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What Watergate showed us about the political system
Crooked from top to bottom

June 10, 2005 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS looks at the Watergate scandal following the revelation of the identity of the famous anonymous source Deep Throat.

THE UNMASKING of Deep Throat serves as a reminder of the depths of corruption, deceit and ruthless ambition among the people who run the U.S. government.

Deep Throat was the anonymous source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to unravel the Watergate conspiracy that brought down Richard Nixon. Watergate exposed the Nixon administration's routine use of all the tools of government repression to silence opposition--and proved that there was nothing the most powerful men in the world would not sink to in order to get their way.

But last week's revelation that Deep Throat was former top FBI official W. Mark Felt has unexpectedly shown that Nixon and his henchmen weren't the only sleazy characters in town.

In the myth that grew up about Watergate--promoted by the blockbuster movie All the President's Men, based on Woodward and Bernstein's book--Deep Throat was a man of conscience, offended by the Nixon administration's transgressions against democratic principles and civil liberties.

Not quite, it turns out. As the second-highest-ranking official at the FBI, Mark Felt was professionally committed to subverting democratic principles and civil liberties.

Felt had risen through the ranks to become a trusted aide of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He helped implement Hoover's COINTELPRO program of surveillance, harassment and violence against civil rights, antiwar, Black Power and other left-wing activists. In fact, Felt was later convicted for organizing illegal break-ins during an investigation of suspected members of the radical Weather Underground organization.

By the early 1970s, Felt headed the FBI's inspection division, "more popularly known as the 'goon squad,' the unit of agents who traveled the country seeing to it that local agents followed Hoover's often twisted and illegal directives," author David Price wrote on the CounterPunch Web site.

As a zealous defender of Hoover in Washington's behind-the-scenes power struggles, Felt came into conflict with the Nixon administration--which had its own ideas about how to use the repressive apparatus of the state. When Hoover died in 1972--a month before the Watergate break-in--Nixon bypassed Felt, the heir apparent, and appointed a loyalist, L. Patrick Gray III, to be the new director. Felt used his relationship with Bob Woodward to retaliate.

"[S]omething that is lost in the current focus on Mark Felt is the universe of things known to Deep Throat that he didn't bother leaking to the American public," Price wrote. "Chief among these was J. Edgar Hoover's secret longstanding illegal campaigns to destroy legal domestic political organizations of which he disapproved. These included a wide range of organizations, such as the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, an assortment of racial equality groups, various peace groups and socialist and communist organizations, gay rights and gender equity groups--but these also included surveillance campaigns of things like book buying co-ops and public utility districts."

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THE WATERGATE scandal began with a bungled burglary to plant surveillance devices at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. But this was just one branch of the Nixon administration's war on dissent.

The Watergate burglars were part of the White House team of goons known as the "Plumbers," which was put together when Nixon ordered his staff to track down unfavorable "leaks" to the press. The Plumbers' first assignment was a campaign against Daniel Ellsberg, the military official who leaked the Pentagon Papers--a damning indictment of U.S. government lies and distortions during the Vietnam War.

The Plumbers' operations against dissident figures from the political mainstream were an outgrowth of the federal government's use of repression against the left--carried out under the Republican Nixon, but also under Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

The press has been glorified for exposing the crimes of the Nixon White House, but it did nothing to challenge the persecution of civil rights and antiwar activists. Only after it became clear that Nixon was willing to target the Democratic Party and the press itself did the media respond.

Ultimately, Watergate proved to be the final chapter in the worst crisis to face the U.S. ruling class since the end of the Second World War.

The U.S. was on the verge of defeat in the Vietnam War--driven out by a poorly equipped peasant army fighting for national liberation. The civil rights movement had not only destroyed Jim Crow segregation in the South, but it sparked a Black Power movement that took on institutional racism. Discontent among workers was growing as the U.S. faced the beginnings of the worst economic downturn since the end of the Second World War.

Under this pressure from below, the ruling class began to fracture--over the war, over civil rights, over how to deal with issues of poverty and class.

As the splits at the top grew wider, the mainstream media began revealing facts about the U.S. government that are usually kept hidden--from the crimes of the FBI and the CIA to the underhanded methods used by Corporate America to get its way in Washington. For once, the shadowy world of spies, super-cops and political fixers--the unelected power structure that operates behind the scenes--was exposed to the light of day.

Watergate became a defining factor in the way most people think about the U.S. government. In the end, Nixon was thrown overboard by politicians who had supported him a few years before--to rebuild credibility in the system.

Considered in this light, Deep Throat certainly wasn't responsible for "bringing down" Nixon. He played only a small part, though an important one.

To judge from Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, Deep Throat didn't offer much new information about Nixon's crimes. Instead, he confirmed the dirt the two were digging up--which assured them and their editors that they were on to something, despite the abuse raining down on them from the White House and its allies. And the Post's revelations gave an incentive for the rest of the media to do its own investigations.

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"IT IS so hard, I think, for young people we know who work here at CNN and other news organizations to even imagine what Watergate was like--to have a White House come undone, an administration come undone, because of some news reporting." That was the telling comment of CNN anchor Judy Woodruff.

The same U.S. media that is credited with toppling a president three decades ago is in all-out lapdog mode today. The latest example: Newsweek magazine's gutless retraction of a story that the Koran was flushed down a toilet at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as part of the campaign to humiliate detainees in the Bush administration's "war on terror." Newsweek 's retraction was limited to admitting that a government report didn't reveal the abuse, not that the incident never occurred. But you would never know it to read the U.S. media's account, heavy with the Bush administration's denunciations of "anonymous sources"--or Newsweek's own groveling, for that matter.

Far from the image of watchdog, the mainstream media today act as stenographers to those in power, repeating every lie and distortion of the "official" version of events, while casting doubt on anything that contradicts it.

Ironically, Bob Woodward himself is a perfect illustration. His string of "insider" books since Watergate never failed to flatter their subjects and present them in the best possible light. Woodward's recent Bush at War--about the Bush administration after September 11--is full of pro-war cheerleading, presenting precisely the picture of the White House that the Bush team wants people to believe.

Of all people, Robert Redford--the actor who portrayed Woodward in All the President's Men--went to the heart of the question. "If something like that happened today, would it go the same way?" Redford told the Washington Post. "I don't know. I'm personally sad, because I feel I stumbled into a high point of journalism and had to watch it slide away."

So could there be another Watergate? Not with a craven corporate media under no pressure to expose the crimes of those in power. But this isn't to say that there was something unique about the 1970s.

After all, the parallels between today's Bush administration and the Nixon White House are in many ways uncanny. Both exhibit the profound arrogance of people certain that they are justified in breaking laws, shredding the Constitution and going to any length to impose their agendas. The Nixon administration's arrogance proved its undoing, and the Bush administration has certainly sown the seeds of its downfall.

The question is whether an opposition movement develops that can challenge Bush. There is an urgent need for the antiwar movement to get off the defensive, worrying about its relationship to the Democratic party--and build the kind of protests and organization that can put pressure not only on the administration, but on all wings of the U.S. political establishment, including the mainstream media.

Our movement can't rely on a Mark Felt to come forward and reveal a president's crimes--or on today's media to pursue the scandal. What we can do is build a bigger and more political movement that changes the political climate in the U.S.

Ultimately, the struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s explain why the Washington Post's Watergate revelations had the impact that they did--and why one crooked administration was driven out of office.

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