Defining Ideas

Rethinking Watergate

Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Image credit: 
Allen Lew, via flickr

The Watergate break-in is now 45 years old. The scandal is as distant from our own time as it was once from 1928. The median age of Americans is about 38 years old. Half of all Americans were likely born after the break-in. But Watergate is hardly ancient history.

The fumes of Watergate waft around the current FISA-gate scandal. The now septuagenarians Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, of All the President’s Men fame, are back in the news. As seasoned crusading reporters, they currently offer admonitions that Donald Trump is replaying the role of a supposedly paranoid and imperious Richard Nixon.

But is he? The two investigative journalists who first brought Watergate to public attention are certainly not wrong about parallels—but not in the way they imagine. FISA-gate is becoming Watergate turned upside down. The respective roles of the government, liberal Democrats, civil libertarians, and the White House are now reversed—and this turnaround is, in a strange way, redefining Watergate itself.

In 1973-74, civil libertarians were shocked at White House efforts to use the CIA to suppress information about the break-in at the Watergate complex and the subsequent efforts to hide or misrepresent it. They were rightly outraged that the Nixon reelection campaign broke the law in efforts to find dirt on Democrats. They were incredulous that the White House used hush money to silence those charged with the crime, and to hide the origins and transference of such payments.

In 2018, however, the FBI and the CIA were said to have good reason to have once trafficked in purchased campaign dirt. The Clinton campaign in 2016 paid a private law firm and Fusion/GPS consultants millions of dollars for myths supplied by the Russians to create pejorative fantasies about Trump-Russian collusion. Clinton-paid Fusion/GPS operatives, then sought to plant and authenticate their wild stories with the FBI, the State Department, perhaps the CIA, and certainly sympathetic news organizations. Only by dogged subpoenas and lawsuits has the public discovered who commissioned the Trump dossier, or how it was manipulated to obtain court-approved surveillance of American citizens.

Nixon defenders used to discount Watergate as a “three-bit” break-in without larger ramifications. Liberals rightly demurred. They correctly argued that when a presidential campaign hired operatives to break the law to monitor its rival Democratic counterpart, it was likely only the tip of the iceberg—symptomatic of larger Nixon administration abuses of government power.

Yet it is now progressive defenders of Hillary Clinton who allege that former Trump foreign-policy advisor Carter Page—who was likely illegally surveilled through the improper use of Clinton-funded smear documents—is a nobody. This time around, the incident that broke open the scandal is not a window into high crimes and misdemeanors; it is written off as irrelevant.

In Watergate, investigative reporters tried their best to discover whether the FBI and the CIA were doing Nixon’s bidding. They largely came up empty. Nixon-era federal investigative and intelligence agencies properly resisted most presidential pressure to cover-up crimes under the guise of “national security.”  Not now. In FISA-gate, the FBI colluded with the Clinton campaign by using the latter’s oppositional smear document as the basis to spy on those associated with the campaign of her rival. If in 1973, federal agencies refused to cooperate with President Nixon, it seems during the present scandal that they were weaponized to discredit President Trump.

During the Watergate scandal, a courageous and activist federal judge, John Sirica, did not believe phony stories that the original burglars had acted on their own. He helped to gain their cooperation and confessions—and he forced the Nixon administration to hand over tapes of private presidential conversations.

But there is no such judge now. The judiciary is on the other side of the equation. Apparently, compliant FISA court judges asked few questions when they approved FBI and Department of Justice requests to snoop on an American citizen—on the basis of Clinton’s purchased oppositional research dossier and news stories that were birthed by the dossier. Nor did FISA judges apparently bother to ask the FBI and DOJ officials whether they trusted the very author of the dossier, Christopher Steele—who had been earlier fired by the FBI for lying. Nor have judges yet investigated whether defendants were either indicted or coerced into confessions by the FBI’s use of improperly obtained surveillance.

The popular credo in 1973-74 was “follow the money.” Both journalists and authorities were supposed to ferret out who paid for stonewalling and covering up the truth. The rationale was that the cash trail would lead eventually to high Nixon officials or even to Nixon himself.

Again, not now. The fact that Clinton paid for the Steele dossier that was likely the excuse to spy on American citizens does not seem to matter. Nor are reporters worried that the FBI has admitted it considered paying Steele for more dirt, until he broke his agreement and leaked to journalists. The CIA also is alleged to have paid Russian sources for anti-Trump gossip, under the guise of seeking cyber-security information. In 2018, no one is worried that a political campaign may have funded the entire wild goose chase of a Trump and Russia collusion.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has recently indicted thirteen Russians on various charges of fraud. Yet none of them will be extradited from Russia. None of them are charged with collusion with the Trump campaign—the original Mueller mandate. In contrast, the author of the Fusion/GPS dossier, Christopher Steele, is so far facing no charges—despite the fact that he, too, is a foreign citizen. He likely received pay from one presidential candidate to attack her rival and thus warp the election. He worked with the Russians to smear Trump, and can be easily extradited from the United Kingdom.

What finally destroyed Nixon was the forced release of tapes of his confidential conversations. The public learned that Nixon was not only warping federal agencies, but also that his language and personal prejudices were gross and unpresidential. A mysterious missing “gap” in the recordings was taken as an effort to hide particularly incriminating presidential conversations

In 2018, the concerns are just the opposite. Democrats are not much bothered by the text messages of FBI officials and former special counsel investigators. The Peter Strzok-Lisa Page text transcripts are often obscene. They reflect ethnic biases and stereotyping, and likely reveal the efforts of their higher-ups to interfere in supposedly independent investigations. For a while, there was even a “lost” gap of several months of subpoenaed text messages. In 1974, Nixon’s private conversations were said to be revelations of an utterly cynical and amoral White House. Yet the Strzok and Page texts were said to be no big deal—just FBI bureaucrats “letting off steam.” Or, at the very least, the texts needed to be understood in their proper context.

But the biggest disconnect is the press itself. Woodward and Bernstein created a new no-holds-barred form of investigative journalism that generated a cult-like following. They advised us not to trust authorities simply because they held power. The press bragged that it had broken the Watergate story because it sued, followed the money trail, and never took seriously bureaucratic spin or pro forma excuses. Journalists grew irate when government and political operatives questioned their motives and patriotism.

Now the media’s role is to distrust troublemakers who request or sue for federal transcripts, documents, and testimonies—and even to suggest that it is disloyal or subversive to doubt the FBI’s often changing narratives.

Suddenly it is near-treasonous to question the ethics or behavior of the FBI. Not coming clean with a FISA court or leaking confidential and likely classified notes is suddenly not out of the ordinary. So-called civil libertarians argue that text messages and FISA orders should not be disclosed because doing so will endanger national security. When the Clinton campaign swears that commissioning the dossier was normal campaign behavior, when the FBI claims that its surveillance of private citizens was warranted, or when Obama officials defend unmasking and leaking the names of Americans who were monitored—journalists now nod.

What can account for this abject reversal of roles?

Simply, Richard Nixon was considered a right-wing danger whose abuse of power warranted his removal. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton was seen as liberal crusader who would save the nation from the dangers of the reactionary ogre Donald Trump—and any means necessary to achieve such ends was considered justified.

For liberals in 1973, the status quo was considered right-wing and dangerous—and it was therefore to be opposed at all costs to find the truth about Nixon. In 2016, Clinton was part of a status quo that extended eight years back through Barack Obama’s tenure and was considered the favored candidate by the permanent bureaucracy, the mainstream media, and the legal establishment, many of whom sought to help her defeat Trump.

Think about changing the roles in 2016. Imagine a Trump-funded anti-Clinton dossier drawing on Russian gossip about Secretary Clinton, peddled by the FBI, rubber-stamped by FISA courts, and used to monitor Clinton campaign operatives to find dirt on Clinton and to leak such information to the press—in the last days of a presidential campaign. Would we not then see a true progressive reenactment of Watergate, with all of the concerned parties repeating their 1973 roles—the press especially frenzied rather than somnolent?

FISA-gate is not just an upside-down Watergate. It also forces us to rethink Watergate itself. The facts, of course, that led to Nixon’s 1974 resignation are unchanged and condemnatory. But the relative eagerness to uncover them can be recalibrated by the contrast with FISA-gate.

In other words, was it really principle and concern for the transparent and blind administration of justice that drove the original and necessary official and media investigation of Nixon? Or, in some measure, did the furor over Nixon arise over his seemingly odious politics and person that for decades had enraged his enemies?

FISA-gate, and the media’s response to it, is not so much another Watergate as an anti-Watergate. The disconnect with the past begs us to redefine the story of Watergate itself 45 years later: Was it what Richard Nixon did, or who Richard Nixon was, that ignited the scandal?