G Gordon Liddy: FBI agent and mastermind of the Watergate break-in

The former White House staffer was imprisoned for his part in the 1972 scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation

David Henry
Tuesday 06 April 2021 00:01
Liddy arriving at Baltimore’s federal courthouse in 2001
Liddy arriving at Baltimore’s federal courthouse in 2001

G Gordon Liddy was a former FBI agent and White House staffer who was imprisoned for organising the 1972 Watergate burglary that led to the resignation of US president Richard Nixon.

Liddy, who has died aged 90, was a member of the Committee to Re-Elect the President and the former chief operative of the “plumbers” unit, created by the Nixon administration to stop information leaks to journalists. He proposed a series of illegal acts, known as Operation Gemstone, to weaken the Democratic Party’s chances of electoral victory by gathering political intelligence and catching officials in compromising situations.

“I saw Democrats as being dangerous to the country,” Liddy said in a 2014 radio interview. “I wanted to prevent them from being able to damage the country further. So I chose to make use of the special knowledge that I had as a result of the FBI and so forth. That was it.”

The bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex in Washington was part of a plan that he had discussed in 1972 with attorney general John Mitchell, White House counsel John Dean and Nixon aide Jeb Magruder.

On 16 June 1972, five men broke into the Watergate building to fix wiretaps planted weeks earlier in the Democratic headquarters. The burglars were arrested by police, acting on a tip from security guard Frank Wills.

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With the help of W Mark Felt, then FBI associate director and the anonymous source known as “Deep Throat” who revealed his own identity in a 2005 article in Vanity Fair, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein followed the trail to the top levels of the White House in their investigation of the crime’s two-year coverup.

After a Senate inquiry, during which Dean testified against Nixon, secret tape recordings of Oval Office conversations were revealed. Seven White House aides, including Liddy who helped supervise the break-in from a vantage point across the street, were indicted. The president resigned on 9 August 1974, after trying to foil the FBI’s investigation of Watergate.

Liddy refused to testify under the Fifth Amendment and maintained his silence until his memoir Will was published in 1980. He received a 20-year prison sentence, which was commuted by president Jimmy Carter in 1977. Liddy was released after almost four and a half years behind bars, the longest time served of all the conspirators.

Liddy stunned historians in the 1990s when he proffered a revisionist version of the scandal, claiming the break-in was masterminded by Dean to steal pictures of prostitutes – including Dean’s then-girlfriend and later his wife – who were allegedly part of a call-girl ring in the Watergate complex. The snapshots were supposed to be in the desk of Ida Wells, a secretary working in the Democratic headquarters. Dean and Wells both sued Liddy. Neither defamation case was successful.

“Free debate about important public issues must be tolerated, provided that the debate (when it potentially damages the reputations of private persons) does not exceed the bounds of reason,” judge J Frederick Motz wrote in the 2001 judgment on Wells’s action.

The FBI agent in Washington during his 1973 trial

George Gordon Battle Liddy was born 30 November 1930, to Sylvester Liddy and the former Maria Abbaticchio. Raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, Liddy had a younger sister, Margaret.

He graduated from St Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark in 1948. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a law degree in 1957 at Fordham University. Between the two events, he served in the US Army for two years.

After his studies, Liddy joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J Edgar Hoover in its Washington headquarters. He then worked as a lawyer in Manhattan and as assistant attorney general in Dutchess County, New York, where he investigated and arrested LSD advocate Timothy Leary.

Failing to gain a Republican Congressional nomination in New York, Liddy backed Nixon’s run for president and was appointed as a lawyer in the Treasury Department. He joined the White House staff in 1971 as a member of the Special Investigations Group, also known as the “plumbers”, where he and Hunt organised the burglary of a psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers on US involvement in the Vietnam War. Liddy was convicted for his role in the break-in of the psychiatrist’s office.

After his release from prison, Liddy became a radio talk-show host on The G Gordon Liddy Show, a syndicated program.

In addition to his autobiography, Liddy wrote When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country (2002) and Fight Back: Tackling Terrorism, Liddy Style (2006). He was also the author of the novels Out of Control (1979) and The Monkey Handlers (1990).

“When I was a kid and this was a free country, we were free to debate our country’s history,” Liddy wrote. “Because of the frantic efforts of the notorious rat John Dean, we almost lost that right.”

He and his wife, Frances Ann Purcell, were married for more than 50 years before her death in 2010. They had two daughters, Alexandra and Grace; and three sons, James, Thomas and Raymond.

G Gordon Liddy, lawyer and FBI agent, born 30 November 1930, died 30 March 2021

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