Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ojai Rotarian Recalls Watergate Investigation

Gilbreth talks about time with special prosecutor

By Bret Bradigan
Ojai resident Bill Gilbreth hasn’t spoken about his role in the Watergate investigation since 2001 when William Bittman, attorney to President Nixon’s “dirty tricks” specialist E. Howard Hunt, died of throat cancer.
“My involvement in the Watergate cover-up prosecution was an intensely personal experience — one that I hadn’t discussed publicly until last Friday. The experience has left me with a number of conflicts.”
Gilbreth gave his talk on Watergate on Friday to his fellow Rotary Club of Ojai members, tracing the unusual path he took before receiving the call to join the Watergate prosecution team from Henry Ruth, who was the deputy special prosecutor under both Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski.
Before going into law, Gilbreth had a number of “lost years,” including one spent traveling the country, then earning a degree in physics, before graduating from law school in 1966 and entering private practice. The semi-retired attorney spoke about leaving private practice in 1968 to join the office of famed federal prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, working on tax evasion and organized crime prosecution against the Gambino family.
Those cases did not necessarily prepare him for the labyrinth he was about to enter. His investigation of Bittman, one of many colorful characters to emerge from Watergate, left him both exasperated and with a grudging admiration.
“He was a big gruff ex-Marine who always had a chewed-up cigar in his mouth,” said Gilbreth. Bittman helped make famous that Watergate catchphrase, “unindicted co-conspirator.”
Despite Gilbreth’s exhaustive investigation, and despite the wishes of many on the grand jury who wanted to punish Bittman for his uncooperative and hostile manner, he remained an unindicted co-conspirator. “After running a grand jury investigation for many months, as one of about three dozen of the special prosecutor’s staff attorneys, I concluded that, although we had sufficient probable cause to indict, the totality of the evidence would probably leave a trial jury with reasonable doubt. So I recommended against indictment.”
Gilbreth noted that America deals with many of the same conflicts 33 years later — the power and prestige of the presidency balanced against the power and politicization of special prosecutors. “We’re still trying to settle the scope of executive privilege,” he said.
Gilbreth was back in private practice in 1974 when he received a call from Henry Ruth, appointed special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation, asking him to join the team. Gilbreth was assigned to check out Bittman, who was key Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt’s defense attorney. He was reputedly the “bag man” for Nixon’s dirty tricks committee, run by Hunt, who dispensed hush money and bribes to stop up “leaks,” which led to Hunt and fellow conspirator G. Gordon Liddy being called the “Watergate plumbers.”
Hunt was a shadowy puppetmaster at many great moments in American skullduggery, from the CIA-led overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. “Hunt lived under a secret identity for so long he went nuts,” said Gilbreth.
Hunt and Liddy authorized the break-in to the Democratic National Committee head-quarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. They also burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in an effort to discredit the author of the Pentagon Papers.
Gilbreth said their undoing, and that of Nixon, began prosaically enough in June 1972. The Cuban burglars, Hunt’s acquaintances from the Bay of Pigs days, were hamstrung by budget restrictions. John Mitchell, who Gilbreth said “should never have been attorney general,” and who was also head of Committee to Re-Elect the President, also known as CREEP, red-lined budget requests for higher-quality listening devices and for a lookout. Hence, the burglars were arrested when the “bugs” malfunctioned after a mere two weeks and they returned to replace them.
Gilbreth praised the tenacity and zeal of Bob Woodward, in particular, and the Washington Post, for following up on their suspicions about the high-powered crew of attorneys who showed up to the defend the Watergate burglars for a routine procedure for a petty crime.
Despite the intensity of the investigation, which led to a constitutional crisis and the resignation of Nixon in 1974 after winning in a landslide a mere two years earlier, Gilbreth felt ambivalent about much of his role. “The lesson was supposed to be that no one was above the law, but Ford promptly pardoned Nixon ... but, peacefully, we got a corrupt and unstable president out of office,” Gilbreth said ... only to replace him with a man who may have played too much football without a helmet.”


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the type of national outrage that pushed Nixon out of office?

live free or die said...

ipods cell phones GPS plasma screen TVs fluoride in the water oh and the scary terrorists im sure a few distractions slipped my mind because of the stress of working my 5 jobs to feed my hungry gas tank soon to be hho powered wake up America sex is back in the white house bush is screwing us all!!! NOT just out of office IN PRISON !!!grow a pair and stand UNITED again!!!

Anonymous said...

See the article "Marijuana Uprooted in Matilija Canyon". Pretty hard to be outraged when you're stoned out of your mind.

Anonymous said...

There were plenty of outraged stoners during Nixon's administration, so maybe it's something else.

Pat McPherson said...

It's great to know we have Bill Gilbreth as one of our community. It was also great to hear him speak on behalf of the Skate Park at the special City Council meeting. Thank you Bill.