History: Watergate – Rotten apples in a mouldy barrel

THIRTY YEARS ago the ’Watergate’ political scandal rocked US capitalism, exposing the corrupt and reactionary intrigues of the Nixon presidency and its spy agencies. Today, US president George Bush is reactivating the state’s surveillance powers – a threat to socialists and the organised working class.

AMERICA’S NATIONAL Archives recently released 500 hours of secretly taped White House conversations covering the ’Watergate’ period. ’Watergate’ denotes the political scandals that engulfed America between 1972 and 1974, discrediting not only the presidency, but the whole political system. It culminated in the forced resignation of President Richard Nixon and the convictions of over 30 Nixon administration officials and campaign staff.

Watergate became synonymous with political burglary, bribery, extortion, phonetapping, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, tax fraud, illegal use of government agencies and illegal campaign contributions. In short the abuse of power. Watergate reflected the superpower’s military abuses abroad, including CIA (Central Intell-igence Agency) sponsored coups and assignations, the secret bombing of Cambodia, incursions into Laos and above all America’s continuing war in Vietnam.

Watergate gave the political establishment a nasty jolt, with long-term repercussions. The ruling class’s fear that the presidency was out of control led to a shift in the balance of power from the executive to Congress.

Dirty tricks

Nixon, having defeated the incumbent Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1969 due to the war’s unpopularity, now resorted to grubby methods to silence his detractors at home. On 17 June 1972 five burglars botched a break-in into the Democratic Party’s National Committee offices in the Watergate apartment complex of Washington.

Caught red-handed carrying wiretapping and photo equipment, it soon transpired that the burglars were linked in some way to Nixon, who denied any knowledge of the misdemeanour. One of the five, James McCord, worked for the Nixon campaign as ’security’ officer for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), and had worked for John Mitchell, chief of CREEP and the then Attorney General. Two had worked for the CIA and three were veterans of the 1961 invasion of Cuba.

$114,000 was found in the possession of Bernard Barker, one of the burglars. The White House attempted to use the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation of the origins of this money. It was the media’s dogged determination to reveal the source of the Baker money that contributed to unravelling the cover-up. $89,000 had been channelled through Mexico to disguise its origins and $25,000 came from Nixon fund-raiser Kenneth Dahlberg.

These revelations set in motion the official investigations that finally ensnared Nixon. But it would take the creeping revelations of two years, the skilled investigatative journalism of Washington Post reporters Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the ’smoking gun’ tapes to finally nail Nixon. Five days after the burglary, Nixon claimed "the White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident."

In September 1973 a grand jury indicted the Watergate burglars. These sacrificial lambs were paid $450,000 to maintain silence. Before the trial Nixon had secretly promised them executive clemency if they were imprisoned. In November 1973, Nixon urged the nation to put Watergate behind it, and unconvincingly declared: "I am not a crook."

Fearing prosecution, lesser officials of the Nixon administration began to squeal. Soon Nixon’s top White House aides and even Nixon himself were implicated in not only the Watergate burglary and its subsequent cover-up but also a whole succession of illegal deeds against political opponents and anti-Vietnam war activists. Various testimonies exposed the corruption and stench at the top of the political establishment. Attorney General John Mitchell controlled a secret fund of $350,000 to $700,000 to be used for dirty tricks against the Democratic Party, such as forging letters and leaking false news items to the press. Giant American corporations, including American Airlines, had made illegal donations, running into millions of dollars, to the Nixon campaign.

Save the system

It was disclosed that between 1969 and 1971 Nixon and his aides misused campaign donations and un-lawfully used the FBI, CIA and the Inland Revenue Service against their political opponents. This included authorising without court approval the wiretapping of government officials and journalists to uncover the source of leaked news about the bombing of Cambodia. Nixon had set up the Special Investigations Unit (the "plumbers") in 1971 to carry out these operations.

Nixon’s presidency continued and deepened a post-world war II trend of increasing secrecy, deception, and evasion of congressional controls in the conduct of military and covert operations abroad by the executive, and the use of executive agencies to monitor political opponents and interfere in

the electoral process. Responding to increasing concerns about a president out of control, the effect on civil liberties, and mounting mistrust of government, and in order to head off growing anger to America’s war in Vietnam, the ruling class moved to curtail the powers of the presidency vis-^-vis a reassertion of the authority of Congress.

Various reforms were introduced to redress the erosion of congressional powers, including the decentralisation of authority, campaign finance and budgetary controls and consultation with Congress on the use of troops abroad. These reforms, and Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, encouraged the view that the American system of institutional checks and balances had been vindicated and that "no one is above the law". The reality is less convincing. Left to the political establishment Nixon would have got away with it.

Initially Nixon, claiming "executive privilege", refused to hand over the tapes, and when he did 181/2 minutes of one tape had been erased. Despite masses of other evidence, it took these tapes to finally trap Nixon. For two years the "politics of cooperation" had resulted in Republicans and Democrats in the Senate manoeuvring, placing obstacles to and blocking all attempts to move against Nixon. This conspiracy included an electoral deal between Republicans and Democrats up for re-election in 1972. Congress only acted when public outrage demanded it. Bowing to the inevitable and to avoid impeachment and more damaging revelations, Nixon resigned – the first ever US president to do so. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger got off scot free to continue pursuing US imperialism’s interests abroad.

The word was to get rid of Nixon to save the system, or as one adviser put it: "All the rotten apples should be thrown out. But save the barrel." Gerald Ford appointed by Nixon as Vice-President in 1973, upon assumption of the presidency promptly pardoned Nixon and, with the backing of Republicans and Democrats, exempted him from any criminal proceedings.


Post-Watergate reforms proved transitory and reversible. Bush is now vastly increasing his powers on the back of the amplified tensions and uncertainties resulting from 11 September.

In the name of national security and the ’war against terrorism’ Bush is riding roughshod over Congress and, moreover, trampling on the democratic rights of American workers. The clampdown on democratic rights has more to do with the economic crisis and the social and political upheavals awaiting US capitalism rather than the threats of terrorism. The ruling class fear being held to account by angry workers determined not just to throw out some rotten apples but also to smash the mouldy barrel. 

Bush attacks democratic rights

LAST MONTH the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was given sweeping new powers to spy on US citizens reversing Congressional limits on the agency imposed in the wake of the Watergate scandal 25 years ago. The changes announced by right-wing Attorney General John Ashcroft allow FBI agents to spy on people, organisations and events without having to show evidence that a crime has been or is being committed.

Ashcroft also has given the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) powers to fingerprint and photograph some 100,000 visitors from two dozen countries deemed to pose an "elevated national security risk". It means racially profiling mainly Middle Eastern nationals, adding to a xenophobic atmosphere in post-11 September America.

Its overall effect is to put the CIA and other intelligence agencies back into the business of spying on Americans at home, while pursuing aggressive foreign interventions, state assassinations and torture of opponents abroad. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described the changes as the "latest power grab by an administration that seems determined to undermine the bedrock values of liberty, equality and government accountability."

Three weeks ago US President George Bush announced the creation of a new Department of Homelands Security which will report directly to his cabinet. Thousands of employees and billions of dollars will go into creating this third spy agency to rival the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Both the FBI and CIA also expect to receive extra resources.

Patriot Act

In the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, George Bush was able, last October, to steamroller through Congress the USA Patriot Act giving the police and FBI even more powers to search people’s homes and financial records. It also allows them to tap phone calls, emails and detain ’suspected terrorists’ mainly without seeking legal permission. "Now you don’t need to be doing anything unlawful to get a knock on the door," Laura Murphy, the ACLU director, said. The legislation was passed with Democrat approval.

The Patriot Act, and other repressive legislation passed since 11 September, extend the power of the state, particularly the executive, and encroach on civil liberties. A new definition of "domestic terrorism" has been created, which can be used against anti-globalisation and trade union activists. On 13 November 2001, US President George Bush announced that any non-US citizen he declared a suspected terrorist might be tried, at his discretion, by a secretive military tribunal rather than in a criminal court.

However, the effectiveness of Bush’s ’war against terrorism’ has been heavily criticised, not least for the FBI’s and CIA’s "intelligence failures". Critics point to the internecine battle between the two agencies and the FBI’s bureaucracy which caused them to overlook prior to 11 September crucial intelligence reports on al-Qa’ida operatives. The FBI hit back claiming their hands were tied with legal red tape, hence the sweeping new powers on surveillance. But overlooked in this criticism is the business and political links between the Bush family and the Saudi Arabian regime, including the bin Laden family.

Only days after 11 September when Ashcroft was rounding up US Muslims and Middle Eastern nationals as suspected terrorists, the bin Laden family was allowed to fly out of America back to Saudi Arabia. The suspicion is not that the FBI and CIA were "looking the wrong way" but rather that the White House has skeletons in cupboards that Bush wants securely locked away.

Around 1,200 American and foreign nationals have been held incommunicado (some in solitary confinement) by the Justice Department as suspected terrorists, without any legal recourse, since 11 September. None have been convicted, and many have been charged with only minor immigration offences such as overstaying their visas, etc.

The US administration like its British New Labour counterpart has used 11 September and the public’s fear of terrorism to force through anti-democratic laws and measures. These laws can and will be used to restrict anti-capitalist protests and trade union actions against employers. Socialist parties and organisations will also be targeted by government agents while ’dirty tricks’ by governments, if revealed, will be justified by the all pervasive ’war against terror’.

The trade unions and political organisations of the working class have a responsibility to fight for, and oppose restrictions on, democratic rights.

This article first appeared in The Socialist.

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July 2002