Did reporters embellish facts of Watergate probe?
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Last Saturday, June 16, was the 40th anniversary of the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate hotel.
Watergate is the most highly publicized scandal in American history. It made heroes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two then junior reporters at The Washington Post. But what they told us about Watergate may be more myth than fact.
"Deep Throat," Mr. Woodward's famous source, was loosely based on then FBI deputy director Mark Felt.
Very loosely based. In researching his book "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat," author Max Holland reviewed the contemporaneous notes Mr. Woodward took of his meetings with Mr. Felt, which are publicly available at the University of Texas.
"Woodward committed acts of embellishment that any normal reporter would be drawn and quartered for," Mr. Holland said. "The account in 'All the President's Men' contains direct quotes of words, phrases and sometimes whole sentences that are not present the contemporaneous typewritten notes. ... Occasionally, the meaning of what Felt said is substantially changed."
Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee doubted Mr. Woodward's account of his meetings with Mr. Felt, according to a 1990 interview unearthed by former Woodward research assistant Jeff Himmelman for his new biography of Mr. Bradlee.
When Mr. Woodward read the transcript of that interview, his mentor was "visibly shaken," Mr. Himmelman wrote. "All vigor drained from his voice."
With good reason. "At the heart of 'All the President's Men' is a fairy tale," Mr. Holland said. Mr. Felt's motive for snitching wasn't outrage (he'd done worse himself). He wanted to get FBI director L. Patrick Gray fired, so he could replace him. And "Woodstein's" primary source appears to have been a grand juror who was illegally leaking information.
The prosecutors had developed an "airtight" case against the five Watergate burglars, and two White House aides, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, Edward J. Epstein had noted in 1974. Mr. Holland thinks it was tacky of Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein to imply the original federal prosecutors "missed the real story," when in fact "these same U.S. attorneys handed the Watergate special prosecutor a literal road map to every single successful prosecution of a higher-up."
That isn't the half of it. As a very junior reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, I covered some of the Watergate trials, and was at Andrews AFB for the start of the flight in which President Richard Nixon turned into a pumpkin over Kansas. Judge John Sirica threatened the burglars with long prison sentences if they didn't talk. I've always found it odd the only one to crack was the head of the burglary team, James McCord, who'd resigned abruptly as the chief of physical security at the CIA to become security chief for the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
In his 1984 book, "Secret Agenda," Jim Hougan described how Mr. McCord did all but shoot off fireworks to alert the dull witted security guard on duty in the Watergate that night to the presence of the burglars. The Nixon administration was threatening to expose CIA involvement in plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Mr. Hougan thinks the CIA got Nixon before Nixon could get the CIA.
The purpose of the break-in was to remove wiretaps placed earlier on the phone of a DNC aide who provided call girls for Democrat big shots when they visited Washington -- fairly prosaic as scandals go.
"The crime itself was really not a great deal," Mr. Bradlee said in that 1990 interview. "Had it not been for the Nixon resignation, it really would have been a blip in history."
Nobody was killed in Watergate. At least two U.S. law enforcement officers, and hundreds of Mexicans, have been killed as a result of the Obama administration's decision to permit nearly 2,500 guns to be transferred to Mexican drug cartels.
The leaks of national security information to make President Obama look good "will probably get people killed or tortured, and they will weaken America's ability for years to work covertly with allies," said the military historian Victor Davis Hanson.
The inattention of the news media to these scandals is far worse than their Watergate distortions.
First Published June 19, 2012 3:46 pm