Rosenbaum: Who Really Ordered the Watergate Break-In? And Why?

Scrutinizing culture.
April 27 2012 6:06 PM

A Challenge to Robert Redford

Will his new documentary explain whether Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in?

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Beginning in the spring of 1973, however, links between the burglars and higher-ups in the Nixon campaign committee, including former Attorney General John Mitchell, began to be made. The Senate appointed a special Watergate Committee to hold hearings during which John Dean, one of the cover-up chiefs, confessed, and implicated a whole raft of White House officials too.

The Senate committee also uncovered the sensational fact that Nixon had installed a secret taping system in the White House; the tapes ultimately revealed Nixon to be the chief operating officer of the cover-up, authorizing the hush-money payments to Hunt and the other burglars.

Transcripts of the tapes, when parts were revealed, triggered impeachment hearings by the House Judiciary Committee, beginning in early 1974. When the Supreme Court finally ordered Nixon to turn over the all the tapes requested, one of them, the so-called "smoking gun" tape, revealed Nixon, back at the very beginning, in June 1972, ordering one of his aides to tell the CIA to warn the FBI to curtail its investigation of the original burglary in order to prevent the Bureau from tracing the cover-up hush money. (Such efforts were one reason why FBI big-shot Mark Felt became "Deep Throat," Woodward's deep source.)

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The smoking gun revelation—and revelation of the existence of a clandestine White House illegal ops team, the so called "Plumbers Squad,” overseen by the late Chuck Colson—led the House Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach Nixon. Nixon, seeing that he’d been abandoned by former defenders and couldn't survive an impeachment trial, resigned and left the White House on Aug. 8, 1974.

At that point, after what new President Gerald Ford called "our long national nightmare' ended, most investigations, official and unofficial, of the crime and the cover-up petered out. The consensus wisdom, which has held steady for nearly four decades, is that Nixon was guilty of the cover-up, but not the original crime: ordering the break-in. But if Nixon didn't order it, who did? That's the first of the two central unsolved mysteries of the greatest political scandal of our time. Candidates have ranged from John Mitchell to Chuck Colson to G. Gordon Liddy. But there is no consensus. Except that, in most accounts, it wasn't Richard Nixon, who was supposedly profoundly shocked when he found out about it.

Nor is there consensus on the second mystery: Why? What were the burglars looking for in what appeared to be their main target: the office of then-Democratic National Committee chairman, Lawrence O'Brien. Again, many theories, little consensus, although I will contend that the answers have been there, hiding in plain sight, but have mysteriously been ignored by most journalists and historians. You could call that the third great Watergate mystery: Why has Nixon been given a pass? My theory is that journalists felt some guilt for hounding Nixon out of office (over the cover-up) and once that was done, didn't want to seem to pile on by pinning the original crime on him. But splitting the difference is not good history.

I think he did the original crime and—as I'll show—that there's already sufficient proof.

Before I get to that, though, let me explain my emotional attachment to solving the crime. For one thing, it’s a question I’ve been reporting on sporadically since the month of the second break-in. (You didn’t know there were two? Evidence suggests the burglars broke in to plant bugs on O’Brien’s phone in late May 1972, but when they found the bugs were malfunctioning that’s when they broke in again and got caught.) I moved to Washington to cover the impeachment hearings in 1974 as White House correspondent for The Village Voice and wrote about all the questions that the rush to kick Dick out of office had left behind. Early on I interviewed three of the five original burglars).

Through a Senate Watergate Committee source I was one of the first to obtain and report on the never officially released transcripts of the Committee investigation on what seemed at first to be a sidelight to the affair: the Howard Hughes connection. Democratic Party chairman O'Brien, it turned out, was also on the payroll of reclusive billionaire Hughes as his D.C. lobbyist. And Nixon, who had been damaged by sketchy Hughes transactions in past campaigns, had an interest in knowing what O'Brien knew about a certain $100,000 payment Hughes made to Nixon (through his pal Bebe Rebozo) while Nixon was president. It was a clue to a motive for the break-in that would lie dormant for 15 years.

Plus I was there in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 8, 1974, standing not 30 feet from Richard Nixon as he made his sweaty, weepy farewell speech and hustled out to a copter on the first leg of his flight into exile. I had the feeling that he was not just making a getaway, that he had gotten away with something.