San Jose Mercury News/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Jul. 3, 1996
Filegate Can't Be Compared to Crimes of Watergate
Repeated incessantly in the echo chamber of conservative punditry, a myth can be fabricated and marketed nationwide almost overnight.
It happened recently when millions of Americans were bombarded with the latest fable: "Filegate" is equivalent to Watergate.
Behind the comparison is a purported fact perpetually served up: that the two Clinton employees who obtained FBI files committed the same crime as Watergate convict Charles Colson.
The myth is launched. Cal Thomas started it all in his syndicated column, published June 27 in the Post-Dispatch, which featured an interview with Colson, a self-described "born-again Christian," who used to describe himself as Nixon's chief "hatchet man."
It seemed as if the old, non-believing, Ninth-Commandment-breaking Colson made a reappearance in Thomas' column. According to Thomas, "Colson called to ask me if I remembered what got him a one-to-three year prison sentence" - and then Colson provided this answer: "They got me for taking one FBI file and giving it to a reporter."
Colson went on to express indignation over the "brazen" and "frightening" Clinton administration staff members who obtained the FBI files. "People ought to be marching in the streets over that," said the former foe of street protests.
The myth gathers steam. Tony Snow picked up the thread - half of it, at least - in his syndicated column: "Columnist Cal Thomas notes that Charles Colson got a prison sentence for obtaining one FBI file." No mention of Colson disseminating any files.
The myth rockets across the country, propelled by dozens of media voices. "Does anybody know why Chuck Colson went to jail?" bellowed talk show behemoth Rush Limbaugh. "He looked at unauthorized FBI files . . . It's in the latest Cal Thomas column. Colson's reminding everyone that he went to jail for what's going on in Washington today."
On "Larry King Live," Rep. Newt Gingrich asserted that Colson "went to jail for having one file." Washington Times Editor Wes Pruden declared that Colson "went to jail for having one file." The senior columnist for the Dallas Morning News wrote: "Tricky Dick Nixon's guys did pen time for misusing just one FBI file."
Told enough times, a fairy tale begins to sound almost true.
But in fact, the criminal activities that put Colson behind bars involved far more than a single file.
As White House special counsel, Colson was one of Nixon's closest and dirtiest political operatives, a man who'd "walk over his grandmother" to get Nixon reelected. It was Colson who brought to the White House - and supervised - E. Howard Hunt, the ex-CIA agent behind the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex.
Newsweek wrote in June 1974 of "the omnipresence of (Colson's) fingerprints across the whole range of Watergate scandals."
"Colson would do anything," Nixon said, as recorded on the White House tapes. Soon after presidential candidate George Wallace was shot, Colson and Nixon hatched a failed plan to have Hunt plant Democratic literature inside the gunman's apartment - "to damage McGovern," in Nixon's taped words.
Colson played a big role in compiling the White House "Enemies List" targeting Nixon critics for federal reprisals. Two White House staffers told investigators that Colson once suggested setting fire to the Brookings Institution, a think tank, to hide a search for documents there.
Colson was ultimately indicted for conspiracy in the burglary of the psychiatrist of Dan Ellsberg, the Vietnam War whistleblower. He was also indicted for conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. If convicted at these two trials, he faced years behind bars.
The Watergate special prosecutor was also investigating Colson's role in obtaining or covering up suspicious campaign pledges from corporate interests (ITT in one case, dairy farmers in another) that had received favors from Nixon's White House.
But Colson, the consummate political fixer, was able to stop those indictments and inquiries by cutting a deal with prosecutors (that's when he announced his religious rebirth) - and agreeing to testify against co-conspirators, one of whom was Nixon.
The deal let Colson plead guilty to a single felony count: "obstruction of justice" in the Ellsberg case by conspiring to disseminate derogatory material about Ellsberg. He ultimately served seven months in prison and was disbarred.
To say that Colson went to prison because he obtained (or misused) one FBI file is like saying the bloody gangster Al Capone went to prison because be was a tax cheat.
Colson was a Watergate criminal of the highest order, and of Nixon's inner circle. Comparing him to today's low-level "Filegate" operatives is inaccurate and absurd.
Even more absurd is the implication that Filegate is on a par with Watergate - a conspiracy that involved burglaries, bribes, spying, wiretaps, forgeries and other serious political crimes.