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Marking the 40th anniversary of Watergate, lawyers at the epicenter of the political scandal shared their reflections during a high-profile panel at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation’s 2013 Fall Leadership Meeting last month.
“Lawyering Lessons from Watergate” included former Nixon White House staffer Egil “Bud” Krogh, former Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus and Richard J. Davis, a leader of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. All three lawyers described their connection to the scandal and gave their perspectives in a discussion moderated by Section of Litigation Chair Don Bivens.
Krogh was in charge of the covert White House Special Investigations Unit, known as the “plumbers,” which was tasked with plugging leaks of classified information to the news media. In an attempt to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, Krogh authorized the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
“I look back on that period as a time when there was a huge breakdown of integrity,” said Krogh, who admitted that he and the other lawyers in the unit failed to ask the basic question, “Is it legal?”
“I knew that we had really stepped over the line, but at the time justified it as a national security imperative,” he said.
Krogh had been a practicing lawyer for only 63 days when John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, asked him to work at the White House. To illustrate what he characterized as his lack of good judgment, immaturity, ignorance and arrogance, Krogh told of how he ended up in a meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, where the rock star “wanted to help the president out with some drug issues.”
During that meeting, Krogh recalled, Elvis asked the president, “Can you get me a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs?” Nixon turned to Krogh and said, “Bud, can we get him a badge?”
In hindsight, Krogh said, the best answer would have been to say, “I’ll check it out.” Instead, he said, “Yes, sir. If you want to get him a badge, we can get him a badge.”
Krogh shoulders a lot of the blame for Watergate. “But for the decision [to authorize the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office] that I made in 1971, we might not be here today,” he said.
Krogh pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the break-in, served 4 1/2 months in prison and was disbarred. It was seven years before he was readmitted to the practice of law. Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, a former ABA president, vigorously advocated for Krogh’s reinstatement.
Fresh out of prison and two weeks after Nixon’s resignation, Krogh spent two hours with the man “he should have said ‘no’ to on more than one occasion.”
“[Nixon] asked me, ‘Should I plead guilty?” Krogh recalled. “I said, ‘Mr. President, do you feel guilty?’
“It’s not a PR game,” Krogh continued. “The evidence has to be there, and I said, ‘I pleaded guilty because I finally was able to look directly at the evidence and I felt that I had committed that offense.’ And [Nixon] said, ‘No. I don’t feel guilty.’”
Krogh went home and penned a letter to Nixon, advising him to admit to his legal culpability. On the day that he intended to mail it, news broke that President Gerald Ford had issued an unconditional pardon for Nixon.
After that pardon, Davis of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force had the opportunity to interview Nixon at his home in San Clemente, Calif. He said Nixon, who appeared to be greatly distressed at having been the first president to be forced to resign, seemed determined to rewrite history with his testimony. “While he was answering questions, it was like he wanted to convince us that ‘I cannot be defined by Watergate,’” Davis said.
Ruckelshaus, who served as the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, unknowingly began his connection with Watergate when he agreed to serve as acting director of the FBI. He said that on his first day on the job, he found a letter on his desk from the No. 2 man at the FBI, Mark Felt, who more than 30 years later identified himself as “Deep Throat,” the Washington Post informant on the Watergate story.
“He and the special agents in charge at the FBI were not wildly enthusiastic about my appointment,” Ruckelshaus said. “They didn’t think a tree hugger should be in charge of the FBI.”
Felt left soon after that, Ruckelshaus recalled. “Actually, I fired him for leaking information to The New York Times,” he said.
Ruckelshaus held the FBI post only 79 days before Nixon appointed him to be deputy attorney general. But 23 days into that job, Ruckelshaus and his boss, Attorney General Elliott Richardson resigned in the “Saturday Night Massacre,” rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
All three panelists agreed that lawyers should take a great deal of pride in the fact that the rule of law prevailed, confirming that no man is above the law, including the president of the United States.
However, Davis said there’s now a constant challenge to the legitimacy of the government.
Ruckelshaus said he blames Watergate and the Vietnam War for eroding public trust in our institutions. “What we have fundamentally lost sight of is the definition of freedom,” he said. “Freedom is not absence of restraint. Freedom is the system of restraints, a system of rules, laws, norms that guide conduct in a free society within which all of us are permitted to exercise our individual freedoms.”
Ruckelshaus added that until we reach that understanding, today’s political rancor will prevail.