Scorpions' Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate

Image of Scorpions' Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate
Release Date: 
June 7, 2022
St. Martin's Press
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“Jefferson Morley’s new book Scorpions’ Dance uses the relationship between CIA Director Richard Helms and President Richard Nixon as a window through which to take another look at Watergate.”

Intelligence and politics are both nasty businesses, and their respective summits in the United States are in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the White House. Jefferson Morley’s new book Scorpions’ Dance uses the relationship between CIA Director Richard Helms and President Richard Nixon as a window through which to take another look at Watergate. It is a window, however, shaded by a “wilderness of mirrors.”

The phrase “wilderness of mirrors” was used by former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton to describe deception operations. Morley’s previous book, Ghost, was about Angleton’s involvement in domestic intelligence operations that stretched from President Kennedy’s assassination through the Vietnam War to the Watergate break-in. In that book Morley took a decidedly negative view of Angleton and the CIA. Scorpions’ Dance is equally harsh on Helms and the CIA, and fully accepts the conventional view of Nixon’s guilt in Watergate.

Morley blames Helms and Nixon for “shaping” Watergate through their “deepened,” “labyrinthine relationship” during the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, the attempts to unseat Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, and the war in Vietnam. He calls them “two Machiavellians” who “rose in the heyday of what they proudly called the Free World.” The Watergate affair, he writes, “originated in the clandestine collaborative relationship” of Helms and Nixon.

Morley claims that his goal in the book is to “inform, not to rebut, other interpretations of the Watergate story.” The conventional view of Watergate is “the tale of a lawless president brought to justice by an independent press.” Nixon’s defenders, he writes, view Nixon as a victim of “entrenched liberal elites that he battled his whole career.” Other revisionists, Morley explains, believe Watergate involved “secret agendas of blackmail and manipulation.” Morley writes that all of these interpretations have some merit, but he largely accepts the conventional view, albeit shadowed by secret agendas.

Morley’s bibliography does not include Silent Coup (written by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin) and or any of the more recent books by Geoff Shepard—The Nixon Conspiracy and The Real Watergate Scandal—that call into question the Woodward-Bernstein tale of heroic journalists, impartial prosecutors, and fair judges. Scorpions’ Dance portrays Helms and Nixon as villains who engaged in illegalities to protect their power.

Watergate, according to Morley, was both a CIA and White House affair. The Watergate burglars all had CIA connections—many dating back to the Bay of Pigs and later attempts to assassinate Castro. Howard Hunt and James McCord became household names in the midst of Watergate, but they had been part of Helms’ CIA, and Morley suggests that they never completely severed their ties to the “Agency.” Morley writes that these and other CIA agents blamed President Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs failure and “betrayal,” and suggests that the Agency may have had a hand in Kennedy’s assassination.

When Nixon named Helms CIA Director, Helms, according to Morley, played a role in Hunt’s and McCord’s involvement with the Committee to Re-Elect Nixon. Who better to entrust political “dirty tricks” to than ex-CIA men? When the Watergate break-in became public after the arrest of the burglars, Morley writes, Helms sought to distance the Agency from the break-in while Nixon sought to protect the White House.

Morley describes Helms and Nixon as staunch Cold Warriors who were comfortable using whatever means were necessary to effectively wage the Cold War. Castro’s Cuba and Communist Vietnam were enemies in that Cold War, so ends justified means. Morley, however, is of the liberal post-Vietnam generation that is critical of every American intelligence operation from restoring the Shah to power in Iran in the early 1950s, to overthrowing Arbenz in Guatemala in the mid-1950s, to attempts to assassinate Castro, to undermining Diem in Vietnam, to infiltrating and spying on domestic anti-war protesters in the 1960s and early 1970s, to bringing down Allende in Chile, to Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair.

For Morley, what he calls the “Free World creed” was an idea shared by Helms and Nixon that “lost all credibility in Vietnam and Watergate.” Although Nixon was forced to resign and Helms entered a plea admitting to making false statements, both escaped justice for their many misdeeds, in Morley’s view.

Morley praises the work of the Senate Watergate Committee, as if somehow the nasty business of politics didn’t dominate its work. British historian Paul Johnson called Watergate a political “witch hunt” that was designed to overturn the 1972 presidential election, which Nixon won in a landslide. Geoff Shepard has documented the Committee’s collaboration with anti-Nixon special prosecutors to bring Nixon down. Morley’s sole criticism of the Watergate investigation was that it failed to expose the nefarious abuses of the CIA. That was left to the later Church Committee and other congressional investigations of CIA “dirty tricks.”

Perhaps Morley’s next book will tackle the subject of CIA involvement, if any, in the Russia collusion hoax that sought to overturn the 2016 presidential election result by forcing President Trump from power. That would be an interesting sequel to Scorpions’ Dance.