Watergate: the untold story

Forty years ago, a failed burglary in Washington was the first step in a political scandal that led to the resignation of the US President. But, write the reporters who uncovered it, what came out then was not the whole truth

As Senator Sam Ervin completed his 20-year career in 1974 and issued his final report as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, he posed the question: "What was Watergate?"

Countless answers have been offered in the 40 years since 17 June 1972, when a team of burglars wearing business suits and rubber gloves was arrested at 2.30am at the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the Watergate office building. Four days later, the Nixon White House offered its answer: "Certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it was," press secretary Ronald Ziegler scoffed, dismissing the incident as a "third-rate burglary."

History proved that it was anything but. Two years later, Richard Nixon would become the first and only US President to resign, his role in the criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice – the Watergate cover-up – definitively established. Another answer has since persisted, often unchallenged: the notion that the cover-up was worse than the crime. This idea minimises the scale and reach of Nixon's criminal actions.

Ervin's answer to his own question hints at the magnitude of Watergate: "To destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected."

Long before the Watergate break-in, gumshoeing, burglary, wiretapping and political sabotage had become a way of life in the Nixon White House. What was Watergate? It was Nixon's five wars.


The war against the anti-war movement

Nixon's first war was against the anti-Vietnam War movement. The President considered it subversive and thought it constrained his ability to prosecute the war in South-east Asia on his terms. In 1970, he approved the top-secret Huston Plan, authorising the CIA, the FBI and military intelligence units to intensify electronic surveillance of individuals identified as "domestic security threats". The plan called for, among other things, intercepting mail and lifting restrictions on "surreptitious entry" – that is, break-ins or "black bag jobs".

Thomas Charles Huston, the White House aide who devised the plan, informed Nixon that it was illegal, but the President approved it regardless. It was not formally rescinded until FBI Director J Edgar Hoover objected – not on principle, but because he considered those types of activities the FBI's turf. Undeterred, Nixon remained fixated on such operations.

In a memorandum dated 3 March 1970, presidential aide Patrick Buchanan wrote to Nixon about what he called the "institutionalised power of the left concentrated in the foundations that succour the Democratic Party". Of particular concern was the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank with liberal leanings.

On 17 June 1971 – exactly one year before the Watergate break-in – Nixon met in the Oval Office with his chief of staff, H R "Bob" Haldeman, and national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. At issue was a file about former President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the 1968 bombing halt in Vietnam. "You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing," Haldeman said, according to the tape of the meeting. "Huston swears to God there's a file on it at Brookings," Haldeman said.

"Bob," Nixon said, "now you remember Huston's plan? Implement it ... I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddam it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it."

For reasons that have never been made clear, the break-in apparently was not carried out.


The war on the news media

Nixon's second war was waged ceaselessly against the press, which was reporting more insistently on the faltering Vietnam War and the effectiveness of the anti-war movement. Although Hoover thought he had shut down the Huston Plan, it was implemented by high-level Nixon deputies.

A "Plumbers" unit and burglary team were set up under the direction of White House counsel John Ehrlichman and an assistant, Egil Krogh, and led by the operational chiefs of the future Watergate burglary, ex-CIA operative Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G Gordon Liddy. Hunt was hired as a consultant by Nixon political aide Charles Colson, whose take-no-prisoners sensibility matched the President's.

An early assignment was to destroy the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, who had provided the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War, to the news media in 1971. Publication of the documents in The New York Times, The Washington Post and eventually other newspapers had sent Nixon into rants and rages, recorded on his tapes, about Ellsberg, the anti-war movement, the press, Jews, the American left and liberals in Congress – all of whom he conflated. Though Ellsberg was already under indictment and charged with espionage, the team, headed by Hunt and Liddy, broke into the office of his psychiatrist, seeking information that might smear Ellsberg and undermine his credibility.

"You can't drop it, Bob," Nixon told Haldeman on 29 June 1971. "You can't let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?"

He went on: "People don't trust these Eastern establishment people. He's Harvard. He's a Jew. You know, and he's an arrogant intellectual."


The war against the Democrats

In Nixon's third war, he took the weapons in place – the Plumbers, wiretapping and burglary – and deployed them against the Democrats.

John N Mitchell, Nixon's campaign manager and confidante, met with Liddy at the Justice Department in early 1972, when Mitchell was attorney general. Liddy presented a $1m plan for spying and sabotage during the upcoming presidential campaign, code-named "Gemstone."

According to the Senate Watergate report and Liddy's 1980 autobiography, he used multicoloured charts prepared by the CIA to describe elements of the plan. Operation Diamond would neutralise anti-war protesters with mugging squads and kidnapping teams; Operation Coal would funnel cash to Shirley Chisholm, a black congresswoman from Brooklyn seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, in an effort to sow racial and gender discord in the party; Operation Opal would use electronic surveillance against various targets, including the headquarters of Democratic presidential candidates Edmund Muskie and George McGovern; Operation Sapphire would station prostitutes on a yacht, wired for sound, off Miami Beach during the Democratic National Convention.

Mitchell rejected the plans and told Liddy to burn the charts. At a second meeting, less than three weeks later, Liddy presented a scaled-back, $500,000 version of the plan; Mitchell turned it down again. But soon after, Mitchell approved a $250,000 version, according to Jeb Magruder, the deputy campaign manager. It included intelligence-gathering on the Democrats through wiretaps and burglaries.

Under oath, Mitchell later denied approving the plan. He testified that he told Magruder: "We don't need this. I'm tired of hearing it." By his own account, he did not object on the grounds that the plan was illegal.


The war on justice

The arrest of the Watergate burglars set in motion Nixon's fourth war, against the American system of justice. It was a war of lies and hush money, a conspiracy that became necessary to conceal the roles of top officials and to hide the President's campaign of illegal espionage and political sabotage, including the covert operations that Mitchell described as "the White House horrors" during the Watergate hearings: the Huston Plan, the Plumbers, the Ellsberg break-in, Liddy's Gemstone plan and the proposed break-in at Brookings.

In a 23 June 1972 tape recording, six days after the arrests at the Watergate, Haldeman warned Nixon that: "On the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we're back in the problem area, because the FBI is not under control ... their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they've been able to trace the money."

Haldeman said Mitchell had come up with a plan for the CIA to claim that national security secrets would be compromised if the FBI did not halt its Watergate investigation.

Nixon approved the scheme and ordered Haldeman to call in CIA Director Richard Helms and his deputy Vernon Walters. "Play it tough," the President directed. "That's the way they play it, and that's the way we are going to play it."

The contents of the tape were made public on 5 August 1974. Four days later, Nixon resigned.


The war on history

Nixon's final war, waged even to this day by some former aides and historical revisionists, aims to play down the significance of Watergate and present it as a blip on the President's record. Nixon lived for 20 years after his resignation and worked tirelessly to minimise the scandal.

Though he had accepted a full pardon from President Gerald Ford, Nixon insisted he had not participated in any crimes. In his 1978 memoir RN, Nixon addressed his role in Watergate: "My actions and omissions, while regrettable and possibly indefensible, were not impeachable."

Even now, there are old Nixon hands and defenders who dismiss the importance of Watergate or claim that key questions remain unanswered. This year, Thomas Mallon, director of the creative writing programme at George Washington University, published a novel called Watergate, a sometimes witty and entirely fictional story featuring many of the real players. Frank Gannon, a former Nixon White House aide who now works for the Nixon Foundation, reviewed the book for The Wall Street Journal.

"What emerges from Watergate is an acute sense of how much we still don't know about the events of 17 June 1972," Gannon wrote. "Who ordered the break-in? ... What was its real purpose? Was it purposely botched? How much was the CIA involved? ... And how did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a 'third-rate burglary'?"

"Your guess is as good as mine."

Of course, Gannon is correct in noting that there are some unanswered questions – but not the big ones. By focusing on the supposed paucity of details concerning the burglary, he would divert us from the larger story.

And about that story, there is no need to guess.


In his last remarks about Watergate as a senator, 77-year-old Ervin, a revered constitutionalist respected by both parties, posed a final question: "Why was Watergate?" The President and his aides, Ervin answered, had "a lust for political power."

Nixon had lost his moral authority as President. His secret tapes – and what they reveal – will probably be his most lasting legacy.

The Watergate that we wrote about in The Washington Post from 1972 to 1974 is not Watergate as we know it today. It was only a glimpse into something far worse. By the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.

On the day he left, 9 August 1974, Nixon gave an emotional farewell speech in the East Room to his staff, his friends and his Cabinet. His family stood with him. Near the end of his remarks, he waved his arm, as if to highlight the most important thing he had to say.

"Always remember," he said, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself." His hatred had brought about his downfall. Nixon apparently grasped this insight, but it was too late. He had already destroyed himself.