The Republican Convention:
In July of 1971, the Republican host committee picked San Diego as the site for its 1972 convention. It was San Diego's first shot at hosting a national convention. But in unprecedented fashion in May 1972, just months before the event, the convention was hurriedly wisked off to Miami. Why Nixon pulled the plug on San Diego has never been adequately explained.
1972 and 1996
The official version expressed by San Diego's Copley press and other Nixon boosters is linked to a scandal involving I.T.T. Eight days after the host committee had chosen San Diego, an anti-trust suit against ITT was dropped by John Mitchell's Justice Department. ITT and its president Harold Geneen had pledged $400,000 to underwrite the convention in San Diego. Apparently the Justice Department returned the favor and as this theory goes, Republican party damage control necessitated dumping San Diego and its ITT sponsorship.
But why then did it take almost a year for the 'scandal' to effect convention planning? The collusion was known in some circles. After all, Geneen along with San Diego financeer C. Arnholt Smith were Nixon's '68 campaign finance co-chairs. And in March of 1972 the story broke out publicly with renewed force when columnist Jack Anderson began reporting on the connection. Then another two months elapsed before San Diego was dropped.
Even if the Republicans were interested in distancing themselves from Geneen and company, might there not be other events, perhaps even more important factors arguing for a change of venue. We thought it might be interesting to look back on other stories from 1972 not only for the purpose of understanding our own history but for the instructive parallels with current events and the 1996 election cycle.
And because the time leading up to San Diego's first convention 25 years ago was also a time filled with FRIENDLY FIRE .
The San Diego Coup
Richard Popkin, 1973
1972: The San Diego Republican Convention
San Diego is a strange town, where the niceties of Western Civilization cannot hide the power of the buck and the hint of brute force. It is the city built with the largesse of twenty-five years of imperial sway: a stronghold, a haven of anticommunism, a base for racketeers. Richard Nixon considered it his lucky city. He wanted the Republican Convention to be held there, and though the city fathers and the people of San Diego were not terribly enthusiastic, the plans went forward until May 1972, when the president abruptly changed his mind.
San Diego Watergate
Included in these plans, it turns out, was a tumultuous, massive, bloody riot--on such a scale as to justify the most extraordinary preventive measures, including burglary, bugging, sabotage, and perhaps even kidnaping. Watergate, we learn from the likes of John W. Dean, was simply a part of a strategy to maintain domestic tranquillity in the face of a serious left-wing threat.
The Red Menace
Presumably, this Red Menace existed in San Diego as well as Miami. But San Diego has never been a radical stronghold, and while local activists did undertake extensive preparations for antiwar demonstrations during the GOP convention, the Committee to Re-elect the President seems to have had a far higher opinion of their organizing successes than they themselves dared to entertain.
San Diego Bloodbath
Unless, of course, CREEP and its local San Diego allies were hell-bent on making certain that bedlam did in fact occur. That is precisely what a defecting agent provocateur named Louis Tackwood suggested almost a year before. Tackwood told an incredible story back in October and November 1971, one which suggested the Republicans were doing their utmost to turn San Diego into a bloodbath during the convention, with the aim of annihilating the left, smearing the Democrats, and coasting comfortably into four more years of conservative rule. His allegations were regarded as the ravings of a madman until testimony in the Senate caucus room appeared to corroborate some of his wildest stories.
He told of preparations to seal off and then bomb a hundred thousand demonstrators attending a rock concert on Fiesta Island in Mission Bay, San Diego. All sorts of mayhem were supposed to occur. Bombs were to be smuggled into Convention Center in hollow furniture, which was already being built in Los Angeles. At least one major Republican official would perish in the melee. The Democratic Party would be tied in to the events, discredited, possibly outlawed. The Republican candidate would then win an easy victory with the overwhelming support of an outraged citizenry. Today, Tackwood sticks by his original story, though he now adds that the plan also called for blowing up the podium as President Nixon was making his acceptance speech!
Civil War in San Diego
Incredible as the Tackwood scenario seemed back in 1971, it sounded less outlandish to San Diego radicals than to those on the outside. For two years, they had quite literally been engaged in protracted warfare with right-wingers determined to drive them out of the area. As early as 1970, activists associated with the San Diego Street Journal, an underground newspaper, were living in an armed fortress which they guarded around the clock against the attacks of night riders who would shoot into their houses, firebomb their cars and threaten their lives.
(Curiously, this terror campaign intensified as the paper exposed more and more illegal activities of San Diego kingpin C. Arnholt Smith.) On one occasion, for example, sentries spotted two men crouched behind a car with a high-powered rifle trained on the house. It was late at night, but they were prepared for such emergencies. At a signal, they switched on floodlamps which bathed the house in light and they announced over a loudspeaker system that they would open fire if the men did not withdraw. The gunmen waited a moment, then dismantled their rifle, and drove off into the night.
By late 1971, the vigilantes had stepped up their attacks and had chosen their principal targets. One of these was a certain Peter Bohmer, a radical who at the time was teaching economics at San Diego State College. He began receiving threatening phone calls, and on November 13, 1971, a car parked in front of his house was firebombed. Then on December 27, 1971, a group calling itself the Secret Army Organization put out a Special Bulletin on Peter Bohmer. After listing his antiwar activities, and his background, the letter said: "For any of our readers who may care to look up this Red Scum, and say hello, here is some information that may help." Then his address, phone number, and car license were given, plus a physical description. "Now, in case any of you don't believe in hitting people who wear glasses, to be fair, I guess we will have to tell you he wears contact lenses."
In the Cross-hair
On January 6, 1972, cross-hair stickers (the symbol of the SAO) were placed on the doors of three San Diego State College professors, including Bohmer. Then, an anonymous caller telephoned Bohmer's residence to say, "This time we left a sticker, next time we may leave a grenade. This is the SAO." Bohmer's friends were called and told to say goodbye to him. That evening, two shots were fired into Bohmer's home and a woman named Paula Tharp was wounded. The right-wing terror campaign continued for six more months, marked by death threats, menacing phone calls, and warning messages. Its climax came on June 19, 1972, when an SAO member bombed a local porno movie house, the Guild Theatre. This last event finally aroused the San Diego police to drive the group underground.
Police action brought a halt, at least temporarily, to rightwing terrorism in San Diego. But this is not the end of the tale. For in the months that followed a very bizarre story began to unravel, one which involved the SAO, the FBI, and some mysterious contacts between the terrorists and agents of CREEP. The pieces began to appear as early as mid-1972, but it is only in recent months that they have been pulled together by reporters for another San Diego alternative newspaper, the Door.
The SAO, it seems, grew out of the demise of the Minutemen. According to a recently discovered document entitled "History of the Secret Army Organization," it all began one morning in February 1970, when a group of six Minutemen leaders from four states met secretly in Northern Arizona to discuss the crisis that the arrest and imprisonment of two top Minutemen leaders and the assassination of a third had brought on the organization. Although some of these men had met before in their roles as Minutemen group leaders, others were meeting for the first time." These men agreed that "the Minutemen as a national coordination organization of militant rightwing groups had effectively been destroyed by the procommunist elements inside the Justice Department," and they further agreed that the need for a coordinating organization was greater than ever "in view of the increased revolutionary activity by communists in the United States." The new organization was the Secret Army Organization, and it would save America from its leftward drift under Nixon's regime.
The initial SAO documents speak of the immediate need to set up paramilitary groups to carry on guerrilla warfare, and even open and conventional warfare. A letter from "General Headquarters" dated November 8, 1971, outlines the nature of SAO operations-combat teams, organization, transportation, travel procedures, weapons and equipment, training lessons, intelligence work, security, etc. They say that the country has entered "Stage II": a time when most people think they can still get along with the government, but "a few real patriots are willing to take part in underground activity. "Stage II" will be a time of assassination and counterassassination, terror and counterterror." It is a period marked by "the communist infiltration and control of the present United States government."
SAO thus set out to wage total resistance to communism, a small band determined to risk all in the struggle for America. Nationwide, the group probably numbered less than two hundred members, thirty of whom were active in San Diego County. There the group was founded by two men-Jerry Lynn Davis (Southland Coordinator) and Howard Barry Godfrey (San Diego Commander and Intelligence Officer).
Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer: 1972
In late 1971 and the first half of 1972 the SAO put out bulletins on how to make booby traps, how to use ammonium nitrate in high explosives, and how to gain forced entry into buildings. (Much of this information was taken from Department of the Army technical manuals on "Unconventional Warfare Devices and Techniques.") The San Diego SAO also put out bulletins about local liberals, radicals and antiwar activists, all of whom were lumped together as communists. (These missives went out to a mailing list of two hundred twenty-seven names in the area, including a naval commander, a county supervisor, a vice admiral, a Marine Corps brigadier general, a rear admiral, and some San Diego police officers.) The group was organized into small, semi-autonomous cells. Members were listed by code numbers, and were given mall drops for their contacts.
The FBI Connection
SAO thrived in San Diego until the June 1972 bombing of the Guild Theatre led to the group's fall from grace. A former Birchite named William Francis Yakopec was arrested and charged with the bombing, and in September 1972 he was brought to trial in the Superior Court of the State of California in San Diego before Judge Robert W. Conyers. Much to the astonishment of the SAO supporters, the star witness against Yakopec turned out to be San Diego Commander Godfrey. Then a local fireman, Godfrey admitted he had worked for the FBI since early 1967 as an undercover agent. He did it, he said, because "I felt it was my duty to my country." Before accepting the role, he had talked it over with J. Clifford Wallace, then the State President of the Mormon Church for San Diego, and more recently a federal judge by appointment of Richard Nixon. Wallace put Godfrey in touch with the FBI, and he was assigned to agent Steve Christianson, to whom he reported verbally every day, Godfrey was to work on the militant right wing, and was paid two hundred fifty dollars per month by the FBI. At first he was assigned to the Minutemen and then with the demise of that group in San Diego, he helped start and run the SAO in November 1971. Godfrey testified that his FBI contacts knew all of his activities, including his stockpiling of illegal explosives in his house. This, he said, was done with their permission. (He later gave some of the explosives to Yakopec to "save them for after the Communist takeover of this country.")
Godfrey functioned as a one-man plumbers' operation within the SAO. He knew how to pick locks, burglarize, bomb and handle guns. The FBI paid his dues and covered his expenses. All this enabled him to carry on effectively as a terrorist. At Yakopec's trial, he said that he actively recruited for the group. What kind of people did he look for? "People with previous right-wing connections." Did he enlist potentially dangerous elements? "Yes, sir."
The Assault on Activists
Apparently, Godfrey himself was among the more dangerous elements in the SAO, and agent Christianson among the more dangerous eminences grises of the operation. During the Yakopec trial, Godfrey admitted that he had driven the car from which another SAO member, George Hoover, had fired into Bohmer's house, wounding Paula Tharp. Subsequently, he had taken the weapon to Christianson, who had hidden it for six months. (This was evidently insufficient grounds for the FBI to take disciplinary action against agent Christianson. He continued as Godfrey's contact until the bombing of the Guild Theatre, at which point he was removed by L. Patrick Gray himself. He currently resides in Kanosh, Utah.)
In addition, Godfrey confessed to publishing a certain leaflet on February 18, 1972, the day on which President Nixon left for China. The bulletin was headlined "Wanted for Treason," and it featured a picture of Nixon and an inflammatory text which accused the president of high treason because of his China policy. The SAO symbol appeared at the bottom of the text, and the group distributed it in fifteen cities-including San Diego, Phoenix, Yuma, San Francisco, and Bellingham, Washington.
At the Yakopec trial, Godfrey testified that he had paid the printer for the posters, picked them up, and was reimbursed by the FBI, and that the FBI understood tle nature of his expenditures and saw all of his SAO publications. As for poor Yakopec, who had joined the SAO through Godfrey, his next door neighbor, he admitted to owning several of the posters: he said he stored them under his mattress. Why there? "I thought they were kind of corny." Later, he testified that he kept a bomb with the Nixon posters. Did he generally keep bombs under his bed? "No, I like to sleep too well." (When I visited the San Diego Court House to see the exhibit in question, the custodian located a stack of thirty-three posters, with the bomb casing stiill attached!)*
Dallas to Watergate
lt was not noted at the time, but in fact these posters bear a remarkable resemblance to leaflets which were distributed in Dallas, Texas, just one or two days prior to the assassination of President Kennedy. That poster likewise bore the headline "Wanted for Treason" and it also featured pictures (front and profile) of JFK and an inflammatory text about the president's allegedly treasonous activities. On the hunch that the leaflet might have some connection with the assassination, the Warren Commission sent Secret Service agents to track down its author and printer. They worked from late November 1963 to May 1964 until they found that Robert G. Klause had printed the flyer and that Robert Allan Surrey, an associate of General Walker, had ordered it. When Surrey testified before the Commission on June 16, 1964, he pled the Fifth Amendment on all questions concerning the leaflet. The late Hale Boggs, a member of the Warren Commission, pointed out that Surrey "is the only witness out of hundreds who has pled the Fifth Amendment." Klause denied any interest in or involvement with the contents of the leaflet, and there the matter was allowed to rest. By that point, the Warren Commission was determined to prove that Oswald had acted alone, and therefore lost interest in trying to connect the assassination with the leaflet.
Godfrey's surfacing as an FBI agent rattled the remnants of the SAO. They were angry at having been set up by the FBI, and when reporters for the Door began approaching their old adversaries for information earlier in 1973, they found that many were willing to cooperate; some were even friendly. And as the SAO began to open up, a pattern began to emerge which seemed to link the San Diego events to Watergate.
The breakthrough came in the spring when an editor of the Door made contact with a former SAO militant named Jerry Busch. From November 1969 to the summer of 1971, said Busch, Howard Barry Godfrey made frequent visits to the Gunsmoke Ranch in El Cajon. "It was also during June, July, and August of 1971 that Barry Godfrey and Donald Segretti (posing as 'Don Simms') visited Gunsmoke and though supposedly not 'knowing each other,' they spoke together on at least one occasion," in a quiet conversation aside. The Segretti connection is important in itself; it is particularly interesting insofar as--according to Busch's account--Segretti was in touch with SAO while contacting his old college chums Dwight Chapin and Gordon Strachan in June 1971, but before commencing work as a dirty trickster in September 1971.
Segretti in San Diego
Busch did not say what Segretti discussed at the Gunsmoke Ranch, but he did report that following "these casual conversations" Godfrey came up with bizarre ideas to take care of what he called "those red punks"-in the event that the GOP held its convention in San Diego. Among Godfrey's plans in October 1971 were:
- the use of massive dosages of LSD, cyanide or strychnine introduced into the punch at antiwar group meetings;
- bombing of the VVAW headquarters, the Guild Theatre, and several porno shops;
- bombings of the homes or offices of antiwar leaders;
- kidnaping or assassination of antiwar leaders and activists;
- fire bombing of vehicles and other property belonging to antiwar activists.
Low Altitude Bombing
By November and December 1971, Busch continued, Godfrey had become more ambitious: he wanted to acquire drone planes which would carry payloads of high explosives and phosphorus to be dropped on the demonstrators. In addition, Godfrey spoke of using similar air craft, loaded with TNT or C-4 plastique, to blow up Air Force One and assassinate Nixon. The idea was to fly a bomb into the presidential jet as it landed either at Lindbergh Field or at El Toro Marine Base. Busch claimed that he had expressed horror at the suggestion and told Godfrey he had lost his mind suggesting anything as insane as an attempt on the life of the president. Shortly thereafter, Busch and Godfrey parted ways after the former grew suspicious that he was being set up to take the rap on the shooting of Paula Tharp. By March 1972, he had left San Diego and has not yet returned.
Setting Up the Pattsies
Even before Busch left the SAO, the "Wanted for Treason" leaflet was printed and distributed. Another former SAO member corroborates that in this same period--January-February, 1972--Godfrey tried to find someone to build a plane that would carry a load of high explosives. (In addition, he was apparently trying to obtain another plane for the purpose of gassing or bombing demonstrators on Fiesta Island.) After Busch's departure, the SAO issued its April 1972 bulletin which began with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "A tyrant would not come to the United States from across the sea. If he comes, he'll ride down Pennsylvania Avenue from his inauguration and take up legal residence of the White House." Then followed detailed instructions on the manufacture of explosives which might be used to destroy a large bridge (Tackwood's scenario included the demolition of two bridges on and off of Fiesta Island) and on various methods of forced entry into buildings.
A Sinister Plot
Was there a right-wing plot to kill the president? Tackwood says so. Busch says that FBI informer Barry Godfrey talked about it. The "Wanted for Treason" poster certainly indicated no loss of love between the extreme right and the president, and Godfrey was checking out the availability of drone planes.
The L.A. Times reported on July 13, 1973 that a former Minuteman had requested political asylum in Fiji, saying he had secret information on Watergate and feared assassination.
San Diego Dirty Tricks
All of this proves nothing, of course, but it suggests that the Dirty Tricks operation may have been much more complex than we have been led to believe. Perhaps there was a plot to kill Nixon. In August 1973, Godfrey reportedly admitted to the San Diego Door that there was a real plot to kill Nixon. He blames the plan on his erstwhile cohort, Gary Lynn Davis. Then again Godfrey's plot may have been a further hoax aimed at discrediting the left and the Democratic Party. What did Segretti discuss with Godfrey, and why and how did he meet Godfrey in the first place? How did it happen that the FBI financed a threat on the life of a president (a crime which carries a penalty of up to five years in jail and a thousand-dollar fine)? In the past, the Secret Service has taken such threats very seriously. A check of the New York Times index shows that at least eleven people were arrested between January 1972 and May 1973 for doing much less than Godfrey. Most seem to have been psychopaths or drunks, with no positive plan--just verbal threats.
But then there are other instances: Arthur Bremer's Ottawa visit on April 13-14, 1972, for example, when he supposedly stalked Nixon. On May 30, three bombs demolished the tomb of the father of the Shah of Iran an hour before Nixon was scheduled to lay a wreath there. On August 11, a certain A. B. Topping was arrested in New York after paying an undercover agent a thousand dollars to kill Nixon. Topping, it developed, was well-to-do, of the American Nazi political persuasion, and interested in having the president killed the week after the payoff. No trial has been held. And then in late May 1973, one of Nixon's helicopters went down in the Bahamas. It subsequently came out that the president has three helicopters ready at all times and chooses which to use one minute before the flight.
Watergate has uncovered an administration racked by factionalism. Under Hoover, the FBI was at odds with the White House--to such a degree that Hoover was willing to use secret documents to blackmail the president. In addition, Nixon was having his difficulties with the leaders of the CIA, and James McCord wrote to John Caulfield at Christmas 1972 that if Nixon pushed out Helms and involved the CIA in Watergate, "every tree in the forest will fall." Could there have been other tensions as well? Were there elements which opposed Nixon for his policy of rapprochement with China and Russia, and which would have preferred, say, Spiro Agnew as President?
After returning from San Diego in July 1972, acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, talked to Nixon and said: "Mr. President, there is something I want to speak to you about. Dick Walters and I feel that people on your staff are trying to mortally wound you by using the CIA and the FBI . . ." His words may have carried greater import than any of us has heretofore suspected.
The original version of this essay, entitled "The Strange Tale of the Secret Army Organization (USA)," @ 1973, appeared in Ramparts, October 1973. Reprinted by permission of the author.