Did the Press Uncover Watergate? (page 2)

July 1974

by Edward Jay Epstein

But what about Hunt and Liddy's superiors Jeb Stuart Magruder and John Mitchell? The prosecutors were unable to develop a case against them, since as part of a cover-up, coordinated by the White House counsel John Dean, Magruder swore that he had given Liddy the contributions for a different purpose-to set up a system of informants-and this perjury was corroborated by Mitchell, by Herbert L. Porter, Magruder's assistant, and by Sally Harmony, one of Liddy's secretaries. But neither did Woodward and Bernstein nor any other reporters reveal the existence of the cover-up. The offers of executive clemency, the participation of Dean in the cover-up, the hush money, and the perjury did not emerge in the press in any serious form until after the trial of the Watergate burglars. In the end, it was not because of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, but because of the pressures put on the conspirators by Judge John Sirica, the grand jury, and Congressional committees that the cover-up was unraveled. After the Watergate conspirators were convicted, Judge Sirica made it abundantly clear that they could expect long prison sentences unless they cooperated with the investigation of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the Ervin committee). One of the convicted burglars, James McCord, clearly not content with accepting such a prison sentence, wrote Sirica that perjury had been committed at the trial and the defendants had been induced by "higher-ups" to remain silent. Subsequently, McCord suggested that Magruder, Mitchell, and Dean all were involved in the planning of the burglary and cover-up.

While McCord's assertion turned out to be only hearsay evidence, obtained from Liddy, the grand jury was reconvened, the prosecutors subpoenaed Dean, and the Ervin committee began focusing on the roles of Dean and Magruder. To intensify the pressure on Dean, the prosecutors held long secret sessions with Liddy, and though Liddy steadfastly refused to discuss the case in these well- publicized sessions, the prosecutors intentionally promoted the story that Liddy was talking and implicating Dean and Magruder. As President Nixon's transcripts confirm, the ruse succeeded: Dean believed that Liddy, who had attended meetings with him and Mitchell which eventually led to Watergate, was plea bargaining with the prosecutors. Moreover, Dean believed that Magruder, who could also implicate him in both the planning of the burglary and the cover-up, was about to bargain with the prosecutors. And FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, in confirmation hearings before the Senate judiciary Committee, was publicly suggesting that Dean had interfered in the investigation and lied to the FBI.

Dean realized that he could not testify before the Ervin committee or the grand jury without fatally perjuring himself. Since President Nixon was not able to offer him any safe way out of his predicament, and he feared that the President's assistants would eventually sacrifice him, Dean began negotiating with the prosecutors on March 31 for immunity, and bit by bit, they forced him to disclose the entire cover-up including the payments of hush money, blackmail threats, offers of executive clemency, the suborning of perjury, etc. In April the prosecutors finally elicited evidence from Dean of the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and the other "horror stories." Four days after he heard Dean was bargaining with the prosecutors, Magruder also decided to plea-bargain, and corroborated Dean's story.

A final coherent picture of the planning and execution of Watergate, of the cover-up, and of the other "horror stories" was developed by the Ervin committee on television. The American public thus found out about Watergate in hundreds of hours of testimony elicited in plea bargaining and negotiations for immunity by the prosecutors and then presented and tested in cross-examination by members of the Ervin committee.

What was the role of the press in all this? At best, during the unraveling of the cover-up, the press was able to leak the scheduled testimony a few days in advance of its appearance on television. IF Bernstein and Woodward did not in fact expose the Watergate conspiracy or the cover-up, what did they expose? The answer is that in late September they were diverted to the trail of Donald H. Segretti, a young lawyer who had been playing "dirty tricks" on various Democrats in the primaries. The quest for Segretti dominates both the largest section of their book (almost one-third) and most of their "exclusive" reports in the Post until the cover-up collapsed later that March. Unidentified sources within the government gave Bernstein and Woodward FBI "302" reports (which contain "raw"-i.e., unevaluated-interviews), phone-call records, and credit card records, all of which elaborated Segretti's trail. Through ~ the FBI reports and phone records, they located a number of persons whom Segretti had tried to recruit for his "dirty-tricks" campaign. The reporters assumed that this was all an integral part of Watergate, and wrote that 11 the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage.... The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic Presidential contenders." They further postulated that there were fifty other Segretti-type agents, all receiving information from Watergate-type bugging operations.

As it turned out, this was a detour, if not a false trail. Segretti (who served a brief prison sentence for such "dirty tricks" as sending two hundred copies of a defamatory letter to Democrats) has not in fact been connected to the Water, gate conspiracy at all. Almost all his work took place in the primaries before any of the Watergate break-ins in June 1972; he was hired by Dwight Chapin in the White House and paid by Herbert Kalmbach, a lawyer for President Nixon, whereas the Watergate group was working for the Committee for the Re-election of the President and received its funds from the finance committee. No evidence has been offered by anyone, including Woodward and Bernstein, that Segretti received any information from the Watergate group, and the putative fifty other Donald Segrettis have never been found, let alone linked to Watergate. In short, neither the prosecutors, the grand jury, nor the Watergate Committee has found any evidence to support the BernsteinWoodward thesis that Watergate was part of the Segretti operation. The behavior of the officials who steered Bernstein and Woodward onto this circuitous course makes in itself a revealing case study. Bernstein and Woodward identify their main source only under the titillating code-name of "Deep Throat," and indicate that "Deep Throat" confirmed their suspicion that Segretti-and political spying-were at the root of the Watergate conspiracy. But who was "Deep Throat" and what was his motivation for disclosing information to Woodward and Bernstein? The prosecutors at the Department of Justice now believe that the mysterious source was probably Mark W. Felt, Jr., who was then a deputy associate director of the FBI, because one statement the reporters attribute to “Deep Throat” could only have been made by Felt. (I personally suspect that in the best traditions of the New Journalism, “Deep Throat” is a composite character.) Whether or not the prosecutors are correct, , it is clear that the arduous and time-consuming investigation by Woodward and Bernstein of Segretti was heavily based on FBI "302" reports, which must uItirnately have been made available by someone in the FBI. The prosecutors suggest that there was a veritable revolt against the directorship of L. Patrick Gray, because he was "too liberal." Specifically, he was allowing agents to wear colored shirts, grow their hair long, and was even recruiting women. More important, he had publicly reprimanded an FBI executive. According to this theory, certain FBI executives released the "302" files, not to expose the Watergate conspiracy or drive President Nixon from office, but simply to demonstrate to the President that Gray could not control the FBI, and therefore would prove a severe embarrassment to his administration. In other words, the intention was to get rid of Gray.

Such a theory would be perfectly consistent with the information-disclosing activities of the source that led Bernstein and Woodward astray. Ironically, even on the wrong trail, the stalwart Bernstein and Woodward generated enough damaging publicity about "Watergate" to cause the White House to vilify them and the Washington Post, and thus elevate them to the status of journalistic martyr-heroes. If instead of chastising the press, President Nixon and his staff had correctly identified the "signals" from the FBI, and had replaced Gray with an FBI executive, things might have turned out differently. (But Gray, as it happened, had acquired damaging files from Hunt's safe, and could engage in his own information-releasing game, if threatened.)

Perhaps the most perplexing mystery in Bernstein and Woodward's book is why they fail to understand the role of the institutions and investigators who were supplying them and other reporters with leaks. This blind spot, endemic to journalists, proceeds from an unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself. If the government is considered monolithic, journalists can report its activities, in simply comprehended and coherent terms, as an adversary out of touch with popular sentiments. On the other hand, if governmental activity is viewed as the product of diverse and competing agencies, all with different bases of power and interests, journalism becomes a much more difficult affair.

In any event. the fact remains that it was not the press, which exposed Watergate; it was agencies of government itself. So long as journalists maintain their blind spot toward the inner conflicts and workings of the institution, of government, they will no doubt continue to peak of Watergate in terms of the David and Goliath myth, with Bernstein and Woodward as David and the government as Goliath.

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