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Commentary: It's a pivotal time to hear from the original Watergate investigators

Melissa Graves Citadel (copy)

Melissa Graves, Ph.D., a Watergate researcher, will bring five of the FBI's original investigators together at The Citadel for the school's Ethics in Intelligence conference. 

Our nation’s memory of Watergate is incomplete. We’ve remembered journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s midnight meetings with Deep Throat, later revealed to be the FBI’s second-in-command Mark Felt. Woodward and Bernstein’s stories made history; the momentum of their journalistic prowess shifted public opinion against Richard Nixon.

But this historical memory — Woodward, Bernstein and Felt as the trifecta who “solved” Watergate — doesn’t reflect the work that comprised the investigation. It leaves unasked and unanswered the critical question of where Deep Throat received his valuable intelligence in the first place. It is time to set the historical record straight.

FBI agents uncovered the Watergate scandal. Without the agents from the FBI’s District of Columbia field office, Watergate would have died on the vine soon after June 17, 1972, when five burglars sat in the D.C. jail and refused to discuss their break-in of  the Democratic National Committee headquarters. These bureau agents chased leads, followed money trails and developed informants to uncover the evidence that implicated Nixon and those within his administration. They executed a meticulous investigation despite bureau turmoil.

Six weeks before Nixon’s Plumbers forced their way into the DNC, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for nearly half a century, died in his sleep. His death exacted an open wound at the highest ranks of the bureau. Nixon welcomed the opportunity to appoint his own FBI director, someone he trusted to treat his administration favorably. He handpicked L. Patrick Gray, a former Navy captain, as director. Gray had never worked in law enforcement, knew next to nothing about the FBI and was wholly a “yes-man.”

For the old guard at FBI headquarters who had dedicated their entire careers to the bureau, Gray’s nomination was a slap in the face. Following Gray’s appointment, Felt assumed his persona as Deep Throat, vindictively spreading the bureau’s hard-won secrets to The Washington Post. He surreptitiously revealed the information collected by the agents working under him.

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Felt wasn’t the only bureau sieve. Gray, eager to become permanent director of the bureau, walked a tightrope. His Senate confirmation hearings loomed. Gray’s desire to become the FBI’s permanent director overshadowed his obligation to ensure a fair investigation. He destroyed evidence pertinent to the Watergate investigation at the bidding of  Nixon’s staff. He allowed Nixon’s legal counsel John Dean to participate in the investigation. Gray passed along to Dean the daily reports that FBI agents drafted, detailing their work and noting their suspicions; the information from these reports would eventually make their way to Nixon.

Forty-eight years later, we once again have been embroiled in impeachment hearings. “Watergate” is invoked often by many wishing to promote their own political views and themselves. Cue the members of the bureau’s C-2 squad, those agents who worked the Watergate case. For years, they’ve remained mostly silent about their work. These agents carried out what was arguably the most important case in the FBI’s history and then disappeared into obscurity. They received no accolades. History has attributed their successes to other people. Now more than ever, we need their perspective. We need to hear from those who operated successfully in a difficult time. We crave a story about the good guys. And we also need a story from those who did the daily work of peeling away the layers of crimes that led to Nixon’s impeachment.

The story of the C-2 squad challenges our memory of Watergate. It forces us to reevaluate the champions of traditional Watergate tropes. It highlights the resiliency of a federal agency to carry out its mandate under difficult circumstances.

Is Watergate an aberration, a historical one-off where, for one time only, the system charged to uphold democracy got it right? Or is Watergate the first in a long series of successes? The legacy we determine for Watergate — how we remember it today — matters. The members of the FBI’s C-2 squad did their job all those years ago. Now it’s on us to listen to their story, understanding that the actions we support today will reflect the lessons we’ve learned from Watergate.

Melissa Graves, Ph.D., is working with the FBI’s six original investigators to research and capture their experiences. On Feb. 12, Graves will bring five of them together at The Citadel and their discussion, during the college’s 2020 Ethics in Intelligence conference, will mark the first time the agents have come together publicly to discuss their investigation. Graves’ forthcoming book, “Nixon’s FBI: The Bureau in Crisis,” will be published this year.

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