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Jun 2, 2005 1:34 pm

The Lessons of Watergate: It Could Happen Again

The revelation of the identity of “Deep Throat” prompts reflection on some of the key lessons of Watergate.

1. Watergate was far more than a burglary and cover-up. The term Watergate actually covers a plethora of criminal and unethical acts for partisan and personal political gain committed by President Richard Nixon and high officials of his administration and re-election campaign. It included wiretaps and break-ins, efforts to corrupt the FBI, CIA, and IRS, illicit favors to corporations in return for contributions, dirty tricks to rig elections, the surveillance and harassment of legitimate political groups, and the receipt of millions in untraceable, illegal cash contributions.

2. The fact that Mark Felt was for most Americans a nameless, faceless bureaucrat should be heartening, not discouraging. It shows that even obscure figures, responding to the pangs of conscience and loyalty to institutions rather than individuals, can change the course of history.

3. Beyond its cautionary tale of scandal, Watergate set in motion a chain of events that shaped that last thirty years of politics in the United States. If Nixon had escaped scandal and served out his full term, a Republican may well have won the White House in 1976 and the GOP, not the Democrats, would have been beset with the problems of the late 1970’s. Instead of the Ronald Reagan Revolution of 1980 Americans today may well be talking of the Ted Kennedy Revolution.

4. Watergate highlights the importance of the free press in preserving our liberties. Felt had little choice other turning to the media. Going to Nixon or his henchmen at Justice or the FBI would have been like telling Al Capone that there is bootlegging right here in Chicago. The free press offered the best opportunity to expose the miscreants in governments. Ultimately more than two dozen high officials of the Nixon administration and his re-election campaign were convicted of criminal conduct.

5. Watergate could happen again. No firewalls are in place to protect Americans from another effort to corrupt government from the top. Government is much larger and more complex than in Nixon’s day. Information is tightly controlled and most policy-making takes place in secret. There is new pressure on the confidential press sources essential to uncovering wrong-doing in powerful institutions. Whistleblowers still face retribution rather than acclaim. Even the Independent Counsel Law, passed in the wake of Watergate had been allowed to lapse by Congress. It could happen again without vigilance by Americans and a return by the media to the investigative journalism exemplified by Woodward and Bernstein in the 1970’s.

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Maarja Krusten - 6/6/2005

There are mixed lessons for the archivists who testified in Dr. Kutler's lawsuit. I wouldn't change anything myself--I still would testify the way I did, somewhat as a whistleblower, even if it meant I never could go back to work at the National Archives. (By the time I testified in 1992, I had changed jobs and was working as a federal historian at another agency. But I realized that because of the way I testified about the handling of Watergate tapes, I was shutting the door to returning to work at NARA.) Many archivists have applauded my willingness to testify truthfully and to fight on their behalf. Several have told me in the past that they needed courageous peole to speak out for them.

Things didn't go so well however for everyone else who tried to open the Watergate records. My former boss, Nixon Project tapes supervisor Fred Graboske, faced charges that he was biased against Nixon. He was not. In fact, Graboske, a Vietnam veteran, had voted for Nixon.

Seymour Hersh noted in his article on the Kutler case, "At times, Graboske's three days of testimony turned ugly, with Stan Mortenson, the attorney for Nixon, in effect putting Graboske on trial by repeatedly asking questions implying that he was biased against Nixon. . . . Graboske's pro-bono attorney, Patrick J. Carome, a partner at Wilmer, Curler & Pickering, in Washington, accused Mortenson and the Archives of 'attempting to intimidate this man who tried to see that the right thing was done to the Nixon tapes.' Graboske was especially upset, Carome said in an interview, at the failure of the government attorneys 'to take aggressive steps to protect a government civil servant at a deposition at which they were supposed to be representing the government.'"

Another supervisory archivist was banished to Denver. I knew her well. I was present at a meeting in 1989 at which she stood up for her subordinate staff. Soon after the meeting, she was transferred involuntarily out of her position at NARA's Nixon Project. Jack Hitt wrote about this in Harper's in 1994:

"In 1991 the archives moved to make its first genuine tape release (the 12 1/2 hours of tape played in open court during the prosecution of John Mitchell were made public in 1980). The addition to the public knowledge involved 47 1/2 hours of tapes subpoenaed by Jaworski but not introduced as evidence. Before the archives could release them, [a Nixon agent’s] reports to Nixon resulted in seventy objections. Surprisingly, these objections found a champion in the assistant archivist for presidential libraries, John Fawcett.

Through a subsequent lawsuit, it became clear that Nixon made his complaints to Fawcett, who directed the working archivists to disguise Nixon's demands for retractions as internal decisions. The archivists balked. One was banished (to Denver); others quit."

I was one of the ones who quit. Then, after I testified in the Kutler case, I started speaking out.

What mystifies me and many other archivists is, why so few historians seem to be listening. Have I failed here on HNN and elsewhere to tell the story in a way that resonates for them? Do they not understand that the U.S. Archivist is a subordinate officer of the United States, who himself may find it difficult to admit to being on the receiving end of political pressure? And that he needs others to study what has happened and to speak out on behalf of him and his subordinates?

It is 13 years since Stanley Kutler filed his lawsuit for access to the Nixon tapes. No one can claim ignorance of what happened to those tapes. There are plenty of red flags in the court records of the Kutler lawsuit and in Hersh's article, Hitt's article, articles by Kutler and Joan Hoff, my own article in 1996 in Presidential Studies Quarterly ("Watergate's Last Victim"), documents compiled by the NARA Inspector General, etc.

Given their training in critical analysis, I find it hard to believe that historians are willing just to accept the story told by DOJ in court -- that the National Archives never intended to open the tapes in the late 1980s (despite internal NARA documents entered as evidence which referred to completion of "final review" of the tapes in FY 1987). And that NARA was working in "colloboration" with Nixon to see what should be released to the public. Wouldn't historians be more inclined to accept the contemporaneous documentation, such as interview write-ups by the NARA Inspector General, and the Haldeman article in Prologue, rather than the spin presented in court by DOJ?

Whatever the answer, the impression conveyed on HNN is that historians just don't care about what archivists go through to protect the integrity of historical records. I fear that will increase the likelihood of future abuses at NARA but know I've done all I can to raise awareness, given the constraints on me as a current Federal employee.

Maarja Krusten - 6/6/2005

I looked at Richard Nixon’s attorney in 1992 and said, “As far as I know, no Federal employee likes to lie.” I had been called to testify in a lawsuit over public access to Nixon’s White House tapes (Civ. A. 92-0662-NHJ). For fourteen years, I had been a Federal archivist responsible for reviewing for disclosure the Nixon tapes and documents held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The question of lying came up when lawyers questioned me about an internal Archives’ dispute over how to handle Nixon’s requested deletions to the tapes.

Although the U.S. Archivist is a subordinate officer of the President, his mandate is unique within the executive branch. Former Acting Archivist Frank Burke once wrote that the National Archives serves "not to implement the programs of the administration in office but to protect the records, good and bad, of the administrations of the past."

But when the National Archives is involved in litigation over Presidential records, the Department of Justice (DOJ) speaks for the Archivist in court. The Attorney General typically protects White House interests, rarely ceding ground that would weaken presidential prerogatives.

In passing the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1974, Congress directed the Archives to reveal "the full truth" about Watergate abuses. Nixon sought to limit tape disclosures to the 63 hours subpoenaed by the special prosecutor in 1973. But I and other archivists identified new information about Watergate during the 1980s.

John H. Taylor, who served as Nixon's chief of staff in the post-White House years, described his anger when "we were told that the Hardy Boys at NARA had kept a little list -- 201 additional fun-filled hours of their own greatest hits." NARA didn't open those tapes until 1996, two years after Nixon died. Taylor sneered, "The archivists have done their worst."

When I left the Archives’ employ in 1990, only 12-1/2 hours of Watergate tapes had been released. The Archives was preparing to open 48 additional hours but had received a backdoor request from Nixon to delete portions of those tapes. Another 200 hours of Watergate conversations sat on the shelf, with no public acknowledgment that they existed or would be released any time soon.

I was called as a witness when Professor Stanley I. Kutler sued NARA in 1992 to enforce the requirement that “the full truth” about Watergate abuse of power information in Nixon's tapes be released at the "earliest reasonable" date. After the case was settled in 1996, Dr. Kutler shook his head, writing in an article published in the Legal Times that “Eventually, the Archives acknowledged it held hundreds of hours of Watergate tapes, but only after I proved their existence. . . .The Archives thus exposed its own cover-up.”

Think about that. The National Archives took physical custody of Nixon’s tapes in 1977. Archivists screened the materials for ten years, preparing the tapes for release. Archives officials told researchers the process would be completed in 1987 and the agency soon would begin releasing the tapes incrementally.

H. R. Haldeman himself noted in 1988 in an article in NARA's magazine, _Prologue_, that processing of the tapes was nearly complete and the public soon would begin hearing Nixon's conversations. Haldeman wrote “The time has finally come, almost fifteen years after the end of the Nixon administration, when one may reasonably look forward to hearing . . . portions of the White House tapes. The National Archives’ processing of the tapes is virtually complete, and the agency is nearly ready to go forward with a schedule of phased openings.” John Ehrlichman also wrote about planned releases of the tapes, stating in 1986 that the Archives had “another year’s work to do, editing and getting the log into the word processor.”

Then it all came to a halt. The planned incremental opening of tapes did not occur. When Dr. Kutler filed his lawsuit in 1992, a mere 63 of 3,700 hours of tapes had been released. Only after Nixon died in 1994, did the government work out a settlement with Dr. Kutler and begin releasing tapes, a process that still is ongoing.

The court pleadings in the 1992 Kutler lawsuit hinted at why NARA could not follow through with its planned opening of Nixon’s recordings. DOJ's pleadings during the first Bush administration referred to NARA's collaborative, consultative relationship with Nixon. Kutler's lawyers (he was represented by Public Citizen) zeroed in on the flaw in the characterization:

"While the Archives characterizes the relationship between Mr. Nixon and the Archives as a 'consultative relationship,' under the Archives' regulations, former President Nixon does not serve as a consultant to assist the agency in its processing of the Nixon materials. Rather, he is a potential challenger of the Archives' processing decisions. . . It is hard to imagine someone who is more of a past and potential adversary of the Archives. . . it is in the context of such litigation threats that Mr. Nixon is attempting to influence archival decisions, as is borne out by the Mortenson [Nixon attorney’s] Declaration, which confirms that Mr. Nixon uses litigation threats as bargaining chips to convince the Archives to change its archival processing."

If there were another Watergate, what are the chances that historians could get at the truth any time soon in any contemporaneous records capturing such activities? Since the post-Watergate records laws have proven to have a hollow mandate, from the perspective of people such as I who once tried to enforce them, but have rarely been discussed, do you believe that historians have given up on the concept of "early disclosure?"

Do you believe that it is impossible or impracticable to release controversial information about Presidents while they still are alive? Were the post-Watergate reform laws flawed in assuming this could be done? If not, why do these issues receive so little attention?

Right now, archivists feel very much alone, largely ignored by the historians they serve. Given the fact that few historians, other than Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff, have spent their professional capital on speaking up on behalf of the National Archives’ employees, do you think future federal archivists would stick their necks out on behalf of historians? What incentive would there be for any of them to act as whistleblowers or testify in a lawsuit brought by a scholar?

I see the deck very much stacked against the Archives and its employees. Do you think it is likely that the historical truth simply will be buried, perhaps to released decades after the fact or, in a worst case scenario, simply deleted from the record, perhaps before it reaches the Archives, with historians being none the wiser?