When Watergate burglar James McCord died two years ago at the age of 93, his family wanted no obituary. So his death didn’t make national news until just a few weeks ago, when it was reported on the day the Mueller report was released. Given McCord’s pivotal role in bugging Democratic National Committee headquarters and exposing the Watergate coverup, the news could not have been more timely.
Two years before his death, McCord shared a PowerPoint presentation with his family, revealing important details about his CIA career and his secret motivation for the break-in that were never revealed publicly. McCord’s final will and testament exposed a gulf between what he said in his Senate Watergate testimony and how he justified his actions to himself and his family before he died. As such, it provides a timely perspective on the gap between public testimony and personal motivations — something to keep in mind as we assess the statements of those indicted by grand jurors in the Mueller team investigation.
Facing a lengthy prison sentence for his part in the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee, McCord wrote a letter to Judge John Sirica, who oversaw the trial of the Watergate burglars, in March 1973. The letter revealed that senior campaign figures were involved in the Watergate scandal, exposing obstruction of justice in the upper echelons of the White House and leading to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Like President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, McCord flipped. He refused to be the fall guy for the campaign chiefs who had approved the break-in or for the administration, which was falsely claiming it was a CIA operation.
“My motivations were different than those of the others involved,” McCord told Sirica, but his ulterior motive for the break-in was never fully explained until his final PowerPoint presentation. Titled “Watergate and the Gainesville 8,” it reveals the conservative political ideology that drove his involvement in Watergate. In it, McCord accuses Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) — the antiwar veterans’ organization in which former secretary of state John F. Kerry was once a leading figure — of a terrorist plot to assassinate three hawkish U.S. senators and foment violence at the 1972 Republican convention. McCord claims he participated in the Watergate break-in to gather intelligence on an alleged VVAW militant working at DNC headquarters.
A 19-year veteran of the CIA, McCord had been spying on antiwar radicals since the late 1960s. He was a conservative Republican who had supported Sen. Barry Goldwater’s (R-Ariz.) strategy to threaten North Vietnam “with the use of an atomic bomb” if it did not stop attacking South Vietnam. And McCord blamed Democrats — Presidents Kennedy and Johnson — for getting the U.S. into the Vietnam War in the first place.
In September 1971, a year after retiring from the CIA, McCord was hired as director of security by Nixon’s reelection campaign. His mission: “to prevent a reoccurrence at the 1972 GOP Convention in Miami of the violence and bloodshed by protesters which had occurred at the 1968 DNC Chicago Convention.”
“I became involved in the Watergate break-in when I received FBI reports that a group of VVAW members in Gainesville, Florida, were planning violence against the GOP Convention in Miami,” McCord claimed, also saying he received reports that “VVAW members had discussed the assassination of 3 U.S. Senators, John Tower of Texas, John Stennis of Mississippi, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.”
The assassination threat was real. At the VVAW’s Kansas City convention in November 1971, southern coordinator Scott Camil proposed a plan to visit congressional offices during the next protest in Washington and shoot “the most hardcore hawks.” As a Marine sergeant in Vietnam, Camil “spent two years killing women and children in their own … homes,” he recalled in a 1992 oral history interview. He justified shooting the hawkish senators who created that policy and “were voting to continue the … war when the public was against it.”
After hearing the proposal in Kansas, John F. Kerry “totally flipped out,” according to Camil, while others accused him “of being an undercover agent trying to discredit the organization.” Camil’s plan was voted down, but infiltrators reported his comments to the FBI, and within weeks, J. Edgar Hoover warned Camil’s local FBI office that he was an “extremely dangerous and unstable individual whose activities must be neutralized at [the] earliest possible time.”
McCord claims he agreed to take part in the Watergate break-in so he could search and bug DNC headquarters for information on the VVAW volunteer allegedly working there. But his suspicions were misplaced. There was no VVAW mole at the DNC, and McCord and four other burglars were arrested there in the early hours of June 17. McCord was immediately identified as head of security for the Nixon campaign and later served four months in prison.
During the Senate Watergate hearings that followed, McCord tried to raise the assassination plot against three U.S. senators to justify his actions, but Sen. Sam Ervin, the Democrat who chaired the hearings, wasn’t interested.
Toward the end of his life, McCord continued to make the case to his family that a terrorist threat by anarchist revolutionaries justified his illegal entry into and bugging of DNC headquarters. His message to his family is clear: his role in the Watergate break-in was a matter of national security — to stop the assassination of three U.S. senators by radical antiwar protesters who threatened the safety of the country.
But McCord’s secret motivation for the break-in was based on false information and doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for his crimes. Those crimes, along with his willingness to expose the White House coverup of Watergate through his letter to Sirica, remain his legacy.
A deeply religious man, McCord refused to be bought off with a pardon and realized his decision to participate in Watergate was a mistake. After Nixon’s resignation, he wrote: “The whole Watergate affair has begun a tremendous ‘cleansing’ of the nation. … Watergate was the turning point in getting the nation back on the course our Founding Fathers envisioned for this great country.”
While both sides of the political aisle united to force Nixon’s resignation, the fiercely partisan response to the Mueller report suggests it will not prove as cathartic as Watergate. But in time, the secret motivations and hidden agendas of those indicted by the special counsel may emerge, giving us a new perspective on their public testimony to date.