Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinions at CNN.
I don’t want to be giving Donald Trump any bright ideas. Goodness knows he has enough of his own. But his latest – a list of six former national security types whose security clearances may be revoked – sounds an awful like the first fledgling move toward a Nixon-style enemies list, like the one that ensnared me four decades ago.
It is a cautionary tale of a time long, long ago, sadly all but forgotten. It shouldn’t be.
In early February 1972, I was a reporter on the metropolitan staff of the New York Times when a top aide to John Ehrlichman, assistant to President Nixon for domestic affairs, reached out to me. My friend, Ehrlichman’s aide, had just left the White House and had taken with him a large binder with internal memorandums circulating as the administration worked its way through the incendiary issue of whether to bus inner-city minority children to predominantly white schools to equalize educational opportunities.
Over the next several weeks, I worked with the Times’ chief White House correspondent, Robert B. Semple Jr., to produce a front-page story based on these memos that ran on March 19, 1972: “Busing and the President: The Evolution of a Policy.”
In the end, among several documents we had not used was a striking memo from Patrick Buchanan, a top Nixon aide, that held, “The ship of integration is going down, and we should not be aboard.” Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine, agreed to run it in the issue of June 1972 with a small footnote naming me as the source. The day it appeared, the phone rang in my office. It was Buchanan’s unmistakable voice. “Where’d you get that memo?” he snarled. “Oh, it came in over the transom,” I replied calmly. “You’d be amazed what else can crawl in over that transom,” he warned, and the line went dead.
I thought nothing more of it until the next summer. I was summoned for an audit of my taxes by the Internal Revenue Service – a first, for me. I didn’t have much of a tax return. I was barely getting by, earning under $300 a week at the Times. Moreover, my father, a distinguished corporate and tax lawyer in Boston, meticulously prepared and filed my taxes every year. I got a refund. The next year, 1974, the same thing. Another refund. That December I went overseas on my first foreign assignment, to Southeast Asia. In 1975, despite my absence abroad, another summons. This time, dad had had enough. He explained all this to the district director of the IRS in Boston, who knew of my father’s utter probity.
A few weeks later the answer came back. “It won’t happen again,” my father was told. “Somehow, your son found his way onto some list in Washington.” It was an enemies list.
Nixon of course, on the verge of impeachment, had resigned from office in August 1974. Still, it turns out there were any numbers of enemies lists, having morphed from a core list of 20 or so individuals to a broader list of 576. They range from journalists to union leaders to movie stars (Paul Newman was even on the smaller first list). White House counsel John Dean revealed these lists in congressional testimony when he also disclosed the existence of audio tapes in the Oval Office.
It turned out, I was later told, that there were any number of minor lists, beyond the master list. Indeed, some years later, when I ran across Lewis Lapham, I mentioned my experience. He looked at me curiously. “I was audited back then for several years,” he said. “And then it suddenly stopped.”
Even the existence of such lists can be utterly pernicious. Though the Nixon lists were not revealed until they were already well established, many found their telephones tapped, their lives closely monitored.
They are also a cautionary tale. While Trump isn’t making a secret enemies list that we know of – he’s quite clear on Twitter about who his friends and foes are – the thought of using the power of government for retribution or restraint is utterly pernicious, as apparently seductive as it may appear for those who may be the targets of media or political attacks. The President has often unquestioned and all but unrestricted power that is so readily available as to be almost frightening, especially in the wrong hands or used for malicious purposes. At the same time, every agency of his government, every cabinet secretary and senior aide, often has the power of retaliation and vengeance that must be restrained at every turn.
But it is up to the President himself to set the tone from the top – not use the power of his office to exact retribution or restrain in any fashion the lawful operations of free speech, even – or especially – by those he perceives as his enemies.
Richard Nixon, paramount master of the levers of power, had determined early on how easily these could be unleashed on his enemies, real or imagined. The misuse of these levers contributed mightily to his downfall and ultimate disgrace.