Watergate break-in, 50 years later: 9 things to know

Fifty years ago today, a “third-rate burglary” at the office of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., began a chain of events that would lead to the resignation of a U.S. president for the first time in history.

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Journalist and historian Garrett Graff, the author of “Watergate: A New History,” said Americans are still fascinated by the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon. Televised congressional hearings in the summer of 1973 transfixed the nation, and the revelation of a taping system that captured all of the president’s conversations with his aides led to discovery of a “smoking gun” tape that implicated Nixon.

Nixon announced his resignation in a nationally televised speech to the nation on Aug. 8, 1974, and handed over the reins of power to Gerald R. Ford the next day.

The scandal spawned best-selling books by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with a movie, “All the President’s Men,” which starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Many books and memoirs focus on the Watergate scandal, including Graff’s latest book.

“Watergate is an event that has been so well-documented over the years,” Graff told CBS News. “But it’s one that we pretty profoundly misunderstand.”

Here are some things to know about the Watergate break-in and scandal that followed.

When was the break-in?

On June 17, 1972, at about 2:30 a.m. EDT, five men were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington. Three of the men were native-born Cubans and another was said to have trained Cuban exiles for guerilla-style activity after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The arrests occurred about 40 minutes after Frank Wills, 24, a security guard at the complex, noticed that a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage had been taped so it would not lock, The Washington Post reported.

When Wills passed by the door 10 minutes later, the tape had been replaced by a new piece. Wills then called the police.

Who was arrested?

The five men were charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications.

  • Bernard L. Barker was a Realtor from Miami and a former CIA operative.
  • Virgilio R. Gonzales was a locksmith from Miami and a Cuban refugee who fled his native country after Fidel Castro came to power.
  • Eugenio R. Martinez was employed by Barker’s real estate firm. He had connections to the CIA and was a Cuban exile.
  • James W. McCord was a security coordinator for the Republican National Committee and the Committee for the Re-election of the President, known by the acronym CREEP. McCord was also a former FBI and CIA agent. He was dismissed from his positions the day after the break-in.
  • Frank A. Sturgis was another associate of Barker’s. He had CIA connections and was involved in anti-Castro activities.

The burglars were indicted by a grand jury on Sept. 15, 1972, along with G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and U.S. Treasury official who was the counsel to the finance committee for CREEP. Also indicted was E. Howard Hunt Jr., a former White House consultant and CIA employee. Hunt authored several espionage novels and worked on declassifying the Pentagon Papers.

On Jan. 30, 1973, Liddy and Hunt were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. The other burglars pleaded guilty to the charges.

The Senate hearings

On Feb. 5, 1973, Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced Senate Resolution 60 to establish a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate campaign activities related to the presidential election of 1972. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield offered the chair of the committee to 76-year-old Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a former Supreme Court Justice and a “country lawyer” with a degree from Harvard Law School.

The Senate voted unanimously on Feb. 7, 1973, to create the committee. Four Democrats and three Republicans were empowered to subpoena witnesses and materials.

Several aides of the President, including White House counsel John Dean, testified at the hearings. Dean took the stand in June 1973 and said Nixon knew about the coverup and suspected there was taped evidence to back up his assertion.

Dean said he had a conversation with Nixon on March 21, 1973, telling the President there was “a cancer” on the presidency. When Dean realized that Nixon was not going to come clean about the scandal, he decided to testify.

“There are few times in American history where the entire country is focused on one television event,” James D. Robenalt, a lawyer and author of “January 1973″ who lectures with Dean about Watergate, told History.com. “One of them was the Kennedy assassination, one of them was the moon landing, one of them was 9/11, and the other one is John Dean’s testimony.

“It was that important and that significant.”

The tapes

The revelation that Nixon had a taping system was revealed to the Senate committee on July 13, 1973, by Alexander Butterfield, the White House deputy chief of staff, The Washington Post reported. At the time, it was not known how incriminating the tapes would be. However, they eventually proved that Nixon had tried to cover up the burglary.

Butterfield was the person who helped the Secret Service install the taping system at Nixon’s request, the Post reported.

“I’m sorry you asked,” Butterfield said during the Senate hearings. “But, yes, there was a taping system that taped all presidential conversations.”

Nixon and his lawyers tried to protect the tapes during the summer and fall of 1973, arguing that executive privilege allowed him to keep the tapes without revealing their contents. Judge John Sirica, the Senate committee and Archibald Cox — an independent prosecutor — worked to obtain them.

“Many people assume that the tapes must incriminate the president, or that otherwise, he would not insist on their privacy,” Nixon said in during an April 1974 speech. “But the problem I confronted was this: Unless a president can protect the privacy of the advice he gets, he cannot get the advice he needs.”

The ‘Rose Mary Stretch’

Rose Mary Woods, who worked for Nixon as his loyal secretary for decades, will be forever known for erasing 18 1/2 minutes of a Watergate tape from June 20, 1972, that had a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, three days after the break-in, The New York Times reported.

In a memorable photo, Woods is shown trying to recreate the events that she said led to the erasure. Woods said she was transcribing the tape, and she is shown in the photograph at her desk, reaching over her left shoulder for a telephone while her foot hit a pedal controlling the transcription machine.

The move was dubbed the “Rose Mary Stretch.”

“I am most dreadfully sorry,” Woods said during court in November 1973, adding that she had made a “terrible mistake,” according to the Times. Woods said she pressed the wrong button on the transcription pedal and recorded over the tape.

The Saturday Night Massacre

Nixon’s purge of the Justice Department on Oct. 20, 1973, was known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Nixon ordered the firing of Cox, saying that the special prosecutor refused to stop looking into the Watergate scandal and was pressing, along with the courts, for the president to release the White House tapes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Nixon tried to get Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, but he resigned instead. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also quit when he received a telephone call ordering him to fire the special prosecutor.

The Justice Department’s third-in-command, Solicitor General Robert Bork, carried out Nixon’s order to discharge Cox.

The move created a firestorm of public protest and led to the appointment of a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.

“You owe a duty of loyalty to the president that transcends most other duties,” Ruckelshaus told former U.S. attorneys in a 2009 speech. But “there are lines. ... In this case, the line was bright and the decision was simple.”

The ‘smoking gun’

The Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision on July 24, 1974, ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes to Congress. They included the “smoking gun” tape from June 23, 1972, when Nixon talked about getting the FBI to back off on its investigation into the break-in at the Watergate complex. The tape implicated the president in the coverup and led to his resignation.

Deep Throat

Woodward and Bernstein’s source for leads in their Watergate reporting was called “Deep Throat,” a nod toward the pornographic movie that starred Linda Lovelace. The source was immortalized by Hollywood in the film, “All the President’s Men.”

Speculation about who Deep Throat was had swirled for years until former FBI director Mark Felt confirmed in 2005 that he was the source, CBS News reported. Felt had denied being the source, noting in 1987 that “the only thing I can say is, I wouldn’t be ashamed to be.”

For all the heroism portrayed in “All the President’s Men” about “Deep Throat,” Graff said that Felt, angered about not being tapped to replace J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, had an ax to grind. The Washington Post reporters were the perfect outlet.

“This is not someone who is waking up in the morning trying to protect American democracy; this is someone who wants a job that he didn’t get,” Graff told CBS News. “He’s doing some sort of brutal backstabbing, knife-fighting, office succession politics. It turns out that there are key moments where Mark Felt knows very compelling evidence about the misdeeds of Richard Nixon, but he never bothers to tell anyone, because he doesn’t actually really care that much about Richard Nixon at all.”

Aftermath

The Watergate scandal led to new legislation. In October 1974, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act. The revisions imposed limitations on expenses and contributions, required regular reporting by election committees and established a means for public financing of presidential nominating conventions and primary elections.

The following month, Congress overrode a presidential veto and revised the Freedom of Information Act, providing the public and the media with new tools to access information held by the executive branch. In September 1976, the Government in Sunshine Act required federal agencies to hold their meetings in public.

In October 1978, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act. The measure required financial disclosure by executive and judicial branch officials and established the Office of Government Ethics as an oversight agency.

“I think at the end of the day Watergate is a weirdly hopeful story, because it shows what it takes to protect American democracy,” Graff told CBS News. “It takes a while, and it’s not necessarily an easy process to get there, but the system in Watergate worked.”

Information from online newspaper and government archives was also used in compiling this report.