In Senate Judiciary
Committee hearings on March 31, Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean
spoke in support of Feingold’s motion to rebuke Bush, with Dean citing
his own Watergate-era conviction for obstructing justice as an example
of what can happen when a President goes outside the law.
But Sen. Lindsey
Graham, R-S.C., defended Bush by saying the Watergate case had no
relevance to Bush’s decision after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to
brush aside legal requirements for warrants in bugging Americans
suspected of communicating with foreigners allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.
Trying to highlight
the differences, Graham questioned Dean about whether he thought
breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the
Watergate in 1972 was “legal.” Dean snapped back that neither he nor
Nixon had authorized the break-in.
“You’re showing you
don’t know that subject very well,” Dean told Graham.
“That’s why you went
to jail!” Graham fumed.
But the actual
history of Watergate reveals a more complicated reality, with neither
Dean nor Graham getting the story precisely right. Based on the most
recent revelations, it appears that Nixon may bear more responsibility
for the break-in than Dean believes – and the lessons of Watergate are
more relevant to Bush's domestic spying today than Graham wants to
Like Nixon, Bush may
find – or may have already found – the temptation to blur the lines
between spying on national security threats and his political enemies
too tempting to resist. Presidents who come to see themselves as vital
to the nation can easily slip into the delusion that any challenger or
dissenter is out to hurt the country.
That risk, which was recognized in the 1978 passage of the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was a principal lesson of
Watergate. In his first term, Nixon came to view domestic opposition to
the Vietnam War and to his policies as national security threats
deserving of extra-legal responses.
I address this
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq,
but a summary of the Watergate section is below:
Nixon relished the
intricacies of world power politics, but his obsession with domestic
challenges – his Vietnam War critics and his insecurities about possible
electoral defeat – merged as Campaign 1972 grew near.
Nixon searched for
new ways to destroy domestic adversaries, the likes of former Defense
Department official Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the secret Pentagon
Papers history of the Vietnam War. After the Pentagon Papers were
published, revealing the deceptions used to lead the United States to
war, Nixon demanded a more aggressive strategy to stop leaks.
On July 1, 1971,
Nixon lectured chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and National Security
Adviser Henry Kissinger about the need to do whatever it takes,
including break-ins at sites such as the Brookings Institution where
Nixon suspected incriminating information might be found about Ellsberg.
Attorney General John Mitchell for worrying about what “is technically
correct” in countering those who leaked the secret history.
“We’re up against an
enemy, a conspiracy,” Nixon raged. “They’re using any means. We are
going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings
Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the
Brookings Institute safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way
that makes somebody else” responsible.
“Now, how do you
fight this [Ellsberg case]?” Nixon continued. “You can’t fight this with
gentlemanly gloves … We’ll kill these sons of bitches.” Nixon then
referred to an obscure White House official named Cooke, who had given
Ellsberg some papers when Ellsberg worked at the Rand Corporation.
“I want to get him
[Cooke] killed,” Nixon said. “Let him get in the papers and deny it. …
Get a story out and get one to a reporter who will use it. Give them the
facts and we will kill him in the press. Isn’t that clear? And I play it
gloves off. Now, Goddammit, get going on it.”
One of Nixon’s
schemes for discrediting the Pentagon Papers release was to transform it
into a spy scandal, like the Alger Hiss case of the 1940s where Nixon
made his national reputation. He saw a role for the successor to the
House Un-American Activities Committee, the House subcommittee on
“Don’t you see what
a marvelous opportunity for the committee,” Nixon said on July 2, 1971.
“They can really take this and go. And make speeches about the spy ring.
… But you know what’s going to charge up an audience. Jesus Christ,
they’ll be hanging from the rafters… Going after all these Jews. Just
find one that is a Jew, will you.”
Nixon’s men did
“play it gloves off.” Under Nixon’s supervision, a Plumbers unit was
recruited, drawing from the ranks of former CIA officers and operatives.
Digging for dirt on Ellsberg, the Plumbers broke into the office of
The secret Plumbers
unit that was used to crank down on leaks soon merged with Nixon’s
reelection strategy. The goal was to cripple or eliminate Nixon’s
strongest Democratic challengers and smooth the President’s way to a
The Plumbers were
reassigned from national security break-ins to searching for the inside
dope on the latest Democratic strategies and other intelligence that
could be exploited. Nixon’s paranoia would lead his men to Watergate.
Three times in late
May 1972, burglars working for Nixon’s reelection committee tried to
enter the Watergate complex situated along the Potomac River, roughly
equidistant between downtown Washington and Georgetown.
The target was the
Democratic National Committee, which had rented space there at a bargain
price because the Watergate was in a newly developed part of the city.
Known for its hotel, apartments and restaurant, the Watergate had yet to
catch on as a prime location for offices.
For the Watergate
burglars, the third try was the charm. Armed with an array of burglary
tools, two of the Cuban-Americans on the team
Virgilio Gonzalez and Frank Sturgis – entered the building through the
B-2 garage level.
They climbed the
stairs and taped open the doors behind them. Reaching the sixth floor
where the DNC offices were located, Gonzalez made quick work of the door
lock and the burglars were finally inside.
“The horse is in the
house,” they reported over a walkie-talkie back to team leaders across
Virginia Avenue at a Howard Johnson’s hotel. The leaders included G.
Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who had devised the spying plan called
Gemstone, and E. Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer and part-time spy novel
At word that the
break-in had finally succeeded, James McCord, another former CIA officer
and the security chief for the Committee to Reelect the President known
as CREEP, made his way over to the Watergate and was let in by one of
the Cuban burglars.
Upon reaching the
DNC offices, McCord placed one tap on the phone of a secretary of
Democratic National Chairman Larry O’Brien and a second on the phone of
R. Spencer Oliver, a 34-year-old Democratic operative who was executive
director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen.
The choice of the
two phones has never been fully explained. O’Brien’s might seem obvious
since he was party chairman, but Oliver, although a well-placed insider,
was little known outside national
of the Watergate mystery have speculated that Oliver’s phone was chosen
because his father worked with Robert R. Mullen whose Washington-based
public relations firm had employed Hunt.
The firm also served
as a CIA front in the 1960s and early 1970s and did work for
industrialist Howard Hughes, who, in turn, had questionable financial
ties to Nixon’s brother, Donald. Because Spencer Oliver’s father also
represented Hughes, one theory held that Nixon’s team wanted to know
what derogatory information the Democrats might possess about money from
Hughes to Nixon’s brother.
After returning to
their base at the Howard Johnson’s across from the Watergate, the
burglars’ glow of success faded fast. The Gemstone team discovered that
their receivers only could pick up conversations on one of the phones,
the tap in Oliver’s office.
Though upset about
the limited information that might flow from that single tap, the
Gemstone team began transcribing the mix of personal and professional
calls by Oliver and other members of his staff who used his phone when
he wasn’t there.
operative, Alfred Baldwin, said he transcribed about 200 calls,
including some dealing with “political strategy,” passing the
transcripts on to McCord, who gave them to Liddy.
The intercepts then
went to Jeb Stuart Magruder, CREEP’s deputy chairman who said he passed
the material to reelection chairman John Mitchell, who had left the
Justice Department to run CREEP.
mysteries might surround the Watergate operation, one Gemstone goal was
clear: to pick up intelligence on Democratic strategies as part of the
larger plan to ensure that a weakened Democratic Party led by the least
appealing candidate would face President Nixon in November 1972.
How useful the
material turned out to be is another point in historical dispute. Since
the intercepts violated strict federal wiretapping statutes, the
contents were never fully disclosed and the recipients of the intercepts
had both legal and political reasons to insist that they either hadn’t
seen the material or that it wasn’t very useful.
Oliver has his own
theory about what insights the wiretap on his phone could have given the
Republicans: a window into the end game of the Democratic nomination.
As it turned out,
Oliver was in the middle of a last-ditch effort by the Democratic state
chairmen to head off the nomination of liberal South Dakota Sen. George
primary was the first week of June,” Oliver recalled in an interview
with me for Secrecy & Privilege. “The state chairs were very
concerned about the McGovern candidacy,” foreseeing the likelihood of an
So they commissioned
a hard count of delegates to see whether McGovern’s nomination could be
headed off, even if the anti-Vietnam War senator secured California’s
bounty of delegates with a victory in the state’s winner-take-all
Earlier in 1972,
other Democratic campaigns had failed to catch fire or had blown up.
Secretly, Nixon’s reelection team had targeted former front-runner,
Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, with dirty tricks like stink bombs exploded at
Muskie events, bogus pizza orders and fake mailings that spread
dissension between Muskie and other Democrats.
Though knocked from
contention in the early primaries, Muskie still had some delegates in
early June 1972 as did former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Washington
Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and some lesser candidates.
Scores of other
delegates were uncommitted or tied to favorite sons. Oliver was hoping
that his personal favorite, Duke University President Terry Sanford,
might emerge from a deadlocked convention as a unity candidate.
“Muskie had some
votes though he had been finished off early,” Oliver said. “Hubert
Humphrey and Scoop Jackson had a lot of votes. Terry had nearly one
hundred votes, scattered over 22 states and including some influential
“McGovern was having
a hard time getting a majority. The state chairmen wanted to know
whether or not, if he won the California primary, he would have the
nomination wrapped up or whether there was still a chance he could be
Oliver said he was
part of a small group that contacted state chairmen and other party
officials to assess where the uncommitted delegates were going. “We had
the best count in the country and it was all coordinated through my
telephone,” he said.
So, while Nixon’s
political espionage team listened in, Oliver and his team canvassed
state party leaders to figure out how Democratic delegates planned to
“We determined on
that phone that McGovern could still be stopped even if he won the
California primary,” Oliver said. “It would be very close whether he
could ever get a majority.”
After McGovern did
win the California primary, the stop-McGovern battle came down to Texas.
“The one place he could be stopped was at the Texas State Democratic
Convention,” Oliver said.
Later, Oliver would
come to suspect that Nixon’s operatives might have exploited their
knowledge of the stop-McGovern movement to ensure that the South Dakota
Democrat was awarded crucial delegates at the
Texas convention, thus pushing
McGovern toward the nomination and thwarting the plans for a compromise
Meanwhile, back in
Washington on June 14,
the Gemstone team began planning a return
to the DNC’s Watergate office to install new eavesdropping equipment.
Liddy was under pressure from higher-ups to get more information, Hunt
When Hunt suggested
to Liddy that targeting the Miami hotels to be used during the upcoming
Democratic National Convention made more sense, Liddy checked with his
“principals” and reported that they were adamant about sending the team
back into the Watergate.
One person in the
White House who was demanding continued vigilance over the Democrats was
Though it’s never
been proven that Nixon had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-ins,
the President was demanding that his political aides keep collecting
whatever information they could about the Democrats
and Nixon had shown he wasn't averse to surreptitious break-ins.
“That business of
the McGovern watch, it just has to be – it has to be now around the
clock,” Nixon told presidential aide Charles Colson on June 13,
according to a White House taped conversation. “You never know what
you’re going to find.”
The next day, facing
demands from the “principals,” Hunt contacted the Cuban-Americans in
Miami. The burglars reassembled in Washington two days later, on June
For this second
entry, McCord taped six or eight doors between the corridors and the
stairwells on the upper floors and three more in the sub-basement. But
McCord applied the tape horizontally instead of vertically, leaving
pieces of tape showing when the doors were closed.
security guard Frank Wills came on duty. About 45 minutes after starting
work, he began his first round of checking the building.
He discovered a
piece of tape over a door latch at the garage level. Thinking that the
tape was probably left behind by a building engineer earlier in the day,
Wills removed it and went about his business.
A few minutes later,
one of the Cuban-American burglars reached the now-locked door, which he
opened by picking the lock and then re-taped the latch so others could
follow him in. The team then moved to the sixth floor, entered the DNC
offices and got to work installing the additional equipment.
Shortly before 2
a.m., Wills was making his second round of checks at the building when
he spotted the re-taped door. His suspicions aroused, the security man
called the Washington Metropolitan Police.
A dispatcher reached
a nearby plainclothes unit, which pulled up in front of the Watergate.
The police officers began a search of the building, starting with the
eighth floor and working their way down to the sixth.
The hapless burglars
tried to hide behind desks in the DNC’s office, but the police officers
spotted them and called out, “Hold it!”
McCord and four
other burglars surrendered. Hunt, Liddy and other members of the
Gemstone crew – still across the street at the Howard Johnson’s –
hurriedly stashed their equipment and papers into suitcases and fled.
scandal would play out over the next two-plus years as Nixon fought to
frustrate the investigation.
In the months
leading up to Election 1972, one of his chief collaborators in the
cover-up was an ambitious young lawyer named John Dean, who served as
White House counsel and helped arrange hush money to some of the
It was not until the
next year that Dean realized that the Watergate cover-up could not
contain the spreading scandal. He famously warned Nixon of a “cancer on
the presidency.” Dean concluded that Nixon knew about the cover-up, but
did not have prior knowledge about the break-ins.
Based on his
statements before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 31, 2006, Dean
still holds that view of Nixon’s role.
When Sen. Graham
argued that Nixon’s Watergate wiretaps then were entirely different from
Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping now, Dean challenged Graham’s
“assumption that Nixon had somehow ordered a break-in” as “just dead
“He condoned it,”
“He did not know
about it, senator,” Dean said. “It’s hard to condone something you don’t
Though Dean may have
won that exchange, the actual history is less clear.
While no conclusive
evidence has emerged that Nixon directly ordered the break-ins, the tape
recordings and statements by participants suggest that Nixon was eager
to use the Plumbers to strike at his political enemies and that he was
pressuring them to keep close tabs on the Democrats.
The larger lesson,
which is relevant today, is that politicians who are freed from checks
and balances will drift toward an ever-expanding view of their own
powers. They will come to see themselves and their continuation in
office as vital to the national security.
President or his advisers will grow suspicious that some American
dissidents are somehow in league with the foreign enemy. The White House
will find reasons to believe that domestic protests are aiding and
abetting the enemy. It may even become an article of faith among the
President’s men that the other party’s victory is just what the enemy
Because Bush has
submerged his warrantless eavesdropping in a sea of secrecy, it is
unknown how far his program has slid toward surveillance of his domestic
opponents and his political enemies
or whether the wiretapping has been augmented by physical break-ins.
But the Founders
devised their system of checks and balances out of a realistic
understanding of human nature and its tendency to seek unfettered power.
Having relearned that lesson in Watergate, Congress enacted the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act requiring the Executive Branch to get a
secret warrant from a special court to engage in domestic spying.
Whether or not Dean
or Graham is right about Nixon’s
precise role in the Watergate break-ins, the bigger question would seem
to be: Why does anyone think that the rules of human behavior – and the
temptations of power – don’t
apply to George W. Bush?