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Watergate scandal

Watergate was an American political scandal and constitutional crisis of the 1970s, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

On June 17, 1972, five men - Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord, Jr and Frank Sturgis - were arrested after breaking into the office of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The men had broken into the office the previous evening as well, and they had returned to fix wiretaps that were not working and, according to some suggestions, photograph documentations.

The need to break into the office for a second time was just the highlight of a number of mistakes made by the burglars. Another one quickly backfired on them –and the White House- when police found the telephone number of E. Howard Hunt in McCord’s wallet. Hunt had previously worked for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), so this quickly suggested that there was a link between the burglars and someone close to the President. However, Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary, dismissed the affair as a "third-rate burglary".

At his arraignment, McCord identified himself as an agent of the CIA. The Washington, D.C., district attorney's office began an investigation of the links between McCord and the CIA, and eventually determined that McCord was in receipt of payments from CREEP. A reporter from the Washington Post present at the arraignment Bob Woodward, along with his colleague Carl Bernstein began an investigation in the Watergate over the following months. Most of what they published was known to the FBI and other governmental investigators –these were often the sources- but they helped keep Watergate in the spotlight and embarrass the White House. Woodward’s relations with a source codenamed Deepthroat, whose identity has still to be revealed, also added an extra layer of mystery to the affair.

President Nixon reacted to the Watergate arrests by asking the CIA to slow the FBI's investigation of the crime, by claiming that "National Security" would be put at risk. In fact, the crime, and numerous other dirty tricks had been undertaken on behalf of CREEP, mainly under the direction of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. They had also previously worked in the White House in a special investigation unit nicknamed the 'plumbers'. The unit investigated leaks and ran various operations against the Democrats and anti-war protesters. Most famously, they broke into the office of the psychologist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. Typically for their level of work, Hunt and Liddy found nothing, and so they trashed the office to cover their tracks. The break-in was only linked to the White House much later, but it then caused the collapse of Ellsberg’s trial.

How much involvement the leading figures in the White House, such as Attorney General John Mitchell, chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, leading aides, Charles Colson and John Ehrlichman, and Nixon, himself, in planning these events is still the subject of dispute. Mitchell, as the head of CREEP, along with campaign manager Jeb Stuart Magruder and Fred LaRue, approved Hunt and Liddy’s espionage plans, including the break-in, but whether it went above them is unclear. Magruder, for instance, provided a number of different accounts, including having overheard Nixon order Mitchell to conduct the break-in in order to gather intelligence about the activities of Larry O'Brien, the director of the Democratic Campaign Committee.

On January 8, 1973, the original burglars along with Liddy and Hunt went to trial. All except McCord and Liddy pleaded guilty, but they were all found guilty of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. The accused had been paid to plead guilty but say nothing, and this angered the trial judge John Sirica (known as "Maximum John" because of his harsh sentencing). Sirica handed down thirty-year sentences but indicated he would reconsider if the group would be more cooperative. McCord complied, implicated CREEP, and admitted to perjury. Thus, instead of ending with the trial and conviction of the burglars, the investigations grew broader than ever; a Senate Committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin was set up to examine Watergate and started to subpoena White House staff.

On April 30, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignations of two of his most powerful aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, both of whom would soon be indicted and ultimately go to prison. He also fired the White House counsel, John Dean, who had just testified before the Senate and would go on to become the key witness against Nixon himself.

On the same day, Nixon named a new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and gave him authority to designate a special counsel for the growing Watergate inquiry, who would be independent of the regular Justice Department hierarchy to preserve his independence. On May 18, Richardson named Archibald Cox to the position. The televised hearings began in the United States Senate the day before.

The Watergate Tapes

The Senate hearings held by the Senate Watergate Committee, in which Dean was the star witness and many other former key administration officials gave damaging testimony, were broadcast through most of the summer, causing devastating political damage to Nixon. The Senate investigators also discovered a crucial fact on July 13: Alexander Butterfield revealed during an interview with a committee staff member that a taping system in the White House automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office - tape recordings that could prove whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth about key meetings. The tapes were soon subpoenaed by both Cox and the Senate.

Nixon refused, citing the theory of executive privilege, and ordered Cox, via Attorney General Richardson, to drop his subpoena. Cox's refusal led to the "Saturday Night Massacre" on October 20, 1973, when Nixon fired Richardson and then his deputy in a search for an Attorney General willing to fire Cox. This search ended with Robert Bork, and the new Attorney General fired Cox. Allegations of wrongdoing caused Nixon to famously state "I am not a crook" in front of 400 Associated Press managing editors in Orlando, Florida on November 17, 1973.

While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over actual tapes, he did agree to release edited transcripts of a large number. These largely confirmed Dean's account, and caused further embarrassment when a crucial, eighteen-and-a-half-minute portion of one tape, which had never been out of White House custody, was found to have been erased. The White House blamed this on Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods who said she had accidentally erased the tape by pushing the wrong foot pedal on her tape player while answering the phone. However, as photos splashed all the over the press showed, for Woods to answer the phone and keep her foot on the pedal involved a stretch that would have challenged many a gymnast. She was then said to have held this position for the full 18 minutes.

This issue of access to the tapes went all the way to the Supreme Court and on July 24, 1974 the Court unanimously ruled in United States v. Nixon that Nixon's claim of executive privilege over the tapes was void and they further ordered him to surrender them to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. On July 30 he complied with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes.

Impeachment Articles

On March 1, 1974, seven former aides of the president -- Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Colson, Gordon Strachan, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson -- had been indicted for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation. The grand jury also secretly named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. Dean, Magruder and other figures in the scandal had already pleaded guilty.

Nixon’s position was becoming increasingly precarious, and the House of Representatives began formal investigations into the possible impeachment of the President. The House Judiciary Committee voted 27 to 11 on July 27, 1974 to recommend the first article of impeachment against the President: obstruction of justice. Then on July 29 the second article, abuse of power, was passed and on July 30 the third, contempt of Congress, was also passed.

In August, a previously unknown tape was released for June 23, 1972, recorded only a few days after the break-in, in which Nixon and Haldeman formulated the plan to block investigations by raising fictional national security claims. The tape was referred to as a "smoking gun". With this last piece of evidence, Nixon's few remaining supporters deserted him. The 10 congressmen who had voted against the Articles of Impeachment in Committee announced that they would now all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House. Nixon's support in the Senate was now equally weak.

After being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to convict him, Nixon decided to resign, which he did on August 9, 1974. Ultimately, Nixon was never actually impeached or convicted, since his resignation voided the issue. He was succeeded by Gerald Ford, who on September 8 issued a pardon for Nixon. Nixon still proclaimed his innocence, but the acceptance of a pardon implied otherwise.

As for Nixon’s aide, Colson later pleaded guilty to charges concerning the Ellsberg case and was relieved of the cover-up charges. Charges against Strachan were dropped. The remaining five of the seven indicted in March went on trial in October 1974, and on Jan. 1, 1975, all but Parkinson were found guilty. In 1976, the U.S. court of appeals ordered a new trial for Mardian, and subsequently all charges against him were dropped. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell exhausted their appeals in 1977. Ehrlichman voluntarily entered prison in 1976 and the other two entered prison in 1977.

However, the effects of the Watergate scandal did not by any means end with the resignation of President Nixon and the imprisonment of some of his aides. Indirectly, Watergate was the cause of new laws leading to extensive changes in campaign financing. It was a major factor in the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as laws requiring new financial disclosures by key government officials. While not legally required, other types of personal disclosure, such as releasing recent income tax forms, became expected. Knowing he was comfortably ahead in the 1972 election, Nixon refused to debate his opponent, George McGovern. No major candidate for the presidency since has been able to avoid debates. Previous Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt had recorded many of their conversations but after Watergate this practice became virtually non-existent.

Watergate led to a new era in which the mass media became far more aggressive in reporting on the activities of politicians. For instance, when Wilbur Mills, a powerful congressman, was in a drunken driving accident a few months after Nixon resigned, the incident, similar to others which the press had previously never mentioned, was reported, and Mills soon had to resign. In addition to reporters becoming more aggressive in revealing the personal conduct of key politicians, they also became far more cynical in reporting on political issues. A new generation of reporters, hoping to become the next Woodward and Bernstein, embraced investigative reporting and sought to uncover new scandals in the increasing amounts of financial information being released about politicians and their campaigns.

See also