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1972, Richard Nixon, Watergate

The Watergate Break-In and the Downfall of Nixon

On May 28, 1972, operatives from the Nixon White House broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate in Washington, DC, and installed bugging equipment, to monitor the party’s activities in the months leading up to the presidential election later that year.  The burglars were tied to President Nixon’s re-election campaign. – the Committee for the Re=election of the President, or CREEP.

On June 17, the burglars returned for second round of espionage – but were caught in the act.  Five men were arrested:  Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalex, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis and James W. McCord, who was security director for CREEP.

Alfred E. Lewis
, a Washington Post staff writer, reported on the break-in in the June 18, 1972 edition of the paper:

5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here

Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.

Three of the men were native-born Cubans and another was said to have trained Cuban exiles for guerrilla activity after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

They were surprised at gunpoint by three plain-clothes officers of the metropolitan police department in a sixth floor office at the plush Watergate, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, where the Democratic National Committee occupies the entire floor.

There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee offices or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee said records kept in those offices are “not of a sensitive variety” although there are “financial records and other such information.”

Police said two ceiling panels in the office of Dorothy V. Bush, secretary of the Democratic Party, had been removed.

Her office is adjacent to the office of Democratic National Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien. Presumably, it would have been possible to slide a bugging device through the panels in that office to a place above the ceiling panels in O’Brien’s office.

All wearing rubber surgical gloves, the five suspects were captured inside a small office within the committee’s headquarters suite.

Police said the men had with them at least two sophisticated devices capable of picking up and transmitting all talk, including telephone conversations. In addition, police found lock-picks and door jimmies, almost $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence.

The men also had with them one walkie-talkie, 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.

Near where they were captured were two open file drawers, and one national committee source conjectured that the men were preparing to photograph the contents.

In Court yesterday, one suspect said the men were “anti-Communists” and the others nodded agreement. The operation was described in court by prosecutor Earl J. Silbert as “professional” and “clandestine.” One of the Cuban natives, The Washington Post learned, is now a Miami locksmith.

Former attorney general John Mitchell, head of the Nixon reelection campaign, denied any link to the operation. Then, on August 1, 1972, a $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for the Nixon campaign, wound up in the bank account of a Watergate burglar.

On August 30, 
Nixon claimed that White House counsel John Dean had conducted an investigation into the Watergate matter and found that no-one from the White House was involved.  The findings did not satisfy authorities, and on September 15, the first indictments were made against the five burglars, as well as E.  Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer and Nixon confidante, and G. Gordon Liddy, a White House operative involved with CREEP.  Hunt, Liddy and others were part of the Nixon White House “plumbers” — a secret team of operatives charged with fixing “leaks.”   Hunt and Liddy were charged with engineering the first Watergate burglary and other undercover operations for Nixon.

On September 29, The Washington Post reported that John Mitchell, while serving as Attorney General, controlled a secret Republican fund used to finance widespread intelligence-gathering operations against the Democrats.

By October10, FBI agents had established that the Watergate break-in stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon reelection effort. The unfolding scandal had little impact on the 1972 presidential campaign, and on November 11, Nixon was reelected in one of the largest landslides in American political history, taking more than 60 percent of the vote and crushing the Democratic nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

However, the mounting evidence – and the apparent attempts of the Nixon administration to cover-up its involvement – doomed Nixon’s second term.  In 1974, facing near-certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and a strong possibility of a conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency, on August 9 — the only resignation of a U.S. president. The scandal also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 people, including dozens of top Nixon administration officials.

Nixon was succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford as President, who on September 8, 1974, issued a full and unconditional pardon of Nixon, immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president.

About markwalston

Writer, historian, creative director, poet, playwright, author of nine books and nearly 200 essays and articles exploring a broad range of American social, cultural and historical topics.


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