Watergate Journalism: The Seeds Of Our Discontent

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We can all agree that American society is divided, and many blame the division on an irrational distrust of our major media. Time magazine recently lamented how public skepticism is growing in spite of the strength of today’s aggressive investigative journalism:

“When the press is derided and distrusted, it’s easier to ignore whatever it is discovering, even at a time when the investigative prowess of our best reporters has been extraordinary.” (Page 27. December 11, 2017)

But if the fabled Watergate investigative reporting by The Washington Post is any marker, this distrust is not irrational. There is a very good argument to be made that today’s agenda-driven journalism — born of the highly effective but deeply flawed Watergate reporting — has caused our societal distemper.

Every schoolchild today is taught that President Richard Nixon resigned his presidency in disgrace because he falsely pointed to the Central Intelligence Agency to restrict the FBI’s Watergate investigation. But what if Nixon was right about CIA involvement — wittingly or otherwise? And what if a major newspaper deliberately concealed irrefutable evidence of CIA sponsorship of the Watergate burglaries?

In fact, there is a strong case that this is exactly what happened in Watergate. Burglary team leader James McCord had falsely retired from the CIA on an earlier occasion to go under cover. The operation’s supervisor, Howard Hunt (immediately identified) was himself recently “retired” from the CIA, working not only for the White House, but also for Mullen and Company, a CIA cover front. Both McCord and Hunt had worked for the CIA’s black-ops, highly secretive Office of Security, which reported directly to CIA director Richard Helms.

Mark Felt, later my client and then associate director of the FBI, received a written CIA memo soon after the arrests confirming Mullen’s CIA cover status. Quite rationally, this savvy 30-year FBI veteran concluded that the burglary was likely a White House operation, a CIA operation or both.

Not to prolong the suspense, the answer was “both.”

Felt’s preliminary hypotheses, relayed to FBI Director Gray and on to Dean, became the inspiration for the scheme to obstruct the investigation.

The Post went out of its way to depict Mullen’s involvement with the CIA as having been limited to some work for Radio Free Cuba “in the 1960s.” Can we be sure, though, that Woodward and the Post knew of Mullen’s current cover status, and that therefore Hunt may have been acting under cover? Well, yes, because there is a CIA memo which details the deal between Woodward and Robert Bennett, president of Mullen, to keep Mullen’s status out of the Post:

Woodward is suitably grateful for the fine stories and by-lines which he gets [from Bennett] and protects Bennett (and the Mullen Company). (Eisenstadt, Eric. “Memorandum for the Deputy Director for Plans.” Central Intelligence Agency. March 1, 1973)

The Post cared little about the thin gruel that Bennett might give, but did care about nailing Nixon and protecting its ally, the Democratic National Committee.

There is much more. The CIA always intended that if its shenanigans were ever discovered in the future, it could claim it had “national security” authorization from the White House, through its lower-level agents, legitimizing otherwise illegal operations. McCord likely thought, as he was being jailed, that the CIA would admit its involvement, but claim the “national security” defense.

The burglars made no calls from the jail the night of the arrest. As McCord was being marched to his arraignment on June 17, he had every reason to claim this as a legal CIA operation, and not an illegal burglary. So when he ran into an old professional friend at the jail, D. C. Intelligence Officer Garey Bittenbender, he freely admitted to him that this was a CIA operation. Bittenbender quickly told the FBI.

Maybe we can imagine that our intrepid reporters learned nothing about the Bittenbender statement either through Deep Throat or from the cadre of local lower-level FBI agents and defense lawyers they had cultivated. But it is not possible to believe that they did not know of James McCord’s public testimony about Bittenbender’s statement on May 24 and 25, 1973 before the Ervin Committee. Bittenbender must have been confused, McCord testified, because he had known McCord over the years in his capacity as a CIA agent.

However, to argue that a highly curious, veteran intelligence officer would misunderstand McCord’s statement is to strain credulity. Regardless, the Post never reported Bittenbender’s statement.

McCord’s testimony immediately followed the highly dramatic garage meeting of May 16-17, 1973, when a highly agitated Deep Throat warned Woodward, referring to the CIA, “Everyone’s life is in danger!” But the reporters told us in “All the President’s Men” that nothing ever came of these threats.

If the Post reporters were a tenth as good as their Pulitzer Prizes suggested, they would have printed the story of Michael Stevens, a Chicago-area wiretapping device manufacturer from whom McCord had ordered the Watergate bugs. McCord had told Stevens that the bugs were for a CIA operation, and showed him a letter on CIA stationery so attesting, after which Stevens verified McCord’s CIA status with his own agency sources. Now, having received death threats, Stevens flew to the protective arms of the FBI.

While it makes sense, again, that Deep Throat would have filled Woodward in, how do we know that he and Bernstein would have learned of Stevens? Well, apparently sourced by someone in the FBI — likely Felt — Chicago Today published sensational stories on May 14 and 16, 1973, including the stunning fact that some bugs on order at the time of the arrests were to be set to link up to a CIA satellite. But the Post ignored these stories.

At the same time, Lou Russell, a shadowy detective and a McCord contractor, had been put under subpoena by the minority (Republicans) of the Ervin Committee, who suspected him of being Watergate’s legendary “sixth burglar,” unknown to the White House and carrying out the CIA’s secret agenda, which, it seems, involved eavesdropping on prostitutes and prominent johns. Before Russell could testify, someone, he claimed, switched his heart medications, causing his heart attack on May 18, and death weeks later.

How should the Post have known that Russell was likely the “sixth burglar?” The story was certainly accessible to the Post’s smaller, weaker competitor, the Washington Star. Young Star reporter Pat Collins reported on October 11, 1972 that Russell admitted to the FBI that he was employed by McCord, was in the vicinity of the Watergate office building on the night of the burglary, and that FBI agents didn’t believe his excuse for being there. But nothing in the Post about Russell.

Oh, yes, and McCord was picked up at the jail after making bail by a man known only as “Pennington.” Mark Felt requested that the CIA identify all agents named Pennington. The CIA gave the FBI the name of Cecil Pennington, but not Lee Pennington, a “sensitive” CIA agent who had previously gone to McCord’s home, there to burn all records showing McCord’s ongoing CIA connections. Pennington, it seems, was McCord’s CIA case agent. But the Post hid the Pennington story.

But why, we must ask, would the CIA be interested in Democratic campaign strategy? The answer is, it wouldn’t be. But, then, neither were the burglars. They were not, as the Post has insisted, looking to listen to DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien, who was and would be out of town. Wiretap monitor Alfred Baldwin told the FBI that the conversations which he monitored were “explicitly intimate.”

But the Post harped on campaign spying, knowing the evidence didn’t hold up. Nixon was hanging on by a thread in June 1974, when Howard Baker issued a devastating 42-page exposé of the CIA’s involvement in Watergate. The Baker Report, detailed plenty on Mullen, Hunt, McCord, Pennington and the CIA’s clear obstruction of the investigation. But the Post buried and mischaracterized the Baker Report in a brief, bland July 3, 1974 “news analysis.”

Nixon would not be saved, and resigned in disgrace on August 9, 1974.

The point here is not to contend that Nixon covered himself with glory. But if the Post had been truthful, the Nixon administration would have been seen as much victim as a perpetrator. The dog-whistle message received by young wannabe journalists was that they should take sides, as did the highly praised Post, wearing invisible jerseys while presenting themselves as objective arbiters of truth. As part of its long campaign reviling Nixon’s cover-up, the Post has perpetuated its own dishonest cover-up for these same 45 years.

President Nixon eventually made a mea culpa to David Frost. Will the Post do likewise? Don’t bet on it, or on the divisiveness ending. Reverend Jeremiah Wright so famously cried: “America, your chickens are coming home to roost!”

Some pretty big chickens, it seems, were hatched in Watergate.

John D. O’Connor is the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the co-author of “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington” and is a producer of “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017), written and directed by Peter Landesman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.