“John W. Dean III and the
Watergate Cover-up, Revisited”
Luke A. Nichter's Article in
April edition of Passport
Following the recent discussions
related to John Dean's role in the Watergate cover-up (see February
1 and February
22 articles in the New York Times, a subject that was also
featured on this website), I was asked to write an article summarizing the
debate for Passport,
the member magazine of the Society for
Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). SHAFR recently made a
digitized version of the April edition available, so I wanted to reproduce it
here. Otherwise, only SHAFR members would have had ready access to the
article. The full text appears below. The full April issue of Passport
can also be downloaded here (pdf,
On Super Bowl Sunday—because my wife is from
Pittsburgh I remember that otherwise unimportant detail vividly—I picked up
the New York Times from my driveway and was surprised to find a
front-page article about Watergate. After all, this is 2009, not 1974. The
article, “John Dean at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud,” by Patricia Cohen,
explored accusations of misrepresentation leveled at a prominent scholar of
Watergate, Stanley Kutler, by historian Peter Klingman. It quickly set off a
heated debate in the blogosphere.
Stan Katz of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School called the Times article
a “nonevent.” John Dean
called it the work of “Watergate revisionists.”
However, acknowledging the by now well-defined lines of demarcation with respect
to Watergate, Joan Hoff admonished fellow bloggers that “what this dispute
over the Nixon tapes really demonstrates is the need for an authoritative set of
transcriptions which the government should have undertaken years ago.”
After all, nowhere in this controversy did actual evidence feature prominently,
either in the Times article or in the discussion following the
At the heart of the latest installment of a
decade-old debate is the work most often cited on the Watergate portion of the
Nixon tapes, Kutler’s Abuse of Power.
Working in the pre-digital era with difficult analog cassette audiotapes, Kutler
set the standard for Nixon tape transcription. His permanent loss of hearing is
the price he paid so that generations could learn from his groundbreaking work.
Numerous critics—not all of them legitimate—have raised objections to Abuse
of Power and to Kutler’s earlier book, The Wars of Watergate, but
Klingman’s article, which was submitted for publication to the American
Historical Review, is the most pointed and the most prominent of these
critiques. In it Klingman accuses
Kutler of knowingly conflating two tape transcripts from March 16, 1973, both of
which contained discussions between President Nixon and Counsel to the President
John Dean about managing the Watergate cover-up. Kutler did indeed append an
excerpt from a morning conversation in the Oval Office
to a transcript that begins with
an excerpt from an entirely different telephone conversation from the evening of
the same day. That fact is no
longer in dispute, although it is unclear how or why Kutler conflated these
conversations. Klingman argues that as a result of Kutler’s conflation and
selective editing, Dean appeared to be much less involved in the cover-up than
he really was.
Other critics, including Len Colodny (Silent
Coup), Russ Baker (Family of Secrets), and Joan Hoff (Nixon
Reconsidered) have also accused Kutler of misrepresenting Watergate in Abuse
of Power. The case they and Klingman make is complicated, but there are
three main charges:
1. The Nixon tapes for the period beginning March 13, 1973, are critical to our
understanding of how the White House, including Dean, planned and managed the
entire cover-up. This period
begins with Nixon first learning on March 13 of White House involvement in the
Watergate break-in and ends with the famous “Cancer on the Presidency”
conversation on March 21. The “Cancer” conversation is Nixon’s “Rubicon
moment,” in that it set Dean on an irreversible path from Nixon’s
defender-in-chief to whistleblower-in-chief. Within weeks Dean hired his own
criminal defense attorney, was dismissed, and in June began his marathon
testimony that expedited the unraveling of the Nixon presidency. In Abuse of
Power, Kutler leaves out critical Nixon/Dean conversation material from
March 13, 17, and 20. All of these conversations, coincidentally or not, were
devastating to Dean. They show that not only was Dean one of the original
planners of the “intelligence operation” that led to the break-in, but that
he hired Liddy in part because of Liddy’s successful break-in at the office of
Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. In Kutler’s defense, some of these
conversations were not part of his lawsuit to force release of the “Abuse of
Government Power” Nixon tape segments.
2. As noted in Patricia Cohen’s New York
Times article, Kutler’s critics claim that he conflates two distinct
conversations that occurred nine hours apart on March 16, 1973, in Abuse of
3. Finally, and this is where Kutler’s critics
move from evidence to speculation, they argue that he deliberately omitted and
conflated some conversations and that he harbors some motive for doing so. While
this distortion does not change what we know about the break-in and only
marginally affects our understanding of the president’s role in the cover-up,
Kutler’s critics argue that Dean’s role on the path to “Cancer” has not
received a proper exposition and that Kutler’s presentation of the critical
week leading up to the “Cancer” conversation is skewed. As to allegations
that he made Dean appear more benign on the path to “Cancer” than he really
was, Kutler admits that he is friends with Dean but notes that the friendship
blossomed only after Abuse of Power. Of course, this is the weakest part
of the argument made by Kutler’s critics. Without evidence of any acts of
commission or omission, Kutler must be taken at his word.
The article in the New York Times obviously
piqued the interest of many scholars, but they have reserved judgment, pending
further evidence. Most people, I believe, were as surprised as I was to see this
article on the front page of the Times, and they simply want to know
whether this issue is worth paying attention to and whether there is anything
“new” in this long-standing feud. The real story, which has been missed up
to this point, is that we now have the technology to create improved
transcriptions of the tapes and disseminate them and the original audio
recordings widely. It is therefore time for a complete reevaluation of
Watergate, and it is to be hoped that the Times article will prompt such
a reevaluation, focusing in particular on the week of March 13 and the path to
“Cancer.” This reexamination should do what David Frost was unable to do in
the 1970s and what Stanley Kutler was unable to do in the 1990s.
As someone with the necessary background in the Nixon tapes, I felt that I had a
responsibility to try to explain the dispute to a wider audience, and when I was
asked to do so, I agreed without reservation. I certainly do not seek to insert
myself in a debate that began before I started graduate school. I happen to
believe that Klingman’s fight against Kutler is misplaced and that the real
story is not Kutler, although he plays a role in it. But readers should come to
their own conclusions. To help them do that I have assembled all the uncut audio
files and conversations from the six Nixon/Dean conversations now under scrutiny
from the week of March 13. For reasons of space, I have condensed the hours of
audio and hundreds of pages of transcripts here. Much of this material is being
made readily available to the public for the first time.
March 13, 1973, 12:42–2:00 p.m.
Oval Office 878-014; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, H.R. Haldeman
Dean informed the president that the week of
March 13 might be perhaps the single most important week of the cover-up.
The conversation began as a general discussion about why it would not be in the
president’s interest to allow live testimony of Nixon aides before the Ervin
Watergate committee. Nixon and Dean wanted to protect aides Dwight Chapin and
Chuck Colson, then in the private sector, because of the likelihood that the
investigation would more quickly penetrate the White House. The discussion
turned towards other White House vulnerabilities. The Campaign to Re-Elect the
President (CREEP) had paid a minor to infiltrate “peace groups,” a scheme
that had recently unraveled because “he apparently chatted about it around
school,” Dean surmised. “It’s absurd. It really is. He didn’t do
anything illegal.” Dean also
told Nixon that a speech supporting the administration would be planted in
Senator Barry Goldwater’s office for delivery on the Senate floor. “It’s
in the mill,” Dean said.
Nixon asked Dean if he needed any help from the Internal Revenue Service,
ostensibly to maintain discipline while managing the cover-up. Dean responded
that he already had access to the IRS and had a mechanism to bypass Commissioner
Johnnie Walters. Referring to
himself in the third person,
Dean informed the president for the first time that Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman
had advance knowledge of Donald Segretti’s “prankster-type activities.”
To slow the FBI’s investigation, Dean suggested restructuring the FBI
and emphasized the need to move the focus of the investigation immediately from
the Nixon White House to Democrats and past administrations.
After complaining to the president about “dishonest” media reporting that
was “out of sequence,” Dean explained the convoluted way in which Gordon
Liddy received his Watergate break-in funds. Liddy’s error, Dean said, was
unnecessarily involving a third party in the cashing of checks, which left a
traceable record. Another
problem for the White House was former CREEP treasurer Hugh Sloan. Dean said he
was “scared,” “weak,” and had “a compulsion to cleanse his soul by
confession.” Dean also
stated his preference to answer all Ervin committee inquiries with “sworn
interrogatories” rather than live testimony, since written responses could be
Finally, Dean predicted the direction that the investigation would take.
“I don’t think the thing will get out of hand,” he said, but those in
danger included Charles Colson, John Mitchell, Gordon Strachan, Dwight Chapin,
and by extension H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Dean also warned of a
“domino situation” if bank records were traced.
For example, he told the president that bank records would show that the
administration had been paying someone to tail Senator Edward Kennedy for
“almost two years.” The tail began “within six hours” of Chappaquiddick.
In concluding the conversation, Dean said he would work with aide Richard A.
Moore to work out a plan to broaden the focus of the investigation beyond the
Nixon White House.
March 16, 1973, 10:34–11:10 a.m.
Oval Office 881-003; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, Ronald L. Ziegler
Dean reminded the president of the need to get
the focus of the investigation off the Nixon White House. “We have to get off
the defensive. We have to broaden,” Dean said.
Nixon and Dean agreed that a falsified document that appeared to be an
independent assessment of the Watergate cover-up would be helpful. “I have
drafted such a document, back in December,” Dean stated. Nixon wanted to make
sure the document appeared to be “a White House statement, not [a]
presidential statement.” Dean clarified that he had originally drafted such a
statement in an act of contingency planning after the 1972 elections. Dean said
that it might be time to recirculate his report again, which was based on
“written, sworn affidavits.”
However, Dean warned of the limits of such a report midway through the
investigation. “Some questions you can’t answer, or if you do, you get
people in trouble.” Therefore, to avoid perjuring those who have already
provided testimony, a new more general falsified document had to be created.
Dean stated his preference for the creation of “a good master plan” that
would be more comprehensive than his previous report.
March 16, 1973, 8:14–8:23 p.m.
White House Telephone 037-134; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III
In a phone call later that same day, President
Nixon agreed with Dean’s earlier suggestion to work with Richard A. Moore on a
new falsified report as discussed earlier that day.
Dean warned the president that such a report could make perjurers out of some
witnesses: it could “open up a new grand jury” and “would cause difficulty
for some who’ve already testified.”
Dean stated his preference for two reports: the first a written report based on
“sworn affidavits” that was “not a total answer” intended for the Ervin
committee and the public, and
a second oral report only for the president to inform him of additional
vulnerabilities of which he might not have been aware.
Although Dean informed Nixon of White House involvement in the cover-up on March
13, Dean noted that the conclusions of his written report “were based on the
fact that there was not a scintilla of evidence in the investigation that led
anywhere to the White House.”
Relieved, Dean informed the president that the FBI files that Ervin would
receive would not include grand jury minutes, which was a lot more thorough than
the FBI had been. Dean also
recommended that his written report bundle Watergate with the previously
disclosed “prankster-type activities” of Segretti.
March 17, 1973, 1:25–2:10 p.m.
Oval Office 882-012; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, H.R. Haldeman
President Nixon reminded Dean that his falsified
report should conclude that no one from the White House was involved, based on
Dean stated that he wanted to go even further than that: Nixon should hold a
meeting with Ervin and disclose that CREEP had a legitimate “intelligence
operation in place” based on “handwritten,” “sworn statements” and
that the White House had cut itself off from anything illegal.
Dean then revealed that he knew about the “intelligence operation” six
months before the Watergate break-in.
The initial meeting that set up the operation was attended by Dean, Mitchell,
Jeb Magruder, and Liddy. Dean told Haldeman that the operation should be kept
“ten miles” from the White House. Nixon then asked Dean who he thought was
presently most vulnerable.
Dean noted that he himself was, because “I’ve been all over this thing like
a blanket.” Colson, Chapin, Mitchell, and Haldeman were also vulnerable. Dean
stated that he called break-in planner Liddy the Monday after the break-in for
an explanation. According to Dean, Haldeman deputy Strachan pushed campaign aide
Magruder to compel Liddy to do the break-in. Dean recommended that Magruder
become the scapegoat and that an official statement to that effect from the
White House would be helpful.
“Can’t do that,” Nixon replied. Dean then switched to using Segretti as a
scapegoat, which won more favor with the president.
“It was pranksterism that got out of hand,” Dean said. Finally, Dean
explained the discovery of the bizarre connection of the investigation to top
Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who had used Liddy in previous operations, including
the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
Since Liddy was also caught at the Watergate, he would eventually lead the
investigation to Ehrlichman, Dean warned.
March 20, 1973, Unknown time between 1:42 and 2:31 p.m.
Oval Office 884-017; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, Richard A. Moore
Dean and Moore presented a draft of the recently
completed falsified report to the president. Dean noted that Press Secretary
Ronald L. Ziegler had concerns that it would raise more questions than it
answered. Noting that it was just a draft, Moore stated that “it needs one
more go around; we did the best we could.” In particular, “of the eight
paragraphs, I think there are about three that are troublesome.”
Dean and Moore gave a copy of the report to Nixon, who directed various
revisions on the spot, including how to rephrase Dean’s previous involvement
with Strachan and Segretti.
March 21, 1973, 10:12–11:55 a.m.
Oval Office 886-008; Richard Nixon, John W. Dean III, H.R. Haldeman
Dean warned Nixon that there was a “cancer”
on the presidency, and he
offered for the first time a complete recollection of how the planning for
Watergate originated, which started as “an instruction to me from Bob Haldeman.”
Dean claimed that Haldeman originally asked Dean to set up a domestic
intelligence operation at CREEP. Dean initiated contact with Jack Caulfield, who
was Nixon’s former bodyguard.
However, Mitchell and Ehrlichman did not like Caulfield.
Dean brought in Liddy instead, who came recommended by White House aide Bud
Krogh on the basis of the successful break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s
office. Mitchell approved of
Liddy. Next, Magruder invited Dean over to CREEP headquarters to discuss
Liddy’s intelligence plan. Dean described the plan, which included “black
bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes to weaken the opposition,
bugging, mugging teams. . . . It was just an incredible thing.”
After the initial meeting, Dean also attended a second meeting to discuss
Liddy’s plan, which included “bugging, kidnapping, and the like.”
Dean, Mitchell, Magruder, and Liddy were present at the meeting. Dean said he
did not hear anything about Liddy’s plan again after that meeting, so he
assumed the more extreme elements would not be carried out.
However, Dean conceded that he and Liddy “had so many other things” going
on. Dean said he thought that Haldeman assumed that the Liddy plan was
“proper,” which resulted
in Haldeman aide Strachan pushing Magruder, who asked permission from Mitchell,
who consented to the Liddy-led Watergate break-in. Dean noted that information
gathered from the break-in was used by Strachan and Haldeman.
As the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign took shape, Haldeman authorized
Liddy to change his target from Senator Muskie to Senator McGovern.
Once again, this message passed through Strachan-Magruder-Liddy. Dean noted that
Liddy previously infiltrated Muskie’s secretary and chauffeur. “Nothing
illegal about that,” Dean said. Although he had not heard anything again until
the break-in, when Dean learned about it on June 17 he “knew what it was.”
Nixon then asked Dean for an update on any perjuries. Dean was not sure if
Mitchell had perjured himself, but he was sure that Magruder had, as had Herbert
Porter, a Magruder deputy.
Dean claimed they perjured themselves by testifying that they had thought that
Liddy was legitimate, and that they did not know anything about activities
related to the Democratic National Committee. After the break-in, Dean “was
under instructions not to investigate” and instead worked on containing it
“right where it was.” All
the burglars got counsel immediately and planned to ride out any charges until
the 1972 election was over.
However, soon after, the burglars began making demands for money. Dean was
present when Mitchell authorized raising cash for them, which was to be funneled
through Howard Hunt. Dean noted that not only was it becoming more difficult to
meet the burglars’ growing needs, but that it was “obstruction of
justice,” and that Dean, Mitchell, Erhlichman, and Haldeman were culpable.
Dean summarized that the biggest problem was a “continual blackmail
operation.” Dean also
expanded on other vulnerabilities, including a previous plan to do “a
second-story job on the Brookings Institute, where they had the Pentagon
Papers.” Summarizing, Dean
said that would have been too risky. “If the risk is minimal and the gain is
fantastic, that’s something else, but with a little risk and no gain, it’s
not worth it.” Dean also noted that there were other “soft spots.”
The problem of the “continued blackmail,” he said, is that “this is the
sort of thing mafia people can do.” Dean estimated that a million dollars was
needed over the next two years. Nixon responded, “I know where it can be
gotten.” Dean suggested that Mitchell should handle the money, “and get some
pros to help him.”
These materials should help us see the Watergate
cover-up in a new light. If this is “Watergate revisionism,” then so be it.
Perhaps a little Watergate revisionism is needed, and technology, as is evident
in this brief article, can be harnessed in ways that permit us to reconstruct
these events and come to new interpretations. The president of the United States
is barely moved when his counsel informed him in these conversations that most
of the president’s top aides were involved in various illegalities. Dean told
Nixon on March 13 that Haldeman deputy Strachan knew there was White House
involvement in the Watergate break-in, even while Dean concluded in his
falsified report for Senator Ervin and the public that the White House had no
such knowledge. John Dean was not only involved in managing the cover-up, but by
his own admission was part of the inner core of planners that set up CREEP’s
“intelligence operation.” He stated that he and Haldeman initiated the
planning that led to the Watergate break-in. Dean not only hired Gordon Liddy,
but did so on the basis of his successful break-in at the office of Daniel
Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Dean admitted that he began the cover-up shortly
after the 1972 election by creating a falsified report that concluded that the
White House had nothing to do with the break-in. He conceded that he was present
with Mitchell when authorization was given to bribe witnesses. Dean recommended
to the president that Mitchell handle the bribes, but that some “pros”
should help him. Dean, in his own words, admitted to the president that he was
involved in “an obstruction of justice.” Most of all, neither Dean nor Nixon
did anything to stop this reckless and illegal behavior. Paraphrasing the
president’s mea culpa during the David Frost interviews, Nixon may have “let
the country down,” but it was the country that had to endure, paraphrasing
again, a “long national nightmare.” The nightmare is not over yet, not as
long as we have still more to learn.
 Patricia Cohen, “John Dean at Issue in Nixon Tapes
Feud,” New York Times, February 1, 2009, A1.
 See http://chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz/whats-news-in-the-new-york-times.
 See http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-02-04/the-times-has-lost-the-watergate-plot/.
 See http://hnn.us/articles/61197.html#hoff
 Stanley Kutler, Abuse
of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York, 1997).
 Klingman’s manuscript
submission to the American Historical Review was rejected for being
“too narrow in focus” for that particular publication, as well as of
insufficient length. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/07/books/07dean.html.
 Oval Office 881-003,
March 16, 1973, 10:34–11:10 a.m.
 See Kutler, 230-32.
 White House Telephone
037-134, March 16, 1973, 8:14–8:23 p.m.
 These conversations
have never been readily available to the public in one format and location,
apart from some disjointed transcripts. A number of the transcripts were imaged
using OCR (optical character recognition) software and placed online, but in
hundreds of places the text is corrupt, and the transcripts have not undergone
any sort of editing or correction since. The audio files are no better: apart
from a smattering available on various public and private websites, the analog
cassette recordings are available only at the National Archives in College Park,
Maryland, and they are of generally poor quality.
 This conversation is
not included in Abuse of Power.
To avoid the tedium of listening to these (in many cases) long and poor-quality
conversations, the relevant clips have been extracted, and the time codes are
noted in the file names. In this case, this excerpt can be found at
approximately 6 minutes, 40 seconds in conversation 878-014. However, readers
are also encouraged to listen to the entire conversations located at http://nixontapes.org/watergate.htm
in order to gain maximum context.
 This conversation is
part B of the transcript that appears in Abuse of Power, 230-32. This
conversation was conflated with the next conversation that occurred on March 16,
1973, from 8:14 to 8:23 p.m.
 This conversation is
part A of the transcript that appears in Abuse of Power, 230-232. This
conversation was conflated with the previous conversation that occurred on March
16, 1973, from 10:34 to 11:10 am.
 This conversation is
not included in Abuse of Power.