Water Man Spouts

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Watergate

{1} "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." – William Faulkner

Current events remind "baby boomers" of the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration came apart at the seams. An unpopular war, scandals resulting from criminal activities in the executive branch, a congress that is beginning to ask questions and demand answers, and a hostile, paranoid president seem all too familiar. But it is not just progressive democrats who notice the similarities: the jackals from the gutter of the republican party see it, too. And they are attempting to spin both the historic and current events, in the hope of confusing the general public.

Their tactics are not surprising, nor are they original. They range from loud-mouthed fools like Sean Hannity, who attempts to reach the most dense in their viewing audience by comparing everything to the Bill Clinton administration, to those who feign open-mindedness – or who pose as progressives – who plant seeds of "misinformation" in an organized attempt to contaminate the public’s understanding of Watergate.

I thought it would be beneficial to take a look at the series of crimes that are known as "Watergate." We will look at the events that led up to the crimes; review some of the actual crimes; examine the investigations that came about; and discuss some of the consequences of Watergate.

In doing so, we will make use of a number of the resources available to those who are fascinated in this strange episode in our nation’s history. This includes using information both about and by one of the central players in the Watergate scandal, John Dean. I mention Mr. Dean now, because I believe that much of the distortion being planted about Watergate tends to target him. And the reason for that is simple: John Dean continues to explain why, in his opinion, the Bush-Cheney administration is "worse than Watergate."

{2} "This [Bush-Cheney] administration is the most secretive of our lifetime, even more secretive than the Nixon administration. They don’t believe the American people or Congress have any right to information." –Larry Klayman, chairman; Judicial Watch; quote from "Worse Than Watergate"; John Dean.

In both the Nixon and Bush administrations, there has been a focus on secrecy in their own affairs, that is matched only by their compulsive need to spy upon others. This is not a coincidence; rather, it is the essence of the paranoid behavior of those who are aware that they are engaged in wrong-doing, and are taking steps to avoid detection. In both administrations, there were attempts to justify these behaviors as being necessary for "national security." What is called the Patriot Act today had its genesis as the Huston Plan in the Nixon era.

Thus Huston Plan was an attempt to coordinate domestic spying by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and IRS in order to allow the Nixon administration to deal with "enemies." The Huston Plan could target those who may have potentially posed a threat to national security. But, of course, paranoid folks like those in both the Nixon and Bush administrations, tend to view political opponents as "enemies of the state." Disagreeing with the administration’s war policies, for example, was – and is – all the proof that each administration requires to determine if one is sufficiently patriotic to qualify for Constitutional protections.

In fact, when Tom Huston testified before the Senate, he expressed his opinion that a president does not need to be handcuffed by the 4th Amendment when dealing with potential threats to national security. As history shows, those "potential threats" included citizens opting to exercise those rights granted by the 1st Amendment.

The Huston Plan created a domestic "secret police" of the type that is common in the most undemocratic of nations. In "The Secret Man," Bob Woodward reminds us of how Mark Felt viewed Tom Huston: "Felt later wrote that he considered Huston himself ‘a kind of White House gauleiter over the intelligence community.’ The four-inch-thick Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary defines a gauleiter as ‘the leader or chief official of a political district under Nazi control’." (page 34)

Officially, a couple days after approving the Huston Plan, Nixon would reverse his decision – at least on paper. However, as the Senate Watergate Report noted, a John Dean memorandum noted the decision was made to "remove the restraints as necessary to obtain such intelligence." (pages 56-7)

{3} "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. Warrents shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." – Amendment #4

In 1971, the White House creates a group known as "the Plumbers" to investigate and stop "leaks" from the executive branch. The most famous of these leaks would become known as "The Pentagon Papers." The Nixon administration would identify the leaker Daniel Ellsberg, as a threat to national security. On paghes 35-6 of Woodward’s "The Secret Man," we read: "…White House aide Howard Hunt would lead a burglary team to Los Angeles to break into the office of the psychiatrist to Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Hunt and his sidekick, Liddy, the so-called Plumbers, were working to stop news leaks, in part because the White House did not believe it could count on the FBI to tackle the leaks aggressively. The previous month, on August 11, 1971, John D. Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top aides and chief domestic adviser, had checked ‘Approved’ on a memo recommending that ‘a covert operation be undertaken to examine all medical files still held by Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.’ Ehrlichman had added in his own hand, ‘if done under your assurance that it is not traceable’."

In 1972, John Mitchell, the former Attorney General heading the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), authorizes "Operation Gemstone." (See Ervin Report, pages 74-82.) Part of Gemstone will include "burglaries"; the most famous of these took place on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate.

Although George McGovern would attempt to make the Watergate break-in a campaign issue, the media and the general public tended to ignore it. Of the few journalists who did investigate the break-in, the best known are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. It is known that Woodward was in large part directed by a source that he and Bernstein would call "Deep Throat." This source helped them to focus on the role that Ehrlichman and Haldeman played in the scandal, including the cover-up.

On February 2, 1973, after convicting the four Cubans, McCord, Hunt, and Liddy, Judge John Sirica would urge Congress to investigate the Nixon administration’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. This was in part because of a letter that McCord had sent to him, telling of pay-offs, etc. "Everbody knows there’s going to be a Congressional investigation in this case. I hope so, frankly, not only as a judge, but as a citizen of a great country and one of millions of Americans who are looking for certain answers," he said.

In February, the Senate created the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Sam Ervin (D-NC) was appointed the chairman; minority leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn) served as vice chair.Among the committee’s duties was the investigation of the Watergate break-in.
The Nixon administration self-righteously denied all involvement in the scandal. However, this stance was seriously damaged in March, when White House Counsel John Dean testified about his involvement in the Watergate scandal. His testimony indicated that Ehrlichman and Haldeman were directly involved. More, he raised serious questions about the President’s potential involvement.

In late April, President Nixon announced the resignations of Dean, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman. Within a few weeks, Nixon saw the Department of Justice appoint Harvard law professor Archibald Cox as special prosecutor.

On July 16, 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed that the president had a system for taping conversations in the Oval Office. Both the Senate committee and special prosecutor Cox would request copies of the tapes. Nixon would claim that "executive privilege" allowed him to keep the tapes secret.

In August, Jeb Magruder pleaded guilty to crimes including obstruction of justice. He had formerly served as Haldeman’s assistant at the White House. At the time of the break-in, he served as deputy director of CREEP. (The Final Days; Woodward & Bernstein; page 47)

On October 20, President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Cox. Both Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, and instead resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork then fired Cox. This episode is known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

On October 10, VP Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. He faced charges of corruption separate from the Watergate scandal, though his fate increased the public’s sense that the nation was facing a Constitutional crisis.

John Dean also pleaded guilty in October to crimes involving the obstruction of justice.
In November, the Senate Committee concluded its hearings. They would not make their findings public until the following spring. During that period of time, President Nixon continued to lie to the American people about his role in the Watergate scandal.

In March, 1974, a federal grand jury returned indictments against Mitchell, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and White House Special Counsel Chuck Colson for conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice. More, President Richard Nixon was listed as an "unindicted co-conspirator."

In April, Nixon released edited transcripts of the White House tapes. The edited versions did not help Nixon – in fact, the result was quite the opposite.

On July 24, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over the relevant tapes. (For a fuller story on the legal battle, see "The Presidential Transcripts"; The Washington Post; 1974)

The tapes provided the "smoking gun" that many Americans anticipated. The House Judiciary Committee started impeachment hearings, and voted in favor of four articles. It was crystal clear that Nixon would be convicted and removed from office. Instead, he resigned on August 9. VP Gerald Ford became President, and in September he would pardon Richard Nixon.

{4} "Conventional wisdom both at the time and later held that the outcome of Watergate proved that the ‘system works.’ …. Historians continue to debate whether the episode was a bizarre aberration or a logical outgrowth of the massive expansion of presidential power and the official preoccupation with secrecy and ‘national security’ in ‘Cold War America’." – The Oxford Companion to United States History; page 820.

Did the system work? Last week on MSNBC, former Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan noted that 19 members of the Nixon administration were convicted of crimes in the Watergate scandal and incarcerated. However, the fact that the former president Nixon was pardoned allowed him to escape the full legal consequences for his crimes. Before we look closer at Nixon’s circumstances, however, let’s look at other evidence to determine if Watergate was "a bizarre aberration."

The Congress appeared to see the Nixon administration as posing a significant and systematic threat to our Constitutional democracy. As a result, they passed four laws aimed at addressing these types of threats. They are:

The War Powers Acr (1973).
The Federal Elections Campaign Amendment (1974).
The Ethics in Government Act (1978).
The Presidential Records Act (1978).

However, in the Reagan-Bush1 administrations, a series of crimes known as "the Iran-Contra scandal" would continue the path to an imperial presidency that Richard Nixon had dreamed of. And the Bush-Cheney scandals, including but not limited to the Iraq war/ Plame / neoconservative - AIPAC espionage scandals, have moved the presidency from beyond imperial to a revolutionary executive.

Thus, today when progressive democrats discuss options including the possibility of impeaching Bush, Cheney, and/or others in this administration, the example of Nixon and Watergate are indeed important. Should a president be faced with the full consequences of his administration’s illegal activities? Or should the nation pretend the scandals point to things other than the Office of the President?

One tactic that neoconservatives use today is to distort Watergate, by taking some truths and half-truths, and twisting them. For example, there was a good book by author Jim Hougan, titled "Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA" (Random House; 1984). In it, Hougan noted that there were mini-dramas taking place within the intelligence community. These included the most obvious one: that someone or some small group was directing Bob Woodward’s investigating the scandal. This person/group was known as "Deep Throat." (Hougan believed that Al Haig was the most likely candidate.) Hougan would guess that Woodward may have had a tie to Deep Throat from his experience in the Office of Naval Intelligence; in fact, Felt (a "former" ONI officer), had been introduced to Woodward in the White House before Woodward lefty the Navy.

But there was more. Hougan was the first author to note that James McCord had an agenda that was very different than the other Watergate burglars. McCord had worked in a special intelligence operation doing counterespionage in WW2. He had worked in the FBI and the CIA after the war. His duties included working closely with M15 in England, and heading security operations at Langley. Hougan recognized that it was unlikely McCord would have accidentally made the errors attributed to him in the Watergate episode.

Hougan’s book has some errors that are a result of being authored in 1984. These do not detract from the overall value of the book. However, it was produced before some information was made public, such as Mark Felt’s role. Also, some connected to the scandal had begun to spread disinformation in an attempt to distract the public’s attention from the real issues involved.
For example, there were rumors planted that the CIA had to nail the Nixon administration for Watergate to protect one of their own more important programs. This was reported to be ties between the democratic leadership and a prostitution ring. A weakness of Hougan’s book was that he tended, at the time, to believe this was possible.

Looking back today, we can see that this pile of disinformation was prepared by conservative republican operatives who wanted to smear top democrats and, not surprisingly, John Dean. One need only read the preface of Dean’s 2006 "Conservatives Without Conscience" for a fuller account.

This does not mean that most people who remain opposed to Ford’s pardoning of Nixon are either insincere or wrong. But it is cause to question those who peddle the myth that Nixon was pardoned so that other issues would remain secret. The fact is that Nixon himself was certainly guilty of the high crimes and misdemeanors the House was planning to charge him with. But Nixon was not protecting anyone but himself. And the truth is that a number of investigations that started during the Nixon years continued after he was pardoned.

{5} "Secrecy – the first refuge of incompetents – must be at bare minimum in a democratic society, for a fully informed public is the basis of self-government. Those elected or appointed to positions of executive authority must recognize that government, in a democracy, cannot be wiser than the people." – House Committee on Government Operations; 1960 Report; quote taken from "Worse Than Watergate," by John Dean.

In January, 1970, Christopher Pyle reported on the US Army spying on the civilian population. On December 22, 1974, The New York Times featured an article by Seymour Hersch describing covert CIA operations including assassination attempts of foreign leaders; attempts to overthrow foreign governments; and the spying on US citizens.

On February 19, 1975, the House of Representatives created the Nedzi Committee; approximately 5 months later, it was replaced by the Pike Committee.

In 1975, Gerald Ford created the US President’s Commission on CIA activities within the United States. The investigation was headed by VP Nelson Rockefeller, and is often called the Rockefeller Commission. They looked at issues including surveillance of "domestic dissident groups"; the CIA mind control study known as MKULTRA; and the possible presence of E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis in Dallas on 11-22-63.

Also in 1975, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities was formed as a result of potentially illegal CIA and FBI activities were exposed by the Watergate investigations. Known as the Church Committee, because it was chaired by Senator Frank Church (D-ID), this was the precursor to today’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 1975 and ’76, the Church Committee issued 14 significant reports on the US intelligence community activities.

The House of Representatives and the Senate did not do a perfect job in the 1970s. But they made serious attempts to make good on this nation’s promise for a true Constitutional democracy. The issues involved in that Constitutional crisis were not limited to if Nixon needed further punishment, and certainly did not focus on any prostitution ring other than an executive office whoring for imperial power. American citizens would do well to take the time to study the events of the Watergate era today. Because, as Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."

1 Comments:

At April 2, 2007 at 6:08 PM, Blogger X. Dell said...

Excellent post. A lot of people aren't aware of the Church and Pike Committees (nor the Rockefeller Commission). Worse yet, very few know about the Huston Plan. Despie the administration's official line that it was only active for five days, the basic spirit of the Huston Plan continued long after, its most obvious example Watergate.

If you touch upon this subject again, it might be interesting to discuss and give specific examples of what you refer to as attempts to reshape the meaning of Watergate, and examples of putative "progressive... misinformation." As someone who only tunes to Sean Hannity on rare occassion (many liberals and leftists don't listen to him at all), I don't really know what you mean, although I can take a really good guess.

Excellent blog.

 

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