by Barry Sussman
[The Watergate coverup began to collapse with testimony of L. Patrick Gray at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in February, 1973, on his nomination to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI. Gray had been acting director since Hoover's death.]
Gray expressed the hope that the Judiciary Committee “not get into the Watergate substantively,” leaving that responsibility to the Senate Watergate Committee. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate Committee, was also a member of the Judiciary Committee, and he told Gray that the timing of the nomination compelled him to ask questions he would rather have held off on.
Then, armed with an old Washington Post clipping of October 15, 1972, Ervin asked Gray what he knew about the assertion that a White House aide had shown Donald Sagrada copies of FBI interviews.
Gray’s answer was unresponsive. He said, “I think we only interviewed Segretti once, but I have to check that. Let me just check this record here. I know we interviewed him on the 26th of June and I am just trying to see whether there was another date on which we interviewed him.
“My recollection, first, is that we only interviewed him on the 26th of June. I don’t know whether we interviewed him a second time. We didn’t look into that allegation at all as to whether or not he was shown any FBI interview statements.”
Sam Ervin had a lot of questions on his mind; other senators wanted to ask Gray about issues far removed from Watergate, such as the safekeeping of FBI records, allegations that the FBI kept files on congressmen, the infiltration of FBI agents in radical groups, fingerprinting records, the motivation behind the recent FBI arrest of writer Leslie Whitten, an assistant to columnist Jack Anderson.
“Then you can’t give me any information on that question,” Ervin said, apparently ready to go on to his next line of inquiry.
It would have been easy for Gray to say, “No, sir, I can’t.” But he didn’t. He would not let Ervin change the subject. Gray said, “I can give you information on it but I can’t tell you whether or not he was shown those statements—that is what I cannot tell you. To give you that information I am going to have to take time to tell you how we progressed on this investigation.”
Ervin did not push for any lengthy explanation. He simply asked Gray to confirm that showing someone the account of his FBI interview “wouldn’t be a likely procedure to be permitted by the FBI, would it?”
“Of course not,” Gray said.
“So you, at the present time, can neither affirm nor deny that statement,” Ervin said. “I take it that you give the committee your reassurance that if any such event happened, that is, if any copy of the FBI interview was given to Mr. Segretti, it was not given by you or with your knowledge or consent.
“It was not done with my knowledge or consent, that is true,” Gray said.
Again, he could have concluded his answer there. “But I can go into it further if you want me to explain how it possibly could.” On such slender threads, such unexpected and largely unnoticed moments in the actions of marginal figures, bit players of the world, does history ride.
“Yes, I would like to have that,” Ervin said.
And at this point, on the very first day of his confirmation hearings, Patrick Gray effectively put to an end his own future in Washington and began to spin out, without being asked or pressured, FBI findings that for the first time confirmed the most damaging assertions that had been printed in The Washington Post and elsewhere the previous summer and fall, adding details that had never been made public. For openers, Gray revealed that in mid-July, 1972, John Dean had asked him to provide “a letterhead memorandum because he wanted to have what we had to date because the President specifically charged him with looking into any involvement on the part of White House staff members.” Gray said he began forwarding material to Attorney General Kleindienst to be given to Dean on July 21, 1972.
“So you see the possibility here, Senator, and I think what is being driven at is this: the allegation is really being directed toward Mr. Dean having one of these interview reports and showing it to Mr. Segretti.”
No one other than Gray had brought up Dean’s name. Until February 28, 1973, Dean had lived publicly at the periphery of Watergate—a White House aide who had reportedly investigated the bugging incident for the President, never seen, seldom if ever in mind.
Gray said that after reading The Washington Post article of the past October, he asked Dean whether he had shown the FBI report to Segretti and Dean said he hadn’t. At that point, Gray said, he let the matter drop.
The role of John Dean began to intrigue other senators on the Judiciary Committee. Philip Hart of Michigan, a former prosecutor in Detroit, asked, “When Mr. Dean said to you, ‘No, I did not do it, I didn’t have the FBI reports with me,’ did you ask him if he knew who might have had them with him?”
“No,” Gray responded, “because the thought never entered—”
“Did you ask him whether anybody had done it?”
“You know, when you are dealing closely with the office of the presidency,” Gray said, “the presumption is one of regularity on the conduct of the nation’s business, and I didn’t even engage in the thought process that I would set up a presumption here of illegality and I didn’t consider it.”
Gray said, however, again volunteering information that had not been sought, that after the Post story, he asked whether Segretti’s political actions should be investigated, and “that opinion came back, no.”
Hearing that, Robert C. Byrd, the Senate Majority Whip and one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation, questioned who it was that determined the scope of the Watergate investigation. Gray said the decision to limit the inquiry to the interception of oral communications, and to refrain from getting into more sensitive political areas, had been made by him “in conjunction with the Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division, and U.S. Attorney.”
“Were you required to clear the scope of the investigation through the Justice Department?” Byrd asked.
“Yes, sir, we work very closely with them on that.”
“But were you required to clear the scope of the investigation through the Justice Department, or was this a determination that you would make yourself?”
“No, I do not think it was a determination at all,” Gray responded. “I could make a determination, but I would have to investigate what the Department of Justice told me to investigate.”
Byrd asked whether Gray had ever discussed the investigation with anyone at CRP (the Committee for the Re-election of the President).
“With Mr. John Mitchell?”
“Or with anyone from the White House?”
“John Wesley Dean, counsel to the President, and I think on maybe half a dozen occasions with John Erhlichman.”
There was always a certain rumbling, earthquake nature to the forces that pushed breaks in the Watergate coverup into view, compelling investigators to deal with them. One cannot ignore an earthquake.
…In less than three weeks, the Watergate coverup was to be exposed to the public and a coverup of the coverup begun in the Oval Office. Patrick Gray’s testimony was not the only rumble that warned of the earthquake but it was the first. One day, while still testifying, Gray endorsed a contention by Senator Byrd that John Dean had “probably lied” to FBI agents. There was no way of predicting what Gray might say next, and on the following afternoon Nixon himself phoned Gray, possibly in fear that Gray, having exhausted the subject of John Dean, might launch into a discussion of the President.