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The Army drops all charges against six Green Berets accused of murdering a South Vietnamese interpreter, Thai Khac Chuyen, accused of being a North Vietnamese collaborator. The Green Berets did indeed murder Chuyen and drop his body in the South China Sea. The CIA, irate at the murder, alerted senior military officials and the Army begins courts-martial proceedings against the six. However, the White House convinces CIA Director Richard Helms not to let any of his agents testify at the trials; without their testimony, the Secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor, decides that the trials cannot continue. White House press secretary Ron Ziegler solemnly informs reporters that “[t]he president had not involved himself either in the original decision to prosecute the men or in the decision to drop the charges against them.” The news horrifies RAND Corporation defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg. He is convinced that President Nixon and his aides were indeed involved in the decision to stop the CIA from testifying in the case. Ellsberg has long known of a secret document detailing the origins of the Vietnam War; one of only fifteen copies of that document resides in a RAND safe. Ellsberg calls his friend Anthony Russo and secures the use of a Xerox copying machine. The two begin secretly making their own copies of the document. When Ellsberg later leaks the document to the press, it becomes known as the “Pentagon Papers” (see March 1971). (Reeves 2001, pp. 127-132)
The Washington Post reveals that the FBI investigated CBS reporter Daniel Schorr (see August 17, 1971). White House aide H. R. Haldeman immediately concocts a cover story: Schorr had supposedly been under consideration for a job as a White House spokesman, and was therefore investigated as part of the routine vetting process. President Nixon is prepared to tell the press Haldeman’s lie in the next press conference, and apologize for not having informed Schorr beforehand of the investigation. Since no reporter asks Nixon about Schorr at that press conference, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler issues the story as a separate statement, hoping to defuse Congressional threats of an investigation into FBI harassment of reporters. (Reeves 2001, pp. 387)
The Nixon administration spends $8,400 on fake telegrams and advertisements to create a false impression of public support for the US mining of Vietnam’s Haiphong harbor. This will not come to light until March 1973, when a disaffected official of the Nixon campaign (CREEP) tells Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward of the operation. The false telegrams are sent to the White House and publicly presented by press secretary Ron Ziegler and other Nixon officials. In addition, CREEP purchases an advertisement in the New York Times purporting to be from a group of “concerned citizens” that attacks the Times for its opposition to the mining operation. “The [Times] ad was paid for by CREEP with 40 of those $100 bills in [CREEP finance director Maurice] Stans’s safe,” the official will say (see Before April 7, 1972). Another CREEP official will tell Woodward that the Haiphong public relations offensive “put the entire staff in overdrive for two weeks,” between creating false telegrams, busing supporters to Washington, organizing petition drives and phone campaigns, and getting supporters to call Congress. After the Post prints the story, Woodward learns that CREEP also rigged a poll conducted by Washington television station WTTG. The poll was based on sample ballots printed in the local newspapers. CREEP has ten people working for days purchasing newspapers, filling out ballots in different handwriting, and mailing them in. The fake ballots radically skew the poll in favor of the mining operation. A CREEP spokesman will confirm the ballot-stuffing operation and say, “We assumed the other side would do it also.” Frank Mankiewicz, a senior campaign aide for the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate George McGovern, will respond incredulously: “It didn’t occur to us, believe me. Those guys are something. They assume we have the same sleazy ethics as them.” (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 265-267; Pike 2008)
Five burglars (see June 17, 1972) are arrested at 2:30 a.m. while breaking in to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters offices in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex; the DNC occupies the entire sixth floor. (Lewis 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
Discovery - They are surprised at gunpoint by three plainclothes officers of the DC Metropolitan Police. Two ceiling panels have been removed from the secretary’s office, which is adjacent to that of DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. It is possible to place a surveillance device above those panels that could monitor O’Brien’s office. The five suspects, all wearing surgical gloves, have among them two sophisticated voice-activated surveillance devices that can monitor conversations and telephone calls alike; lock-picks, door jimmies, and an assortment of burglary tools; and $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills in sequence. They also have a walkie-talkie, a shortwave receiver tuned to the police band, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35mm cameras, and three pen-sized tear gas guns. Near to where the men are captured is a file cabinet with two open drawers; a DNC source speculates that the men might have been preparing to photograph the contents of the file drawers.
Guard Noticed Taped Door - The arrests take place after a Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, notices a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage has been taped so it will not lock; the guard removes the tape, but when he checks ten minutes later and finds the lock taped once again, the guard calls the police. The police find that all of the stairwell doors leading from the basement to the sixth floor have been similarly taped to prevent them from locking. The door leading from the stairwell to the DNC offices had been jimmied. During a search of the offices, one of the burglars leaps from behind a desk and surrenders. (Lewis 6/18/1972) The FBI agents responding to the burglary are initially told that the burglars may have been attempting to plant a bomb in the offices. The “bomb” turns out to be surveillance equipment. (O.T. Jacobson 7/5/1974 )
Last Mission for Martinez - One of the burglars, Cuban emigre and CIA agent Eugenio Martinez, will recall the burglary. They have already successfully burglarized a psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating material on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971), and successfully bugged the DNC offices less than a month previously (see May 27-28, 1972), but Martinez is increasingly ill at ease over the poor planning and amateurish behavior of his colleagues (see Mid-June 1972). This will be his last operation, he has decided. Team leader E. Howard Hunt, whom Martinez calls by his old code name “Eduardo,” is obviously intrigued by the material secured from the previous burglary, and wants to go through the offices a second time to find more. Martinez is dismayed to find that Hunt has two operations planned for the evening, one for the DNC and one for the campaign offices of Democratic candidate George McGovern. Former CIA agent and current Nixon campaign security official James McCord (see June 19, 1972), the electronics expert of the team, is equally uncomfortable with the rushed, almost impromptu plan. Hunt takes all of the burglars’ identification and puts it in a briefcase. He gives another burglar, Frank Sturgis, his phony “Edward J. Hamilton” ID from his CIA days, and gives each burglar $200 in cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Interestingly, Hunt tells the burglars to keep the keys to their hotel rooms. Martinez later writes: “I don’t know why. Even today, I don’t know. Remember, I was told in advance not to ask about those things.”
Taping the Doors - McCord goes into the Watergage office complex, signs in, and begins taping the doors to the stairwells from the eighth floor all the way to the garage. After waiting for everyone to leave the offices, the team prepares to enter. Gonzalez and Sturgis note that the tape to the basement garage has been removed. Martinez believes the operation will be aborted, but McCord disagrees; he convinces Hunt and the other team leader, White House aide G. Gordon Liddy, to continue. It is McCord’s responsibility to remove the tape once the burglars are inside, but he fails to do so. The team is well into the DNC offices when the police burst in. “There was no way out,” Martinez will recall. “We were caught.” Barker is able to surreptitiously advise Hunt, who is still in the hotel, that they have been discovered. Martinez will later wonder if the entire second burglary might have been “a set-up or something like that because it was so easy the first time. We all had that feeling.” The police quickly find the burglars’ hotel keys and then the briefcase containing their identification. As they are being arrested, McCord, who rarely speaks and then not above a whisper, takes charge of the situation. He orders everyone to keep their mouths shut. “Don’t give your names,” he warns. “Nothing. I know people. Don’t worry, someone will come and everything will be all right. This thing will be solved.” (Martinez and Barker 10/1974; Spartacus Schoolnet 8/7/2007)
'Third-Rate Burglary' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler will respond to allegations that the White House and the Nixon presidential campaign might have been involved in the Watergate burglary by calling it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” and warning that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.” (Stern and Johnson 5/1/1973) The Washington Post chooses, for the moment, to cover it as a local burglary and nothing more; managing editor Howard Simons says that it could be nothing more than a crime committed by “crazy Cubans.” (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 19)
CIA Operation? - In the weeks and months to come, speculation will arise as to the role of the CIA in the burglary. The Nixon White House will attempt to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA, an attempt forestalled by McCord (see March 19-23, 1973). In a 1974 book on his involvement in the conspiracy, McCord will write: “The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.” Another author, Carl Oglesby, will claim otherwise, saying that the burglary is a CIA plot against Nixon. Former CIA officer Miles Copeland will claim that McCord led the burglars into a trap. Journalist Andrew St. George will claim that CIA Director Richard Helms knew of the break-in before it occurred, a viewpoint supported by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, who will tell St. George that McCord is a “double agent” whose deliberate blunders led to the arrest of the burglars. No solid evidence of CIA involvement in the Watergate conspiracy has so far been revealed. (Spartacus Schoolnet 8/2007)
While researching the story that would reveal the extensive “dirty tricks” operations conducted by the Nixon presidential campaign (see June 27, 1971, and Beyond), Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein learns of the extensive connections between “agent provocateur” Donald Segretti and members of the Nixon administration.
College Connection - Segretti, Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, White House appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, and Ziegler’s aide Tim Elbourne had all attended college together at the University of Southern California. All were members of a campus political group called “Trojans for Representative Government.” The group carried out a number of dirty campus political operations, which they called “ratf_cking.” Some of their “tricks” included ballot box stuffing, planting of spies in opposition camps, and spreading of bogus campaign literature designed to drive students away from the targeted candidate.
Campaigns - Ziegler and Chapin had joined Richard Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign in 1962, which was managed by H. R. Haldeman, now Nixon’s closest White House aide. After Nixon lost that election, Ziegler, Chapin, and Elbourne had worked for Haldeman in an advertising agency. Ziegler and Chapin had recruited Segretti and Elbourne to take part in the 1972 Nixon campaign.
Confirmation - A Justice Department official confirms that Segretti is under investigation for political sabotage and espionage operations, and says that he is familiar with the term “ratf_cking.” Bernstein discusses Segretti with a Justice Department attorney, who is outraged at the entire idea. “Ratf_cking?” he snarls. “You can go right to the top with that one. I was shocked when I heard it. I couldn’t believe it. These are public servants? God. It’s nauseating. You’re talking about fellows who come from the best schools in the country. Men who run the government!” The attorney calls the Segretti operation “despicable,” and Segretti himself “indescribable.” “You’re dealing with people who act like this is Dodge City, not the capital of the United States.” The attorney hints that the Nixon campaign “slush fund” (see September 29, 1972) helped pay for the operations, and that the “Canuck letter” (see February 24-25, 1972) was one of the Nixon campaign’s operations.
Mitchell Involved - Bernstein prods the attorney about the phrase “go right to the top,” and mentions former campaign manager John Mitchell. The attorney says of Mitchell: “He can’t say he didn’t know about it, because it was strategy—basic strategy that goes all the way to the top. Higher than him, even.” Woodward is stunned. Higher than Mitchell? The only three people in the Nixon administration higher than Mitchell are Nixon’s top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Richard Nixon himself. Bernstein and colleague Bob Woodward later write, “For the first time, [Bernstein] considered the possibility that the president of the United States was the head ratf_cker.” (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 126-129)
FBI agents are now convinced that the Watergate break-in (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) is one example of actions conducted by a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort, the Washington Post reports. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007) The efforts, ongoing since at least 1971, were directed at all of the major Democratic presidential contenders, and represent a fundamental strategy of the Nixon re-election effort. The entire conspiracy is, according to FBI and Justice Department information, directed by officials in the Nixon administration and in the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been set aside to pay for what reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward call “an extensive undercover campaign aimed at discrediting individual Democratic presidential candidates and disrupting their campaigns.” Some of the operations include:
Following members of Democratic candidates’ families and assembling files on their personal lives (former Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie tells reporter Carl Bernstein that his children were followed and that inquiries about them had been made at their school, but cannot be sure that it was Nixon campaign agents doing the surveillance; Bernstein will report this and other Muskie campaign allegations on October 12).
Forging letters and distributing them under the candidates’ letterheads.
Leaking false and fabricated items to the press (Bernstein’s October 12 story includes an item about false allegations of sexual misconduct against Democrats Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson).
Sabotaging Democrats’ campaign schedules with planned disruptions (see June 27, 1971, and Beyond).
Stealing confidential campaign files.
Investigating the lives of dozens of Democratic campaign workers.
Planting “provocateurs” in organizations expected to demonstrate at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Investigating potential donors to the Nixon campaign before approaching them for money.
A CREEP spokesman calls the allegations “not only fiction but a collection of absurdities,” and notes that “the entire matter is in the hands of the authorities.” Perhaps the best-known example of CREEP political sabotage is the so-called “Canuck letter” (see (February 24-25, 1972). The letter was apparently written by White House official Ken Clawson, who denies writing the letter (see October 10, 1972). (Bernstein and Woodward 10/10/1972) Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who co-writes the story, uses information from his “Deep Throat” FBI source (see October 9, 1972) to pen what he later recalls as a much more “aggressive, interpretive” story than he and colleague Carl Bernstein have ever written before. White House press secretary Ron Ziegler refuses to answer questions about the story 29 separate times in a press conference held just after the story is published. Woodward later writes that he is astonished the FBI never responded to the story, even though information sourced from the bureau is heavily cited throughout the story. Woodward later learns that the FBI had repeatedly declined to investigate Segretti. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 149-150; Woodward 2005, pp. 75-81)
The White House, the Nixon re-election campaign, and Republican supporters begin publicly attacking the Washington Post over its Watergate coverage.
'Character Assassination' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler says, when asked about the Watergate conspiracy: “I will not dignify with comment stories based on hearsay, character assassination, innuendo or guilt by association.… The president is concerned about the technique being applied by the opposition in the stories themselves.… The opposition has been making charges which have not been substantiated.” Ziegler later calls the Post reports “a blatant effort at character assassination that I do not think has been witnessed in the political process in some time.”
'Political Garbage' - The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) attacks what he calls “political garbage” printed about Watergate: “The Washington Post is conducting itself by journalistic standards that would cause mass resignations on principle from the Quicksilver Times, a local underground newspaper,” and accuses the Post of essentially working for the Democrats. (Six months after his attacks, Dole will say that the credibility of the Nixon administration is “zilch, zero.” Years later, Dole will apologize to Post reporter Bob Woodward for his comments.)
CREEP Accusations - Clark MacGregor, the chairman of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), holds a press conference to say, “The Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate—a charge the Post knows—and a half dozen investigations have found—to be false.” (MacGregor fields angry questions from the gathered reporters, some of whom bluntly challenge his credibility and his truthfulness, with stoicism, refusing to answer any of them, and instead sticking with his prepared statement.) MacGregor demands to know why the Post hasn’t investigated apparent campaign “dirty tricks” carried out against the Nixon campaign. Like Dole, MacGregor accuses the Post of collaborating with the Democrats, and even charges that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern encouraged former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg to leak the “Pentagon Papers” to the press (see March 1971).
Post Thinks Campaign Orchestrated by White House - Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, examining the statements by Ziegler, Dole, and MacGregor, is certain that the entire attack was orchestrated by the White House and perhaps by President Nixon himself. Bradlee issues a statement saying that everything the Post has reported on Watergate is factual and “unchallenged by contrary evidence.” He tells reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that “this is the hardest hardball that has ever been played in this town,” and warns them to keep out of any compromising situations that could be used by the White House to challenge their credibility. After Nixon’s landslide presidential victory (see November 7, 1972), the attacks continue. Senior White House aide Charles Colson says, “The charge of subverting the whole political process, that is a fantasy, a work of fiction rivaling only Gone With the Wind in circulation and Portnoy’s Complaint for indecency.” (Stern and Johnson 5/1/1973; Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 161-166; Woodward 2005, pp. 83-84)
Clark MacGregor, the head of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), admits to the existence of a CREEP cash fund (see September 29, 1972). MacGregor disputes its secret nature, and says that it was not knowingly used for anything illegal—it was merely to learn of, and counter, possible efforts to sabotage Richard Nixon’s primary campaign. He says five people were authorized to disburse or receive payments from the fund: John Mitchell, Maurice Stans, Herbert L. “Bart” Porter, Jeb Magruder, and G. Gordon Liddy. The day before, press secretary Ron Ziegler had denied the fund’s existence. CREEP officials have testified that the fund had paid out over $900,000. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 194-195)
William Sullivan, a high-ranking FBI official with decades of experience in conducting covert intelligence operations against anti-war and civil rights organizations and the chief of the FBI’s investigation into the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, writes a memo to White House counsel John Dean offering some advice on how the White House should handle the burgeoning Watergate investigation. Sullivan blasts the entire operation for “atrocious judgment” and a “lack of professionalism and competency.” He then turns to the problem of handling the Senate investigation (see February 7, 1973). There are three major elements in the Watergate conspiracy, Sullivan writes: “the breaking and entering of the [Watergate] building… the applications of technical surveillances… [and] the financing.” Sullivan observes that the financing “might turn out to be the most serious and harmful element in the problem.” Sullivan then turns to some of the details of the defense:
If the Senate investigation turns out to be a relatively limited and partisan probe, then the White House should, Sullivan counsels, sit back, deny everything, and wait for it to run its course. If the investigation is “real and exhaustive,” then “sitting tight” is “the wrong tactic.”
Sullivan recommends hiring a top-flight legal representative, preferably someone with a reputation for integrity and bipartisanship, and recommends having only “one or two men in high authority” working with that lawyer to ensure that the lawyer only hears what the White House wants him to hear. Another lawyer should be hired as an assistant, one who knows the Senate well and has experience in the Washington “jungle.”
When the Senate investigation launches its probe, press secretary Ron Ziegler should “issue a very clear, forceful and carefully constructed statement in representing the president, condemning again the Watergate activities and saying that he has instructed all concerned in the government to give their complete and willing cooperation to Senator Ervin and his colleagues.”
Sullivan writes that avoiding or downplaying specific issues would be a mistake. Instead, each issue should “be faced openly, briefly and without equivocation.” The investigation needs to be as brief as possible.
The overriding purpose of the Watergate defense should be to protect Richard Nixon and the Office of the President. “If worse comes to worse, bearing in mind the main objectives stated above, those involved in the Watergate affair should be considered expendable in the best interests of the country. Their culpability should be set forth in its entirety thereby directing the attention of the probers and the attention of the reading public away from the White House and to the men themselves where the blame belongs.”
Sullivan says that he knows little about the financial element of the Watergate conspiracy, but again warns of the potential damage it could cause. “[I]f it is as serious as I think it could be then those fully knowledgeable in this area should give the matter the most searching thought possible. Much more harm could be done here than in the area of the other two elements, namely breaking and entering and possessing and using electronic surveillance devices.” (Spartacus Schoolnet 8/2007; Spartacus Schoolnet 8/2007)
President Nixon announces that his White House aides and staff members will appear if asked before the Senate Watergate Committee. He promises “major new developments” in the investigation, and says there has been real progress towards finding the truth. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007) No one will be given immunity from prosecution, Nixon promises. Nixon also says that he will suspend “any person in the executive branch or in government” who is indicted in the Watergate investigations. After Nixon’s brief statement, reporters hammer press secretary Ron Ziegler, who initially insists that Nixon’s statement does not contradict earlier positions. But the reporters are relentless, and Ziegler finally says: “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 291-292) (Historian Richard Reeves will quote Ziegler somewhat differently, in a version that has entered the popular vernacular. According to Reeves, Ziegler says: “This is the operative statement on Watergate. Other statements are inoperative.”) (Reeves 2001, pp. 590) The White House issues an official statement claiming Nixon had no prior knowledge of the Watergate affair. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, with President Nixon in Florida (see April 22, 1973), calls chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and informs him that he and aide John Ehrlichman must resign. Ziegler paraphrases what Nixon told him: “He must get this out of his mind. He has an obligation to run the nation and he cannot, as a human being, run the country with this on his mind.” Ziegler assures Haldeman that Nixon is extremely reluctant to ask for their resignations, but he sees no other way to dodge any further involvement in the Watergate imbroglio. (Reeves 2001, pp. 593-594)
At Camp David, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler tells White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman that President Nixon is considering resigning. Haldeman replies: “That’s not going to happen. He’s just steeling himself to meet with us (see April 24, 1973). He’s creating a big crisis he can’t meet, so that he can meet the lesser crisis of dealing with us.” When the two meet with Nixon, Haldeman is shocked at how bad Nixon looks. Standing on the porch of the Aspen Lodge, Nixon, looking at the spring foliage, says, “I have to enjoy this because I may not be alive much longer.” Nixon says he prayed last night not to wake up this morning. A horrified Haldeman tries to reassure Nixon that he accepts Nixon’s decision to ask for his resignation. “What you have to remember,” he says, “is that nothing that has happened in the Watergate mess has changed your mandate in the non-Watergate areas. That is what matters. That is what you do best.” Nixon then meets with White House aide John Ehrlichman and tells Ehrlichman the same thing he told Haldeman—that he prayed not to wake up in the morning. “Don’t think like that,” Ehrlichman says. Nixon begins to cry. “This is like cutting off my arms,” he says. “You and Bob, you’ll need money. I have some—Bebe [Rebozo, Nixon’s millionaire friend] has it—and you can have it.” Ehrlichman replies: “That would just make things worse. You can do one thing for me, though, sometime. Just explain all of this to my kids, will you?” When Ehrlichman leaves, Ziegler joins Nixon in the lodge and Nixon says, “It’s all over, Ron, do you know that?” Ziegler knows Nixon means his presidency. Later, Nixon tells his speech writer, Ray Price, who is working on Nixon’s announcement of the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman (see April 30, 1973): “Maybe I should resign, Ray. If you think so just put it in” the speech. Nixon walks towards the swimming pool, and Price stays close behind him, fearing that Nixon might attempt to drown himself. (Reeves 2001, pp. 600-602)
White House press secretary Ron Ziegler publicly apologizes to the Washington Post and two of its reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, for his earlier criticism of their Watergate reporting. In a report by UPI, Ziegler says that “mistakes were made” and that sometimes he was “overenthusiastic about his comments about the Post, particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.” He adds, “When we are wrong, we are wrong, as we were in that case.” When Woodward calls Ziegler to thank him for the apology, Ziegler says coolly, “We all have our jobs.” (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 311-312)
Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein learns that Justice Department lawyers are wrangling over how to deal with the allegations of President Nixon’s criminal involvement in the Watergate cover-up. Some of them believe that Nixon cannot be indicted for criminal actions unless he is first impeached and removed from office. One Justice Department attorney confirms that had Nixon not been the president, he already would have been indicted for obstruction of justice and other crimes. But the lawyers are not even sure that Nixon can legally be subpoenaed to testify before the Watergate grand jury. “Of course, the president can’t be called,” says one, “and of course it would be justified.” White House press secretary Ron Ziegler insists that it would be “constitutionally inappropriate” for Nixon to testify before the grand jury, and a subpoena “would do violence to the separation of powers.” (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 323-324)
After Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox refuses President Nixon’s offer of a “compromise” on the issue of the White House tapes (see October 19, 1973), Nixon orders (through his chief of staff Alexander Haig) Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refuses the presidential order, and resigns on the spot. Haig then orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refuses, and resigns also. Haig finally finds a willing Justice Department official in Solicitor General Robert Bork, who is named acting attorney general and fires Cox. (Of the firing, Bork tells reporters, “All I will say is that I carried out the president’s directive.”) White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announces that the Office of the Special Prosecutor has been abolished. FBI agents are sent to prevent Cox’s staff from taking their files out of their offices. Ziegler justifies the firing by saying that Cox “defied” Nixon’s instructions “at a time of serious world crisis” and made it “necessary” for Nixon to discharge him. After his firing, Cox says, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” The press dubs Cox’s firings and the abolishment of the OSP the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and the public reacts with a fury unprecedented in modern American political history. In a period of ten days, Congress receives more than a million letters and telegrams (some sources say the number is closer to three million), almost all demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Congress will soon launch an impeachment inquiry. Former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman writes in 1974 that Cox’s firing was not a result of impetuous presidential anger. Nixon had been more than reluctant to accept a special prosecutor for Watergate. Cox, named special prosecutor in the spring of 1973, had quickly earned the ire of White House officials and of Nixon himself, and by October 7, Nixon had announced privately that Cox would be fired. (Kilpatrick 10/21/1973; Sussman 1974, pp. 251; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
A gap of 18 and ½ minutes is found on the tape of a conversation between President Nixon and his aide, H. R. Haldeman, from June 20, 1972 (see July 13-16, 1973). Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt says he has no explanation for “the phenomenon.” Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, denies any deliberate erasure. But electronics experts will eventually find that the tape has been deliberately erased at least five separate times. White House chief of staff Alexander Haig will blame “some sinister force” for the erasure.
Watergate Discussed - Former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox’s subpoena of the tape (see July 23-26, 1973) says that “there is every reason to infer that the meeting included discussion of the Watergate incident.” That supposition is bolstered by previous testimony from former White House aide John Ehrlichman (see July 24, 1973). Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski says he is considering having all the remaining Watergate tapes placed under guard to prevent any further tampering. (Lardner 11/22/1973; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
Three Suspects - Evidence later shows that only three people could have made the erasure: Woods; Stephen Bull, Nixon’s assistant; and Nixon himself. (Reston 2007, pp. 33)
Washington Post Learns of Gap - Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward learned of “deliberate erasures” in the first week of November from his FBI source, W. Mark Felt (see May 31, 2005). White House sources confirmed that the tapes were often of poor quality, and that some inadvertent gaps existed, but, as press secretary Ron Ziegler tells Woodward’s colleague Carl Bernstein, to say that those gaps were deliberate would be “inaccurate.” When the deliberate gap is reported, Ziegler calls Bernstein to say that he did not know about the gap beforehand. Neither Bernstein nor Woodward doubt Ziegler—by this time, it is obvious that Nixon’s paranoia and penchant for secrecy extends even to the most trusted members of his staff. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 333-334)
Symbolic - In 2005, Woodward will write: “The missing 18 1/2-minute gap soon becomes a symbol for Nixon’s entire Watergate problem. The truth had been deleted. The truth was missing.” (Woodward 2005, pp. 103)
The Washington Post reports that “Operation Candor,” the White House’s public relations campaign to clear President Nixon’s name regarding Watergate, has been shut down. It also reports that several of Nixon’s most senior advisers no longer believe his protestations of innocence and ignorance. White House chief of staff Alexander Haig calls the story “scurrilous.” Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward soon learn that Haig himself is dubious of Nixon’s course, and has urged Nixon to cut ties with three of his former aides, H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Charles Colson—to let them go down and ensure he doesn’t go with them. Nixon’s legal defense is constructed in concert with theirs, and the White House has been supplying their lawyers with the same documents it has been releasing to the special prosecutor’s office. Nixon himself has no intention of either accepting responsibility for his role in the Watergate conspiracy or making any public apology. “Contrition is bullsh_t,” press secretary Ron Ziegler has said, and that is an apparent reflection of Nixon’s own views. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 334-335)
President Ford authorizes his attorney, Benton Becker, to tell Richard Nixon, “It’s not final, but in all probability a pardon will be forthcoming.” Ford agrees not to seek a decision on Nixon’s presidential files (see September 4, 1974) as a condition for a pardon; however, a statement of contrition (if not an outright admission of guilt) is something Ford and his advisers want from Nixon in return for a pardon. As Becker prepares to leave for California to meet with Nixon and his lawyer, Ford tells Becker to carefully judge Nixon’s physical and mental health. As for the records, Becker will later recall: “We walked out of the office; [Ford] had his hand over my shoulder, he said, ‘I will never, ever give up those records. They belong to the American people. You let President Nixon know that I feel very strongly about this.’” (Werth 2006, pp. 293) When Becker arrives in San Clemente, he meets with Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s former press secretary, who now serves as Nixon’s personal aide. Ziegler tells Becker, “I can tell you right now that President Nixon will make no statement of admission or complicity in return for a pardon from Jerry Ford.” Becker believes Ziegler was forewarned by Ford’s ad hoc chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who has maintained close contact with the Nixon staff since Nixon’s resignation. Ziegler apparently knows that Ford will not insist on either a document turnover or a statement of contrition in return for a pardon, and is toeing a hard line. Angered by what he considers Haig’s intolerable betrayal of Ford, Becker bluffs Ziegler, turning around and preparing to leave without further discussion. The bluff works; Ziegler and Becker discuss the problem until early in the morning hours. (Werth 2006, pp. 294-295) By the next morning, Becker has overseen a tentative agreement with Nixon’s lawyer Jack Miller and General Services Administration (GSA) head Arthur Sampson. The agreement will “temporarily” store the documents in a facility near San Clemente, under restricted access requiring both Nixon and a GSA official to access the documents, and Nixon retaining control of who accesses the materials. On September 1, 1979, the agreement reads, Nixon will donate the materials entirely to the federal government. As for the tapes, Nixon retains the right to destroy the tapes after five years, which will be destroyed anyway on September 1, 1989, or on the occasion of Nixon’s death, “whichever event shall first occur.” (Werth 2006, pp. 297-298)
During the careful negotiations over the conditions of Richard Nixon’s possible pardon (see September 5-6, 1974), Nixon aide Ron Ziegler brings up the issue of the “statement of contrition,” and shows Benton Becker, the lawyer negotiating for President Ford, a draft statement. The statement, crafted by a speechwriter, blames the pressures of the office, Nixon’s preoccupation with foreign crises, and his decision to rely on the judgment of his staff, for his alleged involvement. The statement makes no admission of guilt or acceptance of responsibility whatsoever. Such a statement would invite state prosecution of Nixon even if Ford grants him a pardon for federal crimes, Becker notes. Nixon would be better off saying nothing at all than making this statement. A revised statement merely admits that Nixon was guilty of poor judgment. Becker presses for more. A third revision has Nixon admitting that he “can see clearly now that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.” Becker seizes on the word “forthrightly” as an implied admission of contrition and a subtle acceptance of guilt. “The word is a synonym for ‘honestly,’” he will later recall. “That had meaning for me as a former prosecutor, because that meant obstruction of justice.” Ford, contacted by phone about the statement, is not happy with the legal parsing that Becker is trying to stretch into an implied admission of responsibility. Ford will later write, “I was taking one hell of a risk [in pardoning Nixon] and [Nixon] didn’t seem to be responsive at all.” (Werth 2006, pp. 299-301) Becker finally meets face-to-face with Nixon, who seems to Becker unhealthily aged and almost “freakishly grotesque,” with long, thin arms dangling from the sleeves of his suit. Nixon doesn’t want to discuss Watergate at all, attempting repeatedly to steer the discussion towards football and responding in monosyllables to Becker’s attempts to discuss the details of the forthcoming pardon. After Becker manages to get a grudging, distracted acquiescence from Nixon to the deal, Nixon suddenly turns maudlin. He says Becker has been “a gentleman” towards him, and wants to give him a present. “But look around the office,” he says. “I don’t have anything anymore. They took it all away from me. Everything I had is gone.” Nixon gives Becker the last two bits of presidential memorabilia he owns, taken, he says, “from my personal jewelry box.” They are a presidential tiepin and a pair of presidential seal cufflinks. Nixon is almost in tears, and a distinctly uncomfortable Becker withdraws as graciously as he may. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” Becker will later recall. (Werth 2006, pp. 304-306)
Less than ten minutes after President Ford announces his pardon of Richard Nixon (see September 8, 1974), Nixon’s aide Ron Ziegler reads the “statement of contrition” he and Nixon’s lawyer have agreed to as part of the pardon deal (see September 6, 1974). The statement is substantially the same as the draft agreed upon by Nixon and Ford’s respective representatives. Nixon, traveling with his wife Pat to the Palm Beach, California, estate of Ambassador Walter Annenberg, tells Pat, “This is the most humiliating day of my life.” But, author Barry Werth notes, Nixon has traded for the pardon, and gotten his terms. He will be able to write his own version of history without ever having to admit guilt or responsibility for any aspect of Watergate. He will be able to rehabilitate himself, perhaps even once again play a role in world affairs. He admits to nothing more than “mistakes” and “misjudgment.” Nevertheless, as historian Stephen Ambrose will note, in accepting the pardon, Nixon implicitly acknowledges his guilt. Werth will write in 2006, “Full, free, and absolute, a pardon was also damning and irrevocable—especially for a presumed offender who never was so much as charged with a crime.” Nixon will later write, “Next to the resignation, accepting the pardon was the most painful decision of my political career.” (Werth 2006, pp. 321-323)
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