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The Nation: Colson’s Weird Scenario

6 minute read

On May 10, without telling anyone, not even the members of his prayer group, former Presidential Aide Charles Colson phoned Richard Lee Bast, 41, who is regarded as Washington’s best and toughest private detective. Colson wanted to talk to Bast about a very sensitive matter. Three days later they huddled for two hours in Bast’s house in McLean, Va.; they met there once again on May 31. Last week Bast, who made extensive notes of both conversations, revealed his version of what Chuck Colson said. Even in the Watergate environment, where the unbelievable often comes true, Colson’s story seemed bizarre beyond belief. Colson, the master of dirty tricks, said he had finally met his master: the CIA. According to Bast, Colson blamed the Watergate break-in on the CIA, which, he intimated, was attempting to take over the nation.

Bast has a reputation for honesty. Except for a single detail, Colson by week’s end had not challenged the story. He admitted that he had met with Bast “in confidence to explore a possible professional relationship. None of the statements I made to Mr. Bast were intended for public consumption.” Bast waited until Colson was sentenced to release the story. He thought it was important enough to be made public. And, says Bast, Colson agreed.

According to Bast’s notes, this is how the conversations went:

Colson wanted Bast to investigate the CIA privately on behalf of himself and the six other defendants in the Watergate cover-up conspiracy trial. Not eager for that job, Bast suggested that the President appoint another special prosecutor to do it. Colson thought that was a good idea and later reported that Nixon was “very enthusiastic.” But that is as far as the project went.

The agency, Colson confided to Bast, was out to get President Nixon. Why? asked Bast. Colson replied: “Nixon’s theory is that they were coming in to spy, that they wanted to get enough on the White House so that they could get what they wanted.” What did they want? “Who knows what they want?” Colson responded. Before the White House could take any counteraction, he went on, “our whole house of cards collapsed. Nobody controls the CIA. I mean nobody. If the CIA really has infiltrated this country to the extent I think it has, we ain’t got a country left.”

Scared President. Colson said that the President was planning last January to fire CIA Director William Colby and have the agency investigated. But White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger supposedly talked him out of it. (The one fact that Colson later denied was that Nixon had intended to dismiss Colby.) Colson surmised that Haig and White House Lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt worked incognito for the CIA and that maybe Kissinger did too. The President was prevented from acting by the disloyal people around him; his phone, Colson believed, was even tapped by the CIA so that the agency could follow his every move. “The President is scared as hell, especially when he’s weak and under attack. He’s afraid to alienate the military or the foreign policy establishment.”

The CIA was involved in all aspects of Watergate, said Colson as he ticked them off. The agency helped carry out the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, destroyed evidence, put out a cover story to camouflage its part in the Watergate break-in and tried to divert the FBI from investigating it. He confessed to Bast: “I don’t say this to my people. They’d think I’m nuts. I think they killed Dorothy Hunt.” He was referring to the death of E. Howard Hunt’s wife in an air crash in 1972. Colson thought that the agency was trying to silence her. Almost gratuitously, Colson told Bast that he believed Howard Hughes had given $100,000 and even more to the President and his family for their private use. “Hughes can blow the whistle on him.”

When parts of Colson’s yarn were published last week, no one was more interested than Senator Howard Baker, vice chairman of the Watergate committee. Suspecting a CIA link to Watergate, Baker had written a 35-page, unpublished report on the subject with some help from Colson. But Baker aides claim that there is nothing in the report to substantiate Colson’s charge that the agency had a role in planning or executing the Watergate breakin, much less in plotting against the President.

There are, of course, some unanswered questions about the CIA’s relationship to Watergate. Some of the men deeply involved in Watergate—notably E. Howard Hunt Jr. and James McCord—were retired longtime employees of the agency. A CIA agent was on hand when McCord’s wife burned some of his personal papers.

Colson’s monstrous plot, however, can scarcely be constructed from such shards. Why, then, did he unburden himself to Bast? One theory is that Colson wanted to make a last desperate try to get himself (and the President) off the hook. So why not blame Watergate on the CIA, which is already highly suspect to much of the public and in no position to defend itself. If this was indeed the scheme, then considering how battered American institutions are and how in need of support and not defamation, it was one of the dirtiest tricks that Colson has played to date.

But another explanation is that Colson has lost touch with reality. When he was talking to Bast, he appeared calm at times, at times quite agitated. At one point he remarked to the detective: “You might think I belong in an asylum.” A Colson associate thinks that impending imprisonment may have weighed on him: “Look, you’re going to jail. You get pretty desperate.” In a sense, Colson’s CIA fantasies are not that far removed from some of his previous schemes: fire-bombing the Brookings Institution, for instance, or forging cables linking President Kennedy to the assassination of South Viet Nam’s President Diem. The key question is not why Colson is the way he is, but why he was ever given easy access to the highest office in the land.

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