Hoovergate

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Lawrence O’Brien, the head of the Democratic National Committee at the time of the Watergate break-in, was not the first O’Brien burglarized on behalf of the GOP. Forty-two years earlier James J. O’Brien, a suspected Tammany Hall ally and two-bit blackmailer, was the target of another Republican administration. In 1930, however, the burglars were drawn not from the CIA and disgruntled Cuban émigrés but from American Naval Intelligence. The mastermind behind this conspiracy was a millionaire friend of Herbert Hoover’s who was an officer in the Naval Intelligence Reserve and claimed to be acting under the President’s authority.

The main evidence for this strange story, so reminiscent of Watergate, appears in the recently uncovered diary of Glenn Howell, who in 1930 was the director of Naval Intelligence for the New York City area. Howell was no stranger to break-ins and espionage against his fellow citizens. In his 1930 diary he speaks confidently of infiltrating and spying on Communist cells and then arranging for break-ins and the theft of their files. But one particular job made him nervous.

On May 21, 1930, Howell met with the financier Lewis Strauss—Hoover’s friend, who was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Intelligence reserve—and Strauss told him that James J. O’Brien, a former New York City policeman who had been dismissed from the force in 1908, was planning to publish documents embarrassing to Hoover. Strauss said the President wanted to see what O’Brien had, and had authorized him to “utilize the services of any of our various secret services” to find out. Also present at this meeting was Lt. Cmdr. Paul Foster, who was both Strauss’s friend and Howell’s predecessor as head of local Navy Intelligence. Foster, a Medal of Honor winner in Mexico in 1914, had resigned from the Navy the year before and entered business, possibly with Strauss’s aid.

Here is Howell’s account of the meeting and the events that followed.

May 21, 1930

I left at four for the offices of Kuhn, Loeb and Company at 52 William Street, where Paul Foster and I had an appointment with Lewis Strauss. It is an extraordinary thing that he wants of me, and I think that I am reasonably safe in setting this down here with the understanding that whoever may chance to read these lines will keep his mouth shut until the passage of time makes silence unnecessary.

Now a book which has obtained a heavy circulation this year is The Strange Death of President Harding, an astounding—if true—set of charges preferred by one of the former White House detectives. There was probably a lot in Mr. Harding’s life that would not bear the light of day.

Now Lewis Strauss is a millionaire. He is married to the daughter of the Loeb of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. He is a partner in this noted banking firm. Another partner is William Wiseman, head of the British Intelligence Service in America during the World War and supposed by our people to have continued his activities here for an indefinite period after the close of the War. Sir William and Strauss are intimate friends. And Strauss is a lieutenant commander in our Naval Intelligence Reserve.

Now when Paul Foster had my job he believed in Strauss unreservedly. So do I—with certain reservations. However, when he asked Paul and me to this conference this afternoon I agreed to come with considerable curiosity.

Here is the problem.

But before I begin I must note down Strauss’s connection with Mr. Hoover.

Strauss was Mr. Hoover’s private secretary at a dollar a year when Mr. Hoover was serving in charge of Belgian Relief Work, and he is a close personal friend of the President. Four times in recent months I have noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Strauss have been guests at the White House over weekends. They are evidently close friends of the Hoovers.

The existing situation is this:

During the Presidential Campaign of 1928 [the Democratic candidate] Al Smith and [John J.] Raskob, his campaign manager, hired a man named O’Brien to collect some documentary dope on Hoover, drag out some written evidence that there were unsavory episodes in his past. However, what O’Brien collected and gave to Smith and Raskob was evidently valueless, for they used no mud during the campaign. For that matter neither did the Republicans.

It now seems that O’Brien didn’t give to Smith and Raskob the worst he got. He is again in the pay of Tammany and is in an office in the Salmon Towers, evidently preparing to publish these letters or whatever the documents are. [Smith’s friend William F.] Kenney owns the Salmon Towers, with Salmon, and Kenny is very thick with the Tammanyites.

Strauss told me that the President is anxious to know what the contents of these mysterious documents are; that he has no fear of them; but that he merely wants to know what they are about so that he will be in a position immediately to rebut them as soon as they are published, since prompt denial and rebuttal are the only things which can properly scotch such accusations.