Egil Krogh: Nixon adviser who was the first of the president’s covert operatives to be jailed

He was co-chair of the Plumbers, the White House’s special investigation unit: for many his actions paved the way for the Watergate scandal

Harrison Smith
Monday 10 February 2020 17:32 GMT
The lawyer later referred to his downfall as ‘a meltdown in personal integrity’
The lawyer later referred to his downfall as ‘a meltdown in personal integrity’

Egil Krogh Jr was a lawyer and aide to President Richard Nixon who co-chaired the covert White House Plumbers unit and was the first member of the president’s secret operatives to be sent to prison.

Krogh was jailed after he approved the 1971 break-in at the Beverly Hills offices of Lewis Fielding, the former psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst and whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, detailing the US government’s misinformation about the Vietnam War.

A former deputy assistant to the president and undersecretary of transportation, Krogh, who has died aged 80, was the first member of the Nixon administration sentenced to prison for his conduct in the White House. He later called the Ellsberg episode “a meltdown in personal integrity” and spent years teaching and lecturing about ethics, atoning for his crimes and teaching others how to avoid what he described as a historic error in judgement.

“If you compromise your integrity, you allow a little piece of your soul to slip through your hands,” he wrote in a 2007 memoir, Integrity, with his son Matthew Krogh. “Integrity, like trust, is all too easy to lose, and all too difficult to restore.”

In the eyes of Krogh and many presidential historians, the break-in paved the way for a more notorious burglary at the Watergate complex in Washington nearly 10 months later, when two of Krogh’s former associates helped to organise a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

While the Fielding break-in was widely considered a shocking abuse of presidential power, it was all the more unexpected given the involvement of Krogh, an Eagle Scout and retired navy communications officer who was considered “the White House Mr Clean, so straight an arrow that his friends mockingly called him ‘Evil Krogh’,” wrote Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their Watergate book All the President’s Men.

Krogh was 29 when he joined the White House, having worked with family friend John D Ehrlichman at a Seattle law firm. When Ehrlichman became Nixon’s White House counsel (and later domestic policy chief) after the 1968 election, Krogh followed him to Washington, where he directed Nixon’s narcotics control efforts. He also orchestrated an impromptu meeting between Elvis Presley and the president in 1970 – the singer had expressed support for the president’s anti-drug efforts and, according to Krogh’s meeting notes, Nixon promised that Elvis could receive a narcotics agent’s badge.

His work dramatically shifted after 13 June 1971, when The New York Times published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that had been leaked by Ellsberg. Its release spurred the White House to create the special investigations unit, later nicknamed the Plumbers because they aimed to plug the leak of classified information, in addition to generating advantageous leaks of their own.

Krogh co-chaired the group with David R Young, a National Security Council staffer, meeting in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building with E Howard Hunt, a onetime CIA officer, and G Gordon Liddy, an ex-FBI agent.

Krogh attends the famous meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley

According to Krogh, Hunt soon proposed digging up damaging information about Ellsberg through his psychiatrist, Fielding. A proposal from Krogh and Young called for “a covert operation ... to examine all the medical files still held by Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst”. It was approved by Ehrlichman, who added in a note that it could go ahead “if done under your assurance that it is not traceable”.

While Hunt and Liddy kept watch, a team of three burglars broke into Fielding’s office on 3 September 1971. They trashed the office in what Krogh described as an effort to disguise the burglary as a botched attempt to steal drugs, and apparently found nothing useful. Krogh was dismissed from the Plumbers unit three months later, after he refused to back the use of a warrantless wiretap on another suspected leaker.

“In May 1973,” Krogh later wrote in his memoir, “the ice cracked open and I fell through.” With Ellsberg on trial for disclosing the Pentagon Papers, the Fielding break-in became public, and Krogh submitted an affidavit explaining his role. He was indicted in federal and state courts on burglary, conspiracy and perjury charges and pleaded not guilty before experiencing a change of heart – realising, he later wrote, that he and his fellow Plumbers had “crossed the Rubicon into the realm of lawbreakers”.

Krogh pleaded guilty to “conspiracy against rights of citizens” (other charges were dropped) and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation of the Watergate scandal, an affair that resulted in prison sentences for Hunt, Liddy and Ehrlichman, among others. He received a sentence of two to six years, ultimately serving four and a half months.

Egil Krogh Jr was born in Chicago in 1939. His mother was a homemaker and his Norwegian immigrant father rose to became an executive at Marshall Field’s department store, leading the family to move to Portland, Oregon, and eventually Seattle. Krogh studied at Principia, a Christian Science boarding school in St Louis, and graduated in 1961 from the affiliated Principia College in nearby Elsah, Illinois.

He was an accomplished track runner and also a mountaineer: he helped to organise a 1990 “peace climb” of Mount Everest that featured climbers from the US, Russia and China; he reached 21,500ft but did not get to the summit.

Krogh attended business school at the University of Chicago for several weeks before dropping out and joining the navy, serving aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. He received a law degree from the University of Washington in 1968 and joined the White House the next year.

He was disbarred but reinstated in 1980 and returned to legal work, specialising in energy law for a Seattle law firm. By the late 1990s he had begun offering ethics seminars and spoke in schools.

Krogh’s marriages to Suzanne Lowell, Laura Lee Carkener and Ann Horton ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, Nancy Glenn Hansen, three children and a stepdaughter.

Egil Krogh, lawyer, born 3 August 1939, died 18 January 2020

© Washington Post

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