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Mr. Wides tells Paul Jay the Watergate scandal exposed a pattern of a White House above the law and paved the way to exposure of CIA assassinations plots and illegal actions

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

It was 40 years ago that President Richard Milhouse Nixon resigned–the first and only president thus far to do so–in order to avoid impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal. The scandal began when five men linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign were caught breaking into the Watergate complex to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Successive investigations by the Senate increasingly began to show the role of the Nixon administration and its officials in the burglary. It also revealed many of Nixon’s misdeeds, including an attempt to burglarize the psychiatrist’s office of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who’s also a regular guest on The Real News. At the time, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office that showed his direct involvement in the cover-up of the burglary. And the scandal concluded with resignations of advisers and close staff, and finally Nixon himself.

What is also not often remembered is that the Watergate scandal paved the way for the Church Committee, a congressional investigation into the activities of the CIA, FBI, and revealing CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro and the successful plot against Patrice Lumumba; the FBI’s COINTEL program, which attempted successfully to infiltrate and disrupt political dissidents and civil rights activists like the Black Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; domestic spying by the CIA; and the CIA’s role in the 1973 Chilean coup led by General Pinochet.

Well, now joining us in the studio is a man who’s been involved in all of these investigations. Burt Wides was part of the Senate staff that started the Watergate investigation and the creation of the Watergate special prosecutor. Burt headed the Church Committee investigation of the CIA, the first ever congressional investigation of its questionable activities. He then helped create the Senate and House intelligence committees, ran the president’s intelligence oversight board for Jimmy Carter, and investigated Dick Cheney’s war on terror, including torture and extraordinary rendition, for Congressman John Conyers.

Thanks very much for joining us.


JAY: Again.

So a lot of our viewers are young and probably don’t know much of anything about the whole Watergate scandal, even though it was such a major thing at the time. And some of our older viewers may not remember it all that much. But it’s a very important piece of American history. So you were right in the investigation of it. Tell us the basics.

WIDES: Well, because it’s the anniversary, I guess, of Nixon’s resignation, it’s gotten full treatment in the media. But, briefly, there was a break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington. And people were arrested. They were mainly Cubans who had been against Castro, worked for the CIA in the Bay of Pigs, and subsequently worked for the CIA in various sabotage efforts against him. One of the people, Howard Hunt, a longtime CIA official, was then working in the White House, and he was also arrested. So when they had the first hearing before the court, a reporter noticed that, and everything blew up and there was tremendous coverage. And eventually, after tracing their relationship to the committee to reelect the president under former attorney general John Mitchell, it got traced back to the White House.

JAY: Now, was this break-in and this type of White House-ordered illegal activity unusual because they got caught? Or was it actually unusual? In other words, was this actually not so abnormal within the presidency and the White House to do this kind of stuff, just these guys got their hand in the cookie jar revealed?

WIDES: Well, talking about the Nixon administration, there was at one point (although it got lost in the dustbin of history) a map in The Post, The Washington Post, showing how to get from the Chilean Embassy to the Watergate. And there had been, before the Watergate break-in, a break-in at the Chilean embassy when it was still under the democratically elected president, and there was some evidence that they had been involved in that. Also, President Nixon in the tapes is revealed–that you mentioned, the tapes he secretly was recording of conversations in the Oval Office–of getting on his top staff and pressing them to break into the Brookings Institution, although I don’t know that they ever actually did break in. But he was pressing that, because he thought there were some papers there related to the Pentagon Papers leak. So there was certainly a general atmosphere that nothing was out of bounds.

JAY: Now, that idea that nothing was out of bounds, did that also exist during the Kennedy administration? And we know the CIA during the Kennedy administration worked with the mafia and used the mafia in various ways. And, of course, there’s a whole–one of the theories of the Kennedy assassination is even that the mafia might have been involved ’cause they were kind of not happy with how the White House was treating them. But this idea that the White House is essentially above the law–not just abroad, which I think there’s lots of evidence of that, certainly the CIA believe that, but even domestically–again, sort of the question is: is this unusual just ’cause Nixon got caught?

WIDES: I can’t say. I don’t have a complete knowledge of everything that was done, and I don’t recall, in terms of break-ins, the FBI, whether they had White House approval or not, did a lot of what they call black bag jobs, which the Church Committee that you mentioned looked into, and eventually some people were prosecuted and, I think, then pardoned.

JAY: What’s an example of that?

WIDES: Well, sometimes it was breaking into a foreign embassy to steal codes. So people might think of it as acceptable practice in the war of intelligence. Other times it was as you say in the case of COINTELPRO or trying to break into dissidents here, break into their premises. It’s clear that Lyndon Johnson–and I’m not sure off the top of my head about President Kennedy–had the FBI, or often not the FBI, but WHCA, the White House army communications agency, in the White House do telephone tapping of political opponents, including the show that Bob Moses was on, talking about the Democratic Freedom Party in the Atlantic City convention in ’64.

JAY: This was an interview we did, Reality Asserts Itself, with Bob Moses.

WIDES: So there was certainly wiretapping. And the question is: when did the attorney general authorize that, or even break-ins? And until the FISA Act enacted (to jump ahead), which has been in the news a lot, the administration under every president always maintained that the executive had the authority, notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment, on national security grounds to wiretap, break-in, and so forth. And because of a case that said that national security in the case of domestic terrorism was not a sufficient excuse to avoid the Fourth Amendment (the Keith case–Judge Keith in Detroit made that ruling), the Justice Department, afraid what the Supreme Court might say if it involved foreign intelligence, agreed to sign–the president, to sign the FISA Act, which in theory now says they need a warrant, at least vis-à-vis Americans, to enter premises or wiretap or bug.

JAY: Although we know President Bush ordered all kinds of wiretaps without even going through the FISA court,–

WIDES: Exactly.

JAY: –even though they were rubberstamping just about everything ever put in front of them,–


JAY: –and something that’s never–he’s never been held accountable for by the Obama administration.

Let’s go back into the Nixon period. One thing I always wondered about why Nixon did this: no one thought Nixon could lose this election. The Democratic candidate, McGovern, was very, very antiwar and had a certain amount of popular support, but not enough to win.

WIDES: Well, first I think we should distinguish between Nixon personally when it comes to ordering or approving the break-in, as opposed to his obvious deep involvement in the coverup afterwards. But if we talk about the administration and the committee to reelect him and go back to your question, I think, one, politicians don’t like to take chances. Nixon had lost the California governor’s race. And they also like to win by a big margin, especially presidents, so they can say they have a mandate, as Lyndon Johnson did after the landslide victory over Goldwater.

Other motives have been raised, and it may have been a mixture. There was–some people have pointed to the fact that Larry O’Brien, who was head of the Democratic committee, had worked for Howard Hughes, as had Nixon’s brother, and the president or people around him might have been concerned that O’Brien had in his files information about Nixon’s brother’s work with Howard Hughes. And there’ve been other suggestions.

But with regard to the notion that you were implicitly assuming of getting political intelligence, there was, remember, as the Watergate investigations eventually revealed, not just this break-in. There was a whole panoply of covert actions to thwart and embarrass and undermine the campaigns of Ed Muskie and other people running for president. So it was basically take no chances.

JAY: Now, you’re suggesting there was no clear evidence that Nixon actually ordered the Watergate burglary.

WIDES: Right.

JAY: And that’s–still in your mind it’s not clear whether his people were being loyal and giving him deniability?

WIDES: Well, John Dean has, as you probably know, just come out with a book, and it’s based on his having listened to thousands of hours of tapes, many of which have been in the archives and recently became available and were not available to the Watergate congressional investigation or the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. And after looking at all of them, apparently, according to news reports and a couple of interviews I’ve seen, he said that his best conclusion was that Nixon was not aware of it ahead of time, as opposed to his deep involvement in bribery and coverup once it hit the fan.

JAY: But there is some evidence, you were telling me off-camera, of Nixon actually had ordered a burglary of the Brookings Institute. What is that story?

WIDES: Well, it gets complicated. I’m not sure I know all the details. But supposedly Les Gelb, the later head of the Council of Foreign Relations, before that a very prominent journalist with The New York Times , was working in the McNamara Defense Department, and he and Morton Halperin, another scholar and official, essentially were the editors of the Pentagon Papers that Dan Ellsberg released. And there was some indication that there was a memo about the Pentagon Papers or a letter by Gelb or something in the files of the Brookings Institution. And when the Pentagon Papers broke, there was chaos and dramatic efforts, including the break-in at his psychiatrist. And the tapes reveal that Nixon kept pushing his top staffers to have a break-in at the Brookings Institute.

JAY: So it does make you think there’s sort of a–it’s kind of a pattern, even normalized behavior, to break-in and do various things that are essentially illegal to achieve one’s ends.

WIDES: And more specifically, one could certainly understand if the people at the committee to reelect Nixon thought that this is what Nixon would have wanted them to do.

JAY: So, as we said in the introduction, the investigation into Watergate paved the way to the Church Committee. You were involved in that. You were the lead investigator, I believe–is that what it was?

WIDES: For the CIA. And I worked on the FBI as well.

JAY: For that part of the Church Committee.

WIDES: And Fred Schwarz was the overall chief counsel.

JAY: Right. So we mentioned some of the big highlights–assassination plots, infiltration of antiwar groups, all of which is illegal. And so the Church Committee makes its recommendations. There’s supposed to be something that cleans up the CIA’s act. Did anything really change?

WIDES: Yes. A lot changed. Almost any reform–and I’ve been working in government or lobbying government for about 50 years.

JAY: Let’s put a year on this, the year of the Church Committee.

WIDES: Seventy-five and ’76. And it should be pointed out at the outset–and it was implicit in what you said in the introduction–unlike the department of defense or transportation, there were no congressional committees overseeing the intelligence community–the FBI’s counterintelligence part (not their bank robbery part), CIA, NSA, army intelligence, and so forth. So this was a two-year temporary committee, the Church Committee, named after chairman Frank Church.

And as a result of our investigations and disclosures, there were a lot of significant reforms. For openers, the Congress created for the first time the Senate and House intelligence committees that your viewers are reading about now in the paper. Secondly, the FISA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was passed to create a special court to approve wiretaps and surveillance and break-ins of American citizens–not of foreigners in a far-off country, which, as you pointed out, Bush at one point did an end run around. And right now there’s a question of whether they’ve authorized stuff they shouldn’t. But at least the machinery for the first time was put in place as to American citizens’ rights to protect their privacy, Fourth Amendment, and First Amendment from the national security part of the government.

In addition, there was an executive order on assassinations, although I would say–and I helped draft it–that it’s been honored in the breach more than anything else. And a number of other reforms were put into place, including inspector generals. And, finally, in the White House, President Carter created the Intelligence Oversight Board to be like an inspector general to, for the president, keep tabs on what all the agencies were doing to make sure they were doing nothing improper or illegal. I was the first person running that. So there were a number of reforms over time.

And one other thing, if I can just add. Under the leadership of Vice President Mondale, then Senator Mondale, and Fred Schwarz, which I worked on, there were a series of rules about what the FBI could do in investigations of American citizens, not in the criminal area, but in the national security area. Attorney General Levi under President Ford adopted them. They became known as the attorney general guidelines. Unfortunately, they’ve been, over time, substantially weakened.

JAY: But to what extent was this ever really effective? And I’ll give you an example. This is under Carter. Jimmy Carter passes an executive order–or signs an executive order saying that it’s okay to give nonlethal support to the mujahedin in Afghanistan, and it’s okay to send some money through the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence community, but not lethal support. It turns out lethal support was provided. In Robert Gates’ memoir, he actually practically brags about the fact that they actually delivered lethal weaponry to the mujahedin, and far more than just money or training or something. He suggests Brzezinski knew, although I interviewed Brzezinski and he claimed he didn’t know, which was kind of hard to believe. Carter may not have known. Anyway, the point is the executive order says no lethal support. They do provide lethal support. But where’s the oversight?

WIDES: There are a lot of times when the oversight does not seem to be working. Sometimes it does. I can give you a much more recent example. When the military overthrew President Morsi in Egypt, Senator Leahy sought to invoke the Leahy amendment that he had gotten put into law a while back, saying we do not give arms when a democratically elected government is overthrown. And he resisted for quite a while. But we eventually did give them arms for a variety of reasons. I’m not saying that these reforms didn’t work at all (a), and (b) I would say they were primarily focused on the rights of Americans more than what we were doing abroad.

Brzezinski has, in some contexts, I’m pretty sure, bragged about how the U.S. under his leadership inveigled and seduced, enticed, entrapped Russia to go into Afghanistan.

JAY: Oh, he brags about that. I asked him directly, though, did you provide lethal support, and he denied it in the interview, but then Gates actually brags about it in the memoir. The point is is that it was illegal. But I don’t think it was such an exception.

WIDES: Well, there’s an executive order against assassination. And when there was an explosion at a Berlin café where our soldiers frequently were customers, we flew jets out of Britain and bombed the palace, and I guess the tent next to the palace, where Gaddafi slept, and almost killed his stepdaughter. But the theory was: we weren’t attacking him as president; we were attacking him as commander-in-chief of the army.

JAY: Well, on that basis you could kill a lot of presidents.

Just to kind of carry forward the significance of Watergate, it breaks through public opinion that this goes on, the icon, the presidency, which is like the monarch–he’s the head of state. Somebody becomes president, they almost get sainted. I remember George Bush was kind of ridiculed for quite a while, but [inaud.] the aura of the presidency. Well, that was broken with Nixon. How long did that last?

WIDES: Well, I think I would go back one generation, one crisis or scandal generation back to the Pentagon Papers, which was not very long before Watergate. And I think the trip hammer effect on the public view of the Pentagon Papers scandal, in terms of the government lying and misleading, what they were telling the public, plus Watergate, which involved both doing bad things and then lying about it–to a point that the country was in great turmoil–to protect the president and the people around him, certainly paved the way for the Church Committee. And I think the impact of the three of them had a very tremendous cumulative effect, one, on the public skepticism about the government, what it was capable of and its veracity; two, Congress feeling its bones, feeling a little more muscular in terms of oversight of the executive in the national security era, where it always had basically just saluted after the World War Two; and three, I would say most of all on the media, because every cub reporter wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, and their editors were saying, how come you let the competition scoop you on x? And therefore I think the public, Congress, and the media all were much more skeptical and eager to press for the real truth.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to do another segment. We’re going to talk about just to what extent the Church Committee and the public awareness of this kind of illegal activity really changed White House behavior, ’cause this ain’t very long before you have Reagan in office and you have a whole ‘nother set of scandals come out.

So please join us on The Real News Network on Reality Asserts Itself with Burt Wides.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Burt Wides is a pro bono advocate on a variety national issues -- especially the balance of national security versus civil liberties and human rights. Burt played a major role in the creation of both Congressional and White House oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. He headed the Church Committee investigation of the CIA, the first ever Congressional investigation of its questionable activities. He then helped create the Senate and House Intelligence Committees; ran the President's Intelligence Oversight Board for Jimmy Carter; and investigated Dick Cheney's War on Terror, including torture and extraordinary rendition for Congressman John Conyers. He has served as chief of staff or senior counsel to three U.S. Senators and two congressional committees.