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The press played a major role in the beginnings of Watergate. In June 1971 the New York Times began publishing a series of articles that chronicled American involvement in the Vietnam War. The documents, leaked by former Pentagon employee Daniel Ellsberg, were basically a historical account of American participation in the conflict. President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger convinced the president that to allow the leakage of such classified information without retaliation on his part would be harmful to ongoing secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Soviet Union. The Nixon Justice Department sought and obtained an injunction against the New York Times and other papers that were running the series of articles. The US Supreme Court ruled that the government had not met the heavy burden of proof that continued publication of these Pentagon Papers would cause a direct and immediate threat to national security.
Nixon then ordered the creation of a White House investigative unit that would search for and stop further damaging leaks by government employees to the press. This unit eventually broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in California (Ambrose 1989). Another intelligence-gathering operation was the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC, in June 1972, where five burglars were arrested by the police. The incident eventually led to the exposure of White House complicity in the break-in and Nixon’s own involvement in the cover-up (Aitken 1993). The early reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post was an important factor in keeping the Watergate story alive.
The issue of whistleblowers is still alive in America, with the recent leaks of US wartime activity by Specialist Bradley Manning concerning the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and the release of classified information of domestic spying by the National Security Agency by a government- contracted employee, Edward Snowden. To what extent can secrets in wartime be maintained in a democratic society? That question has to be resolved ultimately, with the help of an independent press, by the judicial branch.
- Aitken, J. (1993). Nixon: A life. Washington, DC: Regnery.
- Ambrose, S. E. (1989). Nixon: The triumph of a politician, 1962–1972. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Nixon, R. N. (1978). RN: The memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.