Skip to content
We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the original Watergate burglaries. Although everyone has heard of the scandal, most people have either forgotten or are too young to remember that the purpose of the Watergate burglaries was to copy documents listing donors to the Democratic Party and their financial contributions, either hoping or expecting to find evidence of contributions from “bad” sources (the Cuban government).

Like the Watergate burglars, the objective of Gleick’s fraud against Heartland was to obtain a list of donors, expecting to find evidence of “bad” contributions to their climate program (fossil fuel corporations and the Koch brothers.) The identity of objectives is really quite remarkable. The technology of the Watergate burglars (break-in and photography) was different than Gleick’s (fraud and email). And the consequences of being caught have thus far been very different.

In today’s post, I’ll reconsider the backstory of the Watergate burglaries to place present-day analogies to the Watergate era in better context.

I was in mid-20s at the time of the Watergate events. Although it now looms large in contemporary history, it was a very minor story until relatively late in the chronology, when Nixon’s connections to the cover-up were finally established. (The Vietnam War was the dominant story of the day.) My own recollection of events (prior to researching) was mostly established by the movie hagiography of Woodward and Bernstein, though all of the names in the story (from Ellsberg to G. Gordon Liddy) were names familiar to me as a young man. Today’s post is written almost entirely from secondary sources (mostly Wikipedia articles unless otherwise cited), which seem accurate enough on chronological details.

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
I’ll start my review of Watergate with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which have been cited in some quarters as precedents for Gleick.

Although the Pentagon Papers are indelibly associated with the Nixon presidency, the documents themselves pertained entirely to the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. In 1967, while Johnson was still President, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who had also served in the Kennedy administrations) had commissioned a task force to write an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War”, a project that he kept secret from other members of the Johnson administration. McNamara left the Defense Department in February 1968. In January 1969, five days before Nixon’s inauguration, McNamara’s successor, Clark Clifford, received the finished study, entitled “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”. It consisted of 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents in 47 volumes, and was classified as “Top Secret – Sensitive”. It was later known as the “Pentagon Papers”.

The task force published 15 copies. RAND Corp, a prominent think tank with military contracts, received two of the copies. Access was restricted: access required approval of two of the three most senior RAND executives. Ellsberg had worked on the study for several months in 1967. In 1969, Ellsberg, then a military analyst at RAND, was granted access to the work at RAND. In October 1969, Ellsberg and a friend (Anthony Russo), now opponents of the Vietnam War, photocopied the study. Ellsberg attempted to interest senior politicians and administrators in the documents for nearly two years without any success.

In June 1971, Ellsberg distributed the documents to a number of important newspapers, including the New York Times. Reportedly, Nixon’s first instinct was not to oppose publication, since the documents did not pertain to his administration and showed his predecessors in a bad light, but was persuaded by Henry Kissinger that acquiescence would be construed as government weakness. The Nixon administration therefore sought injunctions against publication, claiming that disclosure would violate national security. The case went very quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), permitted the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers without risk of government censure. (The documents themselves were not declassified until 2011.)

Ellsberg was charged with breaches of national security for disclosing the documents (he did not “steal” or “hack” the Pentagon Papers). Charges against him were eventually dismissed due to government misconduct while seeking to discredit him – a story that in turn links back to the Watergate burglars.

The Empire Strikes Back
In July 1971, one month after and in response to Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration established a sort of rapid response team ultimately reporting to senior Nixon aide, John Ehrlichmann. On July 7, Ehrlichmann and Charles Colson appointed E. Howard Hunt, a “security specialist” recently retired from the CIA, to the White House staff with the specific task of “plugging the leaks”. (A term used in Climategate correspondence where Mann expressed satisfaction at plugging the “leak” at Geophysical Research Letters, which had had the temerity of publishing our critical article in 2005.) Because their job was to plug leaks, the group was known naturally enough as the “Plumbers”. Liddy became involved with the operation in July as well.

The next month (August 1971), Liddy and Hunt recommended a “covert operation [to] be undertaken to examine all of the medical files still held by Ellsberg’s psychiatrist [Lewis Fielding].” Ehrlichman approved under the condition that it be “done under your assurance that it is not traceable” (a concern discussed between Briffa and Wahl in a different context in the Climategate dossier.)

In September, Hunt, Liddy and three CIA operatives (Eugenio Martinez, Bernard Barker and Felipe de Diego, the first two later involved in Watergate) burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The break-in was not known until it came to light during Ellsberg’s trial in April 1973; it was one of the principal reasons why the charges against Ellsberg were dismissed for government misconduct.


“Dirty Tricks”

1972 was an election year. The Plumbers moved from the White House to the the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) and soon escalated from “plugging the leaks” to “dirty tricks”.

Edmund Muskie, a Maine senator, was the candidate most feared by the Republicans. In February, during the New Hampshire primary, a forged letter (the “Canuck Letter”) was delivered to the Manchester Union-Leader purporting to show that Muskie was prejudiced against people with Canadian background. (A prejudice also observed from time to time in the Climategate emails :) ).

On March 4, Muskie delivered an emotional speech on the steps of the Manchester Union-Leader, in which he broke down crying on three occasions. Voters became perturbed about Muskie’s emotional stability and Muskie was defeated in the primary three days later by George McGovern, the opponent much preferred by the Republicans. McGovern eventually received the nomination and lost 49 of 50 states to the not very popular Nixon – a lesson about the pointlessness of nominating unelectable candidates, however appealing they may be to a party’s activist base, a lesson that was remembered for many years by both parties, but now apparently forgotten by some.

While the Watergate events loom large in later history, at the time, they were small ripples in the tide of major events. The Vietnam War dominated headlines; casualties were unimaginably higher than those in Iraq or Afghanistan. In late February, when the seeds of the Watergate burglary were being sown, Nixon unexpectedly visited China, which, at the time, permitted only the most limited contact with foreigners. (No one at the time imagined that only 40 years later, China would be the U.S.’s largest creditor and the largest economy in the world.)