Richard Nixon's televised
address to the nation
announcing his resignation.
Watergate. The word is etched in American consciousness as a synonym for political scandal, and served as the template for naming successors - Contragate, Troopergate, Plamegate, and so on. There is even a wikipedia page devoted to the "gate" scandals.
But what was Watergate? Some, including President Nixon's press secretary, said it was no more than a "third-rate burglary attempt." Certainly the opening act of the scandal was the arrest of the five White House "plumbers," caught breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel. But that June 1972 event did not impede Nixon's landslide re-election in the fall, and it wasn't until the spring of 1973 that a cover-up, begun right after the break-in, began to unravel. The saying "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" originated with Watergate.
But the term Watergate encompasses more than just a break-in and the cover-up activities which followed. The media and Congress took the lid off a whole range of illegal and improper campaign activities, from relatively harmless campaign "pranks" to White House abuses of the Executive agencies to reward friends and punish enemies, who were literally tracked on a "White House enemies list."
The crisis slowly consumed the Nixon presidency and culminated in his resignation on August 9, 1974. In its wake, the Watergate crisis spawned a reform-minded Congress and a series of investigations and Congressional actions targeting the Executive branch. A "crisis of democracy" was resolved. But lingering questions remain. The actual purpose of the break-in has never been adequately resolved, and the recurrence of the CIA in the story has raised unanswered questions, as have the roles of some of the players, including ex-CIA burglars James McCord and Howard Hunt, star witness John Dean, and the mysterious "Deep Throat," now apparently revealed to be the FBI's number 2 man, Mark Felt. Some have gone so far as to allege that the removal of Nixon was a "silent coup."
The Watergate Break-In and the White House Plumbers
On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested at the Watergate Complex by a security guard, who noticed that a taped-open door lock had been re-taped after he had removed it. The five men were James W. McCord Jr., Frank Sturgis, Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, and Eugenio Martínez. McCord was a former CIA officer; the others were veterans of anti-Castro operations and had been recruited by ex-CIA officer and team member E. Howard Hunt. Hunt, who had been monitoring the break-in from nearby, was also soon arrested, along with G. Gordon Liddy.
Watergate burglars McCord, Gonzalez,
Sturgis, Martinez, and Barker.
Keys to their hotel room in the burglars' possession quickly led to the evidence that tied them to Hunt and Liddy and beyond. Hundred-dollar bills found on the burglars were easily traced by their sequential serial numbers to a Miami bank account of burglar Bernard Barker, and were subsequently traced to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, known by others as CREEP). The FBI also located a listening post at a Howard Johnson motel across the street from the Watergate, and soon found look-out Alfred Baldwin.
G. Gordon Liddy.
Liddy was the leader of the group, called the "White House Plumbers." The group had been formed in the wake of the publication of the Pentagon Papers and charged with investigating leaks. Some of the same team members had earlier broken into the office of the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsburg, in an effort to find materials with which to discredit Ellsburg.
The group of burglars were unusual to say the least. McCord and Hunt were both former CIA officers; questions remain regarding how "former" they were. Sturgis, aka Frank Fiorini, had been deeply involved in anti-Castro operations in the early 1960s, and had spread stories of Castro's supposed involvement in the Kennedy assassination in the immediate aftermath of that event (and began doing so again after his arrest). Bernard Barker, code-named AMCLATTER-1 in CIA files, was close to Hunt and had been a paid agent of the Agency from 1960 until 1966. Gonzalez had also been an agent of the CIA, and Martinez still was at the time of the break-in.
The White House Tapes and the "Bay of Pigs Thing"
Unknown to most at the time, Nixon had an automatic taping system in the White House. It would prove to be central to his undoing. One set of conversations, dubbed the "smoking gun tape" when later revealed to investigators, was recorded on June 23 - six days after the break-in. Nixon told his chief of staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman to approach officials at the CIA, and have them intervene with the FBI's investigation of the break-in. Nixon explained that Hunt "knows too damn much" and "it's likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing which we think would be very unfortunate for CIA and the country at this time, and for American foreign policy." CIA Director Helms refused to participate in this obstruction of justice.
The meaning of the "Bay of Pigs thing" phrase, recurring in three conversations of that day, was never determined. Haldeman later wrote in The Ends of Power that Helms, when confronted with Nixon's message, shouted back at him "The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do with this. I have no concern about the Bay of Pigs." But what did the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba have to do with anything? Haldeman later wrote that "It seems that with all those Nixon references to the Bay of Pigs, he was actually referring to the Kennedy assassination." Haldeman based this on his belief that Casto was behind the Kennedy assassination. Another theory, perhaps more plausible, is that Nixon was referring to the attempts on Castro's life, which were still secret at that time (the Church Committee publicly revealed details of these plots in 1975). Hunt's role in both of these events have long been matters of speculation and controversy (Hunt recorded a confession to knowledge of the JFK assassination plotters before his death).
Watergate defendant and
former CIA spy E. Howard
In other White House tapes, Nixon discussed raising hush money that Hunt and other defendants were demanding. The tapes provide an eerie window into the unraveling cover-up and unfolding disaster for Nixon and his aides, as events overtook them. In March 1973, with Congressional hearings looming, White House Counsel John Dean advised Nixon that there was a "cancer close to the Presidency" which required resignations in order to protect Nixon. Nixon failed to do so in a timely manner, allowing aides to wonder whether they would be the one to "take the fall." Fears of this fate apparently prompted Dean himself to approach prosecutors in search of immunity in exchange for his testimony.
Another tape, recorded just three days after the break-in, was found to contain an 18 minute gap. White House explanations that secretary Rosemary Woods had accidentally caused this erasure were met with disbelief. The contents of that conversation remain a mystery to this day.
Woodward, Bernstein and "Deep Throat"
Washington Post reporters
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
It took some time before Watergate turned into a full-blown scandal. Part of the credit is due to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post. Under editor Ben Bradlee, they were assigned to the Watergate break-in story, and soon began reporting on related "dirty tricks" of the 1972 Presidential campaign.
Some of the key Washington Post articles include:
- 5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats' Office Here, by Alfred E Lewis, June 18, 1972.
- GOP Security Aide Among Five Arrested in Bugging Affair, by Woodward and Bernstein, June 19, 1972.
- Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds, by Bernstein and Woodward, August 1, 1972.
- Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund, by Bernstein and Woodward, September 29, 1972.
- FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats, by Bernstein and Woodward, October 10, 1972.
- Last Two Guilty in Watergate Plot, by Lawrence Meyer, January 31, 1973.
- 3 Top Nixon Aides, Kleindienst Out; President Accepts Full Responsibility; Richardson Will Conduct New Probe, by Lawrence Stern and Haynes Johnson, May 1, 1973.
Woodward and Bernstein "followed the money," and located Donald Segretti, a political operative hired by the Committee to Re-Elect the President to disrupt the candidacy of leading opponent Edmund Muskie, and later others once Muskie was no longer the front-runner. These tactics included "pranks" like sending pizza, liquor, and limousines to Democratic candidates' campaigns (along with the bill) and falsifying campaign communications to cause strife between the Democratic opponents. They also included more serious disruption efforts, including infiltrating operatives into Democratic candidates' campaigns to spy on their operations, misappropriate internal campaign documents, and otherwise interfere with them from inside.
The reporters' investigation of Segretti and dirty tricks led to others involved in controlling and financing these operations, including CRP Treasurer Hugh Sloan, Finance Chairman Maurice Stans, and Midwest Finance Chairman Kenneth Dahlberg. In the White House itself the trail led to Plumbers head Egil Krogh and to Special Counsel Charles Colson, a hardball operative who ran the White House "enemies list" and was involved in the creation of the Plumbers.
Woodward and Bernstein received help, as they later revealed in their book All the President's Men, from a mysterious person they later called "Deep Throat." Deep Throat was a government insider whom Woodward met with secretively and who provided many tips and confirmation for their investigation. The identify of Deep Throat was kept a secret for over thirty years and was endlessly speculated upon.
That game largely ended in 2005, when Vanity Fair published an article in which Mark Felt, who had been second-in-command at the FBI back in 1972, named himself as Deep Throat. Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the identity. There remain some who dispute this - pointing out bits of information that Felt could not have known, and providing other reasons for suspecting that Deep Throat was really a composite of multiple sources and not a single man.
The FBI's Mark Felt,
Whether Felt was the sole source or only one of the Post's secret sources, less discussed is the larger meaning of Felt's role in the Watergate saga. Nixon's Presidency was, we now know, brought down with the help of Felt, who was the most senior unappointed official of the FBI. Felt's boss, Director Patrick Gray, was a Nixon political appointee and even admitted destroying contents from Howard Hunt's White House safe on behalf of the cover-up. Felt was involved in the FBI's own dirty tricks including its COINTELPRO operation, and indeed was convicted in 1980 for illegal operations against the Weather Underground. Woodward, a friend of Felt's from before Watergate, has written that Felt was "crushed" by being passed over for the Director's job, that Felt "had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their efforts to manipulate the bureau for political reasons," and that "Had he been exposed early on, Felt would have been no hero. Technically, it was illegal to talk about grand jury information or FBI files...." In his own 1979 book The FBI Pyramid, Felt strongly defended his mentor J. Edgar Hoover, condemned the Church Committee and the Freedom of Information Act, and opened the book with the provocative phrase "The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact."
The Senate Watergate Committee and the Special Prosecutor
Senators Baker and Ervin conferring during
the Watergate hearings.
Enough damaging information had come out in the press and in the Watergate burglars' trial that Congress soon entered the picture. In February 1973, the Senate passed Resolution S.60, creating a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, to investigate Watergate and the whole range of Nixon campaign abuses. Chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the "Watergate Committee" went on the offensive against an embattled White House.
Insider accounts and the White House tapes reveal that Nixon and his aides struggled in vain to come up with strategies to counter the ongoing revelations, and that Nixon was unwilling or unable to stem the crisis in his administration. Repeated attempts to get the FBI and Justice Department prosecutors to limit their investigations failed, and fueled the agencies' anger at the White House. The tapes reveal on the part of Nixon's aides an increasing awareness that their days were numbered, and that each aide in particular might be forced to become the "fall guy." White House Counsel John Dean feared this fate for himself. On March 21, 1973, Dean told Nixon there was a "cancer close to the Presidency" that was growing, and advised Nixon to fire senior aides to save himself and the presidency. His advice went unheeded; Dean himself soon went to the prosecutors and Congressional investigators and began cooperating with them.
Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman
and Assistant to the President
By the end of April, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignation of two of his closest and most influential aides, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Assistant to the President John Ehrlichman. Also resigning that day, damaged by his handling of Watergate, was Attorney General Kleindienst, replaced by Elliot Richardson. On May 19, Richardson appointed Elliot Cox as a special prosecutor, independent of the Justice Department.
Two days earlier, on May 17, the Watergate Committee began holding televised hearings. These galvanized the country and provided an ongoing window in which the public was exposed to the various abuses of the Nixon campaign committee and the White House. Beyond the dirty tricks of Segretti and others, The Watergate Committee took testimony on the "Responsiveness Program," whereby administration friends were rewarded with government contracts and its enemies punished by denying access. The Committee also explored in depth Nixon's campaign financing apparatus and the means by which campaign contributions were squeezed out of corporations and other organizations. One prominent example was Nixon's use of control over milk price supports as leverage for contributions from the Associated Milk Producers.
White House Counsel
and Watergate star
witness John Dean.
The Watergate Committee also investigated the use of a secret slush fund of undeclared campaign contributions, managed by Nixon's close friend Charles "Bebe" Rebozo. Reclusive multi-millionaire Howard Hughes donated $100,000 to this fund. Some of this money appears to have been used for improvements to Nixon's Key Biscayne properties.
The testimony of John Dean, who had been privy to so many White House Watergate strategy meetings, was devastating to Nixon. Another blow was delivered on July 13, when Haldeman's Deputy Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House taping system. The tapes were soon subpoenaed by Special Prosecutor Cox and by the Senate Committee. Nixon fought back, offering compromises such as edited summaries to be prepared by Senator John Stennis. Cox refused to back down, and on October 20 Nixon ordered his Attorney General to force Cox to drop his subpoena. Richardson resigned rather than do so or fire Cox, as did his deputy William Ruckleshaus, in an event known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." Cox was fired by replacement Robert Bork, but was subsequently replaced by Leon Jaworski. The fight for the tapes went on.
The House Judiciary Committee and Articles of Impeachment
While the Watergate burglars had been convicted in early 1973, in the winter and spring of 1974 cases against other defendants began to be resolved. On February 25 Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon's personal lawyer who had raised hush money for the burglars, pleaded guilty to other illegal campaign finance activities. On March 1, the "Watergate Seven" - Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Colson, and three others - were indicted on conspiracy charges by a grand jury, with Nixon secretly named as an unindicted co-conspirator. On April 5, Segretti's handler Dwight Chapin was convicted of lying to the grand jury. Some, like deputy campaign director Jeb Magruder, had begun cooperating with prosecutors in 1973 and had been already pled guilty to lesser charges.
Peter Rodino, D-NJ,
chairman of the House
In February of 1974, House Resolution 803 authorized the Committee on the Judiciary to "investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States of America." Committee Chairman Peter Rodino had an inquiry staff compile investigative materials during the spring and summer. The Judiciary Committee continued the fight for the White House tape recordings, issuing subpoenas for them as well as for other materials such as daily diaries.
Nixon continued to fight the release of the tapes, furnishing edited transcripts of a portion of the relevant recordings. There was enough damaging information that this limited disclosure only increased the demand for the tapes. Nixon also had to admit that two tapes were missing and a third held the famous "18 minute gap." Finally, on July 24 the Supreme Court voted 8-0 that Nixon had to turn over the tapes. Within a few days he did so. Also in late July, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.
The released tapes included the June 23, 1973 "smoking gun" tape, in which Nixon directed that the CIA be used to obstruct the FBI's Watergate investigation. With this tape, Nixon's remaining support evaporated. Impeachment by the full House and conviction by the Senate was inevitable.
Nixon's Resignation and the Pardon
Nixon, who publicly maintained his innocence throughout, finally decided that he was through. He announced his resignation in a televised address on the evening of August 8, 1974, and departed the White House the following day.
Apparently there was some question whether Nixon would leave. His increasingly erratic behavior worried a few insiders that the President would stay even if impeached and convicted. Navy chief Admiral Zumwalt told Defense Secretary James Schlesinger about a talk Nixon had had with the Joint Chiefs the previous Christmas, in which Nixon appeared to be feeling them out to see "whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power." The tense final days, in which Al Haig reported to Schlesinger that "Nixon was digging in his heels" and "it might be necessary to put the 82nd Airborne Division around the White House to protect the President," are recounted in Seymour Hersh's article The Pardon.
President Ford announcing
his pardon of Richard Nixon.
In the end, Nixon went quietly. Vice-President Gerald R. Ford, Michigan Republican and former Warren Commissioner, succeeded him as President. Ford had himself replaced VP Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in October 1973 upon pleading no contest to tax evasion, after an investigation in which he had been formally charged with having accepted bribes while Governor of Maryland.
A month after Nixon's resignation Ford gave Nixon a full pardon in order to avoid a "long period of delay and potential litigation" where "ugly passions would again be aroused." Ford's decision was unpopular with many, who wanted Nixon tried in court for obstruction of justice.
A Coup d'Etat?
How did Nixon fall so quickly? Nixon won the November 1972 election by a landslide, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia to Democratic opponent George McGovern. Yet by the spring of the following year top aides were resigning and the writing of Nixon's fate was already on the wall, even though it took more than a year longer for Nixon to ultimately resign.
An anti-war protest in
That Nixon was hated by Democrats, media figures, the anti-War movement, and many others is well-known. Nixon's prolonging of the Vietnam War - new LBJ tapes provide further confirmation that in 1968 Nixon had helped scuttle peace talks in order to get elected - and his expansion of the war into Cambodia made him deeply unpopular with many. His "law and order" candidacy had barely beaten Hubert Humphrey in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and candidate Robert Kennedy. The late 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s were a time of demonstrations, race riots, and great discord and upheaval. 1970 saw the Kent State shootings where National Guardsmen fired and killed four on a college campus, and this incident was not unique.
But Nixon had more enemies in Washington than Democrats, the media, the anti-War movement, and liberals and leftists. No conservative by modern Republican standards, Nixon introduced wage and price controls to control inflation. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's tight control of foreign policy did not sit well with some of the more hawkish members of the military and foreign policy establishment; some of Nixon's greatest accomplishments, such as the opening to Communist China, were not universally applauded. The myth of a dogged press and an outraged Congress taking on a powerful and corrupt White House certainly has its basis in fact, but it is only part of the story. We now know, for instance, that intrepid reporters Woodward and Bernstein were aided by a top Hoover loyalist in the FBI, only one of the agencies where suspicion and distrust of Nixon reigned.
One example of the atmosphere in Washington is the Moorer-Radford affair. Nixon's aides discovered in 1971 that the Joint Chiefs of Staff was spying on him. For thirteen months beginning in November 1970, thousands of pages of National Security Council documents were stolen and delivered to Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After a leak in December 1971, an internal White House investigation found the culprit, yeoman Charles Radford, who confessed, along with his superior, Robert Welander. Nixon replaced JCS Chief Moorer and privately called it a "federal offense of the highest order," but the public did not learn of the affair until years later.
President Nixon at a
In recent years, some have charged that the removal of Nixon was a "coup d'etat" carried out by his enemies. Among those is former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, who blames the "media and political establishment." Others, such as the authors of Silent Coup, cast suspicion on the actions and motives of some key players such as "star witness" John Dean, Al Haig (tied to the Moorer-Radford affair), and even journalist Bob Woodward, a friend of both Haig's and Mark Felt's. Silent Coup alleges that John Dean masterminded the Watergate burglary as part of an operation to gain dirt on Democrats making use of a prostitution ring operating out of the Watergate (aspects of this story were first explored in Jim Hougan's Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat, and the CIA). This particular theory and the general idea that Nixon was brought down by the right, not the left, provides explanations for some mysteries surrounding the break-in and associated events, but remains somewhat speculative and has provoked both controversy and lawsuits; Silent Coup was attacked as right-wing revisionist history following its publication in 1991. It has in recent years been promoted by Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, who turns out to have been a major source of the authors.
Still others point to the many CIA connections to Watergate - a minority report by Howard Baker in the Watergate Committee's Final Report discusses some of these, including the CIA connections of each of the burglars and the Mullen Company where Hunt had first worked after "retiring," the actions of CIA operative Lee Pennington to destroy files tying McCord to the Agency, and the support the CIA's Technical Services Division had given the burglars.
Other Unanswered Questions
Perhaps the truth is simply that Nixon had enemies in many different quarters, in part due to his petty and vindictive methods, and when the opportunity to remove him based on real illegalities occurred, momentum quickly built against him. The evidence that the Watergate crisis was manufactured doesn't square well with the detailed record of crimes and other improper actions which Congress and the press laid out. And the ensuing post-Watergate investigations into the intelligence agencies revealed to the nation an Executive branch that had undertaken many illegal and questionable activities unknown to the Congress and the public.
The Watergate Hotel complex.
Yet questions remain. The actual purpose of the Watergate break-in itself has never been adequately established. The explanation that it was to replace one faulty bug among those earlier placed in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters has some problems with it, including the fact that the first sweeps of the offices revealed no such bugs. Jim Hougan's Secret Agenda delves into this issue in some detail. Some of the burglars were told by Hunt that the purpose was to locate materials showing that DNC head Larry O'Brien was getting funds from Fidel Castro, but this contrived explanation was probably given to the Cuban exiles simply as motivation.
Who ordered the break-in? Evidence that Nixon knew about the break-in before it happened is lacking, though tapes revealed he did order other such operations, such as a break-in at the Brookings Institute that was never carried out. There is controversy over whether CRP head John Mitchell approved it. The reasons Nixon moved immediately to cover up the White House's ties to the break-in remain unclear.
And was the arrest of the burglars an unlucky accident? When James McCord re-taped a door that a security guard had already discovered and removed tape from, was this sloppiness or an intent to trigger the arrests? McCord's letter to Judge Sirica at the close of his trial broke open the burglars' silence and fueled calls for an investigation of the White House's ties to Watergate.
There are other mysteries - the meaning of the "Bay of Pigs thing" among them, as well as the December 1972 plane crash which killed Hunt's wife Dorothy while carrying hush money to the defendants. The following day, Nixon appointed Plumbers head Egil Krogh to be Undersecretary of Transportation, supervising the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Association - the two agencies charged with investigating the airline crash.
The Aftermath of Watergate
In the aftermath of Nixon's downfall in August 1974, reform-minded Democrats were swept into office that November. The following month, the New York Times carried a front page story entitled "Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years." The floodgates of investigations opened.
Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld,
President Ford, andRumsfeld's aide
Dick Cheney in April 1975.
President Ford, along with his Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and aide Dick Cheney, tried unsuccessfully to stem the tide. Ford vetoed strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act, but was overridden. Campaign finance laws were enacted. Ford's Rockefeller Commission, which conducted a limited review of domestic CIA operations, was overtaken by the much more aggressive Church Committee and other post-Watergate Congressional investigations. The Church Committee published reports on CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders, mail opening operations, NSA electronic surveillance, FBI's COINTELPRO operations against dissident groups and others, the FBI's harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and more. Deeper secrets, like the CIA's MKULTRA drug-and-hypnosis "mind control" program, and CIA relations with the media, remained only partially exposed.
For some, these exposes and the weakening of the Presidency were not welcome events. Ford White House aide Dick Cheney and his boss Donald Rumsfeld, who both went on to prominent positions in the Bush White House, were among them. Cheney's oft-cited expansive view of Presidential powers derives in part from his experience in the Ford post-Watergate administration.
Endlessly studied and written about, the Watergate saga has continued relevance in its lessons about the potential for abuse of power in the White House. Perhaps like all major political events, it retains questions and mysteries that even multiple lengthy investigations never resolved.
- Rex Bradford, May 2019