Earl Silbert: On the Front Lines of Legal History
By William F. Causey
Based on Earl Silbert’s Oral History for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
Earl Silbert’s prominent place in the legal history of the D.C. Circuit is secured by his work as a prosecutor during the turbulent years of Watergate. Born in Boston and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, at an early age Earl wanted to be a high school teacher. After attending Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Harvard College, Earl graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960 and joined the Appellate Section of the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, where he worked for Assistant Attorney General Louis Oberdorfer, who later became a United States District Judge. Earl argued tax appeals around the country, appearing in all but two federal circuit courts.
In March 1964, Earl joined the Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, where he gained wide exposure to numerous legal matters, including handling landlord/tenant cases and misdemeanor cases in the Court of General Sessions, serving in the Special Proceedings Section handling extradition and collateral attacks on convictions, and working in the Grand Jury Section for the U.S. District Court, before moving to the Trial Section. During this time, Earl was in the middle of significant criminal procedure changes in the areas of confessions, search and seizure, pretrial detention, no knock, and wiretapping. In his oral history, Earl discusses the events surrounding the riots in the District of Columbia following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the change in the attitude of jurors to the testimony of police officers. Despite the heavy pressures of serving as a prosecutor during this time, Earl and several colleagues found time to form a group called “The Metropolitan Athletic and Educational and Cultural Association,” helping underprivileged kids by organizing local basketball and softball clinics around the city.
In 1969, Earl returned to the Department of Justice for a brief period of time in the Office of Criminal Justice. While there, Earl worked on the Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 that created the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. One of its major reforms was transferring local felony prosecutions from U.S. District Court to the Superior Court. One year later, Earl returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office as Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney to assist in the implementation of the Court Reform Act.
Earl’s most interesting legal experience was when he was the First Assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the lead prosecutor for the investigation and prosecution of the Watergate burglary and cover up by the White House. In his oral history, Earl discusses many fascinating aspects of the Watergate matter, including:
- how Earl received a call from a colleague in the U.S. Attorney’s Office early on the morning of Saturday, June 17, 1972, stating that five men in business suits had been arrested in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office Building;
- the mystery surrounding how a lawyer appeared within an hour of the 5:00 am arrest of the burglars asking to speak to them when no one else was aware of the arrests;
- how an FBI investigation led to information that accomplices of the burglars were in the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street with listening devices;
- how Earl’s office made the decision to have the FBI instead of the D.C. Metropolitan Police conduct the investigation of the break in;
- how Earl’s office determined that the CIA was interfering with the burglary investigation;
- Earl’s relationship with Chief Judge John Sirica, the attorneys representing the burglars and officials of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, and later the White House;
- the effort by Earl’s office to ascertain the source of leaks to the press regarding grand jury activity;
- the relationship between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and counsel representing the Democratic National Committee in the civil suit filed by the Committee;
- how Earl and his prosecution team got John Dean and Jeb Magruder to secretly implicate Attorney General John Mitchell and senior White House staff Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and ultimately – after Dean was denied immunity from prosecution – President Richard Nixon;
- the revelation by Dean and his lawyer that the White House was involved in the office break in of psychiatrist Daniel Ellsberg;
- Earl’s thoughts on who was “Deep Throat” years before FBI Associate Director Mark Felt was identified;
- the inquiry into whether a sitting President could be prosecuted for crimes or whether the remedy was impeachment; and
- the relationship of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Senate Watergate Committee and the Special Prosecutor, and the reaction to the revelation of the White House tapes and to the Saturday Night Massacre.
In January 1974, Earl became the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, serving in that capacity for almost six years. During this time, the Office was involved in high-profile cases such as the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a leading opponent of then-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the brutal murder of a family of Hanafi Muslims, and the white-collar fraud and bribery prosecutions of real estate developer Dominic Antonelli and D.C. public official Joseph Yeldell. Earl also discusses his efforts as United States Attorney to obtain improved cooperation between the D.C. Metropolitan Police, FBI, DEA, Secret Service, and U.S. Park Police, and how he improved the management and operation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Finally, Earl recounts his experience in private practice with the firm of Schwalb, Donnenfeld, Bray & Silbert, where he split his time between civil litigation and white-collar criminal defense work.
Earl Silbert’s oral history makes for engaging reading about some of the most important and historic legal matters in recent years in the District of Columbia and the nation.