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April 26, 1973 White House Telephone, 5:56–6:17 p.m.
PRESIDENT NIXON: All right. On the Gray thing, it seems to me that Gray, that you should have your meeting with Gray immediately, the three of you. Don’t have him make a statement, however, until—I don’t know if he should even make one tonight. You know what I mean.
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL HENRY PETERSEN: Yes.
PRESIDENT NIXON: I’m not sure I would react that soon. I don’t know, but at least that was Dick’s feeling, that maybe we shouldn’t act tonight. But under the circumstances with the destruction of the documents story, even though it was done with no venal intent, this is stupidity of an unbelievable degree.
PETERSEN: I agree.
PRESIDENT NIXON: And he’ll have to resign. And who would be the best—who is the second man over there?
PETERSEN: Mark Felt’s the second man at the Bureau. Let me say one thing, Mr. President. You know, I don’t give a damn whether I get that job or not.
PRESIDENT NIXON: I understand.
PETERSEN: You know, I think, next to the presidency of the United States, it may be the toughest job in America. . . . I don’t want to see anybody from the inside take that job. . . .
PRESIDENT NIXON: It’s got to be cleaned out. But my point is, my point is, this is not the time, this is not the time. I’m not ready to name Gray’s successor. I’m still searching, you know.
PETERSEN: I agree . . .
As I left my office on the evening of April 26, 1973, and walked down to the parking garage with my driver, Special Agent Tom Moten, neither of us spoke as we went down the steps. Tom held the silence as he pulled the Mercury out toward the officer on duty at the gate.
At the gate the guard had none of his usual pleasantries, but instead hurriedly told me that Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen had called and left word that it was urgent that I contact him.
Getting out of the car, I thanked the guard and stepped into his shack to call Henry.
“Pat,” he said, “I just got a call from Dick Kleindienst. The president just called him and said that the story of your burning the Hunt files is going to be all over the news tomorrow and he wants to get the story himself first. Dick is coming back into the office from Burning Tree and wants to meet with the two of us at seven.”
Word of Senator Lowell Weicker’s selected leaks was out.
“Fine, Henry,” I replied. “I’ll go up to my office first, and I’ll meet you in the AG’s office at seven.”
I hadn’t expected this activity until the next day, when I knew that the news stories would appear, but I was just as prepared to deal with it tonight as I would be the next day. Perhaps even more so.
Shortly before seven I walked over to the attorney general’s office. The main double doors were locked, so I went around through the circular alcove and foyer to his conference room, intending to use the key I had for that door. These doors, however, were open, so I walked through the conference room to the secretaries’ offices and picked up a telephone to call Henry and tell him I was there.
Just at that moment I heard footsteps and I turned to see Dick Kleindienst striding into his office. I called Henry and told him that both the attorney general and I were in the office and that I would place a leather thong on the double doors so that he could come in that way. Henry said he would be right up.
Then I walked into the attorney general’s office. Without preamble, Dick went right to the heart of the matter.
“Pat, I’ve been talking to the president about your burning of the Hunt files. The news inquiries are coming in thick and fast and the president wants a recommendation right now.”
Before I could respond, Henry Petersen came into the room, and Dick repeated what he had just told me. Henry didn’t say anything, just nodded his head, and took a seat in one of the chairs in front of the attorney general’s desk. Dick sat in his chair behind the desk and waved toward the remaining chair in front of me. It was clearly my turn to speak.
“The news stories are coming from Lowell Weicker,” I told them. Both of their faces went blank.
“I’ve already told Lowell the truth about the files,” I went on. “And this afternoon at about 2:30 the senator came over to my office to tell me that he had relayed the entire story to four of his handpicked journalist friends. He said I may hate him for leaking this story but that he did it in my own best interests.”
Kleindienst was visibly shaken. “I think we’d better go into my smaller office and have a drink,” he said.
So the three of us went into the attorney general’s small private office where Dick and I took seats while Henry went to the cabinet and fixed drinks. I declined.
I explained to them what I knew about the two files, which had come from the safe of E. Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate conspirators. Though I hadn’t studied them in detail, it had been clear to me that they were copies of some sort of top-secret State Department cables, as well as some flimsy copies of muckraking correspondence about Senator Ted Kennedy’s car accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. I told them both, again, that when White House counsel John Dean had given me the files in the presence of John Ehrlichman, the assistant to the president for domestic affairs, both men had assured me the files were in no way connected with Watergate and that they had national security overtones. When I asked Ehrlichman and Dean if these files should be placed in the FBI files Dean responded, “These should never see the light of day.” I took their statements at face value, so that when I actually went to burn the files I casually flipped through them and noted for myself that these indeed were not related in any way to our investigation of the break-in.
All of this I had carefully laid out for Senator Weicker, and at this point, sitting in the attorney general’s office with these two grim-faced men, I still fully expected that the news stories the next morning would be factual.
Dick Kleindienst apparently knew better. Or perhaps he knew something else.
“Pat,” he said, “I don’t see how you can remain acting director of the FBI.”
“I don’t agree, Dick,” I replied. “It will be perfectly clear that these files had nothing to do with Watergate. And certainly the people in the FBI know that I haven’t in any way tried to stifle the investigation.”
“That may be true,” Dick stated. “But the timing of this just couldn’t be worse. I think that the president will want you to step down.”
Henry was nervously pacing back and forth in the small office while Dick and I remained in our chairs. The three of us discussed the pros and cons of the newspaper stories that would appear the next day, and then Dick abruptly got up.
“I’m going to telephone the president,” he said, and he left the room.
April 26, 1973 White House Telephone, 7:44–8:02 p.m.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RICHARD KLEINDIENST: Henry and I are down here at my office with Pat Gray. . . . Let me give you his version of it before we discuss the ramifications of it and I describe his attitude. Several days after the apprehension of the Watergate burglars, he was asked to come over and met in John Ehrlichman’s office with him, and there was Dean. Part of the conversation was with John Dean, Ehrlichman saying nothing. John Dean says, “Pat, here are some highly sensitive and very secret files that were in the possession of Howard Hunt that had nothing to do with the Watergate case. They are of a very, very secret, sensitive nature.” He did not describe their contents. “They should not be put in the FBI files and they should never see the light of day. Here, you take them.” That’s the substance of it. Pat took the documents from John Dean. Then he stayed there with John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman said nothing about the documents, and they were talking about the apprehension and concern that you had about leaks from the FBI. Pat then left that office, went home, had a few trips to make, left them at home. When he came back on a Sunday night—I think this occurred on a Thursday or a Friday. When he came back on a Sunday night, he then took the documents down to his office without looking at them, tore them into bits, put them in his burn basket, and they were destroyed. That’s Pat’s story. . . .
PRESIDENT NIXON: He will not say that he was ordered to destroy them?
KLEINDIENST: No. Pressed upon cross-examination as a result of what Dean said, he said that, “I had to gather from Dean as being, you know, a representative of the President of the United States, that I had to just infer from his remarks that, since they were never to see the light of day, they were of such a highly sensitive nature, and could not be put in the FBI files,” he just concluded himself he ought to destroy them. Now, that’s quite a bit different, you know, than getting a specific direction,
PRESIDENT NIXON: Yes.
KLEINDIENST: I think if you know Pat as I do, you press him to the wall and Pat would say that the only fair inference that I could gain from my conversation with John Dean with Ehrlichman present was that they had to be destroyed. He would not say—
PRESIDENT NIXON: It was Dean that told him this?
KLEINDIENST: Yes, yes. But he would not say that he was specifically ordered to destroy them. . . . So now we are talking in this vein: Pat, if you testify before a grand jury, we all have to assume that that’s going to go out and hit the streets. . . . So suppose that this very statement that you gave us, that you made public tomorrow. You just got the press in and said, this is what happened. What would that do with respect to your ability to look after, manage, the Federal Bureau of Investigation? He said it would be a disaster. So I said, “Pat, that’s where we are logically. If it should come out—and indeed it is because of all the leaks that we have—isn’t that where we are?” He feels that for him to resign is an admission of guilt of some kind.
PRESIDENT NIXON: Right.
KLEINDIENST: And I said, “Pat, as far as I can see you haven’t done anything criminally wrong. But in light of all the facts and circumstances of the Watergate case—”
PRESIDENT NIXON: His ability to conduct the office.
KLEINDIENST: “It creates just an impossible situation for you to manage that Bureau.” And that is where we wound up before I called you, because I told him—
PRESIDENT NIXON: Right, I understand, I understand.
KLEINDIENST:—that I wanted to—he’s in the other room with Henry—to report to you what he said and the context of it. Pat Gray, as you know, is a soldier and he’s going to do any goddamn thing [you ask of him].
PRESIDENT NIXON: I know, I know.
KLEINDIENST: Henry and I . . . feel and we’re trying to get across to Pat without just denuding him is he’s got to resign. How do you want us to proceed tonight?
PRESIDENT NIXON: But how would we do it? He should say nothing tonight.
KLEINDIENST: Oh, I’m not talking about tonight. I’m trying to make a decision tonight.
PRESIDENT NIXON: Yeah. . . .
Henry was still pacing the floor, back and forth behind the leather chair I was in. My mind was going over the conversation we just had with the attorney general. Henry’s pacing stopped.
“Pat, I’m scared,” he said.
“Of what?” I asked.
“Well, it appears to me that you and I are expendable and Haldeman and Ehrlichman are to be saved.”
The import of what he said didn’t hit me right away. I answered him casually. “Henry, I think you’re stretching the importance of this thing.”
“Pat,” he said, “I’m not kidding. We’re in deep trouble here.”
I thought for a moment. There was one question I could ask that would put it in perspective.
“All right, Henry. All right. Then let me ask you point-blank: Do you think I ought to retain a lawyer?”
“Yes,” he said, “I think you should.”
Now I knew Henry was offering me serious advice indeed, and yet I was not alarmed. Not as much as I should have been. But in my own analysis of the situation, I just could not see how I could be viewed as being liable to the point of requiring an attorney.
I did know that men in the White House and in the Committee to Re-Elect the President had recently hired some of the best criminal lawyers in Washington, although many of them had not yet been indicted. I also knew, ever since John Ehrlichman’s phone call to me on April 15, that John Dean had been talking to the federal prosecutors. And certainly I knew that destruction of evidence was obstruction of justice.
But I knew that I was not involved with the Watergate wrongdoings. I knew that there had been nothing illegal in my dealings with John Dean, that I had dealt with him only in his official capacity as counsel to the president of the United States. And I knew that the files I had destroyed were most definitely not Watergate evidence. Furthermore, the files had been destroyed on the direct orders of John Ehrlichman, who was certainly acting for the president.
I also knew Henry Petersen to be a thoroughly experienced federal prosecutor who was in charge of the government’s investigation of Watergate. And now he was offering me serious advice as a friend. I had to listen.
“Okay, Henry,” I said, “but I don’t know any criminal lawyers here in Washington. Aren’t all the good ones already taken up by all these other fellows? Who would you suggest?”
“Pat, the best man you could find anywhere, and the man I would get for myself, is my good friend Stephen H. Sachs, over in Baltimore. He was an assistant United States attorney for the District of Maryland and then United States attorney for the same district for four years. Steve is an experienced prosecutor and an extremely competent attorney. He hates corruption. He’s also a warm and compassionate human being, and if you can convince him that you’ve done nothing wrong, then you’ll have a strong and very loyal advocate in your corner.”
“Thanks, Henry,” I said. “I know I’ve done nothing wrong. But if you think that I should do it, then I’ll call Steve Sachs.”
“I think you should do it,” he said.
At that point the attorney general came back into the small office.
“Well, Pat,” he said, “the president wants you to stay on as acting director. But there must be no implication of a cover-up at the White House in regard to the burning of the files.”
“Dick,” I said, “I burned those files at the clear direction of Dean and Ehrlichman, and John Ehrlichman has known since April fifteenth that I carried out his orders. There’s nothing to cover up.”
By now it was nearly 8:30 and time to go home. The three of us closed the office and moved out into the hall. Henry Petersen was six or seven steps ahead in the broad Justice Department hallway and Dick Kleindienst and I were walking together.
“You know, Pat,” he said suddenly, “there are some things we will all have to take to our graves.”
We walked quietly a few more steps.
“Not I,” I said to him. “Not I.”
The next day, I resigned as acting director of the FBI. I had held the job for less than a year. What follows is the story of that year.
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