The Parallel Scandals of May 17

Exactly four decades later, President Obama deals with claims of 'dirty tricks' of his own.

By SHARE
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Members of the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee are seen during a hearing on Capitol Hill in as they listen to witness Robert Odle on May 17, 1973.

Today the president, beginning his second term in office, must deal with a wide-ranging scandal surrounding the targeting of those opposed to his policies and a broad use of federal power against the press.

That sentence is as true today as it was 40 years ago, when the first hearing on the break-ins at the Watergate complex began. The scandal and cover-up came to define and destroy Richard Nixon's presidency. It's too early to tell if the scandals plaguing President Barack Obama, whose administration is being dogged by charges that it targeted conservative non-profits for IRS scrutiny and political journalists for reporting leaks, rise to a similar level

[PHOTOS: 1973 Watergate Senate Hearings]

Whether the charges will stick, and whether the transgressions can be fairly compared, depends on who you ask.

Regardless, as can be seen in U.S. News' 1973 coverage of the Watergate hearings below, the parallels are evident.


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This article originally ran in the June 11, 1973, issue of U.S. News & World Report.


Spying at White House Orders

When It Started and Why

OUT OF THE Watergate scandal—almost daily—comes a steady torrent of fresh revelations about spying, burglary and wiretapping ordered by men in the White House.

It was President Nixon, starting in 1969, who personally ordered certain kinds of espionage inside the U.S. because of what he called the overriding need to safeguard national security.

These orders, testimony makes clear, were interpreted in various ways by subordinates, leading to wiretaps of Government officials and private citizens, burglarizing of offices—and eventually, as an offshoot, to the Watergate bugging and break-in itself on June 17, 1972.

Mr. Nixon, in a statement of May 22, said he could understand that the emphasis he put on "the crucial importance of protecting the national security" could have caused "highly motivated individuals" to do things he would have disapproved had be known about them.

The President's critics assert that the domestic spy system developed by the White House to protect secrets was illegally put to political uses—for which blame is still to be fixed.

Big surprise. Upshot of it all: Now unfolding and coming into perspective is a wide range of extraordinary domestic-intelligence operations that have come as a big surprise to many Americans.

Senator Sam Ervin Jr. speaks at the Watergate hearings on May 17, 1973. (AP)

Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr., head of the Senate's Watergate inquiry, declared on May 31 that the nation would be "shocked" if all details of a White House plan to "spy on Americans" were made public. He said that secret documents which he had seen reveal a "Gestapo mentality" at top levels of the Nixon Administration, outlining "an interagency operation to spy on Americans, especially those who disagreed with the Administration."

Some in Congress are accusing the White House of adopting "police state" methods and of pulling a national-security blanket over illegal deeds.

Other are defending at least part—if not all—of the activity as necessary. They insist that the President's intentions were in the nation's best interests, in view of the "climate" of the time. The focus is on three national-security activities originating in the White House. In chronological sequence, they were:

1. A program of wiretapping, begun in 1969, carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was directed against 13 officials of the Nixon Administration, including members of the National Security Council staff, and four newsmen. That much has come to light. The purpose of these wiretaps, Mr. Nixon explained, was to stop leaks that were endangering "highly secret diplomacy," including Vietnam peace talks.

2. The limited wiretapping project was followed by a 1970 plan for secret expansion of Government spying and other intelligence activities inside the U. S., including authorization for bugging and burglary in certain situations.

This plan evolved at a time when antiwar riots and other violence were erupting on hundreds of campuses.

The plan was approved by Mr. Nixon but was shelved when the Director of the FBI, the late J. Edgar Hoover, opposed it.

President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court in March 1973.

Mr. Nixon reported that his approval was withdrawn before the plan was implemented. However, the Associated Press reported on May 30 that "sources close to the 'Watergate investigation say the plan was put at least partially into practice." The sources insisted that secret agents intercepted mail, tapped telephones, audited in-come-tax returns and planted informers. The ex-tent of this operation is not fully known. Another source reported that—as one example—a mysterious burglary at the Chilean Embassy in Washington in May, 1972, was part of the plan.

3. The third White House operation involved in the controversy was set up after the FBI withheld its approval of bugging and burglary. A secret unit for "special investigations" was set up in 1971 in the White House itself. This specially recruited group was later to become known as "the plumbers." It was this unit that has embroiled the White House in the most serious debate over the Administration's intelligence activities.

"Unprecedented" disclosure. At President Nixon's order, the undercover group—whose existence was known by only a few top officials—was created after what the Chief Executive called a security leak of unprecedented proportions." The leak he referred to was the dissemination by Daniel Ellsberg and his associates of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of U. S. policy in Vietnam.

"The plumbers" included two men brought in from the outside—E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Mr. Hunt has testified that they were involved in the Sept. 3, 1971, burglary of the office of Mr. Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and in the burglary and bugging of the Democratic Party's national headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex. That break-in, the President said, was as an act of political espionage unrelated to the missions of the White House investigative unit. Wiretapping surveillance was initiated in the first place—in 1969—the President says, because news stories "obviously based on leaks" of secret information were exposing sensitive elements of U. S. strategy in Indo-China and the U.S. position in strategic-arms-limitation negotiations with Russia. Among those whose telephones were tapped were aides of Henry A. Kissinger, the President's assistant for national-security affairs. Mr. Kissinger consulted with FBI Di-rector Hoover on wiretap targets. Since disclosure of his role in surveillance of his own National Security Council staff, Mr. Kissinger has come under criticism by some of his former associates. But he emphasizes that his prime concern was to plug leaks that could compromise delicate negotiations.

Watergate Complex

On May 29, Mr. Kissinger called wire-tapping in general "a distasteful thing." But, he added:

"I considered the situation, as it existed, a very dangerous one. My concern was with the protection of classified in-formation that was entrusted to me and not the general problem of other leaks."

Reason for decision. A former Administration official who had a hand in drawing up the abortive 1970 intelligence plan explained to "U. S. News & World Report" why the White House decided to "fight fire with fire."

Said the former official:

"People forget just how bad conditions were then. We had to act. Not only were buildings going up in flames on campuses, but terror bombs were exploding day after day. There were cries from antiwar activists visiting Hanoi for our troops to lay down their arms. Violence was increasing.

"At the same time, police were being tagged in some cities as targets for execution. There were shootouts with the Black Panthers in Chicago. Arab terrorist groups were active.

Much of the terrorism in the United States seemed to have an international link. With all this coming across the President's desk, the White House decided it vas time to take extraordinary measures." Core of the resulting plan, in 1970, said the ex-official, was to depend chiefly on the FBI for domestic intelligence, while stepping up surveillance abroad by the Central Intelligence Agency and other U. S. intelligence groups. Top Administration officials were convinced that radical firebrands in the U. S. had financial and espionage links with hostile foreign governments. But the CIA reportedly had been unable to find sufficient evidence to support this belief.

FBI overseas. Insiders say that presidential dissatisfaction with CIA reports was the reason FBI offices were opened in 20 foreign countries—to pursue further the search for links abroad with violence at home. The plan for expanded intelligence called for co-operation of the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in a massive campaign against antiwar radicals, the Black Panthers and other extremists, and foreign embassies believed to be harboring spies or saboteurs.

Mr. Hoover opposed the plan on the ground that some of the activities pro-posed—such as burglary—would be illegal. Administration sources say the FBI Director also exhibited animosity toward the CIA.

In his May 22 statement on the Watergate case, the President said an improved intelligence system was needed in 1970 because of lack of liaison between the FBI and other agencies.

"In July, 1970," Mr. Nixon said, "haying earlier discontinued the FBI's liaison with CIA, Director Hoover ended the FBI's normal liaison with all other agencies except the White House."

It was almost a year later—in June, 1971—that the White House was shocked when "The New York Times" published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers, made available by Mr. Ellsberg.

In the President's words, "There was every reason to believe this was a security leak of unprecedented proportions," which "posed a threat so grave as to require extraordinary actions."

The action that he took was creating the White House special-investigations unit—"the plumbers"—under the supervision of John D. Ehrlichman, then Mr. Nixon's top aide for domestic affairs. In immediate command was Mr. Ehrlichman's assistant, Egil Krogh. The two main sleuths were E. Howard Hunt, formerly of the CIA, and G. Gordon Liddy, once an agent of the FBI.

The President said he told Mr. Krogh that in pursuing leads on the Pentagon papers leak, "as a matter of first priority, the unit should find out all it could about Mr. Ellsberg's associates and motives." This led to preparation by the CIA, at White House request, of a psychiatric profile on Mr. Ellsberg.

It also led to the burglary—admittedly authorized by Mr. Krogh—of the office of Mr. Ellsberg's psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif. The fruitless break-in, carried out—according to grand-jury testimony—under supervision of Mr. Hunt and Mr. Liddy, involved use of equipment supplied by the CIA.

People watch the Watergate hearings on televisions. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)

Referring to the Ellsberg probe, Nixon said on May 22: "Because of the extreme gravity of the situation, and not then knowing what additional secrets Mr. Ellsberg might disclose, I did impress upon Mr. Krogh the vital importance to the national security of this assignment. I did not authorize and had no knowledge of any illegal means to be used to achieve this goal."

A former White House aide made this comment:

"I feel there was justification for breaking into the doctor's office to see if names could be found of people Ellsberg was working with. But you can't have it both ways. If you conduct operations of this kind, you can't make the case stand up in court. The Administration wanted it both ways."

The burglary and disclosure of a wiretapped conversation involving Mr. Ellsberg were among factors which resulted in dismissal of espionage, theft and conspiracy charges against him.

Among assignments given to "the Plumbers" was compilation of what the President called "an accurate record of events related to the Vietnam war." Presumably it was on this assignment that 114r. Hunt obtained access to State Department files and faked cables to indicate that President John F. Kennedy was implicated in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Mr. Hunt admitted this in 'Watergate grand-jury testimony later made public at the Ellsberg trial.

White House undercover operations were not confined to "the plumbers."

Senate hearings on the Watergate burglary have brought out that two former New York City policemen, John J. Caulfield and Anthony T. Ulasewicz, 'were part of a White House network gathering political information about leading Democrats.

From an official who helped to devise the 1970 intelligence plan comes this comment on the Watergate break-in:

"The system that was developed to deal with a real security problem was used for politics. There is absolutely no justification for that."

Re-election committee. Senate and grand-jury testimony has linked the Watergate burglary to the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

In preparation for resumption of the Senate's Watergate hearings June 5, in-vestigators pressed inquiries into the alleged use of espionage and sabotage techniques against persons inside and outside of the Government.

The President insists that he has no intention of attempting to place a national-security "cover" on Watergate or other illegal activities.

But Mr. Nixon is getting sharp challenges on the national-security issue. Examples:

Senator Edmund S. Muskie (Dem. ), of Maine, charged on May 28 that "national security became the excuse for systematic deception."

Representative John B. Anderson (Rep.) , of Illinois, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said: "National security is a very weak reed on which to explain what happened. It fails to ex-plain why—with our FBI—it was necessary to set up an extralegal organization in the White House."

Defenders of the President contend that actions he took to stop leaks and protect secrets were justified.

There is widespread belief in Congress that the controversy over burglary, bugging and spying will intensify as more witnesses are heard, with a prospect of new revelations.

Mr. Nixon, himself, appears to expect this. The President says: "As more information is developed, I have no doubt that more questions will be raised."

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