Morton “Tony” Jackson: CIA’s Forgotten Watergate Player

Just over forty-five years ago, the Watergate break-in and the subsequent fallout shook the United States and startled the western world with the campaign improprieties carried out by the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP) and with the coverup that followed. Much of the scandal was focused on who was responsible, whether CIA had been pulling the strings or simply providing support, the attempts to derail the FBI investigation and the leaks that followed (including, but not limited to, Deep Throat). Allegations flew from all sides, with many pointing out that several of the Watergate burglars and planners had long-time CIA connections, with some still being on CIA’s payroll. A great deal of focus went to the CIA-linked Cubans involved in the break-in and to James McCord’s letters that disavowed any CIA connection, and warning that incorrectly laying the operation at CIA’s feet would result in a “scorched desert” and that “every tree in the forest [would] fall.” Yet in all of the attention that was paid to the role that CIA did or didn’t play in Watergate, one figure remains all-but forgotten, and his role in the Watergate affair overlooked.

To most, Morton “Tony” Jackson was a radio broadcaster who had once been a lawyer and had been a Naval aviator during World War II. His connection to Watergate is considered so tenuous that between three of the most respected, in-depth books on the affair there is only a single mention of Morton Jackson. All the President’s Men identifies him as a Los Angeles attorney whom E. Howard Hunt had stayed with in the week after the Watergate break-in, while the indices (and a Google Books search) of Silent Coup and Secret Agenda show no mention of the attorney. Only one book hints at Morton Jackson’s larger role in events, G. Gordon Liddy’s Will, which states that Morton had “served with Hunt in the CIA.” Liddy doesn’t explain what Morton Jackson did for CIA or his role in the Watergate affair, though he does confirm an important statement from Charles Colson (explored later in this article) and hints that E. Howard Hunt thought Morton Jackson could be counted on in an operational emergency.

Before exploring Morton Jackson’s role in the Watergate affair, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at his employment by CIA. Morton Jackson applied to work with the Agency in August 1950, and when he did he listed long-time CIA officer E. Howard Hunt(then stationed in Mexico) as a character reference. His application was apparently accepted, as he was used by the Agency “in a covert capacity covering the period from February 1951 to approximately June 1954.” He was stationed in Bangkok, Thailand and was associated with the Intercontinental Engineering Corporation, an obscure company that had some sort of relationship with governmental aeronautic pioneers, Theodore von Kármán and Vannevar Bush. His work there began at the same time that Civil Air Transport, owned by CIA, began its operations in Thailand. According to the Agency, Morton Jackson was “never a Staff Employee” and ceased working for the Agency when his contract expired. Following this, Morton Jackson performed legal services for the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration in Geneva Switzerland from 1954 through 1957, where he was a source for the CIA station in Bern, though “no formal relationship existed.”

Despite the claims that Jackson’s relationship with CIA ended in 1954 and that he only had informal contact with the Agency afterwards, Charles Colson, Special Counsel and “hatchet man” to President Nixon, identified Morton Jackson’s law firm, Jackson, Goodstein, Kumler, Copes, Groskey and Smith, as one of the “private firms either owned by the CIA or used by the CIA.” Significantly, Morton Jackson later joined the law firm of Baker & McKenzie in 1988 – a law firm which was allegedly “either employed by or in direct communication with the CIA” in a case against Air America by General Aircraft, a company which claimed “it was an unknowing participant in some CIA activities, and filed a complaint against the agency charging that the CIA illegally abused a contractual relationship for sales of aircraft and organized CIA operations under its name—including assassinations and the smuggling of illegal drugs.”

The role that Morton Jackson played in Watergate was partially revealed by Charles Colson, who stated that “Hunt had had breakfast with Jackson the morning of the Fielding break-in and that the Greenspun caper had been planned in Jackson’s home.” This statement is key to understanding elements of the Watergate affair.

G. Gordon Liddy described Hunt’s introducing him to Morton Jackson and Hunt’s subsequent description of Jackson as “a solid guy to whom we could look for support in an emergency.” Hunt provides a little more detail, stating that the main reason he wanted to see Jackson was “to discuss a possible business venture that Barker, Artime and I had discussed earlier that year, I also wanted him to meet Liddy in case the two should ever need to make contact – in case something went wrong with our operation and we needed a lawyer immediately.” Both accounts confirm that they had breakfast with Morton Jackson on the day they broke into Lewis Fielding’s office to steal whatever they could about Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. The episode was referred to “Hunt/Liddy Special Project No. 1” in Ehrlichman’s notes. The break-in itself was performed by Hunt and Liddy along with CIA affiliates Eugenio Martínez, Felipe de Diego and Bernard Barker.

The Fielding break-in has been well-explored, but the Greenspun caper has largely remained a mystery. Whether or not the break-in was actually attempted and what motivated it remain major questions. (Evidence suggests that the break-in was attempted along with a possible motive, which will be explored in a future article.) However, the fact that the break-in was planned in Morton Jackson’s home is strong evidence that he was actively involved in the Watergate affair while it was still going on. How actively he participated remains unknown. However, his activities relating to Watergate don’t end with the Greenspun caper.

According to G. Gordon Liddy, during a trip to California when the Republican National Convention was still planned for San Diego, he left E. Howard Hunt “in Los Angeles to consult Tony Jackson for personnel leads.” It’s not clear what these personnel leads were regarding, but given Jackson’s presence in the Fielding and Greenspun break-ins, it’s entirely possible that it was related to the “dirty tricks” campaign that Liddy had just been put in charge of. Hunt described the San Diego portion of the GEMSTONE campaign thusly:

“Our highest priority, ‘Diamond,’ was the counterdemonstration [sic] plan for San Diego, where the Republican convention was scheduled to take place (it would later be moved to Miami Beach, booked just after the Democrats staged their convention in the same hotel). ‘Garnet’ was another counterdemonstration [sic] program, in which we planned to hire various distasteful people to demonstrate against Republicans, with the hopeful fallout that the American public would find their antics so repulsive that they would vote for Nixon, just to thumb their noses at the demonstrators.”
(Emphasis in the original text)

E. Howard Hunt also says he was responsible for creating a plan to protect the Republican convention in San Diego from “attacks by a mob of anti-Republican demonstrators” and to “maintain in standby status the entry team that had accessed Dr. Fielding’s office.” After the actual break-in at the Watergate and following the arrests of those present, Hunt returned to California to stay with Morton Jackson and seek his counsel. Jackson arranged for a Washington lawyer, ostensibly to take over, but was Jackson was later described as working for “the CRP, as special counsel in the litigation” regarding the Watergate affair.

Morton Jackson was ultimately brought before the grand jury, which prompted Hunt to accuse the prosecutors of “obviously fishing and casting the widest net imaginable.” However, Jackson’s involvement in the events leading up to Watergate certainly would have justified that, although the evidence suggests that the Congressional investigators were unaware of the extent of Jackson’s role. It was certainly a major concern for the Agency, as a high level memo was sent out “concerning [Jerry Hannifin’s] uncovering of the name of Morton Jackson.” That memo remains classified, although it is mentioned in the sole instance of Morton Jackson’s name in CIA’s database of declassified documents, CREST.

Morton Jackson’s involving in covert action and Watergate related affairs continued, as he questioned at least one person about Watergate while recording the conversation without their knowledge or permission.

In response to an email inquiring about Morton Jackson, Douglas Caddy responded with the following information on June 25, 2016 (reprinted with his permission):

Dear Mr. Best:

The name Morton Jackson is only vaguely familiar. My recollection may not be accurate in this regard but I believe this is the attorney in Los Angeles that Howard Hunt sought out for assistance in the days just after the arrests at Watergate. From what I have read about the case John Dean returned from the Philippines late on the day of the arrests or the following day and soon thereafter told Gordon Liddy to order Howard to “disappear” by going to Europe to join his wife and two children who were there. Howard thought the order did not make sense and shortly thereafter it was rescinded. But a new order immediately came down from Dean that Howard should leave Washington, D.C. and “disappear” to some location within the country. So Howard first went to New York City and stayed at a hotel near LaGuardia Airport and shortly thereafter flew to California where he stayed with Morton Jackson. About two or three weeks later he returned to Washington, D.C. after he had retained William Bittman (apparently with the assistance of Jackson) to represent him following my being served a ‘forthwith subpoena” to appear before the federal grand jury, after which I could no longer ethically represent Howard.

All this business about Howard being ordered to leave Washington, D.C. occurred without my [being] aware of it at the time. It was some weeks later that I learned what had taken place.

About two years later Morton Jackson sought me out while I was visiting California and without asking my permission recorded my conversation with him. My knowledge concerning the questions [about Watergate] he posed to me was limited and as such he did not learn much.

In 1975 I had dinner with Howard at the Yenching Palace in Washington a few months before he entered prison. In the midst of our conversation he suddenly blurted out that Jackson had been let go from the law firm in California where he worked. Strangely, I got the impression that Howard was not upset at all about this.

Sincerely,

Douglas Caddy

While it’s impossible to know who Morton Jackson was making the recording for or who he shared it with, it removes any doubt that he was neither above board nor acting in good faith.

You can read a selection of documents about Morton Jackson below, or read my FOIA request about him here.