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Your Position: Home - Environment - Watergate’s Central Mystery: Why Did Nixon’s Team Order the Break-In in the First Place?

Watergate’s Central Mystery: Why Did Nixon’s Team Order the Break-In in the First Place?

In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon’s cronies greenlit a plan for a gang of burglars to sneak into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. In an excerpt from the widely anticipated new book Watergate: A New History, Garrett Graff outlines the leading conjectures about the burglars’ real motives for a crime that would bring down a president.

Watergate is usually considered shorthand for a story about five burglars at the offices of the Democratic National Committee, caught in the midst of a covert operation to impact the outcome of the 1972 presidential election. Yet the reality of the case is something vastly larger than history’s shorthand: a story that began long before the break-in—which occurred 50 years ago this spring—and a cover-up that extended long after the original burglary.

The full scope of Watergate boggles our memory. By the time the scandal’s flames had finished consuming Richard Nixon’s administration, 69 people had been charged with crimes, including two of Nixon’s Cabinet secretaries, Attorney General John Mitchell and Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans. Nearly all pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. Dozens of companies, from Goodyear Tire to American Airlines, also pleaded guilty to charges of illegally financing Nixon’s reelection campaign. Taken together, it was one of the largest criminal federal cases in a very criminalized decade.

Given the scale and breadth of the crime and corruption that surrounded Nixon’s presidency, it’s all the more surprising that no one was ever charged with ordering the burglary of the DNC, located in the 11-story Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. In fact, five decades after the night of June 17, 1972, the actual rationale for the break-in remains one of our greatest unsolved national mysteries: What were they actually doing there in the first place? It’s a question that has long bothered even key players in the scandal; in 1979, former White House aide John Ehrlichman and his wife, Christy, happened to run into Nixon campaign security director James McCord in the Seattle airport. “Why did you fellows break into the Watergate?” Christy blurted out.

As I dug into the history of the White House scandal that would come to define all the others that followed it, I was surprised by the answer: We still don’t know.

The responding police officers knew from the start that something was strange about the burglary. The men were older, dressed in suits, and carried large amounts of cash. (Most burglars didn’t bring money in to a burglary.) Yet, even as revelations emerged that the intruders had ties to President Nixon’s reelection campaign, surprisingly little focus was given to what brought them there.

Initially, important clues were overlooked; motives went unquestioned; higher-ups escaped scrutiny. In the ensuing years, memories conflicted, interests diverged, positions hardened, participants died. With time, five distinct theories have coalesced about what really was happening inside the Watergate that night.

The least complicated theory remains the official one: The Watergate incident was a simple, stunningly incompetent burglary conducted by bumbling campaign aides with overeager imaginations and the end goal of bugging the office or telephone of Democratic Party chairman Larry O’Brien. This, in some ways, makes the most sense. The Nixon White House was deeply paranoid, expected the worst from its enemies, and often assumed that everyone else was engaged in the very dirty tricks they were doing themselves. The three Nixon aides who ultimately faced charges stemming from the burglary—McCord, former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, and one-time CIA officer E. Howard Hunt—all did have over-eager imaginations and, at best, were poorly supervised by the Nixon operation. It’s hardly a leap to imagine them launching an ill-conceived and poorly executed operation of dubious value.

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Courtesy Avid Reader Press/Simon and Schuster.

Where it gets trickier is whether the burglars were playing offense or defense in their operation. Were they trying to uncover dirt on the Democrats or find out what dirt the Democrats had amassed on Nixon and his team? While there’s no shortage of intel the burglars may have hoped to uncover, speculation in the years since has generally focused on three separate theories—one about financial improprieties and the upcoming Democratic convention in Miami, another on sexual blackmail, and a third about illegal foreign campaign donations.

The most straightforward “hidden dirt” theory is that the burglars were ultimately looking for both financial improprieties as well as trying to uncover any nefarious plans the Democrats might have had to disrupt the Republican convention, possibly mirroring plots that the Nixon campaign operation, CREEP (the Committee to Re-elect the President) had been gaming out.

This theory, at least, was the one later reported to Nixon himself, captured on one of the notorious White House taped conversations, hundreds of hours of which were caught on hidden audio recorders that the president had installed in the Oval Office and elsewhere. During a January 3, 1973, exchange, when Nixon wondered aloud, “What the Christ [were the burglars] looking for?” White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman replied, “They were looking for stuff on two things. One, on financial. And the other on stuff that they thought they had on what [the Democrats] were going to do to screw us up, because apparently a Democratic plot.” (Haldeman then added, cautiously, “I don’t know any of this firsthand—I can’t prove any of it, and I don’t want to know.”)

The Watergate scandal began early in the morning of June 17, 1972, when several burglars were arrested in the office of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex of buildings in Washington, D.C. This was no ordinary robbery: The prowlers were connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and they had been caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents. Nixon took aggressive steps to cover up the crimes, but when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed his role in the conspiracy, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The Watergate scandal changed American politics forever, leading many Americans to question their leaders and think more critically about the presidency.

The Watergate Break-In

The origins of the Watergate break-in lay in the hostile political climate of the time. By 1972, when Republican President Richard M. Nixon was running for reelection, the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and the country was deeply divided.

Watergate Scandal

A forceful presidential campaign therefore seemed essential to the president and some of his key advisers. Their aggressive tactics included what turned out to be illegal espionage. In May 1972, as evidence would later show, members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stole copies of top-secret documents and bugged the office’s phones.

Did you know? Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein deserve a great deal of the credit for uncovering the details of the Watergate scandal. Their reporting won them a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for their best-selling book “All the President’s Men.” Much of their information came from an anonymous whistleblower they called Deep Throat, who in 2005 was revealed to be W. Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI.

The wiretaps failed to work properly, however, so on June 17 a group of five burglars returned to the Watergate building. As the prowlers were preparing to break into the office with a new microphone, a security guard noticed someone had taped over several of the building’s door locks. The guard called the police, who arrived just in time to catch them red-handed.

It was not immediately clear that the burglars were connected to the president, though suspicions were raised when detectives found copies of the reelection committee’s White House phone number among the burglars’ belongings.

In August, Nixon gave a speech in which he swore that his White House staff was not involved in the break-in. Most voters believed him, and in November 1972 the president was reelected in a landslide victory.

Nixon's Obstruction of Justice

It later came to light that Nixon was not being truthful. A few days after the break-in, for instance, he arranged to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” to the burglars.

Richard Nixon's Paranoia Leads to Watergate Scandal

Then, Nixon and his aides hatched a plan to instruct the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to impede the FBI’s investigation of the crime. This was a more serious crime than the break-in: It was an abuse of presidential power and a deliberate obstruction of justice.

Meanwhile, seven conspirators were indicted on charges related to the Watergate affair. At the urging of Nixon’s aides, five pleaded guilty to avoid trial; the other two were convicted in January 1973.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Investigate

By that time, a growing handful of people—including Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, trial judge John J. Sirica and members of a Senate investigating committee—had begun to suspect that there was a larger scheme afoot. At the same time, some of the conspirators began to crack under the pressure of the cover-up. Anonymous whistleblower “Deep Throat” provided key information to Woodward and Bernstein.

A handful of Nixon’s aides, including White House counsel John Dean, testified before a grand jury about the president’s crimes; they also testified that Nixon had secretly taped every conversation that took place in the Oval Office. If prosecutors could get their hands on those tapes, they would have proof of the president’s guilt.

Nixon struggled to protect the tapes during the summer and fall of 1973. His lawyers argued that the president’s executive privilege allowed him to keep the tapes to himself, but Judge Sirica, the Senate committee and an independent special prosecutor named Archibald Cox were all determined to obtain them.

The Saturday Night Massacre

When Cox refused to stop demanding the tapes, Nixon ordered that he be fired, leading several Justice Department officials to resign in protest. (These events, which took place on October 20, 1973, are known as the Saturday Night Massacre.) Eventually, Nixon agreed to surrender some—but not all—of the tapes.

Early in 1974, the cover-up and efforts to impede the Watergate investigation began to unravel. On March 1, a grand jury appointed by a new special prosecutor indicted seven of Nixon’s former aides on various charges related to the Watergate affair. The jury, unsure if they could indict a sitting president, called Nixon an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

In July, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. While the president dragged his feet, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up and several violations of the Constitution.

Nixon Resigns

Finally, on August 5, Nixon released the tapes, which provided undeniable evidence of his complicity in the Watergate crimes. In the face of almost certain impeachment by Congress, Nixon resigned in disgrace on August 8, and left office the following day.

Six weeks later, after Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president, he pardoned Nixon for any crimes he had committed while in office. Some of Nixon’s aides were not so lucky: They were convicted of very serious offenses and sent to federal prison. Nixon’s Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell served 19 months for his role in the scandal, while Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, served four and a half years. Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman spent 19 months in prison while John Ehrlichman spent 18 for attempting to cover up the break-in. Nixon himself never admitted to any criminal wrongdoing, though he did acknowledge using poor judgment.

His abuse of presidential power had a long-lasting effect on American political life, creating an atmosphere of cynicism and distrust. While many Americans had been deeply dismayed by the outcome of the Vietnam War, and saddened by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and other leaders, Watergate added further disappointment to a national climate already soured by the difficulties and losses of the previous decade.

HISTORY Vault: Nixon: A Presidency Revealed

The triumphs of Richard Nixon's presidency were overshadowed by a scandal that forced his resignation. Learn more about the driven but flawed 37th president from those who worked closest to him.

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Watergate’s Central Mystery: Why Did Nixon’s Team Order the Break-In in the First Place?

The Watergate Scandal - Timeline, Summary & Deep Throat

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