The reporter rushed up to his editor, thunderstruck by what the FBI's acting director had just let him know: The former attorney general — maybe even the president — was complicit in the Watergate break-in two months before.
But The New York Times let the hot tip fall through the cracks, the reporter and editor say after decades of silence about the August 1972 conversation. They say it's unclear whether the Times pursued information that might have let it beat The Washington Post to the blockbuster story of political espionage, which was described in "All the President's Men" and helped unravel Richard M. Nixon's presidency.
"We missed out," the now-retired editor, Robert H. Phelps, said in an interview Monday, after the Times published a story about the monumental miscue.
Phelps revealed it in "God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at The New York Times," a memoir published last month by Syracuse University Press. The former reporter, Robert M. Smith, now a lawyer and mediator in San Francisco, confirmed Phelps' account.
Smith was headed to law school and in his last day at the Times' Washington, D.C., bureau when he went to lunch with acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray on Aug. 16, 1972. Smith had cultivated a professional relationship with the FBI chief through writing several stories about him that year.
As they discussed the intrigue surrounding the June 17 attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex, Gray volunteered that former Attorney General John Mitchell was involved, Smith said Monday. Mitchell had stepped down to run Nixon's re-election campaign.
Smith said he asked Gray, "'Does it go up higher?' And he said, 'Yes.'"
Then, Smith said, "I choked and said, 'The president?' And he looked me in the eye," not denying it.
Gray also broached the name of Donald Segretti, an architect of the Nixon campaign's endeavors to infiltrate and sabotage Democrats, Smith said.
Segretti and Mitchell would eventually go to prison for their roles in the roster of political dirty work that came to be known as Watergate — Segretti for distributing political literature without attribution, Mitchell for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice. Segretti wasn't involved in the Watergate break-in but was associated with an effort to discredit Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Edmund Muskie.
But Segretti's name hadn't emerged publicly when Smith hurried back to the Times' office and told Phelps what he had heard. Nor had Mitchell's link to Watergate been cemented.
Phelps took notes from and recorded his conversation with Smith. They said Monday they don't know what became of the tape, the notes or the tip.
Smith, having moved on to Yale Law School, noticed that no story appeared in the newspaper and figured the information had proved off-base.
Phelps said he can't recall what effort, if any, was made to flesh out the tip or confirm it with other officials. He went on a monthlong vacation a week after Smith's departure.
Phelps writes that it's "inconceivable" he wouldn't have had reporters pursue it, but "(t)he fact is that I bear major responsibility for our failure to follow up on our best opportunity for an early Watergate breakthrough."
Late that September, The Washington Post reported that Mitchell, while attorney general, had controlled a secret Republican fund used to gather information about Democrats. And on Oct. 10, the Post said FBI agents had tied the Watergate bugging to "a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage" conducted by White House officials and Nixon's campaign.
The story made journalistic icons of reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who had been guided confidentially by a government official dubbed Deep Throat in their 1974 book and the movie made from it two years later, featuring Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein and Robert Redford as Woodward.
After years of speculation about Deep Throat's identity, former FBI associate director W. Mark Felt unmasked himself in 2005 as the legendary anonymous source. Felt died last December.
Gray, Felt's boss, died in 2005, weeks after Felt revealed himself. His son, Edward Gray, found a record of his father's Aug. 16, 1972, lunch date with Smith. He told the Times his father liked Smith and "may have let his hair down a little bit" with the reporter, but he doubted his leak-averse father divulged secrets about the Watergate investigation.
The FBI and the Post didn't immediately return telephone messages Monday, Memorial Day, about Phelps' and Smith's disclosure. The Times declined to comment.
Other news organizations also missed opportunities on Watergate. The day after the break-in, two reporters in The Associated Press' Washington bureau recognized the name of the Nixon campaign's security coordinator as among those arrested.
The reporters broke the story but didn't chase the tantalizing lead any further, as recalled in the 2007 book "Breaking News: How The Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else."
"They just walked away from it," Walter R. Mears, then the AP's assistant bureau chief in Washington, said Monday. "They went on vacation. It was never followed up."