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John Dean: A 'shred of evidence'

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John Dean

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Former White House counsel John Dean says there is a 'shred of evidence' that supports an allegation by Jeb Magruder that President Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in (July 28)
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(CNN) -- In a new PBS documentary, President Nixon's then-deputy re-election campaign manager, Jeb Magruder, says Nixon himself ordered the Watergate break-in.

The widespread assumption has been that Nixon was forced to resign because of his subsequent role in covering up the break-in, but that he didn't personally order it.

John Dean, who served as White House counsel under President Nixon, discussed the new revelation with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: What do you make of this bombshell?

DEAN: Well, it's certainly a surprise to me. It's something I had never heard before ... I can't say that I have any evidence that [Magruder]is right. I can't say I have any evidence that he is wrong.

But, Wolf, what I did last night was did a little browsing amongst some of the tapes to see if there's any sort of echo even in any of the conversations, and I did find something.

I found that in March of 1973, that Bob Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, was told by one of the lawyers over at the re-election committee that Jeb was saying to them that the plan to break in the Watergate had been approved by the president. And it's very interesting, Nixon has no reaction on the tape that I saw.

So there is a little shred of evidence out there.

BLITZER: That would suggest that even almost contemporaneously, he was saying then what he's saying right now. In addition to the PBS documentary, he spoke with The Associated Press.

Magruder said he could hear Nixon tell Mitchell, John Mitchell, who was then the attorney general, "John, we need to get the information on Larry O'Brien," he was the Democratic Party chairman, "and the only way we can do that is through Liddy's plan," G. Gordon Liddy, "and you need to do that."

That according to Jeb Magruder, the president, Richard Nixon, then told John Mitchell, "Go ahead with the break-in."

Give us a little bit of your sense of the credibility of Jeb Magruder coming out three decades later and making this kind of statement.

DEAN: Well, I can't imagine why Jeb would have any motive to lie at this point. I understand why he delayed. He said he was never asked the question by the Senate Watergate Committee, never asked the question by the Watergate prosecutors. And he said after Watergate, when he became a Presbyterian minister, it was something he decided not to volunteer in prior documentaries, and what have you, because it would only reflect back on his congregation and raise the whole Watergate issue again. So he refrained from talking about it.

But he said now seemed to be the time, that he wanted to get it on the historical record and has done so.

As I say, I'm surprised by it. I wish he had done it 30 years ago when it wasn't just a bit of historical minutiae, but rather as central today as the question of what Mr. Bush knew about whether there would be something before 9/11, whether he had any intelligence about that. It's a similar important issue that now is just, as I say, a historical detail.

BLITZER: Well, you know, of course, Richard Nixon is dead, John Mitchell is dead. Jeb Magruder says that he never came forward and volunteered this information earlier because, A, he was hoping he would get pardoned by the then-President Nixon if, in fact, it came down to it, and over the years, he says, nobody ever asked him.

Did you ever suspect, in all your days at the White House, that Richard Nixon personally authorized the break-in?

DEAN: Well, I must say, I did suspect it, and for this reason: In fact, there are very clear tapes where Nixon is indeed calling for break-ins. He does call for a break-in at the Brookings Institute, no less than, I think, three occasions on different tapes, which is really quite extraordinary. So it's not something that strikes me as something Nixon would never do.

In fact, the issue of whether or not he had ordered the break-in into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office out here in California, when Ellsberg had leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, came up, and there's a tape where the president is asking Bob Haldeman if he authorized it. He doesn't remember whether he did or not.

So I think you have a mentality there who certainly could have approved this, and now I think we have to scour the tapes a little bit more closely to see if, indeed, we can find more of what Magruder's saying.

BLITZER: So you've come up with one tid-bit that might back up what Magruder is saying. But other historians are suggesting they have heard nothing on any of the audio tapes, the tapes of all the conversations that Nixon had in those weeks, months, indeed years, that would back up this allegation that he authorized the break-in.

DEAN: Wolf, the context of the tape I saw in March is a little different. It's saying that Magruder had spoken with a Haldeman aide and said that the president had authorized it. It's not quite the same context as if the -- sitting there with Mitchell and overhearing the conversation where the president tells John Mitchell, the attorney general and -- the former attorney general and campaign manager -- that he wants this plan approved. So it is a different context than the tape I did find.

But the tapes are very difficult to hear. The tapes of the conversations made in the Executive Office Building office, where he had a hideaway office, are almost impossible in some instances, and they take a lot of time and effort to scour and find out if something's there. That's, of course, where the 18-1/2 minute gap occurred, and it well may be that's the sort of thing that would explain a gap of that dimension.

BLITZER: A huge potential out there. It's a bombshell, there's no doubt about it.

DEAN: It is.

BLITZER: A lot of checking, a lot of historians are going to be revisiting this entire question. John Dean, thanks very much for joining us.

DEAN: Thank you.


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