Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Watergate and Conspiracy Theories

For those who don't read the Watergate posts, I want to draw your attention to a terrific comment from the April 30 edition. I'm just going to make a post of it...this is all commenter Adam: I'll come back and add a bit more at the end:


One of the key things this retrospective has taught me is not just the limitations of Presidents, but the limitations of conspiracies. These posts should be required reading for anyone tempted to believe in a conspiracy theory.

Which isn’t to say conspiracies don’t happen. This is, after all, an actual criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of state power. But that’s the thing... it’s not the moon landing, let alone 9/11 - all they’re scheming over is a few low-rent burglaries/buggings, and then a cover-up of those operations. 

But they seem to be terrible at it. Not only do they fail to pull it off and keep their connections to it secret, but as soon as the pressure rises, they all get lawyers and start squealing on each other. They can’t remember what each other know, they probably can’t remember what they themselves knew at which point...they just seem to be really ineffective.

And these are not a bunch of chumps. It’s a President and chief of staff known for being clever, extremely driven, and politically ruthless; and a very competent inner circle.

There’s also very little of the style of imagined conspiracies here. You have moments where Nixon says things like, ‘You're to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in.’ But for the most part they do an elaborate dance around the issue at hand, rarely saying exactly what they mean - even those who don’t know they’re being taped. They pretend to know less than they do, they nudge each other towards taking more of the rap, mostly they just fret aimlessly, for months on end. And when they need to lay down the law to someone, like Mitchell for instance, they don’t seem to have the nerve to do it.

Or take something like the situation with Judge Sirica, as JB described it here. When Nixon first airs his frustrations about Sirica to Colson, and asks if he’s waiting for a Democrat to nominate him to the Supreme Court, Colson says:
No, no. He is a Republican. I know him pretty well. I have been with him at various events -- social events. Very decent guy, dedicated to you and to Eisenhower.
Now, in conspiracy land, what happens next is that they arrange for Colson to play a round of golf with him and just tell him, as a loyal soldier, what to do; or if he does balk, they promise him a SCOTUS seat, bribe him with millions, threaten or blackmail him or whatever - and problem solved. But no, in reality, they just speculate about whether he’s doing it because he’s a “hot-headed Italian” and carry on the dance of words. It seems it’s not even remotely on the radar to influence a judge. I mean, what kind of conspiracy is this!?

They also have a hard time raising the money to keep the boys quiet - again, this is a plot run by the White House and senior figures in the GOP, and they can’t get their hands on enough money to keep their conspiracy secret. In the movies and on the net, hush-money is really not a problem for these kind of people.

Now, no doubt a good deal of this is the result of what JB has been explaining about Nixon’s alienation of the rest of government, and presidential weakness in general. I dare say it’s easier to pull off a conspiracy if you’re Stalin than if you’re occupying the White House. And I guess a circle of, say, ‘shadowy’ international financiers, has less institutional barriers facing them. On the other hand, they lack many advantages of being officially in charge of the country. Like being able to offer immunity, or ask the FBI to destroy evidence.

Still, I’d tentatively suggest that on this evidence, to pull off a major conspiracy like an inside-job 9/11 is, if not actually impossible, so incredibly unlikely to succeed that no experienced or competent pol would ever try it.


Back to me: I think that's all exactly right. 

One other point, however, worth making is that the Nixon tapes themselves are excellent evidence against ongoing major conspiracy theories, stuff such as faked moon landings or UFO cover-ups, or larger political things such as domination of the government by shadowy outside actors. Basically, we have on tape much of what Richard Nixon said from February 1971 through July 1973, and there's no indication of any of those conspiracies in what we have to date. And yet Nixon was candid enough on these tapes that he was willing to incriminate himself multiple times. His Chief of Staff, too, was candid enough to incriminate himself. And others, who (supposedly?) didn't know about the tapes, were also quite candid about their Watergate-related crimes. And yet none of them happened to mention any of those other conspiracies. Nor, for that matter, do any of the White House tapes of other presidents, for whatever that's worth.

So: maybe these far-reaching conspiracies were nevertheless unknown to the President of the United States and his top aides (depending on the conspiracy theory at issue, that might be absolutely implausible). Maybe, in all those hours, it just happened to never come up -- again, depending on the theory at issue, this might be very plausible or not plausible at all. Maybe Nixon and Haldeman knew that there were certain things that absolutely could not be exposed, but it was perfectly fine to expose their own criminal actions (seems highly improbable to me). Maybe everyone who has reviewed the tapes is in on it -- after all, there are all those things that are blacked out of transcripts for "national security" reasons -- but that's an awful large conspiracy, by now.

Not that any of this will convince anyone who truly wants to believe in conspiracies; hey, maybe I'm in on it! But, yes, the evidence of Watergate -- and, in my view, Iran-Contra, as well -- makes it hard to believe that there are really lots of massive conspiracies that the government has managed to pull off without getting caught.


  1. I've always thought that the probability of a conspiracy existing is inversely proportional to the number of people who would have to know about it for it to work...the more people who would have to be involved, the less likely it is that a conspiracy could exist.

    Mostly because the more people involved, the more likely someone is to talk about it. But also because coordinating the activities of a large number of conspirators becomes expoentially more difficult as the number of conspirators expands.

    So if someone wanted to persuade me that James Earl Ray and another person unknown conspired to kill Martin Luther King, well, I might buy it. But if someone tries to tell me that several hundred people conspired to kill John Kennedy, not so much.

  2. There's a Bill James passage somewhere about "insider" information -- I'm guessing you know it. His idea is that there is no special insider information, that insider information is merely a stage that information passes through before getting more widespread. If UFOs or a faked moon landing were a topic that the 5-6 most important people in the executive branch would talk about in a room called the Oval Office, then what would happen is that those people would use that information to benefit themselves -- as leverage, to enhance their esteem, to trade for favors, to flatter people they want to use, and so on. If you know something of that inherent interest and potency, the walls keeping the information "insider" aren't strong enough to keep it in. But now I'm pretty much quoting from James.

  3. Quite an elaborate ruse to throw us off the trail of the Saudi who was behind Boston AND 9/11 AND the death of the electric car.

    Sorry, JB, you Soros/Koch stooge....I'm not falling for it!

  4. The 18 1/2 minute gap explained how aliens from Roswell escaped from Area 51 to kill JFK. The truth is out there!

    1. I always thought the 18 1/2 minute gap was an erased recording of Alice's Restaurant.

  5. Teriffic stuff here, and the basic point was made years ago by Dwight MacDonald in his "Critique of the Warren Report," that a conspiracy involving large numbers of people both succeeding and then remaing airtight is "possible in formal logic but not in real life."

  6. Ironically, a similar argument was employed by Chuck Colson, of all people, in his post-prison book _Loving God_, to argue that Jesus must have in fact rose from the dead etc., because he knew PERSONALLY that a large-scale conspiracy was actually impossible to hold together.

    Yes, a bit embarrassed that I've read that book. I was a fundamentalist Christian high school student at the time.

  7. "the probability of a conspiracy existing is inversely proportional to the number of people who would have to know about it for it to work"

    Yes. One person can get away with almost anything if no one else ever has cause to find out. Two people is the ideal size for a conspiracy.

    1. I'm too lazy to look it up, but this is all Machiavelli, no?

    2. B. Franklin: Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

  8. Wow, I'm honoured! And making it into a Plain Blog Watergate post has made what was turning out to be a pretty crappy day a hell of a lot better.


  9. I'm reading Legacy of Ashes (the history of the CIA) and he quotes someone saying that things might have gone better if Hoover had still been alive, but he died a few months before things started to hit the fan.

    Every time I read the Watergate posts I think back to an old Saturday Night Live skit where they said that in reality the Nixon Whitehouse was full of jokesters and one of their jokes was to "pretend" for the tapes that there was a cover-up. Ackroyd (playing Nixon) holds up a sign reading "Pretend there's a cover-up" and Buck Henry (as Haldeman) laughs and they speak in half sentences.

  10. Well...there are conspiracy theories, and there are Conspiracy Theories. There are plenty of sober minded people who recognize that conspiracy theories such as faked-moon-landings or grassy knoll shooters are crackpot bull, but who absolutely believe that politics is basically a game rigged by conspirators and that the real story of Watergate is that Nixon was no different In his political skulduggery than was JFK or LBJ. He just got caught. The prime example of this sort of conspiracy-thinking was, of course, Nixon himself. Cynical Nixonian conspiracy-thinking is, I would argue, a hallmark of modern Republican politics and policy-making. You don't have to wear a tinfoil hat to believe that this game is rigged and that "policy" is a sham for rubes and stooges.

  11. To reinforce Martin's point, it's virtually impossible to imagine something in modern Washington that only 5-6 people know. Each of those high-ranking people has a staff, and staff basically know everything that the principals know (usually more on any matter of detail). (How would the principals keep up with the conspiracy without staff work?) There was a time when principals did their own work. That day is long gone. If the film were based in 2013, if Lincoln and Seward were meeting in the White House, there would have been 10 extras in the room, and maybe one or two additional speaking parts.

    It's actually easier for me, as a matter of "formal logic", to imagine a conspiracy pulled off by staff without the knowledge of principals than vice versa. Once you bring in the principals, it's going to be impossible to limit in a meaningful way the number of people who know something.

    --Anonymous government staffperson

  12. I think you said earlier in this series (or was it Emery, whose book I bought because it was mentioned here so often?) that the lion's share of the tapes are in the possession of Nixon's estate and have never been heard by anyone -- is that right? Because if so, that footage probably has all the discussions of the faked moon landing and so on.


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