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A Little Fanfare for Man Who Foiled Nixon

Politics: A by-the-book guard at Washington's Brookings Institution is honored for thwarting a 1971 burglary ordered by the president.

July 23, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — One year before the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon ordered a burglary at the Brookings Institution, telling aides, "I want the Brookings safe cleaned out."

A few days later, two men with attache cases entered the think tank's lobby, asking to see Morton Halperin, a critic of the president's Vietnam policy. But the security guard on duty, a tall, thin Caribbean native with a no-exceptions policy, didn't recognize them. Roderick Warrick told them they had to clear their entrance with Halperin. They left.

On Monday, some three decades after that encounter, Brookings staffers--from the institution's president to its computer technicians, from scholars to corporate executives--turned out to honor the man who is credited with saving the institution's files. They all had stories to tell about his stalwart devotion to the rules--like the time he would not let the vice president of Brookings into the building because he had not met him before.

"He has the most complaints against him of any employee I supervise," Kathy Santos, director of building operations, said proudly. "At least until Sept. 11, I used to get a complaint once a month."

A staffer would chafe because Warrick wouldn't let his girlfriend go up to the library. Or let him take a computer home. Or even come to work if he'd forgotten his access card.

"I calmed them down and told them Warrick was just doing his job," Santos said.

Just doing his job earned Warrick the affection of many on the staff. In a reception room laden with salmon canapes, celebratory cake and fresh-cut fruit, they honored his years on Brookings' payroll--and talked about his service to them even before that, when he worked for a local real estate development company that handled Brookings' security.

"Maybe he's tough, but he's terrific," said Alice Rivlin, an economist who served several Democratic administrations, and who often returned as a Brookings scholar when her party lost power. "I've come and gone from Brookings several times, and he always greets me with great enthusiasm." When Warrick turned away the two men in attache cases, no one knew who had sent them.

Then in 1996, the National Archives released a fresh batch of tapes recorded by the Nixon White House. In them, Nixon ordered the burglary at Brookings, then widely considered a liberal organization.

The order came the night the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the New York Times and the Washington Post had a constitutional right to publish the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon study that chronicled decades of failed policy in Vietnam.

Concerned that Halperin and Leslie Gelb, who directed the Pentagon Papers, might leak further antiwar materials, Nixon told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to have someone rifle Brookings' files and "just go in and take it! Go in around 8 or 9 o'clock...and clean it up." At another point in a meeting with Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon fumes, "Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get them."

The next morning, according to the tapes, he pounded the desk as he told aides, "Get it done! I want it done! I want the Brookings safe cleaned out."

The Senate Watergate Committee heard testimony that Nixon aide Charles Colson had suggested firebombing Brookings, creating a pretext for the FBI to rush in alongside the firefighters, to snatch documents, but Colson denied the charge.

In any event, Warrick's actions in foiling Halperin's uninvited guests--no matter who sent them--made him the toast of the staff Monday. Stephen Hess, Brookings' ubiquitous presidential scholar, said he delayed a television appearance so he could attend Warrick's party. But he seemed a bit jealous of all the attention to the guard. "They didn't give me a party at my 30th," he observed.

Warrick, a dapper, mustached man who prefers not to give his age, also seemed a little puzzled by all the attention. "A lot of people think I'm mean, but I'm just careful," he said. "You have to be careful. All it takes is one mistake."

That Warrick was careful even before it was fashionable has earned him an asterisk in history. Two months after he stopped the men with the attache cases, the so-called White House plumbers broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Ellsberg, a former Pentagon official, was an analyst at Rand Corp. who saw the secret Pentagon Papers and photocopied the contents, leaking them to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. And the following year, five men tied to Nixon's reelection campaign were caught trying to burglarize Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. The scandals that would eventually topple a president had a name.

Strobe Talbott, the new president of Brookings and a former deputy secretary of State in the Clinton administration, said the institution was grateful. Had the burglars gotten in, he noted, history might have known the Nixon White House scandals by a different name. "We would not have wanted it to be called Brookings-gate," he said.

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