Watergate: The cover-up begins

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on the Watergate crisis, which ended 40 years ago this year. We left off in part 1 with the conviction of the CRP burglars for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws when they broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC in June 1972.

One of those burglars was Howard Hunt, a former CIA official who was identified as working for the Republican Party. Hunt was also one of the  White House “Plumbers”, a group created in 1971 to stop the leaking of classified documents to the press. The most notable example of a leak was the publication of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst working for the RAND Corporation who had access to top-secret government documents on the Vietnam War that revealed that President Lyndon Johnson had lied to the American public about U.S. military operations in Vietnam, and their success, and that the U.S. had secretly begun bombing suspected Viet Cong bases and suppliers in Cambodia and Laos. Ellsberg had come to question the war before he got access to the secret papers, and once he saw them, he became firmly against the war. He copied the papers and gave them to the New York Times, where their contents were made known. They were commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, and they created deep controversy in the U.S., and gave new momentum to the already growing anti-war movement.

Nixon was furious about the Pentagon Papers, and determined to find a way to smear Ellsberg and make him seem crazy. Nixon’s top advisor, John Ehrlichman, told the Plumbers to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles, looking for notes that might cast doubt on Ellsberg’s sanity. They did not find anything, and Ehrlichman told Nixon only that there had been an “aborted” operation in Los Angeles. The Plumbers then used some of their members on the Watergate break-in, looking for documents that would reveal the Democratic election strategy, or some damaging evidence against their candidate, George McGovern.

When the FBI investigators on the Watergate break-in found Hunt’s name, Ehrlichman was afraid it would lead back to the Ellsberg break-in, and ordered John Dean, the president’s legal attorney, to open Hunt’s White House safe and burn everything in it. This was done by Dean and by Acting FBI Director Patrick Gray.

Nixon was told about the break-in at this point. He was also told about the attempt to erase Hunt’s connection to CRP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a group working to ensure Nixon’s victory in 1972. Nixon approved, and told his other top advisor, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA block the FBI’s investigation into the question of who paid the burglars to break into the DNC headquarters.

At a press conference a few days afterward, Press Secretary Ron Zieglar described the Watergate break-in in a phrase that would become infamous: he called it “a third-rate burglary attempt”. This was part of the White House strategy to downplay the event as the bizarre actions of a few unknown nobodies that no one should pay any attention to. On August 29, 1972, Nixon said that attorney Dean had investigated the break-in (which Dean had not) and that the result was that “I can say categorically that [no] one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” This was true to Nixon’s pattern of lying to the public; the disclaimer “presently employed” is a strange one: it plants doubt in the listener’s mind by giving them the idea that someone on Nixon’s staff had been involved in the break-in and been fired, so that as Nixon spoke, technically no one still employed by him was guilty. In reality, of course, men presently employed by the White House were responsible. So that addition made no sense, and may have been an indicator of Nixon’s nerves.

John Mitchell, the former Attorney General who resigned earlier in 1971 so he could run CRP, also claimed that he had no idea who had broken into the Watergate (when it was men working for him, who had told him the plan, which he had approved). The Nixon Administration ties to the break-in were being successfully covered up—until a check for $25,000 marked “Nixon re-election campaign” was found in the bank account of one of the burglars. The FBI investigated and found CRP money in all the burglars’ accounts, and also expense reports filed by the burglars and submitted to the CRP.

Next time—following the money trail