Former "Plumber" aims to plug ethical leaks
Egil “Bud” Krogh knows the risks of blindly following orders. As one of Richard Nixon's “Plumbers,” Krogh's job was to prevent high-level government leaks, which often had him doing unethical things. He was indicted for his actions and spent four and a half months in jail after pleading guilty to depriving a person of civil rights. In 2001, he sent a memo the President Bush's staff warning them about upholding the law, even when pressured not to. They didn't listen. He's hoping others will. Recently he wrote Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House, and he'll participate in the discussion “Watergate Revisited: The Ethics of the Lawyers” at the University of St. Thomas.
City Pages: During your time in the White House, you acted unethically, but claimed at the time that you were justified in what you did. Now, however, you openly admit you were wrong. Tell me about your epiphany.
Egil Krogh: I was involved in the Nixon staff as the co-director of the unit tasked with investigating Daniel Ellsberg who had released the top secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. And the president described this as a national security crisis and assigned me and David Young to the job of finding out everything we could about why those documents were released, and what could be done to keep him from becoming this an anti-war hero. For almost two years, I participated in a covert operation that was undertaken in 1971 into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg's psychiatrist, as a national security imperative; something we had to do because of how the president described the nature of the threat. I believed that for two years. It was two years after this covert operation--or burglary--had occurred, that I had an epiphany. I was with my family for Thanksgiving, and I was under indictment yet free to travel, free to associate with whom I wanted, to say whatever I wanted to a reporter, to go to the church of my choice. The question became, how can I enjoy all of these rights and then defend that conduct that stripped away the 4th Amendment right of another American citizen without being a hypocrite? Approving that break-in; that operation struck at the heart of what this government was established to protect against. I concluded that my defense was something I couldn't live with any longer, and I needed to plead guilty to depriving Dr. Fielding of his right to be free from an unreasonable, unwarranted search.
CP: Why do you think that while you openly admit that what you did was wrong, others from the administration, the president himself and G. Gordon Liddy, for example, never did that?
EK:I don't know that answer to that. I think the others had more experience in the world of counterespionage and national security. I know Liddy had worked for the FBI for years, E. Howard Hunt had worked for the CIA, and I think they felt that under circumstances that the president defines as a national security crisis, that they could do certain things outside the law, and it would be justifiable. It gets down to what you think a president is authorized to do under crisis conditions, and I didn't feel that the president or those working on his behalf could set aside the law with impunity as they saw fit. I know others didn't agree with me. And I'm not telling you I'm right. I'm just telling you what I felt was right for me under those circumstances. I felt a huge sense of relief when I was finally able to plead guilty.
CP:How would you describe the ethics of the Bush White House?
EK:I think the ethics in the Bush White House have left something to be desired, particularly in how they have evaluated the proper response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. I think that they have taken positions, particularly in how they defined torture and the authority of the commander-in-chief in a particular legal memorandum that is so far afield of what torture means and what authority the commander-in-chief can exercise. They defined it to give them the ability to carryout very difficult and I think very cruel interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And the conduct that occurred in Abu Ghraib obviously was criminal conduct on the part of those who were engaged in it, and some of them have gone to prison for it. But I think the unethical part of it is the legal memoranda farther up the chain (of command) that define torture as so extreme that it sent the message that you could carryout very cruel and inhumane interrogations with impunity. And that to me was wrong, and I identify that in my book. I also think they went afield when deciding that they could authorize through the National Security Agency the wiretapping of U.S. citizens talking with suspected members of terrorist organizations abroad without getting statutory authority. I think they've gotten it recently, but their initial response was to do it themselves. I'm a deep believer in giving each body, the legislative, executive and judicial, its role to play in matters of national emergency and crisis. I think we should have gotten the authority of congress first before undertaking that kind of eavesdropping program.
CP:You write in your book that pleading guilty to your crimes was key in restoring a certain level of your integrity. What's the best way to prevent current young bureaucrats from making the same mistakes you made?
EK:One of the reasons I wrote the book was to offer some guidance for how to stay safe in these situations where there is enormous pressure to get results. I wrote the book that I wished I could have read almost 39 years ago when I was sworn into my position. What I tried to do is point out that when you get these positions, you're basically sworn to uphold the constitution, that's your primary responsibility. You have to have loyalty to the people in the organization for which you work, but you have to temper that with your loyalty to what our founding document requires of you. And I just didn't do that. I was willing to do what I thought Richard Nixon wanted me to do and that trumped everything else. And what I try to point out in the book is that you have to have balanced loyalties. You're not going to get a job in a political organization without being loyal to a candidate and to the values he espouses. But you also have to realize that he too is subject to constitutional limitations, and you have to be able and willing to adhere to those even though you might displease you superiors. So I try to describe through the 'integrity zone' concept at the end of my book, what are the questions that can keep young bureaucrats safe. I pose those questions that I didn't ask in 1971, and they're simplistic questions, but you have to apply them to wherever you are, no matter what job it might be. For me, I had to plead guilty, and it's wasn't an altogether pleasant experience to plead guilty and be disbarred, but I was finally able to see where the thinking went wrong, and it really came back to my personal integrity, and not to let you it slip through your fingers. Maintain it at all costs.
CP:Do you ever worry that you'll never be free from the Nixon stigma?
EK:Sure, but I feel that, at least since I've come back to the practice of law and have been teaching and training, there's been a recognition from many people that I've done the best I could without trying to justify or excuse anything. Which is what I think you’ve got to do when you make a mistake like that. We're all going to make mistakes, maybe not as large as that one, but it's really what do you do afterwards and how to you try to rectify it that I think is really the issue. Richard Nixon never did, he was never able to face the fact that he had committed a crime. We would have been a lot better off if he had pleaded guilty to it and demonstrated the point that no man is above the law, including the president. Today, I feel that it is incumbent on me, because I had learned these lessons, to come forward and offer them to people who grapple with these issues every day.
CP:You've apologized to Daniel Ellsberg and Lewis Fielding, tell me about that. Did they forgive you?
EK:Right after I got out of prison, I felt I had to apologize to Lewis Fielding because when we carried out that covert operation in 1971 we didn't even see him as a potential victim of government misconduct. So while I can plead guilty and go to prison, that doesn’t complete what I have to do to show how wrong I thought that conduct was. He welcomed me to his office, and we talked for about 20 minutes. He did not exactly forgive me. He said, “I understand why you're here, and I appreciate your coming.” Later, I was on a platform at Dominica College just north of San Francisco, and Dan Ellsberg was there too. I told Dan how deeply I regretted it. He told me he thought he understood it. Now, since that time, Dan and I have become pretty good friends, he's written the foreword to my book, which is really quite extraordinary when you think about it, having the leaker and the plumber together between the covers of my book.
Hear Krogh discuss ethics along with two Watergate prosecutors and Nixon lawyer John Dean today at 4 p.m. at the University of St. Thomas School of Law building in downtown Minneapolis. Tickets are $25, call 651.962.4888 for more information.