Watergate 25 Years Later: Barry Sussman

Barry Sussman was an editor at the Washington Post during Watergate.

Myths and Collusion

by Barry Sussman

1. The Myth of Deep Throat

The most frequently-asked Watergate question is, “Who is Deep Throat?” I was the Washington Post’s editor in charge of the Watergate coverage and I still get asked that a lot, even though it is a quarter-century since the break-in at Democratic headquarters.

That’s the power of myth: Over the years an anonymous bit player, a minor contributor, has become a giant.

For me, half the answer to the Deep Throat question is that I don’t know who Deep Throat is. The other half is that it really doesn’t matter. Interesting, yes, in that it would solve a mystery. Important to the Post’s Watergate reporting, no.

Deep Throat barely figured in the Post’s  Watergate coverage. He was nice to have around, but that’s about it.

The logic behind the Deep Throat myth is confounding. On the one hand, Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein deserve credit for helping uncover the Watergate scandal. No one disputes that. On the other hand, the basic legend is that one of them, Woodward, did little more than show up with a bread basket that Deep Throat filled with goodies.

Anybody see the conflict here? It can’t work both ways. The greater the importance of Deep Throat, the less the achievement of the two reporters.

I and Post  editors above me routinely knew the names of the sources for our Watergate stories. Often people spoke only if promised confidentiality. That meant keeping their names out of the paper, but it didn’t mean keeping them from the editors.

One day about three months after the break-in — and after the Post  had printed some of its most important articles — Woodward came to me with a relatively minor story, and with an unusual request. He said he would tell me who the source was if I really wanted to know, but that in this instance he would rather not. I had no problem in acceding.

To my recollection, that was the start of the Deep Throat Watergate involvement. In the Post’s big stories before and after that moment the link of the burglars to the White House, the flow of money from the Nixon re-election committee to the burglars, the existence of Donald Segretti as a dirty trickster Deep Throat had no role whatsoever.

Deep Throat’s contributions were infrequent. As I wrote in The Great Coverup, “Woodward could never count on seeing him, and they seldom met at all. Generally, Deep Throat confined his help to telling Woodward whether information we had was correct or explaining what seemed to be the philosophy behind the Watergate spying without getting into the individuals responsible for it.”

Deep Throat may have known a lot but he didn’t give much away. As a mole he was pretty feeble; I can’t recall any story we got because of him. True, he offered encouragement that Watergate was important at a time when hardly any other news organizations were going after the story. That was nice, but we knew it on our own.

Deep Throat also could be decidedly unhelpful. In December, 1972, he diverted us from a perfectly good story, one saying John Mitchell was ruined politically because of Watergate. Looking back, nothing could have been more obvious. But as we were preparing the article, Deep Throat criticized it, according to Woodward, saying its premise was wrong.

It may be that Deep Throat wanted to shield Mitchell. That wouldn’t be surprising, as over time a number of people, including a chief prosecutor at Mitchell’s Watergate trial, expressed admiration for the former attorney general. John Dean spoke of Mitchell as a father-figure.

I have always thought Deep Throat was someone in the Justice Department who may have had warm feelings for Mitchell. Possibly there was a sense of “kinship,” a desire to “draw a line” at some point in the Post’s coverage.

Ben Bradlee has written that Woodward told him who Deep Throat was one spring day sometime after Nixon’s resignation, long after the scandal came to a close. That would have been 1975 or later; Bradlee didn’t attach a year to the spring he had in mind.

The noted editor says he has kept the name secret ever since. This is remarkable for two reasons: First, it would be one of the few secrets Bradlee has ever kept. Second, and more to the point, the fact that Bradlee wasn’t concerned enough to ask about Deep Throat’s identity for so long argues strongly that the mysterious source had only a minor role in the Post’s coverage.

Suppose Deep Throat was as important as myth has it: Does anyone believe for a minute that Bradlee, not exactly a shrinking violet, would have been content to sit in the dark while some Nixon hater used the Post to dive-bomb and strafe the White House every few days?

This was a period of jeopardy for the Washington Post, for its holdings, and for Bradlee’s own reputation. If Deep Throat were important would Bradlee wait until long after the last Watergate headline was written to get his name? That would be stupid, wouldn’t it? Bradlee has his share of critics, but I haven’t heard anyone say he’s stupid.

Bradlee says that if he had it to do over again, he’d ask sooner. I doubt it.

The Post’s managing editor, Howard Simons, the driving force in our Watergate coverage, didn’t ask. Neither did a third editor, Harry Rosenfeld. They didn’t ask for the same reason I didn’t. It’s because Deep Throat was basically unimportant to our coverage.

2. The “two-source” rule

Part of the Washington Post’s Watergate lore is that we had a “two-source” rule. According to this notion, if a Watergate prosecutor or conspirator or U.S. senator or Senate investigator — or anyonemade — an important allegation to us, we had to confirm it with at least one other source before running it.

I don’t know who concocted this two-source nonsense. I do know that none of the editors above me ever mentioned it, nor did I mention it to the reporters.

The two-source rule, usually referred to reverentially, is a smug way of suggesting that Washington Post editors were 100 percent sure of what we were printing. We did, of course, try to confirm and expand on leads, and that often meant going to two, three, four or even more sources. What responsible reporter or editor would want to run some unconfirmed assertion from a shaky source?

There was no two-source rule. There was only, as with most news organizations, an attempt to find reliable sources.

3. A 1997 news item: Democrats Protecting Nixon

There have been a number of Watergate 25th anniversary panels on TV this year. Much of what I saw was windbaggery, self-praise and error-filled reminiscence.

But one statement stood out. It was made by Joseph Califano, who at the time of the Watergate break-in was with the law firm Williams, Connolly and Califano, counsel for both the Democratic Party and the Washington Post. Califano was a Democratic muckety-muck in addition to being an attorney, holding a high position in the Lyndon Johnson administration and becoming a Cabinet member under Jimmy Carter.

Califano’s remarks had to do with the White House tapes, the secretly recorded conversations that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency. The existence of the tapes was revealed by Alexander Butterfield in July, 1973, in testimony at the Senate Watergate hearings.

Califano said he recommended to Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, that Nixon destroy the tapes. Califano made this admission as a panelist before an American Bar Association audience at Boca Raton this past February. I saw a tape of the discussion on C-Span several months later.

By July of 1973 the Williams, Connolly and Califano firm no longer represented the Democratic Party but still was counsel for the Washington Post. So here, at a time when the Post was aggressively pursuing the Watergate story, was the newspaper’s legal counsel advising Nixon to destroy evidence and, thereby, keep the story from coming out.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the tapes in bringing Watergate to a resolution. The tapes contained the so-called “smoking gun” conversation demonstrating that not only did Nixon know of the Watergate coverup, but that he directed it.

While there were mounds of evidence against Nixon, it was only the tapes that forced him out of office. Without the tapes there was no smoking gun.

What was on the tapes wasn’t known when Califano gave his advice to Haig. What was known, though, was that the tapes could prove either exculpatory or very damaging for Nixon. It was clear that the Senate Watergate Committee and Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox would subpoena tapes of conversations as soon as they determined which ones they wanted.

Less than three weeks earlier, John Dean, who had run the coverup in the White House, testified before the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon revealed knowledge of the coverup and familiarity with it in an Oval Office conversation on September 15, 1972. So that tape obviously would be sought.

In early 1973, Dean later testified, he had a series of private sessions with Nixon about Watergate, and those tapes, too, would be subpoenaed. (One of them, that of March 21, 1973, proved humiliating for Nixon. On it, Dean is heard discouraging Nixon from approving the payment of hush money for Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate conspirators. Nixon’s response was, “God damn it, get the money!”)

The most damaging tape — the smoking gun itself — was a conversation between Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and Nixon only a few days after the break-in arrests. In it, Nixon told Haldeman to have the leaders of the CIA concoct phony “national security” reasons to have the FBI turn away from crucial leads in the Watergate investigation.

None of this first-hand evidence would have existed had Nixon done what Califano recommended. If destroying evidence is a criminal offense — and it is — how can such an act be distinguished from a lawyer counseling someone to destroy evidence?

I have been in touch with John Dean and Alexander Haig about Califano’s remarks. Dean was on the ABA panel with Califano. “When Califano made that statement,” Dean wrote me in an e-mail, “I leaned over and told him that if his advice had been followed he could have joined me in prison. He chuckled.”

Haig, in a telephone conversation this August, confirmed that Califano did indeed recommend destroying the tapes. Haig said one of Nixon’s Watergate lawyers, J. Fred Buzhardt, also wanted the tapes destroyed, as did Haig himself and other lawyers — but not Leonard Garment, Nixon’s other White House attorney.

In our conversation, Haig said he thought it would have been legal to destroy the tapes before they were subpoenaed. Maybe, maybe not. Garment obviously didn’t think so.

Legality aside, it is a very irritating, unpleasant footnote all these years afterward to learn that Califano, counsel to the Post and a high Democratic official before and after Watergate, should have advised Nixon to destroy the only evidence that could prove decisive in a case against him. It speaks of collusion at very high levels of the national political establishment.

Then again, it’s not really surprising that Califano would give such advice. His partner, Edward Bennett Williams, is quoted by Ben Bradlee as saying he would have loved to have Nixon as a client, and that he would have used the tapes for a bonfire on the White House lawn. Actually, Williams may have come close to getting his wish. Al Haig told me he suggested to Nixon that he hire Williams as his attorney but that Nixon turned it down. Nixon apparently thought the idea was preposterous.

There was plenty of assistance given Nixon by highly placed Democrats during Watergate. The Democratic Party, through its chairman, Robert Strauss, dropped a civil suit against the Republicans even though the depositions in it were a main source — perhaps the single best source — of news about the scandal at the time. In the fall of 1973, Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield urged that the Watergate hearings be brought to a close though they were far from their conclusion. And Mister Democrat, Hubert Humphrey, never said a bad word about Watergate. These leaders were supposed to set the tone, and set it they did: Like Nixon, they wanted Watergate put behind us, as quietly as possible.

That’s the company Califano was keeping. In an odd sense, for many of us it is probably satisfying as well as irritating to know that Califano told Haig to have Nixon destroy the tapes. One of the basic beliefs of Americans is that leaders in Washington care more about helping each other than they do about serving the public interest. And it’s always satisfying, even late on, to have our basic beliefs confirmed.

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