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Morton: Watergate break-in leads to widespread scandal

Published: Monday, June 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, June 17, 2013 12:43 p.m. CST

On this day (June 17) in 1972, five men were apprehended in the act of burglarizing the offices of Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

This break-in was the first of a series of scandals (collectively known as the Watergate scandal) that eventually led to the only resignation of a president in U.S. history and the conviction and incarceration of numerous government officials in the Richard M. Nixon administration.

Burglarizing the DNC offices had been first suggested in January 1972 when the Committee to Re-elect the President’s G. Gordon Liddy presented a re-election plan that involved the committing of illegal acts. Therefore, it is almost certain, that Attorney General John Mitchell, President Counsel John Dean, CRP Deputy Director Jeb Stuart Magruder, E. Howard Hunt, Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and Nixon aide John Ehrlichman were probably all privy to Liddy’s plan to burglarize the DNC offices.

Now the question is: Did President Nixon have foreknowledge of the break-in?

In a June 23 taped conversation between Haldeman and the president regarding the break-in, Nixon angrily asked, “Who was the a------ who ordered it?”

Within hours after the break-in, described by Nixon’s Press Secretary Ron Ziegler as “a third-rate burglary attempt,” the FBI discovered a link between the five burglars with Hunt and Liddy, who also involved with a secret organization known as the White House Plumbers, which was established to stop security “leaks.”

This suggested strongly that CRP activities were well-known in the White House and probably with the president.

After two unsuccessful attempts to burglarize the DNC offices, Magruder ordered Liddy to try a third time to break into the DNC offices and photograph documents and install wiretapping listening devices.

This third attempt began in the early morning hours of June 17 when five men were arrested for breaking and entering into the DNC headquarters. It was shortly after midnight on June 17 that Watergate security guard Frank Wills noticed that the door handles on the DNC doors were taped (which allowed the doors to close but remain unlocked).

He removed the tape and then left to continue his security check of other offices.

Checking back an hour later, he noticed that the door locks had been retaped. He called the police who responded quickly and arrested the five burglars.

On Sept. 15, 1972, a grand jury indicted the five for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. The five were tried and convicted on Jan. 30, 1973, by Judge John Sirica.

Nixon maintained all along that he did not order the Watergate break-in and that he did not know about it until afterward.

Even though he might not have been directly involved in its planning and execution, he was mightily involved in its “cover-up.”

On Aug. 29, Nixon had lied to the press when he stated: “I can say categorically that … no one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.”

Soon after the “bizarre” break-in, it became known that Nixon had ordered both the CIA and FBI to cease their investigations into the break-in and also that he had most likely offered money to several aides if they would lie regarding possible White House involvement in the break-in and its subsequent cover-up.

The Watergate scandal led to some 48 of 69 government officials charged with crimes being found guilty. Most significantly, this widespread scandal led to Nixon being threatened with Impeachment and removal from office and his Aug. 8, 1974, resignation as president.

Interestingly, the Nixon-Sprio Agnew Republican ticket was not seriously jeopardized by the festering scandal, for it was easily re-elected on Nov. 7, 1972, with an electoral vote of 520 to just 17 for the George McGovern-R. Sargent Shriver Democratic ticket.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. He can be reached at demjcm@comcast.net.

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