How Nixon Won Watergate

220px-Richard_NixonPresObamaBelow is today’s column in USA Today. It is a follow up to my speech at the National Press Club on the 4oth anniversary of Watergate. The event included a number of Watergate figures from Daniel Ellsberg to Liz Holtzman to Alexander Butterfield and others. It was an extraordinary event organized by Common Cause.


This month, I spoke at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal with some of its survivors at the National Press Club. While much of the discussion looked back at the historic clash with President Nixon, I was struck by a different question: Who actually won? From unilateral military actions to warrantless surveillance that were key parts of the basis for Nixon’s impending impeachment, the painful fact is that Barack Obama is the president that Nixon always wanted to be.

Four decades ago, Nixon was halted in his determined effort to create an “imperial presidency” with unilateral powers and privileges. In 2013, Obama wields those very same powers openly and without serious opposition. The success of Obama in acquiring the long-denied powers of Nixon is one of his most remarkable, if ignoble, accomplishments. Consider a few examples:

Warrantless surveillance

Nixon’s use of warrantless surveillance led to the creation of a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). But the reform turned out to be more form than substance. The secret court turned “probable cause” into a meaningless standard, virtually guaranteeing any surveillance the government wanted. After hundreds of thousands of applications over decades, only a couple have ever been denied.

Last month, the Supreme Court crushed any remaining illusions regarding FISA when it sided with the Obama administration in ruling that potential targets of such spying had to have proof they were spied upon before filing lawsuits, even if the government has declared such evidence to be secret. That’s only the latest among dozens of lawsuits the administration has blocked while surveillance expands exponentially.

Unilateral military action

Nixon’s impeachment included the charge that he evaded Congress’ sole authority to declare war by invading Cambodia. In the Libyan “mission,” Obama announced that only he had the inherent authority to decide what is a “war” and that so long as he called it something different, no congressional approval or even consultation was necessary. He proceeded to bomb a nation’s capital, destroy military units and spend more than a billion dollars in support of one side in a civil war.

Kill lists

Nixon ordered a burglary to find evidence to use against Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the famed Pentagon Papers to the press, and later tried to imprison him. Ellsberg was later told of a secret plot by the White House “plumbers” to “incapacitate” him in a physical attack. It was a shocking revelation. That’s nothing compared with Obama’s assertion of the right to kill any U.S. citizen without a charge, let alone conviction, based on his sole authority. A recently leaked memo argues that the president has a right to kill a citizen even when he lacks “clear evidence (of) a specific attack” being planned.

Attacking whistle-blowers and Journalists

Nixon was known for his attacks on whistle-blowers. He used the Espionage Act of 1917 to bring a rare criminal case against Ellsberg. Nixon was vilified for the abuse of the law. Obama has brought twice as many such prosecutions as all prior presidents combined. While refusing to prosecute anyone for actual torture, the Obama administration has prosecuted former CIA employee John Kiriakou for disclosing the torture program. The Obama Administration has also threatened action against journalists in receiving precisely the same type of information published in the Pentagon Papers during Nixon’s administration.

Other Nixonesque areas include Obama’s overuse of classification laws and withholding material from Congress. There are even missing tapes. In the torture scandal, CIA officials admitted to destroying tapes that they feared could be used against them in criminal cases. Of course, Nixon had missing tapes, but Rose Mary Woods claimed to have erased them by mistake, as opposed to current officials who openly admit to intentional destruction.

Obama has not only openly asserted powers that were the grounds for Nixon’s impeachment, but he has made many love him for it. More than any figure in history, Obama has been a disaster for the U.S. civil liberties movement. By coming out of the Democratic Party and assuming an iconic position, Obama has ripped the movement in half. Many Democrats and progressive activists find themselves unable to oppose Obama for the authoritarian powers he has assumed. It is not simply a case of personality trumping principle; it is a cult of personality.

Long after Watergate, not only has the presidency changed. We have changed. We have become accustomed to elements of a security state such as massive surveillance and executive authority without judicial oversight. We have finally answered a question left by Benjamin Franklin in 1787, when a Mrs. Powel confronted him after the Constitutional Convention and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” His chilling response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We appear to have grown weary of the republic and traded it for promises of security from a shining political personality. Somewhere, Nixon must be wondering how it could have been this easy.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

USA Today March 26, 2013

79 thoughts on “How Nixon Won Watergate

  1. Darren: The republicans are nearly all against his actions and they are not going to accomplish much.

    I think that is inaccurate. The Republicans are against a Democrat taking these actions, the Democrats are against a Republican taking these actions. I am pretty sure, after George W. Bush, that if Romney had won and exercised these exact same powers, about 95% of Congressional Republicans would be defending Romney and claiming that any action he took was justifiable for our safety, and everything the Democrats said about it was just partisan politics.

    Which would be true in that hypothetical, as it is true in reality: With the exception of a single-digit percentage of Representatives and Senators, Neither side cares what is Constitutional or what the country needs, they only care if their Party is “winning” or not, and pretty much no matter what the cost.

  2. Prof. Turley –

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your explanations. When I read the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, certain matters are crystal clear with no ambiguity. When the punditocracy starts talking about the same things, I wonder if they’ve actually read and comprehended the same documents. When you explain things in your clear and concise manner, I feel like I’m not wandering in a fog like when other people start talking about the same issues and get lost in inconsequential detours to nowhere. Everything is crystal clear again.

    I see us wandering in the wilderness of fascism now, a leftover legacy of the Bushista years which was the culmination of the most unconstitutional, illegal, immoral, unethical, dishonorable actions I’ve seen our government take in all my (now 67) years…, until Obama became president. I didn’t support his candidacy because of a 2007 interview he had where he said he didn’t support impeachment, and his support of even possibly investigating the lies and war crimes of Bush, Cheney, and their lying war criminal cohorts was less than enthusiastic (the other “frontrunner candidates” also had put out statements that were similarly worded, so I didn’t support them either). Still, I had some dim hopes he might repeal the Patriot Act, MCA ’06 (which took away our habeas corpus rights), FISA fiasco ’08 (and until he said he’d expand and increase funding for the unconstitutional ‘office of faith-based initiatives’ in ’08, I’d hoped he’d disband that office that Bush created with an executive order).

    To my horror, Obama and our Congress Critters extended all those unconstitutional laws that took away so many of our rights, and added MCA ’09. Before his first week in office was over, the drone bombings had already begun. Obamacare is a giveaway to the insurance, medical, and pharmaceutical corporations and premiums people are forced to pay them will finance the executive bonuses and shareholder payouts for those corporations; suddenly Obama and the Congress Critters developed a spine to thwart our demands for a not-for-profit single-payer medical insurance and/or a buy-in to Medicare (which would be the logical step and very easy to do). All of that on top of the continuation of record-setting profits for oil, mercenary, and military-industrial corporations. I didn’t expect much of Obama, but I spent many months with my jaw dropping as things progressively became worse during those first couple of years and no one said a word against the slide into fascism.

    I miss your voice and the chats you used to have with Keith Olbermann, Professor Turley. Sorry, I no longer tune in to the Sunday morning poli-speak punditocracy and the glib talk and crosstalk that has little or no substance (and too many ads), so when you appear on them I would only catch them on your blog or on YouTube if they’re put there. I wish you could get a TV show that let you speak in full about the issues facing our country right now, legislation that desperately needs repealing….

    Thank you, again, for your clear and concise explanations of constitutional issues and laws.

  3. G.Mason,

    Your sentence is accurate, but the tense is wrong: Fascism has taken over both parties.

    Just a suggestion.

  4. “Something is coming. It’s in the air everywhere.” -Blouise

    Agreed. Blouise. Let’s hope it’s soon.

  5. Darren,

    “Just because a previous administration performed dastardly acts against the civil liberties of the citizenry, it does not give license to the subsequent administration to do the same.’

    I agree. I think some of us are just pointing out that it’s nothing new under the sun. Our government/other administrations have performed many dastardly acts in the past.

    *****

    Studies show ‘dark chapter’ of medical research
    By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
    October 1, 2010
    http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/10/01/guatemala.syphilis.tuskegee/index.html

    Excerpt:
    (CNN) — The Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the 20th century is often cited as the most famous example of unethical medical research. Now, evidence has emerged that it overlapped with a shorter study, also sponsored by U.S. government health agencies, in which human subjects were unknowingly being harmed by participating in an experiment.

    Research from Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby has uncovered evidence of an experiment in Guatemala that infected people with sexually transmitted diseases in an effort to explore treatments.

    *****
    Lapses by American Leaders Seen in Syphilis Tests
    By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
    Published: September 14, 2011
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/health/14syphilis.html?_r=0

    Excerpt:
    The highest medical and legal officials of the American government and experts at Harvard and other top medical schools approved venereal disease experiments on people in the 1940s, which led to the deliberate infection of Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis to test penicillin, a White House bioethics panel reported Tuesday.

  6. Here is one of the problems with our country: Education of the young. I have a grandniece, who will be 23 in July. I asked just a couple of weeks ago if she had ever heard of Watergate. She said, “No.”

  7. The link to Taibbi’s piece that Elaine provided is well worth the read. From that:

    “We haven’t had to openly ratify any of these policies because the secret-keepers have done us the favor of making these awful moral choices for us.”

    Something is coming. It’s in the air everywhere.

  8. Just because a previous administration performed dastardly acts against the civil liberties of the citizenry, it does not give license to the subsequent administration to do the same.

  9. The October surprise of ’80 was just a page out of the Republican playbook from ’68. The Nixon, Chennault maneuver has been written about as a theory for years. Johnson should have had them arrested at the time for treason.

  10. Obama’s Crackdown on Whistleblowers
    By Tim Shorrock
    March 26, 2013
    http://www.thenation.com/article/173521/obamas-crackdown-whistleblowers

    Excerpt:
    In the annals of national security, the Obama administration will long be remembered for its unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. Since 2009, it has employed the World War I–era Espionage Act a record six times to prosecute government officials suspected of leaking classified information. The latest example is John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer serving a thirty-month term in federal prison for publicly identifying an intelligence operative involved in torture. It’s a pattern: the whistleblowers are punished, sometimes severely, while the perpetrators of the crimes they expose remain free.

    The hypocrisy is best illustrated in the case of four whistleblowers from the National Security Agency: Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis. Falsely accused of leaking in 2007, they have endured years of legal harassment for exposing the waste and fraud behind a multibillion-dollar contract for a system called Trailblazer, which was supposed to “revolutionize” the way the NSA produced signals intelligence (SIGINT) in the digital age. Instead, it was canceled in 2006 and remains one of the worst failures in US intelligence history. But the money spent on this privatization scheme, like so much at the NSA, remains a state secret.

    The story goes back to 2002, when three of the whistleblowers—Loomis, Wiebe and Binney—asked the Pentagon to investigate the NSA for wasting “millions and millions of dollars” on Trailblazer, which had been chosen as the agency’s flagship system for analyzing intercepted communications over a smaller and cheaper in-house program known as ThinThread. That program was invented by Loomis, one of the NSA’s top software engineers, and Binney, a legendary crypto-scientist, both of whom began working for the NSA during the Vietnam War. But despite ThinThread’s proven capacity to collect actionable intelligence, agency director Gen. Michael Hayden vetoed the idea of deploying the system in August 2001, just three weeks before 9/11.

    Hayden’s decisions, the whistleblowers told The Nation, left the NSA without a system to analyze the trillions of bits of foreign SIGINT flowing over the Internet at warp speed, as ThinThread could do. During the summer of 2001, when “the system was blinking red” with dangerous terrorist chatter (in former CIA Director George Tenet’s famous words), they say the agency failed to detect critical phone and e-mail communications that could have tipped US intelligence to Al Qaeda’s plans to attack.

  11. Both parties are corrupt and self serving. Voters elect the lesser of two evils, yet history proves that to be a fools errand. Obama is the biggest political disappointment in a string of many. The biggest issues of our time will be resolved in the streets.

  12. Gene,
    you are right about the Gideon case and the book about it. It was a wonderful book and a bright moment for justice. It was one of the reasons I went to law school.
    Elaine,
    you are right that the blind eye started long before Obama. I think it started accelerating when Ford pardoned Nixon. If he had gone to trial, we would not have the so-called imperial presidency. At least not to the extent we have it now.

  13. Also, I’m pretty sure being dead is what keeps Nixon buried.

    “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.” – Mark Twain

  14. Blouise,

    I wasn’t thinking of Cheney or Rumsfeld (who have a place in Hell reserved for them right next to their former boss) but of James Cannon when I said that, but evil generally attracts evil. Evil is not a word I toss about lightly. Those were and still are evil men and just so Obama is in their company by his own actions at this point.

  15. “Somewhere, Nixon must be wondering how it could have been this easy.”
    Profoundly stupid statement. Nixon knows exactly how easy it could be when the mass media collude with you rather than oppose you. Just look at the latest headlines about the investigation into criminal malfeasance in “Fast and Furious” and the Benghazi gunrunning meltdown. Oh, you say there are no headlines? No investigation? Hmm. How could that be…

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