Watergate Fueled Conspiracy Theories, Too
For all the similarities between President Donald Trump’s Russiagate scandal (or, as I prefer to call it, Onion Dome) and Watergate—the special counsels; the Congressional hearings; the talk of obstruction of justice and secret tapes—there’s one parallel that is getting less attention.
In Watergate as in Onion Dome, defenders of the president plunged deep into conspiracy theory to explain away a growing body of evidence pointing to serious White House wrongdoing. Today, Trump surrogates deny Russian interference in the election and assert that U.S. intelligence agencies—portentously (and inaccurately) called the “Deep State”—are hoping to overturn the election results through leaks and fake news. And though it has largely been forgotten, some Nixon acolytes during and after Watergate pushed a very similar claim: that the CIA, the Pentagon or other entrenched government interests secretly conspired to oust Nixon for their own reasons, even as the news media trumpeted a phony narrative about the president’s guilt. Tracing the history of those Watergate-era claims—their origins as a diversionary cover story, their intrinsic appeal to loyalists who were in denial about the scandal’s gravity, their afterlife among radical skeptics on the ideological fringes of public debate—may help illuminate similar thinking of those determined today to see Onion Dome as a plot by Trump’s enemies to maintain the status quo.
The claims that Nixon was done in by the CIA or other vested interests began soon after hirelings of his re-election team—the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP—were arrested breaking into the Watergate building on June 17, 1972. With the full scope of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate still unknown to the public, speculation about the break-in ran wild. As information streamed out—from the 1973 Senate investigation, the trials of the burglars, the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and other journalists—keeping track of it all became bewildering; in November 1973 Edward J. Epstein and John Berendt laid out in Esquire 43 theories of what really happened. Among Nixon defenders, the most popular theories, which fingered the CIA as having masterminded the break-in, began with an unlikely source: Richard Nixon himself.
At first, the notion of CIA involvement didn’t seem ridiculous. Watergate burglars Howard Hunt (a White House employee) and James McCord (of CREEP) had worked for the agency in the past, and after retiring Hunt joined the Robert Mullen Company, a public-relations firm with CIA ties. The Cuban operatives whom Hunt hired had also done CIA work, notably during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. When early news reports linked the burglars to the CIA, New York Times reporter Tad Szulc chased the false lead, setting back the Times in its competition with the Post.
Nixon then deliberately used the CIA links to invent a cover story and a cover-up. “I think that we could develop a theory as to the CIA if we wanted to,” his close aide Chuck Colson, one of the key Watergate plotters, told the president on June 21, noting Hunt’s past CIA ties. Nixon liked the idea, adding that the involvement of the Cubans was a “plus” that made the story more believable. Colson lied to the FBI agents who interviewed him the next day, saying that the break-in was “a CIA thing,” and then reported back to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that he expected that “the CIA turnoff will play.” ...