300. Editorial Note

On Tuesday, May 16, 1972, the Chilean Foreign Ministry announced that its Embassy in Washington, D.C. had been burglarized over the previous weekend. A Foreign Ministry spokesman described the incident as a “serious matter”; an Embassy press attaché reported that “so far nothing important is missing,” other than “four or five transistor radios,” as well as an unspecified number of books and documents. The Department of State, nonetheless, released a statement of regret over the incident. (“Chile Embassy Burglarized,” Washington Post, May 17, 1972, p. B3) Although the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation subsequently abandoned the case as unresolved and unimportant, other investigators—including newspaper reporters, congressional staff, and federal prosecutors—began by January 1973 to explore a possible connection between the break-in at the Chilean Embassy and the break-in one month later at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building, in particular, allegations that the burglars in both cases had been associated with the so-called “Plumbers,” the White House Special Investigations Unit.

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The Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations, chaired by Frank Church (D-Idaho), also investigated the break-in at the Chilean Embassy. The subcommittee staff examined, in particular, whether International Telegraph and Telephone (ITT)—which, due to allegations of improper involvement in Chilean political affairs, was already a primary subject of its investigation—had been involved. In a memorandum to Church and other members of the subcommittee on February 28, Jerry Levinson, the chief counsel, outlined his initial findings:

“The present line of inquiry began several months ago when we learned that the Chilean Embassy had been broken into in May 1972, several weeks before the Watergate affair. The staff interviewed the D.C. Police and the FBI who investigated. Both dismissed the break as a routine break-in by a juvenile offender. Careful investigation of the circumstances leads us to the conclusion that it was not routine. Valuable office equipment and cash were left untouched. The Ambassador’s office and the office of the First Secretary were both searched and files were inspected. The thieves walked past several more attractive offices to get to the First Secretary’s office, suggesting they knew where they were going.

“At the same time, a source with excellent contacts in the Cuban community told the Subcommittee staff that Frank Sturgis had told other people that he and [Eugenio] Martinez and [Virgilio] Gonzalez, two other Watergate defendants, had broken into the Embassy to photograph documents.”

Levinson emphasized, however, that the case was “circumstantial” and without “hard evidence of ITT involvement.” (Memorandum from Levinson to Church, February 28, 1973; Digital National Security Archives)

Although preoccupied with Watergate, the White House also followed developments in the Chilean Embassy case. During a meeting with J. Fred Buzhardt, Jr., Counsel to the President, in the Oval Office on May 16, 1973—one year after the burglary at the Chilean Embassy and one day before the Senate Watergate Committee began televised hearings—President Richard Nixon suggested not only that there was a connection between the two break-ins but also that Buzhardt’s predecessor, John Dean, was responsible.

Nixon: “Well, when you get down, for example, to the break-in at the Chilean Embassy. That thing was part of the burglars’ plan—”

Buzhardt: “That’s right.”

Nixon: “—as a cover.”

Buzhardt: “That’s true.”

Nixon: “Those assholes are trying to have a cover—or a CIA cover. I don’t know. I think Dean concocted that.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 920–9)

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Nixon’s comments came two weeks after he had fired Dean and six weeks before Dean began to testify against Nixon before the Senate Watergate Committee. In 1999, Dean addressed Nixon’s accusation, remarking, “This stuff is laughable; it’s unbelievable.” (George Lardner and Walter Pincus, “Washington Burglars Broke Into Chilean Embassy as Cover, Tapes Show,” Washington Post, February 26, 1999)

Two days after the meeting between Nixon and Buzhardt, Acting Attorney General Elliot Richardson announced the appointment of Archibald Cox as Watergate Special Prosecutor. On the basis of information collected over the next two months, including grand jury testimony, police reports, and newspaper accounts, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force decided to investigate allegations that several of the burglars who had broken into Democratic National Committee Headquarters may have also broken into the Chilean Embassy. In a memorandum to the files on June 17, 1975—exactly three years after the break-in at Watergate—Nick Akerman, the Assistant Special Prosecutor assigned to the case, summarized his investigation. Despite lacking direct evidence that the Watergate burglars were involved in the Chilean Embassy break-in, Akerman concluded that there were “four circumstantial factors which strongly indicate that they were.”

“First are Sturgis’ admissions of his involvement to reporters. Second is the fact that on June 21, 1973, four days after the arrests at the Watergate, the FBI received information that Barker’s men had broken into the Chilean Embassy in mid-May. Third is the information from former CIA Director Schlesinger that someone in the CIA told him that Hunt had been involved in this burglary. Fourth, there is nothing to disprove that Barker or any members of his group were not in Washington, D.C. when the burglary occurred.” (National Archives, RG 460, Plumbers Task Force, Investigations of Alleged Illegal Activities, Box 5, Chilean Embassy Burglary, 6, Recommendations)