According to R.A. Hunt's [somewhat gigantic] biography of Laird (published by the Government Printing Office in 2015), it is essentially true that Laird delayed resuming the reconnaissance flights (safe for a token one!), and that Nixon had both sent a memorandum and had made a public statement about resuming the flights. Subsequently, Kissinger complained to Nixon that Laird was delaying and had the approval process for the flights removed from under Laird's control, in favor of the 303 Committee that Laird was not even a member of (and was headed by Kissinger). I'll give some selective quote since coverage goes on for several pages (40-45):
At his morning press conference on April 18, [Nixon] disclosed he had ordered continuation of the long-standing policy of using reconnaissance flights to protect US forces in South Korea and the the flights would have armed escorts. [...]
Four days after Nixon publicly announced that reconnaissance flights would resume, he was chagrined to learn otherwise. On 22 April Laird informed Nixon that at his direction the JSC had requested CINCPAC Admiral J.S. McCain Jr. to prepare for the secretary's approval a plan to resume reconnaissance flights within intercept range of Chinese and North Korean fighters. [...] Laird mentioned no completion date for reviewing the CINCPAC plan. In addition, he appraised the president that he had initiated an even broader review to weigh the intelligence value of the fights against the risks involved before he would resume them. [...]
This latter, broader review [of Laird] did have stated completion date of April 30.
On 24 April [Laird] forwarded to the president Gen. Wheeler's conclusion that having four fighter-escorts accompany each reconnaissance mission "would be beyond the capability of currently assigned PACOM forces" and reduce strength in Vietnam.
Aware that the DoD had authorized only one reconnaissance mission between 18 and 24 April, [...o]n April 25 [Kissinger] sent Laird the formal memorandum of the president's decision to resume scheduled reconnaissance flights along the Chinese coast from the Gulf of Tonkin got the Sea of Okhotsk. Laird, however, decide to delay approving the JCS plan. He wanted to consider alternative methods of collecting intelligence [...] Laird's moves, undertaken for plausible reasons, delayed reconnaissance flights for an indefinite period, in effect thwarting Nixon's order. [...]
Kissinger informed Nixon of Laird's actions in delaying the reconnaissance [flights] in contravention of his stated policy. Kissinger pressed Nixon for the immediate resumption of reconnaissance flights. [...]
To neutralize Laird's delaying tactics, Nixon decided on 28 April that the 303 Committee, an interdepartamental body that reviewed and authorized covert operations, would take over from the DoD review of worldwide reconnaisance flights. [...] The secretary of defense was not a member [of 303]. Giving the 303 Committee authority to review reconnaissance programs would allow Kissinger as committee head to control the process, [and] hasten the restriction of flights [...]
According to the book the 303 committee then consisted (besides Kissinger as APNSA) of the deputy secretary of defense, deputy undersecretary for political affairs, and the director of the CIA.
So, it's probably still a bit of a matter of opinion whether Laird really disobeyed a direct order, but his actions were perceived as delaying to such an extent that Nixon removed Laird from the loop (of approving the flights), after Kissinger's complaint.
I tried to corroborate that with primary sources that are available on-line, but there is a bit a discrepancy though. Namely that I was only able to find a memorandum signed by Kissinger and with Laird among the recipients, dated April 29, according to the official log. This one is clearly subsequent to Nixon putting Kissinger/303 in charge; it says:
The President has directed the immediate resumption of regularly scheduled reconnaissance operations in the Pacific area. This order specifically includes the resumption of scheduled reconnaissance targeted on North Korea. [...]
The President has also ordered that the review of worldwide reconnaissance operations being conducted by the 303 Committee following initial review by the Department of Defense adhere to the following priority:
- U.S. reconnaissance operations targeted on North Korea.
- U.S. reconnaissance operations conducted in the remainder of the Pacific area.
- U.S. reconnaissance operations conducted elsewhere.
The President emphasizes that this review of reconnaissance operations should in no way delay the immediate resumption of reconnaissance operations.
But it is interesting nonetheless that Kissinger was speaking for the president in that one. This at least corroborates the bit that 303 was put in charge of the flights.
The claim that Laird was excluded from the 303 and the WSAG [Washington Special Actions Group -- that was set up at the same time] is verified with respect to the latter, from a July meeting in which only his undersecretary G. Warren Nutter participated.
I also managed to track down Nixon's presser (of April 18) in which he [is said to have] announced escorted reconnaissance (that then didn't happen as such, i.e. escorted)
I have today ordered that these flights be continued. They will be protected. This is not a threat; it is simply a statement of fact.
As the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces I cannot and will not ask our men to serve in Korea, and I cannot and will not ask our men to take flights like this in unarmed planes without providing protection. That will be the case.
But if you read it carefully, it leaves some room for interpretation what protection for the reconnaissance meant.
Another interesting bit in there is the scale of the flights he disclosed:
going back over 20 years and throughout the period of this administration being continued, we have had a policy of reconnaissance flights in the Sea of Japan similar to this flight. This year we have had already 190 of these flights without incident [...]
So, yeah, one can see why Kissinger thought Laird later approving only one flight over a few days was perceived as stalling.
This is what Nixon himself had to say in his RN memoirs (p. 385)
Despite my April 18 directive--and the public announcement of it--we were faced with a series of postponements, excuses, and delays from the Pentagon, and it was nearly three weeks before my order was implemented. Even worse, we discovered that without informing the White House, the Pentagon had also canceled reconnaissance flights in the Mediterranean. Thus from April 14 to May 8, the United States had not conducted its scheduled aerial reconnaissance
in the Mediterranean and the North Pacific-two of the most sensitive areas of the globe.
I was surprised and angered by this situation. The North Koreans would undoubtedly think that they had succeeded in making us back off the reconnaissance flights. Thanks to this incident I learned early in my
administration that a President must keep a constant check not just on the way his orders are being followed, but on whether they are being followed at all.
He doesn't quite single out Laird, instead speaks of "the Pentagon" as delaying.