No Way Out: Watergate Redux- Stefan Halper Arranges a Meet Cute with the Films of the 70’s-

By: Susan D. Nim

Please note: The author reserves all publishing and all other media rights, including, but not limited to, film, internet, and virtual reality.

I bought All the President’s Men.  Figured I needed to brush up on Watergate.”

Lisa Page to Peter Strzok, November 13, 2016.

Finally, two pages away from finishing [All the President’s Men].  Did you know the President resigns in the end?

Lisa Page to Peter Strzok, March 14, 2017.

Classic Lisa.

Perhaps the then-FBI lawyer should have shelled out the $3.99 and just rented the film version.  At a brisk 120 minutes, Alan Pakula’s 1976 classic would have saved Ms. Page four months of page-turning, time that could have been well-spent perfecting her sexting skills, underwriting insurance policies and strengthening her (and Strzok’s) bigotry towards Romanians, Gypsies and Italians.  Perhaps, she could have drawn the conclusion that it’s best to not state nefarious plans and stratagems in easily discoverable modes of communication.

Or maybe that would have required her to also read The Last Days (Woodward and Bernstein), the 1976 sequel that detailed the saga of the release of the Nixon tapes, among other things.

Of course, it is unfair to pick on Trump’s favorite lovers, Lisa and Peter, for their bursts of nostalgia.  Why lately, Watergate creep has become an epidemic of COVID-19 proportions.  The cable news networks are a bell-bottomed, mini-skirted festival of characters of yore: Carl Bernstein lending his eminence grise-iness; John Dean holding court; Jill Wine-Banks trying to make bank on a memoir; David Gergen gurgling his thoughts.  The resignation of four prosecutors on the Roger Stone beat is but another Saturday Night Massacre: albeit, without the firing or the pre-Borking Bork.  Heck, even the General Accounting Office (GAO) gets its redux day in the sun as one more of its reports builds up expectations only to cruelly dash them.

A December 1976 Rolling Stone profile on former CIA Director Richard McGarrah Helms, contained this gem, which has proven hilariously prescient.

“If it had not been for Watergate, which opened up the government like an archeologist’s trench, Helms would have retired and remained unknown by the general public.” (emphasis added)

Lisa, Peter, Carl, John et al may invoke Watergate as a talisman or a guidepost, a legal roadmap or a cautionary tale.  That may be their intent.  Alas, they may be conjuring Beetlejuice, may be snatching the monkey’s paw from the diorama, may be burgling Pandora’s box.  They may be inadvertently helping to re-open everything.

Or perhaps, it is not their fault.  Perhaps, it was inevitable.  Perhaps it was as simple as the (re)appearance of Stefan Halper.

Never has film more successfully reflected the zeitgeist than in the 1970’s.  A reaction to big-budget failures of the 1960’s, an appreciation of the potency of the youth market, relaxed censorship, and the audience’s growing appreciation of the medium as an art form had propelled film school wunderkinds to the A-List.  Combined with new financing sources and support from intrepid studio executives, pictures could quickly and forcefully comment on the current culture.

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The Alan Pakula ‘Paranoia Trilogy’ is perhaps the most trenchant example of movies of the era depicting the mood of the times.  Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) exposed an America torn by unease, bleeding into paranoia: a country where the powerful, abetted by the technology of a surveillance state, seem to be operating in a perpetual conspiracy against the clueless masses. Building upon the dread-infused films of foreign auteurs like Antonioni and Polanski, and the deep-wooded darkness of Coppola’s early masterpieces, the Paranoia Trilogy is the low-key horror accompaniment to the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, OPEC cartel, the secret bombardment of Cambodia, and the subliminal bombardment of advertising messages.

Mythically, when the government ‘lost Walter Cronkite’, it lost the people.  Beginning with the Tet Offensive of 1968, continuing through Ellsberg’s revelations and the Church Committee, the American citizenry lost its faith in its government.  As related in Season 1 of Slate magazine’s ‘Slow Burn’ podcast, a 1972-73 study showed that, in that one year, the percentage of sampled graduate students trusting that its elected officials were serving for the public good, and not for personal or party welfare, plummeted from ninety-four to twelve.  In fact, shadowy conspiracies did abound, redounding against the public interest.

The Parallax View and All the President’s Men presented (charmingly flawed) heroes boxing these shadows.  Fittingly, these protagonists were journalists, the new gumshoes of the times.  Whereas Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were private dicks of the 1940’s film noir, chasing the truth of some small-staked plot on behalf of a single client, Joe Frady, Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein were the 1970’s film noir version: the reporter as public detective.  Instead of searching for a (MacGuffin) Maltese Falcon, these shamuses were uncovering CREEP and the Parallax Corporation: behind-the-scenes organizations controlling the country.

Pre-Pearl Harbor America was heavily isolationist, with a broad mistrust of FDR’s interventionist sentiments.  But the sneak attack united almost all Americans in backing the government’s decision to fight.  Four years later, the discovery of the death camps cemented this support, for what had proven incontrovertibly to be a ‘good war’.  The government had been right.  Additionally, the Manhattan Project and consequent swift ending to the Pacific Theater of Operations had validated the concept of ‘government secrecy’.  A vast ‘conspiracy’, encompassing over 100,000 people, 30 sites, 6 years and 3 atomic bombs had been undertaken for the benefit of the American people.  Millions of Americans soldiers had thus been spared a costly attack on Japan—at least partially because the government had kept the entire project a secret from its own people.

The films of the 40s through the 60’s reflected the people’s implicit faith in its government.  The authority’s instincts were correct; its requirement for occasional concealment was proven yet again by the theft of our atomic secrets and resultant nuclear arms threat from the Soviet Union.  In cinema, at worst, the government could be portrayed as well-meaning but buffoonish (Dr. Strangelove), or beset by small, albeit dangerous, traitorous elements (The Manchurian Candidate).  The public institutions were solid, and they worked for us.

By 1976, we knew this to not be (so) true.  Woodward and Bernstein, two Baby Boomers in earth-toned jacket/tie combos matching the décor of the McDonald’s they slummed in, represented us.  They were our Sam Spade shamuses: flatfoots flipping through card catalogs, knocking on doors, meeting in dank parking garages with smoky informants, playing little jokes on silly secretaries.  Clue by clue, layer after layer, they would build an edifice of truth destined to tumble the house of cards that was the Nixon Administration, and restore our America.

Or did they?  The film ends much as it began, the news being typesetted, bullet by bullet point, the pen mightier than the sword—and yet, the 1976 audience is fully aware that Ford pardoned Nixon, and, in effect, precluded ultimate justice.  The public detective’s success proves as illusory as that of another gumshoe from the era, albeit in a 1974 film set in the 1930’s.  In the end, Woodstein (and all of us) are as lost as Jake Gittes in Polanski’s neo-noir, Chinatown, realizing that the rapacious powers that be, are, ultimately, unstoppable.  ‘Forget it Bob and Carl, it’s Washington’.  They are Warren Beatty’s Frady running to the light: only to be shot by Parallax.

The 1970’s and its cinema.  One giant bummer.  Entertaining and classic, yes.  But a bummer, Man.  It: this government, this entire culture, this country, it is all rigged.  You are right to feel paranoia.  A vague sense of dread should suffuse your entire being.  They are conspiring against you and you don’t stand a chance.  The wealthy, the big and powerful win out; the individual, alas, is, by definition, just one person.

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By the end of 1976, the long national nightmare was beginning to abate.  Rocky, the story of an individual beloved only by his dog, his turtle and his mousy girlfriend, would almost knock out an Apollonian Uncle Sam and would actually defeat, inter alia, All the President’s Men for the Best Picture Oscar.

1977’s winner, Annie Hall, would turn the era’s paranoia into a punchline, as, in one flashback, a Bernstein-type struggles to perform sexually because of his concerns over the legitimacy of the (Earl) Warren Report.  The audience is primed to laugh at the scene of an impotent individual railing against the omnipotence of his government; the paradoxical subtext being that you are only powerless if you let your powerlessness waylay you.

By November 1980, the country had worked hard to gradually return to Morning in America: sun shining brightly, revealing a nation in all its glory, governmental institutions included.  The 1987 thriller No Way Out was the perfect latter-day Reagan representation of our shifting mood: though some elements of the government are venal, the ultimate joke is on the paranoids.  When Yuri, the Russian mole is revealed to be as real as Kevin Costner, the government is revealed to be right, after all.

There have been many setbacks (Iran-Contra, WMD’s, Edward Snowden, the 1998 home run race) over the past four decades but the general arc of the history has bent towards trust.  Watergate was but a blip of a distant memory, its main characters dying off (thankfully, of natural causes, only), its facts and lessons vague curiosities. (hey, did you know Deep Throat was actually Mark Felt, and not Marilyn Chambers?!). 

And then. . .

And then, enter Stefan Halper.

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In May 2018, it was reported that Dr. Halper, a Cambridge University professor, born in the United States in 1944, had been tasked by the FBI with discovering information pertaining to the Trump electoral campaign.  As part of this information discovery process, (please do not call it ‘espionage’), Halper had spoken with Trump advisers Carter Page, Sam Clovis and George Papadapolous.  These informal talks and correspondence had begun in the summer of 2016 and extended to the fall of 2017.

A subsequent article in The Intercept tracked Halper back to a little-remembered 1980 election-hijinks episode.  It is alleged that this same Halper, then a 36 year-old aide to the Reagan-Bush campaign, with experience in the Nixon and Ford administrations, had orchestrated a CIA operation to steal Jimmy Carter foreign-policy position info and pass to the Reagan team.  Oh, as a curious side-note, Halper was then the son-in-law to a former CIA Deputy Director, Ray Cline.

As amateur sleuths are wont to do these days, after reading some reports on Halper, I checked his Wikipedia entry.  It mentioned his graduation from Stanford in 1967, his PHD from Oxford in 1971, and his subsequent employment in the Nixon administration’s U.S. Domestic Policy Council.  Being somewhat a child of Watergate, and a cinephile, I thought of some dots that may connect, and did some further public-source sleuthing.

My first supposition naturally was connected to the All the President’s Men film.  A famous scene towards the end of the movie, brings Carl Bernstein to the home of the young, nervy, dirty-tricks lawyer, Donald Segretti.  Segretti reveals his role in loose but extensive campaign-related operations against the Democrats, including the writing of the ‘Canuck Letter’.  (look it up, Dear Reader: it’s very circa-1972 quaint).  Donald explains to Carl that he had teamed with other young Nixon aides like Dwight Chapin, whom he had known from their ‘USC Mafia’ days, when they had engaged in ‘rat-fucking’ activities, to, among other things, fix campus elections.

Naturally, my first thought was that Halper was the right age and from the right (left) coast to be a rat-fucker of long-standing, as well.  Some quick research revealed that it is posited that the tradition of college rat-fucking may have actually begun in Stanford itself in the early 1960’s.  I considered conducting further research, maybe dropping by Chapin or Segretti’s house a la Bernstein and asking some questions.  Maybe a trip to jolly England to query Halper himself and/or some of his chums like (former MI-6 head) Sir Richard Dearlove.

I then remembered that I am not an investigative journalist, nor a fan of polonium in my evening tea.  (I favored a dash of honey with my Earl Grey).  I tabled my plans and continued to casually monitor the internet, television and Bob Woodward’s flower pots for, what I assumed would be, the inevitable news.

Years passed.  I switched from honey to sugar and back to honey again.  Noone mentioned Halper and Watergate, at least not together.  Noone mentioned Halper much at all, for that matter.  But, to paraphrase one of Woodstein’s portentous exclamations in President’s Men, ‘it was the way no one was mentioning it that was frightening.’  Sure, there were reports of a 2019 lawsuit pertaining to an alleged Halper’s 2014 dirty trick to ruin Michael Flynn with a Russian honeypot smear (See Svetlana Lokhova litigation).  Sure, there were further revelations of Halper’s 2016 campaign efforts, as part of a seemingly endless parade of Confidential Human Sources (not ‘spies’, dammit) detailed in IG Horowitz’s interminable report of December 2019.

But where were the Woodwards and Bernsteins of this age, digging into Halper’s entire life and times?  For that matter, where were/are Woodward and Bernstein themselves?  They are still working; they still remember Watergate (a topic they continuously discuss in various public fora); they could try to connect the same dots I had spotted.

Of course, there was the (sizeable) chance that I was all wrong.  That I was as conspiracy-minded and paranoid as a 1970’s film.  Perhaps Halper was not a rat-fucker of yore, one of the estimated fifty (most of whom seem to have never been charged or even named) Nixon supporters, who had conducted dirty tricks connected to the 1972 election.  Still, it was curious no one was even asking the Watergate connection question.  I mean, here was a man already provably connected to election shenanigans in the 1980 and 2016 cycles.  Was it so far-fetched that he was also connected to 1972 and Watergate, which happened to be the biggest political scandal in the American Century? If true, this would be somewhat earth-shattering news, akin to finding out the ghost of G. Gordon Liddy deflated footballs for Tom Brady’s New England Patriots.

I waited and waited.

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A couple of months ago, in the midst of yet another phase in the endless attempt to drive Trump out of office (Vive La Resistance!), I decided to revisit Halper and Watergate.  I discovered some new (to me) interesting facts that some enterprising Woodstein type may want to run with, so I can return to watching films on TCM while sipping non-toxic tea.

The Nixon rat-fuckers were loosely associated with another ‘dirty’ effort to thwart the administration’s opponents: the plumbers unit, created to plug leaks of private governmental information.  Overseen by two employees (Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh and David Young) in the Domestic Policy Council who directly reported to John Ehrlichman, the plumbers engaged in the botched break-in of the offices of the psychiatrist for Daniel Ellsberg, in August 1971.  Two of those plumbers, the above-mentioned Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, would later be the putative organizers of the botched break-in of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex, on June 17, 1972.

The Domestic Policy Council was a Nixon admin creation, ostensibly to tackle domestic concerns such as the growing crisis of illegal drug use.  How it morphed into plumbing operations is a subject for a book by Krogh or Young.  (both of whom are alive, and hopefully, well).  What interested me is that, as mentioned above, Stefan Halper’s first job in government was in this council, in 1971.  Assumedly, he knew Krogh and Young.  As a matter of fact, Young, who would exile himself to the UK after Watergate to lecture and form a strategy firm, is thanked in a 2007 non-fiction book, The Silence of the Rational Centre, co-authored by Halper and his colleague, former British diplomat, Jonathan Clarke.

What also interested me was that, according to a Washington Post report, Halper had been hired for this position because of the influence of his father-in-law, the previously-mentioned CIA honcho, Ray Cline.  (Please note that according to one source, Halper had married Cline’s daughter Sybil (born 1948) in 1976: It is unclear to me when Stefan and Sibyl had begun dating, or when and how Stefan had first met Ray).

 Cline is one of the most fascinating figures in American spycraft.  One of the original cadre of CIA employees, along with, among others, his putative rival, Richard McGarrah Helms, Cline wished to portray his image as being more of an academic, befitting a writer of a lengthy history of the War Department’s Operations Division, in contrast with Helms, who actually managed clandestine ops for The Agency.  Cline’s 1976 book, Secret, Spies and Scholars, sprinkles organizational charts and vague recommendations for lifting the veil of covertness among its unsurprising anecdotes.  His operations experience seems to have been limited to stints in Germany and the Far East, the details of which he mostly omits to include.

What may interest a Woodstein type is Cline’s views on Nationalist and Communist China.  Cline, as CIA Station Chief in Taiwan, had a hand in supporting anti-Communist China activities, from guerilla actions in various parts of the mainland to the creation of the Air America transport.  Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 was most assuredly not a Cline operation.  As a matter of fact, Cline was caught unawares of the establishment of relations with the Communist government.

A New Republic article in 2010 related that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to keep the China overture out of State Department cables because he “was afraid that friends of Taiwan within the US Government like the [former] CIA official Cline or Senator Barry Goldwater, might see the cable and leak the news on their own to Chiang Sai-shek’s government.”

Meanwhile, according to Halper, he was instrumental in planning the February 1972 Nixon trip to China.  It is unclear why a first-year employee in the Domestic Policy Council would be seconded to this role in an earth-shattering foreign policy venture but that is his claim.  Indeed, in the years following his governmental career, Halper has carved out an academic niche as a China expert, writing books and lecturing on the subject.  Indeed, it is alleged that the Trump transition team was considering Halper for an ambassadorship to unspecified countries in Asia.

Which brings us to the ultimate in Watergate conspiracy theories, the purposeful botching of the burglary.  This sometimes coalesces with the theory that the burglary was, in fact, not only perpetrated by former CIA officers like Hunt and James McCord (along with CIA-connected Cuban-Americans like the nice, bald fellow played by Dominic Chianese/Johnny Ola in the 1976 film), but was, in fact, a CIA operation.

In this theory, most recently put forth in an April 28, 2019 article in The Guardian, the amateur-ish character of the DNC break-in (i.e. the easily-discoverable taping over of the door latches) was done in an effort to embarrass or destroy the Nixon administration.  Not that the burglars themselves, or even Hunt or Liddy knew of the botching.  Rather, some higher element, someone the burglars may not have even known was their true ‘employer’, engaged in an elaborate ratfuck, or, as Deep Throat explains in the film and the book, a ‘double-cross’.

And thus, the spine-tingling, goosebumping chiller moment of the conspiracy: when the true ‘villains’ are revealed.  In this (my novel) theory, it is Cline and his protégé and (future?) son-in-law Halper who are the true culprits behind Watergate.  Motivated by his animus towards Nixon’s recent transformation of the United State’s China policy, and seeming betrayal of Taiwan, Cline would utilize Halper to somehow betray the burglary and ultimately ruin the Nixon administration.

Of course, once one is a passenger on this conspiracy theory train, one welcomes the incorporation of further elements.  For example, John Dean’s strange role becomes another spoke in the wheel.  Dean, White House Counsel, led the cover-up, spoke to Nixon in a manner which arguably entrapped Nixon into incriminating himself (whilst being taped, natch), then turned state’s and revealed in the Senate Watergate Committee an oft-complete recollection of the exact words spoken in the conversations with the President.

John Dean was also the college roommate of Senator Barry Goldwater’s son, Barry Jr.  (Junior and John would later collaborate on a profile of the senator and former presidential candidate, Pure Barry.)  Goldwater pere, himself the alleged victim of LBJ 1964 campaign dirty tricks, was, as mentioned above, no fan of Nixon’s China Opening.  He also, famously, was the lead Republican legislator entrusted with informing Nixon, in the summer of 1974, that he had lost the support of the party and could not survive an impeachment effort.  Nixon would resign 2 days after Goldwater and two congressmen came to the White House with this news.

There is more to this. Well, at least, I assume there is.  But, as mentioned above, I am not an investigative reporter.  Just someone whose hobbies include perusing open source information.  For example, did you know there is a rabbit hole/warren of information available in a vault of FBI files on the afore-mentioned Richard Helms, his grandfather Gates McGarrah, the beginnings of the CIA, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Norman Schwarzkopfs Senior and Junior?  Fascinating stuff, all. Someday, someone may want to report on that too.  Lots of dots to connect.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a dearth of investigative journalists operating in the tradition of a 1970’s Woodward or Bernstein.  The cynical and conspiracy-minded in me might attribute that to political leanings of much of the Fourth Estate.  The practical part would agree with the subtext of the infamous May 5, 2016 NY Times Magazine interview with Ben Rhodes: that financial exigencies prevent the employment of experienced journalists, let alone ‘public detective’ types.  Instead, the shrinking news-gathering industry is compelled to employ lowly-paid youngsters who, as Rhodes claimed, know nothing, thus allowing an echo chamber to be utilized by sophisticated, powerful interests like the Obama administration (i.e. in their zeal to promote the Iran nuclear deal).

That still does not excuse Woodward and Bernstein themselves.  Instead of uttering ‘cover-up, cover-up’ every moment of the Ukraine impeachment imbroglio, like he is the McCarthy-esque Senator Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, maybe Carl can pick up a phone and call his old buddy Don Segretti.  Per Wikipedia, it doesn’t seem that Don has been doing much since his work with the McCain for President 2000 campaign.  I’m sure he’ll be glad to schmooze some more with Carl.  Or maybe Woodward can place a flag in his balcony flower pot and make an appointment to meet in a parking garage with another (former) second-in-command at the FBI, Andrew McCabe.  Alternatively, Bob can simply call Andy at CNN, where he is a planted expert on issues of law, order, and the efforts to paint the president as a Russian stooge.

I do not hold out much hope that someone will connect dots, follow the leads, burn some shoe leather.  The days of All the President’s Men have passed. Even an assiduous study of the Watergate (almost) impeachment history by the Lawfare folks behind the Ukraine impeachment could not provide success for the Resistance.  In the end, it seems that all of Lisa Page’s reading will prove for naught.  Trump has proven to be slipperier, smarter and more media-savvy than Nixon.

At best, all we can hope for is the upcoming scene.  It is the 2021 State of Union address, and a newly-reelected Donald John Trump, speaks to the representatives of the three branches of the government and the entire citizenry.  He stands at the rostrum, Vice-President Ivanka and Speaker of the House Pelosi seated behind him.  There is an air of triumph wafting above the Old Spice.  The Republicans crack their knuckles in preparation for a night of a thousand claps.  The Democrats close their eyes and envision themselves in their safe spaces, sipping banana daquiris.  Trump clears his throat, surveys the room, addresses the gathered and utters the classic ‘The State of Our Union is good’. 

After the applause dies down, while Nancy pre-tears her menu-sized copy of the speech, the Donald then repeats the phrase in perfect Russian before admitting that he has always been a mole: sent to this country by the Soviets to sow discord and sell mail-order steaks.

No hint of a Queens accent.

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