The White House Plumbers, sometimes simply called the Plumbers, was a covert White House Special Investigations Unit, established July 24, 1971, during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Its task was to stop the leaking of classified information, such as the Pentagon Papers, to the news media. Its members branched into illegal activities while working for the Committee to Re-elect the President, including the Watergate break-in and the ensuing Watergate scandal.
On Thanksgiving evening of 1972, David Young arrived home from his planning at the Special Investigative Unit, when his grandmother asked him, "What do you do at the White House?" He replied, "I am helping the president stop some leaks." She exclaimed, "Oh, you're a plumber!" Young, Liddy, and Hunt then put up a sign on their office with the title "The Plumbers" but it was taken down since their covert operations were supposed to be top secret. Still, the name stuck for the group.
The Plumbers came to include several Watergate figures. E. Howard Hunt was recommended by Charles Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy was recommended by Egil Krogh. Liddy coined his own sensitivity indicator for the group in the form of "ODESSA".
Another member of the group was its liaison to the CIA, John Paisley. In recent years, Paisley's involvement has led to speculation that the CIA had a far greater hand in the operations of the Plumbers than originally thought at the time. What is known is that Paisley was assigned to the CIA's Office of Security (OS), of which Watergate burglar James McCord was once a member. On August 9, 1971, David Young's memo indicates he met with Paisley and OS Director Howard Osborn, in which Paisley provided a list of objectives for the Special Investigations Unit.
The Plumbers' first task was the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's Los Angeles psychiatrist, Lewis J. Fielding, in an effort to uncover evidence to discredit Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. The operation was reportedly unsuccessful in finding Ellsberg's file and was so reported to the White House. However, Fielding himself stated the file was in his office; he found it on the floor on the morning after the burglary and quite clearly, someone had gone through it. In a September 1971 conversation, John Ehrlichman advised Nixon, “We had one little operation; it’s been aborted out in Los Angeles which, I think, is better that you don’t know about." Eventually, the case against Ellsberg was dismissed due to government misconduct.
Aside from the Fielding burglary, there are few other activities the Plumbers were known to have been engaged in. Hunt reportedly looked into the Ted Kennedy-Chappaquiddick incident and Liddy reported purported Kennedy administration involvement in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
After the California break-in, Liddy, who was general counsel, finance committee of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP) and promoted from aide to Krogh and Young, worked with Campaign political-intelligence operations. Ehrlichman, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and Special Investigations Unit, knew about Liddy’s goal to perform an intelligence-gathering operation for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP). Liddy involved Hunt in the operations which would later include the Watergate burglary.
In the early evening of June 17, 1971, Henry Kissinger held forth in the Oval Office, telling his President, and John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, all about Daniel Ellsberg. Kissinger's comments were recorded, of course, on the hidden White House taping system, and four years later, a portion of that tape was listened to by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, which was then investigating the internal White House police unit known as the Plumbers.
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