Watergate: The Unasked Questions

By Judith Miller March 1973

The Watergate Hotel and Apartments. Wikimedia Commons

The Watergate trial has been an exercise in “judicial swingles,” an affair in which the prosecution and defense found common ground, with only the judge in dissent. From the beginning, the trial faced an insurmountable political problem: The seven men who conspired to break into and bug Democratic National Committee headquarters were working in Richard M.
Nixon’s behalf and the Justice Department’s prosecutors were too. Thus, the burden of producing all of the relevant facts in the case often fell on presiding Judge John J. Sirica, a lifelong Republican who nevertheless demonstrated a keen interest in trying to get to the bottom of the Watergate affair.

On several occasions, Judge Sirica felt compelled to question witnesses himself, “to bring out,” as he put it, “all the facts in the case.” When four of the defendants—Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, and Virgilio Gonzalez—pleaded guilty early in the trial, Sirica questioned each about his motive for breaking into Democratic Party headquarters, the
source of funding for the operation, and, most important, any knowledge each had about “higher ups” involved in the bugging and break-in incident. Sturgis, Martinez, and Gonzales—the lowest level defendants
on the Watergate totem pole—all claimed that concern over Communism and Cuba had motivated their participation in the crime. Sirica asked in bewilderment what Communism and Cuba had to do with the Democratic National Committee, but that question, like so many others in this sordid affair, went unanswered.

The three men insisted to the end that they received no money for the job other than expenses from Barker. They said they did it because Barker, their old crony and a Bay of Pigs planner, had asked for their help. Sirica then asked Barker where he got the money which financed the break-in. Barker swore that it came in the mail in a plain, unmarked envelope. Judge
Sirica continued to press Barker, insisting that he wanted to know the source of those $100 bills “which Judith Miller, Washington bureau news chief of the Pacifica radio stations, covered the Watergate trial proceedings for Pacifica and The Village Voice were floating around like coupons.” Barker, however,
stuck to his plain envelope story. At the end of the interrogation, Sirica, weary and exasperated, said what many in the courtroom were thinking and would think throughout the trial: “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you.”

Nor did Judge Sirica believe part of the testimony of Alfred C. Baldwin, the prosecution’s star witness. Baldwin, a former FBI agent who received immunity for his cooperation, could remember the serial numbers
on the eavesdropping equipment through which he monitored the conversations of top Democratic officials. He could recall in astonishing detail the times, dates, arid places of meetings with the Watergate defendants. But when asked by the prosecution, he just could not remember to whom in the Committee for the Re-election of the President he had addressed an envelope containing summaries of tapped conversations he had monitored. The prosecution was quite willing to accept Baldwin’s peculiar memory lapse, but not the judge. Sirica pressed Baldwin relentlessly for the name on that envelope, but Baldwin remained amnesiac. Time and again throughout the trial, witnesses would develop similar memory lapses whenever mention was made of possible White House involvement in
the case. 

Sirica questioned only one of the Nixon committee employes who testified: Hugh Sloan, Jr., former treasurer of the re-election committee’s finance committee. Sloan, whom newsmen at the trial regarded as one of the more honest men of the lot, admitted to Sirica that he quit this post because of the Watergate incident. It was Sloan who gave G. Gordon Liddy, an attorney who
allegedly masterminded the political espionage operation, $199,000 in cash from a safe kept in Nixon finance chairman Maurice Stans’ office suite. Through his questioning of Sloan, Sirica and the court heard
one of the rare references to the then head of Nixon’s re-election effort, former Attorney General John Mitchell. Sloan said he had checked with Stans, and through him with Mitchell, that campaign deputy Jeb
Stuart Magruder was authorized to disburse $199,000 to Liddy. As for the rest of the White House witnesses, they gave evasive performances.

Nevertheless, the trial did produce several revelations, and it substantiated many of the reports published in The Washington Post. Herbert Porter, director of scheduling for the Nixon re-election effort, testified matter-of-factly that Magruder and he authorized Liddy to hire ten college students for ten months at $1,000 a month each to infiltrate “extremist groups
from the left and right”—groups like the Yippies and Students for a Democratic Society—so that the Republicans would be informed of demonstrations planned against “surrogate” candidates standing in for Mr.
Nixon in primary elections. In exchange for the $235,000 Liddy was given for the operation, Porter claimed he received three pieces of information: a report of a left-wing demonstration planned for a New Hampshire primary election, a right-wing demonstration planned for Miami during the Florida primary, and reports of serious potential problems during the GOP convention, then scheduled for San Diego. In effect, Porter asked the court to believe that the Nixon campaign paid (as the prosecution claims it
did) close to a quarter of a million dollars for three pieces of information it could have obtained from any good newspaper.

Unlike other witnesses, Magruder was not subject to memory lapses. In fact, his recollection of certain conversations was so complete that even prosecutor Earl Silbert had to challenge it. Magruder testified that
he had told all committee employees they were to conduct themselves in a manner “positive towards the President,” that they were to do nothing unethical or illegal which might endanger Mr. Nixon’s re-election.

The trial demonstrated that the Watergate burglars were, more accurately, Watergate bumblers—thrill seekers surrounded by Republican workaholics, whose idea of a good time was coming into committee headquarters on Saturdays and holidays to work in the President’s behalf. Robert Odle, the twenty-eight-year-old director of administration of the campaign committee and a witness at the trial exemplified “the new Nixonian man”: ardent Republican, neatly trimmed and slightly lacquered hair, wire-rimmed glasses, Wall Street suit, studiously articulate. Odle spent his campaign working hours editing, typing, and alphabetizing the weekly reports written by other committee officials for final submission to the campaign director.

The Watergate escapade must have offered Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and James McCord, all former FBI or CIA men, a sense of thrill and excitement conspicuously absent from their dull committee surroundings. For Liddy, there were meetings with co-conspirators in hotels across the country, a chance to use his alias (George Leonard), and an opportunity to carry his prized air pistol through the streets of Washington. For McCord, there were bug-planting attempts, eavesdropping equipment, midnight rides with Liddy past McGovern’s headquarters to stake out the place for a planned break-in, and money—$30,000 in three months of the operation. 

The bunglers left countless clues to what they were doing. They turned prints of photographed documents from the Democratic headquarters over to a private photo shop to be developed. When the manager of that photo shop testified, he told the court he had noticed that the prints were “unusual.” He said that the prints were pictures of documents being held down on a rug by glove-covered hands. He also was able to identify the Democratic Party’s logotype on those documents.

Because of all the evidence the seven left behind them, the prosecution’s case was filled with incriminating details. Prosecutor Silbert even produced the menu of that banquet consumed by the defendants before the break-in: shrimp cocktail, filet mignon, fresh vegetables, salad, frozen parfait cake, and coffee. Yet although there was scrupulous attention paid to inconsequential detail, there were major omissions in the prosecution’s case, important questions not only unanswered, but unasked. Some of those unasked questions could not be posed for technical reasons. For example, sources close to the Watergate investigation indicated that Donald Segretti, who claims he was hired to spy on Democrats by Hunt and White House aide Dwight Chapin, was on the prosecution’s original prospective witness list, but his testimony was no longer necessary when the prosecution learned Hunt was going to plead* guilty. Therefore, Chapin was never drawn into the trial, and never asked in the courtroom about any involvement he may have had with the political espionage network. 

In addition, the Democrats whose telephone conversations were monitored filed a suit which successfully prevented any reference in the court proceedings to the substance of their conversations. Thus, rumors of blackmail attempts directed against those Democrats were excluded from the trial. Nevertheless, the prosecution, despite ample opportunity, refrained from posing scores of obvious questions to its own witnesses.

Several questions were unasked during the testimony of Nixon committee treasurer Hugh Sloan. He testified that he gave Liddy $199,000 in cash because Magruder had authorized him to do so. He told the court that
he made notes of the disbursements in a cash book, but that he destroyed his own notes after turning over final records to finance committee chairman Stans. What prompted Sloan to destroy his own records of the disbursements? Furthermore, Sloan stated that he encountered Liddy in the Nixon campaign offices Saturday, June 17, the day following the break-in. He
said that Liddy was hurried, didn’t have time to talk, but told him, “My boys got caught last night. I made a mistake. I used somebody from here, which I told them I would never do. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job.” Sloan was never asked who “them” were. Nor was he asked why Liddy would bring up the subject of his “boys” being caught, since Sloan contends that
he knew nothing about the illegal nature of Liddy’s activities.

Former White House secretary Kathleen Chenow
testified that she sometimes worked for Liddy and
Hunt. She said that in August, 1971, Hunt had a special phone installed in his office in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. She also
stated that the bills were sent to her home. She testified that she knew that Hunt and Liddy had used aliases.

Particularly interesting testimony was given by Bruce Kehrle, staff secretary to the President. He told the court that Hunt was paid $150 a day as a White
House consultant. He testified that sometime after the break-in incident, he and another White House employe entered Hunt’s old office and drilled open his private safe. They found a black attache case, loaded with wiretapping equipment and other “goodies.” Several documents were also found. The safe’s contents were then taken to the office of John W. Dean, counsel to the President. Prosecutor Silbert did not ask Kehrle why he had drilled open the safe; nor did he inquire about the nature of those documents

Those who know Silbert and the other prosecuting attorneys in the case say they are honest men, who defined their case narrowly in order to win a conviction. Silbert has indicated that many of the unanswered questions were examined in the grand jury proceedings, which have not been made public and probably won’t be in the near future. It has also been noted that a
trial is an advocacy, not an investigative process. Nevertheless, the question remains: could the political Justice Department have conducted a thorough and impartial investigation of those who appointed its top officials? This is precisely one of the many questions Senator Sam Ervin, North Carolina Democrat, is pondering. Ervin will head a special Senate investigation not only of the Watergate affair, but of the Government’s handling of the Watergate episode. According to sources close to the investigation, Ervin intends to give those White House officials linked to the political espionage
operation in newspaper reports a chance to clear themselves of further involvement in the affair. 

Given the restricted nature of the indictments, the action of five of the defendants in pleading guilty, and the prosecution’s frequent lack of initiative, it is no surprise that the trial never got to those major matters which have troubled observers of the Watergate development. For the first time in the country’s history, a major effort has been made by one national party to
spy upon and disrupt the campaign of another party. If the full story is not exposed, no matter where it leads, there will be future Watergates and worse, and the political process can thereby be weakened or destroyed. Were the FBI and Justice Department ordered—or persuaded—to take it easy in the Watergate case? Were those who pleaded guilty assured they would be
taken care of? How far up in the White House does the Watergate trail lead? The trial did not answer these questions. Indeed many of the most important
were never asked.

If the country is ever to get the true story of Watergate, it will have to come from the developing Senate investigation under Sam Ervin. Preliminary Senate inquiries have already suggested the scope of that probe. For example: In a letter to Senator James Eastland, Senator Edward Kennedy stated that his own inquiry of the Watergate affair, the probe Ervin will now conduct, has definitely linked high ranking White House aides to the spy and sabotage network. Kennedy asserted that at least a part of the financing for the sabotage network “was arranged through a key Republican fund raiser, who was a close associate of President Nixon’s.” Other reports indicate that this close Nixon associate and key GOP fund raiser is Herbert Kalmbach, President Nixon’s personal attorney. 

It is against the background of these early disclosures
that there is mounting hope that the Senate investigation will shed light not only on the unasked questions of the Watergate trial, but also on the massive political espionage and sabotage network in which the Watergate escapade may have been just a part.

This article originally appeared in The Progressive.

Judith Miller, Washington bureau news chief of the Pacifica
radio stations, covered the Watergate trial proceedings
for Pacifica and The Village Voice.