During the Watergate years is when the phrase “the cover-up can become worse than the crime” was first coined. The corruption then went far beyond the bungled “burglary” at DNC headquarters within the Watergate Hotel that began the public element of the scandal, but was largely inspired by then-President Nixon’s attempts to manipulate the CIA, IRS, and Secret Service against his political enemies and to try and shutdown leaks that were emanating from the upper echelons of the FBI and elsewhere. It was bad, real bad—this bad.
The White House used government agencies to harass its opponents. The special services staff of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was ordered to conduct audits of organizations opposed to Nixon’s policies, and did so until the practice was discontinued by Treasury Secretary George Shultz. The CIA’s Special Operations Group conducted “Operation Chaos,” which involved spying on New Left and black militant organizations. The Secret Service files on persons who are threats to the president ordinarily include deranged people who threaten the president’s life, but during the Nixon administration the files ballooned to forty-seven thousand names, including political opponents. On 28 May 1971, Nixon ordered chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to use wiretaps against leading Democrats, including Kennedy, Edmund S. Muskie, and Hubert Humphrey. “Keep after ’em,” he told Haldeman. “Maybe we can get a scandal on any, any of the leading Democrats.”The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), acting on presidential orders, wiretapped people without obtaining judicial warrants, including people in sensitive government positions. Kissinger himself ordered taps placed on staffers he thought were leaking classified information to the press. Then other officials ordered taps on each other, as factions within the White House attempted to discredit others. Attorney General John Mitchell had the FBI tap John Sears, his competitor as campaign adviser to the president. Alexander Haig ordered a tap on speechwriter William Safire. The Joint Chiefs of Staff used a navy ensign assigned to the NSC’s communications section to spy on Henry Kissinger, who had his own tap on a defense department official close to Secretary of Defense Laird. Taps placed on Morton Halperin and Anthony Lake were used to gather information on the Muskie candidacy, since these former NSC officials were advisers to his campaign. Altogether seventeen FBI taps on government officials or newsmen were uncovered: seven on NSC staffers, three on White House aides, one on a Defense Department official, two on State Department officials, and four on newsmen.
In the end, an investigation by a special prosecutor and Congress pushed Nixon to resign before his imminent impeachment. We’ve heard and seen this story before, and now it seems as a similar set of allegations of corruption pile up against another Republican President, he and his administration’s desperate efforts to douse the flames of scandal may ultimate do more damage and harm him than they will help him.