We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the original Watergate burglaries. Although everyone has heard of the scandal, most people have either forgotten or are too young to remember that the purpose of the Watergate burglaries was to copy documents listing donors to the Democratic Party and their financial contributions, either hoping or expecting to find evidence of contributions from “bad” sources (the Cuban government).
Like the Watergate burglars, the objective of Gleick’s fraud against Heartland was to obtain a list of donors, expecting to find evidence of “bad” contributions to their climate program (fossil fuel corporations and the Koch brothers.) The identity of objectives is really quite remarkable. The technology of the Watergate burglars (break-in and photography) was different than Gleick’s (fraud and email). And the consequences of being caught have thus far been very different.
In today’s post, I’ll reconsider the backstory of the Watergate burglaries to place present-day analogies to the Watergate era in better context.
I was in mid-20s at the time of the Watergate events. Although it now looms large in contemporary history, it was a very minor story until relatively late in the chronology, when Nixon’s connections to the cover-up were finally established. (The Vietnam War was the dominant story of the day.) My own recollection of events (prior to researching) was mostly established by the movie hagiography of Woodward and Bernstein, though all of the names in the story (from Ellsberg to G. Gordon Liddy) were names familiar to me as a young man. Today’s post is written almost entirely from secondary sources (mostly Wikipedia articles unless otherwise cited), which seem accurate enough on chronological details.
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
I’ll start my review of Watergate with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which have been cited in some quarters as precedents for Gleick.
Although the Pentagon Papers are indelibly associated with the Nixon presidency, the documents themselves pertained entirely to the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. In 1967, while Johnson was still President, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who had also served in the Kennedy administrations) had commissioned a task force to write an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War”, a project that he kept secret from other members of the Johnson administration. McNamara left the Defense Department in February 1968. In January 1969, five days before Nixon’s inauguration, McNamara’s successor, Clark Clifford, received the finished study, entitled “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”. It consisted of 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents in 47 volumes, and was classified as “Top Secret – Sensitive”. It was later known as the “Pentagon Papers”.
The task force published 15 copies. RAND Corp, a prominent think tank with military contracts, received two of the copies. Access was restricted: access required approval of two of the three most senior RAND executives. Ellsberg had worked on the study for several months in 1967. In 1969, Ellsberg, then a military analyst at RAND, was granted access to the work at RAND. In October 1969, Ellsberg and a friend (Anthony Russo), now opponents of the Vietnam War, photocopied the study. Ellsberg attempted to interest senior politicians and administrators in the documents for nearly two years without any success.
In June 1971, Ellsberg distributed the documents to a number of important newspapers, including the New York Times. Reportedly, Nixon’s first instinct was not to oppose publication, since the documents did not pertain to his administration and showed his predecessors in a bad light, but was persuaded by Henry Kissinger that acquiescence would be construed as government weakness. The Nixon administration therefore sought injunctions against publication, claiming that disclosure would violate national security. The case went very quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), permitted the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers without risk of government censure. (The documents themselves were not declassified until 2011.)
Ellsberg was charged with breaches of national security for disclosing the documents (he did not “steal” or “hack” the Pentagon Papers). Charges against him were eventually dismissed due to government misconduct while seeking to discredit him – a story that in turn links back to the Watergate burglars.
The Empire Strikes Back
In July 1971, one month after and in response to Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration established a sort of rapid response team ultimately reporting to senior Nixon aide, John Ehrlichmann. On July 7, Ehrlichmann and Charles Colson appointed E. Howard Hunt, a “security specialist” recently retired from the CIA, to the White House staff with the specific task of “plugging the leaks”. (A term used in Climategate correspondence where Mann expressed satisfaction at plugging the “leak” at Geophysical Research Letters, which had had the temerity of publishing our critical article in 2005.) Because their job was to plug leaks, the group was known naturally enough as the “Plumbers”. Liddy became involved with the operation in July as well.
The next month (August 1971), Liddy and Hunt recommended a “covert operation [to] be undertaken to examine all of the medical files still held by Ellsberg’s psychiatrist [Lewis Fielding].” Ehrlichman approved under the condition that it be “done under your assurance that it is not traceable” (a concern discussed between Briffa and Wahl in a different context in the Climategate dossier.)
In September, Hunt, Liddy and three CIA operatives (Eugenio Martinez, Bernard Barker and Felipe de Diego, the first two later involved in Watergate) burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The break-in was not known until it came to light during Ellsberg’s trial in April 1973; it was one of the principal reasons why the charges against Ellsberg were dismissed for government misconduct.
1972 was an election year. The Plumbers moved from the White House to the the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) and soon escalated from “plugging the leaks” to “dirty tricks”.
Edmund Muskie, a Maine senator, was the candidate most feared by the Republicans. In February, during the New Hampshire primary, a forged letter (the “Canuck Letter”) was delivered to the Manchester Union-Leader purporting to show that Muskie was prejudiced against people with Canadian background. (A prejudice also observed from time to time in the Climategate emails ).
On March 4, Muskie delivered an emotional speech on the steps of the Manchester Union-Leader, in which he broke down crying on three occasions. Voters became perturbed about Muskie’s emotional stability and Muskie was defeated in the primary three days later by George McGovern, the opponent much preferred by the Republicans. McGovern eventually received the nomination and lost 49 of 50 states to the not very popular Nixon – a lesson about the pointlessness of nominating unelectable candidates, however appealing they may be to a party’s activist base, a lesson that was remembered for many years by both parties, but now apparently forgotten by some.
While the Watergate events loom large in later history, at the time, they were small ripples in the tide of major events. The Vietnam War dominated headlines; casualties were unimaginably higher than those in Iraq or Afghanistan. In late February, when the seeds of the Watergate burglary were being sown, Nixon unexpectedly visited China, which, at the time, permitted only the most limited contact with foreigners. (No one at the time imagined that only 40 years later, China would be the U.S.’s largest creditor and the largest economy in the world.)
The Watergate Burglaries
In early 1972, Liddy proposed that the Committee to Re-elect the President (which included John Mitchell, then Attorney General) authorize a program to collect intelligence against the Democratic party. The program included funding for a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee to photograph donors’ list and financial records of contributions to the DNC.
Howard Hunt later claimed under oath in congressional testimony that Liddy “had information” from “a government agency” that “the Cuban government was supplying funds to the Democratic Party” and that the purpose of the Watergate break-in was to “investigate this report”. However, the Wikipedia article observes that “no such report from a government agency was produced in evidence, and no other physical evidence is in the record to support or corroborate this motive.” (The similarity of Hunt’s story to Gleick’s account of his receipt of the forged Heartland memo will not be lost on CA readers.)
On May 28, they carried out an undetected break-in at Watergate. Howard Hunt’s autobiography (“Undercover“) says that Hunt and the others rehearsed the successful May 28 break-in, for which “photography had been the priority mission” (elsewhere “the photography mission was paramount.”) Hunt said that they focused on “account books, contributor lists, that sort of thing”. Corroborating contemporary statements were made by Eugenio Martinez, Bernard Barker and James McCord. (See Appendix A below).
Disappointed by the lack of damaging information in the documents from the first break-in, they carried out a second break-in on June 17, intending to plant a wiretap on the telephone of the campaign chairman. During this second break-in, five burglars (James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, Virgilio Gonzalez and Bernard Barker) were arrested on the premises. See the very first Washington Post story here, in which Woodward and Bernstein were merely contributors. (Also see contemporary Washington Post chronology of articles.) The two leaders of the operation, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, were arrested soon afterwards.
Although associations between the burglars and the Committee to Re-elect the President were quickly established, the burglars did not give up their superiors and few people at the time could picture high-level people being involved. Nixon asked White House counsel John Dean to carry out an investigation of links between the Watergate burglaries and the Republican National Committee. (Muir Russell was apparently unavailable.) At a news conference on August 29, 1972, Nixon reported that Dean had conducted a “thorough investigation”, and, in September, asserted:
“I can say categorically that… no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.”
On September 15, 1972, Nixon congratulated Dean:
“The way you, you’ve handled it, it seems to me, has been very skillful, because you—putting your fingers in the dikes every time that leaks have sprung here and sprung there.”
Nixon’s way of saying “A blinder well played”. Everyone was content to move on.
U.S. casualties in Vietnam in 1972 had declined dramatically in the Nixon administration (from 16,592 in 1968, Johnson’s last year, to only 641 in 1972, with a further decline to 168 in 1973.) In November 1972, Nixon won the largest landslide in American history.
Sirica’s Draconian Sentences
But the charges against the Watergate burglars were still pending. Five of the burglars pleaded guilty, but Liddy and long-time CIA operative McCord did not plea out. Despite efforts by the prosecution and Judge John Sirica to get them to give up their superiors, they refused. In January 1973, John Sirica convicted them of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping (contemporary Washington Post article here).
Sirica gave (unprecedentedly) draconian sentences to the leaders for a simple burglary: McCord was sentenced to 4 1/2 years and Liddy to an astonishing 20 years(!). Liddy still didn’t flinch. Nor did Sirica resile from the sentence. Liddy was released only when his sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter in 1977 after he had served 4 1/2 years.
However, two months later (March 1973), McCord caved, beginning the protracted process of giving up higher-ups. McCord’s confession of the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and its approval by senior Nixon aides came just as Ellsberg’s trial had begun (April 1973). McCord’s revelations were passed to the prosecutor in the Ellsberg case, who immediately disclosed it to the judge and defence. The judge dismissed charges against Ellsberg because of government misconduct. Senior Nixon aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichmann, both resigned in April. The Watergate story suddenly had new life. Senate hearings (the Ervin Committee) commenced in May.
Nixon tried desperately to turn attention to the “real” issues” – the disengagement of U.S. troops from Vietnam and his (then astonishing) rapprochement with China. But his efforts were unsuccessful. Links to the Watergate burglary and its coverup were gradually established over the next 16 months, culminating in Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 (see timeline here.)
The Rise of Gleick
Gleick’s first appearance in the climate blogs came in spring 2010, as part of The Empire Strikes Back phase. In late February 2010 (see here), Paul Ehrlich, Stephen Schneider (both long-time associates and friends of Gleick’s) and other members of Section 63 of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) had vowed retaliation and escalation, rather than apology. One of the participants proposed “an outlandishly aggressively partisan approach” to gut the credibility of sceptics. Ehrlich, who accepted (without proof) that the Climategate dossier was “hacked” rather than “leaked”, called for a “street fight” (a phrase immediately adopted in a Nature editorial):
Most of our colleagues don’t seem to grasp that we’re not in a gentlepersons’ debate, we’re in a street fight against well-funded, merciless enemies who play by entirely different rules.
Gleick, apparently included in the Section 63 distribution list, elaborated the martial imagery in his March 11 column for his San Francisco newspaper (a column immediately covered and praised by Joe Romm). Gleick, who in real life has a distinctively Milhous appearance, illustrated his column with a cartoon from the Simpsons that showed bully Nelson Muntz pushing around the insipid Milhous. Gleick talked tough about a “bar fight”, though one might reasonably question whether his personal experience with broken beer bottles extended beyond sweeping up glass shards. Gleick:
Scientists are used to debating facts with each other, with the best evidence and theory winning. Well, this is a bar fight, where the facts are irrelevant, and apparently, the rules and tools of science are too. But who wins bar fights? As the Simpsons cartoon so brilliantly showed, bullies. Not always the guy who is right.
Over the next 18 months, Gleick became an increasingly familiar figure in the climate blogs. In November 2010, he joined with John Abraham and Scott Mandia to form the “Climate Rapid Response Team”. Mandia’s avatar as a costumed vigilante (see left) was almost impossible to sufficiently parody. Gleick’s own appearance on skeptic blogs became increasingly erratic, more like Woody Harrelson’s Defendor than Superman.
The “street fight” rhetoric intensified in January 2012, when, in preparation for his forthcoming book, Mann once again ratcheted up rhetoric (for example, January 16 here)
Gleick’s Search for the Donors’List
Within the increasingly deranged wing of the activist community to which Gleick adhered, the existence of a massive fossil-fuel corporation funded conspiracy is an article of faith. (Michael Mann’s recent book is a recent and prominent example of this conspiracy.) Gleick fervently believed in such a conspiracy and that the small Heartland Institute played a leading role within the conspiracy.
In January, stung once more by blog criticism, this time by James Taylor of Heartland, Gleick ostentatiously and publicly tried to get the Heartland Institute to publish a list of donors, a request that Taylor politely rebuffed, explaining that, like most 501c3s, including the leading environmental NGOs, it promised confidentiality to its donors. (See my review a few days ago here.) On January 13 at Forbes here:
I wonder, however, if Taylor would publish the list of who really DOES fund the Heartland Institute. It seems to be a secret…. So, Mr. Taylor: let’s have the complete list of your funders.
Lakely invited Gleick on January 16 to speak to Heartland’s annual conference (at which donors would be present). Gleick again re-iterated his demand for a donors’ list:
In order for me to consider this invitation, please let me know if the Heartland Institute publishes its financial records and donors for the public and where to find this information.
And on January 27, Gleick sent his final refusal of Lakely’s invitation again taking issue with “lack of transparency” on contributions to Heartland from donors.
As is now well-known, Gleick decided to get the donors’ information illegally. Gleick set up an email account fraudulently impersonating a Heartland director, and using that fake identity, illegally obtained information on Heartland’s list of donors and financial records of their contributions. Contrary to Gleick’s expectation, the information did not show that Heartland’s climate program was tainted by “bad” contributions from fossil fuel corporations or the Koch brothers. Indeed, the actual documents proved otherwise: Heartland’s climate program received no contributions from fossil fuel corporations and Koch made a modest 2011 contribution of only $25,000 to Heartland, and even this small contribution was directed to Heartland’s Health Care program.
Gleick and/or (less probably a mysterious associate) then forged a more damaging 2012 Confidential Climate Strategy memo, which he then distributed to sympathetic environmentalist blogs as an authentic Heartland document. In Gleick’s partial confession – which, in Nixonian terms, is a “modified limited hang-out” – Gleick claimed that the purpose of his fraud was to “confirm” the fake memo – an explanation not dissimilar to Howard Hunt’s invocation of document purporting to show Cuban government contributions to the DNC in 1972.
Gleick as Hero
Much recent commentary has characterized Gleick as a “hero”, some invoking Ellsberg as a precedent. But a closer examination of Watergate events shows that Gleick’s conduct is more evocative of Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy than of Ellsberg.
Most fundamentally, both Gleick and the Watergate burglars were seeking the same sort of documents: donors’ lists and financial records of contributions, anticipating that they could show dirty contributions. There was nothing in Gleick’s search that was more elevated or more worthy than the Watergate burglars.
Both Gleick and the Watergate burglars used illegal methods, though Gleick used fraud and identity theft rather than burglary and photography. But it’s hard for Gleick defenders to construct an ethical theory that sanctifies Gleick, while criminalizing Liddy. If the Cause is just enough to condone fraud, then why wouldn’t it also condone burglary? (Other than burglary being a bit proletarian as a crime for the intellectual elite to which Gleick aspired.)
Nor is it easy to distinguish Gleick from Liddy through mere commitment to their respective causes. Liddy’s commitment to his cause was strong enough that he took a 20-year sentence without flinching or giving up his superiors.
The biggest difference between the two crimes thus far has been police and prosecutiral commitment. The Watergate burglars were arrested, charged and received serious sentences. They had expected protection from their backers, but didn’t get it. In contrast, despite Gleick’s admission to acts that appear to constitute identity theft and fraud, (to my knowledge) no police have seized Gleick’s computers at home or at work or, for that matter, even crossed the threshold to interview him.
I suspect that Gleick grew up in a family that felt nothing but contempt for Nixon. It is an odd irony that Gleick, like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, will be best remembered for his dirty tricks.
The topic of this post was inspired by a witty remark by a commenter at Anthony’s. He wryly observed that Gleick was increasingly being described by his defenders, not as a “climate scientist”, but as a “water scientist”, and that the logical analogue of “climategate” was therefore “watergate”. From this ironic reminder, I browsed easily accessible information on the original Watergate burglary, which immediately showed that it too was about a search for a donors’ list.
Hunt’s autobiography (“Undercover“) is reported to say that Hunt and the others rehearsed the successful May 28 break-in, for which “photography had been the priority mission” (elsewhere “the photography mission was paramount.”) Hunt said that they focused on “account books, contributor lists, that sort of thing”
According to Hunt, on the evening of Saturday, May 27, he had Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martínez (a.k.a. Rolando) come to the room that Hunt and Liddy were staying in at the Watergate Hotel. Hunt says he had them set up the “lights and camera and photographing equipment,” and simulate photographing documents while he watched them. He then briefed them again on the importance of photographing Democratic “account books, contributor lists, that sort of thing.” They then packed the photography equipment and lights into a suitcase to carry with them in the new burglary attempt, along with a hatbox carrying a Polaroid camera and film [Undercover, p. 225].
Bernard Barker, in his contemporary congressional testimony, also stated that the objective of the burglaries was the search for information on financial contributions, and, in particular, from the Cuban government:
Bernard Barker said in congressional testimony that his “only job” on the first burglary was to “search for documents to be photographed” by Eugenio Martínez, namely “documents that would involve contributions of a national and foreign nature to the Democratic campaign, especially to Senator McGovern, and also, possibly to Senator Kennedy,” and in particular any contributions from “the foreign government that now exists on the island of Cuba.”
Barker himself has admitted that during this first Watergate burglary, he was searching the DNC for documents proving the assumed financial contributions from Cuba or from leftist organizations to the DNC. Because he could find none, Barker says, he looked out for documents where specific names were mentioned or others where numbers were involved.
Photography of documents was also reported in McCord’s memoir:
This version is confirmed by James McCord, who explains in his memoir that while he “had been working on the electronic end of the operation, the Miami men had their photographic equipment out and were snapping photographs of a variety of documents which Barker and the others had been pouring over.” [Piece of Tape, p. 25]
Eugenio Martinez, another Watergate burglar, also described photographing lists of contributors in the first burglary:
Eugenio Martínez wrote in 1974 that, during the first Watergate burglary, Barker had handed these documents (which Martinez believed to be lists of contributors to the Democratic Party) to him and that it was he, Martinez, who had taken some 30 or 40 photos of them while James McCord “worked the phones”. According to Martinez, immediately after the successful entry into the DNC, he handed the two exposed films over to Howard Hunt…[Martinez, Mission Impossible].
Martinez’ 1974 account was in Harper’s and appears to be online here and provides the following additional detail:
It was not a very definite plan that was finally agreed upon, but you are not too critical of things when you think that people over you know what they are doing, when they are really professionals like Howard Hunt… Gonzales, our key man, was to open the door; Sturgis, Pico, and Felipe were to be lookouts; Barker was to get the documents; I was to take the photographs and Jimmy (McCord) was to do his job.
In May 1974, the Rodino Committee summarized the purpose of the burglary as follows:
On or about May 27, 1972, under the supervision of Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, McCord, Barker, Martinez, Gonzalez, and Sturgis, broke into the DNC headquarters. McCord placed two monitoring devices on the telephones of DNC officials, one on the telephone of Chairman Lawrence O’Brien, and the second on the telephone of the executive director of Democratic state chairmen, R. Spencer Oliver, Jr. Barker selected documents relating to the DNC contributors, and these documents were then photographed.” [Judiciary Committee, Book I, p. 215]
Most of the above is drawn from the Wikipedia (“Watergate Burglaries“), which cites or refers to original testimony from Watergate burglars Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez and Bernard Barker and from the Rodino Committee.