May 19, 2008 / 4:02 AM / 11 years ago

New Watergate book says John Dean ordered break-in

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new book on the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon accuses then-White House counsel John Dean of ordering the infamous Watergate break-in in 1972, a charge Dean strongly rejected.

John Dean, former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, speaks with reporters during the PBS presentation of the upcoming documentary "Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History," at the Television Critics Association Summer press tour in Los Angeles, July 11, 2003. REUTERS/Jim Ruymen

James Rosen, a Fox News Channel correspondent in Washington, said the charge was based on interviews and an exhaustive review of documents for “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.”

The biography is being released this week about Nixon’s attorney general, a central Watergate figure.

“I hope this book is being sold as fiction, for if it is not, readers are being defrauded,” said Dean, who became a key witness for the prosecution while pleading guilty to one charge of obstruction of justice related to the scandal.

The Watergate scandal began with the bungled election-year break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on June 17, 1972. The aim was to wiretap the telephones.

Initially dismissed by the White House as a “third-rate burglary,” the scandal was slow in evolving and had no impact on the outcome of the 1972 election — Nixon easily defeated Democratic Sen. George McGovern to win a second term.

But by 1974 investigators had traced Watergate and various other political scandals back to the White House and Nixon was forced to resign on August 9, 1974.

Dean was most famous for telling Nixon in a taped Oval Office conversation in 1973 that Watergate was “a cancer ... close to the presidency, that’s growing.”

Rosen quoted from a 1990 interview from another central Watergate figure, Jeb Magruder, that “the first plan that we got had been initiated by Dean.”

To help build his case, Rosen quoted from a statement that Magruder made in a legal deposition in 1995 about “Gemstone,” Watergate planner G. Gordon Liddy’s code-name for a general plan to disrupt Democrats during the 1972 campaign.

“Question: ‘Is it true that John Dean was one of the people in the White House that was pushing for the Gemstone plan?’

“Magruder: ‘Yes.’

“Question: ... Is it, in fact, truthful that you and John Dean had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in?’

“Magruder: ‘Yes.’”

Dean told Reuters: “His conclusions are pathetic. Rosen has simply ignored all the sworn testimony to the contrary, including my own.”

Rosen notes that Dean has always denied ordering the break-in. “I wasn’t even aware of the Watergate until after it happened,” Rosen quotes Dean as saying in 1999.

Many previous accounts have alleged that Mitchell ordered the break-in. Mitchell served 19 months in prison for his part in Watergate.

The Watergate Hotel in Washington, June 17, 1997. REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

Rosen’s book also alleges that the doomed wiretapping was deliberately sabotaged by the CIA.

Rosen says he had a rich trove of previously undiscovered information to scour for his book, including 5,000 pages of executive session testimony by key witnesses before the Senate Watergate committee, including Dean, Magruder, James McCord, E. Howard Hunt and Alexander Haig.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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