The Room Where It Happened

by Laura Dail

In the summer of 1971, the Special Investigative Unit, or SIU that would come to be known as “the Plumbers” was urgently taking shape. David Young, one of Henry Kissinger’s aides, who would co-direct the unit along with Egil “Bud” Krogh, arranged for temporary office space. It was here, in the Old Executive Office Building (or EOB), that Krogh first brought G. Gordon Liddy to meet Young.

Egil “Bud” Krogh.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

The unit would need a more secure home, though, a secret one, and found it in Room 16 at the southwest corner on the first floor of the EOB. A former mailroom, Krogh worried it was too exposed, with staff members and support people frequently walking by. But in the end, he decided it was so ordinary it was practically hiding in plain sight. Krogh could also get from his main office (in Room 172) to Room 16 quickly and without drawing a lot of attention. 

It took three days to get the office up and running. Equipment was delivered. David Young moved into the office behind the desk of Kathy Chenow (the secretary brought to work for the unit) and a large conference table was set up in the center. 

Howard Hunt wanted a secure phone for his personal use. Chenow arranged for the phone bills to go to her house. A scrambler phone was also set up to ensure that calls could not be overheard or monitored. Krogh did note all these elements of secrecy, but driven by what he considered an urgent mission critical to national security, the subterfuge did not stop him.

On July 23, in Room 16, the Plumbers had their first meeting as a full team.

Later, security of Room 16 needed to be hardened. Krogh and Liddy needed additional clearances to handle the most sensitive classified documents of interest to the unit (Young and Hunt already had them) and they needed to ensure that passers-by couldn’t gain access to them. Within two days of their request, the technical services division of the Secret Service installed a motion detection system that would detect any unauthorized intruder. The motion detector was too sensitive, though, and when a paper was blown by a breeze, thanks to ventilation or some other small movement, an alarm rang the Secret Service, and an armed agent charged in. Several false alarms brought agents to check up on these errant flying documents before the plumbers started to store their files safely each night.

The Plumbers met in Room 16 throughout the months of July and August of 1971. It was here that the August 11 memorandum was drafted by Young and co-signed by Krogh, recommending the covert operation to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst’s office in Beverly Hills, CA. After planning sessions and reconnaissance, it was also here that Hunt and Liddy waited for the cash and the final approval to execute the operation.

But Krogh was not in Room 16 on September 3, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, night of the infamous and fateful burglary. He was at home in Crystal City, Virginia, in a rocking chair, anxiously waiting for a call from Liddy. When Liddy finally called around 1:00 AM to report that they had gotten in and out cleanly but with nothing of any value or use, Krogh knew something irrevocable had occurred.

Krogh and Liddy met again in Room 16 on September 6th. Liddy showed Krogh the polaroid photographs he’d taken of the damage inflicted on Dr. Fielding’s office. Liddy showed Krogh the tools he’d used to break in and ransack the office. He told Krogh he “would have killed if necessary.” Krogh was shaken. On September 8, Krogh showed the same photographs to Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman was also shocked by the extent of the damage.

Krogh returned to Room 16 later that day and informed Liddy and Hunt that Ehrlichman had rejected their suggestion to try again, this time breaking into Dr. Fielding’s apartment. With this decision, Krogh’s involvement with the covert activities of the Plumbers came to an end. Over the next two months the SIU focused on other leaks, but the Fielding break-in on September 3, 1971 concluded the seven-week period that Krogh believes doomed Nixon’s presidency. The beginning of the end.

Laura Dail is a literary agent in New York City. She doesn’t just represent Matthew Krogh, and the late Egil “Bud” Krogh, co-authors of The White House Plumbers, she is also their step-sister/step-daughter.