His name was never mentioned during Henry Kissinger’s emotional press conference in Salzburg, Austria, but behind the secretary of state’s agitated threat to resign lay the tapping of Dr. Morton Halperin’s telephone—and Halperin’s $2.5 million suit-against U.S. officials, including Kissinger.
Halperin, along with 16 other government officials and newsmen, was the target of the government eavesdropping that is casting a shadow over Kissinger’s probity. Kissinger had approved a list of potential wiretap subjects while serving as President Nixon’s assistant for national security affairs in 1969, but insists the tapping was justified by the need to plug security leaks. Halperin, then a senior member of the National Security Council planning staff, maintains the wiretaps were an illegal invasion of privacy, for which Kissinger must bear his share of the blame. He is suing eight defendants, including Kissinger, other key administration figures and the phone company, for $100 for every day the tap was on. Joining him in the suit are his wife Ina and their three sons, David, 11, Mark, 9 and Gary, 7, all of whose conversations were monitored. What would Halperin do if they won? “Send the kids to college.”
A onetime colleague of Kissinger’s at Harvard, Halperin, now 36, worked in the Defense Department during the Johnson administration. He joined the Nixon administration as a member of the select NSC staff for a few months, but resigned in September 1969. A regular Republican but an unconcealed opponent of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he nonetheless stayed on as an administration consultant until the Cambodian invasion of May, 1970. Dismayed by the course of events, he was equally disenchanted with Kissinger. “He’s a man who is unwilling to delegate either information or responsibility,” Halperin says. “I was unwilling to work under those conditions.” As evidence of the Kissinger work-style, he recalls the case of a frustrated colleague on the staff. “He was asked to draft a memo,” remembers Halperin. “He went over it with Henry, and Henry said, ‘That isn’t the way I want it.’ So he did it over, and Henry looked at it again and said, ‘That still isn’t the way I want it. If you won’t do it the way I want it, I’ll get my staff to do it.’ The guy came back shaken and asked, ‘What the hell am I?’ What Henry thought of as his staff—and still does—are the three people immediately around him who know what he’s doing. Everybody else, to him, is part of the problem.”
Although Kissinger once told Halperin he was the prime suspect in a series of embarrassing news leaks following secret U.S. bombing raids over Cambodia—a charge Halperin still heatedly denies—Halperin was dumbfounded when he learned later that his Bethesda, Md., home had been wiretapped. The news broke one afternoon last spring, while he and his wife were taking a peaceful stroll by the Potomac River in Washington. “We got in the car and heard the three o’clock news,” he recalls. “The government revealed that Daniel Ellsberg had been overheard on a surveillance of the phone of Dr. Morton Halperin. We were astonished, amazed, angry. I called a lawyer friend and said, ‘Walter, have you ever thought of doing a wiretap suit?’ He said ‘Yeah. I’ve always thought that would be interesting.’ And I said ‘Okay, you’re on!’ ”
Eventually, the Halperins learned their phone had been tapped for 21 months, until February of 1971, long after Halperin had left government service. Shocked at first, they soon recalled clues they had once overlooked. “We kept seeing telephone trucks on our street,” Mrs. Halperin remembered, “and our phone kept going out of order. When we heard it had been tapped, we said, ‘We were right! It was!’ But we had never really believed it before. We didn’t think it could happen to us.”
Now at work on a study of bureaucratic secrecy and national security for the 20th Century Fund, Halperin is demanding the destruction of all FBI records of his conversations, except for one complete log, which he plans to keep for himself. “I don’t think the government should have in its possession 21 months of my conversations with my wife,” he explains. “I just don’t think that’s anyone’s business.” As for his own copy of the conversations, he already has a destination in mind. “I intend to donate it to the Nixon library,” he says wryly, “and take a tax deduction for it.”
Kissinger’s current anger is directed at those who question his truthfulness in explaining his role in the taps. Learning of the secretary’s outburst at the Salzburg press conference, Halperin thought he caught a revealing glimpse of the Kissinger he once knew and worked for. “His behavior in public at the press conference seemed just like Kissinger in private all the time. He’d be screaming at a staff member, and a secretary would come in and say, ‘Mr. Jones is waiting to see you.’ Mr. Jones would walk in three seconds later and Kissinger would smile and greet him and say what a fine staff member this other man was. That’s not to say Kissinger is not really angry, but it’s very much under control.” Curiously, although Kissinger is securely atop Halperin’s legal list of adversaries, their last conversation, two years ago, was a plea by Kissinger for Halperin to rejoin President Nixon’s second-term administration. More ironic still, Halperin recalls, was a call he received in mid-1969—a call from Kissinger on Halperin’s tapped telephone, urging him not to resign. “He called me at home,” Halperin remembers. “He kept saying, ‘You can’t leave, you must stay.’ When I found out later my phone was tapped, I couldn’t figure out what he’d been doing. How would it help for him to be on the telephone to me, a person who wasn’t trusted? I still don’t understand it. I guess it’s like Nixon—you start tapping yourself, and you forget.”