Commentary Magazine


Did the Press Uncover Watergate?

A sustaining myth of journalism holds that every great government scandal is revealed through the work of enterprising reporters who by one means or another pierce the official veil of secrecy. The role that government institutions themselves play in exposing official misconduct and corruption therefore tends to be seriously neglected, if not wholly ignored, in the press. This view of journalistic revelation is propagated by the press even in cases where journalists have had palpably little to do with the discovery of corruption. Pulitzer Prizes were thus awarded this year to the Wall Street Journal for “revealing” the scandal which forced Vice President Agnew to resign and to the Washington Star/News for “revealing” the campaign contribution that led to the indictments of former cabinet officers Maurice Stans and John N. Mitchell (who were subsequently acquitted), although reporters at neither newspaper in actual fact had anything to do with uncovering the scandals. In the former case, the U.S. Attorney in Maryland had through dogged plea-bargaining and grants of immunity induced witnesses to implicate the Vice President; and in the latter case, the Securities and Exchange Commission and a grand jury had conducted the investigation that unearthed the illegal contribution which led to the indictment of the cabinet officers. In both instances, even without “leaks” to the newspapers, the scandals uncovered by government institutions would have come to the public's attention when the cases came to trial. Yet to perpetuate the myth that the members of the press were the prime movers in such great events as the conviction of a Vice President and the indictment of two former cabinet officers, the Pulitzer Prize committee simply chose the news stories nearest to these events and awarded them its honors.

The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's autobiographical account of how they “revealed” the Watergate scandals.1 The dust jacket and national advertisements, very much in the bravado spirit of the book itself, declare: “All America knows about Watergate. Here, for the first time, is the story of how we know. . . . In what must be the most devastating political detective story of the century, the two young Washington Post reporters whose brilliant investigative journalism smashed the Watergate scandal wide open tell the whole behind-the-scenes drama the way it happened.” In keeping with the mythic view of journalism, however, the book never describes the “behind-the-scenes” investigations which actually “smashed the Watergate scandal wide open”—namely the investigations conducted by the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the grand jury, and the Congressional committees. The work of almost all those institutions, which unearthed and developed all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate, is systematically ignored or minimized by Bernstein and Woodward. Instead, they simply focus on those parts of the prosecutors' case, the grand-jury investigation, and the FBI reports that were leaked to them.

The result is that no one interested in “how we know” about Watergate will find out from their book, or any of the other widely circulated mythopoeics about Watergate. Yet the non-journalistic version of how Watergate was uncovered is not exactly a secret—the government prosecutors (Earl Silbert, Seymour Glanzer, and Donald E. Campbell) are more than willing to give a documented account of the investigation to anyone who desires it. According to one of the prosecutors, however, “No one really wants to know.” Thus the government's investigation of itself has become a missing link in the story of the Watergate scandal, and the actual role that journalists played remains ill understood.

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After five burglars, including James McCord, who was an employee of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP), were arrested in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, the FBI immediately located three important chains of evidence. First, within a week of the break-in, hundred-dollar bills found on the burglars were easily traced by their serial numbers through the Federal Reserve Bank at Atlanta to the Miami bank account of Bernard Barker, one of the burglars arrested in the Watergate. By June 22, the prosecutors had subpoenaed Barker's bank transactions, and had established that the hundred-dollar bills found in the burglary had originally come from contributions to the Committee for the Re-election of the President and specifically from checks deposited by Kenneth Dahlberg, a CRP regional finance chairman, and others. (Copies of these checks were leaked to Woodward and Bernstein by an investigator for the Florida state's attorney one month later, well after the grand jury was presented with this information—and they “revealed” it in the Washington Post on August 1.) And in early June, the treasurer of the Republican National Committee, Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., confirmed to the prosecutors that campaign contributions were given to G. Gordon Liddy, who by then was suspected of being the ringleader of the conspiracy.

Secondly, the FBI, in searching the premises of the burglars, found, within twenty-four hours after their arrest, receipts, address-books, and checks that linked E. Howard Hunt, White House consultant, to the conspiracy. (This information was leaked a few days later by the Washington police to Eugene Bachinski, a Washington Post reporter, and subsequently published in that newspaper.) The investigation into Hunt led the prosecutors to his secretary, Kathleen Chenow, who was flown back from England, and, in early July, confirmed that Hunt and Liddy were working on clandestine projects together, and had had telephone calls from Bernard Barker just before Barker was arrested in Watergate. (Months later, in September, defense attorneys who had been given the list of prosecution witnesses leaked Miss Chenow's name to Woodward and Bernstein, who then—after calling her—“revealed” this information to the public.) Thus, in early July, the prosecutors had presented evidence to the grand jury tying Hunt and Liddy to the burglars (as well as Liddy to the money).

The most important chain of evidence involved an eyewitness to the entire conspiracy. The day of the burglary, the FBI discovered a listening post at the Howard Johnson Motor Hotel, across the street from the Watergate, from which conspirators sent radio signals to the burglars inside Watergate (and received transmissions from electronic eavesdropping devices). By checking through the records of phone calls made from this listening post, the FBI easily located Alfred Baldwin, a former FBI agent, who had kept logs of wiretaps for the conspirators and acted as a look-out. By June 25, after the prosecutors offered Baldwin's attorney a deal by which Baldwin could escape prison, Baldwin agreed to cooperate with the government.

The main instrument for extracting information from reluctant witnesses like Baldwin was the prosecutors' skill in threatening, badgering, and negotiating. By July 5, less than three weeks after the burglars were apprehended, Baldwin sketched out the outlines of the conspiracy. He identified Hunt and Liddy as being at the scene and directing the burglary; he described prior break-in attempts, the installation of eavesdropping devices, the monitoring of logs of the eavesdropping, and the delivery of the fruits of the conspiracy to CRP. All this evidence was of course presented to the grand jury in mid-July. (Liddy's name was only mentioned in passing in the press on July 22, when he resigned from CRP, and it was not until the following October that Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times located and published an interview with Baldwin. To “top” the L.A. Times's interview, Woodward and Bernstein erroneously reported that Baldwin had delivered the logs to three executives at CRP, Robert C. Odle, Jr., Glenn J. Sedam, Jr., and William E. Timmons. In fact, Baldwin delivered the logs to Liddy. In any case, the press was three months behind the prosecutors in disclosing Baldwin's vital account.) The prosecutors needed, however, a witness to corroborate Baldwin, since they realized that any single witness could be discredited by fierce cross-examination. The locating of Thomas J. Gregory, a student working as a minor spy for CRP, was critical for the prosecutors' case since he was able to corroborate important elements in Baldwin's account. (Gregory's existence was never mentioned by the press until the trial.)

The prosecutors and the grand jury thus developed an airtight case against Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars well in advance of, and without any assistance from, Woodward, Bernstein, or any other reporters. The case was presented to the grand jury and would certainly have been made public in the trial. At best, reporters, including Woodward and Bernstein, only leaked elements of the prosecutors' case to the public in advance of the trial.

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By leaking fragments of the prosecutors' case, Woodward and Bernstein, as well as other journalists, did of course add fuel to the fire. But even here, they were not the only ones publicizing the case. Immediately after the arrest of the Watergate burglars and throughout the campaign, Senator George McGovern denounced Watergate in most of his speeches and suggested in no uncertain terms that the White House was behind the burglary. Indeed, his campaign staff hired Walter Sheridan, a former FBI agent on Robert Kennedy's staff, to help “get out” the story. On June 20, three days after the burglary, the Democratic National Committee commenced a civil suit against the Committee for the Re-election of the President that compelled the responsible officials in CRP to give statements under oath (Edward Bennett Williams represented both the Democratic National Committee and the Washington Post). The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a quasi-public foundation, meanwhile forced Republican officials to disclose information about campaign contributions which indirectly added to the publicity about Watergate. Preliminary legal actions taken by the prosecutors (as well as the Florida state's attorney) also divulged important elements of the case. For example, in motions opposing bail for the defendants, the prosecutors disclosed in a brief filed June 23, 1972 that Mexican checks were deposited in Barker's account (although the press, until a month later, when the checks were literally handed to reporters, failed to pursue the “money tree” exposed in the bail motions). In short, even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.

But what about Hunt and Liddy's superiors—Jeb Stuart Magruder and John Mitchell? The prosecutors were unable to develop a case against them, since as part of a cover-up, coordinated by the White House counsel John Dean, Magruder swore that he had given Liddy the contributions for a different purpose—to set up a system of informants—and this perjury was corroborated by Mitchell, by Herbert L. Porter, Magruder's assistant, and by Sally Harmony, one of Liddy's secretaries. But neither did Woodward and Bernstein nor any other reporters reveal the existence of the cover-up. The offers of executive clemency, the participation of Dean in the cover-up, the hush money, and the perjury did not emerge in the press in any serious form until after the trial of the Watergate burglars.

In the end, it was not because of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, but because of the pressures put on the conspirators by Judge John Sirica, the grand jury, and Congressional committees that the cover-up was unraveled. After the Watergate conspirators were convicted, Judge Sirica made it abundantly clear that they could expect long prison sentences unless they cooperated with the investigation of the Senate Select Committee oil Presidential Campaign Activities (the Ervin committee). One of the convicted burglars, James McCord, clearly not content with accepting such a prison sentence, wrote Sirica that perjury had been committed at the trial and the defendants had been induced by “higher-ups” to remain silent. Subsequently, McCord suggested that Magruder, Mitchell, and Dean all were involved in the planning of the burglary and cover-up.

While McCord's assertion turned out to be only hearsay evidence, obtained from Liddy, the grand jury was reconvened, the prosecutors subpoenaed Dean, and the Ervin committee began focusing on the roles of Dean and Magruder. To intensify the pressure on Dean, the prosecutors held long secret sessions with Liddy, and though Liddy steadfastly refused to discuss the case in these well-publicized sessions, the prosecutors intentionally promoted the story that Liddy was talking and implicating Dean and Magruder.

As President Nixon's transcripts confirm, the ruse succeeded: Dean believed that Liddy, who had attended meetings with him and Mitchell which eventually led to Watergate, was plea-bargaining with the prosecutors. Moreover, Dean believed that Magruder, who could also implicate him in both the planning of the burglary and the cover-up, was about to bargain with the prosecutors. And FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was publicly suggesting that Dean had interfered in the investigation and lied to the FBI

Dean realized that he could not testify before the Ervin committee or the grand jury without fatally perjuring himself. Since President Nixon was not able to offer him any safe way out of his predicament, and he feared that the President's assistants would eventually sacrifice him, Dean began negotiating with the prosecutors on March 31 for immunity, and bit by bit, they forced him to disclose the entire cover-up—including the payments of hush money, blackmail threats, offers of executive clemency, the suborning of perjury, etc. In April the prosecutors finally elicited evidence from Dean of the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and the other “horror stories.” Four days after he heard Dean was bargaining with the prosecutors, Magruder also decided to plea-bargain, and corroborated Dean's story.

A final coherent picture of the planning and execution of Watergate, of the cover-up, and of the other “horror stories” was developed by the Ervin committee on television. The American public thus found out about Watergate in hundreds of hours of testimony elicited in plea-bargaining and negotiations for immunity by the prosecutors and then presented and tested in cross-examination by members of the Ervin committee.

What was the role of the press in all this? At best, during the unraveling of the cover-up, the press was able to leak the scheduled testimony a few days in advance of its appearance on television.

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If Bernstein and Woodward did not in fact expose the Watergate conspiracy or the cover-up, what did they expose? The answer is that in late September they were diverted to the trail of Donald H. Segretti, a young lawyer who had been playing “dirty tricks” on various Democrats in the primaries. The quest for Segretti dominates both the largest section of their book (almost one-third) and most of their “exclusive” reports in the Post until the cover-up collapsed later that March. Unidentified sources within the government gave Bernstein and Woodward FBI “302” reports (which contain “raw”—i.e., unevaluated—interviews), phone-call records, and credit-card records, all of which elaborated Segretti's trail. Through the FBI reports and phone records, they located a number of persons whom Segretti had tried to recruit for his “dirty-tricks” campaign. The reporters assumed that this was all an integral part of Watergate, and wrote that “the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage. . . . The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of Justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic Presidential contenders.” They further postulated that there were fifty other Segretti-type agents, all receiving information from Watergate-type bugging operations.

As it turned out, this was a detour, if not a false trail. Segretti (who served a brief prison sentence for such “dirty tricks” as sending two hundred copies of a defamatory letter to Democrats) has not in fact been connected to the Watergate conspiracy at all. Almost all his work took place in the primaries before any of the Watergate break-ins in June 1972; he was hired by Dwight Chapin in the White House and paid by Herbert Kalmbach, a lawyer for President Nixon, whereas the Watergate group was working for the Committee for the Re-election of the President and received its funds from the finance committee. No evidence has been offered by anyone, including Woodward and Bernstein, that Segretti received any information from the Watergate group, and the putative fifty other Donald Segrettis have never been found, let alone linked to Watergate. In short, neither the prosecutors, the grand jury, nor the Watergate Committee has found any evidence to support the Bernstein-Woodward thesis that Watergate was part of the Segretti operation.

The behavior of the officials who steered Bernstein and Woodward onto this circuitous course makes in itself a revealing case study. Bernstein and Woodward identify their main source only under the titillating code-name of “Deep Throat,” and indicate that “Deep Throat” confirmed their suspicion that Segretti—and political spying—were at the root of the Watergate conspiracy. But who was “Deep Throat” and what was his motivation for disclosing information to Woodward and Bernstein? The prosecutors at the Department of Justice now believe that the mysterious source was probably Mark W. Felt, Jr., who was then a deputy associate director of the FBI, because one statement the reporters attribute to “Deep Throat” could only have been made by Felt. (I personally suspect that in the best traditions of the New Journalism, “Deep Throat” is a composite character.) Whether or not the prosecutors are correct, it is clear that the arduous and time-consuming investigation by Woodward and Bernstein of Segretti was heavily based on FBI “302” reports, which must ultimately have been made available by someone in the FBI. The prosecutors suggest that there was a veritable revolt against the directorship of L. Patrick Gray, because he was “too liberal.” Specifically, he was allowing agents to wear colored shirts, grow their hair long, and was even recruiting women. More important, he had publicly reprimanded an FBI executive. According to this theory, certain FBI executives released the “302” files, not to expose the Watergate conspiracy or drive President Nixon from office, but simply to demonstrate to the President that Gray could not control the FBI, and therefore would prove a severe embarrassment to his administration. In other words, the intention was to get rid of Gray.

Such a theory would be perfectly consistent with the information-disclosing activities of the source that led Bernstein and Woodward astray. Ironically, even on the wrong trail, the stalwart Bernstein and Woodward generated enough damaging publicity about “Watergate” to cause the White House to vilify them and the Washington Post, and thus elevate them to the status of journalistic martyr-heroes. If instead of chastising the press, President Nixon and his staff had correctly identified the “signals” from the FBI, and had replaced Gray with an FBI executive, things might have turned out differently. (But Gray, as it happened, had acquired damaging files from Hunt's safe, and could engage in his own information-releasing game, if threatened.)

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Perhaps the most perplexing mystery in Bernstein and Woodward's book is why they fail to understand the role of the institutions and investigators who were supplying them and other reporters with leaks. This blind spot, endemic to journalists, proceeds from an unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself. If the government is considered monolithic, journalists can report its activities, in simply comprehended and coherent terms, as an adversary out of touch with popular sentiments. On the other hand, if governmental activity is viewed as the product of diverse and competing agencies, all with different bases of power and interests, journalism becomes a much more difficult affair.

In any event, the fact remains that it was not the press which exposed Watergate; it was agencies of government itself. So long as journalists maintain their usual professional blind spot toward the inner conflicts and workings of the institutions of government, they will no doubt continue to speak of Watergate in terms of the David and Goliath myth, with Bernstein and Woodward as David and the government as Goliath.


Footnotes

1 All the President's Men, Simon & Schuster, 349 pp., $8.95.

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