dulles. President Kennedy in a cold, unimaginative manner, abandoned the invaders he sponsored for lack of a formality: plausible denial. Didn't he realize that accepting the paternity of the fiasco and blame it later on his employees at the CIA, while he could do otherwise, make him a looser and an inept by design and choice?
The decision that president Kennedy arrived, according to Schlesinger, probably by Saturday, April 8, 1961, was to "get rid" of the Brigade of Cubans soldiers by "dump" them in their native soil "specially if that is where they want to go." That was nine days before they actually landed at Bay of Pigs. Schlesinger the re writer of history in the making, returned the confidence deposited on him delivering to the President a document, on April 10, on a single-spaced, nine page typewritten memorandum anticipating the "fiasco" and giving some pragmatic or cynical advices.
Among the suggestions offered by Schlesinger were the following. If the Cuban government showed captured prisoners saying that they were trained by the CIA. Respond that "the alleged CIA personnel were errant idealists or soldiers of fortune working on their own." He went further saying "one of our greatest national resources" was the President and recommended: "When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials." It is important to note that Schlesinger saw nothing morally wrong in recommending how to proceed to cover up for a "fiasco" on the make. He had become sort of "close" to the President and knew the timing and the nature of the advise to offer. Did president Kennedy pay attention to these recommendations?
It seems that he did it, two days later, April 12, the President announced to the press that the US would never be involved in Cuba in case of an internal conflict. Why did, the President had to make such a unilateral concession? Why to paint himself in a corner with such untimely statements? Dr. José Miró Cardona, the political and civilian head of the expeditionary group, told me than when he expressed his concern about the presidential words about Cuba to his liaison to the White House, he was told not to worry about it, that everything was going according to the original plans and nothing had been changed. (4)
Back in Miami Barker was ignorant of what was being planned in Washington, as a good soldier, he had confidence that the high-ups knew better. If something went wrong, he blamed themselves never Washington. When the "fiasco" took place, he was hurt, stunned and confused. Many sleepless nights remembering the fallen, many years mourning for the dead. Finally, he understood but remained silent and loyal, hopeful for another opportunity to go back to battle.
OUT TO PASTURE
The missile crisis of October 1962 was the last opportunity to wage open military operations against Cuba. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 22, 1963 and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson had to face a different scenario. Vietnam dominated the attention of policy makers in Washington. Soon, the CIA base in Miami was reduced in size, power and importance. Operations against Cuba were refocused on the conventional tasks of gathering information and extracting agents in danger.
Richard M. Nixon won the presidency and started a conservative period of great impact in the country. However, the policy toward Cuba was kept unchanged. With the capture and death of Ernesto "Che " Guevara in Bolivia, in 1967, the Soviets appeared to be in control of Cuba's foreign policy and Castro acted with more caution in international politics.
Cuban political activists all over the country started getting involved in American domestic politics. Just the die-hard and single-minded Cubans continued the fight against Castro.
The CIA base in Miami was reduced to a bare minimum. Most of the Cuban agents that were working at the beginning of the decade were no longer needed. Many of them joined the regular labor force or started their own businesses. Only a few of the most valuable agents were kept on retainers. It is important to point out that most Cubans working for the CIA were not professional intelligence agents who could be used elsewhere. They were men and women whose main objective was to fight Castro. Many did not speak English well enough to be employed outside of a Latin America environment.
A CALL TO ACTION
"On April 17, 1971 (The tenth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion). I came home and found a message in the door of the house. The message was from E. Howard Hunt and said: If you are the same Barker I once knew, meet me at . . . , signed Eduardo. We met and talked about the old times and remembered mutual friends. Hunt told me he was working in Washington now, at the White House, and needed my help for a big and important project.
Without asking the nature of the project I told him he could count on me. I was very excited thinking that the fight against Castro was continuing. I had been waiting a long time for this moment, being reactivated to start the fight again in Cuba."
However, what Hunt had in mind was not directly related to Cuba. His task was to stop the flow of leaks to the press coming from people in sensitive government positions. Some of the leakers were suspected of being opposed to the war in Vietnam. Hunt spoke to Barker of a comprehensive plan aimed to tighten security at different levels in the government. The immediate task was to stop the leaks to the press. The work required persons willing to work under absolute secrecy with unquestionable loyalty to the country. Hunt asked Barker if he could recruit help among the former CIA Cuban agents in Miami. Barker answered with an unequivocal "yes."
During the conversation, Barker asked Hunt which of the intelligence agencies they were going to work for. Hunt answered that "this time the CIA and the FBI are working for us. What is happening is affecting the security of the country directly." Barker said that his impression was that we were to work directly for the National Security Council. He noted that he never had any doubt of the legitimacy of his subsequent work for Hunt.
Hunt invited Barker and his men to join the team of "Plumbers." This group was assembled secretly to stop government leaks. "I recruited the men and started the training," said Barker, "and our first job was related to Ellsberg." Hunt explained to Barker that he had to obtain a psychological profile of Ellsberg from the CIA but they had refused to do it, on the basis that he was an American citizen. Hunt insisted that the profile had to be done and finally with the help of the White House, he obtained two profiles of Ellsberg. From what Hunt learned from the profiles he decided to move on Ellsberg psychiatrists in California. Hunt had his doubts about Ellsberg: he could be a patriot, a misguided patriot or a double agent.
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a defense analyst, had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times: 47 volumes (7,000 pages) of the top-secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Hunts had decided that the team of Plumbers should break into the office of Ellberg's psychiatrist in a search for information to discredit the leaker.
Later, the Plumbers were assigned to break into the Watergate to search the offices of the Democratic National Committee. What were you to look for?
Barker replied: "The way it was presented to me was that they had received information from different sources, including British Intelligence, that Castro had contributed money to George Mc Govern thorough several radical organizations, perhaps including the Black Panthers. Our job was to find proof of Cuban involvement."
"Prior to our arrest the night of June 17, 1972 we had entered the office building two or three weeks before and photographed many documents. What we had delivered to our superiors must have been important to them because they ordered more of the same. In those days, in the middle of the cold war and our conflict with Vietnam, everything was possible. My colleagues and I had observed the Cuban Intelligence Services over the years getting bigger and bolder."
"Among Cuban experts it was considered possible that Castro would try to
Influence the American elections in his favor. We had no doubts at the time that we were pursuing legitimate and extremely important matters of national security. Remember that we were working in a business with very well-established rules: you did not want to know more than you needed to know. A field agent never asks why or how, just when. I was trained to accept that anything that Howard told me was true. And I never doubted he was truthful to me. In a certain way we felt we were a security arm of the NSC. And it was a national security task to find the leaks."
"I know that an earlier report to the NSC about the Ellsberg case was worthless. Our government had been able to bug Russian limousines, according to Hunt. It had intercepted conversations with information about Daniel Ellsberg and the Vietnam papers. What Ellsberg had done should be called treason. As far as I am concerned, Daniel Ellsberg was a despicable traitor. I have said so in public and I repeat it, I don't give a damn, it is true he is still a traitor, because anybody that gives information to foreign countries of . . . of . . . think tank is a traitor. He was lucky. If it were not for that operation that we did up there, in his psychiatrists office, he would have been convicted as a traitor."(5)
The case of Ellsberg is very important for the understanding of Watergate and the historical circumstances surrounding this event. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ellsberg had been very involved in Vietnam. At some point, Ellsberg experienced a change of mind that prompted him to make the documents known as the "Pentagon Papers" public. This was an act that was the product of much thinking and a soul-searching. Ellsberg acted with a desire to expose the truth and end the conflict, not for money or political gain. His delivery of the documents to The New York Times should not have been a surprise. He had already demonstrated his opposition to the war, and for some time he should have been considered a security risk. (6) However, his was not an isolated case, and there were many like him showing similar behavior in sensitive parts of the government.
Ellsberg's subsequent acts do not identify him as an enemy of the military establishment or the US system of government. He could have revealed many more secrets that he acquired during his career, but he did not do it. He was a "protester" of the war, but not an enemy agent out to overturn the American system. Ellsberg's moral point of view is not that of a Puritan, but of a seasoned, pragmatic, and to some degree, a cynical bureaucrat. As he explained to Harry Kresler: "Well, I had been consulting for the government, this is now 1964, for about six years at that point [for] Eisenhower, Kennedy, and now Johnson. And I had seen a lot of classified material by this time, I mean tens of thousands of pages, and had been in a position to compare it with what was being said to the public. The public is lied to every day by the president, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can't handle the thought that the president lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn't stay in that government at that level, where you're made aware of it, a week." (7)
The enemies of Ellsberg, on the other hand, perceived themselves as the guardians of national security. Barker and his companions felt the same way. Their mission was to protect vital secrets of the nation. They saw themselves as real patriots in pursuit of traitors.
It is important to look at the behavior of the press and the judicial system. I am sure that the decision makers of The New York Times agonized over their decision to publish that kind of information. They knew that the documents they received were given to them illegally, as an act of protest at best, or, as in the eyes of the Justice Department, as a product of theft and treason. However, the Times editors gambled as a business enterprise. They went ahead to publish the story on the premise that the nation would benefit by knowing the secrets. Although the paper might face the risk of being labeled disloyal or traitorous.
The Supreme Court, siding in its ruling with the press against the Justice Department, changed the history of this country, considering that the pursuit of truth was more important, in this case, than the potential for damage that might occur from revealing government secrets. In 1973, a federal judge dismissed the charges against Ellsberg, ruling that the government had acted improperly in the process.
I think it doubtful that the government presented everything it had learned by eavesdropping on the Russians. Will we ever get enough facts about the Ellsberg case to pass judgement? Did the Russians mention Ellsberg before or after his delivery of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times? There were many operations in the United States conducted by our intelligence agencies that were not recorded or still remain classified. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union encouraged the anti-Vietnam war feeling in the US, but it is almost impossible, at this time, to quantify or qualify that effort. The war protestors in our population acted from a genuine feeling of rejection against the war.
One of the most difficult tasks faced by those who try to analyze that period is to separate facts from fiction, real intelligence from disinformation, reality from paranoia. Senator George Mc Govern was a genuine exponent of the liberal ideas of the time. Naturally, many persons or groups opposed to the war would rally around him. How to separate the patriotic opponents to the war from those following an anti-American and foreign-dictated agenda? That difficult task had to be conducted by the guardians of our national security.
Were the break-ins of the Watergate justified? If we take into consideration the risks involved, the answer is no. It was impossible to hide the connection of the perpetrators to the intelligence agencies they worked for at the time or in the past. The thought of the possible apprehension of the men involved in the operation should, with hindsight, have been enough to cancel approval of the operation. The risks involved were too high in comparison to the benefits to be obtained.
Let's assume that the reason for the break-ins: to obtain information to prove the involvement of Cuba in the election of Mc Govern, were so credible, solid and pressing in its national security implications that there was no way but to go ahead with the operation. Then why not get the information officially, with a court order, and the knowledge and approval of a selected bipartisan group of House and the Senate members?
At the time of the Watergate, according to polls and political observers, Mc Govern did not represent the slightest threat to the reelection of Richard Nixon: In 1972 Nixon won 49 of 50 states.
More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the Watergate days and Nixon's resignation. Usually, time helps to clarify dark chapters of history, but in this case many issues are still waiting for a satisfactory explanation. The case of the "Cubans" is easier to explain and understand.
Hunt was looking for experienced, loyal and closemouthed people and he found them in Miami. These Cubans were considered dependable and answering to a higher call: "The Freedom of Cuba." They joined the group of plumbers as zealots listening to a drum played by Hunt: alleged Castro help to Mc Govern. Was that a real concern or a trick used by Hunt to attract Barker and his men?
Barker answered the question: "At this point it is difficult to determine Hunt's real motivations. He knew what to say to keep us moving in the right direction: he knew how to motivate and inspire people. But, he was not different from us in that aspect: the words Castro and Cuba had moved him also. Remember, we all lost a big battle at the Bay of Pigs and were looking by any means to go back to the fight."
We will never hear from the man in Havana at that time in charge of everything related to internal US politics. The head of the America Department, Manuel Pi±ero Losada (Red Beard), died in 1998 without ever addressing this issue in public. In the US, people very seldom mention a Cuban connection when talking about Nixon and Watergate. A Cuban attempt at involvement in American politics is doubtful, but not a far-fetched idea.
More than 25 years and hundreds of defectors later, there is no corroboration of any Cuban involvement in this adventure. Castro and President Kennedy, at the time of the latter's death, were taking steps to normalize U.S. Cuban relations. Castro also tried to improve diplomatic relations with Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and reportedly offered him help in his campaign. These actions show that Castro and his advisors were familiar with the American political system and closely tuned in to events. It is doubtful that Castro would decide in 1972 to cast his lot with a sure looser like Mc Govern.
The rest of the Watergate affair does not make much sense, either in operational or political terms. Never once has a President risked so much for so little political gain. Those were the days of the Vietnam war and the antiwar protests. The country was in turmoil and our political institutions reflected the confusion, paranoia and uncertainty of the times: Everything was possible then.
Perhaps a better way to explain the Watergate affair can be found in an analysis of the leader and his followers. Richard M. Nixon, was a man of big convictions, loves and hates. He had the ability to recruit bright men who soon identified with his personality and style. In the case of his reelection campaign, the objective among many of his close associates, was not only to win, but to demolish the opposition.
From the first days of its existence, he CIA tended to become the private instrument of the occupant of the White House, although it remained an organization little known to the general public. Little by little, presidents started to use the new agency to expedite tasks that other agencies might not do immediately. At other times, they used "the company" in lieu of other agencies, to avoid the prying eyes of Congress. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon used the CIA in foreign policy so frequently that in some cases Secretaries of State felt undermined by the White House. When operations crossed the line between foreign and domestic activities, the Administration faced a serious juridical and constitutional conflict. On the other hand, in fairness to the CIA, this agency played a vital role during the difficult days of the cold war, winning many battles that were virtually lost, and once in a while performing miracles. However, the CIA never brags or explains success or failure.
The "Company" employed some of the best brains of academe, and at the same time gave employment to bold and adventurous "cowboys," or wranglers, who felt more comfortable discussing guns and operations than ideas. Communications between wranglers and ivy leaguers were not easy, and sometimes erupted into policy disagreements that leaked to Capitol Hill. There was a third group of CIA employees that was harder to define. For lack of a better term, I will call them the "magicians of the possible." These men came from all walks of life, they could be ivy leaguers or wranglers, they were united by a desire to tell the leadership: Yes, it is possible, we can do it. Where the Pentagon or the State Department might say no, it is too risky or it is impossible or not worth it, the magicians would argue: negative thinkers, conventional minds, lack of imagination, too cautious. For the magicians, a wish from the White House was an order to be implemented, a challenge to be met; something that could be achieved with will, resources, unconventional thinking and a touch of magic.
The whole idea of domestic break-ins and other illegal acts should have been strangled at birth, excised upon detection, like a malignant tumor. However, far from being surgically removed from the White House strategy, break-in plans were allowed to germinate and grow in fertile ground in the garden of the magicians of the possible. What seems sheer madness now, was not so then. Although the "plumbers" and some important political figures close to the President went to jail for clear violations of the law, few observers questioned the sanity of their acts. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that the environment of Richard Nixon and his White House was sick and paranoid, but very few saw acts driven by mental aberration or other pathology.
The "magicians of the possible" were not a group unique to Nixon's White House. They had inhabited previous administrations and were useful to other presidents. Their style was to act as if they were behind enemy lines: aggressive, ruthless, and walking a fine line between heroic fiction and reality. Maybe we have to see the Watergate era as years of confusion, a consequence of the war in Vietnam, with the ruthlessness of foreign battlefields imported to the domestic political front as a natural act.
Think for a minute how the call to action from the White House must have resonated with this crowd; magicians, the President's close associates, assorted men of action and the Cubans enrolled with the plumbers. Here we had a collection of operators that included OSS, and CIA cold war veterans, a (probably bored) former FBI agent/federal prosecutor and field men who had been put out to pasture by the changing tides of history. For their own reasons, all were ready to go, like fire horses on the last run with their obsolete steamer. Watergate was a chance for the actors to be relevant again at a higher level in their exciting (but former) lines of work.
Did no one inside the CIA advise against this madness? Honoring the truth, Barker replied, "I cannot say I was not warned in advance about the dangers and the disastrous outcome of our plans. Hunt had ordered me to try to recruit Jack Stuart, a veteran operator and probably the best agent the CIA had in Cuba. At the time, Stuart was living in California, where I contacted him. He was the best field agent I knew, and had been my mentor and superior in Cuba. Stuart was a man in his fifties, of middle height and weight, with a mastery of the Spanish language and culture. He was not a man easy to impress with plans and grandiose ideas. His mind was incisive, his experience difficult to match, but above all he could see through shadows and down dark alleys."
"Jack came to Miami and listened to me in an attentive and patient manner. When I had finished my pitch, he responded in a sober mood." "Macho stay away from those cowboys. Hunt is nothing but a cowboy. Then said he would talk to Hunt. After talking to him he came back and said, "Nothing good will come from those plans. You will destroy the President and the Presidency if you continue. Don't count on me. Let things go before it is too late. Let's go fishing in California."
Did nothing good come from the Watergate? Barker looked at me for a few seconds and glanced at his hands as he began to speak. His words were clear and deliberate, well pronounced. My question was in Spanish but he answered in English: "It is difficult to quantify or qualify the whole thing. The Watergate scandal meant many things to many people, for the Cuban-Americans who participated in the operation it was an opportunity to go back to battle. Obviously, we were totally misled. I remember you writing once: Americans know how to die with their boots on but not with their mouths shut. Well, that was not our case. We did not open our mouths. I cannot talk on behalf of the Americans or Cubans. I am speaking for myself. One very good thing that came from all this was a very critical look at our system of government. The president of this country was too powerful, the CIA was too powerful, the legislative power did not watch the executive close enough. Maybe the unintended consequences of Watergate were increased accountability and the restoration of checks and balances. Not everything was bad." (10)
What many people forget is that the protests against the political establishment were not limited to the war in Vietnam nor confined to American campuses. The protests extended to the judicial and legislative systems, the media and the American establishment in general. Maybe, what many believe was directed against Nixon as a person is a misinterpretation. It was directed at whoever might have been in the White House at that moment: those were times of anger and change.
1. The names of persons arrested that night were: Bernard L. Barker (Macho); Virgilio Gonzalez (Villo); Eugenio Rolando Martinez (Musculito); James W. McCord, Jr., and Frank A. Sturgis (Frank Fiorini). Later the police arrested E. Howard Hunt (Eduardo) and G. Gordon Liddy and charged them as participants in the burglary.
2. Inspector General's Survey of the Cuban Operation; October 1961, Annex A.
3. Arthur Schlesinger received his second Pulitzer for his biography of President Kennedy in the White House. HIs book, A Thousand Days, includes a wealth of valuable information about the Bay of Pigs.
4. From September 1961 to December 1962, I had many conversations with Dr. Miró Cardona whom I knew as a professor and friend. His son was part of the Brigade and a prisoner in Cuba at the time.
5. On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began the publication of series of articles based on the information provided by Daniel Ellsberg. On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled against the Justice Department's petition of an injunction based on national Security. Ellsberg was indicted, 1971, on charges of espionage, theft, and conspiracy. However, on May 11, 1973, a Federal Judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg based on the improper conduct of the government in the case.
6. Daniel Ellsberg Interview by Harry Kresler, July 29, 1998,: Conversations with History; Presidential Decisions and Public Dissent Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people/Ellsberg/ellsberg98-2.html
7. Daniel Ellsberg Interview by Harry Kresler, July 29, 1998, Presidential Decisions and Public Dissent: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley.http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people/Ellsberg/ellsberg98-2.html
8. Bernard L. Barker (Macho); Virgilio Gonzalez (Villo); Eugenio Rolando Martinez (Musculito) and Frank A. Sturgis (Frank Fiorini). The latter was an American citizen, a former marine, that was very involved in Cuban affairs, and was recruited by Barker mainly as a muscle man.
9. Documents declassified by the National Security Council in possession of researchers of George Washington University, 1999.
10. This chapter is based on several interviews with Bernard L. Barker, in the city of Miami in the summer of 1999.
MAY 11, 00