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This summer, Americans are being treated to a rehashing of the individuals and events involved in the Watergate Scandal, which was kicked off with a foiled burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. As we approach its 50th anniversary, most Americans already know that things ended rather badly for President Nixon: two dozen members of his administration were convicted and sent to prison, and he was forced to resign in disgrace.
But there’s a lot the public still doesn’t know about what really went on between the 1972 break-in and Nixon’s 1974 resignation. I was there, working behind the scenes as deputy counsel on President Nixon’s Watergate defense team. Unfortunately, I can tell you the public is not likely to be better informed by much of the programming set to debut around the anniversary.
The chief reason for this is that corporate media has chosen as their Watergate Whisperer the chief architect of the scandal: John Dean, who has spent years trying to deflect from his own wrongdoing by passing himself off as a whistleblowing hero. Dean is front-and-center in a CNN documentary that promised to dish the dirt on what Dean calls “the criminal conduct of Richard Nixon and his top aides.” Dean even headlined a screening of the film at the National Archives earlier this month.
The documentary dramatically downplays the fact that it was Dean who was tasked by President Nixon’s chief of staff to produce a “perfectly legitimate campaign intelligence plan” (as he told the president in a recorded conversation on March 21, 1973), and that he was the one who had recruited political operative, G. Gordon Liddy, for the task.
“Recruited” is a whole lot more descriptive than Dean saying on CNN that “Liddy’s name popped up” – almost as though he had no key involvement. Dean was then present in two meetings with Attorney General Mitchell where Liddy presented his plan. Saying “I received a call to come to the Attorney General’s office” is nowhere nearly as descriptive as admitting he was included in the meeting as the official in charge of the project.
Following the burglars’ arrests, Dean masterminded the ensuing cover-up, not to protect White House interests, as he led others to believe, but to protect himself from risks of prosecution. When his cover-up collapsed, Dean was the first to approach prosecutors, seeking personal immunity for himself, by turning on his former colleagues. The original prosecutors declined, believing Dean was downplaying his central role throughout the scandal’s unfolding.
His politically connected lawyer, Charles Shaffer, got that immunity instead from the Senate Ervin Committee, headed by North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, which was anxious to line up anti-Nixon witnesses. They had every reason to falsely portray Dean as some sort of whistleblowing hero, much like the child who murders his parents and then begs for mercy as an orphan.
The opposite is true; Dean was up to his eyeballs in criminal activity. The New York Times reported that Dean was disbarred on February 6, 1974, for “with-holding evidence, inducing a witness to commit perjury, authorizing payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, and diverting money to his own use.” He was sentenced by Judge Sirica to a prison term of one-to-four years, but this was a ruse to increase his witness credibility. Dean was set free immediately after trial without ever having spent a single night in a jail cell.
Dean’s transformation from ex-con and disbarred lawyer to heroic truth-teller was tailor-made for the corporate media. It’s also one of the greatest political frauds of our time.
The true story of Watergate is to be found in documents in the National Archives — rarely accessed but now available for public review — that I’ve analyzed over the last 15 years. These include prosecutors’ detailed “Road Map,” the gambit they hit upon to transfer sealed grand jury evidence gathered under authority to investigate criminal cases – and mandated by law to be kept secret – to the House Judiciary Committee, to be used as the basis for President Nixon’s political impeachment.
The prosecutors, many of them alumni of Robert F. Kenney’s Justice Department, did not have the evidence to prove their allegations regarding Nixon’s own wrongdoing, so they simply faked it. And they did so in secret, so his defense team could not refute it.
Other documents in the Watergate Special Prosecution Force archives detail at least a dozen totally improper secret meetings with Watergate trial Judge John Sirica, where they worked out issues in advance of trial. They show how special prosecutor Leon Jaworski and Sirica actually rehearsed how they would conduct the indictment hearing, to assure that Sirica could name himself to preside over the cover-up trial, and how they conspired to deny due process to Nixon administration defendants.
They almost got away with it by cleaning out their files. Three of the top prosecutors improperly took batches of sensitive internal files with them when leaving office. These documents remained secret for more than 40 years, with some only released when I went to court to demand them.
None of these developments are even mentioned in the CNN documentary. They would, after all, undercut the corporate media’s conventional Watergate narrative. But now we know much more of the story – a story that’s more about prosecutorial misconduct than it is about political “dirty tricks.”
Watergate’s 50th anniversary ought to be a time for reflection and re-thinking of the 20th century’s greatest government scandal, particularly in light of these newly uncovered materials. But the corporate media and their craven mascot John Dean persist in trying to be sure the public gets the same slanted, 50-year-old story.
Geoff Shepard joined President Nixon’s White House staff in 1969, upon graduation from Harvard Law School and served for five years, including acting as deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. He has written several books about Watergate, including The Nixon Conspiracy (Bombardier Books, 2021). All the documents cited in his research can be accessed through his website, www.ShepardOnWatergate.com.