The series of events that collectively became known as “Watergate,” after the break-in at Democratic National Committee (DNC) offices at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C., on 17 June 1972, represents the major verified top-level conspiracy in U.S. political history.
Watergate is a Ur-text of U.S. conspiracy theory, evidenced by the ubiquitous use of the suffix “-gate” to denote any major conspiracy, cover-up, or scandal, and the belief that it forever changed the way the public would view electoral politics. Watergate has remained an episode of immense interest to conspiracy researchers for several reasons.
First, Watergate was a verified and wide-reaching conspiracy that was perpetrated by government officials, reaching to the highest level of civil life. Second, while the break-in itself was discovered and became publicly known almost immediately, questions remain about specific details, enabling conspiracy theories to fill this absence of definitive knowledge.
Finally, Watergate came to represent a series of interwoven events and conspiracies, revealing the machinations of high politics. As a consequence, the legacy of Watergate has endured not only politically, but also socially and culturally.
The origins of Watergate lay in attempts by the Nixon administration to deal with protest against the Vietnam War. In July 1970, Nixon approved the Huston Plan, which called for increased surveillance and “black bag” operations (the FBI and CIA term for illegal entries, usually to plant surveillance devices) against domestic targets.
Although the plan was officially abandoned after opposition from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, its recommendations would resurface in other forms. In June 1971, the New York Times published extracts from “The Pentagon Papers,” confidential Vietnam War strategy documents that had been leaked by former Pentagon aide Daniel Ellsberg.
While initial material concerned previous administrations, it was feared that further disclosures would expose hitherto secret aspects of the Nixon administration’s negotiations regarding the Vietnam War.
The overt response was direct, in that elements of the Nixon administration began a campaign of harassment against the press and the Times in particular. Covertly, it established the White House Special Investigations Unit, known as the “Plumbers,” because its specific task was to “plug leaks.”
A background in covert operations set the tone for the Plumbers unit and later for Watergate. Among those recruited were G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent; E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA member who had helped plan the Bay of Pigs invasion; former associates of Hunt who had participated in the Bay of Pigs operation; and James W. McCord, a retired senior CIA officer.
The first Plumbers operation was a break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to steal Ellsberg’s medical files. The unsuccessful burglary was preceded by an “offensive intelligence–defensive security” plan named Operation Sandwedge. This wide-ranging plan proposed “black bag” operations against the Democrats.
Although approved by the administration, it was superseded by Liddy’s even more expansive espionage plan, Operation Gemstone. While the original was considered too extreme, a revised version of Gemstone, which included among its illegal activities a plan to surreptitiously enter DNC offices in the Watergate building, was approved in April 1972.
Working for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), the Plumbers staged their first break-in of the Watergate building in May 1972. Successfully completed, transcripts of conversations recorded by surveillance devices were passed to White House officials. The second break-in was apparently undertaken to replace a faulty bug.
The Plumbers were caught after security guard Frank Wills discovered a re-taped door lock. Although carrying false identification documents, “burglars” McCord, Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis were accurately identified soon after their arrest.
As McCord was security coordinator for CRP, their links to the White House were quickly established, as was Hunt’s involvement with the break-in. Although the Nixon administration characterized Watergate as a “third-rate burglary,” attempts to cover up its involvement began almost immediately.
This cover-up would ultimately prove most damaging to the Nixon administration, because it entailed an extensive conspiracy to obstruct justice. In January 1973, the five burglars and Liddy and Hunt were convicted on charges of illegal wiretapping, burglary, and conspiracy. Prosecutors charged that Liddy and Hunt were solely responsible for planning the break-in.
While several top-ranking Nixon aides had already resigned due to revelations about Watergate, the cover-up began to unravel in April 1973 when McCord wrote to Judge John J. Sirica, who had presided over the trial, stating that members of the Nixon administration had participated in the planning of the operation that included Watergate, that government witnesses had committed perjury, and that the defendants had been placed under “political pressure” to plead guilty and remain silent.
On 30 April Nixon announced the resignations of Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, and Chief Domestic Policy Advisor John Ehrlichman and the forced resignation of Presidential Counsel John Dean III.
Accepting full responsibility for the actions of his subordinates, Nixon also stated that new Attorney General Elliot Richardson had been given “absolute authority” in “uncovering the whole truth” about Watergate, including the provision to appoint an independent special prosecutor.
Although popular belief largely ascribes the uncovering of the Watergate case to elements of the press, authorities including the FBI, the General Accounting Office, and the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF), headed by Archibald Cox, undertook investigations.
The WSPF had an expansive charter to investigate not only Watergate and its cover-up but all allegations against Nixon, White House staff, and presidential appointees, including offenses relating to the 1972 presidential election campaign. The WSPF could examine evidence “from any source” and contest in court White House refusals to produce evidence.
Because of such investigatory powers, “Watergate” came to represent a range of illegal activities, including the espionage operations that led to the break-in; previous breakins by the Plumbers including those directed against Daniel Ellsberg; the Watergate cover-up (which included destruction of evidence and the perjury of numerous witnesses); “dirty tricks” used against the 1972 Democrat campaign and candidates (which the Washington Post called a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage”); the illegal use of campaign contributions (some of which had been used to “pay off” the burglars); and contributions for services (including a “shakedown” of the dairy industry in exchange for price supports and an ITT contribution connected to a favorable Justice Department settlement in an antitrust case). Nixon’s financial records and taxation returns were also investigated.
Gaps and Deletions
Watergate became a public text largely due to the televised Senate Select Committee (also known as the “Ervin Committee”) hearings, which began on 17 May 1973. Replacing usual daytime programming, all 319 hours of the “Watergate hearings” were broadcast.
Although the key witness was John Dean, who implicated Nixon in the cover-up, White House aide Alexander Butterfield made the major revelation. Butterfield reluctantly disclosed that Nixon had taped almost all White House conversations since February 1971, meaning that a record of Watergate-related conversations must exist.
From this moment, Nixon fought to retain physical control of the tapes, beginning a series of legal battles that were continued by his estate after his death, and which only concluded after the estate reached a financial settlement with the Justice Department in June 2000.
One week after Butterfield had disclosed their existence, Archibald Cox subpoenaed the tapes. In response to the Supreme Court decision that he must hand over the tapes, Nixon stated that he would neither appeal the decision nor comply with it. The following day Nixon pressured Richardson to fire Cox.
Richardson instead resigned, followed by his deputy William Ruckelshaus; Cox was then fired, the WSPF abolished, and its offices sealed by FBI agents. Known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the events of 20 October 1973 were perceived by many people as a form of constitutional coup d’état. The resulting public outcry and calls for impeachment forced Nixon to accede to giving the tapes to the court.
Still attempting to contain their disclosures, Nixon announced on 29 April 1974 that edited transcripts of some requested tapes would instead be released. The transcripts effectively codified Nixon’s words; they gave them a material existence, and they entered and reentered the public realm in various forms. Paperback editions became immediate bestsellers.
The Nixon White House revealed by the transcripts was as shocking for its pettiness as its viciousness. But when the House Judiciary Committee released its own transcripts, discrepancies between the two versions provoked accusations that the White House transcripts had been “doctored” to appear more favorable to Nixon.
Nixon claimed the discrepancies were the result of the committee having access to electronically enhanced tapes, enabling them to identify words that had been, and were labeled as, “unintelligible” in the White House transcripts, but historian Stanley Kutler insists that “significant material” was omitted under the guise of the phrase “Material Unrelated to Presidential Action”.
Perhaps the most damaging deletions from the White House transcripts were marked “(adjective deleted),” and most notoriously, “(expletive deleted).” Into this erasure the public read unspeakable language and unimaginable crimes.
While Nixon claimed that several of the subpoenaed tapes had never existed, the most startling omission was in the form of the legendary “18-minute gap.” The gap was during a tape of a Nixon-Haldeman meeting held three days after the Watergate break-in, and, as Haldeman’s notes showed, occurred at the moment they began to discuss Watergate.
The gap was viewed by many with derision and as a sure sign of guilt, but Nixon staffers claimed the erasure was accidental. Chief of Staff Alexander Haig testified that a “sinister force” was perhaps responsible for the erasure.
An expert panel on acoustics testified that the gap had almost certainly been produced on the president’s tape machine, was caused by between five and nine separate erasures, and while it could not be judged as either deliberate or accidental, was consistent with the traces left by deliberate erasure. In September 2000, the National Archives and Records administration (NARA) announced a feasibility project on the possibility of recovering the erased material.
Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods testified that she had accidentally erased part of the tape when she answered a telephone call, pressed “record” instead of the “stop” button, and left her foot on the play pedal.
When she attempted to reenact this for the court, she physically could not do so; her contorted pose, which became known as the “Rose Mary Woods stretch,” appeared on the cover of Newsweek with the headline, “Rose Mary’s Boo-Boo”.
Woods’s counsel suggested she had been made a scapegoat, and her resulting humiliation reflected the widespread perception of the role of women within the Watergate scandal. Watergate exposed not only the workings of government, but also a patriarchal system.
Through the various investigations, women in roles such as secretaries and wives were shown to possess much of the information that could “break” the case, but were largely relegated to social positions that allowed proximity to knowledge and power but not the capacity to exercise such knowledge or power directly.
Nixon faced certain impeachment when the 23 June 1972 taped meeting of Nixon and Haldeman was finally released on 5 August 1974, and he resigned on 9 August. Known as the “Smoking Gun,” this tape proved that Nixon was party to the Watergate cover-up and had entered into a conspiracy to obstruct the FBI Watergate investigation.
On the tape, Nixon instructs Haldeman to have the CIA pressure the FBI to drop its investigation by claiming national security interests, as a continuing investigation would reopen the “whole Bay of Pigs thing.”
Haldeman would later write that this was perhaps a coded reference to the John F. Kennedy assassination. Warren Commission critic Mark Lane claims that in identifying “Bay of Pigs” as signifier of “CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination,” Haldeman “provided a Rosetta Stone for the decipherment of the Nixon tapes”.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that Nixon was referring to anything other than the Bay of Pigs invasion itself, the intelligence backgrounds of the Watergate burglars, and their connection to the failed invasion, inspired the interest of some conspiracy researchers who believe that President Kennedy was assassinated because Robert Kennedy had failed to provide sufficient air cover for the invaders.
Several researchers claimed to have identified Hunt and Sturgis as two of the “three tramps” photographed at Dealey Plaza soon after Kennedy’s assassination, going on to allege that they were the shooters.
While some researchers drew a literal connection between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Watergate, others metaphorically connected them in a way that has had a more significant cultural influence.
For some in the conspiracy research and wider communities, these two events, each so difficult to decipher or delimit, were perceived to have been caused by conspiratorial forces, with actual or purported participants who were members of the government or intelligence forces conspiratorially acting against the Constitution.
Rather than the official and visible government ruling the nation, such theories posited that control was in fact held by the invisible “para-government” or forces of “deep politics,” in the terminology of Peter Dale Scott.
As a result, Watergate is a central part of many conspiracy theories. It features prominently in “A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File,” an edited version (put together by Stephanie Caruana, a reporter for Playgirl) of an intriguing, much photocopied manuscript that began to circulate in conspiracy research communities in the 1970s. According to this document, the name of Liddy’s Operation Gemstone was inspired by some of the actual gemstones of the manuscript’s supposed author, Bruce Roberts.
Reminiscent of claims about the “mysterious deaths” of Kennedy assassination witnesses, the “Skeleton Key” claims that Beverley Kaye, secretary to Stephen Bull (special assistant to Nixon and one of three people who knew of Nixon’s taping system) was “sodium morphate ‘heart attacked’” after hearing the erased “18-minute gap” tape.
In an article written only weeks after the break-in, the conspiracy researcher Mae Brussell accurately identified elements of the Watergate conspiracies that were not discovered by the various investigatory bodies for months.
Many events connected to Watergate were recontextualized in light of the conspiracy theories that surrounded it. When Dorothy Hunt, wife of E. Howard Hunt, was killed in a plane crash in December 1972, some argued she had been murdered in the “Watergate Plane Crash” while carrying hush money to pay off the burglars.
The Significance of Watergate
Indeterminacy remains about certain aspects of Watergate, such as the motive for the break-in. Early theories proposed that the burglars intended to search the office of DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien, either for material that would prove embarrassing to the Democrats because of O’Brien’s links to Howard Hughes, or for damaging information that O’Brien may have held on financial connections between Nixon and Hughes, such as the illegal campaign contribution Hughes had made to Nixon, or the Hughes loan to Nixon’s brother, Donald.
Such uncertainty has inspired “revisionist” histories as well as conspiracy theories. A prominent revisionist reading is Jim Hougan’s Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (1984), in which he argues that the official version of Watergate is a “counterfeit history.”
He claims that McCord and Hunt had never left the CIA, with Hunt effectively spying on the White House while working for it, and that McCord had deliberately sabotaged the break-in to protect CIA operations. For Hougan, Watergate was not so much a political operation and scandal as one instigated by the intelligence community.
Developing Hougan’s thesis, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s Silent Coup: The Removal of Richard Nixon (1991) argues that Watergate was a John Dean “operation” designed to retrieve information that would otherwise link his future wife Maureen to a powerful prostitution ring. According to this theory, Watergate was part of a covert “reactionary” coup against Nixon by elements of the military.
Colodny and Gettlin propose that Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff after the resignation of Haldeman, was Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s informant known as “Deep Throat.”
The identity of the mysterious inside informant has inspired intense speculation since the character was immortalized in the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (1974), and the Alan J. Pakula film of the same name (1976). In fact, almost every person involved with the Nixon White House, including Nixon, has at one time or another been proffered as Deep Throat, as have countless others.
While some consider the character to be a composite, or even a literary device introduced to heighten suspense, Woodward, Bernstein, and then-editor of the Washington Post Benjamin Bradlee—the only people who know the “identity” of Deep Throat—insist that he is an actual individual whose identity will only be revealed upon his death. The identity of Deep Throat is one of the enduring mysteries of Watergate, in that it emblematically represents the uncertainties that still surround the entire event.
While some of the “facts” about Watergate are a matter of the public record, including details of its investigation, the records of criminal trials, and the conviction and imprisonment of many of its participants, others are still open to speculation. But debate regarding its overall “meaning” has a larger social resonance.
For some, Watergate was an overarching constitutional crisis; for others, such as Noam Chomsky, who said it was “small potatoes” compared to more severe—and unremarked—government crimes, Watergate was little more than the revelation of “politics as usual.” Nixon wrote in his Memoirs that “there was not one truth about Watergate.... it was like a Rorschach ink blot: others, looking at our actions, pointed out a pattern that we ourselves had not seen”.
Watergate is not an “empty signifier,” but an open one; it is an interconnected series of conspiracies, the interpretation of which has almost innumerable possibilities. As a publicly known and “proven” conspiracy, Watergate has a unique status, in that it serves to validate other conspiracy theories.
From the time these interconnected conspiracies became known, Watergate was the measure against which other conspiracy theories could be judged. The verified criminality of the Watergate conspiracy was projected onto numerous others. Watergate effectively changed the social status of conspiracy theory, for if this conspiracy could take place at the height of power, at its most visible, then any could.