The death of W. Marvin Watson on November 26, 2017 is an opportunity for the Peace Corps community to remember him, and, of course, President Johnson with gratitude. The November 29, 2017 New York Times obituary describes him as President Johnson’s “Unofficial Chief of Staff.”
The 1961-66 Peace Corps specifically did not want to have an office charged with “security” issues. So, the General Counsel’s office handled liaison with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, the Civil Service Commission investigators, and so forth.
When I was General Counsel of the Peace Corps and Sarge was preoccupied with OEO, but still Peace Corps Director, J. Edgar Hoover, through the FBI’s liaison to the Peace Corps, requested from me access to the personal records, including medical histories, of all Peace Corps volunteers. This was a generalized demand, not related to a particular person or incident.
I refused, citing the Peace Corps’s promise to volunteers keep those records inviolate. Mr. Hoover went to Nicholas Katzenbach, then the Attorney General. To my surprise, Katzenbach referred the matter to an Eisenhower holdover that RFK, as Attorney General, had kept as Assistant AG for Internal Security Affairs, J. Walter Yeagley. The rumor was that RFK had done this to placate Representative Velde, the Chair of one of the un-American activity committees.
Yeagley, of course, sided with Hoover. I would not back down and did not even think of involving Sarge. Katzenbach, therefore, referred the issue to President Johnson. Instead of referring it to Bill Moyers, as I had hoped, LBJ, shrewdly it turns out, referred it to Marvin Watson, a pretty conservative person. I was worried. Time passed, and then Katzenbach received a response from Watson, copy to me, saying the President has decided that the Peace Corps records should remain inviolate. The incident is not mentioned in Watson’s 2004 memoir,Chief of Staff.
Yeagley, who lived in McLean, VA, remained AAG for Internal Security Affairs until 1969, when he was succeeded by President Nixon’s appointee, Robert Mardian, who later became one of the Watergate Seven. His conviction was reversed on appeal.