If Pegasus is India's Watergate moment, here is the one book that you need to read

Writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, right, talk about their coverage of the Watergate story 30 years ago on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, June 16, 2002, in Washington. | Photo Credit: AP
Sudipta Datta 21 July 2021 19:21 IST
Updated: 25 July 2021 08:33 IST

The takeaways from “All The President's Men”, that landmark account of investigative journalism

In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a young man is arrested one morning and sent to the gallows without ever knowing the crime. George Orwell’s 1984 portrays a society where “doublethink” prevails -- thus war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength -- and “power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together in new shapes of your own choosing”.

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Dystopian fiction mastered by the likes of Kafka and Orwell have become a nightmarish reality. But reality too sometimes mimics art (think the big-brother-is-watching scenario of The Truman Show). As the Pegasus snooping controversy unfolds, with phones of politicians, lawyers, journalists, activists hacked, are we mere props in a digital world without any filters? Pegasus is being referred to as India’s Watergate moment, which prompts us to look back at the eponymous scandal of the 1970s when the investigation of two American journalists into a break-in forced a President to resign.


The journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, wrote about their probe months before President Nixon’s resignation in the Pulitzer Prize-winning All The President’s Men (February, 1974), later made into a film with verisimilitude; the paper’s Executive Editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, dedicated a chapter to Watergate in his memoirs, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures as also the publisher, Katharine Graham, in her autobiography Personal History.

The break-in

On June 17, 1972, a Saturday morning, Bob Woodward, who had only spent nine months at the Post but had “impressed everyone with his skill at finding stories wherever we sent him (Bradlee)”, was woken up to cover the arraignment of five men who had been arrested earlier in the morning for a burglary at the Democratic headquarters in Watergate Hotel carrying photographic equipment and electronic gear. All The President’s Men describes the court scene clinically. There, Woodward heard one of the burglars, James McCord, whisper CIA when asked what kind of a “retired government worker he was.” The judge flinched slightly, recalled Woodward. “Holy s***,” Woodward said half aloud, “the CIA.”

In a few months, Nixon would be re-elected for a second term with a landslide victory. McCord was the security coordinator of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP). Yet, after the burglary, John Mitchell, the former U.S. Attorney General and the President’s campaign manager, issued an unsolicited statement: “We want to emphasize that the people involved were not operating on either our behalf or with our consent. There is no place in our campaign or in the electoral process for this type of activity, and we will not permit or condone it.”

The two reporters stood in the middle of the newsroom and looked at each other. “What the hell do you think that means?” Woodward asked. Bernstein didn’t know. Woodward, 29, had been asked to work the story together with Bernstein, 28, and neither had held each other in high esteem till that point. “Bernstein looked like one of those counterculture journalists that Woodward despised. Bernstein thought that Woodward’s rapid rise at the Post had less to do with his ability than his Establishment credentials,” All The President’s Men notes.

Woodward had got a lead from the Post’s night police reporter Eugene Bachinski that two address books belonging to two of the accused in the burglary contained the name and phone number of a Howard E. Hunt with the small notations “W. House” and “W.H.” Woodward called an old friend who worked for the federal government and hated to be called at his office. His friend said the break-in case was going to ‘heat up’ and hung up. Dubbed Deep Throat by the Post top brass at that time, in 2001, Mark Felt revealed to Vanity Fair magazine that as number two at the FBI in 1972, he had been the anonymous source for the Post’s journalists.

The link to the White House

Tracing Hunt’s link to the White House – the former CIA man had been a consultant -- Woodward stumbled onto Charles W. Colson, special counsel to the President and known to be the White House “hatchet man”. When the Post story headlined “White House Consultant Linked to Bugging Suspects” appeared, the presidential press secretary, Ronald L. Zeigler, remarked: “Certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is,” calling it a “third-rate burglary” not worthy of further White House comment.

As the reporters began to be stonewalled, they were unaware that the Post was up against a huge cover-up being orchestrated by the White House. As Bradlee writes, “For the first six weeks…we were picking at the story, knowing it was there but unable to describe what ‘it’ was.” Bernstein, he says, finally broke into the clear with a story on August 1 about the origins of the money found on the Watergate burglars when they were arrested, linking it to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP).

‘Follow the money’

When the reporters listened to Deep Throat’s advice to “follow the money”, they got the story they were after: A $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for the campaign chest of President Nixon, was deposited in April in the bank account of Bernard L. Barker, one of the five men arrested in the break-in and alleged bugging attempt at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17.

Gradually, all the President’s men – from Colson to Kenneth Dahlberg, Midwest Finance Chairman, CRP; John W. Dean, counsel to the President; John D. Ehrlichman, assistant to the President for domestic affairs; H. R. Haldeman, assistant to the President and White House Chief of Staff; Henry Kissinger, assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Mitchell, campaign director, CRP; and G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel CRP – were in the sights of the Post investigation.

At one time, Deep Throat interrupted Woodward when he read out a story that “high officials of the CRP had been involved in the funding of the Watergate operation,” to say, it was “too soft,” adding, “you can go much stronger.” He would guide them to the top – to the President himself.

Bradlee’s newsroom

Directing the coverage, Bradlee would often type out paragraphs on his own typewriter to make it clearer and bark at the reporters to get harder evidence if they wanted their story to make Page One. He would also have lunch with Woodward one day to know first-hand “how the stories have been put together and where they’re coming from.” As a reporter himself, Bradlee “understood the reluctance to discuss sources with anyone, including the editor.” After more than an hour, the “line was drawn at a point which satisfied Bradlee’s reportorial instincts and Woodward’s promises of anonymity to their sources.”

The reporters would have an uncomfortable breakfast with Katharine Graham too about their source. In Personal History, she admits that “the attacks by the CRP and people throughout the administration were effective and were taking a toll…the pressures on the Post to cease and desist were intense and uncomfortable.” In the end, Nixon, caught on the wrong end of the investigation, read out his resignation speech on August 8, 1974.

As the publisher of the Post, Graham summed it all up. “As a story, Watergate was in many ways a journalist’s dream – it had all the ingredients for major drama: suspense, embattled people on both sides, right and wrong, law and order, good and bad.” The Post, according to her, was only a part of the Watergate story, with other constitutional processes, including the grand juries, the courts, and the Congress, ensuring that the President was made accountable for his actions.

Closer home, investigative reports that tracked the Bofors scandal in The Hindu and the Indian Express and the recent scrutiny around the Rafale deal in The Hindu are pointers to dogged journalism and the probing eye. In today’s world of Pegasus, that’s the telling, if sobering, message from the media’s unravelling of the Watergate scandal. “When things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” said Yeats.

It is not for the Fourth Estate alone to call truth power, the three adjoining pillars of democracy must hold up too.