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Bush, Wiretaps & Watergate

By Robert Parry
April 6, 2006

Sen. Russell Feingold’s motion to censure George W. Bush for warrantless spying on Americans has conjured up ghosts from Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal of three decades ago. But both sides in today’s dispute have misconstrued some the lessons from that earlier case of illegal wiretapping.

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 admit.

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 history in Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, but a summary of the Watergate section is below:

Nixon’s Obsessions

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.

Nixon criticized 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 internal security.

“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 Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

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 second term.

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.

The Break-in

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 writer.

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 Democratic politics.

Some aficionados 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.

One Republican 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.

Whatever other 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.

Delegate Counts

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 McGovern.

“The California 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 electoral debacle.

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 primary.

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 delegates.

“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 stopped.”

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 vote.

“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 Democratic candidate.

The Second Break-in

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 said later.

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 Richard Nixon.

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 16.

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.

Around midnight, 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.

The Scandal

The Watergate 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 Watergate defendants.

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 wrong.”

“He condoned it,” Graham asserted.

“He did not know about it, senator,” Dean said. “It’s hard to condone something you don’t know about.”

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.

Eventually, the 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 wants.

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?


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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