Watergate is the quintessential conspiracy, one that went all the way to the White House and took down a presidency. But it is a story that is almost always provided without context, and with no mention of certain key facts. J Edgar Hoover died only a couple of months before the Watergate break-in, so the FBI was in the midst of a succession crisis when they were hit with the most controversial investigation in their history. Did this lead their deputy director Mark Felt, passed over by Nixon for promotion, to leak the story to Bob Woodward under the guise of Deep Throat?
Alternatively, was Watergate the result of a CIA conspiracy? The White House ‘Plumbers’ were being overseen by a CIA liaison who knew what they were doing. He retired from the CIA once Nixon was removed, and died in an apparent suicide a few years later. As a consequence of Watergate the CIA-friendly Neo-Cons took over the White House, and the CIA became the undisputed premier US spy agency. Did they set up the Nixon White House to take the fall so they could remove the Nixon administration? Was Watergate a soft power coup d’etat?
I assume most if not all of you are familiar with Watergate, at least with the usual story, the standard historical version, but I’ll do a quick explanation anyway.
The popular story about Watergate is that the Plumbers, hired by the White House in response to Ellsberg’s leak (and other leaks) worked for the president’s men for a year, carrying out political black bag operations. On June 17th 1972, almost exactly a year after the Pentagon papers were published, they were caught breaking in to the National Democratic Party Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC.
As it became clear that there was a White House team of black operatives, paid through a secret fund at CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, this led to numerous investigations. You had the FBI investigating this as a crime of domestic espionage, you had the Senate investigating this as a political corruption issue, you had a grand jury and a special prosecutor investigating to see if there were people in the White House directing this crime, and you had the Washington Post. While the book and the film All the Presidents Men likes to portray this as a story of two brave young reporters and a bold newspaper who pursued the story and took down a President, it’s not really like that.
What happened was that the senate investigation found out about the White House Tapes – recordings of conversations made in the Oval Office and other rooms in the White House. Why Nixon instituted this, why he made the decision to start recording conversations I do not know. He was notoriously paranoid, so he may have been sold the idea as a form of self-protection. So when Nixon tried to pin the whole thing on John Dean, the White House Counsel, Dean went to the Senate investigators and told them pretty much everything he knew. This led to the prosecutor, Archibald Cox, getting a subpoena for the tapes. Nixon refused to release them, and offered to have a friendly Democrat review the tapes and release portions of them, a compromise that Cox refused. So Nixon ordered the head of the Justice Department to fire Cox, the Attourney General refused so Nixon fired him and his immediate deputy took over. Nixon told him to fire Cox. He refused so Nixon fired him. The third in charge decided he quite liked his new job and so when Nixon told him to fire Cox, he did so.
Shortly before all of this one of the tapes, from June 20th 1972, three days after the Watergate burglary, somehow lost 18 1/2 minutes. Five minutes are accounted for by Nixon’s secretary who says she accidentally deleted them by pressing on the transcription machine’s pedal while taking a phonecall. Even though this would have meant leaning at an unnatural angle stretching one way to hold the phone and the other way to keep her foot on the pedal for the whole five minutes. But she maintains this is true. She denies being responsible for the other 13 1/2 minutes, which have a loud buzz preventing you from hearing what’s being said.
After several more months of the investigations requesting the tapes and Nixon releasing edited transcripts and other half-measures to try to avoid it, it went to the Supreme Court. They voted 8-0 in favour of the Justice Department and the Senate, so the White House had to release the tapes. One of these included a conversation from 6 days after the break in where Nixon agreed that officials should approach Richard Helms, director of the CIA and his deputy to try to get the FBI to stop investigating Watergate on the grounds of national security. This amounted to a criminal conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice, and when this became public a few days after the White House turned over the tapes, Nixon’s support evaporated. He resigned, and Gerald Ford took over.
So that is a very brief version of what happened at Watergate. And most of that is perfectly true, at least in terms of those events did happen and in that order. The problem is that it is contextless, and the whole thing is built on the assumption that Ellsberg was a genuine whistleblower. If we accept for the sake of argument the idea that Ellsberg was a spy who leaked the papers as part of a distraction campaign ultimately sponsored by the CIA, then what does that say about Watergate?
I have spent a long, long time thinking about this and reading about it, I’m familiar with the question of Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist who was given the Watergate story, being ex Naval Intelligence. He was, most certainly, he even worked in the Pentagon’s secret communications room. There is little doubt that Woodward was some kind of plant, because he did all this before becoming a journalist. But just having Woodward in place is not enough, I think people can get hung up on bashing Woodward, and ok, go right ahead, but as always I’ve tried to piece together the bigger picture.
I think what’s critical and almost always overlooked is that J Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, died only a couple of months before the Watergate scandal broke. Hoover had always been somewhat hostile towards the CIA, and his death created a power vacuum not just within the bureau itself but also within the White House, where Hoover had always enjoyed a lot of influence. I’ll come back to that later.
Just as Ellsberg was perhaps the biggest leaker of all time, at least at the time he leaked the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate story also features the most famous whistleblower of all, the man known as Deep Throat. As portrayed in Woodward and Bernstein’s book and the film adaptation, Deep Throat would meet Woodward in secluded locations – often underground garages – and helped point him in the right direction on the story. Such a source who is beyond ‘off the record’ is considered to be on ‘deep background’. One of the editors at the Post nicknamed the anonymous man ‘Deep Throat’ after the popular porn film of the time starring Linda Lovelace.
For decades the identity of Deep Throat remained a mystery, the subject of much speculation. In May 2005 former Deputy Director of the FBI Mark Felt admitted that he was Woodward’s source, which Woodward then confirmed. Why they waited 30 years just to reveal that it was the man a lot of people thought it was is anyone’s guess. Felt died only three years later.
As with the surface story about Ellsberg, there are reasons to doubt this version of events. The founder and head of private intelligence company Stratfor George Friedmann, wrote in an article how Felt had been passed over by Nixon for the Director’s job, and therefore had a motive for revenge. Hoover died, Mark Felt was in line for his job but didn’t get it, so he leaked Watergate, basically. Friedman theorised that Felt and the Bureau were spying on the White House and leaked the Watergate story to Woodward as a means of taking down the President. He wrote that, ‘Felt was not simply feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein; he was using the intelligence product emanating from a section of the FBI to shape The Washington Post’s coverage.’
He went on to allege that the editor at the Post, Ben Bradlee, knew exactly what was going on and played along so they could get the story, ‘Woodward and Bernstein might have been young and naive, but Bradlee was an old Washington hand who knew exactly who Felt was, knew the FBI playbook and understood that Felt could not have played the role he did without a focused FBI operation against the president. Bradlee knew perfectly well that Woodward and Bernstein were not breaking the story, but were having it spoon-fed to them by a master. He knew that the president of the United States, guilty or not, was being destroyed by Hoover’s jilted heir.’
If this is true then the Washington Post not only helped the FBI to take down a president but also covered up the story for decades by concealing the identity of their deep background source. However, this version of events is problematic. There is no evidence that the FBI were spying on this inner White House clique at the time, to my knowledge. There is reasonable doubt whether Deep Throat even existed, and the strongest hypothesis is that he is a composite of several people, including Felt, who were passing information to Woodward and Bernstein.
This is supported by David Obst, the former literary agent for Woodward and Bernstein. He wrote a book in the late 1990s saying that there was no mention of Deep Throat in the original book proposal or in early drafts of All the President’s Men. Woodward denied this in an interview in 1998 saying, ‘David Obst was in a hotel across town. He never saw the drafts of the book. He was never consulted.’ Why Woodward’s literary agent, the man responsible for selling the book to publishers, would have never seen the drafts of the book remains a mystery.
Other details don’t ring true. Whoever Deep Throat was, he or she knew things that Mark Felt could not have known. Researcher Ed Gray highlights an example from Woodward’s own notes that shows that his ‘interview with X’ included information that at the time could only have been known by people inside CREEP, which did not include the FBI. Unless someone else was feeding that information through Felt, it did not come to Woodward from the number 2 at the Bureau.
The FBI themselves concluded much the same thing, as they were running a separate investigation to try to figure out who Deep Throat was. While Felt was a suspect in their investigation, the FBI file on Deep Throat repeatedly says that it was likely several secret sources were being amalgamated into one.
A further reason to wonder about Felt’s claim that he and he alone was Deep Throat is that he was seriously compromised man. As the head of the FBI’s COINTELPRO he had ordered various extralegal and morally unsound operations and he was one of the figures investigated by the Church Committee. Felt was ultimately prosecuted and in 1980 was convicted of conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens. Like Ellsberg he got off lightly – he was fined only $5,000 and then pardoned by incoming President Ronald Reagan. Even after his admission in 2005 that he’d leaked comprehensive details of an ongoing FBI investigation to a newspaper reporter, he was never prosecuted for revealing classified information.
As with the Ellsberg story the hidden hand of the CIA can be detected and suspected as the true force behind the Watergate revelations and the controlled demolition of Richard Nixon. Though the Plumbers were not formally put together until after the Ellsberg leak, Howard Hunt had been working on domestic political operations for the White House since 1964, while he was still with the CIA. At that time the Johnson administration had him using his assets to steal information on Barry Goldwater.
More broadly, he’d been working on domestic propaganda activities for the Agency since the 1950s. He even wrote a series of eight spy novels intended to promote the CIA’s public image. This caused a problem when the Library of Congress published his real name as well as his pen name, leading to him faking his resignation from the CIA and then getting re-hired as a contract agent.
When he was first hired by the White House as a ‘consultant’ one of his early jobs was interviewing none other than Lou Conein, one of the CIA’s men in Vietnam being ‘observed’ by Daniel Ellsberg. Hunt and Conein were buddies from the good old days in the OSS, and in an attempt to dig up dirt on Ellsberg they sat down in a room being bugged by the Secret Service and got deep into a bottle of scotch. According to Hunt’s autobiography the following day he was told that the bugs malfunctioned, and in his hungover state Hunt could not remember much of what was said.
One of his other tasks involved trying to link the Kennedy administration to the assassination of South Vietnam premier Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Hunt looked at thousands of embassy cables from the period, but some seemed to be missing so he fabricated two using Executive Office typewriters. Hunt, along with Chuck Colson the special advisor to the President, tried to hawk the faked cables to journalists, finding success via Lou Conein, who was shown the forged documents and then spoke about them in a TV documentary interview.
Weeks later, when the Plumbers were put together, almost all of them were ‘ex’ CIA. They were not only the White House’s CIA guys – they were the CIA’s White House guys, operating via CIA liaison John Paisley. This meant that when it came to the secret fund at CREEP, the break ins at Fielding’s office and the Watergate complex, the FBI’s illegal surveillance – at every point the CIA knew everything and had access to people who were integrally involved.
It isn’t even clear why Paisley was appointed as the CIA’s liaison to the White House ‘Special Investigations Unit’ i.e the Plumbers. He had not worked in domestic counterintelligence before, he worked in the Office of Strategic Research, trying to figure out how powerful the Soviets were, being loaned to the NSA, that sort of thing.
Despite knowing all there was to know about Watergate, Paisley told no one what he knew. Not colleagues, not friends and family, no one. The congressional investigations and most of the other investigations ignored Paisley completely. He left the CIA in 1974, around the time Nixon left the White House, and he died several years later in an apparent suicide. Though there was a congressional investigation into his death, they found nothing, and Paisley wasn’t even identified as the CIA liaison to the Plumbers until 1984. It has since been speculated, including by Joe Trento, that Paisley was Deep Throat.
On the other end, Ben Bradlee, the editor at the Washington Post who directed Woodward and Bernstein had also worked with and for the CIA. So, were the Watergate scandal and the leak of the Pentagon Papers two halves of the same operation? An operation conceived by the CIA to misdirect criticism over the unpopular Vietnam war, and then to remove a President who in his paranoia and self-loathing had lost control? It is perhaps no coincidence that when Nixon stepped down he was replaced by Gerald Ford, the frontman for the first incarnation of the Neo Cons.
This in turn led to George HW Bush served for a year as Director of Central Intelligence despite, at least officially, having no prior intelligence experience. He then went on to become Reagan’s Vice-President, with special responsibility for the intelligence services, and then became President himself. This chain of events started with Ellsberg’s leak, and the whole process cemented the connection between the CIA and the White House.
Likewise, when Stalin was about to die the CIA devoted a lot of resources to planning for their response to this, in terms of this representing an opportunity to gain greater influence in Soviet countries and so on. I’m hypothesising here but what if they had a similar plan in place when it became clear that J Edgar Hoover was dying. Because the FBI were something of a roadblock in between the CIA and their desired role as the go-to intelligence agency on everything. They wanted that status, in terms of both perception in the White House and elsewhere, and in reality.
So, does a real history of Watergate look something like this – shortly before Hoover dies they get Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers. This causes the White House to go crazy and hire a bunch of ex CIA guys being run by a CIA liaison that no one knows about. They do a load of dirty stuff, implicating senior White House officials in the President’s circle in serious crimes. When Hoover actually snuffs it, they push the Plumbers into riskier operations, leading to their exposure. The White House goes into cover up mode and the FBI are swamped not only with a succession crisis but also the most controversial investigation they’ve ever had to do.
The CIA then help to leak information to friendly reporters and a friendly editor at the Washington Post to keep the story alive – and the Post stayed on this story much longer than almost any other outlet. This led to pressure over the White House tapes and ultimately Nixon’s resignation. This whole thing enabled the CIA to take over the role of being the premier US spy agency, and got their guys, the Neo Cons, into the White House.