Egil “Bud” Krogh, onetime head of President Richard Nixon’s “Plumbers” and the man who authorized the break-in to find psychiatric files to discredit Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, recently told law students at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to preserve their personal integrity at all costs.
“Be true to yourself,” Krogh said at a Dean’s Session in the Great Hall. “It’s all you’ve got.”
Krogh was disbarred and served 4½ months in prison for his role in what would become known as the Watergate scandal, “the mother of all ‘-gates,’ ” as Dean Patricia White dubbed it in her introduction of Krogh.
Krogh has recently published a book, Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House, and signed copies after his speech.
“This is the book I wish I could have read when I was just out of law school in 1968,” said Krogh, who has since been reinstated as an attorney and practices in Seattle.
In his book and talk, Krogh outlined the path he took from young lawyer to White House counsel to convicted felon and an infamous place in United States history.
“I guess I’m the father of the ‘mother of all –gates,’ ” he said. “And I see the same issues today with presidential power, abuse of power and national security vs. individual rights.”
Just two months out of law school, Krogh went to work for an old family friend, John Ehrlichman, who had law offices in Seattle. Less than six months later, after Nixon’s election, Ehrlichman tapped Krogh to work with him in the White House.
“I was 29 years old,” Krogh said. “I never stopped to ask myself if I was prepared, competent, or had the right emotional makeup for the job.”
Eventually, Krogh was put in charge of the White House Special Investigation Unit, also called the “Plumbers,” assigned to stop leaks, particularly Ellsberg, an employee of the RAND Corp., who gave The New York Times the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam War.
At the urging of the other “Plumbers” – David Young, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy – Krogh authorized the break-in at the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist Lewis Fielding.
“We wanted to know if Ellsberg was likely to release other documents, if he was working alone, what his mental state was,” Krogh said.
Krogh said Liddy assured him these types of “covert operations,” were conducted frequently and were justified by national security concerns.
“I didn’t ask, ‘Is it legal? Ethical? Right?’” Krogh said. “I only asked practical questions like, `Who would be involved? When would we do it? How much would it cost?’”
Although the break-in was supposed to remain a secret, with the Plumbers taking photos of the file and returning it without detection, they broke a window and then trashed the office to make it seem someone was looking for drugs.
Krogh said that, after learning of the looting, he immediately shut down the operations of the group. Three months later, Krogh said, he was removed after balking over a warrantless wiretap.
Later, the Plumbers broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, and the resulting cover-up led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Krogh lied to Watergate investigators about the Fielding break-in, and for two years, stuck to his belief that national security was a defense for his actions.
“My loyalty was to the president rather than the Constitution,” he said.
But after that defense was rejected by a judge, and on a Thanksgiving trip to Colonial Williamsberg, Krogh said he felt like the “worst form of a hypocrite,” and decided to plead guilty. He asked to be sentenced before he testified against others involved in order to make it clear he was not seeking special consideration. He was sentenced to 2-6 years in prison, with all but six months suspended, served 4½ months, and was disbarred.
Five years later, he was reinstated to the bar and now practices and teaches ethics.
He urged the law students to pick their mentors carefully and to beware of “group think,” the phenomenon when everyone in the circle tells the boss what he wants to hear.
“I believe that, if we had said `no’ in 1971, Watergate does not happen,” Krogh said.