Counterterrorism and Watergate

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the presidency of Richard N. Nixon’s Watergate Scandal.

Following is an excerpt taken from the introduction of Daniel S. Chard’s Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism, which shows how America’s war with domestic guerrillas prompted a host of new policing measures as the FBI revived illegal spy techniques previously used against communists in the name of fighting terrorism. These efforts did little to stop the guerrillas—instead, they led to a bureaucratic struggle between the Nixon administration and the FBI that fueled the Watergate Scandal and brought down Nixon. Yet despite their internal conflicts, FBI and White House officials developed preemptive surveillance practices that would inform U.S. counterterrorism strategies into the twenty-first century, entrenching mass surveillance as a cornerstone of the national security state.

Given Nixon’s long-standing fixation on insurgent attacks and his persistent efforts to broaden the use of extralegal intelligence tactics through the Huston plan, the failure to consolidate counterterrorism actions after Hoover’s death is notable. One possible explanation for this delay was, in a word, Watergate. The Watergate scandal began on June 17, 1972, when police arrested a group of mysterious operatives burglarizing the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate apartment complex. The scandal gathered momentum over the next two years as investigators uncovered more and more evidence linking the burglars to the White House. It is likely that Nixon did not reinstitute the Huston Plan in October 1972 because in the midst of the FBI’s growing Watergate investigation, the president did not want to implicate his cabinet in further illegal activities. After Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, the scandal would continue to rattle the American political system, further stalling the development of formal counterterrorism initiatives in Congress and the executive branch.

But there is also a more complex explanation for why Nixon did not consolidate American counterterrorism operations: the histories of American counterterrorism and Watergate are, in fact, intertwined. Ironically, the very same conflict that inspired the development of U.S. counterterrorism also helped fuel a political scandal that delayed the development of U.S. counterterrorism. As this book will show, when Hoover torpedoed the Huston Plan, a full-blown institutional conflict ensued. The Nixon administration eventually responded by establishing its own unit of covert operatives, the so-called Plumbers who carried out the Watergate burglary and other secret operations against the president’s political adversaries. In addition to explaining the origins of American counterterrorism, this book reveals for the first time how institutional conflict over how to combat terrorism led to Watergate.

The Nixon-Hoover conflict was not only about leftist violence. It was also about leaks of government sources exposing Nixon’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, about Nixon’s authoritarian drive to neutralize his political “enemies,” and about a power struggle among Hoover’s deputies within the FBI. After Hoover’s death, this conflict and these leaks continued through the actions of a secret informant known as Deep Throat, later revealed to be FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, whose leaks to the press were manifestations of the power struggle between the FBI and the Nixon White House over extralegal surveillance techniques, jurisdiction, and counterterrorism policy.

The final chapters of this book unpack a paradox inherent in these tactics. Felt exposed the Nixon administration’s use of illegal break-ins, even while authorizing the very same sorts of break-ins during the FBI’s Weather Underground investigation. Felt was both a Hoover loyalist and firm advocate of preventive action against those the FBI considered terrorists. Felt had no problem with illegal break-ins for the purpose of countering terrorists and foreign spies, but he resented Nixon’s efforts to exert control over the FBI by installing bureau outsider L. Patrick Gray as acting director of the FBI after Hoover’s death. Felt also opposed the Nixon administration’s use of break-ins for purely partisan objectives. Using his position as the second most powerful figure in the FBI, Felt sought to undermine both men.

At the same time, Felt authorized break-ins in FBI terrorism investigations because agents had already been carrying out such operations since August 1970 in response to Hoover’s unofficial orders. With the support of assistant director Edward Miller, Felt established a formal procedure for authorizing break-ins in order to restore morale among FBI field agents, who sought assurance that headquarters would support them if ever they were caught participating in such illegal acts. Under Felt, the FBI carried out break-ins against alleged Weather Underground supporters as well as lesser known break-ins targeting Arabs suspected of planning a Munich-style attack in the United States. The latter break-ins were part of a wider FBI campaign harassing Arab and Arab Americans that I refer to as America’s first “Arab scare,” a precedent to U.S. intelligence agencies’ widespread targeting of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11.

Like Hoover’s mass surveillance of American dissidents in 1970, Felt’s secret wars backfired, leading to outcomes that clashed with his objectives. His leaks enflamed the Watergate scandal and helped bring down Nixon and Gray but also ended his own career as well. And instead of leading to the capture of Weather Underground fugitives, the FBI’s break-ins landed Felt a 1980 federal felony conviction. In the process, the FBI’s popular legitimacy plummeted. It has yet to fully recover.

The FBI’s war with American guerrillas was no mere sideshow to the larger political dramas of the 1960s and 1970s. On the contrary, Nixon’s war at home and the development of counterterrorism intersected with all of the period’s major political conflicts and changes: the Vietnam War, the New Left, the Black Power movement, the women’s movement, Watergate, controversies over mass surveillance and covert operations, and the rise of mass incarceration. Today, amid a revival of leftist social movements, heightened fears of political violence, and the aftermath of a Trump administration embroiled in scandal, this history is more important than ever.

Daniel S. Chard is visiting assistant professor of history at Western Washington University.