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Watergate scandal

The Watergate scandals were a series of political scandals during the presidency of Richard Nixon that resulted in the indictment of several of Nixon's closest advisors and ultimately his resignation on August 9, 1974.

The scandals began with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972. Investigations conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and later by the Senate Watergate Committee, House Judiciary Committee and the press revealed that this burglary was one of many illegal activities authorized and carried out by Nixon's staff and loyalists. They also revealed the immense scope of crimes and abuses, which included campaign fraud, political espionage and sabotage, illegal break-ins, improper tax audits, illegal wiretapping on a massive scale, and a secret slush fund laundered in Mexico to pay those who conducted these operations. This secret fund was also used as hush money to buy silence of the seven men who were indicted for the June 17 break-in.

Nixon and his staff conspired to cover up the break in as early as six days after it occurred. After two years of mounting evidence against the President and his staff, which included former staff members testifying against them in a Senate investigation, it was revealed that Nixon had a tape recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations. Recordings from these tapes revealed that he had obstructed justice and attempted to cover up the break-in. This recorded conversation later became known as the Smoking Gun. After a series of court battles, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in United States v. Nixon that the President had to hand over the tapes; he ultimately complied.

With certainty of an impeachment in the House of Representatives and of a conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned ten days later, becoming the only US President to have resigned from office. His successor, Gerald Ford, would issue a controversial pardon for any federal crimes Nixon may have committed while in office.


On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills , a security guard at the Watergate Complex, noticed tape covering the locks on several doors in the complex. He took the tape off, and thought nothing of it. An hour later, he discovered that someone had retaped the locks. He called the police and five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) office. The five men were Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis. The five were charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. On September 15, a grand jury indicted them and two other men (E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and G. Gordon Liddy) for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws.

The men who broke into the office were tried and convicted in January 1973. All seven men were either directly or indirectly employees of President Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, or sometimes pejoratively referred to as CREEP) and many people, including the trial judge, John J. Sirica, suspected a conspiracy involving higher-echelon government officials. In March 1973, James McCord wrote a letter to Judge John J. Sirica charging a cover up of the burglary. His letter transformed the affair into a political scandal of unprecedented magnitude.


The scandal revealed the existence of a White House dirty tricks squad, which was behind an orchestrated campaign of political sabotage, an enemies list, a "plumbers" unit to plug political leaks and a secret campaign slush fund associated with CRP, all with high-level administration involvement. It brought into the open the involvement of Attorney General John N. Mitchell in the dirty tricks, funds and cover-up, as well as key White House advisers, all of whom went to prison for these crimes, for sentences of one to four years. The jail terms had been shortened on the basis of the high level of the convicted, and their cooperation in the hearings.


The threads which would form the basis of the unraveling of the cover-up began in the immediate aftermath of the arrests in the Watergate complex, the search of the burglars' hotel rooms (the keys to which the burglars still had in their pockets when they were arrested); and a background investigation of the evidence that was initially found.

The single most crucial piece of evidence obtained from the burglars themselves was the currency they had in their possession and the amounts of it that they had. The burglars were ordinary men of working class and lower middle class means and income. Yet they had thousands of dollars in cash in their possession when arrested; investigation of their accounts showed that they had had still more thousands pass through their bank and credit card accounts, supporting their travel, living expenses, and purchases, in the months leading up to their arrests. The amounts were far in excess of any visible sources of income from the jobs that they officially had.

Examination of the burglars' accounts immediately showed the direct link to the institution that both hired and funded their enterprise, the 1972 Committee to Re-Elect the President (Richard Nixon), through its subordinate finance committee.

Several individual donations (totaling $89,000) were legally made to the committee by individuals who thought they were making (and in fact intended to make) private donations to the President's re-election committee. The donations were made in the form of cashier's, certified, and personal checks, and all were made payable only to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Investigative examination of the bank records of a Miami company run by Watergate burglar Bernard Barker revealed that an account controlled by him personally had deposited, and had transferred to it (through the Federal Reserve Check Clearing System) the funds from these financial instruments.

The banks which had originated the checks (especially the certified and cashiers checks), were keen to ensure that the depository institution used by Bernard Barker had acted properly to protect their (the correspondent banks’) fiduciary interest in ensuring that the checks had been properly received and endorsed by the check’s payee, prior to its acceptance for deposit in Bernard Barker's account. Only in this way would the correspondent banks, (which had issued the checks on behalf of the individual donors) not be held liable for the un-authorized and improper release of funds from their customer’s accounts into the account of Bernard Barker.

The investigative finding, which cleared Bernard Barker’s bank of fiduciary malfeasance, led to the direct implication of members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, to whom the checks had been delivered. Those individuals were the Committee Bookkeeper and its Treasurer, Hugh Sloan.

The checks that Bernard Barker had deposited into his account, which had been prepared stating that they were payable to the Committee, would not have been accepted for deposit, nor would they have been processed for collection of their funds (for deposit into Barker’s account) unless they had been properly endorsed by the payee or its duly designated representative.

The Committee, as an organization, followed normal business accounting standards in allowing only duly authorized individual(s) (whose name(s) and proper identifications were known to their bank) to accept and endorse on behalf of the Committee any financial instrument created on the Committee’s behalf by itself, or by others. Therefore, no financial institution would accept or process an instrument (check) on behalf of the Committee unless it had been endorsed and verified as endorsed by a duly authorized individual(s). On the checks themselves deposited into Bernard Barker’s bank account was the endorsement of Committee Treasurer Hugh Sloan who was duly authorized and designated to endorse such instruments that were prepared (by others) on behalf of the Committee.

But Hugh Sloan had a fiduciary responsibility of his own too. Once he had endorsed a check made payable to the Committee, he had a legal and fiduciary responsibility to see that the instrument was deposited into (and only into) the account(s) which were named on the instrument, and for which he had been delegated fiduciary responsibility. Sloan had broken the law by endorsing an instrument and then knowingly not ensuring that the instrument was deposited into the account(s) over which he had been delegated fiduciary responsibility. Sloan was confronted with this crime immediately (through the investigation of Barker’s bank account), and faced the potential charge of federal bank fraud (not to mention with charges of conspiracy in the burglary); he revealed precisely who he had given the checks to (G. Gordon Liddy); and who had directed him (Committee Deputy Director Jeb Magruder and Finance Director Maurice Stans) to do so.

Barker had been given the checks by Liddy in a clumsy and ignorant attempt to avoid direct proof that Barker, a Watergate burglar, ever had received funds from the organization that actually hired him to commit wiretapping, burglary and political espionage. But any hope of concealing the true source of money that Barker and the burglars received would have required a far more sophisticated scheme than that which was employed.

As a nominally lawful enterprise, the 1972 Nixon re-election committee had to maintain a lawful set of accounting records and bank accounts, into which lawful campaign contributions could be deposited, and from which monies for lawful campaign expenditures could be drawn. Any attempt to create an “off-the-books”, unaccounted-for stash that could receive contributions in the amounts that Watergate dirty tricks teams actually used was never possible. This was because the sources of the funds were in fact legitimate. The funds were provided by wealthy, conservative campaign contributors. Due to the extra-ordinarily large single donations (ranging in hundreds of thousands) from patrons not likely to do so. It gives rise to speculaiton about unpublicized transactions, but there were never unaccountable fund transfers to CRP.

The case of the campaign contribution check is instructive of this. The $25,000.00 cashier's check made out to the committee that Barker actually deposited into his account was drawn upon the account of, and authorized by, a Kenneth H. Dahlberg of Minnesota. Mr. Dahlberg had received this amount from a prominent Minnesota Democratic fund raiser named Dwayne Andreas, who was an executive of the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation. Mr. Andreas gave Dahlberg the funds specifically to make a contribution anonymously, but not unaccountably, to the Nixon reelection campaign. The record of the transfer of funds to Mr. Dahlberg existed; the record of the transfer of funds to the committee (by Mr. Dahlberg) existed. When pressed, Mr. Dahlberg and Mr. Andreas both were able and willing to discuss how a prominent Democratic supporter of Democratic campaigns came to support Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

It was never the intent of either Mr. Andreas or Mr. Dahlberg to create, or participate in the creation of, a fund which would be unaccountable, untraceable, and available for use in a conspiracy to support a criminal enterprise, whether they knew about the criminal enterprise or not. In addition, most of the other donors were wealthy registered Republicans who had no interest whatsoever in “hiding” or concealing their support of President Nixon or their desire to help in his reelection campaign.

The connection between the break-in and the President's re-election campaign fund-raising committee was highlighted by its media coverage. In particular, investigative coverage by Time Magazine, The New York Times , and especially The Washington Post, fueled focus on the event. The coverage dramatically increased the profile of the crime and consequent political repercussions. Relying heavily upon anonymous sources, Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information suggesting that knowledge of the break-in, and attempts to cover it up, led deep into the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and even the White House. Chief among the Post's anonymous sources was an individual they had nicknamed Deep Throat, who was later revealed in 2005 to be former Deputy Director of the FBI William Mark Felt, Sr. Rather than ending with the trial and conviction of the burglars, the investigations grew broader; a Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin was set up to examine Watergate and began issuing subpoenas to White House staff.

On April 30, 1973, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignation of two of his most influential aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both of whom were indicted and ultimately went to prison. He also fired White House Counsel John Dean, who had just testified before the Senate and went on to become the key witness against the President.

On the same day, Nixon appointed a new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and gave him authority to designate, for the growing Watergate inquiry, a special counsel who would be independent of the regular Justice Department hierarchy, to preserve his independence. On May 19, 1973, Richardson named Archibald Cox to the position. Televised hearings had begun two days before.


The hearings held by the Senate Committee, in which Dean was the star witness and in which many other former key administration officials gave dramatic testimony, were broadcast from May 17 to August 7, 1973, causing devastating political damage to Nixon. Each network maintained coverage of the hearings every third day, starting with ABC on May 17 and ending with NBC on August 7. An estimated 85% of Americans with television sets tuned in to at least one portion of the hearings.

Perhaps the most memorable question of the hearings came when Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee asked "What did the President know, and when did he know it?", which focused attention for the first time on Nixon's personal role in the scandal.

On July 13, 1973, Donald Sanders, the Deputy Minority Counsel, asked Alexander Butterfield in discovery if there were any type of recording systems in the White House. Butterfield answered that, though he was reluctant to say so, there was a system in the White House that automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office. It was also determined that other rooms were bugged, including Nixon's private office in the Old Executive Office Building, where most of his work and meetings were actually conducted. Later, Chief Minority Counsel Fred Thompson put the question to Butterfield directly in televised hearings: "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" The shocking revelation radically transformed the Watergate investigation. The tapes were soon subpoenaed by Cox and then by the Senate, since they might prove whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth about key meetings. Nixon refused, citing the principle of executive privilege, and ordered Cox, via Attorney General Richardson, to drop his subpoena.

Saturday Night Massacre

Cox's refusal to drop his subpoena led to the "Saturday Night Massacre" on October 20, 1973, when Nixon compelled the resignations of Richardson and deputy William Ruckelshaus, in a search for someone in the Justice Department willing to fire Cox. This search ended with Solicitor General Robert Bork. At first, Bork planned to resign as well, but both Richardson and Ruckelshaus persuaded him not to in order to prevent any further damage to the Justice Department. As the new acting department head, Bork carried out the presidential order and dismissed the special prosecutor. Public reaction was immediate and intense, with protesters standing along the sidewalks outside the White House holding signs saying "HONK TO IMPEACH," and hundreds of cars driving by honking their horns. Allegations of wrongdoing prompted Nixon to famously state "I'm not a crook" in front of 400 startled Associated Press managing editors on the grounds of Disney's Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida on November 17, 1973.

Nixon was forced, however, to allow the appointment of a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who continued the investigation. While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over actual tapes, he did agree to release edited transcripts of a large number of them; Nixon cited the fact that any audio pertinent to national security information could be redacted from the released tapes; it was also speculated that the tapes may have contained foul language and racial slurs, which would have worsened Nixon's image.

The tapes largely confirmed Dean's account and caused further embarrassment when a crucial, 18½ 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 over the press showed, it was unlikely for Woods to answer the phone and keep her foot on the pedal. Later forensic analysis determined that the gap had been erased in several segments — at least five, and perhaps as many as nine—refuting the "accidental erasure" explanation.

Supreme Court

The issue of access to the tapes went to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, in United States v. Nixon, the Court (which did not include the recused Justice Rehnquist) ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void, and they further ordered him to surrender them to Jaworski. On July 30, 1974, he complied with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes. Their contents were finally revealed.

Articles of impeachment, resignation, and convictions

On January 28, 1974, Nixon campaign aide Herbert Porter pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI during the early stages of the Watergate investigation. On February 25, 1974, Nixon's personal lawyer Herbert Kalmbach pleaded guilty to two charges of illegal election-campaign activities. Other charges were dropped in return for Kalmbach's cooperation in the forthcoming Watergate trials.

On March 1, 1974, former aides of the President, known as the Watergate Seven — Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson — were 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. Charles Colson stated in his book Born Again that he was given a report by a White House aide that clearly implicated the CIA in the whole Watergate scandal and showed an attempt to implicate him as the one responsible.

On April 7, 1974, the Watergate grand jury indicted Ed Reinecke, Republican lieutenant governor of California, on three charges of perjury before the Senate committee. On April 5, 1974, former Nixon appointments secretary Dwight Chapin was convicted of lying to the grand jury.

Nixon's position was becoming increasingly precarious, and the House of Representatives began formal investigations into the possible impeachment of the President. The committee's opening speeches included one by Texas Representative Barbara Jordan that catapulted her to instant nationwide fame. 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. The second (abuse of power) and third (contempt of Congress) articles were passed on July 29, 1974 and July 30, 1974, respectively.

In August, the previously unknown tape from June 23, 1972, was released. Recorded only a few days after the break-in, it documented Nixon and Haldeman formulating a plan to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was involved. The tape, which was referred to as a "smoking gun," destroyed Nixon politically. With few exceptions, Nixon's remaining supporters deserted him. The ten congressmen who had voted against all three articles of impeachment in the committee announced that they would all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House. Impeachment by the House and subsequent removal from office by the Senate now appeared certain.

Throughout this time, Nixon still denied any involvement in the ordeal. However, after being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to convict and remove him, Nixon decided to resign. In a nationally televised address on the evening of August 8, 1974, he announced he would resign, effective at noon Eastern Time on Friday, August 9, 1974. Shortly after his resignation took effect, a helicopter took him from the White House to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. Nixon later wrote that he remembered thinking "As the helicopter moved on to Andrews, I found myself thinking not of the past, but of the future. What could I do now?...". At Andrews base, he boarded Air Force One to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California and then to his new home in San Clemente.

Though Nixon's resignation prompted Congress to drop the impeachment proceedings, criminal prosecution was still a possibility. He was immediately succeeded by Gerald Ford, who on September 8, 1974, issued a pardon for Nixon, immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he may have committed as President.

Nixon proclaimed his innocence until his death, although his acceptance of the pardon was construed by many as an admission of guilt. He did state in his official response to the pardon that he "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."

Charles Colson pleaded guilty to charges concerning the Daniel Ellsberg case; in exchange, the indictment against him for covering up the activities of CRP was dropped, as it was against Strachan. The remaining five members of the Watergate Seven indicted in March went on trial in October 1974, and on January 1, 1975, all but Parkinson were found guilty. In 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Mardian; subsequently, all charges against him were dropped. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell exhausted their appeals in 1977. Ehrlichman entered prison in 1976, followed by the other two in 1977.

Pardon and controversy

On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed while President. Highly controversial, this pardon has been argued to be a factor in Ford's loss of the presidential election of 1976. In an editorial at the time, The New York Times stated that the Nixon pardon was "a profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act" that in a stroke had destroyed the new president's "credibility as a man of judgment, candor and competence." Accusations of a secret "deal" made with Ford, promising a pardon in return for Nixon's resignation, led Ford to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on October 17, 1974.

In his autobiography A Time to Heal, Ford wrote about a meeting he had with Nixon's Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig. Haig was explaining what he and Nixon's staff thought were Nixon's only options. He could try to ride out the impeachment and fight against conviction in the Senate all the way, or he could resign. His options for resigning were to delay his resignation until further along in the impeachment process to try and settle for a censure vote in Congress, or pardon himself then resign. Haig then told Ford that some of Nixon's staff suggested that Nixon could agree to resign in return for an agreement that Ford would pardon him.

Haig emphasized that these weren't his suggestions. He didn't identify the staff members and he made it very clear that he wasn't recommending any one option over another. What he wanted to know was whether or not my overall assessment of the situation agreed with his.[emphasis in original]. . . Next he asked if I had any suggestions as to courses of actions for the President. I didn't think it would be proper for me to make any recommendations at all, and I told him so.
In a televised broadcast to the nation, Ford explained that he felt the pardon was in the best interests of the country and that the Nixon family's situation "is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."


The effects of the Watergate scandal did not end with the resignation of President Nixon and the imprisonment of some of his aides. The effect on the upcoming Senate election and House race only three months later, was enormous. Voters, disgusted by Nixon's actions, became thoroughly disillusioned with the Republican Party. In that election, the Democrats gained five seats in the Senate and a remarkable forty-nine in the House.

The Watergate Scandal also indirectly caused many changes in campaign financing. The scandal became a driving factor in amending the Freedom of Information Act in 1976, 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. Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had recorded many of their conversations, but after Watergate this practice purportedly ended.

Since Nixon and many senior officials involved in Watergate were lawyers, the scandal severely tarnished the public image of the legal profession. In order to defuse public demand for direct federal regulation of lawyers (as opposed to leaving it in the hands of state bar associations or courts), the American Bar Association (ABA) launched two major reforms. First, the ABA decided that its existing Model Code of Professional Responsibility (promulgated 1969) was a failure and replaced it with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 1983. The MRPC has been adopted in part or in whole by 44 states. Its preamble contains an emphatic reminder to young lawyers that the legal profession can remain self-governing only if lawyers behave properly. Second, the ABA promulgated a requirement that law students at ABA-approved law schools take a course in professional responsibility (which means they must study the MRPC). The requirement remains in effect.

The Watergate scandal left such an impression on the national and international consciousness that many scandals since then have been labeled with the suffix "-gate".

According to Thomas J. Johnson, professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University, "During Nixon's final days, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger boldly predicted that history would remember him as a great president and that Watergate would be relegated to a minor footnote."

Alternative theories

Although the purpose of the break-in of the DNC offices has never been established, some theories suggest that the burglars were after specific information. The likeliest of these theories suggests that the target of the break-in was the offices of Larry O'Brien, the Chairman of the DNC . In 1968, O'Brien was appointed by Vice President Hubert Humphrey to serve nationally as the director of his presidential campaign and by Howard Hughes to serve in Washington as his public-policy lobbyist. O'Brien was elected in 1968 and 1970 by the DNC to serve nationally as its chairman. With the upcoming Presidential election, former Howard Hughes business associate John H. Meier, working with Hubert Humphrey and others, wanted to feed misinformation to Richard Nixon. In late 1971, the President’s brother Donald Nixon, was collecting intelligence for his brother at the time and was asking Meier about Larry O'Brien. Meier told Donald that he was sure the Democrats would win the election because they had considerable information on Richard Nixon’s illicit dealings with Howard Hughes that had never been released, and that Larry O’Brien had the information, (O’Brien didn’t actually have any documents but Meier claims to have wanted Richard Nixon to think he did). Donald then called his brother and told him that Meier gave the Democrats all the Hughes information that could destroy him (Richard Nixon) and that O’Brien had it. This theory has been proposed as a motivation for the break-in.

Numerous theories have persisted in claiming deeper significance to the Watergate scandal than that commonly acknowledged by media and historians. On the "Smoking Gun" tape, Nixon mentions E. Howard Hunt's ties to "the whole Bay of Pigs thing" as the reason the CIA should put a stop to the Watergate investigations. In the book The Ends of Power, President Richard Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman claimed that the term " Bay of Pigs," as used in a tape-recorded White House conversation, was used by Nixon as a coded reference to a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro during the John F. Kennedy administration. The CIA had not disclosed this plot to the Warren Commission, the commission investigating the Kennedy assassination, despite the fact that it would attribute a motive to Castro in the assassination. A theoretical connection between the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate Tapes was later referred to in the biopic, Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone.

An alternative theory to the mainstream media account of the Watergate scandal was advanced in Silent Coup, a 1991 book by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. The two authors believe that it was Nixon's silent war with the Pentagon that ultimately led to his removal from office. The book was criticized for apparent leaps of logic and the citation of weak evidence and its theories are not widely supported by either professional historians or the general public.

Stone and Freed's theory in Secret Honor implies that Nixon deliberately sacrificed his presidency to save democracy from a plan to implement martial law. The theory uses the construct of "Yankees versus Cowboys" to suggest that, since the postwar era, the US has been dominated by Yankees competing with Cowboys. Nixon, who hailed from the Southwest, was initially backed by the military industrial defense contractor power-brokers (the Cowboys); however, he later wanted to jump ship and return government to the east-coast establishment of Yankees. His resignation accomplished this because Nelson Rockefeller, the epitome of the eastern economic elite, assumed the vice presidency after Nixon's resignation. Peter Beter's Conspiracy Against the Dollar further explains how Nixon was possibly a rogue liberal with a conservative mask. Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown mentions this obscure theory behind Watergate.

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