Watergate scandal

The Watergate scandal was a major American political scandal that lasted from 1972 to 1974, following a burglary by five men of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972, and President Richard Nixon's subsequent attempt to cover up his administration's involvement. After the five burglars were caught and the conspiracy was discovered—chiefly through the work of a few journalists, Congressional staffers and an election-finance watchdog official[1]—Watergate was investigated by the United States Congress. Meanwhile, Nixon's administration resisted its probes, which led to a constitutional crisis.[2]

The term Watergate, by metonymy, has come to encompass an array of clandestine and often illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration. Those activities included such dirty tricks as bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious. Nixon and his close aides also ordered investigations of activist groups and political figures, using the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as political weapons.[3]

The scandal led to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by members of the Nixon administration, the commencement of an impeachment process against the president,[4] and Nixon's resignation. The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 people, with trials or pleas resulting in 48 being found guilty, many of whom were top Nixon officials.[5]

The affair began with the arrest of five men for breaking into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex on Saturday, June 17, 1972. The FBI investigated and discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), the official organization of Nixon's campaign.[6][7] In July 1973, evidence mounted against the president's staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee. The investigation revealed that Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations.[8][9]

After a series of court battles, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that the president was obligated to release the tapes to government investigators (United States v. Nixon). The tapes revealed that Nixon had attempted to cover up activities that took place after the break-in, and to use federal officials to deflect the investigation.[7][10]Facing virtually certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction by the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974, preventing the House from impeaching him.[11][12] On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.

The name "Watergate" and the suffix "-gate", used after an identifying term (e.g. Bridgegate), have since become synonymous with political and non-political scandals in the United States, and some other parts of the world.[13][14][15][16][17]

Wiretapping of the Democratic Party's headquarters

During the break-in, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy remained in contact with each other and with the burglars by radio. These Chapstick tubes outfitted with tiny microphones were later discovered in Hunt's White House office safe.
Transistor radio used in the Watergate break-in
Walkie-talkie used in Watergate break-in
A DNC filing cabinet from the Watergate office building, damaged by the burglars

On January 27, 1972, G. Gordon Liddy, Finance Counsel for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP) and former aide to John Ehrlichman, presented a campaign intelligence plan to CRP's Acting Chairman Jeb Stuart Magruder, Attorney General John Mitchell, and Presidential Counsel John Dean that involved extensive illegal activities against the Democratic Party. According to Dean, this marked "the opening scene of the worst political scandal of the twentieth century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency".[18]

Mitchell viewed the plan as unrealistic. Two months later, Mitchell approved a reduced version of the plan, including burgling the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.—ostensibly to photograph campaign documents and install listening devices in telephones. Liddy was nominally in charge of the operation,[citation needed]but has since insisted that he was duped by both Dean and at least two of his subordinates, which included former CIA officers E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, the latter of whom was serving as then-CRP Security Coordinator after John Mitchell had by then resigned as Attorney General to become the CRP chairman.[19][20]

In May, McCord assigned former FBI agent Alfred C. Baldwin III to carry out the wiretapping and monitor the telephone conversations afterward.[21] McCord testified that he selected Baldwin's name from a registry published by the FBI's Society of Former Special Agents to work for the Committee to re-elect President Nixon.[citation needed] Baldwin first served as bodyguard to Martha Mitchell—John Mitchell's wife, who was living in Washington.[citation needed] Baldwin accompanied Martha Mitchell to Chicago.[citation needed] Martha did not like Baldwin and described him as the "gauchest character [she'd] ever met".[citation needed] The Committee replaced Baldwin with another security man.[citation needed]

On May 11, McCord arranged for Baldwin, whom investigative reporter Jim Hougan described as "somehow special and perhaps well known to McCord",[citation needed] to stay at the Howard Johnson's motel across the street from the Watergate complex.[citation needed] Room 419 was booked in the name of McCord's company.[citation needed] At behest of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, McCord and his team of burglars prepared for their first Watergate break-in, which began on May 28.[22]

Two phones inside the DNC headquarters' offices were said to have been wiretapped.[23] One was Robert Spencer Oliver's phone. At the time, Oliver was working as the executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. The other phone belonged to DNC chairman Larry O'Brien. The FBI found no evidence that O'Brien's phone was bugged;[citation needed] however, it was determined that an effective listening device was installed in Oliver's phone. While successful with installing the listening devices, the Committee agents soon determined that they needed repairs. They plotted a second "burglary" in order to take care of the situation.[23]

Sometime after midnight on Saturday, June 17, 1972, Watergate Complex security guard Frank Wills noticed tape covering the latches on some of the complex's doors leading from the underground parking garage to several offices, which allowed the doors to close but stay unlocked[citation needed]. He removed the tape, believing it was nothing[citation needed]. When he returned a short time later and discovered that someone had retaped the locks, he called the police[citation needed]. Responding to the call was an unmarked car with three plainclothes officers working the overnight "bum squad"—dressed as hippies and on the lookout for drug deals and other street crimes[citation needed]. The burglars' sentry across the street, Alfred Baldwin, was distracted watching TV and failed to observe the arrival of the police car in front of the hotel[citation needed]. Neither did he see the plainclothes officers investigating the DNC's sixth floor suite of 29 offices. By the time Baldwin finally noticed unusual activity on the sixth floor and radioed the burglars, it was already too late.[24] The police apprehended five men, later identified as Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis.[19] They were charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. The Washington Post reported that "police found lock-picks and door jimmies, almost $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence ... a short wave receiver that could pick up police calls, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35 millimeter cameras and three pen-sized tear gas guns".[25]

The following morning, Sunday, June 18, G. Gordon Liddy called Jeb Magruder in Los Angeles and informed him that "the four men arrested with McCord were Cuban freedom fighters, whom Howard Hunt recruited". Initially, Nixon's organization and the White House quickly went to work to cover up the crime and any evidence that might have damaged the president and his reelection.[26]

Three months later, on September 15, a grand jury indicted the five office burglars, as well as Hunt and Liddy,[27] for conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws. The burglars were tried by a jury, with Judge John Sirica officiating, and pled guilty or were convicted on January 30, 1973.[28]