Two former Watergate prosecutors yesterday strongly disputed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork's description of his role in the "Saturday Night Massacre" and its aftermath, while former attorney general Elliot Richardson praised Bork as acting in the nation's best interest by firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
"I don't want to see history rewritten just to confirm a Supreme Court justice," Henry S. Ruth Jr., Cox's deputy, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on its second to last day of public testimony.
Ruth and George T. Frampton Jr., an assistant prosecutor in the Watergate special prosecutor's office, said Bork misled the committee when he testified in 1982 during confirmation hearings for the federal appeals court and again two weeks ago that he moved promptly to assure the independence and integrity of the special prosecutor's office, including its power to go after tapes of President Richard M. Nixon's conversations.
On Oct. 20, 1973, Bork -- who as solicitor general was the department's top-ranking official after the resignations of Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus -- fired Cox for defying Nixon's order that he drop his subpoena for White House tapes. Bork testified that he fired Cox to stop mass resignations at the Justice Department and that the Watergate investigation was never in jeopardy.
Although Bork's role in Watergate has not been a major focus of the confirmation hearings, yesterday's testimony by two former lawyers on the Watergate prosecution force kept the issue alive and could reinforce doubts among undecided senators about Bork's credibility.
Frampton said Bork's actions during that period offer a "window" into the 60-year-old jurist, adding that "the view through that window in several respects is a troubling one, both with regard to the reworking of those facts and the attitude toward executive power."
Richardson, who resigned rather than fire Cox, said "the nation owes a substantial debt to Robert Bork for his service in that situation . . . . From the outset, Bob Bork was first of all determined to make certain the Watergate special prosecution force was kept intact."
Richardson said the Watergate crisis "turned out all right . . . in significant part because of the role played by Robert H. Bork." He acknowledged, however, that he had no first-hand knowledge of Bork's actions after his resignation.
In his testimony, Ruth said Bork was "irrelevant" in the days following Cox's firing and that the eventual appointment of Leon Jaworski as successor to Cox "was a reaction to the firestorm" caused by the firing.
"Mr. Bork on Saturday night fired Mr. Cox" for seeking tapes of presidential conversations, Ruth said. "I had no reason to believe that within 48 hours Mr. Bork had undergone a conversion and now believed we were right" in going after the tapes.
In the days after Cox was fired, Ruth said, "We were totally tenuous in operating. We did not know what was going to happen. . . . It was only after a week and a half that we thought we were going to be back in business."
Frampton said Bork's account of the days after Cox's firing was "absolutely untenable" and a "substantial reworking of the facts."
Commenting on Bork's testimony that he moved within 24 hours to protect the independence of the office, Frampton said, "The facts demonstrate that those assurances were not made and could not have been made."
He noted that Nixon did not agree to abide by a court order to turn over the tapes until the Tuesday after the Saturday Night Massacre, did not move to name a new special prosecutor until Friday and did not promise that the new prosecutor would have the authority to subpoena additional tapes until the following Wednesday.
"More troubling than the reworking of the facts is the attitude of Judge Bork toward unrestricted executive power" displayed in Bork's firing of Cox for seeking evidence of presidential involvement in criminal wrongdoing, Frampton said.
Bork supporters submitted affidavits by Philip A. Lacovara, counsel to Cox, and Henry E. Petersen, then head of the Justice Department's criminal division, supporting Bork's account.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) assailed Bork opponents for dredging up the past in an effort to defeat confirmation. "To thrash around in that like we've been doing about something that happened 14 years ago is the most bizarre exercise," he said.
But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said it was "passing strange that nobody has objected to the testimony of Watergate figures when they are here in support of Judge Bork."
In other testimony yesterday, a panel of experts on privacy law said Bork's view that there is no constitutionally protected right to privacy is outside the mainstream.
Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) plans today to release letters opposing Bork signed by 1,925 law professors -- nearly 40 percent of the full-time law faculty at American Bar Association-accredited law schools. Bork supporters earlier released a list of 99 law professors supporting the federal appeals court judge.