The Break-In That History Forgot
By EGIL KROGH
THE Watergate break-in, described by Ron Ziegler, then the White House press secretary, as a “third-rate burglary,” passes its 35th anniversary this month. The common public perception is that Watergate was the principal cause of President Nixon’s downfall. In fact, the seminal cause was a first-rate criminal conspiracy and break-in almost 10 months earlier that led inexorably to Watergate and its subsequent cover-up.
In early August 1971, I attended a secret meeting in Room 16, a hideaway office in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. Huddled around the table were G. Gordon Liddy, a former F.B.I. agent; E. Howard Hunt, a former C.I.A. agent; and David R. Young Jr., a member of the National Security Council staff. I was deputy assistant to the president.
Two months earlier, The New York Times had published the classified Pentagon Papers, which had been provided by Daniel Ellsberg. President Nixon had told me he viewed the leak as a matter of critical importance to national security. He ordered me and the others, a group that would come to be called the “plumbers,” to find out how the leak had happened and keep it from happening again.
Mr. Hunt urged us to carry out a “covert operation” to get a “mother lode” of information about Mr. Ells-berg’s mental state, to discredit him, by breaking into the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. Mr. Liddy told us the F.B.I. had frequently carried out such covert operations — a euphemism for burglaries — in national security investigations, that he had even done some himself.
I listened intently. At no time did I or anyone else there question whether the operation was necessary, legal or moral. Convinced that we were responding legitimately to a national security crisis, we focused instead on the operational details: who would do what, when and where.
Mr. Young and I sent a memo to John Ehrlichman, assistant to the president, recommending that “a covert operation be undertaken to examine all of the medical files still held by Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.” Mr. Ehrlichman approved the plan, noting in longhand on the memo, “if done under your assurance that it is not traceable.”
On Sept. 3, 1971, burglars broke into Dr. Fielding’s Beverly Hills office to photograph the files, but found nothing related to Mr. Ellsberg.
The premise of our action was the strongly held view within certain precincts of the White House that the president and those functioning on his behalf could carry out illegal acts with impunity if they were convinced that the nation’s security demanded it. As President Nixon himself said to David Frost during an interview six years later, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” To this day the implications of this statement are staggering.
With the Fielding break-in, some of us in the Nixon White House crossed the Rubicon into the realm of lawbreakers. In November 1973, I pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy in depriving Dr. Fielding of his civil rights, specifically his constitutional right to be free from an unwarranted search. I no longer believed that national security could justify my conduct. At my sentencing, I explained that national security is “subject to a wide range of definitions, a factor that makes all the more essential a painstaking approach to the definition of national security in any given instance.”
Judge Gerhard Gesell gave me the first prison sentence of any member of the president’s staff: two to six years, of which I served four and a half months.
I finally realized that what had gone wrong in the Nixon White House was a meltdown in personal integrity. Without it, we failed to understand the constitutional limits on presidential power and comply with statutory law.
In early 2001, after President Bush was inaugurated, I sent the new White House staff a memo explaining the importance of never losing their personal integrity. In a section addressed specifically to the White House lawyers, I said that integrity required them to constantly ask, is it legal? And I recommended that they rely on well-established legal precedent and not some hazy, loose notion of what phrases like “national security” and “commander in chief” could be tortured into meaning. I wonder if they received my message.
Egil Krogh, a lawyer, is the author of the forthcoming “Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons From the White House.”